Olbia Pontica and the ‘Olbian Muse’

By: Nina A. Leypunskaya

Originally Published in 1994

View PDF

In the southern part of the Ukraine, not far from where the Bug estuary meets the Black Sea, the Ionian Greeks founded a new city and called it OIbia, “the fortunate one.” During the many years of its existence, from the 6th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., the city underwent periods of economic highs and lows, friendships and enmities, war and peace with the surrounding tribes.

In the 5th century B.C., Herodotus quite likely vis­ited the city. He mentioned it in the so-called Scythian Logos, describing its defensive walls and a number of the city structures. The Bithynian orator Dio Chrysostom described the Olbia of the late 1st century A.D. in detail. It was also mentioned casually in the writings of other authors, such as Strabo and Eusebius. In the 1790s, P. S. Pallas first identified the ruins on the borders of the vil­lage of Ilinske in the Nykolayev obiast as ancient Olbia. In the 19th century A.D., V.V. Latyshev found and deci­phered certain inscriptions from Olbia, as well as its known coins (Latyshev 1887; Karyshkovskiy 1988; Anokhin 1989). All of this early interest has promoted ongoing archaeological and historical studies of the city. Unfortunately, before and even during the time that scientific studies of the city were underway, looters were actively plundering the site. Stones from the ancient build­ings were used for construc­tion of the nearby town of Ochakov by the Turks in the 16th century and by the new settlers of both Ochakov and its neighboring villages. Looted items from Olbia, espe­cially from the burials in the necropolis, became objects of trade, as did clever imitations.

Olbia has continually attracted the attention of clas­sical scholars. B.V. Farmakovskiy, at the turn of the cen­tury, was its first excavators; using pioneering methodology, he uncovered a significant area of the city, including the fortification structures and necropolis. Later excavations were directed by his students, L.M. Slavin, E.L. Levi, and A.N. Karasev. Since 1972 work in Olbia has been con­ducted primarily by the Academy of Sciences of the Ukraine, under the leadership of S.D. Kryzhitskiy. As a result of these excavations, an area totaling about 6 hectares has been uncovered in which all periods, fro the Archaic to the Roman, are represented. The agora and the sanctuaries of Apollo Deiphinios and Apollo the Healer were uncovered in the central area (Figs. 1, 2), as well as the remains of altars and temples, trade shops,stoats (long colonnaded buildings), the defensive lines of the Greek and Roman periods, living quarters in various parts of the city, and manufacturing and economic com­plexes.


During its heyday, Olbia occupied an area of at least 55 hectares; at present it covers about 33 hectares, since the coastal part is now inundated by the waters of the estu­ary. When the first settlers arrived, they saw a natural amphitheater with an upper and lower plateau joined by gentle slopes; the territory around the future city was protected by deep ravines. On the lower plateau were springs of fresh water and a convenient place for a harbor. The fertile soil around Olbia held considerable attraction for the settlers, and from the 6th century B.C. on the city developed as a polis devoted to farming and animal husbandry. So far, around 180 settlements have been uncovered  nearby, dating to various periods.

Two main periods in Oldie’s history are clearly dis­tinguished: the 6th to the 1st centuries B.C. and the 1st century A.D. The earlier period came to an end with the destruction of the city by warring Gothic tribes under the leadership of Burebista around the middle of the 1st century B.. (Vinogradov 1989).

In its first years Olbia’s settlers built temporary dwellings on the plateau of the upper city. Their culti­vated fields lay nearby. By the second half of the 6th cen­tury B.C. the basic city lines were established and the location and character of the future central area of the city were set (the agora, the ternenos or sacred enclosure of Apollo Deiphinios and, nearby, that of Apollo the Healer). Although their houses were quite primitive­dug-out pit dwellings with an area of 6 to 18 square meters—the temple structures were built of stone in the usual Greek architectural orders (i.e., Doric or Ionic). Farming settlements began to appear in the agricultural areas, not only in the immediate vicinity of the city but also 10-15 kilometers away. Here inhabitants grew vari­ous grain crops (primarily barley, wheat, and millet), sowed leguminous plants, and carried out stock breeding.

At the same time, the city’s main institutions were formed. Olbia became a typical agriculturally polies with a center and a chora (outlying rural area), maintaining trade and cultural ties with its mother city, Millets.

At the beginning of the second quarter off the 5th century B.C., events occurred that greatly affected the appearance of the city. The chora shrank in size, and most of the surrounding settlements ceased to exists, while the population of Olbia grew significantly larger. The earlier pit dwellings of the city dwellers became aboveground stone-and-brick houses of the customary Greek type. The building of stone defensive walls above the natural ravines began, and to the west of them appeared a suburb of pit-dwellings.

