Cherson (Middle Ages), History

1. Chersonesos in Antiquity

The ancient city of Chersonesos and later (from the sixth century) the Byzantine city of Cherson is situated on the south shore of the bay of Sevastopol, in southern Crimea. It was founded in the fifth c. B.C. as a colony of Heraclea Pontica. In the Hellenistic period the city is independent and controls a large territory in western Crimea. At the end of the second c. B.C., facing the Scythian menace, Chersonesos came under the protection of Mithridates IV’s kingdom of Pontus and later under that of the kingdom of Cimmerian Bosporus. In A.D. 63, still menaced by the Scythians, the city receives Roman military aid and from that time became part of the Roman Empire. Chersonesos occupies an area of approximately 27 hectares and represents one of the best-studied Byzantine cities from an archaeological point of view.

In the Roman period the city maintains its formal autonomy and strikes its own coinage, until the reign of Diocletian. During that period Chersonesos is the principal Roman military base in that region. The Greek community still dominates the city. The suburban necropoleis, with their collective tombs, covered with stone slabs, belong mainly to this Greek majority. Military men and their families, as well as other functionaries of the Empire, formed a Latin community. Apart from the Greeks and Romans, the Jewish community is also attested in the written and epigraphic sources. Certain “barbaric” elements (Germanic and Alan-Sarmatian) are evident in burial objects.

The city’s urban landscape is typical of the Roman Empire. The very regular plan of its quarters remains unchanged. The Roman-period houses are single-storey buildings with many rooms and a paved courtyard. The city remains well-protected by fortifications (2,5-3,5 km.), the necropoleis are situated extra muros (outside the walls), around the city. During the first centuries A.D. a seven-km.-long aqueduct was constructed, which continued to function into the Late Roman period.

The city’s economic activity is significant. About 60 suburban agricultural units are attested for the Roman period. In the early Christian era the construction of cisterns for salting fish and the production of garum (fish sauce) is considerably intensified. Salt-panning at the salines around the city is attested for the Roman period. The pottery workshops of Chersonesos are widely known during the Roman era. Their production was destined for the city’s markets as well as for the barbarian neighbors, mainly from the second-third c. Though less spectacular, traces of other artisan activities have also been located. The city maintained commercial ties both with the barbarians of the Tauric peninsula and with other Black Sea provinces of the Roman Empire. Quantities of Roman imports, notably pottery and glass, for the most part manufactured in Chersonesos, were discovered in the barbarian necropoleis of the Crimean south-west. As for maritime trade, it mainly concerned the provinces of the southern Black Sea littoral and Asia Minor in general (Pergamon, Miletus), as is shown by the imported pottery in Chersonesos. Certain bronze objects and some clay lamps testify to the commercial contacts with the western littoral. These contacts were probably linked to the Empire’s powerful military activity in the Danube frontier: Chersonesos furnished supplies to the Roman troops in Moesia. It is assumed that, in order to exercise this commercial activity, the city possessed a significant merchant fleet.

2. Chersonesos (Cherson) in the Byzantine period

From the end of the fourth c. Chersonesos becomes part of the Eastern Empire. The theory that Chersonesos was destroyed at the end of the fourth c. by the Huns is now outdated. The role of Chersonesos as the Empire’s principal military base in the Crimea increases in the fifth c., when the Huns settle north of the Black Sea. A significant Roman garrison is still billeted on the city. The place was well-guarded, while undesirable persons were exiled there. The city’s civil administration was subordinate to the praetorian prefect of Oriens, whose name is mentioned in an inscription of the 370s. Nevertheless, Chersonesos enjoys the status of a free city and in fact not on a theoretical level. Already from 420-430 the city strikes its own coinage and is governed by autonomous urban authorities. The city’s Christian community, existing already from the fourth century and supported by the state, becomes more and more numerous and influential since the reign of Theodosius. The Jewish community of Chersonesos is known through archaeological finds, notably a synagogue. The city maintains an important economic activity. The presence of numerous types of coins is of great significance in appreciating the wide-ranging volume of foreign trade. At the same time, the city strikes coins in the name of Theodosius II (408-450) and Valentinian III (424-455).

Chersonesos in the post-Hunnic period and Justinian’s reign remains the Empire’s principal base north of the Black Sea. The primary power is exercised by the vicarius, commanding the Byzantine garrison. It is a typically Roman/Early Byzantine city. It still retains its regular street plan inherited from the Hellenistic period. The thoroughfares parallel to the cardo maximus seem to have been conserved in their entirety. On the other hand, certain less important perpendicular streets disappear during the Early Byzantine period, on the occasion of building construction, notably of Christian religious edifices. An episcopal seat is formed in the sixth century. The houses of the Roman period, sometimes constructed on the foundations of Hellenistic buildings, are in use until the fifth-sixth c. During the mid-fifth/early sixth c. the city is slightly expanded, while its territory remains stable until the ninth century. The urban necropolis maintains its Greco-Roman character. The ramparts were reinforced during the reign of Zeno, as well as that of Justinian. The cemeteries of the late fourth-sixth c. are situated within the boundaries of the Roman-era necropolis. The funerary practices observed and the material coming from the necropolis (notably the lamps, glass receptacles and pottery, as well as metal jewelry) lead to the conclusion that the city’s inhabitants were strongly Hellenized. The city’s material culture is typically Early Byzantine. This is manifest in the pottery (terra sigillata, common ware, transport vessels and lamps), as well as in small finds.

In 576 the Turks invaded the Crimea and Cherson was besieged. This event incited the Empire into reinforcing its presence in the Tauric peninsula. A duke was placed in command of Byzantine troops north of the Black Sea and his residence was situated in Cherson. Pope Martin was exiled to Cherson in 655 and then it was the turn of Emperor Justinian II to be exiled there in 695-704, a fact that proves the presence of strong imperial authority in the region, capable of controlling the situation. Nevertheless, the territories near the southwest of the Crimea are under Khazar rule. In case of civil strife in Byzantium, Cherson enters into contact with the Khazar kingdom and even receives a Khazar governor. After the military expeditions and battles of 711-712 the Khazars finally recognized the Byzantine Empire’s domination over Cherson. In 844 the military theme of Klimata (later of Cherson) is formed in southwest Crimea, with Cherson as its center. During the seventh-ninth centuries the city maintains its economic and political importance. It strikes its own coinage during the reign of Heraclius and later, during the ninth century, construction work on religious buildings and fortifications has been archaeologically attested, while economic activity (fishing, manufacture, commerce and salt-panning) does not cease. The city’s material culture is typically Byzantine.

Cherson in the tenth-thirteenth c. remains under Byzantine authority and represents the principal center of the military presence of Byzantium in the region. Among the various political events we must note certain uprisings in the city against the authority of Constantinople, as well as the capture of Cherson by the Russian prince Vladimir in 988-989. The city’s significant economic growth is attested by the archaeological finds of the tenth c. In the eleventh-thirteenth c. the importance of Cherson diminishes, although the city remains an important center, with a population of 3,600-4,000 people. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1204, Cherson became subordinate to the Empire of Trebizond. In around 1270-1299, the town is destroyed by the Tatars and ceases to exist as a city.