In one of our previous articles about the Achaemenid realm, we mentioned how the Persian empire was the largest superpower in the ancient world (circa 500 BC), with its landmass stretching from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to the borders of northern India and Central Asia. And now archaeologists have found evidence of the incredible Persian influence even in the distant region by the Black Sea, in present-day Russia. To that end, a team of Russian researchers have uncovered an ancient marble stele (a slab) that is inscribed with a message from Persian king Darius I. The fascinating discovery was made at Phanagoria, an ancient Greek site near Crimea.
According to the report made by The Art Newspaper, the inscription in question uses a specialized cuneiform script that can be attributed to Persian kings of antiquity. And while only around 10-15 percent of the message has survived, the deciphered sections of the stele script make it clear that it was a message of Persian triumph over their foes. More specifically, according to Vladimir Kuznetsov, the director of the Phanagoria Historical and Archeological Museum-Preserve, and the leader of the expedition –
[The inscription is] evidently devoted to the crushing of the Ionian revolt…[and 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 is 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.
Interestingly enough, one of the words mentioned in the inscription pertains to Miletus, which was an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia. Inhabited throughout the late Neolithic, Bronze Age and Mycenaean period, the city reached its political and cultural zenith in 6th century BC. But unfortunately, the tyrant of Miletus – Aristagoras became the leader of the Ionian Revolt against the Persians, in 499 BC. The Persians under Darius I quashed the rebellion, and even sold many of the women and children into slavery, thus relegating the city’s status for a few years to come.
So from the historical angle, the victory stele possibly describes the victory of the Persians over the Greek city-state. But the question naturally arises – how come the slab was found in the distant land beyond the Black Sea? Well a piece of the victory stele was possibly transported to Phanagoria by ship – thus implying Persian influence in the area.
What’s more, the same team researchers (with their expedition being sponsored by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska) had also discovered the ruins of a 6th-5th century BC fort in the proximate area that was possibly under the control of a powerful ruler. This archaeological scope is complemented by yet another find discovered in April of this year. It pertains to a fragment of a marble arrow with inscriptions that date back to 5th century BC.
So overall many of these discoveries (including the stele) probably relate to the influence of the Achaemenid Persians along the Black Sea. And lastly from the historical perspective, it should also be noted that Darius I was responsible was gathering one of the largest armies in the ancient times to invade Scythia (the Eurasian steppes beyond the Black Sea) in a bid to secure his northern flanks before engaging the mainland Greeks – an encounter that had its climax at the Battle of Marathon.
And while the Persians were initially successful in advancing through the Scythian territories, their forces were mostly greeted with scorched lands and poisoned wells. Darius’ precarious situation was further exacerbated by precise Scythian raids and forays that inflicted substantial casualties on the ponderous Persian army. Such unorthodox tactics forced Darius to set up his fortified camp by the Sea of Azov, and the frustrated monarch even asked his foes – why the Scythians were not offering any direct battle?
In reply, King Idanthyrsus (one of the three Scythian kings) said, according to Herodotus –
This is my way, Persian. I never fear men or fly from them. I have not done so in times past, nor do I now fly from thee. There is nothing new or strange in what I do; I only follow my common mode of life in peaceful years. Now I will tell thee why I do not at once join battle with thee. We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in a hurry to fight with you.
Suffice it to say, after mounting Scythian pressure and their superb equestrian skills, Darius had to retreat back to the Danubian border, thus mirroring later day failed campaigns like Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and Operation Barbarossa during WWII. As a result, the nomadic Scythians managed to score a strategic victory over an ancient superpower, and continued to exert their influence in the proximate regions for almost three more centuries.