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An Analysis of Herodotus in


By: Professor Livio Catullo Stecchini

 3. The Strategy of Darius the Great




Darius_the_Great_Bistun1.jpg (73393 bytes)

Fig. (Click to enlarge)

The strategy of Darius becomes clear once the geographical data have been defined. The King of Persia was confronted with the problem that has always beset the great Empires of Eurasia, how to cope with the threat of the nomadic people of the steppes. This is a problem that beset the Chinese for millennia and with which they tried to cope by means of the most gigantic measures. This is a problem that the Roman Empire was not able to solve.

The Arabs were conquered by the Turks and the Turks put an end to the Byzantine Empire. It was not too long ago that the Turks were at the gates of Vienna and all Europe was trembling. Even today the word Hun creates a feeling of fear in our minds. The Tatar invasions were the most important turning point in Russian history. One could continue the list of the examples by roaming widely through the centuries and through all districts of Eurasia.

The threat of the nomadic people of central Eurasia was particularly important for the rulers of the Persian Empire. This is made clear by the very fact that the nations that ruled Iran in succession, the Medes, the Persians, and the Parthians, had come originally from the same group. Those who were called Scythians in the age of King Darius spoke an Indo-European language closely related to Persian. At that time the people called Scythians by the Greeks and Saka by the Persians dominated an area that started from the Danube and extended east far beyond the Caspian Sea; Herodotus, however, uses the term Scythians to refer specifically to those members of this group that lived between the Danube and the Don. He calls Scythia the territory between those two rivers, which for him is the European part of central Eurasia. This area was of particular interest to the Greeks because earlier it had been occupied by the Cimmerians who were expelled from it by the Scythians coming from the east.

Herodotus asserts that King Darius attacked the Scythians in order to take vengeance for the period of 28 years of Scythian domination in the Near East; in these terms he expressed the idea that the Persian Empire could not ever feel secure as long as it had not reduced the Scythians to submission. Scythians appeared in Assyria at the time of King Sargon II (722 - 705 BCE); King Esarhaddon used them as his allies in his struggle for supremacy against the Medes, who were supported by the Cimmerians. In 626 BCE the Scythians helped the Assyrians to break the siege of Nineveh by the Medes. In 611 BCE Scythians entered Egypt and it took a vigorous campaign by the Egyptian King Psammetichos to contain them. The Scythian expansion into the Middle East came to an end only when the Medes allied themselves with the Babylonians and broke forever the power of the Assyrian Empire. Therefore to assume that King Darius engaged on the Scythian expedition out of a capricious whim indicates a lack of historical sense. The problem of the Scythians was one of the great problems of the Persian Empire, and in trying to cope with it Darius employed measures that were proportional to its importance. Herodotus spends almost a ninth of his work in order to deal with it.

The Persian strategy was so conceived as to require the use of an almost unlimited number of men and resources. Herodotus begins the narrative with the words "Darius, having an immense reserve in money and an unlimited number of men to draw upon . . . ," because it is a matter of one of the most grandiose military operations of all history.

Herodotus built his narrative against the background of a map of Russia, describing even its technical details, because the most important actor in this drama is the immensity of the Russian space and the nature of the Russian land. The Scythians and their allies could count on the advantage of mobility; even though some of them had become tillers of the soil and had established permanent settlements of some sort, they were all willing and able to revert to their nomadic ways. Furthermore, they proved willing to resort to an extreme policy of scorched earth whose thoroughness is described in full detail by Herodotus. King Darius tried to cope with them by mobilizing an army large enough to make a clean sweep of the entire Scythian land. His purpose was to dispose forever of the Scythians by smoking them out with a battle all across their territory, which roughly corresponds to the modern Ukraine. The great Russian rivers, which Herodotus carefully locates, were a help to the Persians since they made it possible to supply a large army deep in enemy territory. The scorched earth policy of the Scythians could be frustrated by a power that had the resources of Persia, if transportation was adequate.

