Long, long ago, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about a people living beyond civilization whom he called the Σκύθης (Skúthēs), who rode horses, fought with bow and arrow and subjected the sedentary people near the Crimean peninsula (modern day Ukraine). Elsewhere, the Assyrians wrote of a people called the 𒅖𒆪𒍝𒀀𒀀 (Iškuzaya) who raided their borders and caused havoc. Finally, in Persia, the Achaemenid dynasty had to contend with a nomadic people they called the 𐎿𐎤𐎢𐎭𐎼 (Skudra) to the north who served the empire at times, but also raided them at other times.
These names come to us from history, but until the 1930’s little was known about the people collectively known as the Scythians.
In the last days of the Russian Empire and later during the Soviet Union, archeologists began to explore and excavate a series of tombs or kurgans found in Siberia, and were shocked to discover that the treasures inside closely matched those found in Ukraine and the Caucasus mountains.
With some archaeological wizardry, researchers were eventually able to trace the migration of people back to the Altai mountains in Siberia westward all the way to modern Ukraine across the Eurasian steppes.
The Eurasian Steppes, the largest of their kind in the world (other large steppe climates exist in central US and Canada as the Great Plains), were a long east-west stretch of land that benefitted from incoming, though minimal, moisture from the Atlantic but are otherwise a harsh climate. Daytime temperatures can reach 45C and can drop to -40C. Because of this difficult climate, there isn’t much that can grow on the steppes besides grass:
The photo on the left is from Kazakhstan, while the photo on the right shows wheat fields in Ukraine. You can imagine how hard it is to sustain a population in such an open area with fluctuating temperatures and so on. Further, during winter, when snow would pile up, cows and goats were not capable of digging far enough into the snow to get at grasses. But horses can. Thus, the steppe cultures increasingly centered on rearing horses and using them for everything possible: warfare, food, tools, etc., from the 11th century BC when the climate changed into a colder, dryer one.
Further, because of the chaotic nature of steppe politics, fighting over very limited resources, tribes were constantly at war with one another. Tribes who lost had to flee and migrate elsewhere, generally westward or southward. This is how various tribes ended up in the Crimean peninsula: first the Cimmerians, later pushed out by the Scythians, who in turn were defeated by the Samartians, who later fell to the Huns, Mongols, etc.
Because politics and tribal affinity were so fluid, terms like “Scythian” and such aren’t always precise. Multiple tribes could be called Scythian by other cultures, but they didn’t always have the same genetic origin, and wouldn’t necessarily have the same relationship to one another. Herodotus described in his time a group called the Royal Scythians who dominated other lesser Scythians who often labored day to day to support them, while the Royal Scythians job was to lead and defend the lands.
But they did share a common culture, as shown by excavations of kurgan tombs showing similar horse-riding technology, bows, a reverence for animal art, and similar burial patterns. Their comparatively equal status between men and women horrified the highly patriarchal Greeks, and probably gave rise to the myth of the Amazon women.
The interactions between the Scythians and sedentary cultures like the Greeks and Persians wasn’t always hostile though. In fact, the Scythians often found mutually beneficial relationships with other cultures through trade, employment as mercenaries to local rulers, and so on. There is even a Scythian philosopher in the Greek world named Anacharsis who famously said in response to Athenian law:
Laws are spider-webs, which catch the little flies, but cannot hold the big ones.
Probably true in today’s world too.
But the Scythians, just like the Cimmerians they drove out before them, were eventually displaced and defeated by the Sarmatians and so on. But in their heyday they were a force to be reckoned with and yet they were also deeply involved in Classical history and politics.
The book that I have been reading about the Scythians and steppe culture has been very fascinating and I hope to write more about it soon.