The Scythians: Who Were They?

For most of Antiquity the Eurasian Steppe was the domain of the Scythians. Feared by their neighbors for their military prowess, they also possessed a vibrant culture.

Sep 13, 2021By Robert C. L. Holmes
scythian comb with battle scene
Scythian comb with a battle scene, late 5th-4th century BCE, State Hermitage Museum

 

The Scythians were an early nomadic people with a shared cultural, linguistic, and possibly genetic history. They first began to emerge on the Eurasian steppe sometime during the 8th century BC when they replaced the Cimmerians as the dominant power in the region. It is generally believed that they were Iranian in origin and spoke a Scythian branch of the Iranian language. During Antiquity, many nomadic groups across a vast geography were considered to be Scythian tribes. Despite their power and influence, the nomadic Scythian Empire left behind few records of its own, so that most of what we know about it comes from archaeological remains and the written accounts of its neighbors.

 

Literary, Archaeological, and Genetic Origins

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Shield Plaque in the Form of a Deer, c.600 BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

As reported by Herodotus, the Scythians believed themselves to be the descendants of Targitaus, a child of the Sky-God and a daughter of the great Dnieper River. Targitaus had three sons who one day encountered four golden implements—a plough, a yoke, a cup, and a battle axe—which had fallen from the sky. Only the youngest of the three children was able to touch these implements without bursting into flame and his descendants became rulers of their people.

 

Herodotus himself believed that the Scythians had originated in a more southern part of Central Asia until war with another nomadic group forced them to migrate westwards. Since Herodotus’ time, modern Archaeology and genetic testing have suggested that they were connected to several Indo-Iranian nomadic groups. Some have traced them to the Srubna culture, hypothesizing that they emerged from local groups along the Black Sea. Others have connected them to the Andronovo Culture of western Siberia and Central Asia or to the Yamna Culture.

 

Scythian Tribes and Related Peoples

panther curved round
Plaque of panther Curved Round, 7th-6th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

Part of what makes identifying the origins of the Scythians so difficult is how many different groups existed over such a vast area. While there were distinct ethnic groups, often referred to as Classical Scythians, Pontic Scythians, European Scythians, or Western Scythians, there was also a larger cultural group.  As such, most scholars use the term “Scythian” to describe the nomadic Iranian people who dominated the Pontic Steppe around the Black Sea from the 7th to 3rd century BC.

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two pieces horse harness
Two Pieces of a Scythian Horse Harness, Early 6th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

Besides the Classical Scythians, there were numerous peoples who were regarded as belonging to the larger cultural group with similar weapons, horse gear, and art. Among those recognized as part of this cultural group include the Abii, Agathyrsi, Armadi, Amyrgians, Androphagi, Apracharajas, Budini, Cimmerians, Dahae, Gelae, Gelonians, Hamaxobii, Kambojas, Massagetae, Melanchlaeni, Orthocorybantians, Saka, Sarmatians, Sindi, Spali, Tapur, Tauri, and Thyssagetae as well as the early Slavs, Balts, and Finno-Ugric peoples. Many others have either been described as descendants, or claimed to descend from them despite having no relation whatsoever with them. These include the Huns, Ostrogoths, Avars, Franks, Turks, Khazars, Rus, Hungarians, Poles, Gaels, Picts, Scots, and the Irish.

 

The Early Scourge 

scythian empire helmet and arrowheads
Scythian arrowheads, Late 7th-Early 6th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum; with Scythian helmet, 8th-7th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

After establishing themselves as masters of the steppe, Scythians began to make incursions across the Caucasus mountains into the Middle East. Their first target was the kingdom of Urartu, in the Armenian highlands of Eastern Anatolia. By the 670’s BC they were raiding further south into Assyria. The Assyrian King Esarhaddon was able to make peace with them by paying them an enormous amount of tribute and marrying off his daughter to the Scythian King Bartatua. However, after Bartatua’s death in c.645 BC his son Madius resumed the attacks. Madius conducted a “Great Raid” of the Middle East which devastated the Levant and reached Egypt. He also briefly dominated the Medes sometime around c.650’s-630’s BC.

 

In the 620’s BC the Medes were able to reassert themselves after their king Cyaxares treacherously killed a large number of Scythian chieftains at a feast. The constant raids had severely weakened the Assyrian Empire which was wracked by civil war and a Babylonian uprising led by Nabopolassar. With the promise of great riches, Cyaxares was able to form an alliance with the Scythians and launch a surprise attack on Assyria in 615 BC. After several years of hard fighting, the Scythians and their allies captured every major Assyrian city and in 612 BC sacked the Assyrian capital of Ninevah. The war against the remnants of the Assyrian Empire would continue until 608 BC. However, the involvement of the Scythians in operations after 612 BC is unclear.

 

Scythian Empire vs. Achaemenid Persians 

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Plaque Decorated in Relief with Mounted and Dismounted Battle, 4th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

During the 6th century BC, Scythians came into contact with Greeks and Persians. Relations with the Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast were at this time relatively peaceful. However, relations between the Scythians and Persians were decidedly hostile. According to Herodotus, in c.529 BC the first Persian King Cyrus the Great waged a bloody war on the Massagetae. While not Classical Scythians, the Massagetae were part of the larger Scythian cultural sphere. Their queen, Tomyris killed Cyrus in battle, then had his body decapitated and threw his head in a wine sack full of blood.

