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Tyras - from the edge of the ancient world


Dear friends of ancient history!

Already for a long time I have had a strong interest in the Greek cities of the northern Black Sea coast. The following coin, which is rare like all coins of Tyras, gives me the opportunity to write something about Tyras.

The coin:
Sarmatia, Tyras, Antoninus Pius, AD 138-161.
AE 16, 2.54g, 15.87mm, 0°.
          Bust, laureate, r. 
Rev.: [T]YPA - N - ΩN
          Herakles, nude, standing facing, head r., leaning with his right hand on his club,
          holding over outstretched left arm the lion's skin and in left hand the apples of
          the Hesperides.
Ref.: AMNG I/1, pl.XII, 25 (Giel, same die); SNG Copenhagen 117; RPC Online IV,
         no. 3672 (temp.).
rare, almost VF, dark green patina

(1) The legend on the obv. is in the accusative of the external object, which is rarely used on coins. Add for instance ["The inhabitants of Tyras celebrate, honour] the Emperor Antoninus Pius"
(2) "The coastal areas of the Black Sea up to the mouth of the Borysthenes" was originally planned for the volume AMNG I/2. In 1904, the Royal Academy of Sciences handed over the material collected for this work to His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia. However, this work has never been published. Thus, although there is an illustration of this coin in AMNG I/1, there is no description.
(3) Christian Giel (1837-1909) was a German educator and numismatist and numismatist in Russia.

Tyras (Latin Tyra) was a Greek city on the northern Black Sea coast about 80km southwest of Olbia.

It was situated on the right bank of the river of the same name (today's Dnister, Russian: Dnjestr) about 10km from its mouth. Before flowing into the Black Sea, the Tyras forms a liman, a kind of large lagoon (see below "Geographical Notes").

Tyras was founded in the 6th century BC by Milesian settlers in an area inhabited by the indigenous Tyragetes (Tyragetae) tribe.  Further west, the Getae and Dacians settled. Tyras belonged to the ancient region of Sarmatia. Since Pomponius Mela, this was the name of the area inhabited by the Sarmatians. In Herodotus it was still called σκυθικη χωρα (= Scythian land).

Tyras was first mentioned by Herodotus. Its history is only known in fragments.

Originally the city was called Ophiussa (= city of snakes). For a long time (until the middle of the 4th century) it was under the influence of the more powerful city of Histria. Only in the middle of the 4th century did it take on the characteristics of a typical Greek polis (Zograf, Blavatsky). Its name is probably of Thracian origin.

We know that the administrative system, the calendar and the religious cults were identical to those of Miletos. Thus there were 5 archons, a senate and a plenary assembly (Pauly).

Because of its favourable location, it played an important role in trade with the northern areas of the Black Sea and was probably a centre for trade in grain, fish and wine. Even the few inscriptions that exist mostly refer to trade. Of course, this also included trade in slaves.

Despite sufficiently documented trade relations with Athens in the 5th-4th centuries BC, it maintained a much more lively trade with the local tribes and other Pontic cities. Its own domain, however, was limited almost exclusively to the urban area.

In the 2nd century BC, Tyras came under the rule of native kings, whose names also appear on coins.
In the 1st century BC, the area was part of the Dacian Empire of Burebista.

Around 50 BC it was destroyed by the Getae. But in 56 AD it seems to have been restored by the Romans under Nero and from Domitian onwards it belonged to the province of Moesia inferior. With the Romans it was called Alba Julia.

After Trajan defeated the Dacians and established the province of Dacia, the city was protected by strong fortifications in the 2nd century and manned by legions of Legio I Italica, Legio V Macedonica and Legio XI Claudia. Because of its favourable location, it served as a base for the Roman fleet. A small unit of the Roman fleet, the Classis Flavia Moesica, was stationed in Tyras.

