views updated May 11 2018


The Scythians (Assyrian: "Ašguzai" or "Išguzai"; Hebrew: "Askenaz"; Greek: "Scythioi") were a nomadic people belonging to the North Iranian language group. Their earliest mention, by Assyrian sources, comes from the first half of the seventh century b.c., during the reign of Esarhaddon (681–669 b.c.). The Scythians then appeared in northern Media, in the Lake Urmia region of Mannea (in modern-day Iran). They were involved in the Median-Assyrian conflicts. As Assyrian allies, in 673 b.c. they helped to suppress a Median uprising under the leadership of Kaštaritu. They played a still more important role in 653 b.c., saving the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, besieged by Kaštaritu's army.

At that time the Scythians were a significant military power. Their raiding parties ventured as far as the borders of Egypt in Syria, even forcing the pharaoh Psamtik I (r. 663–609 b.c.) to pay them ransom. In about 637 b.c., during the reign of Ashurbanipal (669–631? b.c.), they played an important role in defeating the Cimmerians, dreaded invaders that wreaked havoc across Asia Minor. Earlier still, the Scythians forced the Cimmerians out from the lands north of the Caucasus and the Black Sea. It was Cyaxares (r. 625–585 b.c.), the ruler of Medes, who finally managed to drive the Scythians out of the Near East.

origin of the scythians

The most important accounts on the origins of the Scythians can be found in the Histories of Herodotus (book 4) relating to "the Scythian-Cimmerian conflict." According to this Greek historian, the Scythians, as a migrating people, invaded and conquered the lands north of the Black Sea, forcing out the indigenous Cimmerians. Herodotus locates their original dwelling sites somewhere in Asia. He writes: "The Scythians were a nomadic people living in Asia. Oppressed by the warlike Massagetae [another nomadic central Asian people], they crossed the Araxes River [the Volga] and penetrated into the land of the Cimmerians [who were the original inhabitants of today's Scythian lands]."

In the absence of historical data, archaeology has played the main role in determining the Scythians' original "Asian" settlements. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, exploration showed that the origins of Scythian culture should be sought mainly in central Asia, in the upper Yenissei River basin, the Altai hills, and the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan. As early as the ninth century b.c. the Scythians' nomadic ancestors began to migrate westward from those territories, along a stretch of the Great Steppe, seeking ecological niches to suit their herding economy. This process also was stimulated by ecological changes, resulting from the cold, dry climate prevalent since about the thirteenth century b.c. As a consequence, the steppe pastures degraded. The westward migration gained impact in the second half of the eighth century b.c., and the mass influx of the Scythian tribes eventually led to the occupation of the steppes at the foot of the Caucasus. It was from these regions that the Išguzai launched their Asian invasions.

Beginning in the first half of the seventh century b.c. the Scythians gradually conquered the middle regions of the Dnieper River (which had been penetrated earlier), on the northern edge of the steppe in the forest-steppe zone. Despite living in strongly fortified settlements, the native, settled farming communities had to yield to the military might of the invading nomads. Around that time, Scythian expansion also reached into the Transylvania territories, located still farther to the west, in the Carpathian valley. With time, especially after withdrawing from the Near East, the Scythians increasingly focused their attention on the steppe regions. This was in part due to climate change and improvement in the ecological conditions in the steppes north of the Black Sea. The climate became more humid and mild, which in Europe manifested itself as the socalled Subatlantic fluctuation.

Beginning in the mid-seventh century b.c., the Black Sea region also became more "attractive" as the result of the founding of Greek colonies on the north shores of the Black Sea. The oldest among them, Borysthenes (also the ancient name for the river Dnieper), on the island of Berezan at the mouth of the Boh River, dates from about 646 b.c. Numerous other colonies, for example, Olbia and Panticapaeum, soon developed into great economic (production and trade) centers and played an enormous role in the economic and cultural development of the Scythian tribes.

After having been driven out from the Near East in the late seventh century b.c., the Scythians shifted their political center to the Black Sea region. This was not a peaceful process. Its echoes are found in a legend reported by Herodotus (book 4). The legend tells of the "old" Scythians returning from the Near East and fighting with the "young" Scythians, who were the sons of the slaves and wives of the "old" Scythians "left behind in the old country." In the late seventh and early sixth centuries b.c. the military activity of the Scythians was spread over vast territories, reaching west into the Great Hungarian Plain and into what is today southwestern Poland. Gradually, as the result of these processes, Scythian tribes living in the Black Sea region between the Don River and the Lower Danube organized themselves into a proto-state, called "Scythia" by Herodotus. There is no doubt that it consisted of the affluent ethnic Scythians as well as the conquered local peoples, in particular, the settled forest-steppe peoples, who were politically and culturally dominated by the Scythians.

