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Iranian Peoples

The Scythians

AN INTRODUCTION


 

Edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav

1998

 

Achaemenid_and_Iranic_Peoples_in_the_Ancient_World.PNG (243214 bytes)

Nomadic and sedentary (Imperial) Iranic Peoples in 6th century BCE

 

 

 

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  Map of Scythian Settlements (Scythia)

(Click to enlarge)

Introduction

Scythians

Scythian Successes

Scythian Jewelry

Scythian Art (An Overview)

key Points

 

 

INTRODUCTION

The Scythians were members of a nomadic people of Iranian stock who migrated from Iranian homeland in Central Asia to southern Russia in the 8th - 7th C. BCE.

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 BCE to the 2nd century CE.

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 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 Iran through Syria and Judaea to the borders of Egypt.

 

The Median dynasty, who ruled Iran, attacked them and drove them out of western Iranian lands in Anatolia, leaving them finally in control of lands which stretched from the Iranian border north through the Kuban and into southern Russia.

The Iranian Scyths 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 Iranian King of King Darius the Great in about 513 BCE.

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 BCE; 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 BCE 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 foreign invasions of China that brought the Western Chou dynasty to an end in 771 BCE 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 BCE. 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 BCE.

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 BCE, the booty-laden Iranian 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 BCE), 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 BCE. Such ornaments as necklaces, bracelets, pectorals, diadems, and earrings making up the Ziwiye treasure (discovered in Iran near the border between Kurdistan and Azerbaijan provinces) 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 BCE into the Mediterranean and into Western jewelry.  

 

2. 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 BCE until they were gradually supplanted by the Sarmatians during the 4th century BCE-2nd centuryCE. 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-BCE example from the burial of Kostromskaya Stanitsa in the Kuban, but versions of the 5th century BCE from Tápiószentmárton in Hungary and of the 4th century BCE 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.

 

 

Key Points


 

Transliterated Variants: Saka, Shaka, Sakai, Sacae, Scyth, Scythi, Scythia, Scythae, Scythiae, Scythes, Sythia, Skityai, Skuthai, Skythai, Skythia, Scythia, Scynthia, Scynthius, Sclaveni, Scoloti, Skodiai, Scotti, Skoloti, Skoth-ai, Skuth-a, Skoth, Skuthes, Askuza, Asguzai, Askuasa, Iskuzai 

They were horse-riding nomadic Iranian tribes who dominated the Central-Asian or Eurasian Steppe during a broad time-frame known as Classical Antiquity.

They, and many of their descendant peoples, were skilled in horse archery and are now regarded as 'Horse archer civilizations'.

Much of what is known of them we gain from the Histories (Book IV), a 5th century BCE work by the Greek historian Herodotus. He focused primarily on their western branch, not surprisingly noting their proximity to Greece. He called them Scythian. He generally called the more eastern branch the Sacae.

At some point in their history, they began calling themselves by the term "Skudat" and/or "Skuda", which many have suspected to mean Archers.

Their Persian cousins called them "Saka".

The Assyrians called them "Ashkuz", "Khumri", and "Gimirri".

The Classical Greeks called them "Skythai" or "Scythian".

The Romans called them "Scythiae". 

Later in their history, the Chinese called them "Sai".

The Behistun Rock Inscription is an message cut into the side of a mountain in modern-day western Iran, depicting the war accomplishments of Darius the Great. The same text was inscribed in three ancient cuneiform languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (Akkadian), the latter being spoken by both the Babylonians and Assyrians. The monument is "monumental" for many reasons, but for the purpose of further identifying "Saka" peoples, the inscription makes it clear that the Scythians were also called "Gimirri" (Cimmerian) in the Assyrian and Babylonian tongue. (Missing Links Discovered in Assyrian Tablets by E. Raymond Capt.)

The Parthian dynastic Empire of Iran was largely made up of Saka-Scythian stock and allied frequently with non-Parthian Saka-Scythians. 

The 1st century Roman (Jewish) historian Flavius Josephus claimed the Parthian-Sacae-Scythian peoples were descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel, a people carried into captivity by Assyria more than 700 years earlier (Antiquities of the Jews, 11.5.2, from The Works of Josephus, translated by Whiston, W., Hendrickson Publishers. 1987, 13th Printing. p.294).

"Chinese sources tell of the construction of the Great Wall in the third century BCE and the repulse of various marauding tribes. Forced to head west and eventually south, these tribes displaced others in an ethnic knock-on effect which lasted many decades and spread right across Central Asia. The Parthians from Iran and the Bactrian of Iranian stock but Greek speakers from Bactria had both been dislodged by the Shakas coming down from somewhere near the Aral Sea. But the Shakas had in turn been dislodged by the Yueh-chi who had themselves been driven west to Xinjiang by the Hiung-nu. The last, otherwise the Huns, would happily not reach India for a long time. But the Yueh-chi continued to press on the Shakas, and having forced them out of Bactria, it was sections or clans of these Yueh-chi who next began to move down into India in the second half of the first century CE." Historian John Keay. p.110 

 

 

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