The Scythian Archers of Ancient Athens: Are they Fact or Fiction?

Did ancient democratic Athens employ a ‘barbarian’ police force of Scythian slaves? It’s a question that has long fascinated historians.

Nov 27, 2021By Colin J Campbell, MLitt in Ancient History, BA Ancient History & Civilization

scythian archers gold caryatids erechtheion


Ancient Athens of the 5th century BCE was a cultural and political beacon amongst Greek city-states. Wealthy, populous, sophisticated, and powerful, Athens was a powerhouse of Greek culture. It was also a leading proponent of a highly progressive form of government called democracy. Yet, how did this champion of culture safeguard its political system? How did Athenians police their institutions, laws, and citizens? The answer is surprising, especially when we consider that Athens seemingly drew its ‘police’ from an ethnic group of Scythian slaves, a people notorious (in Greek eyes) for their backward savagery.


How Did the Greeks View the Scythians?

scythian comb battle scene
Scythian comb with a battle scene, late 5th-4th century BCE, State Hermitage Museum


Xenophobia was ‘a thing’ for the ancient Greeks, whose cultural disdain for foreigners was endemically common. All non-Greeks were barbaroi or barbarians, in that they did not speak Greek. Yet, the label conveyed a plethora of prejudicial judgments. Although there was no actual league table, Greeks perceived some peoples as more barbarous than others. Notionally, the Scythians were near the bottom. The label ‘Scythian’ was casually used as an ethnically imprecise, catch-all term that held literal and pejorative connotations.


In defined historical terms, the Scythians were nomadic tribal groups from the Eurasian steppe, known by various indigenous names. Of distant Iranic genesis, these tribes migrated over vast tracts of continental land from Asia into Europe. Skirting the Caspian and Northern Black sea regions, that now encompass the Caucasus, Southern Ukraine, and the North-East Balkans.


Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, recorded many wonderful and misunderstood details of the Scythians. However, in essence, they are portrayed as the very antithesis of Greek civilization. As a trans-migratory, pastoral, nomadic people, the Scythians lived in the saddle and were truly one of history’s great ‘horse people’. Seasonally moving camps and animals, the Scythian hunted, traveled, went to war, and slept amongst their horses. Leading Scythians were even buried with their horses: the great kurgans (burial mounds) being one of their few archaeological legacies.

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Trained in their exceptionally powerful composite bow, the Scythians were famed archers, firing from horseback as easily as most men fired on foot. In the late 6th century BCE, before the Greeks could claim the same, the Scythians defeated an invasion by the mighty Persian empire. In this and other encounters, Scythians earned a reputation for being tough and highly capable warriors.


From Herodotus onwards, Greeks viewed Scythians with a mixture of awe and disdain. Respected for their fierceness, they were derided for their cultural backwardness:


“For if the Scythians were united, there is no nation which could compare with them, or would be capable of resisting them; I do not say in Europe, but even in Asia—not that they are at all on a level with other nations in sense, or in that intelligence which uses to advantage the ordinary means of life.”
(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.97.6)


Could such a people really become the police force of ancient Athens; the Greek capital of thought, politics, and culture?


The Scythian Archers of Athens in Ancient Literature

scythian archer trumpet plate
Scythian archer blowing a trumpet, from a Greek black-figured pinax, attributed to Psiax, 520-500 BCE, via British Museum


The earliest Scythians employed by ancient Athens came in the mid 6th century BCE. They were auxiliary archers used to support the city’s hoplites. These troops may have been the early pre-cursors to the city’s Scythian police force. However, as with so much on this topic, our sources are not strong enough to know for sure.


