Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Scythians

Geographical definition and nomenclature
The term Scythian (O.P. Sakâ, also Gk. Sakai, Lat. Sacae) broadly glosses a number of ancient peoples who shared the culture of the Great Steppe such as it was in Classical antiquity and may have spoken closely-related languages.  They were spread over a very wide area:

• The Amyrgian Scythians or Sakâ haumavargâ ("haoma-drinking Scythians") lived in or about modern Uzbekistan. • The Orthocorybantians or Sakâ tigrakhaudâ ("pointed-hat Scythians") were north of Parthia in present Turkmenistan
• The Pausikoi or Apâ Sakâ ("water Scythians") appear to have been somewhat northeast of the Sakâ tigrakhaudâ.
• The Sakâ paradrayâ ("Scythians across the sea") lived north of the Black Sea in the modern Ukraine and part of Romania.  They were not part of the Persian empire.  These are the folk whom the Greeks referred to simply as Scythians (Skythoi), without qualification.

The Dahae (Dahâ) and Massagetae (*Mâh Sakâ?), who lived in what is now south-central Kazakhstan, are sometimes glossed as Scythian peoples, but for brevity's sake, I won't cover them here.  This history will attempt to treat the first four peoples.

Linguist Oswald Szemerényi regarded Skythoi and Sakâ as coming from different roots.  The former, he said, derived from an Indo-European root meaning "shoot" and reconstructed in the original Scythian as *Skuda, "archer" (to which he also related the name of Sogdia).  In the language of the Sakâ paradrayâ, this became *Skula, accounting for Herodotus' statement that the Royal Scythians (the chief tribe of the Sakâ paradrayâ) called themselves Skolotoi.  Szemerényi believed Sakâ came from an Iranian root meaning "roam," and was therefore an exonym given to them by the Persians.

There are two popular theories regarding Scythian origins:  One states that they branched off from the second-millennium BC Andronovo culture in the area of Central Asia northeast of modern Iran; the other has them develop from the Srubna culture, which occupied the land to the north of and between the Black and Caspian seas during the same period.

A competing - not so much theory as way of assessing the situation - states that the literate Greeks and Persians applied "Skythoi" and "Sakâ" so broadly to distinct Steppe peoples as to make trying to pin down a singular origin for them futile by nature.  It is true that Europeans would continue to apply the term "Scythian" to people who came out of the same regions as the Classical Scythians many centuries later, and such indiscriminate use may have already occurred in our period.

Archaeologically speaking, the Scythians we discuss belong to what is called the Scytho-Siberian culture, a very widespread set of material cultural practices (almost certainly shared by completely unrelated peoples) that include such things as a highly equestrian way of life, kurgan tombs, the B-shaped composite bow, the akinakes sword, styles of artwork and so on.

The Scythians along the Black Sea had as their immediate northerly neighbors farming people whom Herodotus lumps with the Scythians; these may be the Chernoles culture, a possibly proto-Slavic archaeological group who appear to have come under Scythian domination.  Herodotus devotes much of book IV to the customs of the Black Sea Scythians.  He says that they blinded those whom they took as slaves and forced them to churn butter.

The Royal Scythians seem to have enjoyed a period of power in West Asia.  Herodotus reports that their king Madyes son of Protothyes defeated Cyaxares in battle (probably in the mid-seventh century) and subjected the Medes for 28 years, plundering many other lands besides, until Cyaxares hosted some of their nobles, got them drunk and, well, things didn't turn out so well for them.  They also took part in the coalition that destroyed the Assyrian empire at the end of the century.

According to Herodotus, Darius the Great attempted to conquer the Black Sea Scythians, an event dated to around 512.  He crossed the Bosphorus with a pontoon bridge, turned east and found nothing.  The Scythians waged a scorched earth campaign, fleeing before his army, destroying pastures and attacking his supply lines.  Darius wrote to their king Idanthyrsus a challenge to either fight or submit; Idanthyrsus replied that, as his people were nomads, he had no reason to do either, and only if Darius could find and try to destroy their fathers' kurgans could he expect a pitched battle.  With his men exhausted from the endless pursuit, Darius stopped at the Volga River, built some frontier fortresses and then left unsatisfied.

He had long since pacified the Sakâ tigrakhaudâ, who were apparently already subjects at the time of his ascension.  In his Behistun inscription, he states that they revolted along with the other provinces, probably around 520-519.  They had two chiefs, one of whom was killed and the other, named Skunkha, captured; Darius then appointed a new chief.  The pointed-hat Scythians are illustrated at Persepolis bearing clothing and a horse.  They are among the few people other than the Persians, Elamites and Medes who are armed, and some writers believe this fact indicates a degree of privilege in the imperial system.  Herodotus states that they made up the 10th tax district, together with the Medes and Paricanians, paying 450 talents yearly.

