The Scythians

A history of the Scythians including their culture, cities, rulers, achievements and contributions to civilization 

The Scythians were members of a nomadic people originally OF IRANIAN STOCK WHO MIGRATED FROM CENTRAL ASIA TO SOUTHERN RUSSIA IN THE 8TH AND 7TH CENTURIES BC. 

Centered on what is now the Crimea, the Scythians founded a rich, powerful empire that survived for several centuries before succumbing to the Sarmatians during the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD.

Much of what is known of the history of the Scythians comes from the account of them by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who visited their territory. In modern times this record has been expanded chiefly by the work of Russian anthropologists.

The Scythians were feared and admired for their prowess in war and, in particular, for their horsemanship. They were among the earliest people to master the art of riding, and their mobility astonished their neighbors. The migration of the Scythians from Asia eventually brought them into the territory of the Cimmerians, who had traditionally controlled the Caucasus and the plains north of the Black Sea. In a war that lasted 30 years, the Scythians destroyed the Cimmerians and set themselves up as rulers of an empire stretching from west Persia through Syria and Judaea to the borders of Egypt. The Medes, who ruled Persia, attacked them and drove them out of Anatolia, leaving them finally in control of lands which stretched from the Persian border north through the Kuban and into southern Russia.

The Scythians were remarkable not only for their fighting ability but also for the civilization they produced. They developed a class of wealthy aristocrats who left elaborate graves filled with richly worked articles of gold and other precious materials. This class of chieftains, the Royal Scyths, finally established themselves as rulers of the southern Russian and Crimean territories. It is there that the richest and most numerous relics of Scythian civilization have been found. Their power was sufficient to repel an invasion by the Persian king Darius I in about 513 BC.

The Royal Scyths were headed by a sovereign whose authority was transmitted to his son. Eventually, around the time of Herodotus, the royal family intermarried with Greeks. In 339 the ruler Ateas was killed at the age of 90 while fighting Philip II of Macedonia. The community was eventually destroyed in the 2nd century BC; Palakus being the last sovereign whose name is preserved in history.

The Scythian army was made up of freemen who received no wage other than food and clothing, but who could share in booty on presentation of the head of a slain enemy. Many warriors wore Greek-style bronze helmets and chain-mail jerkins. Their principal weapon was a double-curved bow and trefoil-shaped arrows; their swords were of the Persian type. Every Scythian had at least one personal mount, but the wealthy owned large herds of horses, chiefly Mongolian ponies. Burial customs were elaborate and called for the sacrifice of members of the dead man's household

Scythian successes

The first sign that steppe nomads had learned to fight well from horseback was a great raid into Asia Minor launched from the Ukraine about 690 BC by a people whom the Greeks called Cimmerians. Some, though perhaps not all, of the raiders were mounted. Not long thereafter, tribes speaking an Iranian language, which the Greeks called Scythians, conquered the Cimmerians and in turn became lords of the Ukraine. According to Herodotus, who is the principal source of information on these events, the Scyths (or at least some of them) claimed to have migrated from the Altai Mountains at the eastern extreme of the Western Steppe. This may well be so, and some modern scholars have even surmised that the barbarian invasions of China that brought the Western Chou dynasty to an end in 771 BC may have been connected with a Scythian raid from the Altai that had occurred a generation or two before Scythian migration westward to the Ukraine.

The Eastern Steppe was, however, too barren and cold for invaders to linger. Consequently, the spread of cavalry skills and of the horse nomads' way of life to Mongolia took several centuries. We know this from Chinese records clearly showing that cavalry raids from the Mongolian steppe became chronic only in the 4th century BC. China was then divided among warring states, and border principalities had to convert to cavalry tactics in order to mount successful defenses. The first state to do so developed its cavalry force only after 325 BC.

