How Scythian Nomads Influenced Early Greek and Persian Civilization

Episode 4 Scythians, Greeks and Persians

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns the Iranian speaking nomads of the western and central Eurasian steppes. The Scythians controlled the latter from Early Iron Age (800 BC) to 300BC. The fifth century BC Greek historian Herotodus, who encountered them in the Greek colony Olbia*, was the first to write about them.

He described the Scythian federation as consisting of Inner (Royal) Scythians and Outer Dependent Tribes. According to Harl, this method of governance dates back to the Bronze Age Yamnaya Proto-Indo-European (steppe) culture (2000-1800 BC). The Royal Scythians summoned the Dependent Tribes when they went to war and also controlled the trade flowing down their rivers.

Some of the Dependent Tribes grew grain along the shore of the Black Sea, which the Royal Scythians sold it to the Greeks. Slaves and flax, timber and amber (all pilfered from from Baltic forest peoples) also featured in nomad trade with the Greeks. Greek elites were also really fond of with intricately worked Scythian jewelry and leather and woodwork. Scythian warriors also served as mercenaries to early Greek kings and successors to Alexander the Great.

These trade routes, later taken over by Turkic speaking Khazars and eventually the Mongolian Golden Horde, persisted until Russia conquered this region in the 16th century.

Herodotus describes in detail (later confirmed by archeological findings) the horse sacrifices that accompanied royal Scythian burials. Fifty horses (and riders) would be sacrificed and stuffed to accompany royal personages to the afterlife. He also describes warrior princesses (the source of the Amazon myth) who interacted freely with male warriors and princes.

The Scythians also interacted with Asia Minor and Mesopotamia from the Bronze Age on. After the Persian** king Cyrus conquered the entire Middle East in the the 6th century (see Prehistory: The Persian Empire Conquers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Libya, Kushan, the Indus Valley, and the Early Greek City States), he mounted a disastrous military expedition against them.

Alexander the Great also engaged in military skirmishes with them following his conquest of Persia. He eventually gave up trying to conquer them and set up Greek-style cities along his northern frontier to regulate their trade and collect taxes.

The Scythian federation collapsed in the third century BC, overrun by the Sarmatians. They had been pushed west by the Xiongu as they were driven west by Han Chinese armies.***


*Olbia was on the northern shore of the Russian Black Sea.

**According to Harl, the Persians were descended from Iranian-speaking nomads who moved south with their horses and their composite bows to assimilated into the settled Mesopotamian population.

***See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Eartly Chinese Civilization

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5694984/5694994

Persian Conquest and the End of the Neo-Babylonian Empire

Episode 24: The End of the Neo-Babylonian Empire

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

This final lecture concerns the collapse of the Babylonian empire, following conquest by King Cyrus of Persia in 593 BC. The clay tablets Cyrus  left behind claim the people of Babylonia welcomed him. This may be true. The last Babylonian king Nabonidus was quite unpopular, both for the mass imposition of forced labor and for his mandate requiring all local gods be relocated to the capitol (Babylon).

When Cyrus assumed control Babylonia he wrote (in Akkadian) that Marduk wanted him to take power because Nabonidus had abandoned the Babylonian god. Cyrus also released Babylonian slaves from forced labor and allowed captured Jews to return to Jerusalem.

For the first decade or so Babylonian life continued unchanged under Persian rule. Like former Assyrian kings, Persian kings returned to Babylon every year to renew their authority (under Marduk) at the New Year’s festival.

By 539 BC the Persian empire was the largest in history, extending from the Indus Valley to the Aegean Sea.

The Axial Age (700 – 200 BC) seems to have influenced Mesopotamia as much as other areas of the world. This period saw the rise of all the world’s great religions and many of its great philosophies, including Hinduism and Jainism in India and Confucianism and Taoism in China. In Persian and Mesopotamia, it  saw the rise of the prophet Zarathustra* and a growing trend towards monotheism. During this period, Babylonians came view some gods as as having greater wisdom and power than others. It was also during this period that Jewish monotheism became much more prevalent throughout the region.