The Pausikoi or Apâ Sakâ enter into Classical history very rarely, but are mentioned as part of the 11th tax district, together with the Caspians, Pantimathi and Daritae, paying 200 talents.  They are probably the same people who appear in Hellenistic history as the Apasiakai (Lat. Apasiacae).

Ctesias attributed the conquest of the Amyrgian Scythians to Cyrus.  He believed that the Amyrgians were named for their king Amorges.  Personally I think the Persian etymology of "haoma-drinking" is more likely, but I'm only an amateur.  Ctesias said that Cyrus captured Amorges, whose wife Sparethra waged war and captured several high-ranking Persians.  The prisoners were exchanged and the Amyrgians allied with the Persians, fighting alongside them in Lydia.  Iranologist Alireza Shahbazi regarded Ctesias' overall narrative as containing so many errors "that it borders on fiction."  The name Amorges is not an invention, but it was a Persian name, that of a son of Pissuthnes the satrap of Lydia.

Scythians fought in both the 490 and 480 Persian invasions of Greece.  At Marathon, they were posted in the center of the battle line next to the Persians, and were able to withstand the hoplite charge (which was weakest at the center on this occasion).  In Xerxes' invasion, the Amyrgians served under the king's half-brother Hystaspes.  They fought both on land and as marines, thus were presumably present at Artemision and Salamis, and some were retained by Mardonius to fight at Plataia.  Herodotus calls the Scythians the best cavalry in the Persian army at the last battle.

The Black Sea Scythians grew wealthier during the fifth century in large part due to the slave trade from Central Asia to Europe.  Around the turn of the fourth century, King Ateas ascended to the throne of the Royal Scythians.  During the first half of the century, he centralized royal authority all along the north coast of the Black Sea.  In the 340s, he had a snippy diplomatic relationship with Philip of Macedon, which resulted in a battle and Ateas' death at modern Dobruja in 339.

Eastern Scythians fought at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 as part of Bessus' cavalry.  In the same year, Alexander's governor of Thrace or Pontus (sources differ on this), Zopyrion, invaded the kingdom of Scythia for want of something better to do, laid a failed siege to Olbia and was killed while retreating.  In 329, an army from Scythia invaded Alexander's empire from the north, but was defeated at the Battle of Jaxartes near modern Tashkent.

The post-Classical history of the Scythian peoples is too complex to cover here.  In east and west, Scythian peoples continued on their various ways, but mostly disappeared over the centuries.  In the third century BC Scythia collapsed under pressure from Thracians, Celts and Sarmatians.  Eastern Scythians settled in Drangiana, creating Sakastan (modern Sīstān) during the early Arsacid period, while others settled in India to create the Indo-Scythian kingdom - all for naught; both have long since disappeared into the native populations.

One last note:  The Scythians are often said to have been the inspiration for the Amazons in Greek mythology.  This is an oversimplification of things.  There is evidence that Amazons were established in Greek myth well before contact with the Scythians.  It is true both that many Scythian women have been found buried with weapons and the Greeks have spoken of Scythian female warriors, and that late Archaic and Classical art often shows Amazons in Asiatic clothing.  On the other hand, other Greek art shows the Amazons in Greek men's tunics.  Herodotus regarded the Amazons and Scythians as separate peoples and believed the Sauromatians were a tribe of mixed Scythian and Amazon ancestry.  Most likely, the Greeks during the Archaic concluded that the Amazons were a Steppe people, or used the Scythians as models for later portrayals of their Amazons, because few other peoples in the world had such numbers of female warriors.

The Scythian language or languages are scarcely-attested from a handful of proper names of people and tribes and possibly a seventh-century inscription from Saqqez, Iran, recording what may be a reference to King Protothyes (as "Partitava"), a Scythian who married an Assyrian princess.  Most Western scholars regard Scythian as being Eastern Iranian, and part of a Scytho-Sarmatian group which gave rise to the language of the Alans and, in turn, modern Ossetian.  The better-attested Eastern Iranian languages of the later kingdoms of Khotan and Tumshuq in what is now western China are thought to be derived from Scythian as well, and are termed "Sakan."

