Relief with the image of Skilur and Pallak
Relief with the image of Skilur and Pallak. Plaster mold from the lost original of the end of the II century. BC, found in Naples Scythian. The copy is kept at the Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts (St. Petersburg).

Who created the Crimean Scythia?


The golden age of Steppe Scythia in the 4th century BC that was flourishing between the ancient polises of Euxine coast (the Black Sea, – E.K.) and the Barbarian tribes of forest steppe was followed by the severe crisis in the 3rd century BC the reasons for which are still the subject of discussions in archaeology. In consequence of these events the Steppe Scythians disappeared and in the 2nd century BC some new tribal alliances emerged some of which got the features of Hellenistic monarchies known in the ancient history of Black Sea coastal area as Scythias Minor. So, what happened at the North-Pontic lands in the 3rd century BC, having influenced on their peoples and states like that?

Earlier, the historiography confirmed that the collapse of Scythia was caused by the coming of Sarmatian tribes – the following migrant people that came to the Pontus from the depths of Asia – Manchuria and Altai. However, according to the current chronology, this event took place about a hundred years after the disappearance of  Steppe Scythia, so the cause of the decline of the Scythian czars’ country is different and lies in the way the Scythians managed themselves. It is known that the Scythian tribes’ living was based on the extensive way of farming.  The migrant tribe’s land was divided into nomad camps which we know as «uluses» in the medieval period. These nomad camps ensured the royal family’s and the elite’s cattle grazing. In the 4th century BC the last division of nomad camps and, probably, their disintegration took place.

Who created the Crimean Scythia?
Vysotskaya TN 1979. Naples – the capital of the late Scythian state, Kiev: Scientific Opinion.

On the other hand, neighbourhood with the settled communities – Greek and Barbarian – led to the fact that in this same 4th century BC the process of sedentarization – nomads’ settling down – began with the Scythians. This process was taking place especially intensively and vividly in Crimea at the borders of the chora of ancient states – Chersonese and Bosporan Kingdom where the subsoil burial grounds appeared near the hellenized Scythian burial sites. At the same time the settlements of mountain tribes – the Tauri – start migrating from the foothills to the borders of the chora of ancient states.

The written sources give us not a lot of information about this time in Tauris and Scythia, the number of the ancients’ messages increases only in the 3rd-2nd centuries BC, and this is related to the constant threat from the Barbarians to the ancient cities, and a number of wars later as well. So, what happened in the 3rd century BC in the Black Sea plains that, on the one hand, dissolved the Steppe Scythia, and on the other one, – stimulated the inflow of steppe and other Barbarian population to the ancient cities? Probably, the climate changes rather than the Sarmatians caused that. The Scythians’ extensive economy under the conditions of dry steppe that began to turn into the semidesert urged them to move away to the territories with better humification conditions which were actually the Piedmont Crimea, the Lower Dnieper region and Transnistria. And if in the Lower Dnieper region and Transnistria the lands were not inhabited, in Crimea the density of population was higher – besides the Tauri, a large part of peninsula lands in the 4th century was occupied by the Greek states Chersonese and Bosporan Kingdom. Some Barbarians also moved forward to the North-West Black Sea coastal area – to the chora of Olbia and Tira.

It is likely that in the Olbia polis close relations with the Scythians had developed before the crisis of the 3rd century BC as suggested by both archaeological materials and written sources. Well, be that as it may, but in the 3rd century BC or rather between the 2nd and the 3rd third of the 3rd century BC most of bartons of the chora of Chersonese in the North-West Crimea are burnt down, and Chersonese loses almost the whole distant chora along with Kalos Limen and Kerkinitis. If we consider the Scythians’ monuments near the ancient settlements of the North-West Crimea, it can be also safely said that these lands had been brought under cultivation by them, and contacts with the ancient world had been established long before. In the 4th century BC it is far more likely that they had already existed. So, what happened in the West Crimea in the 3rd century BC? What war is disputed about by archaeologists and historians, and what was the role of ancient settlements of the North-West Crimea, Chersonese, Olbia and the Scythians in it?

