Sunday, October 15, 2023

The Black Sea as a crossroads of civilisations

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Russian-American historian Michael Rostovtzeff’s Iranians and Greeks in South Russia. Well… pleasure in a qualified sense. I took my time in reading it, and spent much of the summer struggling through it and processing it.

It is an excellent and lush book, make no mistake. Rostovtzeff provides us with wonderful plates examining all sorts of artistic production and material culture from the northern coast of the Black Sea and the northern Caucasus. But I have much the same complaint about this book that I did about Martha Avery’s The Tea Road… and that is in its lack of reader-friendly organisation. Rostovtzeff’s project is ambitious: an attempt to explore the chthonic roots of Russian civilisation, in the Iranian, Greek, Thracian and Maeotian cultures that preceded it… but in a way that does justice to the particular features of each of these cultures in its own right.
In the end, it seems at times as though he has bitten off more than he can chew. Iranians and Greeks is in roughly equal measure a work of archaeology, art criticism and classical history… with the final chapter moving into the peculiarly-Russian field of historiosophy, an attempt to get at the underlying meaning in a cosmic sense of the historical (and artistic) patterns that he has just explored. But in some cases he comes dangerously close to losing the thread, particularly for non-specialist readers who come to his text in a relative state of ignorance of some of the cultures he examines.

When this book is good, it is incredibly good. Rostovtzeff more than proves his chops as a historian when he discusses the personalities, the geopolitics and the cultural idiosyncracies of the Cimmerian kingdoms, the Scythian empire and the Sarmatian empire which replaced it. And he is equally at his best when he is describing in lavish detail the artistic styles—he places particular emphasis on the ‘animal style’ of the Scythians and the ‘polychrome style’ of the Sarmatians—of the peoples he is concerned with. The plates (how dearly I wish they were colour!) which depict these artworks are deeply appreciated. Rostovtzeff doesn’t need to hammer his point home, clearly, that these civilisations were by no means hampered in their intellectual or imaginative prowess by the limits of their technological abilities! Rostovtzeff says this outright, but we don’t have to take his word for it: even the ‘primitive’ artwork of the early Bronze Age Maeotian culture has a sophistication and a perspective that belies the limits of the tools used to create it!
Another thing Rostovtzeff says—and this is part of the thesis that got him in trouble with the Soviet leadership—is that the kingdoms of the Russian Black Sea coast were primarily mercantile kingdoms. The wealth of the Greek colonies on the Crimean Peninsula, and the corresponding wealth of the Scythian- and Sarmatian-style burial sites, was built up from trade—both overland and by sea. Even though the Scythians (and the Sarmatians who followed) were often at war with the Greek cities on the coast, it was a sort of low-level raiding type of warfare… not the sort of brutal destruction which these Iranian tribes and the Thracians visited upon each other. The reason for this was because the sedentary maritime Greeks could master the seas in ways which the Iranians could not, and the nomadic-pastoralist Iranians benefitted from the goods that they could trade for with the proceeds of their herding and overland raids.

Rostovtzeff is at his most interesting when he shows some of the material proofs of Iranian and North Caucasian presence in the overland trade route. He talks about the ‘animal style’, which includes fantastic amalgamations of animal parts on mythical beasts (griffins, winged lions, pegasus-type horses and the like) and how this style finds an echo in the bronzeworks of the Chinese Zhou Dynasty. He devotes the better part of one of his chapters near the end to this topic, and shows that the cultural exchange went two ways: it wasn’t just Chinese goods that flowed through Scythia into the Roman Empire… but rather this sort of art style flowed into China from the Caucasus! It’s somewhat fascinating to think of fu dogs, pixiu, qilin and other iconic Chinese mythical beasts of the Shan Hai Jing being inspired by Scythian and Sarmatian designs!
Rostovtzeff structures his book in more or less chronological order, beginning with the Maeotian culture and art style, and going through to the rise of the Slavs in South Russia. But it is an unfortunate stylistic choice that he tends to shift gears within each chapter somewhat without warning. As in: he will talk about the historical drama and figures of the Cimmerian kingdom, and then he will shift suddenly into a discourse on grave goods and architecture. Both of these topics are quite interesting in their own right, but they are not segued with clarity nor are they given a chance to breathe so that the reader can catch up. This book could have stood a few more rounds of editing for this kind of structural clarity.

And the final chapter is, of course, pure historiosophy of the type that was common to scholars of Russia in certain émigré circles. Rostovtzeff is no longer with us, but based on what he wrote, I think he might agree that he was characterising Russia’s place in history in somewhat metaphysical terms. When he discussed the Slavs’ inhabitation of what he terms ‘Southern Russia’—the Crimea, the Azov coast region and the northern Caucasus, and their inculturation of the elements that were already to be found there, he also clearly distinguished their inward path, their goal of establishing Russia in its own right as opposed to merely using this area as a stepping-stone to elsewhere, east or west. There is little here that other émigré scholars of a historiosophical bent—say, Vernadsky, Fedotov and Fondaminsky—have not also said. Still, it is intriguing that Rostovtzeff follows the path so many of his countrymen did, viewing his subjects of classicalism, material history and art criticism with something of a religious understanding, an unveiling of the workings of God in history.

In all, I found this an enjoyable and informative read. And if it is a bit turgid and poorly-organised in parts, the inclusion of the plates and the lush, vivid, lifelike descriptions of the artistic works and methods of craft inside cover a multitude of these kinds of prosaic sins. I would certainly recommend Rostovtzeff’s book on these alone.
Michael Rostovtzeff