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FORVM`s Classical Numismatics Discussion Board  |  Numism  |  Reading For the Advanced Collector  |  Topic: Olbia - the Happy 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Tribunus Plebis Perpetuus
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Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat.

« on: September 22, 2009, 04:53:24 pm »

Olbia - The Happy

Recently I came across Dion of Prusa and his Oratio 36, the Borysthenean, which I highly appreciate. This is the cause to post an article about this Greek city in Sarmatia at the Northern coast of the Black Sea, from the edge of the ancient civilisation, so to say.

1st coin:
Sarmatien, Olbia, 5th-4thcentury BC
AE, 1.01g, max. 21.2mm
Leaping dolphin with dorsal fin and protrusing eye.
ref. SNG BM 367; SGCV 1684 var.
One of the earliest coins of Olbia. Initially probably used as votive gifts for Apollon Delphinios.

2nd coin:
Thrace, Olbia, c.300-260 BC
AE 21, 12.40g
obv.: Bearded and horned head of the river-god Borysthenes, l.
rev. OLBIO
Battle Axe (sceptre?) and bow-case
in l. field LE
ref. SNG BM Blacksea 496; SNG Copenhagen 85 var. (monogram); Karyshkovsky cf.41
VF, well centred, brown patina
Borysthenes was the ancient name of the river Dnjepr and the city of Olbia too. Together with the river Bug the Dnjepr opens in the Black Sea through the same Liman. In the 4th century the river was called Latin Danapris which is the origin of his recent name (Ucrainian Dnipro). Later the Dnjepr became one of the most important rivers of the Vikings or Varangians, who founded the city of Kiev at his banks.
The orator and philosopher Dion of Prusa draws in his 'Borysthenean Oration' a fascinating image of the city of Olbia and and a human society, which is influenced by Stoic and Platonic ideas

3rd coin:
Thrace, Olbia, Koson, c.40-29 BC.
AV - Stater, 8.39g, 20.4mm
obv. The Roman consul L.Junius Brutus, togate, advancing l., accompanied by two
        lictores carrying their fasces over the r. shoulder.
        in l. field BA
        in ex KOSWN
rev. Eagle with opened wings stg. on sceptre l., holding wreath in r. talon
ref. Iliescu 1; RPC I, 1701; BMC Thrace p.208, 2; BMCRR II p.474, 48
The obv. is inspired from the famous denarius Crawford 433/1 of M.J.Brutus 54 V
BC, the rev. copies the denarius Crawford 398/1 of Q.Pomponius Rufus 73 BC.
I can't go into details of this type which was known already to Erasmus of Rotterdam. Only this: The rev. with the eagle recurs on coins of Olbia, leading to the opinion that this coin was struck in Olbia too. Look at the next coin of Alexander Severus!

4th coin:
Sarmatia, Olbia, Severus Alexander, AD 222-235
AE 23, 7.24g
obv. AVT KM AVR CEOV ALEZAN - DROC (AV of AVR and V A ligate)
      Laureate head r.
      Eagle with opened wings stg. facing on thunderbolt, head with wreath in beak turned l., I
      between feet, r. beside head Delta     
ref. SNG Copenhagen 114; SNG Stancomb 949-950; Zograph pl. 34, 19
rare, VF+, excentric
London Coin Auction, Lot 259
A similar coin at M&M auction 15, 12 Oct. 2004. There the I between feet called altar in error. The rev. is very similar to the rev. of the famous Koson stater, which is an argument that the stater was struck in Olbia too.

The Greek cities at the Northern coast of the Black Sea were founded in the course of the especially Milesian colonisation which began in the middle of the 7th century BC  and enlarged in the 6th century BC. The Milesian colony Olbia, called 'the Happy', was one of the most important centres of the region and played an important role in the history of the northern Pontos. It was located in the present Ucraine, at the right bank of the Hypanis (river Bug) and at the mouth of the Borysthenes (Dnjepr, Ukrainic Dnipro) which together open into the Dnipro-Bug-Liman, a kind of lagoon. It was a prosperous trading town and the most important grain city of the 5th century BC (therefore 'the Happy'). It was at the same time the basis of the river navigation into the heart of the country and important for the mutual influences of Greeks and Barbarians. Initially a settlement on the peninsula Berezan (named after the river Borysthenes) was founded, then Olbia on the mainland 40km northwardly situated. In the first time Berezan was the harbour of Olbia, like Piraeus was the harbour of Athens, and the emporion (trade centre) of Olbia. In the 5th century BC Olbia built an own harbour.

