BLACK SEA, an almost entirely landlocked sea situated between 46° 32’ and 40° 55’ north latitude and 27° 27’ and 41° 42’ east longitude. Its surface is more than 423,000 km2, and its maximum depth is 2,244 m. In this article only the Achaemenid period is considered.
Although the modern names of the Black Sea (Turkish Kara Deniz, Russian Chërnoe More, etc.) go back only to the 13th century, the appellation is actually much older. It is generally accepted that the primary Greek name Pontus Axīnus (Póntos Áxeinos, first attested in Pindar, Pythian Odes 4.263, in 462 b.c.) is a rendering of Iranian *axšaina- “dark colored” (Vasmer). Cf. Avestan axšaēna- “dark colored,” Old Persian axšaina- (color of turquoise; Elamite ak-še-[na], Aramaic ʾhṧyn-); Middle Persian axšēn/xašēn and Khotan Saka āṣṣeiṇa- “blue,” Buddhist Sogdian ʾγsʾyn-(axsēn-) “green(ish)”; New Persian xašīn, Kurdish and Pashto šīn “blue,” Ossetic œxsīn “dark gray.” The name was adopted by the Greeks (in all probability in the cities on the northern shore of the Black Sea) and altered in popular etymology to á-xe(i)nos “inhospitable.” This ominous name was then changed to the euphemism Euxīnus (Eú-xeinos) “hospitable.” This secondary Greek form is also first attested in Pindar (Nemean Odes 4.49) and thereafter is commonly used. The form Póntos Áxeinos, which is regarded as older by all the ancient authors (Ps.-Scymnus, 735ff., Ovid Tristia 4.4.55ff., Strabo, 7.3.6, Pliny, Naturalis historia 4.76, 6.1, etc.), is favored in mythological contexts. The isolated Póntos Mélas “black sea” in Euripides Iphigenia in Tauris 107 may be a poetic metaphor, rather than the calque of a foreign expression. Simple Pontus, with ellipsis of the adjective, became most widely used in Greek and Latin, but the “old” name seems to have survived with its original meaning in the Near East, until the Turks borrowed it and propagated it anew.
The name Black Sea is not derived from the color of the water or from any climatic particulars, as previously had been supposed (summary in El’nitskiĭ). It must be viewed in the context of a system in which color names indicated the cardinal points (e.g., black [or dark] for north, red for south, white for west, and green or light blue for east). This symbolism is widely attested (Knobloch, pp. 9-22). The name Red Sea (known since Herodotus) thus designated the Indian Ocean, together with the adjoining Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Black would then be a natural designation for the northern antipodal sea, but it follows that the name Black Sea cannot have been given to it by the Scythians of southern Russia (which lies to the north), as is usually supposed. As the name must come from a people that knew both the northern Black and southern Red seas and as such terms were unknown to the peoples of the ancient Near East, it seems probable that it is Achaemenid (Schmitt, 1985, pp. 411-12).
The Pontus Euxinus was relatively well known to the Greek world, at least from classical times, as a result of the close relations between the Greek colonies established on its coasts and their metropolises, relations that were not limited to commerce. On the southwest it is connected, through the Bosporus (the ancients’ Thracian Bosporus [Thrāˊikios or Thrēíkios Bosporos]), the Sea of Marmara (Gk. Propontis), and the straits of the Dardanelles (Gk. Hellḗspontos), with the Aegean Sea. To the northeast it is separated by the Kerch Strait (the ancients’ Cimmerian Bosporus [Kimmerikòs Bósporos]) from the shallow Sea of Azov (Gk. Maiôtis). Its maximum length is 1,148 km, its maximum breadth 615 km (between Ukrainian Ochakov, Gk. Aléktoros phroúrion “the cock’s fort,” and Anatolian Ereğli, Gk. Hērákleia Pontikḗ). General descriptions of the Pontus according to ancient geographical knowledge are to be found in, for example, Herodotus, 4.85.2-86.4 (who gives figures that are far too high, calculated on the basis of a ship’s normal cruising speed), Strabo, 2.5.22, and two later works, both entitled Periplus of the Pontus Euxinus, by Arrian and an anonymous author respectively. Strabo specifies the narrowest passage (7.4.3): Between Chersonesus Taurica on the southwest coast of the Crimea (near modern Sevastopol) and Cape Carambis (now Turkish Kerempe Burun) the distance is 2,500 stadia (ca. 450 km), but between Carambis and the southernmost point of the Crimea at Cape Krioû métopon “the ram’s forehead,” it is “much shorter.” More accurate is the distance given by Pliny (4.86), namely 170 mp. (Roman miles), about 250 km. The Greek and Roman authors seem to have had no idea of the depth of the Black Sea, much less exact data (cf. Aristotle, Meteorologica 1.13, p. 351a, 11; Pliny, 2.224).
