Pre-colonization Period

Ancient Period

Medieval Period

Chersonesos Cited in Works by Ancient Authors

The "Stone Archive" of Chersonesos

"Tales of Chersonesos"

Queries to Preserve Scholars

Ancient Period

  • Souces for the history of Chersonesos
  • The founding of Chersonesos
  • The early history of Chersonesos
  • The economic flowering of the city
  • The chersonesan-scythian wars
  • The millitary campaign of Diophantos
  • The Roman army in Chersonesos
  • Chersonesos in the Roman period
  • The population of Chersonesos in the first centuries A.D.
  • Chersonesos in late antiqity


    Tauric Chersonesos was founded by Dorians from Heraklea Pontica (present-day Eregli, Turkey) significantly later than the majority of Greek cities in the northern Black Sea region. The territory was previously inhabited by the Taurians, a tribe less readily competent to establish close ties with the Greeks than other aboriginal inhabitants of Crimea. These factors influenced both the subsequent history of Chersonesos and its governmental structure.
    The name Chersonesos, recorded on stone inscriptions, coins, and in the works of ancient historians and geographers, was sometimes combined with supplemental monikers to denote its location, as in Tauric Chersonesos (that is, in the land of the Taurian tribes) found in the work of the author Arrian. Official Chersonesan epigraphic documents from the first centuries AD began with the formula: "…the nation of the Chersonesites, living in Taurica…" The double name of Heraklea Chersonesos is used by Pliny, who states that the city was earlier referred to as Megarika; however, this name has not been confirmed in any other sources.


    The exact time of and circumstances surrounding the foundation of Chersonesos remain highly problematic. Information about the initial period of the history of the polis is isolated and fragmentary. The earliest reference dating to the mid 4th century BC is found in the Periplous by Pseudo-Skilakes in which Chersonesos is referred to as a trading city. (Note: A periplous is the ancient Greek genre of geographical literature, translated as "swimming around" - that is, a voyage around the world.)
    Information about the fact that the city was founded by the Herakleotes together with the inhabitants of the island of Delos through the prophesy of the Delphic oracle is documented in the work of Pseudo-Skimnos. The participation of the Delians did not have any subsequent influence on the further development of the history or culture of Chersonesos, although some contacts with Delos and the Delphic oracle are traced later. In contrast, the Chersonesites always considered Heraklea Pontica their metropolis with which it constantly maintained close ties. In assessing the above information, scholars have suggested that the foundation of Chersonesos as a city could have occurred in 422-421 BC during the Peloponnesian war. This date has become widely accepted.

    Early artifacts from excavations in the ancient city have indicated that a former Ionic settlement which was perhaps a commercial Greek faktoria dating to the 6th century BC may have existed on this territory. If this is not the case, then the foundation of the colony has to be pushed back to an earlier date - around the turn of the 6-5th centuries BC. These hypotheses, however, require more study.

    The subsequent history of Chersonesos is poorly documented in written sources and usually in a highly condensed style (in Arrian, Josephus Flavius, Pomponius Melius, Claudius Ptolemy, Phlegont Tralius, Stefan the Byzantine, and others). More detailed information is found in Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Polien. Later sources include the treatise by Constantine Porphyrogennetis entitled, "On the ruling of an empire," in which the author undoubtedly used local legends and chronicles. Ancient authors also cite the three most heavily populated sites subservient to Chersonesos in the period when the state of Chersonesos was as its most extensive in western Crimea in the 4-3rd centuries BC. These three sites were Kerkinitis, Beautiful Harbor (in ancient Greek, Kalos Limen), and "Old" Chersonesos.


    The combination of written sources and results garnered from archaeological excavations enable only the most general reconstruction of the ancient history of Chersonesos.

