NOTE: By about 1300 BC, groups of Iranian people had migrated from central Asia into what is now the country of Iran. They formed settled cultures there without ever developing the horse nomad way of life. They had frequent, often violent interaction with the horse nomads. The various sedentary Iranian groups who established states at various times throughout the Middle East include the Medes, Achaemenid Persians, Sassanid Persians, Safavid Persians, Buyids, Ayyubids, and others. See the following pages for how these settled, civilized Iranian cultures became frequent peripheral players in the world of the horse nomads. These sedentary Iranian peoples sometimes came into conflict with those kindred Iranian tribes who had adopted the horse nomad culture such as the Scythians.
The Scythians were the people who first raised the horse nomad culture to its fullest potential. They thundered out of central Asia about 750-700 BC and drove the nascently horse-mobile Cimmerian (Kimmerian) tribes out of what is now the Ukraine. They ruled the Ukraine about 700-200 BC. The best reconstruction of events historians and archaeologists are able to make is that the Scythians chased the Cimmerians south through the Caucasus into the Middle East. The Cimmerians found refuge in what is now Turkey, destroying the indigenous civilization of the Phrygians in the process. This was the first example in history of the “chain reaction” paradigm that would play out multiple times on the steppe over the next several centuries, as described in the Introduction. Subsequent to their pursuit of the Cimmerians, according to the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, the Scythians spent the next twenty-eight years in the Middle East. By modern reckoning, these twenty-eight years took place during the 7th Century BC. The Scythians spent their time in the Middle East generally raiding, plundering, and terrorizing the settled cultures they found there. Archaeologists have found Scythian arrowheads embedded in clay defensive walls from that time in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. The Scythians were led by their King Partatua (also called Protothyes) during the first part of their time in the Middle East. Partatua married an Assyrian princess, a union producing his son and successor, King Madyes. Madyes led the Scythians to the border of Egypt, but they were bought off with bribes from the Egyptian pharaoh. While in the Middle East, the Scythians sometimes helped the Assyrians fight against the sedentary Iranian Medes and other times they helped the Medes fight against the Assyrians. In any event, the Scythians helped the Medes annihilate the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC. For a while, the Scythians dominated the Medes but the Medes rebelled and treacherously murdered the Scythian leadership. Then the Scythians returned home to the Ukrainian steppe.
The Scythians carried on thriving commerce with Greek colonial settlements on the coast of the Black Sea. Apparently, some Scythians settled down in the southern Ukraine and the Crimea to grow enormous quantities of grain for sale to the Greeks. Or perhaps the grain farmers were indigenous Slavic underlings of the Scythians. According to Herodotus, a group of people of mixed Greek and Scythian blood, called the Geloni, built a wooden city called Gelonus in the forested far northern margin of the Scythian realm. Archaeologists have confirmed the existence of this city of Gelonus and of another, similar city at a place which today is called Kamenka. Kamenka is on the lower Dnieper River in the southern part of what was the Scythian realm. These two cities, and other smaller settlements, served the free-ranging Scythian horse nomads as commercial and craftwork entrepôts.
Today, the Scythians are famous for the fabulous beauty and sophistication of their artwork. As wandering nomads, their artwork was all portable: ornamentation for their weapons, horse gear, tents, and clothing; also highly decorative cooking and eating utensils and jewelry for their own persons. Their distinctive art style is called the “Scythian Animal Style,” featuring highly stylized, somewhat abstract depictions of wild animals, typically done in gold. The art the Scythians created all by themselves is superb; the artworks they commissioned Greek artisans to create for them are extraordinary.
A few Scythians were hired as mercenaries and police officers by the Greek city of Athens. Under the leadership of King Idanthyrsus, the Scythians successfully defended their Ukrainian homeland against an invasion by the army of the Achaemenid Persian Empire under King Darius I around 514-512 BC. The Scythians invaded Thrace (a region north of the Aegean Sea) in 496 BC as a means to secure their position against potential future Persian invasions. The Scythian King Atheas at least partly united the Scythians into something resembling a fully formed state. He had coins minted with his image on them. The Scythians were defeated in battle by the Macedonian Greeks led by King Philip II in 339 BC. Atheas was killed in this battle at the age of ninety. But this Macedonian success was transient; the Scythians retained their independence and power. They destroyed an invading Macedonian force led by one of Alexander the Great’s generals in 330 BC. There was a Greek colonial state on the north shore of the Black Sea called the Bosphoran Kingdom. In 310-309 BC there was a Bosphoran civil war between rival claimants to the Bosphoran throne. The Scythians allied themselves with one side of this war. The excellent fighting qualities of the Scythian horse-mounted warriors brought victory to the side they supported at the Battle of the Thatis River. Some experts believe that Scythian women rode horses and hunted and fought alongside their men, giving rise to the Greek legends of the Amazons. The Scythians were driven into the Danube River delta and into the Crimea by the Sarmatians sometime shortly before 200 BC. They became at least partly sedentary. Those Scythians who moved into the Crimea made war from time to time on the Greek colonial cities there and later against Roman forces in the Crimea. The last remnants of the Scythians were overrun by the Germanic Ostrogoth horse nomad tribe about the middle of the 4th Century AD. The surviving Scythians lost their distinct ethnic identity during the great migrations of tribal peoples that were concurrent with the fall of the Roman Empire.
NOTE: The people whom the Persians called the “Western Sakas” were the Scythians.
NOTE: Several eastern Iranian groups settled down to form sedentary urban cultures around the oases in the desert of what is now northwestern China. They established rich, autonomous trading cities along what became the Silk Road, which connected Rome and China. The Chinese and various steppe nomad tribes spent centuries fighting over possession of these cities.
The basis of the so-called Sarmatian-Arthurian connection can be summarized as follows. Before the Sarmatian troops arrived in Britain in Roman service, there was no established practice in Britain of fighting from astride a horse with a lance while wearing heavy armor; and, of course, the image of the lance-wielding equestrian knight-in-shining-armor is the central motif of Arthurian legend. The Sarmatian practice of worshipping before a sword thrust into the ground obviously suggests the “Sword in the Stone” story from the larger Arthur story. And one of the Roman commanders of the Sarmatian troops in Britain was named Artorius. All these coincidences are enough to make romantically inclined people swoon and to give even the most cynical and jaded analyst pause. The Hollywood movie King Arthur, released in 2004, plays up the Sarmatian-Arthurian connection with gusto.
The Sarmatians were categorized as follows by ancient authors:
NOTE: There were many Germanic tribes living in central Europe. Of these, only the easternmost of them, the Ostrogoths, developed a true horse nomad culture as they expanded into the Ukraine during the 4th Century AD, conquering the Roxolani, the last of the Scythians, and the Bosphoran Kingdom on the way. Their great warrior chieftain in this adventure was named Ermanaric. Their steppe realm was destroyed by the Black Huns in 372-375 AD. Ermanaric committed suicide. According to legend, there were two famous Ostrogothic female warriors named Hervor who were grandmother and granddaughter to each other. Their title was “shield maiden.” The story is told that the younger Hervor died heroically in battle fighting against the Black Huns. Both she and her “shield maiden” title may be seen as a prototype for the character of Éowyn of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings books and movies.