On the northern coast of the Black Sea the Crimean peninsula extends far south into the sea and is joined to the continent only by the narrow isthmus of Perekop. The easternmost extension of the Crimea forms a bridge with the Taman peninsula, which extends west from the Caucasus; this bridge is broken only by the Kerch Strait, which links the Pontus proper to the Sea of Azov. Ancient authors considered the latter much larger than its actual size, which is about one-thirteenth the area of the former (e.g., Herodotus, 4.86.4: “not much smaller”; Scylax, Periplus 68: “half as big” as the Pontus). The northern coast of the Black Sea, from Dobrogea (Dobruja) to the Sea of Azov consists of steppelands (in antiquity the immense territories of Scythia). The eastern and southern parts of the Crimea, the eastern shore near the Caucasus, and the southern coast are all mountainous, with only narrow littorals.
The Black Sea was known for its depth and intense currents, on the surface as well as in the depths, which impeded ships. In the Greeks’ view the climate of the littorals was cold and stormy (especially along the western and northern shores), cloudy, misty, and, if compared with that of the Aegean sea, intolerably bleak and inhospitable, especially as there are no islands. They observed icy northerly storms (cf. the famous Boreas); severe frost and biting cold in the Thracian and Scythian winter (which lasts eight months, according to Herodotus, 4.28.1; cf. Strabo, 7.3.18); and dangerous, thick fog and freezing on the western and northern shores, the Kerch Strait, and the Sea of Azov. For a description of the cold on the southwestern coast in the region of the Thyni, see Xenophon, Anabasis 7.4.3f. In Colchis, however, along the river Phasis the climate was warm and moist, the land marshy (Hippocrates, De aëribus 15.1).
The Greeks wondered at the great rivers flowing into the sea (cf. Herodotus, 4.82, and his not altogether well-informed excursus on the Scythian rivers in 4.47-58): The most important are the Istros/Danube, Tyras/Dniester, Hypanis/Bug, Borysthenes/Dnieper, Tanaïs/Don, Kophen/Kuban, Phasis/Rioni, and Halys/Kızıl Irmak. They cause the Black Sea to be less salty than the Mediterranean and to be the “sweetest” (Strabo, 1.3.4, quoting Strato of Lampsacus).
The coastal regions of the Black Sea, in Bulgaria, Rumania, the Soviet Union (Ukrainian SSR, Russian SFSR, Georgian SSR), and Turkey, were known in ancient times as Thracia, Scythia, Sarmatia, Colchis, and Anatolia. The most important of the ethnic groups living there were the Scythian-Sarmatian (thus Iranian) and Thracian tribes. The Bithynians, Thynians, Mariandyni, Cauconians, Paphlagonians, and other Pontic tribes on the northern Anatolian shore are described in detail and from first-hand knowledge by Strabo (especially 12.3.3ff.), who was a native of Amaseia/Pontus. On the northern coast of the Black Sea the Scythians had perhaps been preceded by some earlier populations. The actual borders of their territory are uncertain, but they extended far to the north. Their neighbors on the west were the Thracians, and their settlements reached to the lower Don and the Sea of Azov in the east; beyond were Sarmatian tribes, close relatives who expanded westward in the 4th century b.c. and steadily narrowed the power of the Scythians.
