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Ancient Greek City of Chersonesus in Crimea Founded 2,500 Years Ago

chersonesus ancient greek crimea ukraine
The ruins of Chersonesus, an ancient Greek city located in Crimea, which was once in Ukraine. The site is included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. Credit: Dmitry A Motti/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

The UNESCO – listed city of Chersonesus, located on the southwestern part of the Crimean peninsula — now part of Russia after its 2014 invasion of the area — was an ancient Greek colony founded approximately 2,500 years ago.

Settlers from Heraclea Pontica in Bithynia established the colony, called Χερσόνησος in ancient Greek, in Crimea way back in the 6th century BC. In 2013 UNESCO listed Chersonesus as a World Heritage Site for Ukraine; now, after the Russian invasion of Crimea, it is part of the Russian Federation.

The ancient city on the shore of the Black Sea, on the outskirts of the present-day city of Sevastopol, is part of the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos, which enshrines the history of the entire Crimean Peninsula. The name Chersonesos itself in Greek means “peninsula” and it aptly describes the site on which the colony was established.

Oath of Chersonesos evidence of ancient Greek democratic ideals

The Greeks settled and came to rule over the area which was originally occupied by native Scythians and a people called the Tauri. During much of the classical period Chersonesus operated as an ancient Greek-style democracy, ruled by a group of elected Archons and a council called the Demiurgoi. As time passed, however, the government grew more oligarchic, with power concentrated in the hands of the archons.

A form of oath sworn by all the citizens from the 3rd century BC onward has incredibly survived to the present day. According to the historical website Chersonesus.org, the oath is as follows:

“I swear by Zeus, Gaia, Helios, Parthenos, the Olympian gods and goddesses, and all the heroes who protect the polis, chora, and forts of the people of Chersonesos:

“I shall act in concord (with my fellow citizens) on behalf of the protection and freedom of the polis and its citizens.

“I shall not betray to anyone whomsoever, whether Greek or barbarian, Chersonesos, Kerkinitis, Kalos Limen, the other forts, and the rest of the chora, which the people of Chersonesos inhabit or inhabited. But I shall carefully guard all of these for the demos (the people) of Chersonesos.

“I shall not put down democracy. I shall neither rely upon nor help conceal either traitor or subverter, but I shall reveal them to the damiourgoi (magistrates) in the city.

“I shall oppose anyone who plots against, betrays or revolts from Chersonesos, Kerkinitis, Kalos Limen, the forts, and the chora of the people of Chersonesos.

“I shall hold the office of damiourgos; I shall be, to the best of my ability and with the greatest fairness, a councilor to the city and its citizens.

“I shall guard carefully the ΣАΣТНРА for the demos; and I shall not reveal to either a Hellene or barbarian any secret which is likely to harm the city.

“I shall neither offer nor accept a gift to harm the polis and its citizens.

“I shall not contrive with evil intention against any citizen who has not revolted (from Chersonesos); I shall neither rely upon one who plots (against the city) nor conceal anything from anyone, but I shall lay an impeachment and determine the matter by vote according to the laws.

“I shall pledge my oath to a conspiracy against neither the commonwealth of the people of Chersonesos nor any citizen who has not been shown to be an enemy of the demos.

“If I conspire with anyone and am bound by oath or solemn curse, may it be better for me and my possessions if I am reconciled (to the state), but the opposite if I stand fast (to the conspiracy).

“I shall report to the demiourgoi any conspiracy which I perceive to exist already or to be forming.

“Neither shall I sell grain suitable for exportation which comes from the plain, nor export grain from the plain to another place, except to Chersonesos.

“Zeus, Gaia, Helios, Parthenos, and the Olympian gods, as long as I abide by these covenants, may it be better for me, my family, and my possessions. But if I do not abide, may it be ill for me, my family, and my possessions; may neither the earth nor the sea bear their fruit for me; may the women not be happy in children…”

As chersonesus.org points out, the oath is not only an invaluable historical record of how political figures were expected to act according to the mores of those times; it also depicts the borders of Chersonesos. The city-state included not only Chersonesos itself but also “Kerkinitis (located in present-day Yevpatoriya), Kalos Limen (the modern town of Chernomorskoye), several forts and lands in the west coast of the Crimea, and the nearby farming area” on the peninsula.

Perhaps most interestingly, the Oath “mentions not only usual triad of deities (Zeus, Gaia, and Helios), but also the goddess Parthenos, the great protector of the city and the state,” the website notes, which is indicative of the economic importance of the grain grown in the plains nearby, which was exported through the port of Chersonesos.

Learn more: The Most Important Ancient Greek Colonies

Some historians believe that the Oath was introduced after a political struggle and restoration of democracy that had been lost for a time, leading to the citizens having to swear to protect their democracy from treason and to defend the frontiers “from both Hellenes and barbarians,” it notes.

Unfortunately, the meaning of the term ΣАΣТНРА remains unclear to this day.

Chersonesos in Crimea one of many ancient Greek colonies ranging from western Mediterranean to the Black Sea

After defending itself against the Bosporan Kingdom, and the native Scythians and Tauri, and even extending its power over the west coast of the peninsula, the city of Chersonesos had to ask for military aid from Mithradates VI and his general Diophantus, around 110 BC, submitting to the Bosporan Kingdom.

The city in Crimea that had been one of the ancient Greek colonies that spanned from modern-day Spain in the west to the Sea of Azov in the East then became part of the Roman Empire, hosting a garrison for troops from the middle of the 1st century BC until the 370s AD, when it was captured by the nomadic people known as the Huns.