Olbia's main gods were Apollon Ietros, about whom we know not much, and Apollon Delphinios. His cult was provided by the council of the Molpoi, whose leader not only was the high priest but the urban eponym too. Already in the first half of the 6th century BC a local coinage was introduced in the shape of cast arrowheads, and then from c.550 BD the famous Olbian coins in shape of small cast Bronze dolphins, which in the first time probably served as votive gifts for Apollon Delphinios. Olbia expanded quickly, especially by agrarian settlements in the hinterland, the chora of Olbia, and along the waterfront of the liman.

The golden age of Olbia surely was the 5th - 3rd century BC. At the beginning of the century the realm of the Scyths was consolidated and has successfully repelled the campaign of the Persian king Dareios. Subsequently the Scyths conquered the agriculture tribes of the forest steppe region and reached in 496 BC even to the Thracian Chersones. This has a strong impact on Olbia which fought back against the Scyths. The chora shrinked and Olbia circumvalleted the city with walls which Herodotos still has seen. In 480 Scyths and Thracians signed a peace treaty and the situation calmed down. Olbia betook itself under the protectorate of the Royal Scyths, probably against tribute payment. Olbia itself was reigned by a tyrant and coins were struck with symbols of the city. This was nevertheless a periode of commercial boom. The number of inhabitants was increasing, the commercial activities were growing. Apollon Delphinios got a big temple. Inscribed plates with the name of Dionysos prove that Olbia  was one of the earliest centres of the Orphics and that Dionysos played a prominent role in this cult.

In 4th century BC profound revolutions occurred: Olbia apparently succeeded in emancipating from the Scythian protectorate and to free from the tyrannis. The cult of Zeus Eleutherios was introduced from whom several vowing inscriptions were found. At this time the chora was restored again. The new sovereignty was evidenced among others by the large expansion of the walls. An important event was the unsuccessful siege of Olbia by Zopyrion, governor of Alexander the Great. To achieve this the Olbiopolites had released their slaves, granted their civil right to strangers and cancelled debts. So they could overcome the enemy. This success led to Olbia's last and greatest prosperity. The tremendous economic boom caused the inflow of Barbarians to the city. On the agora a big stoa was built, in the southern city the ensemble of the gymnasion, and the impressive water system was expanded further. 
In the middle of the 3rd century this flowering came to an end. The settlements of the chora were destroyed by nomadizing barbarians and the relations to the peaceful agrarian tribes were interrupted. The public finances were disordered and a shortness of food occurred. The city fight against it with public purchases of grain (sitony) and distribution of gratuitous bread (sitometry). The demonetization and the introduction of cheap copper coins seem to have aggravated the situation. In the middle of the 2nd century BC the situation stabilized a bit which can be seen by the issue of silver coins. Probably this was due to king Pharnakes of Pontos who gave military help to the poleis at the Black Sea coast. But after the middle of the century Olbia again was pressed hard by local barbaric tribes, so that it has to contact the Mixhellenes - probably hellenized Scyths living in the neighbourhood - for help. Again Olbia lost its independence. Now the protector was Skiluros, the ruler of the Crimean Scyths. He used the Olbian fleet not only for his own export but to fight the pirates too to the benefit of Olbia. After the death of Skiluros his son was defeated by Mithridates Eupator and Olbia was incorporated in the Pontic Empire. Because Mithridates was occupied by his war against the Romans he left Olbia to its fate. In 55 BC Olbia was captured by the Getians under king Burebista and burned down. However it still existed scaled-down because the Scyths need it as trade center. 