The most important of the ancient coastal settlements were the Greek colonies, among them Apollonia Pontica/Sozopol, Mesembria/Nesebăr, Odessus/Varna, Callatis/Mangalia, Tomi/Constant…a, Istros/Histria, Tyras/Bielgorod on the Dniester, Olbia/Olvia, Chersonesus Taurica, Theodosia/Feodosia, Panticapaeum/Kerch, Phanagoria, Gorgippia/Anapa, Dioscurias/Sukhumi, Trapezus/Trabzon, Amisus/Samsun, Sinope/Sinop, and Heraclea Pontica/Ereğli. Greeks had penetrated into the Black Sea from the end of the 8th century b.c., as is reflected especially in the myths of the Argonauts and Orestes’ journey to the Taurians. The steady increase in relations and business dealings with the indigenous population led to establishment of trading posts (emporia) and, finally, in spite of a temporary setback owing to the invasion of the Cimmerians, the founding of colonies. These Greek cities, mostly established by Milesian colonizers, were for a long period good neighbors of the Scythians and other indigenous peoples. Trade consisted primarily of exchange of agricultural products (especially grain) for metal objects and luxuries. The economic significance of the Black Sea region continued to grow during the Achaemenid period. Good anchorages and suitable harbors were available on all coasts, and shipping (at first coastwise on the southern, Anatolian or western, Thracian route) was a significant activity, in spite of the dangers from storms, shallow water, rocks, and pirates. Fishing, conducted both along the shores and in the South Russian tributaries, was extensive and economically important. Tunny, mackerel, sturgeon, and anchovies were the principal catch. These fish were pickled and exported to Greece and the Near East. Skins and furs were also shipped on the Black Sea and through the Bosporus and the Hellespont.
The northern and western coastal regions were fertile, the most developed farming must have been in the Phasis plain in Colchis. The foremost crop was grain (wheat, barley, millet); the north Pontic littoral, the Crimea, and the Dobrogea were the “granaries” of the ancient world. Herodotus (4.17.2) refers to the Scythian plowmen (Skýthai arotêres), who sow seed “not for home consumption, but for sale.” Herodotus (7.147.2-3) portrays Xerxes as he saw Greek ships transporting grain through the Hellespont near Abydus. Also mentioned are viniculture (especially near Tyras and Chersonesus Taurica), cattle breeding (e.g., the Scythian and Thracian horses), and beekeeping (for export of honey and wax). The western, or Thracian, shore was famous as a hunting ground (for bears, foxes, wild boars, hares, etc.) and for its timber, the charcoal from which was used in smelting. Except for the Thracian Haemus mountains, the southeastern Pontic region of the Chalybians was rich in ore and so became a center of metal working.
The available sources clearly indicate that the relations of the Pontus region with the Greek world were more intensive than those with the Persian empire. Nevertheless, there are references to trade routes from the Black Sea toward the east. One ran from the mouth of the Phasis via the Cyrus river, the Caspian Sea, Hyrcania, Margiana, and Bactria to the Hindu Kush and to India (Strabo, 2.1.15; 11.7.3). Another proceeded from the northern shore of the Black Sea via the river Don, across the Ural and Altai mountains, to the Argippaei and Issedonians in central Asia (Herodotus, 4.19-25; 4.108-09).
Next to no information is found in the Achaemenid sources about the Black Sea and the inhabitants of its coasts, although the empire, from Cyrus’s reign on, included the whole southern shore of the Pontus Euxinus and reached to the Caucasus (Herodotus, 3.97.4). The great satrapy list in Herodotus, 3.90-94, so “hopelessly irreconcilable with those of the Persians themselves on stone” (Armayor, p. 2), associates the tribes around the Pontus with various of his twenty “tax districts” (nomoí) in a baffling way. The chief official Persian list occurs in the Bīsotūn inscription (DB), which reflects the state of things at the beginning of Darius’s reign: The country of “the (peoples) at the sea” has been identified as the great satrapy in the northwest and apparently also at times the northern part of Asia Minor governed from Dascyleium (Schmitt, 1972). Saka, or Scythia, encompassed all the land from the Oxus river to the Black Sea inhabited by Scythian tribes, so far as it belonged to the Achaemenid empire; parts of the Black Sea region are included in Armenia and Cappadocia. In later lists of peoples and countries other names occur, among them “the countries beyond the sea” (DPe 14ff., Kent, Old Persian, p. 136, presumably the European regions of Thracia and Scythia), Thracia (OPers. Skudra, DNa 29, etc., Kent, p. 137), and a triad of Saka tribes the localization of which is not entirely clear (see Litvinskiĭ), among them the “Scythians beyond the sea” (OPers. Sakā tayaiy paradraya, DNa 28f., etc.). Such shifts and administrative reorganizations in the Black Sea area were probably caused by new conquests during the time of Darius I (522-486 b.c.).
