1. The establishment of the theme of Cherson
From the end of the 7th century until the first decades of the 9th century, the city of Cherson and the neighbouring territories (known by the term “klimata”)1 were at loose terms with Constantinople. Typically they constituted part of the Byzantine Empire, but what actually prevailed was a regime of relative autonomy, and power at various cities under Byzantine control was in the hands of local notables. For example, the highest authority at the city of Cherson was the and the so-called who were locally elected, although they were usually receiving imperial titles.2
The enrollment of Cherson and of SW Crimea into the system of the theme organization at Byzantium was the result of a series of events starting in 839,3 when the Khazars, old allies of Byzantium, sent an embassy to Constantinople, asking Emperor Theophilos (829-842) to help them build a fortress upon the lower course of the river Don, aiming to prevent the invasions of the Rus’.4 Theophilos responded to the appeal by sending a group of mechanics under the Petronas Kamateros. After the successful conclusion of the mission, the officer at head reported to the emperor that it would be in the Empire's best interests to put Cherson (through which the mission had passed) and its region under the direct administration of Byzantium. Agreeing with the estimations of his envoy, Theophilos decided a little later (around 840)5 to organize Cherson and the adjacent territories to a theme; Petronas Kamateros was appointed first there, since we was already acquainted with the issues of the region.6
As it appears from certain written sources and some sigillographic evidence, the original name of the new administrative district was “theme of Klimata”.7 However, since the capital of the theme and the most important city of the region was Cherson, soon enough the name “theme of Cherson” was officially established, already by 860, if not earlier.8
2. The organization of the theme of Cherson
We have little information as regards the size of the territories and the internal organization of the new theme. Obviously, the men of the Byzantine administration were residing at the cities of southern Crimea and they were controlling the nearby regions, the so-called “klimata”. From a seal dated at the end of the 10th or the beginnings of the 11th century we are informed about the existence of a Gothias.9 This testimony leads to the conclusion that the organization of the theme of Cherson did not differ from that of other Byzantine themes. In addition, it reveals that at least since the beginnings of the 11th century, if not earlier, the Byzantine dominion had expanded to the SW Crimea. Besides the local notables and the military office-holders of the theme, within the region is attested (mainly from sigillographic evidence) the existence of officers of the financial administration, the so-called .10
It is worth mentioning, however, that, besides the fact that power was exercised thereafter by a military commander appointed from Constantinople, and besides the presence of officers of the central administration at Cherson, the cities of the theme preserved at a high degree their autonomy, judging from the presence of local notables at Cherson after 840,11 as well as from the continuance of the function of the city mint.12 From the testimony of Constantine Porphyrogennetos (middle of 10th c.) we are informed that during that period the central administration paid to the local authorities of Cherson an annual grant of 10 liters of gold and two more liters as . The danger of rebellion was always visible, as we know that happened around 896-897, when the inhabitants of Cherson revolted and murdered strategos Symeon. Constantine Porphyrogennetos in his De Administrando imperii cited a series of measures that must be taken in such an occasion and advised the strategos of the theme to cut off the payment of the annual granting, to abandon Cherson and to settle at some of the other cities of the theme.13
3. The strategic role of the theme of Cherson (9th – 10th c.)
In spite of the enrollment of Cherson and other cities of Crimea into the system of theme organization of Byzantium, the Byzantine military presence in the region was not a strong one: from the attestation of the sources it appears that the forces of the theme were mainly manned by locally recruited men, who were under the control of the local notables, that means a kind of state guard.14 In other words, the orientation of the theme was clearly defensive, based on the fortified cities of the region, as it appears from the fact that from the middle of the 9th century and thereafter the fortresses of Cherson were systematically reinforced. In addition, with the treaties of the years 944 and 971 the Rus’ took the responsibility not to interfere in the theme of Cherson and to protect it against the invasions of the Bulgarians of Volga river.15
Since Byzantium could not rely on its military force in the region of Crimea, the strategic role of Cherson became even more important, as Constantine Porphyrogennetos recognize in many parts of his work. The theme of Cherson essentially formed a stronghold of the Byzantine power and the center of the diplomatic activity of Constantinople in relation to the nations of the region. Its creation was bound to the diplomatic contacts with the Khazars, whereas in the 10th c., after the collapse of the state of the latter ones, their place was taken by the Pechenegs and the Rus’.16 Quite characteristic for the strategic importance of the theme was the activity of the local generals (strategoi) within the framework of the wars against the Bulgarians: in 914 the general of Cherson John Bogas, as the representative of Constantinople, made an alliance with the Pechenegs against the Bulgarians, whereas around 967 Kalokyres Delphinas, probably the son of a local notable of Cherson, was sent for the same reason to a diplomatic mission towards the Rus’. The role of Cherson was important as well during the negotiations with the Rus’ under Basil II that finally led to the conversion of the former ones to Christianity around 988.
