Military expedition of Diophantus in the Crimaea

1. Sources - Events

The events of the campaign are described in a votive inscription set up by the Deme of Chersonesus, in honour of Diophantus of Sinope, son of Asclepiodorus and general of Mithridates VI Eupator, placed on the marble pedestal of statue.1

The background to Diophantus’ campaign begins in 179 BC, when the citizens of Chersonesus Taurica entered into a pact with the king of Pontus Pharnaces I.2 The people of Chersonesus, facing the threat of a Scythian invasion, entered into this agreement, on the grounds that Pharnaces would offer them assistance should the neighbouring tribes become aggressive against the city or its hinterland.

The fears of the citizens of Chersonesus soon came true. The Scythians under the leadership of king Palacus, attacked an area belonging to the city, and soon Chersonesus lost all of its possessions in west Taurica. Under these circumstances, the people of Chersonesus sent for help to the Kingdom of Pontus, where since 111 BC Mithridates VI Eupator was ruling. In 110 BC Mithridates dispatched in Taurica a force of 6,000 hoplites, under the command of Diophantus, to defend Chersonesus.3 Mithridates’ intervention was aimed at establishing in the long run his rule over the northern coast of the Black Sea, which would afford him significant strategic advantages in his contest with Rome over ascendancy in Asia Minor. The following events are outlined in the text of the votive inscription.

Diophantus attacked the Scythians in the area of the north bay of what is modern Sevastopol. The Scythians were defeated and Palacus retreated into the steppe. To secure his rear, Diophantus subjugated the Taurians and founded a city in their lands, Eupatoria, close to the old Dorian colony of Cercinitis.4 Thence he moved towards the Bosporus, where “in a short period of time he achieved many things”, and then returned to Chersonesus. This passage of the votive inscription probably pertains to the settlement of the problems with the Scythians. According to a rather well-founded view, the first trip of Diophantus to Panticapaeum was aimed at thwarting joint military action between the Scythians and the Cimmerians of Bosporus in his rear. The fact that the state of Bosporus paid the Scythians a regular tribute could mean that there was an alliance between them.5 It is also thought that during his first visit to Bosporus, Diophantus managed to secure King Paerisades V’s promise that he will cede his throne to Mithridates,6 for Paerisades was in no position to face the barbarians without support. Having completed his mission in Taurica, Diophantus returned to Sinope with his troops.

Approximately a year later,7 the Scythians became once more aggressive against Chersonesus and recaptured the Scythian fortresses, which the people of Chersonesus and Diophantus had left ungarrisoned. Very soon, the Scythians also recaptured the whole of western Taurica, and Palacus laid siege to the city of Chersonesus. The garrison, left behind by Diophantus in Chersonesus, was surrounded by the Scythians in Cape Ctenous, close to the city, which was fortified with a fortress and moat. To eliminate the garrison, the Scythians attempted to fill the moat with reeds, to which the Greeks set fire at night. During the siege, the people of Chersonesus managed to construct a parapet which connected the city with the cape. Because the situation remained precarious, they were forced to call in Diophantus again. He returned to Taurica and Palacus was forced to lift the siege of Chersonesus. However, as winter was close, Diophantus decided to continue his operations in northwest Taurica, where he was mainly concerned with expelling the Scythians from Cercinitis and Kalos Limen,8 which belonged to Chersonesus. Diophantus recaptured Cercinitis, leaving the people of Chersonesus to lay siege to Kalos Limenas, which probably fell during the same winter.

Taking advantage of the fact that Diophantus’ forces were busy in western Taurica, Palacus managed to gather a great army and allied himself to the tribe of the Rhoxolani, who were ruled by king Tasius, an alliance which reinforced him with 50,000 more horsemen. In the battle that ensued, the Scythians were defeated by Diophantus.

After this victory, Diophantus returned to Chersonesus, and together with its army launched a campaign in central Taurica, forcing the Scythians to surrender their strongholds of Chabaei and Neapolis, and recognize Mithridates’ rule. Palacus again retreated into the steppe. What happened to him afterwards is unknown.