Part of Byzantium during the Early Middle Ages, the city withstood a siege by the Göktürks in the year 581. However, it enjoyed a great deal of self-rule under the Byzantine Emperors; its small imperial garrison was there more for the town’s protection than for its control.

Chersonesos was useful to Byzantium as an outpost from which to keep an eye on the barbarian tribes that could sweep in from the steppes at any time, and its isolation made it a popular place of exile for those who angered Roman, and later Byzantine, rulers. Incredibly, it hosted Pope Clement I and Pope Martin I, as well as the deposed Byzantine Emperor Justinian II, during its storied history.

Chersonesus coin
Greek coin from the ancient Greek colony of Chersonesos in Crimea showing the ruler Diotimus. From the second century BC. Credit: Vlad Fedchenko/Public Domain

According to Theophanes the Confessor and others, Chersonesus was the residence of a Khazar governor (tudun) in the late 7th century. Between approximately 705 and 840, the city’s affairs were managed by elected officials called babaghuq, meaning “fathers of the city.”

In the year 833, the Emperor Theophilus sent the nobleman Petronas Kamateros, who had recently overseen the construction of the Khazar fortress of Sarkel, to take direct control over the city and its environs.

The area remained in Byzantine hands until the 980s, when historians believe it fell to Kiev. Some historians believe it became the scene of an important turning point in the spread of Christianity after  Vladimir the Great agreed to leave the fortress only if Basil II’s sister Anna Porphyrogeneta was given him in marriage.

The demand understandably caused a scandal in Constantinople; as a pre-condition for the marriage, Vladimir was baptized as a Christian here in the year 988, thus paving the way for the growth of Christianity among the entire Kievan Rus’ people. Thereafter Korsun’ was evacuated.

Since this campaign is not recorded in Greek sources, however, some believe that the account actually refers to the events of the Rus’–Byzantine War (1043) and to a different Vladimir.

Chersonesos basilica
The “1935 Basilica” in the ancient Greek city of Chersonesos, in Crimea, was built on the site of a number more of ancient religious structures. Credit: Dmitry A. Motti/ CCBY SA 3.0

Most of the historical treasures looted by the Slavs in what they called Korsun’ made their way to Novgorod (perhaps by way of Joachim the Korsunian, the first Novgorodian bishop, as his surname indicates ties to Korsun), where they were preserved in the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom until the 20th century. One of the most interesting items from this “Korsun Treasure” is the copper Korsun Gate, supposedly captured by the Novgorodians in Korsun’ — now part of St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.

After the Fourth Crusade, which took place between 1202 to 1204, Chersonesus became dependent on the Byzantine Empire of Trebizond (Trabzon) as the Principality of Theodoro. After the Siege of Trebizond in 1461 the Principality of Theodoro became independent.

The city fell under Genoese control in the early 13th century, a development which was particularly galling for the Greek people in that they forebade Greeks to trade there. In 1299, the town was sacked by the Mongol armies of Nogai Khan’s Golden Horde.

Byzantine sources last mention Chersonesus as a city in 1396; based on archaeological evidence the historic city is presumed to have been abandoned in the following decades.

The archbishopric of Chersonesus disappeared as an entity after the Turkish conquest in 1475 and the destruction of the city.

Centuries later, the gleaming Saint Vladimir Cathedral was built in the 19th century in the Byzantine Revival style; intended to commemorate the exact place where the ruler was baptized, it was completed in 1892, and still overlooks the ruins of the ancient city.

The ruins were excavated by archaeologists working under the Russian government beginning in 1827. They are protected as an archaeological park today.

The buildings mix influences of Greek, Roman and Byzantine culture. The defensive wall was approximately 3.5 kilometres (2.2 mi) long, 3.5 to 4 metres wide and 8 to 10 metres high with towers at a height of 10 to 12 metres. The walls enclosed an area of about 30 hectares (74 acres).

Some of the spectacular buildings there include a Roman amphitheater and a Greek temple. The fact that the site has not been inhabited since the 14th century makes it an important representation of Byzantine life as it was in those times.

The remains of wine presses and defensive towers are still seen in the surrounding farmlands. According to archaeologists, evidence suggests that the local people were paid to do farm work; they were not enslaved.

One aspect of life in Chersonesus is seen in the fact that the tombstones there are for each individual person instead of an entire family, as is the case in ancient Greece. Disturbingly, in over half of the tombs archaeologists have found the bones of children; burned ruins are evidence that the city was plundered and destroyed.

In 2017, archaeologists discovered fragments of an ancient Greek altar with figures of gods near Chersonesus.

The “1935 basilica” is the most famous building excavated in Chersonesus. Since its original name is unknown, its name refers to the year it was discovered. The basilica was likely built in the 6th century on the site of an earlier temple, itself replacing a small temple dating from the early days of Christianity.

The basilica is often used as an image representing Chersonesos; its image appears on a Ukrainian banknote.

Chersonesus listed as UNESCO site in 2013; Crimea annexed by Russia the next year

The Institute of Classical Archaeology of the University of Texas at Austin and the local Archaeological Park has been in charge of investigating the site since 1992.

In 2013, “The Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese and its Chora” was finally listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

During the 2014 Crimean crisis, the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia, but UNESCO has maintained that it will continue to recognize Crimea and its heritage sites as belonging to Ukraine.

The encroachment of modern building in and around the ancient archaeological site, located just outside modern Sevastopol, coupled with a lack of funding to prevent such development pressures, has led to the ancient Greek site of Chersonesus in Crimea being considered “at risk.”

In an October 2010 report titled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, Global Heritage Fund identified Chersonesus as one of 12 worldwide sites most “On the Verge” of irreparable loss and destruction, citing insufficient management and development pressures as primary causes.

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