4. The theme of Cherson from the 11th to the 13th c.
The occupation of Cherson by the Rus’ in 988, although temporary, caused the partial dissolution of the theme. Nevertheless, the region recovered soon enough, judging from the archaeological evidence: at the end of the 10th or the beginnings of the 11th century new walls were constructed at the harbor of Cherson,17 whereas an inscription of 1059 witness the renovation of the gateways of the fortified circuit and of the governor’s house of the city. The inscription is very important for another reason as well: it mentions the strategos of Cherson and Sougdaia, showing that in the middle of the 11th century the dominion of the theme had been expanded eastwards.18 We do not know with any certainty the time of the annexation of the SW Crimea (Sougdaia and adjacent territories), but it is considered probable that it was an outcome of the defeat of the Khazars by the Byzantines in 1016. A few years later it seems that changes occurred in the organization of theme, since around 1066 a Russian chronicle mentions the military commander of the city as the one bearing the title of .19 At the end of the 11th century the eastern provinces of the theme passed under the control of the Cumans. During the same period the fortifications of the harbor of Cherson were renovated.
About the history of the theme of Cherson in the 12th century we know almost nothing. From the silence of the sources we draw the conclusion that there were no important changes in its structure and strategic role. The last report in a Byzantine source about the theme of Cherson and the old Byzantine territories of Crimea is related to the attack of the Seljuks around 1222 and indicates that after 1204 the region of the old theme of Cherson belonged into the sphere of influence of the Empire of Trebizond.20
1. For the meaning of the term “klimata” in relation to the regions of SW Crimea, see Zuckerman, C., “Two notes on the early history of the thema of Cherson”, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 21 (1997), pp. 217-220.
2. Moravcsik Gy. - Jenkins R. J. H. (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio2 (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 1, Washington 1967), pp.42, 44-47: «Μέχρι γὰρ Θεοφίλου τοῦ βασιλέως οὐκ ἦν στρατηγὸς ἀπὸ τῶν ἐντεῦθεν ἀποστελλόμενος, ἀλλ’ ἦν ὁ τὰ πάντα διοικῶν ὁ λεγόμενος πρωτεύων μετὰ καὶ τῶν ἐπονομαζομένων πατέρων τῆς πόλεως». Treadgold W. T., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), p. 17, talking about Cherson at the end of the 8th c., names it “archontia”, wrongly suggesting that it was enrolled within the administrative system of the Byzantine Empire, that it disposed a garrison of a tactical army and that the commander of the city was appointed from Constantinople.
3. The sources date the embassy of Khazars a year after the ascension of John Grammatikos to the patriarchal throne, the right dating of which (April 838) is due to Treadgold W. T., “The Chronological Accuracy of the Chronicle of Symeon the Logothete for the Years 813-845”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 33 (1979), pp. 178-179.
4. Constantine Porphyrogennetos gives an account of the events in relation to the embassy of Khazars and the construction of the fortress of Sarkel narrates, Moravcsik Gy. - Jenkins R. J. H. (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio2 (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 1, Washington 1967), pp. 42, 22-55. Wozniak F. E., “Byzantine Policy on the Black Sea or Russian Steppe in the Late 830s”, Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines 2 (1975), pp. 58-59, attributes the building of Sarkel to the need of protection against the Hungarians, but this opinion has not been widely accepted.
5. Treadgold W. T., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), pp. 313-317 dates the embassy of Khazars, the building of the fortress of Sarkel and the creation of the theme of Cherson on the same year (839), whereas Zuckerman C., “Two notes on the early history of the thema of Cherson”, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 21 (1997), pp. 212-215 places the embassy of Khazars in the year 839, the building of Sarkel in 840 and the creation of the new theme in 841. The older researchers, and some younger ones as well, date the creation of the theme of Cherson around 833 or 834. Cf. Bury, J. B., A History of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I (A.D. 802-867) (London 1912), p. 417· Vasiliev, A. A., The Goths in the Crimea (Cambridge, Mass. 1936), p. 108· Obolensky, D., “The Crimea and the North before 1204”, Αρχείον Πόντου 35 (1978), p. 128· Nesbitt, J. W. - Oikonomides, N., Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art 1: Italy, North of the Balkans, North of the Black Sea (Washington 1991), p. 183. Pritsak, O. - Cutler A., “Cherson”, in Kazhdan A. (editor-in-chief), The Oxford History of Byzantium 1 (New York - Oxford 1991), pp. 418-419 date the creation of the theme around 832.
6. Bekker I. (ed.), Theophanes Continuatus (Bonn 1838) p. 123, 14-124, 3.
7. The first mention of the theme of Klimata is on a list of the dioceses of the Empire dated around 842, the so-called Taktikon Uspenskij, Oikonomidès, N. (ed.), Les listes de préséance byzantines des IXe et Xe siècles (Paris 1972), p. 49, whereas a seal is preserved of the strategos of “Five Klimata” which is attributed to the new theme: see Nesbitt, J. W. - Oikonomides, N., Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art 1: Italy, North of the Balkans, North of the Black Sea (Washington 1991), p. 182. Baranov, I. A., “Administrativnoe ustrojstvo rannesrednevekovogo Hersona”, in Aibabin A. (ed.), Materialy po archeologii, istorii I etnografii Tavrii 3 (Sinferopol’ 1993), pp. 137-145, without being based on any source, believes that the theme of Klimata was short-lived, had nothing to do with the theme of Cherson and had its seat in a hypothetical city of Klimata at Crimea, whereas the later theme of Cherson was created in the middle of the 10th c.
8. This opinion had been supported by Zuckerman C., “Two notes on the early history of the thema of Cherson”, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 21 (1997), pp. 215-222 and was based on the identification of Nikephoros, strategos of the theme in 860, with the strategos of Cherson Nikephoros, seals of which publish Seibt N. - Seibt W., “Pecati stratigov vizantijskoj femy Herson”, in Vizantija I Srednevekovyj Krym (Anticnaja drevnost῾ I Srednie Veka 27, Sinferopol’ 1995), p. 92. Sokolova I. V., “Les sceaux byzantines de Cherson”, in Oikonomides N. (ed.), Studies in Byzantine Sigillography 3 (Washington 1993), p. 99 wrongly supports that the name of “theme of Klimata” was still in use until the decade of 870.
9. Alekséenko, N. A., “Un tourmarque de Gothie sur un sceau inédit de Cherson”, Revue des Études Byzantines 54 (1996), pp. 271-275.
10. Alekseyenko, M., “La douane du thème de Cherson au IXe et au Xe siècle: les sceaux des commerciaires”, in Aibabin A. - Ivakin H. (ed.), Kiev – Cherson – Constantinople (Occasional Monographs 1, Kiev - Simferopol - Paris 2007), pp. 121-164.
11. Nesbitt, J. W. - Oikonomides, N., Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art 1: Italy, North of the Balkans, North of the Black Sea (Washington 1991), p. 183.
12. The autonomous issues of the local mint are dated from around 860 (reign of Michael III) until the reign of Basil II (976-1025). Cf. Nystazopoulou-Pélékidou, M., “L’administration locale de Cherson à l’époque byzantine (IVe-XIIe s.)”, in ΕΥΨΥΧΙΑ. Mélanges offerts à Hélène Ahrweiler (Byzantina Sorbonensia 16, Paris 1998), pp. 577-579.
13. Moravcsik Gy. - Jenkins R. J. H. (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio2 (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 1, Washington 1967), pp. 53, 512-535.
14. Treadgold W. T., The Byzantine Revival 780-842 (Stanford 1988), pp. 315-317, without being based on any contemporary source, supports that a garrison of 2.000 men was sent to the new theme.
15. Smedley, J., “Archaeology and the History of Cherson: A Survey of Some Results and Problems”, Αρχείον Πόντου 35 (1978), pp. 180-183. Obolensky, D., “The Crimea and the North before 1204”, Αρχείον Πόντου 35 (1978), p. 130.
16. Obolensky, D., The Byzantine Commonwealth. Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (London 1971), pp. 176-179.
17. Smedley, J., “Archaeology and the History of Cherson: A Survey of Some Results and Problems”, Αρχείον Πόντου 35 (1978), pp. 176, 183-184.
18. Latyšev, V., Sbornik grečeskich nadpisej christianskich vremen iz Južnoj Rossii (St. Petersburg 1896), no. 8.
19. Minns, H. E., Scythians and Greeks (Cambridge 1913), p. 539. Cf. Honigmann, E., “Studies in Slavic Church History”, Byzantion 17 (1944-1945), pp. 161-162. The Russian chronicle reports that the “katepano” was stoned to death by the inhabitants because he had murdered a Russian prince who had captured Tamatarcha (Tmutorokan) a few years before, on the north shore of the Black Sea.
20. Joseph Lazaropoulos, Ἔτι σύνοψις τῶν τοῦ ἁγίου θαυμάτων μερικὴ ἐκ τῶν πλείστων, Papadopoulos-Kerameus A. (ed.), Fontes Historiae Imperii Trapezuntini 1 (Amsterdam 1965), pp. 117, 10-118, 3. The relevant passage refers to the cause of the clash between the Seljuks and the Trepizondians, the confiscation of a ship while she was returning from Crimea currying the annual taxation of the theme: «πεφορτισμένη μετὰ τῶν δημοσιακῶν τελεσμάτων τῆς Χερσῶνος καὶ τῶν ἐκεῖσε κλιμάτων Γοτθίας καὶ δημοσιακοῦ ἄρχοντος Ἀλεξίου τοῦ Πακτιάρη καὶ ἀρχόντων τινῶν Χερσωνιτῶν, ἐρχομένη ἐνταῦθα συγκομίσαι τῷ βασιλεῖ Γίδῳ τὰ ἐπέτεια τέλη».