What is certain is that at some time in the mid 5th century BCE, the state purchased a body of 300 Scythian (slave) archers. This body is strongly believed to be the basis for the Scythian police force of ancient Athens. Their arrival is attested in two near-identical speeches:


“During this period, we fortified the Peiraeus and built the north wall; we added one hundred new triremes to our fleet; we also equipped three hundred cavalrymen and bought three hundred Scythians; and we held the democratic constitution unshaken.”
(Aeschines, On The Embassy 2. 173)


Fortifying the Peiraeus (the port of Athens) is erroneously mentioned here (historians know it came earlier). However, the reference of the 300 Scythians is backed up by a very similar extract from the orator Andocides.


ancient athens columns ancient
Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, by Jirka Matousek, via flickr


Much later in the 2nd century CE, the Greek scholar Julius Pollux wrote:


“Those public slaves before the law course and other gatherings, to whom they gave the task of restraining those who behaved inappropriately and those who said what should not be said, were called “Scythians” and “archers” and “Speusinioi” after the man who organized their service.
(Julius Pollux 8.131-2)


Of the politician Speusis, nothing is known, though the name is corroborated by the (undated and unnamed) scholiast for Aristophanes’ play The Acharnians:


“The Archers are public slaves, guards of the city, 1,000 in number, who first dwelt in tents pitched in the middle of the agora, but then moved to the Areopagus. These were called “Scythians” and “Peusinoi”. A certain Peusis – one of the Politicians of old – having organized their activities.”
(Scholiast On Aristophanes, Acharnians 54)


Our sources give us an imperfect but definite picture for the arrival of Scythians in mid 5th century BCE ancient Athens. They suggest a rudimentary police force of Scythian slaves ranging from 300 to 1,000 men.


A Police Force for Ancient Athens?

scythian archer gold brooch
Gold Hellenic costume brooch with Scythian archers, 400-350 BCE, via British Museum


So, what kind of role did Scythian archers play in ancient Athens?


Here we must examine the works of the great Athenian comedian Aristophanes. In several of his contemporary old comedies, the Scythian archers of ancient Athens are mentioned, offering glimpses of their various roles.


Firstly, it appears the Scythians played a role as state attendants. They controlled access to the voting assembly (Ecclesia), regulating the political engagement of citizens within the democratic system. Here the Scythians were used to encourage reluctant citizens up to the hill of the Pnyx, where debate and voting took place. Evidently, this took encouragement and amazingly, it seems the Scythians deployed a vermillion (red) stained rope to herd reluctant voters up from the Agora and into meetings.


“Still, it is the day of assembly; all should be here at daybreak, and yet the Pnyx is still deserted. They are gossiping in the marketplace, slipping hither and thither to avoid the vermilioned rope.”
[Aristophanes, Acharnians 1]


The dating of this practice is not known, but we can suppose it was in use when Aristophanes’ play came out in c. 425 BCE. Later, participation payments came in to encourage citizen attendance. However, this seems to have overlapped with the use of the vermillion rope, as part of the carrot and stick policy. Whoever arrived late to the assembly risked not receiving their fee:


Chremes: I did laugh, ye gods, at the vermilion rope marks that were to be seen all about the Assembly.

Blepyrus: Did you get the triobolus? (an Athenian coin)

Chremes: Would it had so pleased the gods! but I arrived just too late and am quite ashamed of it; I bring back nothing but this empty wallet.

(Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae 379-380)


mounted scythian horse figurine
Bronze statuette of a Scythian horseman, 5th Century BCE, via MET Museum


The Scythians were also employed as state ‘bouncers’ to eject unruly attendees from the assembly:


Sausage-Seller: So when I saw myself defeated by this turd, I out bade the fellow, crying, “Two hundred!” And beyond this I moved that a vow be made to Diana of a thousand goats if the next day anchovies should only be worth an obol a hundred. And the Assembly looked towards me again. The other, stunned with the blow, grew delirious in his speech, and at last the Prytanes and the Scythians dragged him out.
(Aristophanes, Knights 660)


The Prytaneis were the elected officers of the boule—the executive upper council—of the citizen assembly. It seems that officers worked with the Scythians to eject time wasters or troublemakers. This seems to have been a role not unlike the serjeant-at-arms function of modern parliaments.


As the attendants and law enforcers, the archers were, to some extent, the insignia of certain city magistrates. They apprehended, detained, and inflicted judicial punishments onto those to whom the magistrates directed them.