Following the end of the war against the Scythians, Diophantus returned to the Bosporus, where, according to the votive inscription, he “arranged matters in a manner advantageous to Mithridates”. This is obviously a reference to Paerisades’ cessation of his kingdom to Mithridates, which infuriated the Scythians in the court of the last Spartocid ruler, who were probably supported by Palacus. Thus, as Diophantus was busy conducting negotiations (i.e. after the spring of 107 BC),9 certain people in the entourage of the Scythian Saumacus rebelled, murdered King Paerisades and organized a conspiracy against Diophantus.10 He managed to escape to Chersoneus, where he begun assembling troops and warships, but was ultimately forced to await for reinforcements from Pontus. In the next year Diophantus managed to sail off for Bosporus and finally captured Theodosia followed by Panticapaeum;11 “having punished the inciters of the revolt he restored the rule of Mithridates Eupator”. The information supplied in the votive inscription can be supplemented by Strabo: when discussing the Cimmerian Bosporus he mentions an area, ruled by dynasts, “up to the time of Paerisades who ceded his rule to Mithridates”.12 It is believed that the Cimmerian Bosporus was under the rule of Saumacus for approximately a year.13 The details of this policy remain unknown.

2. Assessment

Diophantus’ campaign was in fact a twofold operation; it had a military and a diplomatic aspect. The military part of the campaign pertains to his operations against the Scythians, where he acted as a general. His diplomatic activity focused on the Cimmerian Bosporus with the aim at achieving the peaceful annexation of the Kingdom of Bosporus into that of Pontus. Both objectives were achieved. The Scythians were defeated and the Kingdom of Bosporus was ceded to Mithridates, notwithstanding some complications. As a general, Diophantus was forced to launch two campaigns instead of one. As a diplomat he failed to correctly asses the power of the dissenters in Bosporus and its internal political problems, being thus forced to resort to the force of arms instead of using purely diplomatic means.

If the military part of Diophantus’ mission is rather clear in its broad outlines, the same cannot be said for its diplomatic part. The vagueness of the votive inscription with respect to Saumacus allows room for speculation with respect to his role and the true nature of the revolt. The inscription is also silent on the identity of Saumacus, as it does not explain how the Scythians were found in Panticapaeum and why Paerisades abdicated. A formerly prevalent view was that Saumacus was a slave, and the events are interpreted as a slave rebellion. In this view, the word “εκθρέψαντος14 on the inscription was usually interpreted as an indication that Saumacus was a slave.15 A more cautious view has also been put forth; it challenges the relegation of Saumacus to the class of the slaves and considers this to be a Scythian revolt led by Saumacus and aimed at deposing the king of Bosporus.16 Few modern scholars doubt that Saumacus’ revolt was a coup, intended at thwarting the intended power transfer from Paerisades to Mithridates.17 Furthermore, no one doubts that this coup was motivated by the desire of the Scythians, and possibly sympathizers of Palacus, who had found their way into Panticapaeum to protect their interests.

Two suggestions have been made with respect to the presence of Scythians in Panticapeaum. The first18 is grounded on the fact that central Taurica was the main theatre of operations in this campaign, as it was there that the most important Scythian strongholds were located. The Scythians, as soon as they received news of the intended surrender of Bosporus to Mithridates, invaded Panticapaeum, under the leadership of Saumacus, who was probably of royal Scythian stock, to avert a shift in the balance of power. The second hypothesis19 argues for a permanent Scythian presence in Panticapaeum in the late 2nd cent. BC. It is much more convincing, for according to the votive inscription of Chersonesus, they appear to be in Panticapaeum at the same time as Diophantus. Furthermore, the inscription does not mention any Scythian invasion there. The word ‘εκθρέψαντος’ on the inscription really intimates that Saumacus belong to the court of the king of Bosporus.

The likelihood of Scythian presence in Panticapaeum and possible dynastic links between members of the Scythian royal family and the Bosporus royal house is reinforced by a dedicatory inscription of the late 2nd cent. BC, which refers to the daughter of the Scythian king Scillouros.20 That Saumacus belonged to the elite can also be seen in the fact that Diophantus did not punish him, like he did with the rest of the citizens that joined in the revolt, but simple expelled him to Sinope. It is very probable that Saumacus was related to the two royal houses. At any rate the events at Panticapaeum are strongly suggestive of a courtly coup, aimed at preventing the change of the status quo and the establishment of a ‘protectorate’ by Diophantus’ troops in the region.

As to the causes behind Paerisades’ cessation of power to Mithridates, one hypothesis correlates this to the fact that the king of Bosporus was heirless. However, this cannot be ascertained, and even if this were true, it would not suffice to explain it. Equally unfounded is the hypothesis that there were family ties between the dynasties of Bosporus and Mithridates, on the basis of which Mithridates could claim the throne of Bosporus. A more likely explanation was that Mithridates became master of Bosporus by right of force. The events that ensued proved that the Greek cities of the Black Sea, irrespective of their polities, one after the other recognized the rule of the king of Pontus. At any rate, the votive inscription in honour of Diophantus testifies that even the Scythians were forced to do the same, albeit temporarily. In fact, the only other option available to the Greek cities was to place themselves under the power of the Scythians. As a result of Diophantus’ campaign the Cimmerian Bosporus, Chersonesus, Taurica and later Olbia, that is, the entire are of the Black Sea, came under the rule of the king of Pontus.