Coinage in Tyras began in the time of Domitian (81 AD) and continued with few interruptions until the end of the reign of Alexander Severus (235 AD). The coins of Tyras from this period were made of copper and showed portraits of the members of the imperial family. On the reverse of the coins, in addition to images of well-known Greek deities such as Herkcles, Dionysos, Athena, Demeter, Hermes and Nike, there is the image of the City Tyche. After 230 AD, the minting of coins ceased for unknown reasons - possibly due to a general crisis in the empire or due to wars caused by the invasions of the Goths and Huns.

Shortly after the death of Severus Alexander, Tyras was destroyed by the invasion of the Goths around AD 240. But archaeological finds show that the Romans had remained there until the end of the 4th century under Theodosius I. 

Later the Byzantines renamed the city, destroyed by barbarian invasions, Maurokastron "black fortress", which the Genoese made Moncastro.

In the Middle Ages it was known under the Greek name of Asprokastron. In the Middle Ages it was known by the Greek name Asprokastron (= "White Castle"). This name is confirmed until it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1484.

Only a few remains of the city have been preserved, as it was built over by the large medieval fortress of Maurokastron, later called Akkerman/Cetatea Alba.

The ruins of Tyras are now located in the modern town of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi in the Odessa region of Ukraine. Archaeological excavations at the foot of the fortress have been going on since 1900 until today.

It is noticeable that many names for Tyras refer to the colour white:
Asprokastron = White Castle (Greek).
Alba Iulia (Lat.)
Cetatea Alba = White Castle (Romanian)
Akkerman = White Castle (Turkish and Russian until 1944)
Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi = White City on the Dnistr (Ukrainian)
We know from other towns in Russia and the Ukraine that this is a reference to lime or chalk deposits. However, I have not been able to find out anything more about this.

Geographical motes:
The Dnistr (Russian: Dnjestr, Romanian: Nistru, Polish: Dniestr) rises at an altitude of 900m in the Ukrainian Forest Carpathians near the Ukrainian-Polish border. After 1352km it flows into the Black Sea in a liman.

A liman (from Greek λιμένας harbour, bay) is a lagoon-like beach lake that exists along the coast of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. These typical estuaries were formed by the rise of the sea level in the post-glacial period due to the flooding of valleys. They therefore always run perpendicular to the coastline. Due to the development of spits, they are cut off from the sea in large parts.

The Dnister-Liman, on which Tyras was situated, is a branch of the Dnister River. Its mouth is separated from the Black Sea by a wide (from 40 to 500 metres) sandbank (Buhas) and connected to it by the narrow Dnister Passage.

Pomponius Mela, died c. 45 AD, was a Roman geographer and cosmographer from Tingentera on the north shore of the Strait of Gibraltar. In the years 43-44 AD, he wrote De Chorographia, a description of the then known geographical world.

I have added
(1) Plan of the Black Sea region
(2) a pic of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskji with the Akkerman fortress. On the left is the excavation site of ancient Tyras. Photo: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

(1) Herodot, Historien
(2) Pomponius Mela, De Chorographia

(1) Aleksandr Zograph, Monetii Tirii, Moskau, 1957
(2) AMNG I/1 und I/2
(3) Peter G. Burbules (member of the Forum), Die antiken Münzen Griechenlands, Concordance of Images to Catalog Numbers Vol. I and I/II, 2001
(4) RE: Sarmatia
(5) Der Kleine Pauly
(6) Encyclopedia Britannica
(7) Gemoll, Griechisch-Deutsches Schul- und Handwörterbuch, 1954
(8) Adolf Kaegi, Kurzgefaßte griechische Schulgrammatik, 1957
(9) Wikipedia

I hope you enjoy this article

Very interesting, thanks for posting your research.

I wonder why it was called Alba Julia but still struck coins as Tyras?


Dear Shawn!

I think that's no problem. Tyras minted coins until the time of Severus Alexander and until then provincial coins were allowed in Greek-speaking cities. This was prohibited only under Diocletian, but by then Tyras was already destroyed. Until then, these cities themselves could decide on the legends and they were usually Greek and not Latin.

Best regards

The coinage in Tyras lasted untul Severus Alexander.. In this time provincial coinage ws allowed and the poleis decided


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