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Earthdate 2004-01-05

“Horsey” Vikings II — Scythians

Scythian: Death mask of Scythian queen, prob. 3rd c. A.D. Glinische, near Kerch, a refuge for Scythians from the steppe (Leningrad: Hermitage). (University of Alabama Birmingham)

The Scythians, as previously noted, displaced the Cimmerians from the European steppe during the 8th and 7th centuries BC, and over the next half millennium dominated the northern borderlands of Persia, Asia Minor, and Greece.  Eneyclopædia Britannica's article “Scythian” describes them: 3

The Scythians were feared and admired for their prowess in war and, in particular, for their horsemanship.  They were among the earliest people to master the art of riding, and their mobility astonished their neighbours.  The migration of the Scythians from Asia eventually brought them into the territory of the Cimmerians, who had traditionally controlled the Caucasus and the plains north of the Black Sea.  In a war that lasted 30 years, the Scythians destroyed the Cimmerians and set themselves up as rulers of an empire stretching from west Persia through Syria and Judaea to the borders of Egypt.  The Medes, who ruled Persia, attacked them and drove them out of Anatolia, leaving them finally in control of lands which stretched from the Persian border north through the Kuban and into southern Russia.

The Scythians were remarkable not only for their fighting ability but also for the civilization they produced.  They developed a class of wealthy aristocrats who left elaborate graves filled with richly worked articles of gold and other precious materials.  This class of chieftains, the Royal Scyths, finally established themselves as rulers of the southern Russian and Crimean territories.  It is there that the richest and most numerous relics of Scythian civilization have been found.  Their power was sufficient to repel an invasion by the Persian king Darius I in about 513 BC.

Historian William H. McNeill indicates the Scythians' impact on the history of world civilization: 4

Scythian: Felt hanging from kurgan 5 at Pazyryk, Altai region. A horseman approaches the throne of a divine ruler, probably the Near Eastern Magna Mater, but her representation seems derived from the Far East (Leningrad: Hermitage). (University of Alabama Birmingham)

[T]he Scythians had erected a loose confederacy that spanned all of the Western Steppe.  The high king of the tribe heading this confederacy presumably had only limited control over the far reaches of the Western Steppe.  But on special occasions the Scythians could assemble large numbers of horsemen for long-distance raids, such as the one that helped to bring the Assyrian Empire to an end.  After sacking the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BC, the booty-laden Scyths returned to the Ukrainian steppe, leaving Medes, Babylonians, and Egyptians to dispute the Assyrian heritage.  But the threat of renewed raids from the north remained and constituted a standing problem for rulers of the Middle East thereafter.

Despite an impression one might get that these great nomad confederacies/empires lacked settlements of any kind, fortified and otherwise, historian Gavin R.G. Hambly points out the contrary, writing in the article “Central Asia” in Encyclopædia Britannica: 5

From the second half of the 8th century BC, the Cimmerians were replaced by the Scythians, who used iron implements.  The Scythians created the first known typical Central Asian empire.  […]  [T]he Greek historian Herodotus […] provided the first and perhaps the most penetrating description of a great nomad empire.  In more than one respect the Scythians appear as the historical prototype of the mounted warrior of the steppe; yet in their case, as in others, it would be mistaken to see in them aimlessly roaming tribes.  The Scythians, like most nomad empires, had permanent settlements of various sizes, representing various degrees of civilization.  The vast fortified settlement of Kamenka on the Dnieper River, settled since the end of the 5th century BC, became the centre of the Scythian kingdom ruled by Ateas, who lost his life in a battle against Philip II of Macedon in 339 BC.

What kind of soldier and army did the Scythians field?  Britannica's article “Scythian” describes them:

The Scythian army was made up of freemen who received no wage other than food and clothing, but who could share in booty on presentation of the head of a slain enemy.  Many warriors wore Greek-style bronze helmets and chain-mail jerkins.  Their principal weapon was a double-curved bow and trefoil-shaped arrows; their swords were of the Persian type.  Every Scythian had at least one personal mount, but the wealthy owned large herds of horses, chiefly Mongolian ponies.  Burial customs were elaborate and called for the sacrifice of members of the dead man's household, including wife, servants, and a number of horses.

Assessment:  We see that the Scythians possessed large fortified settlements (as did many another horse-nomad empire), and in personal arms resembled the mailed horse warriors of the Rohirrim.

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