The chora was soon revived, however, and the agri­cultural base of the city restored. Crafts developed, and trade exchange with many centers on the mainland and islands of the Mediterranean commenced. Olbia began to issue coins: cast bronze assaria (units of bronze coinage) and their fractions, coins in the form of little dolphins. At the end of the period, bronze coins of the Greek type were being minted for use in internal trade. Around the middle of the 5th century B.., the first attempt to mint silver staters took place, with production of the so-called staters of Emirnakos (a stater is the principal regular issue of a Greek mint). By this time the basic administrative structure of the Olbia polis was also in place. During the 6th-4th centuries B.C., the system of government in Olbia changed from an aristocratic republic, probably a tyranny, to a democratic republic in which the legislative bodies were the Council and the General Assembly.

City planning was undertaken. Construction covered the entire area of both the plateaus and the slopes. The harbor and the theater, the fish market, the ecclesiasteria (places for the Assembly of adult male citizens to gather), the temples and other buildings in the sanctuaries, and the agora were built. On the eastern edge of the sanctuaries, abutting the terraced part of the city, a unique system, consisting of a stone-lined reservoir and an underground water-pipe with a siphon arrangement, provided water to one of the foun­tains of the lower city.

The blossoming of Olbia was interrupted for a brief period in the 4th century B.. when it was besieged by Zopirion, one of Alexander the Great’s officers. The chora was ravaged, and the plight of the city was so seri­ous that the Olbiopolites had to free the slaves, forgive debts, and offer rights of citizenship to foreigners. Archaeological traces of that siege were found in a layer of charred ruins at the western gates.

Almost immediately after the siege, life in Olbia revived. The chora was restored and now included sepa­rate estates. The city reached its maximum size and took on its final form. Residential quarters, the sanctuaries, and the fortifications were rebuilt, and highly organized public services were instituted. In the center, the temples of Apollo Deiphinios and Zeus, porticos, stoas, court buildings, and so on were built and rebuilt (see Figs. 1-8). Coins were minted, and the whole economy of the polls developed rapidly, with a base of agriculture, crafts, and widely developed internal and external trade.

From the second half of the 3rd century to the beginning of the 2nd century B.., another serious crisis was gradually building. Once again settlements in the chora disappeared; Olbia had to pay tribute to barbarian rulers, and for a period was under the protectorate of the Scythian king Scilurus. In the middle of the 2nd century B.C., the city suffered a serious decline, and after a rela­tively short membership in the Pontic Kingdom of Mithradates VI Eupator in the middle of the 1st century B.C., it fell to the Goths. was renewed once again in the opening years of the 1st century A.D., although within a much smaller territory, and its citizens enjoyed a relatively high standard of liv­ing. During the 2nd-3rd centuries A.D., a Roman garrison was sta­tioned in Olbia, with a citadel and barracks located in the southern part of the city (Figs. 9, 10). There were sizable agricultural suburbs in this period. Large gra­naries, wineries, and enclosures for cattle were built in the upper city, while agricultural store-houses and small metal and ceramic workshops were located in the lower city. Yet despite the presence of a separate Roman segment in the population and close ties with the Roman Empire, Olbia remained a Greek city with a polis structure.

As a result of Goth invasions, the city as an urban center ceased to exist in the middle of the 3rd century A.D., although life glimmered in various sectors until the First half of the 4th century A.D.


Among the remains of Oldie’s material culture are many first-class examples of Greek craft and art: painted and reliefwork vases, terracottas, sculpture, and architectural elements. It was well known that Olbia contained many imported statues representing the various artistic schools-lonian, Attic, Alexandrian-known in. Miletus, its founding city. Inscriptions preserved on the bases of statues erected in the northern Black Sea area mention well-known Athenian sculptors from the 4th century B.C.: Praxiteles, Polykrates, and Stratonides (Latyshev 1916). I would like to call attention to a recently exca­vated find, unique for the northern Black Sea area nearly life-size statue of a seated young woman. It was found in 1991 in section NGS, located in the northern part of the lower city, not far from the northern defen­sive line. The statue was not in its original setting; most likely it had been thrown down from the center of the upper city, probably during one of the barbarian raids.

Under a stratum in section NGS representing a farming suburb of the Roman period lay nicely preserved remains of Hellenistic living quarters, with large stone­and-brick houses, underground and aboveground premises, and courtyards paved with thick stone slabs. The streets and alleys between structures were paved with sherds and stone, on which were constructed stone water channels (Figs. 11, 12).

Life in this part of the city could be precarious. At the end of the 4th century B.C., this quarter suffered from a severe fire, most vividly attested to in the north­western part, nearest to the northern city walls. The fire may have been associated with the siege of Zopirion, mentioned above. A little later on there was some kind of natural catastrophe, probably a landslide. Excavations reveal house walls cracked and leaning to one side; many buildings were completely demolished.