So, let’s start with the Lower Dnieper region. On the decline of the Great (Steppe) Scythia in the late 4th – in the early 3rd centuries BC in the lower course of Dnipro, approximately between the modern cities Zaporizhzhia and Nova Kakhovka, various settlements emerge with the material identic to Barbarian settlements of the chora of ancient cities of the North-West Black Sea coastal area. These Barbarians cannot be called the Scythians, they are more likely to be the descendants of forest steppe people and migrants from the West, probably, the Geto-Dacians which ceramics is often found at the chora of Olbia and Tira. Relation to these ancient polises is not accidental as at this time at least the chora of Olbia is actively growing up, a number of bartons is increasing and there are even grounds for talking about exploring the North-West coast of Tauris by the Olviopolitans where the barton of Olbian type was built near the Panske agglomeration. At this time no military actions between the North-West polises of the Pontus and the Scythians were observed, probably, due to some contractual or tribute arrangements.

Who created the Crimean Scythia?
Zubar VM, Buiskikh AV, Kravchenko EA, Rusyaeva MV 2005. Chersonesos Taurian in the third quarter of VI – mid I centuries. BC, Kiev: Akademperiodika.

In the middle of the 3rd century BC almost the entire Olbian chora ceases to exist, at the same time the Lower Dnieper ancient settlements stop functioning. However, there is no question of settling down here of the migrant Scythians of previous period namely the 5th-4th centuries BC, it is far more likely that this refers to the Olbian chora’s population where the presence of hellenized Scythians associated with the ruling of the Scythian czar Skil is probable. It’s likely that this population moved to the West where Scythia Minor emerged in the Dobrudzha region, and to the South where the Crimean Scythia emerges in the 2nd century BC.

Scythia Minor in Dobrudzha emerged sometime in the late 3rd century BC and ceased to exist during the struggle between the Pontus and the Roman Empire in the early 1st century BC, during those events which resulted in termination of the Crimean Scythia’s statehood. It is probable that the ethnic composition and the dynasts of the Danubian Scythia were also identified quite indirectly with the Steppe Scythians as well as in Crimea.

Already in the 2nd century BC the Lower Dnieper region becomes inhabited again – as much as 15 late Scythian sites of ancient towns and several necropoleis have been counted here. However, researchers are disinclined to identify their genetic relationship with the previous monuments. In their material culture they demonstrate quite a variegated cultural attribution where the western Geto-Dacian, and the northern Zarubinets, and the Sarmatian, and the forest steppe Scythoid features are present that may be marked in general as the beginning of quite a major impact of the European Laten’s cultures.

The history of Crimean Scythia is the most eventful one from all these vestiges of the Scythian world centers. In fact, the Scythians in Crimea began to appear from the very beginning of exploring the Black Sea plains by them – since the 7th century BC. After all, that was exactly in Crimea near the village Filatovka where the Scythian burial site under the kurgan with one of the first ancient imports – the Ionic black-figure oenochoe of the 7th century BC was excavated.

Till the 4th century BC the Scythians explored and settled the entire Steppe Crimea almost having become its first actual proprietors. The Scythian tribes also took direct part in exploring the suburbs of Crimean steppe – the borders of the Chersonese chora in the West, the Crimean foothills in the South and the chora of the Bosporan Kingdom and Feodosiya in the East.

The largest concentration of Scythian kurgan burial grounds is observed in the North-West Crimea. If in the 6th – 5th centuries BC these were the separate admission burial sites or kurgans, then in the 4th century BC these were the kurgan rows along the trade routes from Perekop to ancient polises of the North-West Tauris and the burial sites directly linked to the Greek cities Kerkinitis, Kalos Limen and other smaller settlements on the coast. The nature of Scythians’ contacts with the Greeks in Crimea is clearly seen in the evolution of Scythian stone steles on the kurgans – one of the main attributes of Scythian burial site that confirms that the buried representative of Scythian elite belonged to this land where the burial was made. If in the times of Scythian classic the steles were represented by typical Scythian «babas», then in the 4th – 3rd centuries BC the so called steles of Hellenistic type, stylistics of which more resembles an antique statue than a Scythian «baba», appear in the mixed kurgan-ground necropoleis near the Greek cities.

At the same time in the second quarter – in the middle of the 4th century BC the Tauri are making their way to the borders of the Chersonese chora as well. The Kizil-Koba settlements are making their way towards the chora’s border at the Herakleian Peninsula from the foothills and river valleys, they emerge on the shores of Lake Donuzlav, the Kizil-Koba ceramics is present at the house construction of Kerkinitis, Kalos Limen, Masliny, Panske. However, the Tauri’s necropoleis do not change their location along the upper reaches of mountain rivers. In the 4th century BC the stone-box burial grounds continue functioning, and only by century’s end they began to show the signs of the dynasties’ decline. The Tauri’s burial grounds stopped functioning in the 3rd century BC.

