On 21 November, room 02/011 of the Peter Froggatt Centre, Queen’s University Belfast was packed to capacity to hear one of CANI’s own, Dr Raoul McLaughlin present an illustrated talk on ‘Greek and Roman Voyages in the Black Sea’
After a brief welcome and update on future events from CANI convenor Helen McVeigh and an even briefer introduction which as per the speaker’s request amounted to “this is Raoul, he’ll take it from here”, Dr McLaughlin launched into a look at the position of the Black Sea in the ancient world.
It was no surprise that Dr McLaughlin began his talk with the recent discovery of the 75ft, 20-man ship on the bed of the Black Sea. Such well-preserved wrecks provide “a unique opportunity to study the ancient economy,” not just of the Black Sea itself but of the connections it provides between the Mediterranean through the mounted nomads of the Central Asian steppe to China.
But it is not only as a conduit for east-west trade that the Black Sea was important to the powers of the Mediterranean. The lands around the Black Sea provided their own commodities and as sea trade was much cheaper and quicker than over land, the shipping lanes of the Black Sea attracted many merchants and then colonists.
Many Greek colonies sprouted up around the Black Sea, with perhaps the most important being those of the Crimea which presided over the expansion of considerable grain fields, used. Combined with its fish stocks, it was suggested that the Black Sea could have fed up to 20 Mediterranean cities, including the Athenian Empire.
Indeed, Black Sea trade was long enough established to appear in many of the stories of Greek mythology, such as with Promotheus’ chaining to Mount Elburz and most famously in the journey of Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis, now modern Georgia but then considered to be the limits of the ‘known’ world. The suggestion of what the Golden Fleece was – a sheep’s fleece used to sieve gold from rivers – might highlight another important commodity that the Black Sea might have had.
The Roman historian Arrian extensively about the Black Sea and the lands surrounding it, and Dr McLaughlin used that Periplus of the Euxine Sea as a template to follow around the shores of the Black Sea. In the process, he demonstrated Arrian’s depiction of Roman control of coastal positions and the dangers of the Black Sea. Perhaps most intriguing was how far around the Black Sea coast Roman control reached during this period, with a significant Roman garrison at Asparos, now Gonio in Georgia, a lesser garrison at Phasis (Poti), and at Sebastopolis (Sukhumi). Dr McLaughin also recounted the story of how the straits of the Azov Sea were known to freeze so solidly in winter that it allowed a Pontic king to with a naval battle in the summer and a cavalry battle in the winter on the same spot.
Dr McLaughlin’s talk also took in the cities of the Crimea and the north-eastern coast of the Black Sea, before returning to Roman territory across the mouth of the Danube, via the Island of Achilles.
After such an engaging talk, Dr McLaughlin took several questions from the audience, including (but not limited to) the presence of piracy in the Black Sea, how the grain fleets and other commodities almost made the Black Sea a mini-Mediterranean, the importance of the position of Constantinople not only as a link between east and west but also north and south, and how the ship wrecks on the sea bed might be able to tell us something about the ebbing ad flowing of the importance of the Black Sea throughout Roman history.
CANI would like to thank all of those who came on relatively short notice and to Dr McLaughlin for offering his expertise to get the 2018/19 programme off to a belated but excellent start.