Now Olbia was a small settlement. On the destroyed area cattle was held. In this bad situation Olbia searched for shelter by the Romans. It sent a delegation to Moesia. Under Tiberius rich Olbiopolites started with consecrations of buildings to the emperor. Beginning with Claudius (41-54 AD) a coinage existed again. Nero finally relocated an auxiliary troop to Olbia. New city walls were erected and in the chora fortified villages were built. But the city again obtained a barbaric protectorate, now by the Sarmatian Aorsi (Alanorsi) whose king Pharzoios issued gold coins until the time of Domitian. Under Trajan the monetary system was changed to the Roman system. Under Hadrian Olbia became civitas foederata, and the emperor charged the Bosporan king Kotys II with the protection of Olbia. Under Antoninus Pius a campaign took place of the Roman army in Moesia against the Tauroscyths who constantly has threatened Olbia. The Roman soldiers, between them many Thracians, brought the worship of the Thracian rider-god to Olbia.

For the last time Olbia boomed under the Severans.  Under Severus Olbia was incorporated in the province Moesia inferior. The trade, especially with the other Black Sea cities and Miletos, flourished. In AD 198 thermae were built and new temples, among others for Serapis and Isis. The old cult of Apollon Delphinos vanished and was replaced by the cult of Apollon Prostates, the guardian of the city. His own priests had the Zeus Olbios and a remarkable boom in the 2nd-3rd century AD gained the Achilleus cult. The connection between Achilleus and the Scyths is still discussed. May be that it is one of the founder myths by which the Greeks raised a claim to the land which they wanted to colonize.

After the death of Severus Alexander in AD 235 the coinage came to an end and the final decay of Olbia began. So the shared silver coin is one of the last coins of Olbia. Until the time of Diocletian the Romans had a garrison in the city helping to withstand the first Gothic Invasion. But the second Gothic Invasion AD 269/70 sealed the downfall of Olbia. Even the life on Berezan and in the villages of the Olbian chora went out. That was the end of Olbia, the Happy, after almost thousand years at the edge of the ancient world.

Because Olbia never was overbuilt it belongs to the best explored ancient locations of the Black Sea coast. Until now each excavation season brings new spectacular discoveries, especially of epigraphic kind. Noteworthy are the submarine rersearches of the last time (look at 'transgression oft the northern Black Sea coast'!). But what could only be shortly interrupted by two world wars and the Russian Revolution is today threatened by the financial emergency of the Ukraine. But worst are the criminal diggers who are looting Olbia in greatest style and well organized. In 2000/2001 1800qm of the polis alone and 10000 of the nekropolis. A tragedy not only affecting Olbia but the entire classical studies (Balbina Bäbler).

I have added a map of the Black Sea Region so that you can get an idea of the location of Olbia.

- Balbina Bäbler, Der Schauplatz des Borysthenitikos; das antike Olbia, in Dion von Prusa,
  Menschliche Gemeinschaft und göttliche Ordnung: Die Borysthenes-Rede, 2003 WBG
- Wikipedia
Best regards

* olbia_SGCV1684var.jpg (30.53 KB, 369x250 - viewed 155 times.)

* olbia_SNGblacksea496.jpg (48.81 KB, 750x382 - viewed 11 times.)

* koson_iliescu1.jpg (32.3 KB, 528x256 - viewed 155 times.)

* olbia_sev_alexander_SNGstancomb249.jpg (56.35 KB, 743x356 - viewed 14 times.)

* Ancient_Greek_Colonies_of_N_Black_Sea.JPG (52.24 KB, 675x424 - viewed 12 times.)

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Posts: 1129

Every coin is sacred, every coin is great.

« Reply #1 on: September 22, 2009, 05:18:01 pm »

really really nice write up as usual!

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Posts: 1178

Hope for the best but prepare for the worst

« Reply #2 on: September 22, 2009, 11:02:35 pm »

Fascinating, as usual an excellent post. I have one of the Koson gold staters and I have never read anything that links them to Olbia, but put in this context it makes perfect sense.

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