UD: Jan. 2020
“… to the Maeotic Lake on the east, where it bordered on Pontic Scythia, and that from that point on Gauls and Scythians were mingled”.
(Plut. Marius: 11: 4—5)
61 BC – Western Black Sea coast
A Roman army marches on the Greek city of Histria to crush a rebellion by the local population. The situation is even more ominous for the Greeks, because the Roman commander is none other than the Governor of Macedonia Gaius Antonius (the uncle of Mark Anthony), a notoriously cruel and brutal man, who had earned the name Hybrida (the Monster) for his systematic atrocities against the local population in the region (Pliny, Nat. Hist. viii. 213; Dio. Cass. XXXVIII). However, before Hybrida’s army can reach Histria a barbarian army, drawn from the local population, mobilizes to save the city.
The events which follow are to rank among the most embarrassing in the history of the empire…
Location of Histria
The interior of eastern Thrace/Scythia Minor during this period was inhabited by a unique population of Thracian (Getae), Celtic, and Celto-Scythian (Bastarnae) tribes. During Rome’s recent conflict with the Pontic King Mithridates VI the Celts and Bastarnae had allied themselves against the empire (App. Mith. 69, 111; Justin 38:3, Memnon 27:7). At the Battle of Chalcedon, for example, the Bastarnae had dealt a severe blow to the Romans – “In the land battle the Bastarnae routed the Italians, and slaughtered them” (Memnon op cit). Indeed, according to Appianus, his Celtic allies had stood with Mithridates to the bitter end in the conflict:
“Seeing a certain Bituitus there, an officer of the Gauls, he said to him, ‘I have profited much from your right arm against my enemies. I shall profit from it most of all if you will kill me.
…Bituitus, thus appealed to, rendered the king the service he desired”.
(App. Mith. 111)
As with so many ‘barbarian’ leaders of the European Iron Age, the Bastarnae king who faced the Roman army at Histria in 61 BC has hitherto remained nameless. However, recent numismatic evidence from the southern Dobruja region of today’s n.e. Bulgaria has yielded information which may allow us to finally identify the ‘Hero of Histria’.
During the 2/1 century BC six Peucini Bastarnae kings in this area struck coins in their names. Emerging numismatic data indicates that the latest of these was Akrosas, whose coinage was minted for him at the Greek colony of Dionysopolis (today’s Balchik) (See ‘Sariakes’ article with relevant lit.), near the Bastarnae settlement of Peuce (loc cit), once again confirming that this area was the center of (Peucini) Bastarnae political and economic power in the 2nd/ 1st c. BC.
Lead measure weight of Dionysopolis bearing the ΕΥ from the name of the monetary magistrate Eukles (genitive ΕΥΚΛΕΟΥ)
(after Draganov 2012)
Bronze issues of Dionysopolis bearing the name of the magistrate ΕΥΚΛΕΟΥ
(after Draganov 2012)
Akrosas bronze issues bearing the name of the king and the ΕΥ of the Dionysopolis magistrate ΕΥΚΛΕΟΥ
Celto-Scythian (Peucini Bastarnae) burial from Durankulak Island (Dobrudja), north-eastern Bulgaria
(2nd c. BC)
Of great importance in establishing the chronology of Akrosas’ rule is a hoard of gold and bronze coins discovered in 1968 at the village of Bulgarevo in the s. Dobruja region (near the Peucini settlement of Tirisis – see ‘Sariakes’ article). This hoard, found scattered in a field near the village, besides bronze Akrosas issues, also yielded 4 rare barbarian gold staters of the Lysimachus type, dated to the Mithridatic period (Youroukova, Draganov, op cit), which chronologically indicates that Akrosas was most probably the Bastarnae commander at the Battle of Histria in 61 BC.
Gold Lysimachus type staters from the Bulgarevo hoard
(after Draganov 2012)
Bronze Issues of the Bastarnae leader Akrosas from the Bulgarevo hoard
For Rome, the Battle of Histria was a complete fiasco. As Hybrida’s army approached the city, a large force of Bastarnae cavalry swept down on the Romans and the Roman governor, apparently caught unawares, detached his entire mounted force from the marching column and retreated, or, as the Roman historian Dio Cassius rather bluntly puts it – ‘and thereupon he ran away…‘ ( Dio. Cass. XXXVIII). Without cavalry support, the Roman infantry were left exposed, and massacred. The Bastarnae subsequently captured several of the Roman vexilla (military standards), which made the humiliation complete.
Burial of a young Celto-Scythia horseman with La Tène weapons and bearskin cloak, from Mana, Moldova. (1 c. BC)
In the short term, Akrosas’ victory at Histria resulted in the complete collapse of the Roman positions on the lower Danube, but ironically Hybrida’s defeat set in motion a cycle of events which would ultimately bring the region under Roman rule. Shortly after the battle, the Thracian Getae, who had been Bastarnae allies at Histria, launched a series of brutal attacks on their neighbors and the Greek Pontic cities. Under the command of a leader called Burebista, who declared himself “King of all Thrace”, by the time the Getae had finished their rampage the barbarian coalition which had defeated Hybrida in 61 BC was destroyed, and the tribes who had constituted this alliance weakened to such an extent that, despite further resistance by the Celtic and Bastarnae tribes in 29/28 BC, by the end of the 1st c. BC Thrace had fallen completely under Roman control.
On the Celto-Scythian Bastarnae tribes see: