Monday, April 15, 2013


If you can indulge me while I turn travel blogger on you, I would like to talk briefly about the place I was last Tuesday: Chersonesus.

It is easy to forget that Greek culture spread far beyond any area we would now recognize as "Greece."  But after the reign of Alexander the Great, Greek settlements stretched from Kabul to Marseilles. This resulted in some fantastic historical intersections, like Greco-Buddhist art, or the double-attestation of the reign of Chandragupta Maurya in both Greek and Sanskrit sources. (The Greeks Hellenized his name to "Sandrokottos.")

The ruins of Chersonesus (outside Sevastopol', Ukraine)
Chersonesus was a Hellenistic city on the Crimean Peninsula in present-day Ukraine, at the far edge of the Black Sea from Greece and Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The name means "peninsula" in Greek, from the words khersos (χέρσος), "dry," and nēsos (νῆσος), "island." (Similar to the word "peninsula" itself, which comes from Latin paene insula, "almost an island.")

Chersonesus prospered because Crimea's soil was so fertile, as it still is (Hitler planned to starve the Ukrainians and use the region as the breadbasket of a Nazi empire); the Greeks and later the Romans imported large amounts of grain from the area. The city was constantly coming into contact with ancient peoples that we now know of only very distantly—Roxolans and Alans and Scythians. (In the second century, the historian Suetonius speaks of "the Indi and the Scythae, known to us only by hearing.")

View of the Black Sea (columns in the background belong to an early church)
During the early first century b.c.e., Chersonesus was part of the kingdom of Mithridates VI, an able commander who unfortunately ran afoul of the rapidly expanding Roman world. Mithridates' realm was based in Pontus in the north of modern-day Turkey, but he consolidated political control over most of Anatolia. After a series of bloody wars with Roman generals, Mithridates' son conspired with the commander Pompey to stage a coup, and Mithridates fled to Crimea. There he committed suicide rather than suffer capture. 

Consequently, all of his kingdom fell into Roman hands, including his Crimean holdings.The city persisted into the Christian era, but was destroyed in the early medieval period. The Russians excavated much of the site in the 19th century, however, and now the ruins of the city still stand there, battered and somewhat poorly managed.

Fallen pilasters at Chersonesus. 
On one hand, the site should be much better tended: work is not especially systematic and visitors have tremendous leeway to wander anywhere. The site is horrifically underfunded, with no real hope for improvement in sight. One of the archaeologists there gave me a fragment of pottery, which is pretty much against the rules for how things are supposed to be done.

On the other hand, however, it's intoxicating to wander the ruins of an ancient city with no one watching; to clamber over the stone cores of old walls, even if you know you shouldn't; to recognize the floor plan of an early church on sight without the prompting of a guide or display. There's a rough magic that comes from seeing an ancient place without ropes or warning signs, where you are the only tourist in sight—a feeling a little like being at the ends of the earth. Chersonesus can only be reached by way of a flight into Ukraine through Kiev, a twelve-hour train to Simferopol', and then several rides by van to Sevastopol', then the ruins. The site is popular with Slavic tourists, though few Westerners visit; it's almost necessary to know Russian or Ukrainian in order to make it there, meaning that I won't be retuning anytime soon. The wind howls in off the misty Black Sea; the waves dash on the rocky coast; complete desolation.

The Roman poet Ovid was exiled to a Roman town on the Black Sea (not Chersonesus—a town to the west called Tomis) by the emperor Augustus for reasons that remain mysterious. This was his description of the view:
The barbarian country on the left has grown used to ravenous violence
     (a country gripped by gore and slaughter and wars),
and even though the sea is lashed by wintry waves,
     my heart is stormier than the very sea.
—Ovid, Tristia 1.33-36 
barbara pars laeva est avidaeque adsueta rapinae,
     quam cruor et caedes bellaque semper habent,
cumque sit hibernis agitatum fluctibus aequor,
     pectora sunt ipso turbidiora mari.
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  1. Awesome post Spencer! I sent this to family to give them a better idea of where we were (and who I was there with)!