A few years ago (2016 to be precise), as our regular readers may recall, there were a flurry of reports from news outlets and archaeology websites regarding the discovery of an inscribed stele in Old Persian from the Black Sea settlement of Phanagoria (for those who would like to refresh their memories the story can be found here, here, here and here).
According to the excavators, both Miletos and Darius I were referred to in the text. The director of the excavations, Vladimir Kuznetsov was quoted at the time as saying “The inscription on the stele made in the name of King Darius I is evidently devoted to the crushing of the Ionian revolt … The discovery places Phanagoria in the context of one of the most important events of ancient history, which had far-reaching consequences for the Greeks as well as the Persians, and makes it possible to trace the connections of this colony with other parts of the Greek world and analyze its significance in advancing Hellenistic civilization on the Black Sea coast.” This was big news indeed!
A year later (2017), the highly anticipated publication of the inscription appeared in Volume VI of Phanagoria. Results of the Archaeological Investigations in Russian, and earlier this year, much to our excitement, English versions of both papers concerning the inscription appeared in Ancient Civilisations from Scythia to Siberia (Vol. 25/1). Additionally, since the original publication, the text has been analyzed by several other scholars who have brought to bear new interpretations of its content and context.
But does it really mention Darius I and Miletos? Well, yes and (sadly) no. It must be borne in mind that the text is extremely fragmentary, and all its editors rightly stress the provisional nature of their interpretations (e.g. Kuznetsov & Nikitin 2019: 6-7). The monument itself is made of white marble, polished on its front and sides yet unworked at the rear, while the inscription consists of six lines of cuneiform script between 5 and 5.5 cm tall (Kuznetsov & Nikitin 2019: 2), clearly intended to make an impact on the viewer (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 849).
It was uncovered in a small mud-brick house located directly on top of the ruins of a previous fortification wall which was destroyed in a conflagration around the middle of the fifth century BCE, the stele itself was found next to the south wall with the inscription facing the earth (Kuznetsov & Nikitn 2019: 2).
The first line of the inscription is thought to contain the name “Darius” in the genitive case (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 849; Kuznetsov & Nikitin 2019: 6). While Kuznetsov and Nikhitin believe that this signifies that the inscription actually belongs to his son Xerxes (Kuznetsov & Nikitin 2019: 6-7; Kuznetsov 2019: 17-18), others note that this form is not unknown in Darius’ own inscriptions (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 849; Shavarebi 2019: 5).
There is almost total unanimity that the second line reads “Darius the King”, with Alexandru Avram suggesting the addition of “proclaims” (Avram 2019: 17). Suggestions for line 3 include “to be” (Kuznetsov & Nikitin 2019: 6); “before” (Avram 2019: 18); “I captured this”, “this is”, “I did”, “I built” or “I became” (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 851) and “that”, “thou”, “formerly” or “previously” (Shavarebi 2018:7-9).
For line four Avram (2018: 18) tentatively suggests “I restored”, while Rung & Gabelko settle on the more simplistic “that” (2018: 852). By far the most intriguing, though highly speculative, rendering of this line is Shavarebi’s “proclaimed”, “restored” or “went across”, the latter of which he idly wonders could be connected to a sea crossing (2018: 10). Line 5 is thought to read “I have done” (Avram 2019: 18), “I built” or “I captured” (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 852). There is agreement that the final line 6 should be interpreted to mean “man” or “men”.
So, no Miletos then? And no Ionian revolt? Certainly not within the reconstructions proposed, nor, as we shall see, anymore than tangentially in the contexts proffered. In a longer article to supplement his edition of the text, Kuznetsov describes four possible explanations for the stone’s presence at Phanagoria:-
Firstly, he rejects the idea, proposed upon the discovery of the stele, that it had arrived as part of a ships ballast (Kuznetsov 2019: 10). While this method may have been used to import stone into the Taman peninsula, which is notoriously devoid of good building materials, no analogies of worked stones or reused architectural material has been found at the site (Kuznetsov 2019: 10). This explanation, he says, relies to much on “a whole series of accidents” (Kuznetov 2019: 10).
He also rejects outright the contexts of Darius’ or Ariamenes’ Scythian campaigns, neither were directed against this region (Kuznetsov 2019: 11-16). Therefore, in Kuzentsov’s opinion, the most plausible context for the arrival of the stele in Phanagoria was around the time of Xerxes campaigns in Greece (Kuznetsov 2019: 16-33). In this reconstruction the original inscription would have been bilingual, with a Greek version inscribed alongside the Old Persian text we have (Kuznetsov 2019: 26; Kuznetsov & Nikitin 2019: 6-7). He suggests that, in the reign of Xerxes, Persian power had been extended to the Northern coast of the Black Sea where a client state had been formed under the rule of the Archaeanactids, who may even have been a Milesian derived aristocracy (Kuznetsov 2019: 26)!
Persian cylinder seals found in the Bosporan Kingdom are used as evidence to support this argument (Kuznetsov 2019: 21), though most of the seals are found in later burial contexts (the earliest at Nymphaeum was deposited in the first half of the fifth century), and do not necessarily indicate the presence of Achaemenid officials or governance in the region (Treister 2010: 250). Such small and easily portable items could be transmitted through a variety of channels and we should be cautious in using them to reconstruct Persian administration in a particular area.
