Phanagorian Hoards

Three hoards of 4th–1st century BC Bosporan coins from the south-eastern part of the Phanagorian  khôra (chora) date to the time of Mithradates VI Eupator. Two of them are the largest coin assemblages ever found not only in the Bosporos but also in the entire North Black Sea Region. Thus, a huge hoard discovered in 2003 at the ancient settlement known as Soleny 3 included up to 15,000 coins (another hoard that comprised about 300 coins was found in the same locality in 2007). The 2007 hoard from ancient country estate 2013–11 contained around 8,000 coins.

Noteworthy, all these large hoards were found not in the city but in the Phanagorian chora.  Their sizes may be due to the intensity and large volumes of trade conducted by their owners in Phanagoria, the leading (and the nearest) market of the Asiatic Bosporos, where agricultural produce from the surrounding rural area was sold.

The hoards appear to have been connected with the chain of stormy and dramatic events that – as is known from the accounts by Appian, Strabo and Orosius – unfolded in the region in the times of Mithradates VI. By a twist of history, it was Phanagoria, the most important Mithradates’ outpost in the Asiatic Bosporos, which led the revolt against the Pontic king in 63 BC. A unique coin assemblage from the burnt royal residence on Phanagoria’s acropolis is also associated with this uprising. The excavations of the building which had once been home to Mithradates’ family yielded seven purses with bronze and silver coins minted by the Bosporan cities and some centers in Asia Minor.

The latest investigations in the Phanagorian chora, including those at the settlement of Soleny 3, have revealed that in the 2nd – first quarter of the 1st centuries BC all kinds of domestic and production activities there fell into gradual decline. In the second quarter of the 1st century BC adverse changes in the overall settlement pattern started to take place. The situation was the same for the rural sites located near the ‘Alley of Kurgans’ in the south-eastern part of the chora, including country estate 2013–11, where the second largest hoard of the Mithridatic time was discovered. These destructive processes are related to the historical context of the epoch. They may have been caused by the supposed land reforms undertaken after the Bosporos had been incorporated into the Pontic Kingdom of Mithradates VI, and the burdensome phoros (Greek; φόρος, meaning ‘dues’) imposed by Mithradates on the population of the Asiatic regions near Sindike. Political instability in the Bosporos during that period and the heavy royal taxation caused a rising wave of popular discontent.  Facing utter devastation, the Phanagorians evidently chose to hide their treasures and finally rose in revolt.

Also of interest are the foreign coins from the abovementioned assemblages. They attest that Phanagoria maintained trade and political links with the cities of the Aegean and Asia Minor, as well as with the Bithynian Kingdom and the states ruled by the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties.

To sum up, the hoards and purses found at Phanagoria are truly invaluable as tools of historical reconstruction. They shed new light on the Bosporan economy and help us better understand Phanagoria’s foreign trade on the eve of the Mithridatic Wars and that negative impact the military and political turmoil had on the rural area of the city.

An interesting insight into the economic and political situation that existed in the Bosporos in the 3rd – early 4th centuries AD was offered by a massive hoard of Bosporan staters found in the Eastern Phanagorian necropolis in 2011. Until then, it was the Tiritaka hoard of 2,093 coins (found in 1937) that enjoyed the prestige of being the largest known hoard of the epoch. The coin assemblage from Phanagoria includes 3,694 staters and is now considered the largest of all late Bosporan hoards discovered to date.

The owner of the treasure, apparently a wealthy Phanagorian man, had been saving money till 308 AD, when some turbulent events that took place in the late reign of the Bosporan king Theothorses (285–308 AD) urged him to hide the jar with the coins away from his place – in the grave of his relative or friend. For some reason, the owner failed to retrieve his treasure. The hoard contains staters of Ininthimeus (234–238) – 1 specimen, Rhescuporis V (242–276) – 2,131 specimens, Pharsanzes (253) – 16 specimens, Sauromates IV (275) – 88 specimens, Teiranes (266, 275–276) – 159 specimens, Theothorses (285–308) – 1,299 specimens. The earliest coin is the starter of Ininthimeus minted in 237 AD.

Most of the coins were issued by King Rhescuporis V. In the middle of the 3rd century AD the Bosporos was facing a serious threat of barbarian invasion. The hoard contains staters minted in all the years when Rhescuporis co-ruled with the other kings. A number of unique barbarian imitations of the staters struck during the reign of King Theothorses (which circulated in the Bosporos along with the original royal issues) are also present in the hoard.

The 2011 Phanagorian coin hoard is direct evidence of the economic decline and monetary crisis in the Bosporos in the second and third quarters of the 3rd century AD. Its thorough analysis helps to refine our knowledge about the monetary reform of Rhescuporis V and the overall political and military situation in the mid 3rd – early 4th centuries AD. It is surely no accident that the hoard was concealed at the moment of the power shift in the Bosporos in 308 AD (before Rhadamsades (309–322) succeeded to the throne): Phanagoria, indeed, must have been in grave danger at that time.

V.D. Kuznetsov,

M.G. Abramzon

Digital Version of the Booklet