Third Woman: You seem to me to be a cunning rascal too; you are in collusion with this man, and it wasn’t for nothing that you kept babbling about Egypt. But the hour for punishment has come; here is the Magistrate with his Scythian.
(Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 902)


Although there are key historical differences, there are notional similarities between the Scythian archers of ancient Athens and the highly symbolic lictors of Republican Rome. For one thing, their attendance on the Magistrates (at least in Aristophanes) is clearly emblematic of the magisterial power. They also seem to have had the legal right to punish citizens, but only under the legal authority of an elected magistrate.


scythian helmet 5th century
Scythian helmet, 5th-4th century BCE, via Hermitage Museum


The Scythian archers also enforced public behavior and decency, curbing drunkenness and rowdy street behavior:


First Woman: Besides, they abuse each other like drunken men, and you can see the archers dragging more than one uproarious drunkard out of the marketplace.
[Aristophanes. Ecclesiazusae 143]


If our Scythians were also guards of the city (as sources claim), they would have undertaken security duties, guarding gates and walls in ancient Athens. It would be fascinating to confirm if they ever used their bows, but there are simply no references to this. Still, based on our sources, the bow defined them. Therefore, it would seem perverse if this was not a utilized feature of their employment.


Aristophanes wrote for a wide Athenian audience and there is every likelihood that the often-mentioned Scythian archers were an everyday feature of public life. In Athenian Attic vase painting of the period, we also see over 500 references to Scythians, almost ubiquitously represented by their bows and distinctive peaked Scythian caps.


At Kerameikos—a graveyard just outside ancient Athens—archaeologists uncovered a deposit of up to 80 bronze arrowheads within the precinct of the grave stelae of Dionysios Kollytos with two statues of archers in Scythian costumes (Cunliffe 2019, p. 55). Was this the burial site for ancient Athens’ police force or of a broader Scythian community in the city? We cannot say with certainty, but these and other finds greatly reinforce the notion of Scythian cultural presence within the heart of ancient Athens.


Attitudes to the Scythian Archers

scythian archer amphora
A Scythian archer from a Greek Amphora, 550-540 BCE, via MET Museum


Athenian attitudes to the Scythian police emerge via the Comedies. Although mirth is the aim of these works, it’s the police that ‘cop’ the brunt of most jokes.


In the comedy Lysistrata, a heavily accented and possibly dim Scythian is unable to pronounce Greek names:


Scythian Archer: But what’s your name? 
Euripides: Artemisia. 
Scythian Archer: I will remember it. Artemuxia.

(Aristophanes, Lysistrata 445)


A cheap laugh, yet language is the least of it. The Scythians are routinely portrayed in the Comedies as clumsy, incompetent, and dull-witted. There is a definite ‘Keystone Cops’ element to their portrayal. This undoubtedly raised mirth while playing with established xenophobic prejudices for the ‘backward’ Scythian barbarian.


In the Comedies, references to Scythians being distracted by wine taverns show an established Greek stereotype centered on the immoderate drinking practices of barbarians.  This common cultural trope frowned on the immoderate and uncivilized drinking habits of barbarians, who did not dilute their wine with water like the Greeks:


“Let’s not fall
Into riot and disorder
With our wine, like the Scythians”

(Anacreon 76, preserved in Athenaeus 10.29)


Yet was all such criticism ill-founded? There’s more than a suggestion that Scythians could be heavy-handed. In the comedy Acharnians, the old man Thucydides is maltreated by a Scythian, while the locals ‘wept tears of pity’. Other instances of police brutality are there, with some feeling acutely modern:


Mnesilochus: Loosen the wedge a little.

Scythian Archer: Aye, certainly.

Mnesilochus: Oh! by the gods! why, you are driving it in tighter.

Scythian Archer: Is that enough?

Mnesilochus: Oh! Oh! Ow! Ow! May the plague take you!

(Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae, 1001-1005)


It’s safe to assume that the standards were not what we would expect of today’s police. All references are anecdotal and within comedic fiction. Yet, they were surely recognizable and credible to Aristophanes’ audience. How much we should read into these issues is tricky to know. The dual forces of Athenian cultural racism (towards Scythians) and good old anti-authoritarianism are also present. Policing is a tough gig, no doubt. In all societies, ancient and modern, it is often contentious.


