Scythian–Greek Relations in the North and Northwestern Black Sea Area (Sixth–Fifth Centuries BC): Numismatic Evidence
This blog post reproduces Elena Stolyarik’s chapter in Essays on Ancient Coinage, History, and Archaeology in Honor of William E. Metcalf (Numismatic Studies 38), edited by Nathan T. Elkins and Jane DeRose Evans, ISBN 978-0-89722-357-7, published by the ANS in 2018.
The migration of the Scythians, an Iranian-speaking group of nomads from Central Asia, to the North Pontic territory, today’s Russian and Ukrainian steppes, was one of the most important phenomena of the ancient oikoumene. Through military conflicts, cultural and ethnic interactions, as well as trade, it forever changed the social landscape of the Greeks and other ethnicities in the region.
During the late seventh and the sixth centuries BC, numerous Greek colonies were established at the mouths of the major rivers of this North Pontic region. The settlements of Olbia, Tyra, Niconion, and Istria, among others, were built on the lower Dnieper (the ancient Borysthenes), Dniester (ancient Tyras) and Danube (ancient Ister) river regions, just a few miles away from where they merge with the Black Sea.
By the time Greek colonists first encountered the Scythian tribes, Greek cities were already using metal coinage, and early coins are frequently found along the areas of Greco-Scythian trade. Probably the earliest coin-like objects were made in the form of arrowheads (Fig. 1).
This arrowhead money, according to finds, circulated widely among the Scythians, Thracians, and Greeks of the northern Black Sea. Examples have been found at various ancient sites such as Olbia and Berezan, Nikonion, Apollonia Pontica, Istros, Tomis, and Odessos. A variety of dates have been proposed for the manufacture and circulation of this coinage. At Istros and on Berezan Island, arrowhead money was found in the Archaic strata, along with fragments of imported ceramic ware. At Olbia, a graffito on a black-glaze vessel that is dated to ca. 600 BC demonstrates that arrowhead money was used among the Olbiopolitans at that time. It continued to be in circulation a century later, as demonstrated by the Burgas Hoard, a container filled with arrowhead money and also by the finding at Nikonion of an arrowhead specimen in a complex alongside ceramic fragments of the fourth century BC.
Some scholars argue that the arrowhead money was made in Thrace, because the Burgas hoard included a clay mold for casting them. Other specialists assign them to the Scythians. Finally, there are some scholars who reject any connection of these objects with the Black Sea tribes. They believe that the residents of the Greek towns of Apollonia, Istros, and Olbia issued this money, because the finds have been concentrated in their vicinity. The discovery near Olbia, at Berezan, of a small weight with a relief of an arrowhead coin, as well as lead arrowhead objects, supports this hypothesis. Irrespective of who exactly made the arrowhead money, it is clear that these finds are concentrated in the contact area between the Scythian and Thracian tribes and the Greek colonies of the northwestern and western Black Sea littoral.
During the latter half of the sixth century BC, the arrowhead money is accompanied by another unusual type, cast bronze tokens in form of dolphins (Fig. 2). These “dolphins” were in circulation in the North Pontic area and have been found in the Dobrudja as well, where they were adopted and improved upon by the local tribes. The issuance of these cast coins was presumably a halfway measure between the local tradition of circulating small cast bronze artifacts and the production of a proper coinage.
From the very beginning, the Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast were entrepôts for trade with the indigenous population. The Olbian polis, for example, supplied wheat from the Black Sea hinterland to Attica, and at the same time developed trade contacts with its Scythian neighbors, to whom it supplied wine in amphorae, expensive bronze vessels, jewelry from Greece, and its own manufactured products. Rapid economic development and the consequent demands of trade required a more sophisticated monetary system than that provided by the cast copper tokens of the sixth century BC. Consequently, the domestic market of Olbia began to use full-value bronze obols and their fractions in the second quarter of the fifth century BC. These cast coins, known as “asses,” spread to the territories that were subject to Olbia and in the contact zone with the Scythian tribes, but they did not immediately replace the arrowhead and dolphin money already in circulation, nor did they fulfill the need that a more sophisticated local economy had for a higher-value coinage (Fig. 3).
Money of high denomination was supplied by cyzicenes—the electrum coinage of Cyzicus in the form of staters and their smaller fractions, obtained in exchange for wheat exports. These coins provided the city markets with a resilient coinage in numerous denominations, which was at the same time accepted by the Greek cities as well as the Scythian and Thracian tribes of the Pontic area. The second biggest hoard of cyzicenes ever discovered (the largest being the Prinkipo hoard, IGCH 1239, with over 200 examples) was found in 1967 in the lower Danube area in the village of Orlovka (IGCH 726), not far from modern Odessa. In ancient times, this location had Thracian and Scythian settlements and was associated with a commercial and military road that facilitated access across the Danube. The hoard was composed of 74 cyzicenes stored in a bronze oinochoe dated to the second quarter of the fifth century BC (Fig. 4).