King Darius did not advance directly from the heart of the Persian Empire across the Caucasus, going beyond the river Phasis that was the official borderline; rather, he decided on a plan of attacking the Scythians from the rear. Accordingly, he moved his troops all around the Black Sea in order to attack first of all that part of Scythia that was more prosperous economically and was settled in a more permanent way. In order to invest directly the area around the mouth of the Dnieper, he had to move his troops into Asia Minor and from there, crossing the Bosphoros, into Europe. Continuing thence he had to lead them all across Thrakia to a crossing of the Danube. This required a preliminary military expansion in Thrakia which brought the Persians into direct contact with the Greeks of the mainland. By a gigantic effort Darius succeeded in bringing his army across Asia into Europe, crossing first the Bosphoros and then the Danube with a force of about 720,000 men, supported by the entire strength of the Persian navy. For the crossing of the Bosphorus and of the Danube there were constructed bridges for which the King resorted to the engineering skill of his Greek subjects. As Herodotus explains, the mere operation of concentrating and moving these troops by the Persians proves what a gigantic and efficient organization was the Persian Empire. If one were to explain to beginners what an enormous organization was the Chinese Empire, and what mass of resources it could mobilize, one might start by explaining what is the Great Wall. Herodotus used the Scythian campaign for a similar purpose.

Probably Darius set up his base of operation at Olbia and the other Greek cities of the Scythian coast. Herodotus reports (IV 122) that the Scythian scouts found him at about 3 days or 1½ degree east of the Danube. The Scythians decided to withdraw before the Persians, pursuing a systematic scorched-earth policy.

From the Greek cities of Olbia the King's army advanced opening as a fan into Scythian territory. A part moved along the coast towards the Don and a part moved along the limit of the forest line in a north-easterly direction till it reached the city of Gelonos, which was destroyed. (41)

The army then moved south along the eastern bank of the Don. The Scythians took up position in face of the Persians along the entire front and kept retreating while harassing the enemy and systematically destroying the country as much as they could. The Scythians had sent their women and children to the north on wagons with all the cattle that was not necessary for the support of the army; it is almost certain that they were sent into the forest area.

According to Herodotus, King Darius, after destroying Gelonos, pushed into the uninhabited area in the territory of the Boudinoi; this means that he went beyond the limits of the geodetic square. When the army came to the river Oaros it stopped and proceeded to construct a fortified line consisting of eight forts spaced from each other about 60 stadia. Reckoning by stadia of 833 to the degree, the forts were spaced at distances of two Persian parasangs of about 8 kilometers. There is only one place where the construction of this line would have had a function, namely, the point where the Don is closest to the Volga. There cannot be any doubt, therefore, that the Persians reached the area of Volgograd, where the bend of the Don approaches the bend of the Volga. Eight would be the number of forts necessary to close the stretch of about 60 km between the Don and the Volga.

Herodotus states that in pursuing the Scythians King Darius stopped on the bank of the Oaros (IV 124). Numerous scholars have concluded that the Oaros mentioned by Herodotus is the Volga; they quote as supporting evidence the fact that Ptolemy called the Volga by the name of Rhas, which is the Mordvinian name of this river, but the similarity of sound between Oaros and Rhas is not very convincing. Herodotus declares that there are four rivers that flow into the Morass Maiotis together with the Tanais, and lists them as the Lykos, the Oaros, the Tanais, and the Syrgis (IV 123). There is wide agreement that the rivers are described from east to west so that the Syrgis is almost certainly the Donets. Those who identify the Oaros with the Volga point out that a number of ancient and medieval writers describe the Volga as flowing into the Don because the two rivers come most close to each other and the trade route coming from the upper Volga continued into the lower Don. I agree that the Volga may have been listed by Herodotus as an affluent of the Don, but the river that corresponds to the Volga in Herodotus' list must be the Lykos. Since Lykos means "wolf" in Greek, it could be that the name of the Volga, which in truth seems to be of Fenno-Ugrian origin, was understood as meaning "wolf" by people who spoke Indoeuropean languages. The Oaros should be identified with the Ylovlya which flows into the Don exactly at the great bend, after having run for a long time most close to the Volga. When Herodotus decleres that the Persians who had been descending along the eastern bank of the Tanais or Don stopped on the bank of the Oaros, he means that they stopped at the junction of the Ylovlya with the Don. Here the Ylovlya detaches itself from the Don at its bend and runs very close to the Volga. It is at this point that there was built the fortified line from the Don to the Volga.