Long before then, however, the Scythians had erected a loose confederacy that spanned all of the Western Steppe. The high king of the tribe heading this confederacy presumably had only limited control over the far reaches of the Western Steppe. But on special occasions the Scythians could assemble large numbers of horsemen for long-distance raids, such as the one that helped to bring the Assyrian Empire to an end. After sacking the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BC, the booty-laden Scyths returned to the Ukrainian steppe, leaving Medes, Babylonians, and Egyptians to dispute the Assyrian heritage. But the threat of renewed raids from the north remained and constituted a standing problem for rulers of the Middle East thereafter.

Scythian Jewelry

It is to the Scythians, a semi nomadic people from the Eurasian steppes who moved out from southern Russia into the territory between the Don and the Danube and then into Mesopotamia, that we owe a type of gold production, which, on the basis of its themes, is classified today as animal-style. During the early period (5th-4th century BC), this style appeared on shaped, pierced plaques made of gold and silver, which showed running or fighting animals (reindeer, lions, tigers, horses) alone or in pairs facing each other, embossed with powerful plasticity and free interpretation of the forms. The animal-style had a strong influence in western Asia during the 7th century BC. Such ornaments as necklaces, bracelets, pectorals, diadems, and earrings making up the Ziwiye treasure (discovered in Iran near the border between Kurdistan and Azerbaijan) provide evidence of this Asiatic phase of Scythian gold-working art. The ornaments are characterized by highly expressive animal forms. This Central Asian Scythian-Iranian style passed by way of Phoenician trading in the 8th century BC into the Mediterranean and into Western jewelry.

Scythian Art 

Scythian Art is also called STEPPES ART, decorative objects, mainly jewelry and trappings for horse, tent, and wagon, produced by nomadic tribes that roamed Central Asia from slightly east of the Altai Mountains in Inner Mongolia to European Russia. What little is known of these tribes, called Scyths, or Sacae, in the classical sources, indicates that they established control of the plain north of the Black Sea over a period of several centuries, from the 7th-6th century BC until they were gradually supplanted by the Sarmatians during the 4th century BC-2nd century AD. Many of the most impressive pieces of Scythian art (now part of the treasure at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg) were cast of solid gold and were recovered in the 17th-19th century, before the development of modern archaeological methods that might have shed more light on their origins.

The Scythians worked in a wide variety of materials, including wood, leather, bone, appliqué felts, bronze, iron, silver, gold, and electrum. The tombs of Pazyryk in the Altai yielded many well-preserved articles of clothing that were profusely trimmed with embroidery and appliqué designs; the clothes of the wealthy in southern Russia were covered with tiny gold-embossed plaques, sewn to the garments. At Pazyryk, felt appliqué wall hangings were found, some displaying religious scenes featuring the Great Goddess or anthropomorphic beasts, others with geometric or animal motifs. Felt rugs were also found, as well as a vast number of beautifully made tools and domestic utensils.

The art of the period is essentially an animal art. Combat scenes between two or more animals are numerous, as are single animal figures. Many real or mythical beasts are represented, the majority of the types having roots in deep antiquity, but the Scythians fashioned them in a manner that was new and characteristically their own. As is to be expected with nomads who were constantly on the move, the decorative objects they produced are generally small in size, but many are made of precious materials and practically all are of superb workmanship.

The Scythian gold figures of semi recumbent stags, measuring some 12 inches (30.5 cm) in length, are outstanding; they were probably used as the central ornaments for the round shields carried by many Scythian fighters. Perhaps the loveliest of the gold stags is the 6th-century-bc example from the burial of Kostromskaya Stanitsa in the Kuban, but versions of the 5th century BC from Tápiószentmárton in Hungary and of the 4th century BC from Kul Oba in the Crimea are scarcely less beautiful. In all three examples the stag is shown in a recumbent position, with its legs tucked beneath its body, but with its head raised and its muscles taut so that it gives an impression of rapid motion.

The Scythian artistic idiom is one of great compression as well as of synthesis; contrasting positions of the body are combined with astonishing skill to depict every possible aspect of the animal when visualized during all its diverse activities. Though the art is basically representational in character, it is at the same time imaginative in spirit, often verging on the abstract in conception. Yet however complex its elements, they are fused in the finished work into a single entity of compelling force and beauty.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center