These coins, some of which were previously only known only from unique specimens, also provided several new, previously unrecorded types. Among these new types was a stater featuring the head of a bearded man (Fig. 5), which closely resembles the images of Scythians found on metalwork from the kurgans of the Black Sea Steppes (Fig. 6). 
The introduction of patently Scythian portraits on coinage suggests that people’s growing power. Scythian determination to rule the steppes had been noted in Herodotus’ legend about Heracles, which became entwined with local religious and epic traditions concerning a hero in whom the Scythians saw the progenitor of their race (4.8–10). In this myth, Herodotus tells us how Heracles arrived in Scythia with the herd of cattle stolen from Geryon. There, in the sacred place of the Olbiopolitans named Hylaia, he encountered Erchidna, a snake-legged local chthonic divinity. From the subsequent union of demi-god and monster, three sons were born. The myth further relates how Heracles said that the son who could draw his bow would inherit the Scythian lands. “He took off one of his bows (hitherto he had carried two), and he showed the way in which the belt was put on” (4.10). Scythes, the youngest, was the only one who was able to draw Heracles’ bow, thereby proving himself to be the strongest, and so he inherited the land and the power. This mythological tale is recalled on the first Olbian silver coins, struck around 460–440 BC, bearing the legend EMINAKO and showing Heracles stringing his bow (Fig. 7).
This myth also is reflected on the gold vase of the fourth century BC, from the Kul-Oba kurgan, a famous Scythian barrow excavated in 1830 in eastern Crimea, modern Ukraine (Fig. 8).
Although the mythology behind the type is clear, the name EMINAKO has engendered a vigorous debate. Some hold that the coins show the dependence of Olbia upon the Scythians and that a ruler with the name EMINAKO—which is attested for some Scythian rulers—resided near Olbia.  Others argue that this image of Heracles shows him as a Greek hero with his usual attributes and that the name Eminakos could be an Olbiopolitan magistrate. Another hypothesis suggests that the brief emission of these staters is to be associated with the rule of a tyrant in Olbia. Whether the coin is a Scythian issue or an Olbiopolitan issue, it should be pointed out that these coins were in circulation in Olbia proper during the fifth century BC, which demonstrates that the Hellenes of Olbia were not distinct from nor hostile towards the religious and epic traditions of the autochthonous population. The mythology also reflects a positive relationship between Greek and non-Greek people through the conclusion of a sacred marriage between the famous Greek hero and the local snake goddess, an event epitomizing mixed marriages between Greeks and Scythians and a religious syncretism in their beliefs.
At the beginning of the second quarter of the fifth century BC, the Scythians not only controlled the Pontic steppe regions but also held economic and political sway over the Greek cities. Although some scholars have taken issue with the idea of a “Scythian protectorate,” numismatic evidence shows that the Scythian king Scyles (470–450 BC), the son of King Ariapeithes, exercised control over the lower Dniester basin. In this period Scyles began to issue his own bronze cast coinage in the city of Nikonion, with the image of an owl and his own name, ΣΚ, ΣΚΥ or ΣΚΥΛ (Figs. 9–10).
Nikonion, founded in the second half of the sixth century BC on the eastern shore of the Dniester (ancient Tyras) estuary together with Tyra (another important Ionian colony on the western edge of the Dniester Liman) played a key role in the trade and commerce of the Dniester-Danubian region.
Scythian control may have also extended to Istros, a Milesian colony in the lower Danubian area. Scyles was the son, after all, not only of the Scythian king Ariapeithes, but of a Greek mother from Istros (Herodotus 4.78). Numerous finds of Istros’ cast coins with the wheel device at Nikonion and the lower Dniester basin may be offered as support for the hypothesis that Nikonion was in fact a colony of Istros.
The use of the owl, a quintessential Athenian image, on the coins of Scyles surely indicates the importance of Athens in the Black Sea region after the Athenians’ decisive victories over the Persians in 490 and 480/79 BC, when imports from Athens increased in the northern Black Sea region. Athenian influence in the North Pontic area grew still further after Pericles’ expedition into the Pontus in 437 BC. Olbia, Tyra, Nikonion, and Istros were included in the Athenian maritime league. This influence was possible because the Scythians’ control over the Greek colonies was weakening. Increasing sedentism disrupted the traditional nomadic social system and weakened Scythian military power in the last quarter of the fifth century BC. The growth of the nomad population and limited territory led to active foreign expansion.
In the first half of the fourth century BC, an independent group of Scythians under King Ateas crossed the mouth of the Danude delta and invaded the Dobrudja (the territory situated between the lower Danube and the Western Black Sea region). This event marks a new chapter in the history of Scythian relations with the Greek colonies of the Western part of the Black sea littoral. By this time the old token currencies and the early mythological references to Scythian foundations were all abandoned, and new, up-and-coming rulers seeking to consolidate their power struck a variety of emissions bearing their names and likenesses, following traditions well established by the neighboring Greek cities.
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