The occupants of the quarter were fairly prosperous people, who had reasonably large homes (150-200 square meters) and a wide variety of material possessions. We found a large quantity of pottery, along with amphora stamps from Thasos, Herakleia Pontica, Sinope, Rhodes, Kos, and Knidos. Coins, terracotta, stone anchors, and mortars were included among their belongings. Unique finds include silver staters of Eminakos (Leipuns’ka and Nazarchuk 1993), an inscrip­tion dedicating the defensive walls to Demeter, Core, Pluto (Hades), and Demos (the people) (Leipuns’ka 1990), and a number of sculptures.

The bulk of the sculptures found are small votives to various gods. Of particular interest are the miniature replicas of the statue of Athena Parthenos by Phidias, and a head of Zeus or Askiepios made by an artist who was influenced by the school of Skopas. Occupying a sig­nificant place among the assemblage are works of the Alexandrian school, which were particularly widespread in Olbia in the Hellenistic period. Examples include sev­eral small heads of Asklepios, Hygieia, and Eros; a head of a youth; a torso of a youth; a torso of a hermaphrodite; and a statuette of Artemis (Rusiaeva 1986; Slavin 1971).

Although these are all beautiful examples of ancient sculpture, the recent discovery in the NGS section is truly unique. None of the other sculptures are of such high artistic quality, and the subject is previously unknown in the art of Olbia. The statue represents a young woman sitting on a chair (Fig. 13a-e). The head is missing, as are parts of the arms and the right foot. The torso is cracked and its surface abraded in places, especially in the area of the shoulders and chest, and a long amorphous diagonal ridge is noticeable on the right side of the chair (Fig. 13e). The back part of the figure was reworked: some of the clothing and the upper part of the chair were removed, and five apertures were made for pins (Fig. 13c).The ridge and the reworked back will figure in our discussion of the statue’s identity, below. Most likely, the sculpture in its initial form was intended to be viewed from all sides; only later was it adapted for placement in a niche.

In order to determine the date, origin, and meaning of our statue, we sought comparisons in reasonably well-known examples of classical Greek sculpture. We found similarities in the general appearance and in the pic­turesqueness of the clothing between our sculpture and the relief depicting the Muses (ca. 330 B.C.) from the treasure house of Leto in Mantinea (Hamann 1959:689). The muse on the right is seated in an analogous pose to ours. The folds of the muse’s clothing are modeled somewhat more statically; however, they are similarly arranged. The greatest resemblance is in the manner in which the ankles are covered by the lower part of the cloak, which flows from the right leg to the left. A simi­lar detail appears on the reliefs of the Sarcophagus of Mourning Women, from Sidon; here the folds of the cloak wrap around the Legs of the sitting women (Winter 1912:313). It should be noted that, despite the apparent simplicity, such an artistically vivid approach is not often found in examples of Greek monumental art. The paral­lels become therefore all the more telling.

Similarities in pose and in the character of the folds of the cloak area can also be seen on some Attic grave reliefs, in particular the relief of Mnesarete (ca. 480 B.C.), the woman with a servant from Piraeus (second quarter of the 4th century B.C.), and the stele of Kallisto (late 4th century B.C.) (Diepoldcr 1971: Plus. 26-27; Carousos 1983: no. 732; Hamann 1959: figs. 737-738).

Other monuments of the Classical period carry details similar to those on the Olbia statue. Thus, a san­dal of analogous style is found on the foot of the Niobid of Ciaramonte (Alscher 1956, 3: P1. 39), and a round clasp appears on Hegeso’s sandal on the Attic relief of the same name. A similar chair, with legs decorated with beading on their lower parts, is depicted on the Parthenon friezes; also, Dionysos sits in state on such a chair with a cush­ion (east frieze).The evidence thus speaks in support of a 4th century B.. date for the sculpture: its simi­larity to the above-mentioned relief from Mantinea, the char­acter of the modeling of the clothing, the placement of the legs, which is especially characteristic of the school of Praxiteles, and the gracefulness of the figure and its pose. Yet despite this evidence, the Olbian sculpture, it seems, cannot be dated to the Classical period. The whole appearance of the seated woman—the picturesquely draped clothing, the accu­rately observed proportions of the body, and the dynam­ism of the pose—testifies to a much later period. The folds of the clothing are executed in a manner that cre­ates a restlessness and liveliness typical of Hellenistic art, while the whole composition makes the figure of the woman, not the ornamentation, paramount. Further­more, the realistic treatment of the images and the decor is especially characteristic of Hellenistic art. It therefore seems more accurate to date the Olbian statue to the early Hellenistic period, most likely the first half of the 3rd century B.C.