This argument is mostly based on identification of the stele with Xerxes due to the genitive form of Darius name reconstructed in the first line. However, as noted above, this form also appears in the inscriptions of Darius and thus, on balance, we would identify the inscription with the reign of the latter. Alexandru Avram, who prefers this interpretation, nevertheless is in agreement that it seems to indicate some level of Persian control in the Northern Black sea, which he suggests was a result of Darius Scythian campaign (Avram 2019: 19) while Balakhvantsev rejects the notion of Achaemenid control on the Northern Black Sea (2018: 64).
A second possible context is offered by Rung and Gabelko (2018: 853-4) who see a clear connection between the stele and an event recorded by Herodotus (4.87) which is worth quoting in full: “Having viewed the Bosporus, he [Darius] erected two a stelae of white marble with engraved letters in Assyrian and Greek recording all of the peoples he had brought there and who he ruled over … The following happened to the stelae; the Byzantines took them into their city and used them to build an altar to Artemis Orthia except for one stone covered with Assyrian letters, which was placed beside the temple of Dioynsus at Byzantium.”
According to Rung and Gabelko, the monument described by Herodotus and the stele found at Phanagoria are one and the same (2018: 861-2). The very little information given on the stele’s appearance by Herodotus, particularly its colour (white in Herodotus – white gray at Phanagoria [Kuznetsov & Nikitin 2019: 2]), does not discount this possibility. They propose that the Byzantines removed and destroyed the stones as a symbol of defiance against the Persian empire following reports of his defeat against the Scythians (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 861-2). They then suggest that the single piece found at Phanagoria (subsequent excavations in 2017 were unable to uncover additional fragments) was a “trophy” of symbolic defiance by Phanagorian residents who had migrated from Teos, an Ionian city besieged by the Persians a few decades earlier (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 866). Shavarerbi proposes an alternative explanation in the same vein, suggesting that the stele came from an analogous monument possibly set up after Darius crossed the Danube, which subsequently found its way to Phanagoria as ballast (Shavarebi 2018: 13).
Rung & Gabelko’s interpretation, while attractive, presupposes events and attitudes that are not easy to reconstruct. Firstly, there is always a danger in equating archaeological discoveries and textual references. So much material from the ancient world is lost and we can only hope to recover a fraction of it, thus we are dealing with a pretty remarkable coincidence if we have indeed found a specific item referred to in the text of an ancient author. While there are analogous contexts for the seizure of symbols of Persian power throughout Herodotus work (e.g. 9.70), the removal of such an item (and a bulky one at that!) over such a distance to satisfy an historical grudge is, as far as I am aware, without parallel. Furthermore, we do not need to resort to “rumours” of Darius’ defeat in Europe to explain the removal and/or destruction of these monuments (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 849). Less than a generation after his Scythian campaign (c. 499-494 BCE) the cities of the Hellespont and Bosporus were in open revolt against the Persians. In our opinion this provides a much more plausible context in which to explain the removal of the monuments.
Nevertheless, Rung and Gabelko do make a very important point which illuminates the spatial and topographical contexts of the stele’s erection. While the front and side portions are worked and polished, the rear is left rough; this should preclude any location where it would be viewed in 3600 such as the agora of a client city-state or outside a religious or public complex (Rung & Gabelko 2018: 863-4). In their view, this indicates the monument was probably set against a cliff or rock face, supporting their identification with Darius’ Bosporan stelae, and finding analogies with other inscriptions from his reign such as that at Behistun.
For our part, we concur with the suggestion that the inscription belongs to the reign of Darius I and that its context is analogous with the erection of stelae during his Scythian campaign, though we remain skeptical that it was the selfsame stone described by the historian. As for how it found its way to Phanagoria it is very difficult to say conclusively. It does not seem to fit in with the other evidence for ballast stones on the Taman peninsula and there is little evidence to support its status as a Teian trophy. We may never know the exact circumstances of its transference to Phanagoria, though we would suggest that it was probably erected reasonably close by during Darius’ Scythian campaign. If we were forced to choose a location, we might wonder whether it was erected as Darius army crossed the river Don from where it could eventually have been shipped from the Greek emporium at Taganrog through the Sea of Azov to Phanagoria, though we emphasize that there is no evidence for this. At any rate the crossing of rivers was an important symbolic act for Persian monarchs, a facet of Persian ideology and practice which Herodotus seems to have incorporated, consciously or unconsciously into his work (Murray 2015). In truth, such a stele could have been set up at any one of the vast number of waterways which cut across the coastal hinterlands of the Black Sea.
While the identification of Miletos in the text may have been premature, there is no doubt that this find is of great importance to our understanding of the relationship between the Persian Empire and the Northern Black Sea region. And yet, wishful thinking though it may have been, the clamor around the alleged reference to Miletos in the inscription demonstrates the hold that the city of Thales continues to have on the modern imagination. Two and a half millennia after its destruction by the Persians, Archaic Miletos is still a cultural touchstone and as effective clickbait as any ancient reference.
The Author extends his gratitude to Thibaut Castelli and Christopher Tuplin for their generous help and assistance in discussing and clarifying aspects of the inscription, its media profile and publication. All remaining errors are of course the author’s own.
Murray, D. (2015). ‘The Waters at the End of the World. Herodotus and Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography’, in E. Barker et. al. (Eds.) New Worlds from Old Texts: Revisiting Ancient Space and Place, Oxford: University of Oxford Press, pp. 47-60. (subscription required)