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Since the dawn of civilisation the settled peoples of the world had been plagued by incursions of nomads. First they came on foot with their belongings on their backs, to steal from cities and farms. Following the invention of the wheel they rode into battle in carts and chariots instead, while desert nomads took to the camel. Waves of raiders came and went. Sometimes they were defeated by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the settled peoples, while on other occasions the latter were overrun, after which the numerically inferior wanderers were assimilated and themselves adopted a settled lifestyle.
Then, in the middle of the 8th century BC, a new phenomenon arose, one which would plague kingdoms and empires for more than 2,000 years and would sweep across continents, annihilating everything that it could not carry or understand - the nomad horseman of the steppes. Masters of the green grass seas that stretched for unimaginable distances north and east of the civilised world, their myriad names are remembered with fear: Huns, Mongols, Turks, Cumans, Pechenegs, and Magyars. But the very first to gallop across the settled lands of the ancient world were the Cimmerians and Scythians; all the others simply followed in their footsteps.
Our Scythians and Cimmerians were sculpted by Alan Perry.
The Cimmerians came from the steppes stretching north beyond the Black Sea. The horse had been domesticated by them some time around 3000 BC, and by 1500 BC they dominated what would become known as the southern Russian steppe. Their nomadic lifestyle only rarely brought them into contact with the more settled peoples encircling their territory and it was not until the early 7th century BC that the outside world became aware of their existence.
In the first of the great ‘domino’ effects of history that would be repeated ad infinitum for the next two millennia the Cimmerians were pressurised into leaving their homeland by another confederation of tribes, the Scythians, who resembled them in most important respects. The Cimmerians fled across the Caucasus Mountains, with the Scythians following and expanding their territory in their wake. Many Cimmerian tribes were absorbed into the Scythian confederation and together they attacked and defeated the kingdom of Uratu.
Now the nomads had the taste for conquest. They next fell upon the Medes who, despite their large army and mountainous terrain, were beaten. This brought the Scythians into conflict with one of the great empires of the time, Assyria, but instead of being overawed by its might they launched assault after assault. The Assyrian king Esarhaddon eventually had to barter a formal alliance by marrying his daughter to the Scythian king Partatua and giving ‘gifts’ of great worth.
Still not sated, the Scythians moved on and rode through Palestine to the very borders of Egypt, their next target. Pharaoh Psammeticus decided that offering tribute was preferable to having his country ravaged by these barbarous newcomers, and paid them off; at which the Scythians simply turned around and went back to raiding Assyria and Media for the foreseeable future.
DOMINATION, ALLIANCE & DECEIT
Their continual pressure on the Medes enabled the Scythians to influence Median affairs for a generation from 650 BC onwards. The two peoples fought in alliance with each other against Babylonia, Assyria and Elam, and this laid the foundations of the Median Empire.
By the closing decades of the 7th century BC their combined pressure on the Assyrian Empire was crippling it to such an extent that when the allies attacked in 612 BC they were able to overwhelm the Assyrian army and capture the capital, Nineveh. This was the end of the most powerful military and political force in the area and left a power vacuum that the Scythians must have fully expected to fill. But it was at this moment that the Medes struck back, having no intention of sharing power. The growing Median Empire pushed the Scythians back to their traditional lands beyond the Caucasus Mountains and then set to guarding the passes against future incursions. The first great adventure for the Scythians was over.
AN EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
The Scythians continued to raid their neighbours and some tribes began to drift further eastwards, encountering new foes to upset. This continued for a century and the Scythians retold their tales of conquest to new generations until they assumed semi-mythical form. But civilisation had not entirely forgotten the Scythians. Beyond the mountains, changes had taken place, and a new and mightier empire had arisen from the bones of Assyria, Babylon and, most recently, Media. The Persian Achaemenid dynasty had absorbed the Medes and was now expanding at a great pace. It was not long before Imperial eyes turned back to the great plains north of the Caucasus.
