Barbarism and its Discontents in Ancient and Modern Ukraine

Anatoly Grablevsky

Describing the northern-most barbarians known to him, who inhabited modern Russia, Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC as follows:

“The Man-Eaters (Androphagoi) are of all men the most savage in their manner of life; they know no justice and obey no law. They are nomads, wearing a dress like the Scythian, but speaking a language of their own; they are the only people of all these that eat men.” (4.106)[1]

The epitome of savagery and barbarism, as ancients and moderns agree, is the absence of the rule of law (nomos): this made the ‘Androphagoi’ barbaric even by Scythian standards. This tribe inhabited the northern wasteland, at the furthest edge of the known world (oikoumēnē) thus exacerbating their complete estrangement from civilization through sheer physical distance. Differentiation between peoples in Herodotus is accomplished through this close interplay between customs (nomoi) and geography.

The territory of Ancient Scythia, spanning modern Ukraine and south-west Russia (copyright Michele Angel).

More than two and a half millennia later, the same distinguishing nomos, cannibalism, combined with the same geographic determinism, was once again usedin order to distinguish the two peoples inhabiting the same respective territories: In July 2022, Oleksii Arestovych, then one of the chief advisors to President Vladymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, and one of the most influential and popular Ukrainian pundits to this day, famously claimed that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was merely the latest symptom of a cannibalistic ethos inherent in the Russian people and state, whose aggressive expansionism is driven by a quasi-religious need to cannibalize other states and its own citizens. The contrast is clear: despotic, oriental, barbaric, Muscovite-Mongol-Orc hordes against the free European Ukrainians, the true heirs of the Greeks and Kievan Rus.

This dominant framing of the Russo-Ukrainian War as a binary conflict of positively connotated “civilization” against negative “barbarism”,[2] seems particularly fitting from the perspective of a Classicist, since the contested Ukrainian regions have, since Herodotus, played no small part in creating the discourse of civilization and barbarism, in the form of the dichotomy between “Greeks and Scythians”.[3]

Ancient bust of Herodotus (Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy).

The study of “Greeks and Scythians”, by which I mean the study of the interaction of the local populations (labelled “Scythians”, and later “Sarmatians”, by Greco-Roman authors) occupying the vast steppe regions of Ukraine and Russia, and the Greek colonies of the Northern Black Sea[4] from about 650 BC to 300 AD, is scholarly ground that has been very thoroughly trodden, especially in Russia and Ukraine, and evenhere on Antigone.

In recent years, scholarship has largely moved away from an easy opposition between Greeks and Scythians and has instead laid much more emphasis on the shifting and hybrid identities of the various peoples inhabiting the Northern Black Sea region. After giving an example of just how closely intertwined Greeks and Scythians could be, I will go on to explore how the later construction of an ideological, cultural and ethnic opposition between settled, urban Greek “civilization” and nomadic steppe “Barbarism” has been instrumentalized in recent centuries to legitimate Russian empire building, especially in Ukraine. I hope to show how unstable and mutable the two poles of this binary have been, both in modern and in ancient times, and therefore show just how relative and constructed the “barbarians” always are.

Greek colonies of the Northern Black Sea.

The Bosporan state, with its capital at Panticapaeum (modern Kerch), emerged in the later 5th century BC, and was centered around the Cimmerian Bosporus (the modern Kerch Strait that separates Crimea from mainland Russia). Bosporan kings were widely perceived to form part of the Greek world, mainly on account of the fact that their state served as a sort of granary for Athens throughout the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. King Leukon of the Bosporus (reigned 389–349 BC) was praised by Demosthenes (Against Leptines 30), granted Athenian citizenship and immunity from civil burdens (ateleia), and crowned at the Panathenaea with a golden wreath worth 1,000 drachmas. A later king, Spartocus III, was even accorded the extraordinary honour in 285 BC of being voted two bronze statues by the Athenian assembly, to be set up in the Agora and the Acropolis (IG II2 653).

After this period of flourishing, the Bosporan kingdom was absorbed by the rising kingdom of Pontus under Mithridates VI Eupator in 109 BC because (according to Strabo) the last king Paerisades V, was “unable to hold out against the barbarians, who kept exacting greater tribute than before” (Geography 7.4.4). The barbarians here mentioned were, up until fairly recently, universally presumed to be the expansionist ‘Late Scythian’ kingdom of Crimea.

Bust of a late Spartocid Bosporan king, perhaps Paerisades V.

This state, centered around the palatial capital of “Scythian Neapolis”, flourished in the 2nd century BC under the rule of king Scilurus, and controlled most of Crimea, alongside significant swathes of southern Ukraine, including the Ancient Greek colony of Olbia.