    Founded in southwestern Taurica, Dorian Chersonesos remained a relatively small city until approximately the middle of the 4th century BC. It can be surmised that Greek maritime transit trade constituted a significant part of the city's earliest economy. Chersonesos, as the northern Black Sea city in closest proximity to the Pontis, lay in an extremely auspicious location on naval trade routes. All ships traveling from the southern Black Sea coast or from Greece to the northern Black Sea region crossed the Pontis Euxine (Black Sea) and stopped at Chersonesos en route to their destinations. But the advantages of this location did not become apparent until the early 4th century BC at which time the Greeks began to use the direct route from Sinope across the Black Sea to Chersonesos. According to numismatic evidence, the role of Chersonesos as a leading transit point for maritime trade continued into later periods.

    During the length of its ancient period Chersonesos was a democratic state. The higher organs of government were the national assembly and council; boards made up supplemental governing bodies of which the principal one was the board of archonts, headed by the first archont. The board of strategii was in charge of military matters. The board of nomophilakii enforced laws. The astinomii and agoranomii were responsible for commerce, the minting of coins, the accuracy of lengths and weights. In the first centuries of its existence the city used the honorary seat of king or ruler, the eponym, to name a given year after him. In later years this position was cancelled and its functions were relegated to the principal deity of the city, the goddess named Maiden.

    As a rule, the leading power over all governing organs belonged to the wealthiest landowners. They often held more than one office. We know from one inscription, for example, that a certain Agasikles, son of Chtesius, was a strategius, a priest, an agoranom, and a gymnasiarch, who also managed the construction of the defensive walls, the organization of the market, took care of the city's garrison, and created the demarcation of vineyards.

    Almost nothing is known about land ownership in the city and the role of agriculture in its economy. Little is evident about the interrelationships between Chersonesos and its neighbors, specifically the Taurians. Archaeological evidence indicates that there was an absence of trade ties between the inhabitants of the Crimean foothills and mountains. There is, however, evidence that suggests antagonistic and even belligerent relations between the two. Kerkinitis, located in the northwest plains of Crimea, was, like Chersonesos, a small, independent polis during this period.


    The situation in the city begins to change in the 4th century B.C. The development of the Heraklean Peninsula begins with the appearance of the first large military-industrial settlement in the second quarter of the century at so-called Lighthouse Point, ten kilometers from Chersonesos. In contemporary scholarship this area is named Strabo's Old Chersonesos. It is probable that in the second half of the 4th century BC Chersonesos encompassed the rest of the Heraklean Peninsula, the territory which becomes the agricultural basis of the polis until the end of its existence. It may be that because this was a condition specific to many Dorian polises the development of the Heraklean Peninsula resulted in the expulsion and/or perhaps enforced submission of a part of the local Taurian population.

    Around the beginning of the 4th century BC began the expansion of Chersonesos into the fertile plains of northwestern Crimea, a consequence of which was the subordination of Kerkinitis and the economic development of a wide agricultural territory in the second half of the century. Many fortresses and unfortified settlements were built, while land was divided into plots. The precise progression of events connected with the territorial expansion of Chersonesos is not clear, although the process of expansion may have occurred militarily, especially if this phenomenon collided with the interests of the Scythians and perhaps even Olbia, with whom Kerkinitis was closely tied.

    The transformation of Chersonesos into a formidable state entity with extensive land holdings and a well-developed agricultural infrastructure based on the production of grapes and grain raised it to the level of a leading Black Sea polis. The height of economic and cultural development in Chersonesos occurs in the second half of the 4th-3rd century BC and is well-documented in the archaeological results of the ancient city.


    Already in the 3rd century BC a general shake-up takes place in the military-political situation of the northern Black Sea region. From the very beginning Chersonesos co-existed with various belligerent tribes and peoples, among them the Taurians and Scythians, against whom the city had to defend itself countless times, both defensively and offensively during its territorial expansion.