The organization was a sort of a tribal federation. The power was in the hands of the Scythian "kings," local rulers who probably accepted the authority of the leader of the politically strongest tribe. This complex sociopolitical structure of Scythia probably is what Herodotus meant when he talked about the "Royal Scythians" who "consider other Scythians to be their slaves" and about the "Scythian Nomads," the "Scythian Farmers," and the "Scythian Ploughmen" living in the various regions of Scythia. Scythia's political center and, at the same time, a mythical land, Gerrhus, where the Scythian kings were buried, was situated in the lower Dnieper River basin.

scythian economy

Scythian economy was based on nomadic or seminomadic animal breeding and herding (horses, cattle, and sheep). Wealth, especially in the case of the Scythian aristocracy, was acquired in wars and pillaging raids and through the slave trade with the Greeks from around the Black Sea. The Scythians also controlled the trade of grain, which the Greeks imported from forest-steppe farming regions. From the Greek colonies the Scythians brought in vast amounts of wine, transported in amphorae. To the great astonishment of the Greeks, the Scythians drank it without water. Also highly valued were Greek pottery, metal libation vessels sometimes made from precious metals, rich ornaments, and jewelry—often true masterpieces of Greek craftsmanship.

scythian culture

Between nomadic "barbarian" civilization and the north Black Sea variant of Greek civilization, certain syncretic cultural phenomena confirm the close coexistence of the two elements. This is evidenced in a specific Greco-Scythian decoration style of metallic objects, vessels, ornaments, and weaponry items produced for the Scythians in Greek workshops. This style combines zoomorphic features characteristic of the Scythian world of cult and magic with mythological scenes and narration describing the life of common mortals, presented in typical situations and settings. Many of the masterpieces, for example, a famous cup from the Kul'-Oba kurgan, or a gold pectoral found in Tovsta Mohyla, and a gold comb from the Solokha kurgan, are excellent iconographic sources that shed light on Scythian ways, behavior, and appearance.

The unity of the Scythian cultural tradition is symbolized by a characteristic "triad," consisting of a common decoration style dominated by zoomorphic motifs; the manner of restraining horses, reflected in a homogenous bridle set, and, above all, original weaponry—predominantly bows and arrows. The Scythians' use of a hard composite (reflex) bow with a long range and tremendous piercing power, their excellence on horseback, and their ability to shoot from any position—at full gallop without a saddle or stirrups—made the Scythians fearsome warriors. (This also was the case with other Great Steppe nomads.) The Scythians employed distinctive fighting tactics, with warriors arranged in highly mobile groups, skilled in the use of stratagems that exhausted the enemy and that allowed the Scythians to avoid direct confrontation in unfavorable circumstances. The Scythians were formidable enemies, posing a serious threat even to the contemporary world powers. The Assyrians, the Medes, the Urartes, and later the Perses all had firsthand knowledge of the might of the Scythians.

Unquestionably, the Scythians gained their greatest military and political success defeating the powerful Persian army led by Darius I Hystaspis (r. 521–486 b.c.). Faced with this powerful foe, the Scythians applied guerrilla tactics, drawing the enemy far inside the steppe, wiping out smaller regiments, and severing supply lines. Finally, the humiliated Darius was forced to withdraw with the devastated remains of his army across the Danube River into southern Thrace, which was by then a Persian province. As a result of this victory, the Scythians were referred to in the ancient tradition as "invincible." Some time later, in 496 b.c., Scythian warriors followed the same route, reaching the Thracian Chersonesus (or "the Chersonese") in a military expedition.

This direction of Scythian politics continued through the fifth century b.c., when Scythia entered into a closer relationship (both peaceful and bellicose) with the Thracian state of the Odrisses. It was centered in present-day southeastern Bulgaria. This relationship was especially strong (and confirmed by dynastic colligations) around the mid-fifth century, during the reign of Sitalkes, who brought the Odrisses to the peak of their power. Political and economical stabilization in the Black Sea region in the fifth and most of the fourth centuries b.c. favored Scythian economic polarization. The wealthiest "royal" kurgans of the Scythian aristocracy date from that period. They are the real "steppe pyramids"—burial sanctuaries of Scythian leaders and rulers. The rulers were buried amid a wealth of funerary offerings and in the company of servants sacrificed especially for the burial. Stone stelae representing armed men, placed on top of the kurgans, were the specific apotheosis of a stereotype of a king-warrior and at the same time of a mythical ancestor.

the fall of scythia

In the second half of the fourth century b.c., however, several factors precipitated a crisis. The development of a dry and warm climate, together with overexploitation of the steppe grazing lands by the great herds, again triggered migration. As a result of these changes, from the second half of the fourth century b.c., the Sauromates and the Sarmates, tribes from central Eurasian steppes, began to venture across the Don River and threaten Scythian territories. Simultaneously, a powerful force arose in southern Europe that eventually changed the world's political order—Macedonia. This period also witnessed the reign of one of the greatest Scythian rulers, King Ateas (d. 339), an excellent warrior and experienced leader who supposedly ruled over all of Scythia. He fought Philip II (r. 359–336), the king who gave rise to Macedonian power, in a battle in the Lower Danube in which the Scythians suffered a shattering defeat and the aged king (apparently more than ninety years old) was killed in battle.