During excavations at Scythian Neapolis, a remarkable, though somewhat fragmented, inscription (SEG 53:775) came to light, which gives us a unique insight into Greco-Scythian relations in the Late Hellenistic period. The inscription adorned the mausoleum of Argotas (d. 130 BC), a heroön-like structure, decorated with Greek statues and reliefs, located in the heart of the settlement right next to the royal palace of Scilurus. The mausoleum appears to have been erected for the same Argotas, as seems to be attested in an inscription in Panticapaeum (CIRB 75), where Argotas is mentioned as the husband, and co-ruler of the Bosporan queen, Kamasarya. It appears that, after Kamasarya’s death, this Argotas left Bosporus and came into the service of Scilurus.’

The ruins of Scythian Neapolis, with the still relatively intact tomb of King Scilurus

In the inscription, we are told that the ruler of Scythia, universally presumed to be Scilurus, ordered the construction for Argotas of this extraordinary mausoleum, second only to that of the king himself, for three reasons: (1) to honour him for his campaigns against the Thracians and the Maeotians, (2) because of Sciluros’ love of the Greeks,[5] and (3) for his role in raising Scilurus’ children.[6] The military campaigns are instructive: given that the Maeotians, in particular, were the perennial enemies of the Bosporan Kingdom, but did not even share a border with Scilurus’ domain, it appears that Argotas must have been leading some kind of allied Scythian force to help defend the Bosporans’ eastern borders in the Asiatic Bosporus;[7] this would amount to hard proof not of hostility, but of a close alliance between the two states.

The place given to Scilorus’ philhellenism in the inscription implies that the king honoured Argotas because the latter must have been himself a Greek, despite his Iranian name. This makes perfect sense in the architectural context, given how typically Greek his tomb is. Even the epitaph itself is written in metre, with high-falutin’, recherché poetic expressions like ὁ Σκυθίης κοίρανος ἱπποβό[του] (“the ruler of horse-grazed Scythia”). Argotas’ assumed Hellenic identity is remarkable, given his role in raising the children of the King: here we have a Bosporan aristocrat, perhaps of mixed Greco-Scythian ethnicity but clearly very well learned in the Greek canon, educating the children of the Scythian King, presumably in Greek!

This remarkable document, along with some other recent finds, seems to imply that through decades of close contact and intermarriage, Bosporan and Scythian elites were on an equal cultural footing, and became fluent in both indigenous and Greek cultures, and probably both languages. It was as perfectly normal for the Scythian princess Senamotis, daughter of Scilurus, to dedicate, in Greek and in a Greek Bosporan sanctuary complex, a votive to a Scythian goddess Dithagoe (SEG 36:674), as it was for a (Bosporan?) nobleman, Argotas, who had redefined himself as a Scythian minister, to be buried in a quintessentially Greek monument in a Scythian polis.

A possible reconstruction of Herodotus’ world, on the basis of his Histories.

After over four centuries of contact and interaction, “Greeks” and “Scythians” had a lot more in common than in their differences; even the defining nomos of the Scythians, their nomadism,[8] had seemingly disappeared, as Scythian Neapolis attests. Indeed, in the words of Strabo, a significant part of the Crimean Scythians had become “more civilized farmers” (Γεωργοὶ… ἡμερώτεροί τε ἅμα καὶ πολιτικώτεροι, 7.4.6), and even merchants (ibid.). Meanwhile, the geographer calls the Greek Bosporan capital Panticapaeum the largest “emporium of the Barbarians” (7.4.5)! Clearly, for Strabo at least, Bosporans and Scythians had become culturally, if not ethnically, indistinguishable; in the face of such a koinē where nomoi were freely adopted by the various inhabitants of the Northern Black Sea, a hard distinction between Greeks and Barbarians seems misplaced.

Yet, if in the ancient world the mutually exclusive binary of “civilized Greeks” and “nomadic Barbarians” seems somewhat inappropriate to describe the reality of the Northern Black Sea, this framing does become dominant much later, as we shall see.

Ruins of Panticapaeum, capital of the Bosporan kingdom.

Have you ever wondered why so many of the Ukrainian places we hear about again and again in the news cycle have such distinctly non-Slavic names, when compared to “Kiev”, “Zaporozhia” or “Lviv”? Sebastopol, Kherson, Melitopol and indeed even Odessa have a lot in common: all these Northern Black Sea cities were founded or refounded and settled with Russian veterans in the reign of Catherine II ‘the Great’ in the later 18th century to solidify Russian military control over newly conquered Ukrainian and Crimean lands, and all were deliberately given Ancient Greek names.

Portrait of Catherine II, Fyodor Rokotov (after a larger painting by Alexander Roslin), 1780s (The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia).

