Cherson, Crimea; “at the extremity of the Roman Empire”

Cherson had been a Byzantine port-city at the southwestern end of the Crimea that provided an important link to northern barbarian peoples, especially in terms of trade (e.g., furs, slaves, wax, honey, salted fish) and diplomacy.


Its stout fortifications (rebuilt by Zeno and Justinian I) and a deep natural harbor played a crucial role in relations with the Khazars and Kievan Rus. For example, Vladimir I may have been baptized in Cherson, and certainly clergy from Cherson played an important role in staffing Vladimir I’s new church. It also was a place of exile for two important personages, Pope Martin I and Justinian II, and a place of refuge for monks fleeing Iconoclasm. Theophilos created the theme of Cherson, guarded by a fortress called Sarkel. After the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, Cherson fell under the sway of the Empire of Trebizond; its commercial importance declined when Genoa established trading colonies in the Crimea.

(Source: “Historical Dictionary of Byzantium”, by John H. Rosser)


At the southwest tip of Crimea, in modern Sevastopol, the important urban site of Tauric Chersonesos (Byzantine Cherson) was abandoned after a series of destructions in the 13th and 14th centuries, and never substantially reoccupied. Sevastopol itself was founded several bays to the east, sparing the ancient city extensive spoliation, and a 19th-century monastery and cathedral covered only a small portion of the 40-hectare territory within the city walls. This city, founded by Greek colonists in the 5th century BCE, was throughout its history an important point of contact between the steppe, the Black Sea coast, and the Mediterranean. It housed a Roman military force in the 3rd century CE, and by the 6th century – when it was already known to Procopius and his Byzantine contemporaries as Cherson – it had become the northernmost urban center of the Byzantine empire. Its most impressive remains consist of block upon block of residential and commercial quarters, most of them constructed during the 11th and 12th centuries CE. Although these buildings lasted into the 13th century before being destroyed in a massive conflagration, they provide extensive and detailed evidence for the urban fabric of an 11th- or 12th-century Byzantine city.

Researchers describe Chersonesos in the Late Byzantine period as a city characterized by regular planning, in which buildings are arranged according to the rectangular blocks preserved from earlier phases of the city’s history. At present, however, we can only provide secure dimensions for the blocks as they were in the medieval period, when they were generally between 22 and 30m wide and between 44 and 67m long.

In most cases, domestic complexes at Chersonesos consisted of both dwelling and productive areas. A large number of these complexes had cellars and upper stories, indicated by the presence of stone staircases and confirmed by material in the layers of collapse. Ground floors and cellars were often storerooms and workshops, while dwelling rooms seem to have been located on the floor above. Retail shops were also frequently included in these complexes.

In the Early and Middle Byzantine periods, large churches occupied defined and distinct spaces in the urban fabric. When the city was substantially rebuilt during the 11th or 12th century, however, a new element was introduced into city planning at Chersonesos: a small block church. There is at least one church in each block, and some blocks have two. They are usually integrated with the domestic and commercial buildings around them. As a rule, churches were built in such a way that their doors, normally in the western wall, opened onto the street. Such churches might have served as private chapels and family burial vaults. The types of finds from the destruction layer of the Late Byzantine period testify that the city dwellers were mostly occupied with crafts and trade. Chersonesos was not a center of commercial agrarian production in this period, as a number of other Byzantine provincial cities were. It appears that in the 12th and 13th centuries it was primarily a transit trade center between the Southern and Northern Black Sea regions.

The Northeast Region, near the religious and commercial center of the city, seems to have been particularly wealthy, while artisanal activity was concentrated in the Northern Region. In the low-lying south-eastern part of Chersonesos is the Port Region, which contains both port structures and dwelling houses, as well as the fortified sector known as the Citadel. The area conventionally described as the South Region of the ancient city extends west from the Greek theater along the southern section of the city’s defensive wall. It is connected to the center of the city by the main northeast-southwest street in the urban grid. This important artery led from the South Region to the main square and to the Northeast Region. To the west and southwest of the South Region, as far as the western defensive wall, the city seems to have been only sparsely built up.

