The Scythians were a loose (very loose) confederation of illiterate nomad-pastoralists who wandered about the steppes of Central Asia for about a thousand years. Most of what is known of them comes from a handful of ancient “historians” – the likes of the Greek Herodotus and the Roman-Greek Strabo and a few Hindu texts – and that’s not much. At their peak, the Scythians ranged across the whole of the Pontic-Caspian Steppe and beyond, from what is today the Ukraine to the borders of Manchuria. They sat astride the Silk Road, grew wealthy from the slave trade, developed a distinctive artistic style, and left civilization legends of centaurs and Amazons … but not much else.
Modern scholars note that the term “Scythian” was used by ancient writers to refer to a wide range of horse-warriors from the steppes, otherwise unrelated but sharing a few similarities in life-style and language. Herodotus states that the Scythians originated in the eastern steppes where they warred with the closely-related Massagetae, but “with ill success.” Therefore the Scythian tribes migrated west, crossed the river Araxes, and within 30 years displaced the Cimmerians (who themselves migrated into Assyria and raised hell there). Being masterful horsemen and skilled archers, the Scythian tribes spread out across the region and spent their quality time raiding Macedonian and Persian settlements.
After a few decades of this, the Persian king Cyrus the Great sent an offer of marriage to the female ruler of the Massagetae-Scythian horde, one Tomyris, in 530 BC. When she rejected his proposal, Cyrus gathered an armed host at the river Syr Darya and began building boats. Tomyris demanded he desist and offered to meet him “in honorable battle” a day’s march from the river in open terrain (no doubt perfect for mounted combat). Cyrus accepted, and marched away from his camp with his best troops. But, having heard that the enemy were unfamiliar with the intoxicating effects of wine, left behind a small force guarding a vast amount of alcohol. The main body of Scythians, led by Tomyris’ son Spargapises, fell upon the camp, got roaring drunk, were defeated by the waiting Cyrus, and Spargapises committed suicide. Hearing of the debacle, Tomyris declared the tactic not “honorable” and led a second wave of horse-warriors against the Persians. In the ensuing melee, Cyrus was killed and his army routed. Tomyris ordered the body of the Persian king brought to her, decapitated it, and dipped the head into a bowl of blood as symbolic vengeance. So goes the account by Herodotus, so the actual details may be somewhat less colorful.
In 513 BC, the thoroughly-irritated Persians, under the personal command of Darius the Great, again invaded Scythian lands, this time with a supposed 700 thousand men. Taking advantage of the wide spaces and their mobility, since there were no fields or towns to defend, the Scythians wisely avoided a pitched battle. The horse-archers simply harassed the slow-moving column, picking off stragglers and the odd baggage cart. Herodotus reports that at one point a large Scythian host had finally drawn up for battle, but suddenly a loud whoop echoed and a number of their ranks galloped off after some hares that had broken cover. Darius supposedly commented that “these fellows have a hearty contempt for us.” Darius’ plodding force, somewhat reduced, finally reached the Volga. Running short of food and supplies, the frustrated Darius turned back and returned to his empire without settling anything. The Scythians continued to entertain themselves by raiding the frontiers.
From archaeological evidence found in the great burial mounds, known as kurgans (about the only permanent structures the Scythians built), around 470 BC it appears that the chieftain Ariapeithes (a Greek moniker; who knows what his actual name was) managed to unite a number of the Scythian tribes and proclaimed himself “king.” His successors would rule the confederation until circa 340 BC, when the dynasty was overthrown by the great Ateas (another Greek name). According to Strabo, having united all the Scythian tribes between the Danube and the Maeotian Marshes, Ateas soon came into conflict with Phillip II of Macedonia; in the ensuring war the 90-year-old Ateas was killed in battle c. 339 BC and his “empire” fell apart. A decade later, however, Phillip’s son Alexander was fighting the Scythians again, winning a “decisive” battle at the river Syr Darya to end their depredations along the frontiers so the Greeks could march south and into glory. In the aftermath, the encroaching Celts displaced the Scythians from the Balkans. Guess horse-warriors didn’t do as well in the mountains as on the steppes.
In the meantime, a collection of Scythian tribes (now known as the Indo-Scythians) under the chieftain Maues migrated southeastwards into Bactria, Sogdiana and Arachosia. There they had largely supplanted the Indo-Greeks in the Punjabi and Kashmiri regions by the time of Azes II, c. 35 BC. But, so far as can be determined, he was the last Indo-Scythian king, for soon after his death the Indo-Scythians were overrun by the Kushans; and soon after that, the Parthians invaded from the west and the Scythians disappear from Indian records.
