Saturday, August 6, 2011

Arts of the Cimmerian Bosporus

In the 7th century BC, the Greeks founded colonies all around the northern shore of the Black Sea. These colonies prospered on the trade between the steppes region and the Mediterranean world. Some of them developed mixed populations and polyglot cultures -- part Greek, part Scythian, part Anatolian, plus bits of other tribes. You can see the mixing in the wonderful art from this region, which is largely Greek but with exotic hints of the steppes and Middle East.

In the fifth century BC a kingdom arose around the straits at the eastern end of Crimea, the entrance to the Sea of Azov, called by the Greeks the Cimmerian Bosporus. The capital was in Panticapaeum (modern Kerch). The first dynasty of kings, which lasted into the 2nd century BC, was probably Thracian.

That Thracian dynasty must have intermarried with royal families of Anatolia, because when King Mithridates VI of Pontus was defeated by the Roman Pompey in 63 BC, he tried to flee to Crimea, where his sons had important positions. Alas for him, his sons wanted nothing to do with his anti-Roman crusade, so they attacked his men and, after Mithridates committed suicide, handed his body to Pompey. The Romans placed a friendly ruler from a local family on the throne and the region was a Roman client state for the next few centuries, experiencing another era of great prosperity.

The artists of the Greek colonies around the Black Sea probably made most of the spectacular treasures found in Scythian royal tombs. But they kept plenty of good stuff for their own ruling elite, as you can see from these pictures. All these objects came originally from tombs, mostly dug up in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Fortunately the Tsars loved this stuff, so they collected it heavily and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg has a wonderful collection.

Other European museums also have collections. This diadem, gold with garnet, carnelian, and sardonyx, recently showed up in a traveling exhibit of Hellenistic treasures; it normally resides at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich. It was excavated from a tomb at Kerch and is dated to 250-150 BCE.

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