 

It was not long after this, that in 513 BC the Persian King Darius the Great waged war against the Classical Scythian Empire around the Black Sea. The Scythians reacted to the Persian invasion by retreating, misleading the Persians through feints and raids, and by denying them supplies through scorched earth tactics. As they had no cities or towns to defend, Darius could not force them into battle. However, he was able to maintain the initiative, and the Scythians lost their best lands while their allies suffered heavy damage. The Persian army had marched across the Danube river to the banks of the Volga river. Ultimately the campaign was an expensive stalemate but one which had forced the Scythians to at least respect the power of the Persians.

 

The Golden Age

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Overlay for a Goryt (Bow and Arrow Case), 4th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

Following their defeat of Darius’ invasion, the power of the Scythians expanded rapidly. They launched an offensive against the Thracians which reached the Chersonesos, before the Thracian Odrysian kingdom eventually halted them. Relations between them and the Odyrsian kingdom were thereafter generally good, with much intermarriage between ruling dynasties. Scythia also expanded northwest into modern Romania and Bulgaria. Perhaps their most important conquests were along the shores of the Don River and the northwestern edge of the Black Sea. There, they assumed political control over numerous Greek colonial ports.

 

scythian empire comb with battle scene
Scythian comb with a Battle Scene, Late 5th-Early 4th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

These conquests led to a flowering of Scythian culture during the 4th century BC under their King Ateas, who united the Classical Scythian tribes forming a single Scythian Empire. Scythian control of the Greek colonies around the Black Sea generated enormous wealth as they were able to export vast amounts of wheat, cheese, and animals from their flocks to mainland Greece. However, most of their wealth was derived from their control of the northern slave trade. Key to the economic success of the Scythians was a division of labor. The nomadic Scythians handled political and military affairs while the settled urban populations conducted trade and carried out projects requiring manual labor.

 

Scythians and the Silk Road

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Bowl Depicting a Lion Hunt, 5th-4th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

Another important source of wealth for the Classical Scythians was the Silk Road. Scythian cultural groups inhabited lands stretching from the Hungarian plain to the Gansu province of China. These nomadic peoples depended on their sedentary neighbors for various goods that they could acquire through war or trade. Contact with the Scythians and their insatiable need for goods encouraged merchants to travel long distances across Central Asia in search of new markets for their goods. Trade between various Scythian groups across the steppe then helped move these goods from east to west, facilitating the creation of the trade route known as the Silk Road.

 

Most Scythian groups inhabited lands just north of the Silk Road trade routes. As such, they were not the direct beneficiaries of the majority of the conducted trade. They did, however, have ample opportunity to organize raids on trading caravans or collect tolls. Many Scythians also traded with the merchants traveling the Silk Road, so their goods have been found from Western Germany to Central China. Scythian warriors also traveled the Silk Road to sell their services as mercenaries or bodyguards.

 

Sarmatians and Decline

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Finial in the Form of a Griffin, Second Half of the 4th Century BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

By the mid-4th century, the power and influence of the Scythians began to decline as they faced increasing pressures from the East and West. Ateas’ expansion into Thracian lands brought the Scythians into conflict with the rising power of Macedon. Philip of Macedon killed Ateas in battle in 339 BC, but a later campaign led by one of Alexander the Great’s general in 331 BC was a Macedonian defeat. After the conflict with Macedon, the Celts pushed the Scythians out of the Balkans. Meanwhile, the Greek colonies along the Northeastern shore of the Black Sea began to reassert their independence. Several of these cities joined together to form the powerful Bosporan Kingdom, which was a major political and economic blow to the Scythians.

 

Perhaps the most important factor contributing to the decline of the Scythian Empire was the arrival of the Sarmatians. The Sarmatians were a confederation of Eastern Iranian nomadic tribes which belonged to the larger Scythian cultural group. In 310/309 BC the Sarmatians and the Bosporan Kingdom defeated the Scythians at the battle of the River Thatis. After this, the Scythians were largely confined to the Crimea peninsula. They were defeated by the armies of Mithradates the Great the 2nd century BC and Rome in the 1st century AD. This led to their territory being annexed by the Bosporan kingdom and the Scythians adopting a more sedentary lifestyle. In subsequent centuries the Scythians were assimilated by the neighboring Sarmatians, Alans, and the early Slavs.

 

Golden Legacy of the Scythians 

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Cone with Griffins, Palmettes, and Lotuses, 4th-3rd Centuries BC, State Hermitage Museum

 

The Scythians were long remembered by their more sedentary and civilized neighbors as the epitome of savagery and barbarism. During Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, “Scythians” became a term used to describe all nomadic “barbarians” living on the Pontic Steppe around the area of the Black Sea. As fear of nomads receded, these peoples became romanticized. Many modern nations and ethnic groups still claim descent, real or imagined, from the nomadic Scythian Empire.

 

Today we are most likely to encounter the Scythians through their art and the archaeological remains that they have left behind. Since they were nomads, most of the archaeological remains were recovered from their Kurgans or burial mounds. Objects recovered from these mounds formed the basis of Russia’s Hermitage Museum when they were presented to Peter the Great in the 18th century. Most artifacts are relatively small as they needed to be portable. However, the Scythians also left behind large stone stelae near their Kurgans. Iconography featured vigorously stylized animals and people depicted singly or in combat, anthropomorphic figures, monsters, deities, and energetic geometric motifs. Long after they had disappeared, their iconography continued to exert an enormous influence on the peoples of the Steppe and the art they produced.



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By Robert C. L. HolmesRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.