    Evidence of the many military actions against Chersonesos lies in the continual repair and fortification of the city's defensive walls over the years, the presence of fortresses and fortified settlements in northwestern Crimea and on the Heraklean Peninsula, structures which display traces of sieges and fires, the discovery of hordes of Chersonesan coins hidden during times of imminent danger. There is also epigraphic testimony to the invasions of the barbarians. In their struggles against the Scythians the Chersonesites tried to use the already-existing conflicts among the different Scythian tribes, or to incite conflict between the Scythians and other tribes. Polien's account of the assistance given to Chersonesos by the ruler Amaga against a Scythian invasion attests to the veracity of this circumstance. Although this account is in the form of a legend, it is probably based on real events which occurred in the 3rd century B.C.

    In the first third of the century the majority of settlements in the chora of Chersonesos succumbed to the invasions. This situation may possibly be connected to the growing abilities of the Scythians, or what is more probable, the Sarmatian incursion into the Don-Dnipro region. Archaeological evidence points to the fact that Chersonesos entered the 2nd century B.C. in a weakened state, and consequently was subject to the power of stronger political and economic shocks.


    After the appearance of the Scythian state with its capital in Neapolis in the 3rd century BC, the Scythians increased their pressure on Chersonesos. Scythian fortified settlements were built dangerously close to the city of Chersonesos. The city's lack of a military force capable of withstanding the Scythians resulted in its search for allies. In 179 BC Chersonesos concluded a treaty with Pontic king Pharnakes I, who pledged his assistance in any struggles against the Scythians. In the late 2nd century BC renewed Scythian pressure on Chersonesos forced the city to apply to King Mithradates VI Eupator, the grandson of Pharnakes I, for aid. This petition established the beginning of a new stage in the political history of the northern Black Sea region.

    Interested in spreading his power over the northern Pontic coast, in 110 BC Mithradates sent an army headed by Diophantos to Chersonesos. The decree in honor of Diophantos informs us about the events which took place in Crimea in the subsequent period. The army of Diophantos joined Chersonesos and crushed the Scythians who were led by their king Palakos, thus ridding Chersonesos of the Scythian menace. However, after Diophantos returned to the Pontic kingdom, the Scythians organized another attack which necessitated yet another military expedition by Diophantos. This time the Scythians sustained a crucial defeat and the most important Scythian fortresses in Crimea, Chabaioi and Neapolis, were taken by Diophantos. After the end of this campaign, Diophantos left for Bosporos which he had already visited in a diplomatic mission in the course of his first campaign and there organized, in the decree's words, "local affairs excellent and beautiful for the king Mithradates."

    Thus Mithradates' intervention saved Chersonesos from the Scythian danger, although the city lost its political independence in the process and, together with Bosporos, joined the Pontic State of Mithridates .


    After Rome subdued the kingdom of Mithradates VI Eupator, Chersonesos found itself subordinate to Bosporos and remained so until Julius Caesar granted the city its eleutheria (freedom). A Chersonesan decree in honor of Gaius Julius Satirus (IРЕ, I2, 691), an ambassador to Julius Caesar, indicates that Chersonesos received its independence in 46-45 B.C. After Caesar's death the Bosporan king Asandros attempted to subordinate Chersonesos once again, but the city successfully retained its independence. Around 25-24 BC Augustus normalized relations between the Chersonesan civil community and the Bosporan dynasts. Under the initiative of the Roman administration, Bosporos and Chersonesos created a defensive union which existed until war broke out between Rome and Bosporos. Chersonesos joined the side of Rome during the war, after which Chersonesos was granted certain privileges. The Roman administration became responsible for defending the city from the barbarian tribes. In the mid-60s AD the legate of the Roman province of Moesia, Tiberius Plautius Silvanus, aided Chersonesos in defeating the barbarians who were threatening the city. After these events the Roman authorities started to intervene in the internal politics of Chersonesos more forcefully, a circumstance which was reflected in the issue of coinage. Evidence which attests to the city's growing dependence on Rome during the Flavian dynasty includes the appearance in Chersonesos of statues of the Roman governors of Moesia, and the custom of granting the Chersonesan aristocracy Roman citizenship, a practice reserved for those regions outside the Roman empire which would soon become Roman provinces.