Westward, across the steppes of the Crimea and Ukraine, the remaining Scythian tribes survived relatively unchanged for another three centuries, riding and raiding. And even settling down in places; the city known as Scythian Neapolis (near present-day Simferopol) served as the trading center of the Crimean Scythian tribes. But the expanding Roman Empire would ultimately doom the carefree Scythians. The Goths displaced the Sarmatians from most of the Roman frontier, and in turn the Sarmatians overran the Scythians, although it was more a process of assimilation than conquest. But, in the middle of the third century AD the Goths sacked Scythian Neapolis, officially ending the Scythian civilization. (Although, the Romans and Greeks had the distressing habit of referring to any nomadic steppe people as Scythians, as when Priscus, a Byzantine emissary, continually called Attila’s followers “Scythians.”)
Thus the Scythians disappear from history, leaving behind only mounds of sod scattered all over the steppes to mark their passage. Ranging from small hillocks for the common warriors to the “royal” kurgans that housed the remains of chieftains and great warriors, these tumuli weren’t just piles of dirt and refuse heaped over bodies, but layers of sod built over a central chamber – the sod meant to provide grazing in the afterlife for all the horses buried with the deceased. In one such, archaeologists found over 400 horse skeletons arrayed in a geometric pattern around the deceased chieftain. Nor were only horses slaughtered upon the death of a notable Scythian, but consorts and retainers also had the dubious honor of accompanying the deceased into the afterlife. The largest of these kurgans is the height of a six-story building and over 90 meters across at the base. Quite a feat of engineering for a bunch of unlettered barbarian horsemen.
Herodotus reports that the internment was a spectacle to behold. Mourners would piece their left hand (they certainly weren’t foolish enough to maim their bow-hand) with an arrow, slash their arms and chest, and sometimes even cut off portions of their ears. On the anniversary of the burial a year later, for some chieftains 50 horses and 50 slaves would be killed and gutted, then impaled on upright posts around the kurgan, with the dead slaves mounted on the dead horses. Such ostentatious displays may also have been the basis for – or at least contributed to – the Greek legends of the Amazons. Many of these mounds, as much as 20%, along the lower Don and Volga rivers contain females dressed in battle armor and armed with bows and swords “as though they were men.” While they may not have been real Amazons, it has been speculated that Scythian culture had a place for female warriors, as evidenced by the tales of Tomyris.
If so, they had to be fairly stout-hearted, for the ways of Scythian warriors were horrifying to their more “civilized” neighbors. Unshaven and tattooed, the Scythian mounted archers were usually armed with a short composite bow, firing barbed arrows meant to tear a wound open so it wouldn’t heal. They tipped their arrowheads with a mixture of snake venom, putrefied blood, and horse dung to insure those wounded would die soon enough. According to accounts, after battle the Scythians would drink the blood of their slain enemies, then decapitate these to claim their share of the booty; only those who presented such a grim voucher got a share. While the former practice (drinking blood) wasn’t uncommon among the uncivilized, the latter was certainly a unique way of proving one’s deeds in combat. Scalps from dead enemies adorned bridles and shields and quivers; the skulls of particularly valiant (as Scythians judged valor) enemies were gilded and used as honored drinking goblets.
The Scythians evoked such terror among the Greeks that they are credited with inspiring the myth of the centaurs, four-legged beasts that were deadly archers. So notorious were the Scythian horse-warriors that scholars believe the Biblical prophet Jeremiah was speaking of them when he warned the Israelites that warriors would descend upon them who “are cruel and have no mercy, their voice roareth like the sea and they ride upon horses, every one put in array.” Speaking of which, the Scythians did have a pantheon of gods, but they don’t seem to have been overly faith-ridden. The pronouncement of their gods seem to have been more flexible guidelines than laws scribed in stone.
Of course, it wasn’t all scalps and skulls after a battle; there was the loot. The Scythians acquired gold and silver from their frequent raids on the Persians and Macedonians, as well as in exchange for slaves. Scythian artisans had an eye for design, particularly animals – wolves, stags, griffins, leopards, eagles, and of course horses – locked in deathly combat. Animals of all sorts appear on most of their artwork, pottery, bronzewear, graven idols and the like, often in repose (when they aren’t locked in deadly combat). Both depictions frequently appear on the plethora of broaches, belts, helmets, earrings, necklaces, torques and other trinkets found in the kurgans.
There are many theories (the main product of scholars) concerning the reasons for the decline and disappearance of the Scythians. Some academics suggest that they increasingly began to settle down, marry those from nearby areas, and abandon herding and raiding. A few kurgans dating to the late 3rd Century contain stoves, symbolic of home and hearth; it’s enough to make a true Scythian roll over in their grave. Other theories propose a prolonged drought or equine plague that drove them to settle down. Others posit that the Scythian fondness for alcohol (remember Spargapises?) contributed to their demise, as grazing land was turned to growing grain.
Whatever the truth, the Scythians certainly kept things lively on the steppes, setting a standard for sheer barbarity and bloody-mindedness that late-comers such as the Sarmatians, Huns, Mongols, Timurids and Cossacks could only aspire to match.