Why a Scythian Police Force? 

scythian gold ring
Gold ring in the ‘Scythian animal style’, 5th century BCE, via British Museum


Ancient Athens in the mid 5th Century BCE was rich enough in men, money, and resources to have just about any type of police force it chose. So why Scythian slaves?


Well, for a democracy seeking to strike a political harmony between traditional power elites and an empowered citizen body, a foreign police force was no accident at all. As dēmosioi or ‘public slaves’, the Scythians were separate from the vast majority of privately owned slaves that predominated in the city. As public servants under the collective ownership of the demos, this was about as a-political a force as the state could provide.


This was crucial in a febrile political system constantly under tension from the divergent forces of democratic demagogy and the threat of elite power grabs. Any embedded ‘Athenian’ police force was dangerous. Too open to bias, too susceptible to the perverting influence of demagogues, or the potential subversion of oligarchs and tyrants. The city’s police force had to be public. As Aristotle recognized, the first thing any aspiring tyrant had to do was vote himself a personal force before subverting the state.


ancient athens caryatids erectheion photograph
Caryatids at the Erectheum of the Acropolis, by Alun Salt, via flickr


There was another reason Athenians couldn’t make up the police. In a society riven with political vendettas, as evidenced by ostracism, what kind of Athenian would even want to police his fellow citizens? Policing was a poison chalice. Again, Aristotle alludes to factors around this in his Politics, concerning even magisterial functions:


“… and with the custody of prisoners. This is an irksome office because it involves great unpopularity, … [men] are reluctant to carry out its functions according to the laws; but it is necessary, because there is no use in trials being held about men’s rights when the verdicts are not put into execution, … “
[Aristotle Politics
6. 1322a]


The Scythians were beyond politics, in this context, exactly because of their status as foreigners and public slaves. They were merely the municipal servants of the state, acting without ‘fear or favour’ directed only by the magistrates of the people. This was a clever policing system for a state paranoid about political balance.


Finally, Scythians’ reputation as being highly capable and savage in war was a most useful attribute for an altogether tougher period of history. Athenians may have grumbled about their rough handling, but fear—if not quiet respect—for the police was useful in ensuring compliance and public order.


The Scythian Archers of Athens: Conclusion

scythian archer plate
Scythian archer, painted by Epictetos, 520-510 BCE, via British Museum


Ancient Athens of the 5th Century BCE clearly employed some sort of a Scythian police force to regulate its civic functions. While no one is pretending this was anything like the modern conception of a ‘police’ force (no CSI Athens here), the Scythian archers enforced rudimentary public order in the city. Under magisterial authority, they regulated engagement with the assembly and courts, provided elemental law enforcement, public order, and crowd control functions.


Though the relative historical sources are weaker than we would hope, there are enough cultural references to firmly attest their existence and many of their functions. Through oration speeches, Aristophanes’ Comedies, and other supporting references like the attic figure vases, Scythians in Athens were a common everyday sight.


What happened to the Scythian archers of ancient Athens is simply not known. Did they disband when Athens’ democratic system faltered after the loss in the Peloponnesian war (404 BCE) and the imposition of the Thirty Tyrants? We cannot say. The Scythian archers of Athens simply pass from history when the relatively brief torchlight of the 5th Century BCE fades away.

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By Colin J CampbellMLitt in Ancient History, BA Ancient History & CivilizationColin J Campbell is a contributing writer and researcher, living in Melbourne, Australia. He currently writes across a wide range of creative non-fiction topics. He has strong interest in writing, visuals and sounds. Originally from Scotland, Colin studied Ancient History and Civilizations before completing an MLitt (distinction) in Roman history from the University of Newcastle. Focusing on ‘Slave, Bandit and Pirate Disorders’ within Roman Italy, he developed interests in the personal security habits of Romans. Colin also has expert knowledge in a wide range of topics that include military, politics, architecture, society and social issues.