Byzantine literary sources discuss traders in fresh fish, and they mention the separate retail sale of saltfish. 12th-century vernacular poems celebrate the pleasures of cooked fish and dwell on episodes in cookshops – but the cookshops in these poems sell red meat, and fish are mentioned only in the context of dishes served at the private dinners of gluttonous monks and lucky neighbors. The sources mention very few commercial activities that combine the processing and sale of fish with heating and cooking. It is entirely possible that Chersonesos had its own traditions.


The material from the grocer’s store and imported items elsewhere in complexes 2 and 3 strongly suggest amonetized retail economy and extensive trade connections at Chersonesos in the early 13th century. Yet a surprisingly small number of coins were recovered from complexes 2 and 3: no high-value coins were found, and almost all the coins from the floors in use in the final phase were locally-cast coppers. Numismatic evidence for participation in broader trade networks consisted only of two imitative coins, one Bulgarian and one Latin. The majority of the local coins were of the well-known Chersonesan rho-omega type. Although scholars agree that these coins were cast at Chersonesos, there is still debate over their date. They are conventionally thought to have been produced in the 11th or early 12th century, although the evidence from our block indicates that such coins were still in circulation in the 13th. An argument has recently been advanced, however, that many of them copied earlier types but were in fact made in the 13th century. Whatever the level of monetization of the economy in this block, its residents clearly had access to imported goods. The objects recovered confirm the general impression that three major currents of trade converged at Chersonesos in the early 13th century: pottery and coins show connections with the Byzantine world of the south western Black Sea and the Mediterranean; Islamic territories to the south and southeast are represented by copper-alloy metal objects, in addition to ceramic evidence; and contacts with the Kyivan Rus’ far to the north are indicated by spindle whorls of purple Ovruch slate and the reliquary cross of Rus’ form in room 35.

Clear evidence for connections with Trebizond is generally absent, despite the conventional assertion that Chersonesos reoriented itself to that city after the sack of Constantinople in 1204. This may be at least partly due, however, to the fact that Trebizond did not mint coins until the second half of the century.

Ceramics imported from Byzantine centers in Asia Minor and the Aegean make up the largest part of the assemblage. Although there was a local pottery industry at Chersonesos in this period, the presence of mica in the fabric of a number of pithoi from the block indicates that even these coarse storage vessels were sometimes brought from abroad. They probably arrived as containers for imported goods.

The evidence for the local economy provided by the shop in complex 3 is equally informative. The tools, hardware, and other metal objects that were available for sale reflect the needs of an urban population without extensive involvement in agriculture. The iron tools include a chisel or slice/shave and a wide, shallowly-serrated blade with a bone-and-woodhandle attached at an angle at its center. Both should probably be associated with minorcarpentry work and household repairs. An iron and copper-alloy cowbell suggests that some of the shop’s customers were involved in animal husbandry, but domestic animals were clearly a frequent feature of urban as well as agricultural contexts in the Byzantine world. The other objects are even more unambiguously associated with urban households: the storeroom held at least three iron faceplates for door-locks, presumably stock rather than fixtures for the room itself, and a copper-alloy bucket with a pouring spout and an iron handle, found in the street outside the shop, may also have been part of its inventory.

The olive was not cultivated in Crimea, and imported olive oil must have been a standard part of the stock of Chersonesan grocers. The origins of the wine and bread wheat in the shop are more difficult to determine. With the exception of Constantinople, most Byzantine centers were provisioned by their own hinterlands. In some periods, however, Chersonesos seems to have been unable to feed itself, and the people buried in the church in this block show signs of vitamin deficiencies that are hard to reconcile with easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables from an extensively cultivated agricultural territory. In antiquity, southwestern Crimea had been a major wine-producing area. By the 10th century AD, however, this production seems to have fallen off, and imported amphorae prevail in the ceramic assemblage.

As for the bread wheat, literary sources testify to extensive grain production in the early 14th century in other areas of Crimea, specifically in the hinterlands of Caffa/Feodosiya and perhaps Yevpatoriya. It is not clear whether this was also true for Chersonesos, which is not mentioned in the sources, but again there is little indication of the extensive cultivation of the city’s agricultural territory in the 13th century.

Large numbers of adult male sheep in faunal assemblages strongly suggest »wether« herds managed for wool production, and this may be the case at Chersonesos.

It is very clear that fish, both fresh and preserved, played a very large role in the local diet. Again, this is very much in keeping with the Byzantine literary record, which, when it discusses food, dwells heavily on fish.