The Persian plan was to box the Scythians into the barren area of the lower Volga which could not have supported their cattle and hence them. The Persian army must have been aligned all along the Don and possibly the lower course of the Oaros or Ylovlya; the Persian ships made it impossible for the Scythians to achieve a breakthrough by a sudden concentrated thrust across the Don. In order to prevent a Scythian breakthrough at the great bend of the Volga, the Persians had started to build a fortified line to the south.

The Persian plan was spectacular and possibly was the only adequate one. But the Scythians escaped the fate of the German army at Stalingrad. Thanks to their mobility they avoided being caught in a net like fish. By a wide circular movement they crossed the Volga and passed to the north of the Persian army: "While Darius was engaged in the work of fortification, the Scythians whom he was chasing, by a circular movement through the upper country, eluded him, returning to Scythia." (IV 124). Suddenly Darius realized that the Scythians had disappeared and were no longer to be seen. It is conceivable that in order to accomplish the maneuver the Scythians abandoned their cattle, banking on the chance of finding new food supplies once they had returned to their country. The Persian scheme with which Darius had started his campaign -- to pin the Scythians between the Persian army to the north and the Persian border to the south so as to let them die of hunger there -- failed. It failed because of two factors. Herodotus intended to explain what was learned by Napoleon and Hitler at their expense and the expense of their subjects. The Persians failed because of the geographical factor of the immensity of the Russian space, combined with the unusual attachment to their land of the inhabitants of the Russian plains, because of which they are willing to follow a policy of scorched earth and to continue resistance beyond what other people would consider the limit of human endurance. This is what was understood by Herodotus, an historian whom Robert Cohen labels "mediocre in psychology and mediocre in perceptivity." (42)

King Darius, however, had more daring and determination than Napoleon after the capture of Moscow; by a rapid movement the Persian army reversed its course and went back to Scythia, pursuing the Scythians into the territory of the Lower Dnieper. This time the Scythians fled to the north, entering the forest area. They may have chosen this course of action for two reasons; they had realized that the Persian plan was to move north to the limit of the forest area and then push the Scythians to the south towards the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, so that they would be caught between the Persian army and Persian territory. They had to retreat towards the area where earlier they had sent their women and children, as well as the greatest part of their cattle.

The ensuing military operation was more grandiose than anything that was accomplished by Napoleon or Hitler in their invasions of Russia. The Persians pursued the Scythians through the land of the Melanchlainoi, probably the area to the south of Moscow; when the Persians dared to pursue them even there, they moved towards the Baltic Sea, into the land of the Androphagoi. The pursuit continued further across Poland into the land of the Neuroi. The scope of the military engagements was so great that the Melanchlainoi, the Androphagoi, and the Neuroi were forced to abandon their homelands, fleeing into the lands of the extreme north (IV 128). This means that the Persians may have advanced through the area of the Valdai Hills, approached the Baltic Sea, and returned south through Poland.

The Scythians completed a full circle and for the second time approached the area of the lower Dniester. Finally the Scythians went back to their own territory and the Persians to their bases of the lower Dniester. By this time, since the Persians were finally being worn out (VIII 126-130) the Scythians decided that the moment had come to turn the tables by shifting to an offensive strategy (VIII 128). They would try to keep the Persians pinned down in Scythia while cutting their lines across the Danube (IV 130).