The Persian Empire needed to secure its northern border against the Scythians to ensure that campaigns towards the east and west would not be hampered by nomad incursions. To this end Darius I of Persia sent one of his satraps (governors) with 100 ships to scout out an invasion route and take prisoners. Then he mustered contingents from other satrapies, built a boat-bridge over the Hellespont, and attacked the local Thracian tribes to clear his way. The Persian army was huge, and the campaign that followed is a perfect example of the Scythian way of war during their heyday.
CATS & MICE
In mid-512 BC the Persian army began to cross the Danube into Scythian territory. The Scythian kings, Idanthyrsus, Taxacis and the supreme leader Scopasis, set to work by sending their noncombatants and flocks north into the great steppe. Then they divided their forces. One host (led by Scopasis) rode ahead of the advancing Persians, burning the pastures to prevent grazing, filling in the wells, and driving off game. The other kings, meanwhile, shadowed the enemy’s northern flank, protecting the retreat of their families northwards while continually pushing the Persians into the denuded areas behind Scopasis’ army.
After 20 days of this the Persians were exhausted. They had reached the Sea of Azov, where Darius ordered a fortified camp to be built.
Then, for some reason, he suddenly began the pursuit again, with the same result. Darius now entered into negotiations with Idanthyrsus, asking him to convince Scopasis that it was folly to resist the might of Persia and to bring simple gifts of earth and water as symbols of submission.
Instead of these tokens of submission, Darius received an unusual collection of symbolic gifts: a mouse, a frog, a bird and five arrows. Darius pondered these and considered them positive signs of submission. The Scythians, however, meant them to represent something totally different. The historian Herodotus records the alternative interpretation: ‘Unless the Persians fly away like birds, hide in the earth like mice, or leap into a lake like frogs, they will never see their homes again, but will die under our arrows’.
Then, one morning, the Persians awoke to find the Scythian army arrayed for battle, and they hastened to form their own battle line, bracing themselves behind their great shields for the arrow storm to come. Suddenly there was movement in the space between the forces and a terrified hare raced across the grass. As one, the Scythian army whirled away in pursuit, whooping with the joy of the hunt. The Persians were stunned, and Darius, realising the futility of his venture, immediately ordered the retreat. The sick and wounded were left to the tender mercies of the Scythians, all spare supplies were burnt, and the Persians began their ignominious withdrawal, never to return.
CHANGE & DECLINE
Over the next two centuries the Scythian tribal confederation began to slowly drift apart as it came under influences from widely different regions of the ancient world. The Massagatae became allies of the Persians, the Saka set up a dynasty in India, and the Dahae joined up with Yueh-chi tribes who took over the Seleukid province of Parthia. The world had changed around them and in the mid-4th century BC they themselves began to fall prey to steppe nomads in the form of the related Sarmatians (see the Dacian section for more details). The remaining Scythian tribes were pushed back to the Crimea and Bosphorus area by the victorious Sarmatians, eventually encroaching onto the territory of the King of Pontus, who defeated them in 106 BC.
So the great adventure was over. They had humbled empires and set up their own, but now their name was no more than a byword for barbarism and savagery. Nevertheless, their exploits served as a reminder to the world’s settled population at large never to underestimate a man armed with a bow and riding a pony. But it would soon be time for even more formidable horse-warriors to ravage the riches of the world.
SCYTHIAN ARMIES & EQUIPMENT
The backbone of any Scythian force consisted of its tribal horsearchers, noted for their agility in the saddle (stirrups not yet having been invented) and their speedy mounts. Whether raiding or defending, horse-archers would sometimes constitute 100% of a Scythian army. Engaging them must have been like fighting smoke. If you were fast enough to catch them they would envelope you before you could bring weight of numbers to bear. If your force comprised a solid body of infantry they simply rode around it shooting arrows until your formation faltered, upon which they would charge in and cause mayhem before flying back out of harm’s way again.
They relied upon two factors to enable them to achieve this: the horse and the composite bow. Great pride was taken in the number and quality of a man’s horses. In later centuries mention is frequently made of horse-archers regularly swapping mounts in the midst of battle, enabling them to skirmish continuously all day long.
