Trapezus (Greek: Τραπεζοῦς): Greek city on the southern shore of the Black Sea, modern Trabzon.


Tombstone of a soldier of XV Apollinaris. Hagia Sophia, Trabzon (AE 1993, 1562)
Tombstone of a soldier of XV Apollinaris

According to the Christian author Eusebius, writing more than a millennium after the event, Trapezus was founded in 756 BCE, in the country that was called Colchis. Its first settlers were from Sinope,note a Greek city on the southern shore of the Black Sea, about 400 kilometers to the west. Because this city was a daughter of Miletus, which in turn was believed to be a colony of Athens, the Trapezian scholar Cardinal Bessarion would still boast to be an Athenian in Renaissance times.

If we are to believe Pausanias,note there was a second wave of immigrants from the Peloponnese, after the city had been destroyed by the Cimmerians in c.630. This story may be a late invention, only meant to explain why there was a town named Trapezus in Arcadia too; on the other hand, this may have been the city's real founding moment, the first one being just a legend.

However this may be, the city was a very important port and appears to have played a pivotal role in the trade between Greece and the Iron Age civilizations of Anatolia, especially Urartu. Many metal artifacts must have been shipped to Greece from Trapezus, which may explain why so many pieces of Greek art in the Oriental Style resemble Urartian objects.

Egyptian-style shears from Trapezus.
Egyptian-style shears from Trapezus.

The city was not to become wealthy because of its agricultural produce. Its acropolis is one an outcrop of the Paryadres, a mountain range parallel to the coastline; there's almost no flat land that might have been suitable for agriculture. However, there's a good port (the only one east of Amisus), and there are several roads across the Paryadres mountains.

The mountain slopes were covered with forests, allowing the Trapezians to build ships and produce wine and honey. Tuna fish is mentioned by Strabo, a geographer from nearby Amasia.note The Chalybes, as the Greeks called the mountain tribes, were well-known for producing iron ore. Later, we hear about another tribe living in the mountains, the Mossynoeci and Drilae.

Persians and Greeks

Persian influence must have been real in the late sixth century, at least theoretically, because the southern shore of the Black Sea is mentioned by Herodotus of Halicarnassus as part of the third and thirteenth tax districts of the Achaemenid Empire. Later, the city may have been one the towns of the Delian League.

In the early Spring of 400, the remains of the army of the Persian usurper Cyrus the Younger, which had returned from their ill-fated expedition against Artaxerxes II Mnemon, arrived in Trapezus; the survivors sacrificed to the Greek gods. One of its commanders, Xenophon, offers some information about the city in his Anabasis , which he calls "populous".note The army supported the Trapezians, who had a quarel with both the Drilae and the Mossynoeci.note


Several years later, in 368/367, people from Arcadian Trapezus who were not willing to move to newly-founded Megalopolis, migrated to Pontic Trapezus.note Another generation later, the city was allotted to Eumenes of Cardia, one of the successors of Alexander the Great.note

The Roman Age

In the first half of the first century BCE, the city was part of the Pontic kingdom of Mithridates VI Eupator, and its port was used by the fleet of Pontus. Nevertheless, it soon joined the Romans, and was offered by Pompey the Great to king Deiotares of Galatia. In the first century CE, the Romans later recognized Trapezus as a free city.note According to later legends, Saint Andrew was to explain Christianity to the Trapezians.

The conflict between Rome and the Parthians was mainly fought in Syria, but the strategic importance of Armenia made the Romans occupy the greater part of Anatolia. This made Trapezus an important city, because it was one of the few ports on the northern coast of this area. It was a crucial node between the limes (border zone) along the Rhine and the limes along the Euphrates.

During the reign of Nero (53-68), the city was in use as a supply base for the Armenian campaign of Corbulo;note its strategic importance was, in the Year of the Four Emperors, recognized by Anicetus, one of the supporters of Vitellius;note and Vespasian developed the area, building a road across the Zigana Pass, which was defended by the legionary fortress at Satala, base of XVI Flavia and, later, XV Apollinaris. Finally, it was Hadrian who improved the port. The remains have been identified.

An interesting text from this age is Arrian's Periplus, in which he describes a visit to Trapezus, complaining about a poorly-executed statue of Hadrian, and praising the sacrifices that the inhabitants helped him make (text). He also mentions a temple, dedicated to Hermes, and a state visit by Hadrian, probably in 129.

In the crisis of 193, Trapezus, now a flourishing city, supported Pescennius Niger, and was consequently punished by the victor of the civil war, Septimius Severus. The city remained prosperous and attracted attacks by the Visigoths (in 257) and Sasanian Persians (in 258) during the reign of Valerian. A double wall and a garrison of 10,000 additional soldiers were insufficient to prevent its capture, according to Zosimus.note

Late Antiquity

Dedication by the First Pontic Legion to Diocletian and his fellow emperors
Dedication by the First Pontic Legion to Diocletian and his fellow emperors

The city walls were repaired by Diocletian (284-305), and Trapezus received a new garrison: the First Legion Pontica. This appears to have happened in the first decade of Diocletian's rule. The unit is mentioned in a dedicationnote that can be dated to 297-305 (text) and was still in this town when the Notitia Dignitatum was composed, an early fifth-century list of Roman magistracies and military units.

The reign of Diocletian and Galerius, his caesar, witnessed feriocious persecutions of the Christians. In Trapezus, Eugenius, Canidius, Valerian, and Aquila were tortured to death. About the latter, we know that he destroyed a statue of Mithras on a hill overlooking the city, and that he became the patron saint of Trapezus. Another sanctuary of Mithras was to serve as crypt for the church of Panaghia Theoskepastos. The driving force of the Christian fight against the cult of Mithras had been Gregory Thaumaturgus from nearby Neocaesarea.

During the reign of Constantine, the city belonged to the Diocese Oriens. It was represented by its bishop, Domnus, during the Council of Nicaea. We know that prince Hannibalian founded a church, dedicated to the Virgin; not much later, Ammianus Marcellinus calls Trapezus "a celebrated city".note Perhaps the Soumela Monastery, south of the city, was built in this age, although it may a bit younger.

During the reign of Justinian, the aqueduct was improvednote and named after the martyr Eugenius. An inscription proves that the walls were repaired as well. There were also repairs to the Soumela Monastery.

Byzantine Age

Under the Byzantine emperors, Trapezus suffered decline, although it was one of the places where Muslim merchants arrived to do business with Byzantine traders. Since 824, it was the capital of the theme (military district) of Chaldia.

Hagia Sophia, Trabzon
Hagia Sophia, Trabzon

After the knights of the Fourth Crusade had captured Constantinople, however, the imperial dynasty of Byzantium, the Comnenes, escaped to Trapezus, making it the capital of the Empire of Trebizond. It surrendered to the Ottomans in 1461, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire.

Little remains of ancient and medieval Trapezus, except for the ruin of the palace of the Comnenes and the medieval church of Hagia Sophia, the answer of Trebizonde to the church with the same name in Constantinople. After the Ottoman take-over, Trapezian artists and scholars like Cardinal Bessarion traveled to Italy, taking with them precious manuscripts. The ancient city was, in this way, an important connection between the ancient culture, as continued in Byzantine art and scholarship, and the European Renaissance.

This page was created in 2011; last modified on 18 August 2020.