If the Scythians had been able to reach the Danube immediately in full force, the fate of their opponents would have been sealed, but the Scythians resorted to the strategy of sending only part of their forces to the Danube while the rest harrassed the Persian army in order to slow it down (VIII 130). The Scythians believed that the Greeks who were in charge of the bridge would be convinced to betray their masters. At this point the Persians were saved from disaster by a piece of clever deception performed by their Greek subjects. A body of Scythians appeared at the bridge over the Danube that had been built and was guarded by Ionian Greeks. According to Herodotus (IV 133), the Scythians reminded the Ionians that when King Darius had crossed the bridge he had given them a rope with 60 knots and told them to undo a knot a day with the instruction that if he had not returned within sixty days they should cut the bridge. The figure of 60 days in the context of a picturesque and unlikely story has been taken by the greatest majority of scholars as the key to their interpretation of the Scythian campaign. They dismiss as meaningless the dozens of precise and verifiable numerical data presented in a technical context by Herodotus' Fourth Book, but they assign supreme significance to the colorful detail of the rope with 60 knots. They like to believe that King Darius was so primitive that he kept records by tying knots on a rope. (43)

In their opinion, this figure should prove that King Darius' campaign did not last more than 60 days. Since Darius' campaign certainly lasted more than 60 days, the story must have been a tale that the Greeks told the Scythians to stall them. >From Herodotus' narrative it is clear that the Ionians were trying to gain time by stalling the Scythians. The Greeks must have told the Scythians that they had taken an oath to guard the bridge for 60 days and that they had to wait for that period. The Latin term obligatio indicates how the ancients used the tying of knots to indicate the contraction of binding engagements. Herodotus (IV 133) presents the Scythians as describing to the Greeks that after sixty days they could cut the bridge without proving faithless. Herodotus (IV 41) further reports that the Scythians after the events judged the Ionian Greeks to be "the most faithless and cowardly of all free men and the most devoted and attached to their masters of all slaves." It is clear that the Greeks only pretended to contemplate treason and fooled the Scythians. The story of the rope could mean that the Ionians promised the Scythians that they would cut the bridge if the Persians had not returned within 60 days; the tying of the rope may have been used to sanctify the engagement taken by the Ionians. The Scythians may have told the Ionians that Darius was trapped in Scythia, and the Ionians may have replied that they would wait for 60 days to see whether this was true. The Scythians may have accepted the proposal of the Ionians rather than engage in a pitched battle with them.

At this point the King, having realized his predicament and understood that his campaign had failed, ordered a desperate march of retreat toward the bridge. After the Scythian move towards the bridge there remained to the Persians no other alternative than to withdraw as quickly as possible. By abandoning rearguard contingents to die or be taken prisoner, King Darius was able to break contact with the main Scythian body, but again the Scythians, thanks to their mobility, by a circular movement were able to arrive at the bridge first. The Scythians told the Ionians: "The number of days has ended and you do not fulfill your obligations by continuing to stay here" (IV 136); the terminology indicates that the Ionians had contracted an engagement with the Scythians. Certainly King Darius could not have asked the Ionians to bind themselves to abandon the bridge and the Scythians could not have accused the Ionians of not doing their duty towards King Darius.

The true story seems to be that the Greeks told the Scythians that they would cut the bridge at the right time, causing the Scythians to retreat. When the Scythians appeared a second time, the Ionians dismantled the part of the bridge on the northern side, which prevented the Scythians from crossing the river and at the same time gave them the impression that the Ionians were leaving. The Ionians may have promised that the rest of the bridge would be dismantled later.

Having seen that the bridge was cut the Scythians moved north to meet the Persian army in retreat, but they were hampered by their previous scorched earth policy so that they had to engage in a circular movement through the inland area. In the event the Persians, retreating at great speed through the barren land, were able to evade them and to arrive at the Danube, where the Ionians rebuilt the bridge upon their arrival.