In respect to its origin, it seems possible to attribute the statue to the school of Alexandrian or Asia Minor Hellenistic sculpture. We do not present any concrete data in support of this hypothesis here; nevertheless, the stylistics of the figure, the softness of the modeling, the picturesqueness, the prominence of the image of a living young woman, although idealized, and the absence of a dry quality that characterizes Attic art, support the possi­bility. As further, indirect, evidence, a significant number of sculpted images of the Alexandrian school have been found in Olbian.


A notable difficulty in interpreting the image is that DO identifying attribute has been observed. Nor have direct analogies been found in other works. Usually, seated fig­ures of women are depictions of Demeter, or Cybele. Yet Demeter is usually shown as a mature woman; to be shown as a young goddess is rare. Seated depictions of the Muses, the Moirai (Fates), and occasionally other female deities are also known, both in the round and in relief. Such subjects appear on the friezes of the Parthenon, for example, and on the above-mentioned treasure house of Leto, which is in turn related to a somewhat later representation of the Muses from Argos (Marcadé 1980).

In our opinion, the Olbia statue is most likely not Demeter, but a Muse. This is indirectly proved by the fact that she was probably part of a sculptural group, and Muses were usually represented in groups of at least three. Supporting this supposition is the presence of the above-mentioned ridge on the right side of the chair (Fig. I3e). In all probability, after the statue was used as a decoration for a certain structure in a group composi­tion, this end figure was separated, its back part trimmed, and apertures made for pins. It was then probably placed in a niche. If one allows that in the Hellenistic period, there was a theater in the terraced part of Olbian (note that this theater has never been found in excavations), then it is fully possible that the Olbian Muse once stood there.

The whole character of the image, the stylistics of the representation, and the subtlety of the working of details support the supposition that the Olbian Muse represents an original rendition of an outstanding Greek master working in the Hellenistic period.


The young woman sits in a dynamic pose (Fig. 13a, b). The upper part of her body is erect, and her right shoulder is slightly pushed forward. Her legs are slightly spread apart at the knees, at the same time maintaining the grace of the pose. Her right leg is extended forward, resting on the whole foot (now missing), while her left leg is pushed back with the heel slightly lifted. Her right arm is lost, but judging by the folds of clothing on the side, it was raised or at least not tightly held against the body. Her left arm is extended forward from the elbow, and her forearm, which is parallel to the seat, appears to rest on the folds of clothing. There are no notice­able traces of an armrest, but there was probably some kind of object that supported her wrist. A pillow covers the seat of the chair, the legs of which are straight and probably had decora­tive beading on the lower part.

The woman is dressed in a short chiton and a long hiination (cloak). The clothing is semitransparent and reveals the modeling of chest and legs. The anatomical proportions of the figure are quite exact.

The chiton falls in freely flowing wide folds across the chest, creating an angle. The garment is bound (probably twice) at the waist, and a little below that lies in a band of deepened, wavy folds. The cloak, which drapes the whale fig­ure, falls into groups of folds running down from the shoul­ders. The artist’s intention to give the clothing a special picturesqueness is clear. From the right shoulder, the clothing falls behind the hack; because of the reworking only faint traces of the folds cane be seen (Fig. 13c). The fabric then goes under the arm, where the folds are modeled in high relief, and continues on to the belly and the knees, forming deep­ened horizontal folds. Partially held by the knee, it drops to the base of the sculpture with a group of freely falling folds with a picturesquely finished edge (Fig. 13b). The vertical edges of the lower fabric are sharp, and the depth of the inter­vals between the folds is 1.5-2.0 centimeters. Under the right arm, next to the edge of the seat, the fabric is noticeably thicker.

The left arm is covered by the cloak from the shoul­der down. The vertical edge of the garment is slightly wavy and quite sharply pointed here, and follows the line of the fig­ure as if wrapping the arm. The fabric falls to the seat, where it is modeled in several unruly, pointed waves, disappearing behind the back (Fig. 13d).

The legs are also covered by the cloak. The cloak crosses from the right shin to the left, where it appears to wrap around the ankle. The woman’s left Foot is formed care­fully and realistically; it rests on the high sole of her sandal, and on its instep traces of straps are faintly visible, probably with a round clasp in the center. Judging by the spaces between the big toe and the second toe, one of the straps of the sandal passed between them, joining the clasp and the sole.

The head, which was not carved from the same piece of stone as the body, is lost, but most likely in antiquity  it was attached at the base of the neck. The site of attachment was reworked along the inner surfaces; however, no traces of apertures or protrusions for attachment are detectable.

Cite This Article

Leypunskaya, Nina A.. "Olbia Pontica and the ‘Olbian Muse’." Expedition Magazine 36, no. 2-3 (July, 1994): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/olbia-pontica-and-the-olbian-muse/

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.