Campaigns waged by Darius against Scythian tribes are described in his Bīsotūn inscription (DB 5.20-30, Kent, p. 133, unfortunately badly damaged at this point) and are detailed in Herodotus, 4.83-144. Whether or not both these accounts refer to the same expedition has not yet been settled (see, most recently, Cameron and, on the other side, Harmatta). According to Harmatta’s restoration of the text, the campaign related in DB under the years 520-519 b.c. must have taken place farther east (in the Oxus region) and in any event must be distinguished from the one described (without a date) by Herodotus. That expedition was preceded by a reconnaissance of the northern shore of the Black Sea by the Cappadocian satrap Ariaramnes (see ariyāramna, no. 2). The expedition was to cross the Bosporus on a pontoon bridge built by the Samian Mandrocles, to march across Thracia, and to attack the Scythians from the rear, along the western and northern coasts. The Scythians, however, showed great tactical skill, retreating continually and refusing to battle with Darius; they thus forced him to return without a victory.
O. K. Armayor, “Herodotus’ Catalogues of the Persian Empire in the Light of the Monuments and the Greek Literary Tradition,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 108, 1978, pp. 1-9.
Bailey, Dictionary, p. 26.
V. Burr, Nostrum mare: Ursprung und Geschichte der Namen des Mittelmeeres und seiner Teilmeere im Altertum, Stuttgart, 1932, esp. pp. 29-36.
G. G. Cameron, “Darius the Great and His Scythian [Saka] Campaign: Bisitun and Herodotus,” in Monumentum H. S. Nyberg I, Acta Iranica 4, 1975, pp. 77-88.
Ch. M. Danoff, “Pontos Euxeinos,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Supp. IX, 1962, cols. 865-1176, addenda cols. 1911-20 (also published separately, Stuttgart, 1962).
L. A. El’nitskiĭ, “Severochernomorskie zametki 4. O naimenovanii Chërnogo morya v drevnosti” (Notes on the northern Black Sea 4. On the appellations of the Black Sea in Antiquity), VDI, 1950, no. 1, pp. 194-97.
J. Harmatta, “Darius’ Expedition Against the Sakā tigraxaudā,” Acta Antiqua Hungarica 24, 1976 , pp. 15-24.
J. Irmscher and D. B. Schelow, eds., Griechische Städte und einheimische Völker des Schwarzmeergebietes. Eine Aufsatzsammlung, Berlin, 1961.
J. Knobloch, Sprache und Religion I, Heidelberg, 1979.
B. A. Litvinskiĭ, Drevnie kochevniki “Kryshi mira” (Old nomadic tribes of the “Roof of the World”), Moscow, 1972, pp. 158-74.
R. Schmitt, “Die achaimenidische Satrapie tayaiy drayahyā,” Historia 21, 1972, pp. 522-27.
Idem, “Namenkundlicher Streifzug ums Schwarze Meer,” in Sprachwissenschaftliche Forschungen. Festschrift für Johann Knobloch, Innsbruck, 1985, pp. 409-15.
M. Vasmer, “Osteuropäische Ortsnamen, 1. Das Schwarze Meer,” Acta et Commentationes Universitatis Dorpatensis, ser. B, vol. 1, 3, 1921, pp. 3-6.
Idem, Untersuchungen über die ältesten Wohnsitze der Slaven I: Die Iranier in Südrussland, Leipzig, 1923, p. 20.
Idem, “Skythen. B. Sprache,” in Reallexikon der Vorgeschichte XII, Berlin, 1928, p. 241a. (Vasmer’s articles are all reprinted in Schriften zur slavischen Altertumskunde und Namenkunde I, Berlin, 1971, pp. 103-05, 122, 185 respectively.)
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Originally Published: December 15, 1989
Last Updated: December 15, 1989
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