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Olbia: The Ancient Greek Settlement on the Black Sea Coast

Olbia Black Sea
Nestled near the Black Sea spit, Olbia stands as one of the largest Ancient Greek settlements in the region. Credit: Yara shark / CC-BY-SA-4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Nestled near the Black Sea spit, Olbia stands as one of the largest Ancient Greek settlements in the region. Located in southern Ukraine, Olbia’s closest neighbor is the city of Mykolaiv, which is approximately twenty-five miles away. This ancient settlement has a rich history that dates back to the 6th century BC.

Once a thriving center of trade and craftsmen, Olbia was visited by the ancient Greek Historian Herodotus. One of Alexander the Great‘s generals also attempted to capture it. Today, it is a little-known, unique archaeological site with a rich history, including difficult times of war.

Face and Treasures of Ancient Greek Settlement

Olbia was lucky enough to have the meticulous layout of an ancient city. It followed the urban planning system devised by Greek architect Hippodamus, who was also responsible for the design of Alexandria.

The main square, the agora, was a bustling hub for citizens, merchants, poets, musicians, and philosophers. In the center, a grand building hosted both markets and religious ceremonies. The central quarter surrounding the square also housed a theater, gymnasium, court, and parliament.

The inhabitants of this settlement held deep reverence for its sanctuaries, including the temples of Zeus and Apollo Delphinius, located in a sacred precinct near the main square.

This archeological site boasts the water supply system of the northern Black Sea coast. It includes well-preserved water tanks and remnants of a stone gutter used to transport water to households through a siphon.

Within Olbia’s reserve lies a dedicated museum and multiple archaeological structures. Among these are fortress walls, residential quarters, the Roman citadel, temenos areas, and burial crypts.

Olbia sea view
Olbia’s economy thrived through both agriculture and trade. Credit: Yara shark / CC-BY-SA-4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Years of excavations in Olbia have unearthed numerous highly artistic artifacts now displayed in museums worldwide. These include the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Odessa Archaeological Museum, the Kyiv National History Museum, the London Museum, the Louvre, and the Berlin Museum.

Center of Farming and Trade

Olbia, situated in a region blessed with fertile land, was not solely centered around its main settlement but extended its farming settlements up to around six to nine miles from the city. These settlements engaged in agricultural production, cultivating grains such as barley, wheat, millet, and legumes, and raising animals.

However, Olbia’s economy thrived not only through agriculture but also trade. The city established extensive trade networks, connecting with neighboring Scythians, Sarmatians, and distant Greek city-states such as Athens and Corinth.

Goods traded included agricultural products, dried fish, textiles and ceramics from various origins, including Rhodes and Chios. In addition to these spheres, Olbia was famous for its pottery, metallurgy, weaving, and fishing industries.

Olbia’s Dolphin Coins Connected to Greek Mythology

Olbia’s role as a trade center is further supported by archaeological evidence, notably its distinctive arrowhead-shaped coins produced in the sixth century BC. While some argue these coins were Olbian, others believe they were of Thracian or Scythian origins.

The arrowhead design possibly symbolized Apollo, the deity linked to archery and javelin throw, who was worshiped by Olbia’s founders, the Milesians.

Olbia as a City-State

Olbia, being a republic with a slave-owning society, featured a political system comprised of legislative and executive branches. The People’s Assembly and council exercised legislative authority, ruling on foreign policy, state defense, and various domestic matters.

The council functioned as a preliminary discussion forum for significant state issues, which were then brought before the People’s Assembly. This body also oversaw the executive branch, administered public examinations for candidates seeking office, and managed finances and coinage.

The End of Olbia

Due to its status as a prominent trade hub, Olbia faced numerous conquest attempts throughout its history. In the third century BC, Alexander the Great’s general, Zopyrion, besieged the city. Evidence of these events remains in the charred ruins near the western gate in the form of archaeological finds.

Subsequently, Olbia became a Scythian protectorate and suffered a sack by the Getae during the 1st century AD. Eventually, it became part of the Roman Empire. However, the Gothic Wars led to Olbia’s decline, and by the fifth century AD, the city was abandoned.


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