The date of this widespread destruction is still uncertain. Arguments have long been advanced that it came at the hands of Mongol forces somewhere between the late 13th and the late 14th century. Recent research, however, has begun to pull that date down toward the third quarter or even the middle of the 13th century.

Whatever its precise date and agent, the disaster overtook a residential quarter that, at the time of its demise, strongly resembled urban environments throughout the Byzantine world. A similar range of food-stuffs was present, and food seems to have been consumed in similar ways. The occupations of the block’s inhabitants – smithing, shop- and tavern-keeping, fishing – are familiar from both Byzantine literature and archaeology. The division of space in their houses is also analogous to that seen at the few other Byzantine sites where non-elite housing has been preserved: irregular rooms arranged around internal courts, with storage and economic activities on the ground floor and living quarters above.

At the same time, there are some notable differences. The imported material suggests a somewhat more cosmopolitan social context than might have been found in the agricultural towns of interior Greece and Anatolia. Muslim, Rus’, and Latin traders and their wares were probably a familiar sight, as were the lateen sails of large merchant ships. But this exposure to the world beyond Byzantium also brought a downside that becomes especially clear when the evidence at Chersonesos is considered from a multidisciplinary perspective. In the troubled years after the capture of Constantinople by the Latins, as the Seljuks of Rûm and the Grand Comneni of Trebizond fought over trade routes to the south and the Mongol hordes began to sweep down from the north, the lives of the occupants of our block seem to have been harder than those of their peers in the Byzantine heartlands. The residents of the South Region who received news of the sack of the City by the Crusaders, who heard of the fall of Sudak to the Seljuks, seem from the paleobotanical, faunal, and anthropological evidence to have been relatively poor and involved only to a limited extent in agriculture and animal husbandry. They may have subsisted in part on grain imported from cultivators of hulled wheats in the hills to the east or from further afield, and their animals may have been raised to some extent within the area of the city itself. They appear to have relied less on these animals for food than on fish caught close to shore and in the mouth of the Chornaya river. They wore their bodies out with heavy labor and must often have gone hungry. It seems a population huddled rather grimly within the city’s walls, looking to the sea for trade and sustenance while casting worried glances at an increasingly dangerous and chaotic landscape. The final, violent destruction of our block shows that this worry was justified.

(Source: “Daily life in a provincial Late Byzantine city: recent multidisciplinary research in the South Region of Chersonesos”, by Adam Rabinowitz et al.)


Between the early fourth and the end of the sixth century many fortifications were repaired and new defensive constructions were added to existing city walls. Fortified city-ports existed also in the north part of the Black Sea, especially in the Crimean peninsula, where the most important port was that of Chersonesos, the ancient Cherson (modern Sevastopol). Its impressive city walls, dating back from ancient times, were intensively and largely restored by Emperors Theodosios I, Arkadios, Zeno, and Anastasios or Justin I.

Imported glazed pottery is found in Sozopolis and in Messemvria, in the Cape Kalliakra fortress, as well as in Chersonesos. Especially in the last one, the pottery and coins found during the excavation of the late byzantine layers of the city has shown that the Crimean city had developed a lot of connections with the byzantine world, the southwestern Black Sea as well as the Mediterranean.

Laconic accounts of written sources document that between the fourth and the
seventh century Crimea had two large ports in the cities of Bosporos and Cherson and a harbour in the Bay of Symbols (Balaklava).

The port of Chersonesos was constructed in the fifth century BC by the Greeks from Herakleia Pontika on the side of the Karantinnaya Bay, which was sheltered from all the sea winds. It provided a very convenient station for ancient Greek and Byzantine ships. The harbour on the side of deep and twisting Bay of Symbols was first mentioned by Strabo (ca. 64/63 BC – ca. 23/24 AD), Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), and the second-century Periplous by Arrian.

Written sources and archaeological surveys materials supply enough evidences that the city of Chersonesos and the Harbour of Symbols were annexed by the Eastern Roman Empire in the second half of the fourth century. In the fourth and fifth century the name of Chersonesos remained the same as in the ancient period, though historians from the sixth century and later called the city Cherson. This city port was the ending of maritime trade routes from Constantinople and other Byzantine ports in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Although Cherson was close to Constantinople by sea, Procopius localizes Cherson “at the extremity of the Roman Empire”.