The Kizil-Koba ceramics, besides the ancient cities and settlements in the 6th – 4th centuries BC, also appeared in the Scythian burial sites under the Steppe Crimea kurgans suggesting the active inter-ethnic contacts between the Tauri and the Scythians at this time. In fact, Herodotus mentions this describing Darius’ campaign against the Scythians:

«Having consulted with one another, the Scythians decided that they themselves were not able to measure strength and expel Darius, and they sent messengers to the neighbouring nations. And these nations’ czars had already gathered and consulted with one another realizing that a large army had opposed them. These were the czars of the Tauri and the Agathyrs, and the Neures, and the Androphags, and the Melanhlens, and the Gelons, and the Budins, and the Sauromatians» (O.I. Biletsky’s translation from Greek) [Herod., IV, 102].

In the Central Foothills of Crimea already in the 4th century BC several new settlements emerge interpreted by researchers as the Tauri-Scythian ones because of the so called Scythian ceramics found there. However, the latest studies of the Tauri’s dish set of the 4th century BC showed that the forms of previous periods were continuing to develop there, and some types of dinner ware of the Geto-Dacian origin were the only new ones. The forms peculiar to the monuments of the Lower Dnieper region appear in Crimea not before than the second quarter of the 3rd century BC.

The East Crimea where the policy and the ethnic situation were defined by the Bosporan Kingdom always had a number of differences from the West one. Herodotus placed the East of Crimea to the Royal Scythians’ possessions:

«Outside Herr (the Lower Dnieper region, – E.K.) a country is stretching that is called the Royal, and the Scythians living in it are the bravest and the most numerous, and they consider other Scythians their captives. In the South they reach Tauris (Mountain and Foothill Crimea, – E.K.), and to the East – to the ditch that was dug, as I said, by the born of blind persons, and to the harbor at Lake Maetid that is called Kremny» (O.I. Biletsky’s translation from Greek) [Herod., IV, 20].

Who created the Crimean Scythia?
Puzdrovsky AE 2007. Crimean Scythia II century. BC – III c. AD Funeral monuments, Simferopol: Business-Inform.

In point of fact, along the Azov seaside an archaeologically separate group of burial sites is fixed that is ritually slightly different from other Scythian burial grounds. These burial sites carry signs of skeleton semi-curvature and mostly contain the pieces of plate peculiar to the Kizil-Koba culture of the Eastern Foothills. In the 4th century BC a new syncretic mortuary rite is already being formed here containing the features of both Scythian and Kizil-Koba burial sites. These are the collective burial sites made in stone boxes, sometimes of secondary use or in the Bosporan-type sepulchres. In both cases a kurgan mound is made above the burial site. At the present stage of research it can be said that this region demonstrates the earliest aspects of forming the single ethnic group from different components.

In Herodotus’ extract the harbor Kremny at Lake Maetid (the Sea of Azov, – E.K.) is mentioned as well. Archaeologists have not managed to find this harbor yet, the Azov seaside of Crimea hasn’t shown anything similar to settlements of the classic time yet. But the mapping of Crimean kurgans showed in this region quite an interesting fact – from the Sivash Bay between the villages Urozhaine and Nekrasovka a lot of  kurgans and kurgan burial grounds are concentrated, what’s interesting the kurgan rows are stretching from here to the Crimean steppe from the East to the West to the North-West Crimea where they divide into several kurgan tracks. All of them lead to the ancient settlements of the North-West Crimea. In another place Herodotus mentions Kremny once again:

«And so they arrived at Lake Maetid to Kremny. And Kremny is located at the land of free Scythians» (O.I. Biletsky’s translation from Greek) [Herod., IV, 110].

It seems that Kremny is a geographical name of the harbor, and not of the settlement, and it may well be that one of the ancient roads marked by kurgans began from it, from the Azov seaside to the North-West Crimea. The question remains open why in the 5th – 4th centuries BC the overland route from the East Coast of Crimea to the North-West one was safer, and for whom it was more profitable than the overseas traffic but probably this refers to the migrant Scythians’ interests.