Herodotus relates with great detail that at the moment of the second Scythian appearance at the bridge, the Athenian Miltiades who had established a tyranny in the area of the Hellespont and had participated in the campaign together with other Greek tyrants under Persian suzerainty, proposed that the Ionians cut the bridge in order to destroy King Darius and his army and "to liberate Ionia" (IV 137). The Ionians were favorable to Miltiades' proposal, but changed their mind when Histiaios, tyrant of Miletos, the most prosperous city of Ionia, pointed out that the tyrants were unpopular with their subjects and were kept in power by the Persians. In this way Histiaios would have persuaded all other Greek rulers under Persian suzerainty that it was in their interest to support their masters. It has been properly observed that the movement of popular opposition to tyranny had not yet started at that time and that the related slogan "to liberate Ionia" had not yet been bandied around. Herodotus probably reports a version of the events that was invented many years later after the Greeks of Asia Minor had revolted against the Persians and Miltiades had become a major figure in the struggle against Persia. It has been suggested on solid grounds that the episode of the debate among the Greeks at the bridge was concocted by Miltiades when he was expelled from his tyranny in 493 BCE and had to return to Athens. Since in Athens he was brought to trial under the charge of being a supporter of tyranny, it is likely that he invented the tale of the debate in order to prove that he had never put the interest of the preservation of tyranny before that of Greek anti-Persian patriotism. On this occasion the detail of the rope with 60 knots was distorted in order to conceal the fact that the behavior of the Ionians aimed at deluding the Scythians and trying to save the Persian army. If the Greeks had seriously considered betrayal, the Persians, who were most suspicious of possible disloyalties, would have wreaked a terrible vengeance, whereas the King of Persia rewarded Histiaios "for guarding the bridge" with a territory in Thrakia close to the border of Greece proper (V. 23). Such a holding would never have been given to a potential traitor or to anyone suspected of Greek nationalism.

The argument that the Scythian campaign was but a brief foray across the Danube is based on the assumption that it was concluded in 60 days. Even Legrand who grants that the story of the rope is a tale concocted in Athens at the occasion of Miltiades' trial of 493 BCE, justifies by the figure of 60 days his contention that the Scythian campaign was invented by Herodotus in order to have a pretext for including in his work an account of the geography of Scythia. Herodotus would be the kind of historian who would invent an entire war for the sake of achieving a smooth literary transition.

The figure of 60 days is so sacred among scholars that Tamara Talbot Rice holds on to it, even though she admits that the Persians advanced to the Volga. But the story about the sixty days cannot be considered an indication of the length of the Persian campaign in Scythia.

Once it is recognized that the King was not a liar when he set up a stele stating that he had marched with 700,000 men, it must be concluded on the basis of the parallel with the expedition of King Xerxes into Greece, that the advance across the Bosphoros, the conquest of Thrakia and the crosssing of the Danube must have taken a full period of military operations. Unfortunately Herodotus does not give a single indication about the time taken by the Persian operations; apparently he received the information from somebody who was using a map, the map presenting the geodetic square of Scythia, and was interested only in indicating the geographical positions and not the times. I would conclude that the Scythian campaign occupied three years. Considering the time that it took for King Xerxes to move his army from Susa to Athens, a full military season, King Darius must have spent a full military season to move his army from Asia Minor to the area of the lower Dnieper where it must have gone into winter quarters. The King must have gone into winter quarters at his base near Tyras. The following year there must have taken place the great advance across Scythia that took the Persians to Gelonos and then to the Volga. Herodotus indicates that the Persians lost contact with the Scythians and regained it only with the advance into the territory of the Melanchlainoi and Androphagoi; this sugggests that the Persians spent another winter in their original winter quarters on the lower Dnieper, and advanced from there to the north in the following spring. The third year saw the Persian advance towards Central Russia and the Baltic coast.

