Brief History of Scythia

The Scythians came into existence centuries before Rome was founded, and exploded across the plains of Southern Russia to plague the tillers of the soil who dwelt in mud huts along the rivers and in scattered forests. Some poets say their birth was on the Ocean of Grass, others cynically say they were a collection of scattered equestrian clans who coalesced into a mighty confederation of tribes eight hundred years before our Common Era. The Scythians themselves say they founded a nation under their first king Kolaksay, though the Greeks attribute their rise to Heracles, who bedded a Scythian princess to found a dynasty. The historian Josephus called them the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. Regardless, they came to rule the plains north of the Black Sea from 800 BCE until their demise in the early 200s CE.

Their lands encompassed much of the modern Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and parts of Southern Russia. It is said the god of the North Wind Boreas lived in their lands- which from a Greek point of view made much sense as there were few mountains and forests there to slow down winds, allowing it to whisk swiftly across the plains and bring cold Arctic air into the Black Sea Basin. Herodotus says they tried to conquer the northern regions of Russia as well, but "the earth and sky there were filled with feathers which hindered their sight." The Scythians were archers, even then, and reliant on good vision to identify targets and aim at them. Snow blocked vision when falling, and sunglare from a snow layer made judging distances difficult.

We call them Scythians, while the Persians called them Saka and the Medes called them Ishkuzai. They referred to themselves as Skolotoi. All of them derive from the same root- archers, for the Scythians were primarily an archer nation. Their lands lacked resources of iron and metals, dotted instead with small forests and wide plains where only herds of horse and cattle roamed. From these animals they could harvest leather for clothes, sinews for bowstrings, bone for hunting tips, wood for arrows, and combined with horn for bows, and trade the animals themselves for iron for war points. Thus the bow, not the sword, became the primary weapon of these people.

They were the epitome of the barbarian tribe. They were poor for the most part, armed with a common bow, lived on horseback, drank the blood of their foes and collected heads and hearts as proof of their victories. Their elderly were sentenced to death upon reaching the age of sixty when they could no longer contribute to the gathering of food or host for war. They wore tattoos as a mark of honor- the more tattoos, the higher the rank. Their nobles wore suits of leather into which were sewn precious iron plates, but the regular warrior wore but a padded leather coat and breeks. The footborne carried axes, and most had a curved sword as well, though they were never known as good swordfighters.

These hardy warriors, masters of the bow and horse, soon made a nuisance of themselves over most of Europe and the Middle East. They were known to have sacked cities in Syria, earned tribute from Media and Assyria, and even received gifts from the Egyptians if they but left their lands alone. This high period of prosperity lasted two hundred years from the beginning of the 5th century BCE to the 3rd. In 325 BCE they fought an army of Macedonians sent by Alexander the Great- and destroyed it. Earlier, they fought off a huge army of Persians under Darius I.

It was not only abroad that the Scythians were feared and respected. Sources mention that the Scythians themselves were a sort of elite, noble class who ruled over indigenous peoples and forced them to till the land to bring forth grain. Herodotus writes that they were cruel masters who blinded their slaves as a precaution against uprising (blind men do not generally fight well), yet it is widely known that the Scythians gained much of their wealth from the sale of slaves. As blind slaves fetch a very low price and are generally useless for field work or household work, it makes one wonder if it was the inherent brutality of the Scythians inspiring a wonderful tale to tell naughty children, or was it actually true and the Scythians made up their wealth in volume of slaves sold.

But the Scythians were more than centaur-like barbarians living on resource-poor windswept plains that nobody else wanted. They had a flourishing culture- especially art- and were among the first to not only promote women's rights, but actually have equality between man and woman. Scythian females did all that their men did- sleep, find food, manage the home, fight in battle, kill the enemy. The only two things they did not do the same as the men did was wear the same style clothes and urinate standing. Their artwork is well-known today and still marveled at by scholars, and archaeologists are still finding intricate burial mounds with most of their treasures intact to study. In time, we may see a Scythian culture emerge from the past that was far more rich than that for which the Persians gave them credit.

In time, the Scythians grew settled, and lost their habit of roaming the plains. They still provided mercenaries to others, but now established cities and towns of their own. In settling, they grew soft, and thus became prey to other, more robust tribes emerging from the old heartland. Their cousins, the Sarmatians, began nibbling away at their northern regions, while wild Celts and fierce Thracians ate into their realms from the west.

The decay increased until around 200 CE, when the Third Kingdom of the Scythians fell once and for all to the incoming Goths- the first kingdom known to civilization to fall to the Goths.

They would not be the last.