In the foothills, to the south of this road, the Ak-Kaya and Bash-Obin rows of Scythian royal kurgans burials in which date from about the middle of the 4th century BC are located. Already in the following century – in the 3rd century BC, and perhaps even earlier, the first settlement-fortress that claims to be named the first capital of late Scythians – the Ak-Kaya ancient settlement – emerges here in the East of Crimea. It is situated on a natural rocky hill which ends with a sheer cliff on three sides, and only from the one it slowly goes down to the valley of the Biyuk-Karasu River the old course of which runs under the sheer cliffs of the ancient settlement. From the side of the valley the ancient settlement was reinforced by stone walls, near the entrance a proteichisma was built which formed a peribolos with the main wall. It is not improbable that the famous events of Bosporan Kingdom’s further history involving Saumakos and the Scythian mercenaries are related to this Scythian ancient settlement.

At this time fundamental changes are taking place at the chora of Chersonese state – between the first and the second quarter of the 3rd century BC. Chersonese loses its entire distant chora in the North-West Crimea with the settlements on the coast, Kerkinitis, Kalos Limen – all these cities and settlements contain traces of fires of this time and the subsequent Scythian layers. The same feature is observed at the chora of Olbia as well, that was also when the life ceased at Scythian ancient settlements and communities of the Lower Dnieper region.

And already in the 2nd century BC in the central foothills near one of the longest Crimean rivers Salhyr a new capital of late Scythians emerges – Naples Scythian. Ancient written sources with the accounts of eyewitnesses at that time almost do not use the ethnonyms Tauri and Scythians more often using the term Tauri- Scythians, Scythian-Tauri for the population of mountains and foothills of Crimea. Pliny and Mela mention the Satarches among the Sarmatian tribes of Crimea. The pirate Satarchei are also known from the Naples epigraphy that dates back to no later than the 40s of the 2nd century BC. The Taphrii, the Satarkes, the Roxolani are mentioned in the sources as well. The latter are known as the allies of late Scythians in the struggle with the Chersonese-Pontus forces. Strabo and Stephanus of Byzantium mention the Crimean Scythian settlements Palakii and Napit associated with the Scythian legend about the brothers Pal and Nap but it’s  impossible to localize them on the ground exactly.

Researchers of the late Scythian culture argue that events concerning the forming of the late Scythian state in Crimea in the 2nd century BC are related to the moving of population from the chora of Olbia, the Lower Dnieper region and Transnistria from the North of Pontus to the peninsula, while the mixed Tauri-Scythian population of the peninsula of the 4th-3rd centuries BC went to the mountains at this time. However, general trends for the whole Barbarian population of the peninsula and powerful processes of Hellenization which are observed both in the capital of late Scythians Naples and in the distant mountain villages enable to confirm that at this time the whole Barbarian population of Crimea was involved in the activities of late Scythian dynasts.

Who created the Crimean Scythia?
Zubar VM, Son NA 2007. North-Western Black Sea Coast in Antiquity, MAIET, Supplementum, 3.

At the same time the Chersonese state, starting from the second quarter of the 2nd century BC, enters the protracted crisis related to the loss of possessions in the North-West Crimea because of Barbarian raids and desolation of the near chora at the Herakleian Peninsula. Moreover, in the North-West Crimea in the place of ancient settlements in the second half of the 2nd century BC the late Scythian fortresses emerge. In general, during the period of rise of the late Scythian kingdom in Crimea around 50 ancient settlements emerged there the largest of which were Kermen-Kir, Bulganak, Ust-Alma, let alone the already called Ak-Kaya and Naples Scythian (Kermenchik).

A short break in the Scythians’ raids on Chersonese connected with the treaty of the latter in 179 BC with the king of Pontus Pharnaces I changed by active military actions related to the king Skilurus. It is likely that he was not a simple dynast as it was he who managed to unify the scattered Scythian tribes and create the early national union with the signs of dynastic monarchy – the first state formed by the local population of Crimea. His ruling dates back to about the 50s-40s of the 2nd century BC. This period is associated not only with the active military actions against Chersonese. It is likely that Skilurus traditionally had the allied relations with Bosporan Kingdom. Stamping of Skilurus’ coins in Olbia may be indicative of the probability of his protectorate over this ancient centre or at least of friendly relations with him and some assistance against the raids of other Barbarian tribes which were freely traversing steppe after the disappearance of Steppe Scythia. It is probable that this tribal alliance also included the ancient settlements of the Lower Dnieper region as the way of construction of their fortifications, architecture techniques and buildings are generally similar to Naples Scythian. In the times of Skilurus Naples becomes a powerful urban centre. He invites the Hellenes to his centre, and under their guidance the public use facilities and temples are built in Naples, the city copies the planning peculiar to the Greek polis, the Scythian elite adopts Greek traditions and Greek cults, studies the Greek writing. It is likely that the Greeks were also among Skilurus’ military commanders, this is about one of them Posideus, son of Posideus, that won a victory over the pirate Satarchei in one of the epigraphic monuments of Naples.