The ports of Chersonesos and Bosporos developed economical contacts with
the new imperial capital. In rhetorician Themistios’ words, Bosporos and Chersonesos belonged to the most important suppliers of grain to Constantinople in the early
360s. Zosimos informs us that Julian’s nephew, Procopius, hid in Chersonesos after the failed plot against Valens and escaped from its port to Constantinople in 365 by taking a passing ship8. In 366, Phronemios, guilty of Procopius’ treason, was banished to the city.


The Theodosian Code contains a novel informing about shipbuilding in Chersonesos. In September 419, emperors Honorios and Theodosios II published a decree freeing the Chersonesites from punishment for the betraying of the secrets of shipbuilding to the barbarians, because of the petition of the bishop of their city, Asklepiades.

There is an inscription from Chersonesos from 488 AD, indicating that emperor Zeno (474-491) transferred the government of this city to Byzantine officials. The garrison of Cherson was subordinated to the vicar, ad hoc officer, at the commander of the army (magister militum) stationed in the province of Thrace. Apart from other duties, this vicariate governed the πρακτεῖον, or customs, which collected taxes and duties particularly from merchant ships. These means were used to support ballistarii and to repair fortress walls. The mentioned inscription states that the vicariate and prakteion were headed by komes Diogenes, who represented the imperial administration. He obviously was supreme military and civil commander in the city. From the fact that the customs existed in this city, we might infer that the latter was included into the Byzantine trade network.

Cherson was a large port of transit located at the shortest sea route from Byzantium, which started in the port of Sinope. Menander describes how the Byzantines sailed along that route. In 576 Tiberios, in order to get assistance from the Turks in the war with Persia that resumed in 573, sent them an embassy with Valentine at the head. This embassy sailed on ships through Sinope to Chersonesos and thence by sea along the southern coast of the Crimea to Bosporos. In Jordanes’ words, Cherson received goods delivered by Asian merchants.

In 576, the Turks and their allies Utigurs seized Bosporos, burning and destroying urban quarters on Mitridat hill and in the coastal area; in 581, they menaced Cherson. The mentioned events forced the administration of Justin II (565-578) to rearrange the government of the Byzantine possessions in the Crimea and to strengthen the defences of Cherson.

According to scant accounts of written sources, the seventh-century Chersonesos remained the main Byzantine port city in the Crimea keeping wide trade connections. These connections are also documented by the seventh-century seals of Byzantine kommerkiarioi discovered in Cherson, including the seal of the general kommerkiarios of the apotheke of Constantinople from 688/689. A letter written by Roman Pope Martin I informs us that the empire imported salt from the city.

Cherson was a place where delinquents were sent to exile by sea. According to the scholia on the Life of Euprepios (died in 655) and Theodoros (died in 667) in the Collectanea by Anastasios the Librarian from the ninth century, they were banished to Cherson. In 655 Pope Martin was exiled to Cherson.

From the information of Theophanes and Nikephoros on the events related to Justinian II’s exile to Cherson in 695, we might reasonably suppose that the Khazars conquered almost all the Crimea.

(Source: “Written sources on Byzantine ports in the Crimea from the fourth to seventh century”, by Aibabin Alexandr)

Ruins of Chersonesos

The catalogue of the Byzantine seals issued in Cherson (not to be confused with the seals discovered in Cherson, several times more numerous) belong to Byzantine officials posted at Cherson as well as, in a small number of cases, to local dignitaries. The most voluminous group among the seals published, 137 examples, are those issued by the strategoi of the thema of Cherson.

Why do the seals go as far as the middle of the eleventh century but no further. The question does not only concern the top commanders, strategoi, but all Byzantine officials, whether previously attested in Cherson — such as kommerkiarioi, ek prosopou, etc. — or not (the only exception is discussed below). The mid- to late-eleventh and the twelfth century represent as intensive a period for Byzantine seals as any. The total lack of sigillographical trace of Byzantine administration in Cherson, and in the Crimea as a whole, can have only one meaning — no such administration existed.

