Featured Pontic Olbia: Greek-Scythia

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Sulla80, Apr 4, 2020.

  1. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    Greeks and Scythians were different cultures, my most recent coin comes from the intersection at Olbia. Plutarch shares an anecdote of Atheas writing to Philip II of Macedonia: “You reign over Macedonians, men that have learned fighting; and I over the Scythians, which can fight with hunger and thirst.” (1) In 340 BC, Philip II defeated Atheas and “twenty thousand young men and women were taken, and a vast number of cattle, but no gold or silver. This was the first proof which they had of the poverty of Scythia.” (6) Philip II married the daughter of Atheas and she is found in his tomb with him. (2)

    Where is Olbia?
    The town of Olbia gets its name from ὄλβος (ólbos, “happiness, bliss”) and began as a colony in the 7th century BC of Greek settlers from Miletus on the western coast of Anatolia. A Scythian-Macedonian conflict and a siege of the city led by Zopyrion on behalf of Alexander the Great, failed with Zopyrion’s death in 331 BC thanks to alliance between the indigenous Scythian nomads and the Greek inhabitants of Olbia. These AE coins begin production shortly after 331 BC with an obverse of the river god, Borystheni. This series follows the “archer” series. (5)

    This is my first coin from Olbia or Pontic Olbia located on the northern shores of the Black Sea in what is today Ukraine. Even after centuries in the region the Scythian and Greek populations were distinct. Herodotus describes the Olbiopolitans as “Greek dwellers on the Hypanis river”. (3) Reading about the area with a focus on the 4th century BC, I am left with a feeling of the struggle for survival of the Greek city-dwellers together with Scythian nomads.
    Olbia Map.jpg
    Olbia on a modern map. Olbia’s location was established in 1790s and excavations began in 1901. (4)
    Terrace of Olbia overlooking the River Bug (Hypanis) (4)

    A Sythian coin from Olbia

    Thrace Olbia Borysthenes Blu.jpg
    Scythia, Olbia, circa 310-280 BC, Æ, 21mm, 7.51g
    Obv: Head of river god Borysthenes left
    Rev: Ax and bowcase; BOΣ (magistrate) to left, OΛBIO to right
    Ref: Anokhin 359; Karyshkovskij p. 414; Frolova & Abramzon 1052–65; SNG BM Black Sea 512; SNG Pushkin 246; SNG Stancomb 394; Sutzu II 165–6

    The imagery of the coin is decidedly Scythian, the reverse shows a bow in a special two-section case, gorytus, and a Scythian ceremonial battle-axe, or σάγαρις, with a crescent-shaped blade and a turned-up rear that was important in Scythian warfare and as a symbol of authority.
    A battle-axe found near the village of L’vovo, Kherson region (4)

    ”a bow was a mandatory weapon of every Scythian warrior. Its significance reached far beyond its practical employment in warfare and hunting, having also penetrated, as in many other nomadic societies, into the ritual sphere where it was considered a symbol of power.” (4) Finds of these coins cluster along the Borysthenes (Dnieper) river and its tributaries reinforcing the use in trade and the importance of the waterways in this trade. (5)

    The First Scythian King
    The obverse shows the river god Borysthenes whose daughter, Bathene, gives birth to Targitaus, son of Zeus, and the first Scythian King, by local legend, sometimes father of the first Scythian king. (*) Targitaus, means “possessing the power of an arrow”, reinforcing the importance of the bow and arrow to the Scythians. Greek colonists would also equate Targitaus with Herakles, once again blending the cultures.

    As always, corrections and comments are appreciated. Post your coins of River gods, of Olbia, or anything else you find interesting or entertaining.


    1. Goodwin, W. W., Plutarch (1911), Plutarch's essays and miscellanies: comprising all his works collected under the title of "Morals", Boston : Little, Brown, p.189-190
    2. Gabriel, R. A. (2010). Philip II of Macedonia: Greater than Alexander. Washington, DC: Potomac Books
    3. Herodotus, published in Vol. II, of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1921, Univ. Chicago website
    4. Braund, D., Kryžickij, S. D., & British Academy, (2007). Classical Olbia and the Scythian world: From the sixth century BC to the second century AD. (Proceedings of the British Academy.) Oxford: Oxford University Press
    5. Stolba, V. (2019). Images with Meaning: Early Hellenistic Coin Typology of Olbia Pontike. In: V. Cojocaru Et Al. (Eds.), Advances in Ancient Black Sea Studies: Historiography, Archaeology and Religion. Cluj-Napoca, Pp. 523-541
    6. Watson, J.S. (1853), Justin, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, London: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Convent Garden (here)
    7. Zopyrion Wikipedia
    8. Raevsky, D.S. (19760, Three vases recount the legend of King Targitaus, The UNESCO Courier: a window open on the world, XXIX, 12, p. 15-16, illus.
    9. Introducing the Scythians, The British Museum Blog
    10. An interesting CT writeup from @Jochen1 on the region Olbia – The Happy
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2020
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  3. Orielensis

    Orielensis Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the informative and fascinating write-up!

    It's interesting to see the variety of monograms or letter combinations this types comes with. My example, which desperately needs better pictures, shows the letters MH. The common hypothesis is that these letters abbreviate the names of magistrates, but I wonder whether there is more detailed information.

    Magna Graecia – Skythien, Olbia, Borythenes und Axt AE.png
    Olbia, Skythia, AE21, ca. 300–260 BC. Obv: Bearded and horned head of the river god Borysthenes left. Rev: ΟΛBIO, axe-scepter and bow in case, MH-monogram. 21mm, 10.43g. Ref: SNG BM Black Sea 504–5 (period V-B).

    According to a convincing theory brought up by @Ed Snible , this common type usually attributed to Parion actually is from Olbia, too:

    Magna Graecia – Mysien, Parion, drachm Gorgoneoin.png

    "Mysia, Parium" (probably Olbia), "drachm," ca. 480 BC. Obv: Gorgoneion. Rev cross-shaped incusum. 12.2mm, 3.14g. Ref: BMC 4–8; Sear Greek 3917; SNG Copenhagen 256, SNG von Aulock 1318.
    Johndakerftw, Shea19, Bing and 3 others like this.
  4. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE

    Very nice, @Sulla80 !

    I just have a dolphin from an earlier time in Olbia. I am not sure if the attributes truly distinguish between Sarmatian vs. Skythian Dolphins from Olbia. Although, I understand they were two different tribes of the Indo-European language group. I read where Skythians were mounted archers, and that Sarmatians were mounted using lances and heavy armor.

    Thrace Sarmatia / Skythia - Olbia 5th C BCE AE Cast Dolphin 27mm 1.75g
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2020
  5. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    Thanks for adding the examples, and I wonder the same especially if there might be any ordering of magistrates.
    I should mention that the Richard Gabriel book in "References" comes from your suggestion after my post on Philip II's tomb about a year ago. Thank you, I think I found in used for <$10 at the time.
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2020
    Alegandron likes this.
  6. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE

    Did you like it? Was it informative?
    Sulla80 likes this.
  7. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    Definitely - happy I bought it e.g. reread The Scythian campaign pp.199-203 today.
    Alegandron likes this.
  8. Shea19

    Shea19 Supporter! Supporter

    Great coin and write-up @Sulla80 , lots of interesting information. I especially like the axe on your coin’s reverse. Here’s my example from Olbia.

    Scythia, Olbia. Circa 310-280 BC., (AE 28 mm, 9.07 g), Horned head of river god Borysthenes to left/ Rev. OΛBIO Axe and bow in bowcase; to left, [monogram]. SNG BM Black Sea 453.
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