Diophantus’ campaign was instrumental in the destruction of the Scythian kingdom, the downfall of the Spartocid dynasty in the Cimmerian Bosporus and the submission of the northern Black Sea to Mithridates VI Eupator. In this sense, it is a first rank event in the history of Antiquity.

1. ΙOSΡΕ Ι² 352.

2. ΙOSΡΕ Ι² 402.

3. Гайдукевич, В.Ф., Боспорское царство (Москва – Ленинград 1949), p. 301; Жебелев, С.А., Северное Причерноморье (Москва —Ленинград 1953), pp. 93-94. On the date of Diophantus’ first campaign there is disagreement. Молев dates it to the summer-spring of 111 BC. See Молев, Е.А., Властитель Понта (Нижний Новгород 1995), p. 37.

4. Strabo, 7.312. The exact location of the city is unknown. Гайдукевич situates it in the region of modern Balaclava. See Гайдукевич, В.Ф., Боспорское царство (Москва – Ленинград 1949), p. 302. According to another view, Eupatoria was located south of Cercinitis. See Молев, Е.А., Властитель Понта (Нижний Новгород 1995), p. 36.

5. Виноградов, Ю.Г., «Вотивная надпись дочери царя Скилура из Пантикапея и проблемы истории Скифии и Боспора во II в. до н.э.», ВДИ 1 (1987), p. 73; Молев, Е.А., Боспор в период эллинизма (Нижний Новгород 1994), pp. 118-119.

6. Жебелев, С.А., Северное Причерноморье (Москва – Ленинград 1953), pp. 96-98; Гайдукевич, В.Ф., Боспорское царство (Москва –Ленинград 1949), p. 302

7. Accoring to Молев, Е. Властитель Понта (Нижний Новгород 1995) this took place in the fall of 110 BC.

8. IOSPE I² 353.

9. According to Gajdukevič, Β., Боспорское царство (Москва – Ленинград 1949) or in 109 BC according to Молев, Е., Властитель Понта (Нижний Новгород 1995), p. 43.

10. ...τῶν περὶ Σαύμακον Σκυθᾶν νεωτεριξάντων καὶ τὸν μὲν ἐκθρέψαντα αὐτὸν {²ΑΥΤΟ[—] (facs.)}² [βα]σιλέα Βοσπόρου Παιρισάδαν ἀνελόντων, αὐτῶι δ’ ἐπιβουλευσάντων...

11. The latter probably in the winter of 108/107 BC.

12. Strabo 7.4.4.

13. Молев, Е.А., Властитель Понта (Нижний Новгород 1995), p. 43.

14. ...τὸν μὲν ἐκθρέψαντα αὐτὸν {²ΑΥΤΟ[—] (facs.)}² [βα]σιλέα Βοσπόρου Παιρισάδαν...

15. Жебелев, С.А., Северное Причерноморье (Москва – Ленинград 1953), pp. 105-106.

16. RE III:I (1897), column 774, see under entry ‘Bosporos’ (C.G. Brandis); Гайдукевич, В.Ф., «О скифском восстании на Боспоре в конце 2 в. до н.э.», in Античное обществο: Труды конференции по изучению античност (Москва 1967), pp. 17-22.

17. For a fuller re-evaluation of the various views see Rubinsohn, Z.W., «Saumakos, Ancient History, Modern Politics», Histroria 29 (1986), pp. 50-70.

18. Гаврилов, А.К., «Скифы Савмака – восстание или вторжение? (IPE I2 352–Syll.3 709)», in Этюды по античной истории и культуры Северного Причерноморья (Санкт-Петербург 1992), p. 61-62.

19. Виноградов, Ю.Г., «Вотивная надпись дочери царя Скилура из Пантикапея и проблемы истории Скифии и Боспора во II в. до н.э.», ВДИ 1 (1987), pp. 55-87; Vinogradov, Ju.G., «Die Votivinschrift der Tochter des Königs Skiluros aus Pantikapaion und Probleme der Geschichte Skythiens und des Bosporos im 2. Jh. v.Chr.», in Vinogradov, Ju.G. (επιμ.), Pontische Studien: Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte und Epigraphik des Schwarzmeerraumes (Mainz 1997), pp.526-562.

20. Виноградов, Ю.Г., «Вотивная надпись дочери царя Скилура из Пантикапея и проблемы истории Скифии и Боспора во II в. до н.э.», ВДИ 1 (1987), pp. 55-87.