By the year 1 AD, all Mesopotamian culture seems to have vanished. Yet the legacy of the Mesopotamian civilizations lives on to the current day, thanks to their many important innovations:

  • Invention of writing
  • World’s first cities
  • World’s first laws and judicial systems
  • Invention of international diplomacy
  • Mapping of constellations, planetary movements and ability to calculate future dates of eclipses
  • Mathematical calculations necessary to construct right angle triangles
  • Base 60 number system, still used in telling time and spherical geometry.

*Zarathustra had a revelation that all existence is a battle between good and evil gods, that it’s up to human beings to choose good and that good will eventually win out. He taught that all good gods are incarnations of Ahura Mazda.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5754238/5754286

Prehistory: The Persian Empire Conquers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Libya, Kush, the Indus Valley and the Early Greek City States

Cyrus the Great Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life ...

Cyrus the Great, first emperor of Persia

Episode 17 Oxus Civilization and Powerful Persia

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

According to Benjamin, the dry climate and lack of river valleys in Central Asia limited prehistoric settlement to a handful of agrarian villages around desert oases. Anau (in modern day Turkmenistan) and Oxus were two of the region’s ancient cities. Anau, which traded with Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, collapsed around 2400 BC. Oxus, which emerged around the same time as Anau, consisted of clusters of settlements around oases in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Associated with the early use of soma,* it was the fifth largest ancient civilization on Earth. It would be absorbed by the Persian empire in the first century BC.

The latter arose on the Iranian plateau east of Mesopotamia around 559 BC, when king Cyrus overthrew the Medean king and united Mesopotamia, Egypt, Libya and Kush. Between 521 and 486 BC, Cyrus III expanded the Persian empire to include the Indus Valley, the Balkans, Thrace and Macedonia. He appointed 23 local governors (satraps), who created administrative networks made run by local subjects.

Persia required all subjects of conquered territories to pay tribute (tax) to Persia as well as submit to conscription into the Persian army. Other tax revenue included customs duties, sales tax and rent on royal properties. In return, the emperor provided farmers with seed grain and fruit seedlings, subsidized cottage manufacturing and explorers, built ports and 8,000 miles of roads and dug a canal connecting the Red Sea and Nile.

The Persian empire was the world’s largest to that date. It started to decline during the fifth millennium when a number of conquered Greek city states rebelled. Following Persia’s conquest by Alexander the Great, his Greek successors systematically dismantled the Persian empire.


*Soma was a combination of cannabis and opium used in Zoroastrian and Hindu religious ceremonies. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, during the 5th century BC the Scythians poured soma on hot rocks in their steam baths and inhaled the vapors.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/oxus-civilization-and-powerful-persia

More Ancient History They Don’t Teach in School

History of the World Part 2

BBC (2018)

Film Review

Part 2 of the BBC “History of the World” series covers the rise of the first western empires. This is commonly referred to as “ancient history,” a subject no longer taught in US schools (recently, however, it seems to be a popular topic for Hollywood features films). Although the reenactments in Part 2 are shorter and more plausible, Part 2’s failure to cover non-Western empires is a serious weakness.

The empires described include

  • The Assyrian Empire (2,500 – 609 BC) – focusing on the rule of Sennacherib (705-681 BC), who initiated the use of “total warfare” (killing non-combatant elderly women and children) and “shock and awe” terror tactics to subjugate neighboring nations. Sennacherib created the blueprint for every subsequent tyrant who has sought to rule by terror.
  • The Persian Empire – founded by Cyrus the Great with the conquest of the Median, Lydian, and Babylonian empires in 550 BC. Unlike Sennacherib, Cyrus ruled via by diplomacy and sought to integrate the various cultures under his rule.
  • The brief empire ruled by Alexander the Great (334-323 BC) – which included Turkey, Egypt, North Africa, and Asia Minor to the Indian border. Like Cyrus, Alexander also attempted to integrate the different cultures under his rule.

Part 2 goes on covers the rise of democracy in the city-state of Athens in the 6th century BC and their successful rebuff of a much larger Persian army that tried to conquer them.

This episode also explores the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha (5th-6th century BC) in India, Confucius (551-479 BC) in China and Socrates (470-399 BC) in Athens. All three promoted philosophies that were at odds with the violent and hierarchical empire building of the times.