More defeats followed, such as the one suffered in 313 b.c. at the hands of one of the Diadoches, the Thracian ruler Lizymachos. The Sarmates moving in from the east also were an increasing threat. As a result, during the third century b.c., Scythian territories shrank to the area of the Crimea steppes, where a new political organization appeared with their capital in the so-called Neapolis Scythica. During the second century b.c., it still played a certain political role, fighting for survival with Chersonesus, with the Sarmates, and at the end with the Pontic kingdom of Mithridates VI Eupator (r. 120–63 b.c.). Finally, the influx of Sarmatian nomads into the Crimean region led to the intermixing of both elements. Remnants of the Scythians survived here until the third to fourth centuries a.d., when the Germanic Goths appeared on the scene. In the aftermath of the Hun invasion in 375 a.d. the Scythians disappeared from history.

See alsoIron Age Ukraine and European Russia (vol. 2, part 6); Huns (vol. 2, part 7).


Artamonov, Mikhail I. The Splendor of Scythian Art: Treasures from Scythian Tombs. Translated from Russian by V. R. Kupilyanova. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, V. A. Bashilov, and L. T. Yablonsky, eds. Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley: Zinat Press, 1995.

Ghirshman, R. Tombe princière de Ziwiyé et le début de l'art animalier. Paris: Scythe, 1979.

Grjaznov, Michail P. Der Großkurgan von Arzan in Tuva,Südsibirien. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1984.

Jakobson, Esther. The Art of the Scythians: The Interpenetration of Cultures at the Edge of the Hellenic World. New York: E. J. Brill, 1995.

Jettmar, Karl. Art of the Steppes. New York: Crown, 1967.

L'or des Scythes: Trésors de l'Ermitage. Leningrad: Bruxelles, 1991.

Reeder, Ellen D., ed. Scythian Gold: Treasures from AncientUkraine. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Rolle, Renate, Michael Müller-Wille, and Kurt Schitzel, eds. Gold der Steppe: Archäologie der Ukraine. Neumünster, Germany: K. Wachholtz, 1991.

Jan Chochorowski


views updated May 23 2018


The Scythians were a large confederation of Iranian-speaking (or headed by an Iranian-speaking military-political elite) tribal unions, known in classical sources since around the eighth century b.c.e. or about the time they migrated to the North Pontic steppe zone where they supplanted and apparently absorbed some of the Cimmerians who occupied the region. As with their predecessors, it is not clear from where the Scythians migrated, but their most likely homeland was Central Asia from where they moved under pressure of other nomadic peoples. Organized in supra-tribal confederations, the Scythians made raids and full-blown invasions from the northern Caucasus into Media and Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, reaching as far as Palestine and Egypt throughout the period of 670610 b.c.e. After suffering major defeats towards the end of the seventh century, they transferred their locus of power to the North Pontic region. By the third century b.c.e., the Scythians came under pressure of the nomadic Sarmatians who destroyed and absorbed most of them into their loosely-organized tribal structure.

Nomadic in origins, the Scythian peoples and the "Scythian" culture also included agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers who paid tribute to their nomadic lords with grain and other goods that the nomads could not produce themselves. In turn, these items were traded with the Greek colonial cities of the northern Black Sea region for wine, precious metals, and other goods.

While Scythia proper, as it was known in Greco-Roman sources, was located to the north of the Black Sea region (from the Danube to the lower Don and Volga), "Scythic" culture occupied a much greater territory of Eurasia, stretching as far east as southwestern Siberia and eastern Kazakhstan. Elements of this culture can be summarized as follows: the use of (1) iron; (2) short swords; (3) conservative artistic motifs (especially the animal style, e.g., the stag and the animal combat); (4) nomadic lifestyle organized around a patriarchal, little centralized social structure; (5) improved compound bows; (6) bronze cauldrons; (7) making of deerstones; and, (8) complex horse harness. All of these components were shared across a huge area not only by Iranian-speakers, but also by Turkic and Mongolian nomads of steppelands of Inner Eurasia.

See also: central asia; cimmerians; sarmatians


Christian, David. (1998). A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia Vol. 1: Inner Asia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Oxford, UK/Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Golden, Peter B. (1990). "The Peoples of the South Russian Steppe." In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. ed. Denis Sinor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Talbot-Rice, Tamara (1957). The Scythians [Ancient Peoples and Places, vol. 2], ed. G. Daniel. London: Thames and Hudson.

Roman K. Kovalev


views updated May 14 2018

Scythians Nomadic people who inhabited the steppes n of the Black Sea in the 1st millennium bc. In the 7th century bc, their territory extended into Mesopotamia, the Balkans, and Greece. Powerful warriors, their elaborate tombs contain evidence of great wealth. Pressure from the Sarmatians confined them to the Crimea (c.300 bc) and their culture disappeared.