The Scythians

by Daniel Russ on August 2, 2010

Scythians

Scythians Wearing Characteristic Chain Mail And Leather Armor

The Scythians appeared on the Black Sea coast probably around 600 BC, but came into their own as a people around 500 BC. Herodotus, the famous Greek historian reminds us of this difficult opponent to the Greeks and Persians and Medes. He writes “No Scythian woman can marry until after she has killed an enemy.” This would certainly indicate to me that this was an aggressive warlike society especially given the fact that all they left behind were burial mounds and other scholars’ written memories of war. The Scythians left no towns or fortresses. They were nomadic, and enigmatic. They had no written language and so we rely on others, and on the findings of archeologists to learn more. If they resembled anyone, it was the Comanches. In fact, the similarity between the Scythians and the North American Comanches is remarkable.

Both nations existed for a long time but grew into a martial power within a single century. Both nations kept no permanent architecture or technology, and both occupied about the same amount of land.  Both cultures bought and borrowed from the cultures they ran up against; they adored jewelry and adornment for their persons and their mounts, and both cultures bragged of women who could fight as well as men. Both cultures used the bow and arrow and both cultures’ defenders claim that these skilled horsemen could fire up to 20 arrows a minute accurately whilst riding. Both the Comanches and the Scythians took scalps and made horses and horsemanship the single most important relationship they had with the world. The Comanches and the Scythians were obstacles to conquerors. The Spanish Empire never could get past the Comanches. Even when the Spanish Empire was at it’s peak in the 17th century, the Comanches are what kept the Dakotas and Wyoming from having Spanish names. Similarly, the early Greeks and Persians, and the Medes and Cimmerians could do little with the Scythians. Darius almost lost 80000 men trying to stop the raids of the Scythians, trying to hit a target that could not be seen and would not stand still. It took the Americans to conquer the Comanches and it took the Macedonians led by Phillip II, or Alexander the Great’s father to tame the Scythians.

Essentially a giant light cavalry force, they are not compared to the Mongols for many reasons. The Mongols took huge swaths of land. The Scythians occupied a migratory route between the Black Sea and the Ukraine. The Mongols were organized into clans and had long histories and devotion to a charismatic strongman. We don’t know if any of those characteristics belonged to the Scythians. Again, the comparison between the Scythians and the Commanches bears fruit. The Ukraine and the Great Plains were a perfect mirror of large areas, horse friendly, filled with game, patches of arable land and terrain easy to hide in. Early Greeks disappeared pursuing Scythians just like soldiers would travel for days in the Great Plains and get completely lost, or die of starvation or freeze to death, all the while underestimating the harsh landscape and not knowing exactly how the eco system works. Herodotus writes: “for it is in their manner if life that no one who invades their country can escape destruction. And if they want to avoid engaging an enemy then that enemy cannot by any possible means come to grips with them. A people without fortified towns, living as Scythians do, in wagons which they take with them wherever they go accustomed one and all to fight on horseback with bows and arrows, and dependent for their food not upon agriculture but upon their cattle…”

When the Scythians disappeared they left even less than they left while terrorizing the steppes of the Ukraine. The empire, the civilization probably assimilated or died wholesale.  They did not go out with a bang. They disappeared with a whisper.

Scythians

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