Royal Scythians and the Slave-Trade in Herodotus' Scythia *

By Braund, David | Antichthon, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Royal Scythians and the Slave-Trade in Herodotus' Scythia *


Braund, David, Antichthon


Herodotus has a lot to say about slavery and about particular slaves and groups of slaves. The broad theme was, of course, central to his historical conception and presentation of the Persian Wars and of warfare in general, as well as being key to the contrasting nomoi whose range and significance he is concerned to explore.1 Against that large background, I wish to examine Herodotus' understanding of slavery and slave-trading on the north coast of the Black Sea, with a view to a fuller appreciation of his Histories and of exchange in the region. Three broad observations will assist.

First, scholars concerned with the economy of the Black Sea region now tend to agree that it was the export of slaves from the region that was the principal driver of economic activity there. Of course, other exports were also important, for example leather, salt-fish and (at times) much-vaunted grain. This is not the place to argue in detail on the relative importance of various trade-goods in the region's economy. Suffice it to say that we hear almost nothing about grain-export from the region (let alone from any specific part of the region) in the fifth century BC, while archaeology suggests that much of the grain grown in the north-west Black Sea was not the wheat which the Aegean world was especially eager to import. The Black Sea region was not the great bread-basket that has often been supposed there. It too was prone to food-shortage for reasons of crop-failures and depredations, not least by Scythians.2 However, since the notion of grain-export is well-established in the scholarly tradition, there will no doubt always be those who argue for its great significance in the fifth century, even in the absence of significant evidence. Be that as it may, the key point for the current discussion is not the relative importance of one item of exchange vis-à-vis another, but the substantial importance of slave-exports from the region, however we envisage grain-export.3 Meanwhile, exports were exchanged for imports from the Mediterranean world, as well as from elsewhere in the Black Sea region. Wine and cloth were particularly significant among imports into the region, together with other items (including metalware and even fineware ceramics). The archaeological and historical record supports this broad analysis. Most notable is the only extant attempt at a balance-sheet for goods moving to and fro between the Black Sea and the Aegean past Byzantium, which Polybius happens to provide. Polybius' context (4.38) was a particular conflict between Rhodians and Byzantines around 220 BC, but he does nothing to suggest that his remarks apply only or very specifically to that historical moment. Rather, Polybius is generalising about the service that Byzantium does and has done for Greek culture at large by overseeing the passage of these goods back and forth. Accordingly, protection of slave-trading is given as a reason for Byzantium's earlier occupation of Hieron (4.50). The history of exchange in and around the Black Sea region is much more a matter of continuity than of change.4

Second, scholars have also come to appreciate the importance of trade (in slaves and in other goods) in the development of colonial communities, each with its own specific identity, including a communal myth or myths of foundation. The traditional question as to whether colonies were founded with a view to trade or to agriculture has now shifted from intention to function. In other words, while the very notion of a grand plan in colonial foundation is an unhelpful place to start, we can proceed far more constructively by considering the role of exchange in the emergence of colonies. The history of 'Archaic Greek colonisation' (whether in general or in a particular instance) seems now best understood as an extended process of social, cultural and political actions and interactions, which constituted a slow evolution of local hybridities and identities. Stories of great single acts of foundation were part of the communal mythology of civic origins, best couched in terms of epic endeavour. …

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