The Persian records do not provide directly a date for the Scythian campaign. From them it can only be inferred that King Darius was engaged in other enterprises up to 518 and after 508 BCE, but his span of time can be narrowed by the Greek records. Herodotus begins the Fourth Book with the sentence: "After the capture of Babylon there took place the drive (elasis) against the Scythians conducted in person by Darius." In 522 BCE Darius was a king's spearbearer in Egypt and in that year he usurped the title of King; the campaign against the other pretenders to the throne and against the revolted provinces culminated with the capture of Babylon in November 521 BCE The year 520 BCE was spent in the reorganization of the Empire, the most significant aspect of which was the issuance of a legal code to be used by all subjects. These facts are mentioned in the great Behistun inscription that was cut at the end of 520 BCE In 519 BCE King Darius invaded the land of the eastern Scythians crossing in person the Caspian Sea on a raft. An addition was made to the Behistun inscription mentioning the victory over the Pointed-Cap Scythians, as the eastern Scythians were called to distinguish them. The Persians gave the name of Saka (equivalent to the Greek term Scythian) to all the Indo-European-speaking nomads who lived in the plains around the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. But Herodotus gives the name of Scythians only to those who lived in Europe, which for him extends to the Don. The Behistun inscription mentions that revenge was taken on the Saka for the slaying of the Persian King Cyrus. Herodotus (I 101) mentions those who killed Cyrus as living towards the East between the river Araxes and the country of the Issedones to the north, specifying that "some call them Scythians." He continues giving a description and the dimension of the Caspian Sea (I 203). It is possible that Herodotus' date of the Scythians campaign rests on a confusion between the Saka or Scythians of the west and the Scythians of the east in interpreting the information of the Behistun inscription, the text of which was sent to all parts of the Empire. Herodotus states that King Darius invaded the land of the Scythians, meaning the western Scythians, as a revenge for the Scythians' invasion of the Middle East up to Egypt that had taken place a century earlier, but this invasion in which the Scythians allied themselves with the Assyrians against the Medes, predecessors of the Persians in the imperial rule, most likely was the work of the eastern Scythians. Even though Herodotus may be wrong in his dating, the campaign of King Darius against the western Saka is likely to have been conceived as a necessary continuation of the victorious campaign against the eastern Saka. In the winter of 519-518 BCE the King was in the area of Palestine where among other problems he had to quench the flames of Jewish nationalism. In the year 518 BCE he was in Egypt where he was consolidating Persian rule and taking the steps necessary to be recognized as a Pharaoh by the Egyptians. At the end of 518 BCE he returned to the capital of Susa. The conquest of western India must have taken place in the years immediately following, since India is included in the list of satrapies found in Egypt, a list which was compiled in 512 BCE, as I shall explain below.

The Capitoline Table, which is a Greek list of dates, a copy of which was found in Rome and is preserved at the Capitoline Museum, mentions the crossing of the Hellespont by King Xerxes in 480 BCE and before that it mentions King Darius as having crossed the Cimmerian Bosphorus in the same year in which the tyrant Hipparchos was slain in Athens, that is, 514 BCE There is no reason to doubt this date. The very fact that only western subjects of the Empire were mobilized for the Scythian campaign suggests that the other subjects were still engaged in the Indian enterprise or were returning from it. Herodotus indicates that plans for the conquest of what the Persians considered Europe had started immediately after.

In my opinion, King Darius spent the year 515 BCE moving his forces from Dascylium to the mouth of the Dnieper where he established his base of operation. In the spring of 514 BCE he crossed into Crimea, initiating the great sweep across the Scythian land that culminated at the Volga. Perhaps his plan was to let the Scythians die of hunger in the area of the lower Volga during the winter of 514/513 BCE When they escaped, he returned to the winter quarters of the previous year. In 513 BCE he pursued them to the north and was finally forced to retreat from Scythia for good. Most historians, assuming that it lasted only a year, place the Scythian campaign in 513 BCE, because Greek data suggest that the revolt of the Greek cities of the Bosphoros took place in that year. I assume that 513 BCE was the last year of the campaign. After the Scythian campaign Herodotus mentions the Persian campaign for the conquest of Libya which cannot have taken place later than 512 BCE because the stelai that were erected to celebrate the construction of the canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, which cannot be dated later than 512 BCE, list the area of Libya as a new Persian satrapy.

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  1. See below, p. for the location of this settlement.

  2. La Grece et l'hellenization du monde antique, (Paris, 1934), p. 157.

  3. Grote, A History of Greece Vol. III, p. 481; Thirlwall The History of Greece, II, p. 223; Dunckler VI, p. 282



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