I have described the Pontic basin in the first to the eleventh century AD as the stage of a drama in three acts played out by two main actors who, in the course of time, change only the costumes: the Empire, whether we call it Roman, Later Roman or Byzantine, and the nomads, who come with a multitude of names [Zuckerman 2006: 201]. Skipping the first act, the second act starts with a modest fourth-century military push [see now Seibt 2017] and culminates at the climax of the “Later Empire”. Early in the reign of Emperor Justinian, the imperial forces regain the control of Bosporos and Lazica, and then briefly close the gap between these two areas by occupying Zikhia / Ta- man. The Turk (late sixth century) and then the Khazar (mid-seventh century) invasions draw the curtain on this phase of expansion.

The third act begins with the fall of the Khazar kaghanate, and the re-conquest pace is remarkably fast. The kaghanate collapses in the late 960’s, while the early 970’s the Escorial Taktikon shows a Byzantine strategos established at Bosporos, probably already in possession of the former Khazar stronghold of Tamatarkha. Yet, in the early eleventh century as in the mid-sixth, holding on to the easternmost coast of the Black Sea proves to be a hard challenge. The Bosporos strategos is no longer attested after George Tzoulas’ rebellion, and the Rus’ian prince installed at Tamatarkha/Tmutorokan seems to take over both the eastern and the western coast of the Strait of Kerch.

The imperial administration at Cherson survives the first half of the eleventh century without institutional changes. In the 1050’s and the 1060’s, however, the Empire’s defenses in Crimea come under increasing pressure from the new masters of the steppe — the Cumans, Polovtsi of the Rus’ian chronicles. Scholars are fairly unanimous in linking the military reforms in Byzantine Crimea to the Cuman threat. In the scheme that I propose, the first step consisted in extending, in the 1050’s, the Byzantine defenses eastward and transforming the thema of Cherson into the thema of Cherson and Sugdea.

This first response to the Cuman penetration into eastern Crimean steppe must have consisted in strengthening the local military infrastructure; but we have no details and all we know is that this measure did not suffice. The next step consisted in replacing, in the early 1060’s, the strategos at Cherson by a higher-ranking katepano, probably accompanied by a contingent of professional soldiers, and by installing a strategos at Sugdea. The katepano’s authority was geographically defined as Cherson and Khazaria, western and eastern Crimea.

Ca. 1070, the people of Cherson stoned their katepano to death. There is no reason to link his demise with his alleged but unlikely involvement in Prince Rostislav’s death. It is more likely that the katepano, in his capacity of imperial officer, refused some concessions claimed by the Cumans and the Chersonites disapproved of his intransigent stand.


However this may be, we know of no imperial official appointed to Cherson any time later. And yet, ten years or so after the katepano’s disappearance, we discover Khazaria again, this time in the title of Prince Oleg-Michael. In 1083, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos installs Oleg-Michael on the Taman, in an act of Reconquista celebrated by Manuel Straboromanos, with the title of archon and doux of Matrakha and Khazaria. Both parts of the title, as formulated, apply to both regions. However, the title of archon clearly goes back to Oleg’s title of knjaz’ before his exile, while the title of doux, equivalent in the second half of the eleventh century to that of katepano, recalls the position of Byzantium’s former commander-in-chief in Crimea. Most strikingly, the part of eastern Crimea previously subordinated to the latter officer seated at Cherson now belongs to the military resort of a Rus’ian prince improvised imperial doux at Tamatarkha/Tmutorokan. This is another indication that no imperial administrative infrastructure was left in Cherson in the 1080’s. Whatever ambitions Alexios I may have had of keeping a foothold in northern and eastern Pontus, they must have faded away within a few years. Oleg-Michael dropped the title of imperial doux, which imposed subordination with no tangible benefits, and reverted to using the unique title of archon/knjaz’, while claiming Zikhia as part of his domain.

In 1103, Theophylact of Ohrid describes the cities of the Strait of Kerch area as ἑλληνίδες πόλεις detached from the “Roman” empire.

Jonathan Shepard has recently observed that “by the 12th century, imperial administrative involvement in Cherson seems to have been slackened”

There is no indication that after the empire’s forced retreat from the region in the 1070-80’s, these cities ever again became part of its military and administrative structures. The cities survived on their own — and they thrived.

(Source: “The End of Byzantine Rule in North-Eastern Pontus”, by Zuckerman C. )


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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