    Chersonesos strengthened relations with the Roman Empire in the period from the second half of the 1st to the first half of the 2nd century, when the empire occasionally supplied the city with military assistance. Roman soldiers remained in the city for short periods and, after their sporadic missions, returned to their bases in the Danube region. Thus the Chersonesites had to search for assistance from the Bosporan kings who were allies of Rome.

    Only in the late 130s - 140s AD did situation change. Roman army was permanently installed Chersonesos and its nearest chora. This move initiated a shift relations between civil community of Rome. long-term presence troops outlying areas most important feature period played an role stabilizing region Taurica. From mid-2nd to third quarter 3rd century proved outpost military might, where ships navy were stationed together with ground forces. make-up garrison, which headed by centurion dispatched Moesia, changed second half 2nd depending on developing frontiers Danube

    Roman troops were installed in other areas in Taurica as well, both inland and on the coast. This situation reflects Rome's policy from the second half of the 2nd to the first half of the 3rd century AD of not only protecting an ally and the most important Roman stronghold in the region (Chersonesos), but also gradually developing its outlying areas. It is quite possible that this policy was strategically aimed eventually to envelope the greater part of Taurica into the empire. However, the barbarian incursion into the Danube region beginning in the late 2nd and continuing into the first half of the 3rd century resulted in the withdrawal of the Roman army from Taurica and Chersonesos itself probably in the second quarter of the 3rd century.

    In approximately 250 AD Roman troops appeared in Crimea again, but were stationed only in Chersonesos so that the scale of the Roman presence was smaller in comparison with the earlier period. This time the Romans stayed in Chersonesos for a shorter period and finally left in the third quarter of the 3rd century. Thus ended more than a century of Roman presence in Taurica.


    The governmental structure of Chersonesos in the first centuries AD might be described as one of an elitist republic whose real authority belonged to a separate group of noble, wealthy families who had acquired Roman citizenship. These individuals occupied the highest offices, were elected to the city council, fulfilled the responsibilities of priests, and played a key role in the government of Chersonesos. The Roman provincial administration considered this group of people its most effective supporters who would follow a policy in the Black Sea auspicious to the empire.

    The "freedom" granted Chersonesos by Rome was restricted to internal affairs, that is, it had control over its own institutions and magistracies, the right to govern according to its own law, to mint its own coins, and to own land, collect taxes, and control customs. Chersonesos did not have the right to delve into foreign politics. The city could appeal to the emperor or the governor of Lower Moesia in conflicts with the Roman garrison or the deputy of the Roman administration in the person of the tribunus militaris.

    Throughout this period Chersonesos maintained the Roman garrison which consisted of detachments from the Italian I, Macedonian V, and Claudian XI legions and auxiliary troops. Its harbor received ships of the Moesian fleet. The squadron and the garrison were headed by the tribunus militaris who probably commanded the troops and posts of the beneficiarii, soldiers protecting the approaches to Chersonesos by coastal and land routes in southwestern Crimea as well.

    The presence of the Roman garrison and fleet guarded Chersonesos from invasions by neighboring tribes and ensured safety on roads and sea trade routes, which contributed to the development of craft production, trade, and commerce. In the first centuries AD the number of manufacturing complexes increased. One may conjecture that in the first centuries AD Chersonesos was an important center of craft production with various branches of industry.

    A great deal of dwelling blocks includes fish-salting cisterns, a circumstance which provides evidence for a well-developed fishing industry. Separate finds attest to the existence of metal workshops in the city. Ceramic production rapidly increased in the same period.

    Of special interest are roof tiles displaying stamps of the Roman military detachments, probably produced by the Roman soldiers themselves. The site of Chersonesos supplied at least five types of stamps with the names of Macedonian V and Italian I legions and the vexillatio of Lower Moesia. All these tiles with Roman legionary stamps were excavated in the area of the citadel, which is thought to have been the location of the Roman camp in Chersonesos.

