Episode 4 Scythians, Greeks and Persians
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
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.
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