Scythians were polytheists whom Herodotus says worshipped a seven-member pantheon:  Tabiti (whom he regards as the same as the Greek Hestia), Papaios (Zeus), Apia (Gaia), Goitosyros (Apollo), Argimpasa (Uranian Aphrodite), someone whom he calls Heracles, Agin (Ares) and, among the Royal Scythians, Thagimasadas (Poseidon).  The vagaries of interpretatio graeca must be kept in mind:  It's unlikely that these gods derive from the same sources as those whom Herodotus considers their Greek equivalents.

Tabiti, he says, was most important, but only Agin had temples (of a sort) dedicated to him:  In each district, bundles of sticks would be formed into a vast platform three eighths of a mile long and wide, with an akinakes in the middle representing the god himself; new wood was stacked on top as the older wood settled or broke down.

Animal sacrifices, mainly horses, were offered to various gods.  Animals were ritually strangled, the meat carved and boiled and part of it then cast on the ground (which reminds me somewhat of the Magian rite).  At the temples of Agin, a yearly sacrifice of sheep, goats, horses and enemy prisoners was performed.

The historian also states that a priestly caste of transvestites existed called the Enarei, blessed by Argimpasa to divine the future with strips of linden bark.  The name of the Sakâ haumavargâ suggests that they borrowed or retained the ancient Indo-Iranian practice of drinking haoma/soma at religious ceremonies.

Most Scythians wore a variant of the cavalry costume, featuring loose-fitting trousers rather than Medo-Persian tights, and a coat held closed by a belt.  Most art (with the exception of the Naqš-e Rostam reliefs) shows the coat as overlapping somewhat in the front.  At Pazyryk in Siberia, a Scytho-Siberian jacket was found made out of felt rather than woven cloth, and other sites have yielded felt stockings.  An abundance of sheep and goat wool, and the relative simplicity of making and working with felt, may have increased its appeal to the Steppe nomads.  These nomads, Asiatic Scythians included, also obtained and traded silk on the Silk Road of which they were a part.

The Sakâ tigrakhaudâ wore tiaras with very tall tapering peaks, probably treated felt or leather, or having an internal reinforcement.  At Persepolis and Behistun, they otherwise wear Medo-Persian costume, but at Naqš-e Rostam the one present is shown in normal Scythian garb, albeit with a tall hat.  Other Scythians wore less spectacular styles of tiara, though they were still usually more pointed than those worn by other peoples.

In most art, Scythians wear low shoes (which I would guess to be similar to Medo-Persian ones), but some pieces from the Black Sea area show pull-on boots that come up to above the ankle.

Use of the classic Central Asian recurved composite bow and the attendant gorytos is well-documented.  Arrowheads in the same trilobate style as the Persians and Greeks were used, as were leaf-shaped ones with extended sockets; these latter sometimes had a single recurved barb sticking off the socket.  Greek and Roman writers said that when going to war, Scythians dipped their arrows in a noxious substance composed of rotting viper corpses, blood and animal dung, the result of which was that even minor wounds would result in simultaneous poisoning and infection.

The Black Sea Scythians' iron swords could be larger than Achaemenid ones, some examples reaching up to two feet overall (almost as big as a Roman gladius) and often featuring loosely-curled antennae or horns on the pommel, though I confess I don't know the time period during which this sub-style evolved.  Otherwise, the small akinakes with the T-shaped pommel was common.  Swords and knives were still sometimes made of bronze.

Another distinctive Scythian weapon was the sagaris, a small-headed, tomahawk-like battleaxe.  The sagaris could be bronze or iron, and had a flared cutting edge, usually a long back spike and a thin straight handle.  Scythians also used spears and javelins which were much like those found elsewhere in the ancient world, with socketed, leaf-shaped iron points.

Scythian shields seem to have been commonly made of thin hide (I unfortunately have yet to find analyses of whether rawhide or tanned leather was used) densely woven through with sticks while wet; essentially like smaller versions of Achaemenid shields.  Various shapes were known from Pazyryk, and the famous Solokha comb shows one crescent and one which is a sideways rectangle.  The crescent seems to have been a very common shape from the Balkans through the Iranian plateau.

Body armor was usually made of scale.  Corslets were either of a simple tunic shape or modeled after the Greek tube-and-yoke thorax, and the Scytho-Siberians seem to have pioneered the use of scale neck guards.  Shields were also sometimes covered in scale.  In the fifth century, pointed leather caps covered with scale began to replace the earlier Kuban-type helmet, which was of solid bronze and fitted close to the head with a low browline (but no nasal guard).  Imported Greek helmets (in the Corinthian and derivative styles) also became popular at this time.

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