    In the first centuries AD the construction of fortifications considerably increased both in the Roman citadel and along the rest of the perimeter of the city. The strengthening of the defensive line lay mainly in the renovation of existing structures and the addition of supplementary tiers and belts, as in Xeno's tower, for example. The construction of a peribolos, rather progressive for its time, was used in Chersonesos as well.

    According to information gleaned from inscriptions, the first centuries AD witnessed the construction of new temples in Chersonesos, which unfortunately have not survived. The theater was also rebuilt so that it could be used as a circus for gladiatorial events. The excavated architectural details of buildings dating to this period, such as marble and limestone capitals and column bases, suggest the rich architectural design of these structures. Although the urban plan was generally the same throughout the Roman period, the dimensions of some city blocks were widened. When houses of the Hellenistic period were demolished, new buildings of larger size were erected in the 1st and 2nd centuries. The standard of living was presumably higher than in previous times, a situation suggested by the appearance of termae and a better infrastructure - a sewage system and water mains leading out of the city. This development must have been due to Roman influence. The architecture of Chersonesos, however, was of a rather provincial character, great monumental constructions being absent. Arcades were not known in Chersonesos, and neither was the typical Roman feature of dwelling houses - the use of stone and brick masonry. Roman concrete and vaulted constructions were also limited.

    Structures dating to the Roman period that have been thoroughly investigated to date are located in two sites - along the northern shore, and in the southeastern region where stands the citadel, an area surrounded on all sides by defensive walls, where the Roman garrison presumably camped. The structures excavated in the citadel area show that here in Chersonesos the Roman military administration carried out wide-scale construction projects. The citadel, however, cannot be considered a typical Roman military camp because it shows characteristics highly unique to Chersonesos.

    As in the previous period, trade in Chersonesos in the first centuries AD mainly developed in two areas: locally, with neighboring steppe tribes and in long distance, with the rest of the Greek and Roman world. Chersonesos exported fish, wine, fine red-gloss and glass wares, metalwork. The city maintained its traditional trade relations with Asia Minor and Syria, whence Chersonesos imported glass and ceramic wares. New trade contacts included (to use modern geographical names) Italy, northern Africa, Spain, and southern France, whence came imported fine red-gloss wares. Glassware was imported from northern Germany (Cologne).


    In the first centuries AD Chersonesos led a sanguine life highlighted by the most important traditions and rites of a polis, with the Roman legionnaires introducing their own specific flavor to the cultural fabric of the city.

    Analyses of written, epigraphic, and archaeological sources provide clues into daily Chersonesan life, which generally followed a pattern typical of a Greek polis of the given period. All inhabitants spoke Greek, used the Doric calendar, wore Greek clothes and headdresses, and used household items popular in other Greek cities.

    In the period spanning from the first centuries AD to the advent of Christianity the worldview of the population of Chersonesos developed in two related, but at the same time alternate, directions. In the first, the cults of Hellenistic deities were still popular. All the deities retained their traditional functions, attributes, and symbols. As in the past, the main cult was that of the city's patroness, Parthenos (Maiden). In addition, the cults of many Olympic gods received special attention. Historical factors, such as the strengthening of ties with the Roman Empire, influenced the selection of deity worship according to Roman taste, and Roman emperors occasionally chose to cultivate the most popular Hellenistic deities, such as Aphrodite, Apollo, and his son Asclepius, according to the needs of their policy.

    One can trace the development of the general evolution of religious beliefs typical of the Roman Empire in Chersonesos. In this respect, monuments related to the belief in the immortal soul and paradise in the afterlife are the most significant.