The composite bow was a marvel of ancient technology. It utilised the various properties of commonly found materials — wood, bone, sinew, horn and natural glues — to produce a weapon that was greater than the sum of its parts. Only around 30 ins (80 cm) in length when strung, it had the power of a self-bow twice its size, the secret being that its various parts stored the energy of the pull as it increased and then released it in one instant. More than one would normally be carried, as the tremendous pressures could shatter a bow in battle. A few nobles wore armour that could range from leather scales to full bronze chest and back plates of Greek manufacture. Helmets were more common and also followed Greek patterns, and for a time greaves were also worn over the trousers. Shields ranged from simple wicker affairs to complex designs of iron plates that were worn on the back as secondary armour. During the Persian period the Massagatae are recorded riding armoured horses, while the Dahae were allied with the Parthians, who wore cataphract armour, so that the few Scythian nobles present in an army (probably no more than 5%) could have looked pretty formidable.
Melee weapons were always secondary to the bow, but the Scythians used the whole range of swords, daggers, light javelins and axes. The last of these was unusual in that the head was a chisel shaped blade at right angles to the shaft; this design was subsequently taken up by Assyrian officers of the Sargonid period as a badge of rank. There is some mention of lassoes being used in battle to drag unfortunates from the safety of their ranks. This may be fanciful, but a tribesman pulling a Greek or Assyrian behind him would make an interesting conversion.
From around 300 BC, under Sarmatian influence, the Scythian nobility began to take a more aggressive role on the battlefield and were quite willing to charge an enemy head-on without first softening him up with arrows. Adding a couple of Sarmatian lancers to your force would look quite good and could distinguish the army from a pre-300 BC collection.
The one aspect of any Scythian force that always caused comment was the presence of female warriors. For a long time such allegations were thought to be simply a literary device to show the utter barbarity of the tribes, along the lines of ‘By the Gods! Even their women are savages!’ However, modern anthropology has shown that it was not uncommon for unmarried women to engage in combat within many tribal cultures — Celtic women, for instance, were said to be more feared than their men, while the African kingdom of Dahomey had a female regiment even in the late 19th century. The rationale is that they were ‘surplus’ to the tribe at that time in their lives and needed to prove their worth, so religious strictures said they had to prove themselves by killing enemies of the tribe. Whether or not this is where the stories of ‘Amazons’ came from is another matter. Skeletons of Scythian women have been found with wounds clearly received in battle. Apart from numerous cuts to the bones, one has been found with an arrowhead in her spine.
One thing that sets the Scythians apart from many other nomads is that they are colourful, and then some! The wrap-over jacket and trousers that were their normal attire were decorated with stitching, appliqué bands and precious metal plates. The cloth itself could be bright reds, blues, greens and purples, or white. The patterning would take the form of contrasting lines of colour around the neck and hem, joined down the centre of the back and chest, with further lines running down the sleeves to the elbow. Geometrically patterned cloth could also be used, covered with patterns of rosettes, flowers, diamonds and circles, etc. However, the potential brightness of such costumes would be toned down by dirt and grime.
Scythians could be tattooed with zoomorphic and swirling patterns in blue-black on their limbs and bodies, so get those 0000 brushes out. The physical evidence shows that they were not Turkic or Mongoloid like the nomad hordes that came after them, but displayed Caucasian features, although the outdoor life would have tanned them. There may have been fair-haired and blue-eyed tribes in the early period, but these became less evident as time went on.
The Scythian love of gold cannot be overemphasised. If they couldn’t wear it they would hang it off something! The combined arrow case and quiver, called a gorytus, of even the poorest horsearcher often had a covering sheet of gold embossed with hunting scenes or mythical animals. Nobles would wear scale armour with the iron tinned to a chrome-like finish and then have patterns picked out by using gold scales around the neck and hem of the garment. The Scythian sword scabbard could also be made entirely of embossed and chased gold, with a solid gold hilt for the sword itself. No need to stint on decoration with this army.
Text by Adrian Garbett.