Scythians

warrior chief

Who are the Scythians:

 The endonym Skuda (Skula in the Pontic steppe) means archers or shooters. The Persians called them Saka (nomads), which the Greeks translated as Sacea. The Assyrians called them the Aškuz, and the Chinese used the name Sai. The name “Scythians” usually refers to the westernmost tribes on the Pontic steppe, and Saka or “Asiatic Scythians” refers to those in the east. The Sarmatians are considered a unique group due to their eventual dominance and independent development from the 1st century AD. All of these people spoke dialects of the Scythian language, so I will call them all Scythians as a generic name. I usually prefer to spell it “Skythian” because that’s closer to the pronunciation for the name they called themselves. Also, it sounds cooler.

Skythian lands

Brief History:

The Skythians were an Indo-European people, believed to originate around the Altai mountains in modern-day Kazakhstan. They ranged as far east as the deserts of modern-day Xinjiang in China, and after driving the Cimmerians off the Pontic steppe they expanded as far west as the Danube river. In the 7th century BC they invaded the Middle East and temporarily dominated the Iranian plateau.

Scythian dominance declined in the west after Philip II halted their expansion and climate change and overgrazing made their steppe less livable. The Sarmatians, a distinct Scythian people from the east, rose to power and drove the other Scythians from the steppe as they migrated westward. The remaining western Scythians migrated into the Hungarian plains and other parts of central Europe and the Balkans, where they gradually assimilated with local cultures. The Sarmatians ruled the steppe for centuries until the Goths migrated southwards, then the Huns migrated westwards, driving them into Europe like the Scythians before them.

 

 Scythian Warriors

Nomadic Society and Lifestyle:

The Scythians mostly lived in portable camps. They used carts, yurt- or tipi-like dwellings, and covered wagons to maintain a mobile lifestyle. They also had some permanent settlements deep in the steppe to serve as winter camps. Herd animals, particularly cattle, provided for their well-being, and they hunted to supplement their diet with more meat, obtain pelts, and train in the use of the bow. Scythians also engaged in trade with outsiders, and found themselves the middle-men between east and west on the developing “silk road”. Since their wealth needed to be mobile, they wore a great deal of jewelry in silver and gold, relative to other peoples.

Scythian tribes subdivided into what anthropologists call “reproductive groups” (here they’re comparable to clans) which met frequently, but could also split off into smaller groups to camp. Heads of households informally led these clans. Each tribe was ruled by its own chieftain who settled disputes, divided up loot from raids, and represented his people. These tribes confederated together under loose rule by kings. Royalty held relatively little authority in day-to-day matters, but offered decisive leadership in times of conflict or crisis. Scythian kings acted as military leaders more than anything else.

Everyone in Scythian society knew how to ride and shoot, and every adult could mobilize for war. Archaeologists have uncovered grave sites where they discovered women wearing pants, with leg bones slightly deformed from a lifetime of riding, buried alongside arms and armor. Even the women took up arms on the steppe. Despite their relatively low population density, the Scythians could muster relatively large armies.

Scythian artwork, at least that which has survived in the archaeological record, was mostly made of metal. Gold and bronze were particularly popular, indicating that the Scythians possessed permanent settlements with metalworking facilities. Stylized animals were probably the most popular subject matter. There is very, very little evidence of Scythian religion, mythology, or belief, but a geat deal of Scythian artwork is believed to be connected to their myths and legends.

 Greek art depicting Skythians (2)

Warfare:

Scythian warriors were well known as fierce and brave combatants. They even collected the heads of fallen enemies, using them to decorate their horses’ bridles. They also decorated their clothing and arms with enemies’ scalps, and made bowl-like drinking cups from their enemies’ skulls. Despite this fearsome image, they were not wild savages. Scythians were disciplined in battle, capable of maneuvering and regrouping in combat to exploit openings and respond to unforeseen changes in the tactical situation.

In the case of dedicated foreign invasion, the Scythians could simply retreat into the steppe. Darius I of Persia invaded the Pontic steppe, and the Scythians withdrew, using a scorched earth strategy and continuous raids to wear his army down. They lured Persian detachments off with seemingly vulnerable food sources, and annihilated them with highly mobile cavalry. This is very similar to the Xiongnu response to Chinese invasion centuries later.

On the battlefield, Scythian cavalry made up the principle arm of their forces. They opened battles with a shower of arrows, then used javelins as they closed with the enemy. A heavy cavalry charge at the center of the enemy’s force made up the decisive action. Once an enemy broke, the light cavalry swarmed in to finish them off.

Skythian crownroyal outfit 

Royal Scythian Outfit: The outfits worn and used by the Upper Scythian Class.

 

 Anacharsis

Anarcharsis:

A popular and well-known Scythian philosopher in Hellenistic Greece.  He learned the Greek culture and politics and became an influential philosopher to the Greeks.

Sources:

A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongola Volume I: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire, by David Christian

Osprey Men-at-Arms: The Scythians, 700-300 BC, by Dr. E.V. Cernenko & Dr. M.V. Gorelik

Osprey Men-at-Arms: The Sarmatians, 600 BC – AD 450, by Richard Brzezinski & Mariusz Mielczarek

“The Scythian Scourge,” by Shareen Blair Brysac from The Quarterly Journal of Military History (Winter 2004)

“Herodotus: On the Scythians,” edited by Francis R.B. Godolphin, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin , New Series, Vol. 32, No. 5, (1973 – 1974), pp. 129-149, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3269235

“Interpreting Scythian Art: East vs. West,” by Ann Farkas, Artibus Asiae , Vol. 39, No. 2 (1977) , pp. 124-138, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3250196

Notes from Dr. Brian Davies’s “Cultures and Empires of the Silk Road 700 BCE – 1480 CE” class, taken at the University of Texas at San Antonio in Spring 2011.


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