    The evolution of the ethnic structure of Chersonesos in the first centuries AD should be considered a natural process which took place everywhere in the ancient world. The 2nd century AD saw a Sarmatian and Alan penetration into the make-up of the population of Chersonesos; however, to state that they had any kind of "barbarianizing" effect on the population is impossible. The hereditary Greek-Chersonesites lived side by side with newcomers from other regions of the ancient Greek and Roman world, and the social status of these different nations in Chersonesos varied. Chersonesos was called home by Greeks from the cities of Amastris and Heraklea Pontica, for example, by peoples of Asia Minor and Bosporos. The population of Chersonesos also included Roman soldiers, their relatives, and libertines, among whom were Greeks, Thracians, and natives of the Danube provinces. The number of Romans and Italics was probably negligible, because the majority of officers of the garrison stationed in Chersonesos and its outlying areas were of Greek origin. The ethnic structure of the population of Chersonesos changed considerably less than that of other cities of the northern Black Sea coast.


    The third quarter of the 3rd century AD marked the final stage of the Roman period in the history of Chersonesos, a period which is sometimes considered a separate phase and called Late Antiquity. It begins in the third quarter of the 3rd century AD and ends in the mid-third quarter of the 6th century AD. The earliest stage of the given period coincides with a series of so-called Gothic raids against the Roman Empire, the main focus of which was centered in Bosporos. A consequence of these events was a change in the ethnic situation in Crimea. The Gothic tribes migrated to the outskirts of Chersonesos. Having mixed with the local Sarmatians, the newcomers created a poly-ethnic population, in medieval sources referred to as the Crimean Goths. This population established close political, economic, and cultural relations with Chersonesos.

    The next century witnessed a period of changes in the pattern of the defense of Chersonesos, now ensured by the garrison of the ballistarii. In spite of the fact that Chersonesos was not a constituent part of the Eastern Roman empire, its status differed slightly from that of other Byzantine cities. In Chersonesos the bodies of local self-government were probably headed by a pater civitatis. The city's political dependence was reflected in Byzantine taxes and customs. As a result of the reforms of the emperor Xeno, Chersonesos acquired the right to collect and use a part of the taxes itself. The collected monies were used for social needs and construction.

    In the 6th century AD, probably under the reign of Justinian I, the status of the city changed. Chersonesos became the center of a province of the same name, which also included Bosporos and the southern coast of Crimea. This enlargement of Byzantine Taurica resulted in the elevation of the ranks of its governors. In the second half of the 6th century the military and civil authorities in the region were entrusted to the military deputy, doux Chersonos.

    The name of the city changed to Cherson in the period from the late 4th to the 6th century. At the same time, the Christianity gained dominance ideologically. The mass Christianization of the population of the city began no earlier than the reign of the emperor Justinian I (527 - 565 AD). The middle of the 6th century marks a kind of dividing line between the ancient and medieval periods in the history of Chersonesos, a time of the most important social, political, and economic events which allowed Cherson successfully to develop for the next millennium. From this point in time it is possible to refer to Christian Cherson and the beginning of a new stage in its history as the medieval period.


    1. Antichnyye gosudarstva Severnogo Prichernomor'ya (The Ancient States of the Northern Black Sea Region). Arkheologiya SSSR. Moscow: Nauka, 1984.

    2. Zubar', Vitaliy M. Khersones Tavricheskiy i Rimskaya imperiya. Ocherki voyenno-politicheskoy istorii (Tauric Chersonesos and the Roman empire: Surveys of Military and Political History). Kyiv: Kyivskaya Akademiya Yevrobiznesa, 1994.

    3. Kadeev, Vladimir I. Khersones Tavricheskiy v pervykh vekakh nashey ery (Tauric Chersonesos in the First Centuries AD). Kharkiv: Vyshcha shkola, 1981.

    4. ______, and Sergey B. Sorochan. Ekonomisheskiye svyazi antichnykh gorodov Severnogo Prichernomor'ya v I v. do n.e. - V v. n.e. (na materialakh Khersonesa)(The Economic Relations of the Ancient Cities of the Northern Black Sea Coast from the 1st Century BC to the 5th Century AD [According to the Materials of Chersonesos]). Kharkiv: Vyshcha shkola, 1989.

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