The capital of Russian Crimea and key strategic naval base Sebastopol (σεβαστή πόλις, lit. “venerable city”, probably in honor of the σεβαστή/Augusta herself, Catherine II), was founded in 1783 on the ruins of Chersonesus, one of the most important Greek colonies of the Northern Black Sea, which controlled the best natural harbour in the region. Kherson (founded in 1778) was also named after ancient Chersonesus, while Odessa (1794) was believed to have been founded on the site of the Ancient Greek colony of Odessos (although in reality the Greek city bearing that name corresponds to modern Varna in Bulgaria).

This slew of Greek refoundations was part of Catherine’s “Greek plan”, an ambitious project, in conjunction with Austria, to drive the Ottomans out of Europe and carve out from formerly Turkish lands a Dacian (!) kingdom in Romania, and a revived Byzantine Greek Empire centered on Constantinople. Her respective candidates for the thrones of these two new proposed tates were none other than her lover Potemkin, and her grandson, (the appropriately named) Constantine, whose birth in 1779 was commemorated by the striking of coins with an image of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia on the reverse.

Bronze medal commemorating the birth of Grand Duke Constantine in 1779. Faith, Hope and Love hold the newborn child, with the Church of St Sofia of Constantinople in the background.

The ideological impulse behind these grandiose expansionist plans was clear: The Russian Empire, the Third Rome and direct descendants of the Byzantine Rhomaoi, were driving out the degenerate Eastern Barbarians,[9] and bringing back civilization to the Black Sea, in much the same way as the Ancient Greek colonists were imagined to have done. In the era of Neo-Classicism, Russia was staking its claim to Greek heritage both to legitimize territorial expansion and to gain cultural cachet amongst its fellow European ‘Great Powers’.

Many Greeks, oppressed under the Ottomans, were even encouraged to migrate to the recently conquered Ukrainian lands,[10] a strategy which had the unfortunate side-effect of leading to a boom in Greek verse composition in Russia, with predictably tragic results: for the more masochistically-inclined Antigone reader, there exists an incredible quantity of officially-sponsored, eye-wateringly bad Neo-Ancient Greek poetry written to celebrate Catherine II and her cronies.[11]

The Cathedral of St Catherine, Kherson, built in the 1780s in the prevailing Neo-Classical and Neo-Byzantine style to stress Russia’s “Greek” claim to the newly acquired Ukrainian lands.

The legitimation of Russia as a principally European power, which relied on the instrumentalization of the Ancient Greek presence in Ukraine, continued long after Catherine II. Looking back at the interactions between Ancient Greek colonies and the indigenous Scythians and Sarmatians, Russian historiography, beginning already in the reign of Catherine and continuing for most of the 19th century, developed a cultural-historical model where the North Pontic Ukrainian and Russian steppes played the role of a “buffer-zone between East and West”.

This in turn became “the official aetiological myth of the Russian Empire… virtually explaining its impressive size, stretching right along the meta-geographical axis of Europe, and also its historical role in relation to the destiny of Europe” (Mordvintseva 2017, 231). According to this model, it was Russian historical destiny to protect European civilization and lands from the barbarian Asiatic hordes (Huns, Mongols, and the like), which in practice naturally necessitated the extension of Russian rule over the entirety of the Eurasian steppe. Indeed Russia had its meta-historical “mission civilisatrice” to civilize the Pontic steppe, as the Greeks had supposedly so successfully Hellenized the ancient Scythians and Sarmatians in antiquity.

Catherine’s Greek Plan, with the proposed new borders of Russia in green, Austria in yellow, the revived Greek empire in red, and Dacia in blue.

Thus, in modern times, in much the same way as the French and the Italians utilized the Roman heritage of North Africa to present their own colonizing and civilizing efforts in terms of continuity with antiquity, the Russians were already using the same ideological ‘historical’ justifications for expansion in the 18th century in Ukraine. Ironically, as the present-day Russian government pivots away from Europe and towards Asia, it is much more the Scythian and Sarmatian, rather than the Greek Crimean, heritage that is being stressed as a historic predecessor for justifying both rule of the steppes, including Ukraine, and contacts with China and the new Silk Road, sometimes in the most alarming of ways. Russia’s newest and deadliest ICBM missile, with which the country now habitually threatens London, is officially called the RS-28 Sarmat (or sometimes Satan II).

The irony is double, given that the view of Russia as an Asian, nomad power all but feeds the Western and Ukrainian counter-narrative of the Russian horde coming to rape and plunder civilization. But given how easily “civilizers” can become “barbarians”, we should perhaps consider moving away from the discourse of “civilization” and “barbarism” to describe polities and cultures, especially in a region where these terms have never had a stable meaning and have always been up for grabs. Not only is this framing entirely inadequate in the realm of Realpolitik, but barbarism has an unfortunate habit of revealing more about the “civilizers” than about the barbarians du jour. Varium et mutabile semperbarbarus.[12]

Anatoly Grablevsky is an Mphil student in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He cannot seem to escape the long 18th century. He has written previously for Antigone about the first Ukrainian (Virgilian) epic and the Battle of the Ancients and Moderns.

