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Pontic Olbia: Greek and Scythian

Greeks and Scythians were different cultures, my most recent coin comes from the intersection of these cultures 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)

Olbia or Pontic Olbia is 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’s location was established in 1790s and excavations began in 1901. (4)

Terrace of Olbia overlooking the River Bug (Hypanis) (4)

Location of Olbia on a modern map.

A Sythian coin from Olbia

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)

The reverse 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.


  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

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