The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2023, 50-73

The Black Sea as a Scythian Bow: Genesis of an Image

S. Bianchetti

University Firenze


For citation: Bianchetti, Serena. The Black Sea as a Scythian Bow: Genesis of an Image // Drevneishie gosudarstva Vostochnoi Evropy (The Earliest States of Eastern Europe). 2023: The Black Sea Region in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Problems of Historical Geography / Editor of the volume A.V. Podossinov. Мoscow: GAUGN-Press, 2023. S. 50–73.


DOI: 10.32608/1560-1382-2023-44-50-73


AbstractThe Black Sea-Sсythian bow comparison occurs in many sources (in particular Strabo 2. 5. 22 C125) but only Ammianus Marcellinus (22. 8. 10) mentions Eratosthenes, Hecataeus and Ptolemy in the context of a description focusing on the perimeter of this sea.

In this paper I would like to examine the possibility that the comparison with the Scythian bow could be traced back to Eratosthenes. Examination of Strabo’s complex testimony, in fact, reveals a polemical attitude on the part of the geographer from Amasea with regard to the scientist from Alexandria concerning the Black Sea area. In particular, Eratosthenes considered Issos and not Dioskourias to be the eastern end of the Mediterranean and evidently attributed different characteristics and functions to the Black Sea compared to those imagined by Strabo.

In the description by Strabo, the role of Timosthenes of Rhodes, who was Ptolemy II’s admiral and who provided Eratosthenes with most of the measurements from his periplographical experience at the service of the Lagids, can be clearly highlighted.

Through the examination of the important literary, papyrological and archaeological documentation and through the recent discussion of the historical-political significance of the evidence, a dense network of commercial and political relations that linked the Black Sea to the Egypt of the early Lagids seems to emerge. In this context, the role of Timosthenes is undoubtedly relevant and the examination of some fragments of his work reveals important points of contact with the work of Eratosthenes, who echoed the court admiral. It is hypothesized here that even the Black Sea-Scythian bow comparison may derive in some way from Timosthenes’ description.

Finally, the testimony of Ammianus Marcellinus, which shows a differently oriented bow, is nevertheless precious in that it allows us to identify and comprehend the traces of a different conception from that of Eratosthenes, probably one of Polybian origin, and perhaps part of the numerous “corrections” that Polybios wanted to make to the Alexandrian “map”. The role of Polybius in the representation of Pontus, which we attempt to reconstruct here through the complex testimony of Ammianus, also contributes to clarifying the importance of Eratosthenes in defining an image (Pontus-Scythian bow) which is entirely consistent with the method of the scientist, who used comparisons of geographical areas with concrete objects (chlamys, butcher’s knife, ship) to make his complex geometrical theories on world map construction more comprehensible to readers.

Black Sea, Scythian bow, Ammianus Marcellinus, Eratosthenes, Hecataeus, Ptolemy


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