Further Reading

For general overviews of the Northern Black sea, E.H. Minns’s foundational Scythians and Greeks (Cambridge UP, 1913) and M.I. Rostovtzeff’s Iranians and Greeks in Southern Russia (Oxford UP, 1922) are still invaluable.

For Catherine’s Greek project, see J.T. Alexander, Catherine the Great : Life and Legend (Oxford UP, 1988).

For some truly shocking 18th-century Ancient Greek verse composition, see E. Ermolaeva’s chapter ‘Russia’ in F. Pontani & S. Weise (edd.), The Hellenizing Muse: A European Anthology of Poetry in Ancient Greek from the Renaissance to the Present (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2021, 648–87).

For the Argotas inscription and Skilouros, see A.I. Ivantchik, “The Scythian Kingdom in the Crimea in the 2nd Century BC and Its relations with the Greek states in the North Pontic region,” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 25 (2019) 220–54.

For a controversial but still brilliant discussion of Herodotos’ Scythian logos, see François Hartog’s Le Mirroir d’Hérodote (Gallimard, Paris, 1980).

Finally, there is much of interest in V.I. Mordvintseva’s article “The aetiological myth of the Russian Empire and the study in Russia of cultural changes in the North Pontic region from the 3rd Century BC to the 3rd Century AD (prior to the 1920s)”, Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 23 (2017) 225–49.


1 Translation taken from A.D. Godley’s Loeb Classical Library edition (1920.
2 A representative sample might include pieces in the Guardian, National Review, Wall Street Journal, City Journal and the Ukrainian website GT Invest.
3 It is worth noting, however, that Herodotus, while in part using his lengthy account of Scythian customs as a negative foil or mirror to the Greek ‘norm’, also acknowledges the possibility of overlap between the two people, not least in his casual mention of the Olbian Callippidae, whom he describes as Scythian Greeks (4.17)!
4 Chief amongst these are Olbia, the Chersonesus, and the cities making up the Bosporan kingdom such as Panticapaeum, Phanagoria and Tanais.
5 [οὕ]νεκεν Ἑλλάνων στέργε φιλο[φροσύνην], l.4.
6 Scilurus was famous in Greece for his extraordinarily numerous progeny, having no fewer than 50 children, according to Posidonius (cited by Strabo at 7.4.3).
7 See further Ivantchik 2019 in Further Reading.
8 Herodotus concludes the first paragraph of his description of the customs of the Scythians with “for they are not tillers of the soil, but nomads” (7.4.2).
9 The Turks were widely perceived as the contemporary equivalent of the ancient Persians, with the Russians (naturally) playing the part of the heroic Greeks.
10 ‘Pontic’ Greeks, with their own distinctive Greek language, continued to live in places like Mariupol right up to the present day, where over 20,000 Greeks resided prior to the start of the current war.
11 Consider, for instance, Antonio Palladoklis’ excruciating Verses on the Hellenic garment in which the Great Empress did not disdain to dress Herself of 1771, written in iambic trimeters.

Μέγας δ’ Ἀλέξανρός τε Περσέων θρόνῳ

Πάλαι καθεσθείς, ΤΗΝ δ’ ἰδών, τὰ φωνέει·


Φοροῦσαν εἷμα καὶ στολὴν Μητρὸς μέθεν…

Ὦ ’ναξ Πόλου, δός, κᾀξίωσον δαρκέειν

ΑΙΚΑΤΕΡΙΝΑΝ κᾀν Ἀλεξάνδρου στέφει,

Ὥσπερ φιλοῦσαν ἔκ τε κῆρος ἡμέας,

Οὕτω τροποῦσαν Μουσταφᾶν ἀλαζόνα,

 Ὥς ’γὼ τρόπαιον κὰδ Δαρείου στησάμην,

Ἐμοί τε αἰχμῇ καὶ ψυχῆς κάλλει ἼΣΗΝ (ll.25‒34)

“When Alexander the Great was once sitting on the throne of the Persians, seeing HER, he said:‘Now, I look at EKATERINE the GREAin the garment and dress of my Mother… O Lord of heaven, give me the honour to look at EKATERINE also in the wreath of Alexander.Exactly as she loves us from her heart and therefore puts to flight boastful Mustapha, likewise I have erected the trophy of Darius’ defeat because she is my equal in the spear and the beauty of her soul” (trans. Ermolaeva).

12 “An ever varied and changing thing (a quotation of Virgil’s Aeneid, 4.569, describing a woman)… is a barbarian.”