Type of Government
The government of the Scythians, a seminomadic people based north of the Black Sea between the Danube and Volga rivers, was a mixture of tribal confederation and hereditary monarchy. Beneath the king was a powerful aristocracy known as the Royal Scyths. Though there is little evidence of a professional bureaucracy, archaeological remains of substantial fortifications suggest a high level of social and political organization.
Because the Scythians left no written records of their own, historians must rely on archaeology and the historical writings of their neighbors, primarily the Greeks. Neither is a perfect witness; the Greeks, particularly those living in trading settlements on the coast of the Black Sea, were often at odds with the Scythians, while archaeology, by its nature, can offer only a partial picture. A few points are clear nevertheless. The few Scythian words quoted by Greek authors identify it as an Iranian language, and the most accepted theory posits a Scythian migration to the Black Sea area from Central Asia (north of modern Iran) about 700 BC. Even though most Scythians were herdsmen and horse breeders, grain was grown wherever conditions permitted, and permanent fortified settlements of various sizes existed. The largest of these was probably Kamenka, on the Dnieper River in what is now the Ukraine.
At the top of Scythian society were the Royal Scyths, professional warriors and horse breeders whose wealth is apparent in the extravagance of their burials. Even though this group was undoubtedly important in the leadership of the individual tribes, the precise nature of their relationship to the king is unclear. It is likely that some served as advisers, both informally and in the more structured setting of a war council. Because large bureaucracies are difficult to manage without the use of writing, the structure of the Scythian government was probably flexible and streamlined, with lines of command leading directly to the king. Some kings, such as Ateas (c. 429–339 BC), were quite forceful in the assertion of royal prerogatives, whereas others, preferring a more decentralized approach, may have delegated considerable authority to the tribal chiefs. Still others may have been forced to do so through weakness or circumstance. With these shifts in royal temperament came adjustments to the imperial frontiers, as outlying clans left and rejoined the confederacy. The overwhelming impression is one of flexibility and adaptability. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Scythians survived for at least four centuries as an independent people.
Political Parties and Factions
Not much is known of Scythia’s internal politics. Historians believe that there were rivalries, even feuds, between tribes, with water and pasture rights being a constant source of disagreement. Furthermore, they think there were some divisions along occupational lines as well, both between herdsmen and grain farmers and between the professional warriors of the Royal Scyths and the common soldiers paid only with food, clothing, and occasional booty. The name of one priestly organization is known, the Enarees, but because it was associated with the Scythian equivalent of Aphrodite (goddess of love), its influence over war and politics was likely quite limited.
In 513 BC the Persian king Darius I (550–486 BC) marched north, crossed the Danube at its mouth, and advanced into Scythian territory. If the goal of the campaign was conquest, it failed, but it may have been intended as a simple show of force to dissuade the Scythians from aiding Persia’s enemies or venturing southward themselves.
There is wide disagreement among historians regarding the date of Scythia’s decline. It was a gradual process, and declines in one region were sometimes offset by gains in another. By the end of the fourth century BC, however, it was clear that Scythia was weakening, as neighboring peoples began to descend on the Scythians from all directions. Chief among these invaders were the Sarmatians, who started moving west into Scythian territory. The newcomers absorbed most of the Scythians, a process made easier by linguistic ties between the two groups.
Braund, David, ed. Scythians and Greeks: Cultural Interactions in Scythia, Athens, and the Early Roman Empire (Sixth Century BC–First Century AD) . Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2005.
Minns, Ellis H. Scythians and Greeks: A Survey of Ancient History and Archaeology on the North Coast of the Euxine from the Danube to the Caucasus . New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965.