The mortuary rite of late Scythians of the 2nd – the first half of the 1st centuries BC differs both from the previous Barbarian burial grounds of Crimea and from the necropoleis of the next period. These are mainly the ground necropoleis with the burial structure – a sepulchre. The rite itself and the burial structure remained traditional. Although Skilurus’ and Pallik’s images on the famous relief from their mausoleum are made in the Hellenic manner, the tombs and sarcophagi in the mausoleum remained in Scythian traditions.

Having occupied the North-West Crimea and established the protectorate over Olbia, Skilurus began systematic military actions against Chersonese, perhaps, also for the purpose of establishing the protectorate and tribute relations. Trying to counter the Scythians’ aggression and realizing that in the event of a crisis the polis lost almost its entire chora, Chersonese turned to the only remaining ally, – the king of Pontus Mithridates VI Eupator. The beginning of Chersonese-Scythian wars dates back to 114/113 BC, their most active part is represented in the Decree honoring Diophantus – a general sent by Mithridates to help Chersonese. Being at the head of Chersonese forces, Diophantus crossed the bay to the other shore which is called the North Side in Sevastopol now, where, having been attacked by Palacus’ troop, he defeated it and forced to run away. Diophantus liberated the fortress Ktenunt and later forced a Scythian fortress Palacium in which some researchers see the Ust-Alma ancient settlement. On the occasion of this victory in 113 Diophantus, having subdued the surrounding Tauri, founds a city and names it after the king of Pontus Eupatorium. Diophantus’ second campaign into the inland of Scythia led to the downfall of a Scythian city Habei and the capital of Naples, it is likely that the fortress Napit was also forced then. As a result of this victory the Scythians bent to Mithridates but already in a year, in 112 BC, they denied the king of Pontus, having formed an alliance with the Roxolani tribe and their king Tasius. In autumn of the same year Diophantus came back to Tauris and together with the Chersonesites began the second campaign against the Scythian fortresses. However, bad weather made him go round to the north, capture Kerkinitis and encompass Kalos Limen. But defenders of Kalos Limen sturdily defended their fortress, later it was taken by the separate Chersonese troop. In spring 111 BC Palacus together with Tasius attacked Diophantus, however, somewhere at the plains of the North-West Tauris in the result of a great battle he was crushingly defeated, and in consequence of that almost the entire Scythian army was destroyed. After this victory Diophantus passed through the Scythian possessions, captured Naples and Habei for the second time and established the Scythians’ vassalage from Mithridates. It is believed that Palacus escaped, and the new rulers of Crimean Scythia agreed to their vassal status.

In fact, the purely Scythian history of Crimean Scythia ends with these events, and the story of confrontation between the Pontus and the Roman Empire begins that ended with the latter’s victory. From the beginning of the 1st century BC the military grouping of Asian Bosporus and North Caucasus begins to make an impact on the Scythian elite. Descendants of the late Scythian dynasts took part in Bosporus’ wars in the 1st century BC. After the middle of the 1st century BC the next waves of population of the North-West Black Sea coastal area started migrating to Tauris. And after the late Scythian settlements of the Foothill and West Crimea were destroyed by the Bosporan king Aspurgus that had attacked together with the Sarmatians, the Crimean Scythia fell under the Bosporus’ power, and Sarmatian features began to prevail in the local culture.

However, the history of Crimean Scythia and its capital – Naples – did not end with the end of the Scythians’ history. Having survived the invasion of many different peoples during the first centuries of the new era, in the 4th century AD all this population became a part of the Goth-Alan tribal confederation, and later a new state Theodoro – Crimean Gothia emerged there.


PhD, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Head of the Inkerman expedition (Institute of Archaeology of NAS of Ukraine)

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

The project was implemented with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation

Evelyna Kravchenko

Candidate of Historical Sciences, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Archeology of the NAS of Ukraine, Head of the Inkerman Expedition of IA NASU

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: