From eighth to the second century bce, the Scythians represented the most terrifying military power in Asia, defeating large armies and dominating substantial parts of what is now Russia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Eurasian plains. These warring nomads were well-known throughout the continent for their fierce bravery and innovative battlefield tactics. Yet because the Scythians had no written language, most of what is known about them comes from the fifth century bce recordings of the Greek historian, Herodotus. It is only through modern-day archaeological finds that Herodotus’s seemingly unbelievable claims of Scythian war practices are finally being verified.
Though the Scythians did not domesticate the horse, they were among the first to adapt their way of life around it. As a pastoral nomadic people, this allowed them to cover greater distances more quickly. From the Russian steppes, the Scythians are believed to have wandered as far as the borders of Egypt on horseback. During their travels, they met and defeated several different peoples, and eventually extended their territory over large parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
According to common belief, the Scythians first appeared on the world map in 750 bce as a pastoral nomadic group settled between the Carpathians and the Don River. However, the first real written record of Scythian activity is seen in Assyrian texts from the early seventh century, when Scythian King Partatua married an Assyrian princess in 674 following a Scythian victory over the Assyrians. Later, in 653, the Scythians invaded the Medean Empire, where they continued to exert influence until 626, when the Medes defeated them. Yet, the Medes united with the Scythians in 612 to capture Nineveh and destroy the Assyrian empire before driving the Scythians north of the Caucasus in the late seventh century. The Scythians continued to grow stronger over time, even managing to repel the Persian army (the largest in the world at that time) under King Darius the Great when the Persians invaded in 514. Herodotus wrote about this outstanding Scythian victory when he observed them in the fifth century. Later, in 360, King Atheas united all the tribes and expanded their territory to the border with Macedonia. It was not much later, though, that Scythian power began to decline after losing a war against Philip II of Macedonia in 339. However, the Scythians managed to continue wielding enough power to defeat both a general of Alexander the Great in 330 and the Caucasians in 310 bce, before the Celts and the Sarmatians (who had long been encroaching on Scythian territory) destroyed the Scythians’ kingdom in 225 bce. During their many campaigns, the Scythians earned a reputation as brutal and ferocious warriors. Their military prowess was proved time and again through innovative weapon use and battlefield tactics.
The Scythians were primarily archers, and almost exclusively cavalrymen. They were horse archers at a time when other armies depended mostly on foot soldiers and chariots. In fact, the Scythians were often the first cavalry many soldiers had ever seen in combat. This, in combination with full body tattoos, gave the Scythians a fierce and frightening appearance that terrified the people of the lands they invaded. Even when the opposing force did not run away out of fear, the Scythians proved an intimidating force; they appeared and dis appeared too quickly for any kind of successful infantry attack. The Scythians, for their part, took full advantage of their military resources. The Scythians became masters of archery on horseback, even learning how to shoot backwards while on horseback. “Scythian tactics were to advance on an enemy shooting fusillades of arrows. They would plunge forward as if to attack, but at the last instant wheel away and launch a fresh volley of arrows over the rumps of their retreating horses, thus leaving the dust enveloped enemy in disarray.” (Kuzych) This sort of guerrilla warfare was very common with the Scythians. And as they were nomads, they had the advantage of combining scorched earth tactics with their guerrilla attacks in order to keep the enemy at a distance and sap his resources while the Scythians moved farther away. In fighting smaller armies, they could be much more directly aggressive, first disorganizing their opponents by attacking them with arrows, then launching javelins and darts before charging with a lance and hand-to-hand weapons as they enemy’s lines began to break. Due to firm discipline and great skill, “the Scythian cavalry managed to retain its cohesion after breaking through the enemy lines; regrouped in the thick of the battle; and decided the day by a second charge in another direction at a second body of the enemy. Very few armies of antiquity were capable of that manoeuvre.” (Cernenko 32)
The value of the composite bow used by the Scythians cannot be overemphasized. Its stiffness and power allowed arrows to reach a distance of up to 200 yards with remarkable accuracy. For this reason, the Scythians were able to effectively use archery in both hunting and war. Unfortunately, the materials used to make bows-wood, bone, and animal tendons-deteriorate easily, and so very few bow remains have been found. The arrows that accompanied them fared better, being made of bronze, iron, or bone, depending on the date. Warriors kept both the bow and up to 75 arrows in a treasured gorytos, or bow case, which was never far from their side.
However, as mentioned previously, bows and arrows were not the only weapons used by the Scythians. They employed spears, long two-edged swords, short swords known as akinakes, narrow-bladed battle-axes, war picks, daggers, maces, and heavy darts. Most of these could either be thrown or used in close combat with the enemy.
Scythian armor usually consisted of leather corselets covered with overlapping bronze or iron “fish-scales” which shielded the chest and shoulders. Scythians are also credited with the development of chain mail, but its use was not common among the warriors, being expensive and difficult to produce. Scythian helmets evolved from pointed leather caps to scale-covered leather caps to tightly fitting bronze helmets. As for leg coverings, the Scythians are credited with the invention of trousers as they are known today. For avid horse riders, tight fitting trousers offered protection for the legs, since only the most rudimentary kind of saddles existed at the time. Metal-plated leg armor was also usually included, though it varied in style. The shields they carried were unique in style and decoration. Although ordinary warriors preferred light shields, the classic example of Scythian shields is seen in those carried by higher-ranking cavalrymen: a wooden base covered in iron scales. The iron scales could sometimes be replaced by a single circular iron plate. On top of the iron, it is common, mostly among noblemen, to see gold ornamentation.
The Scythians had access to gold through their kinfolk in the Altas Mountains. They used this gold as ornamentation for their clothes, horses, and weapons. It was often seen glittering as a cover for their gorytos, a hilt for their sword, and a handle for their battle-axe. Intricate carvings were etched in the gold plates that covered their most precious objects. Since the Scythians were nomads, their prized possessions- clothes, horses, and weapons-were transportable and elaborately decorated. The Scythians carved animal figures, but they also mixed fantasy with reality to create the “Scythian animal style” of artwork. Sometimes, the Scythians would even commission Greeks to do gold work for them. This usually resulted in the incredibly detailed recreation of whole battle scenes done entirely in gleaming gold.
Also, if the sight of fully tattooed warriors shining with gold as they rapidly advanced on horseback wasn’t enough to send the enemy screaming in the opposite direction, there was always the Scythian reputation. Their war practice was well- known to all, and is best recorded in Herodotus’s Histories. Herodotus first writes about his dislike for the Scythians’ assured victory in war. He particularly questions “the contrivance whereby they make it impossible for the enemy who invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely out of his reach. . . how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?” As for their customs in battle, Herodotus describes the Scythians as savage and bloodthirsty warriors. He writes that Scythian soldiers drank the blood of the first man they killed in battle. They then cut off all the heads of those they slew, and took them to the king. Next, they scalped the heads and cut the scalps clean of flesh, in order to use it as a napkin. A warrior would either hang the scalps from his horse’s bridle or fashion a cloak out of them. Some would skin the arm of their enemy’s corpse and make a covering for their quivers. Others would go so far as to skin the entire body of the corpse and take it with them wherever they rode. With regard to the corpses of their most detested foes (or kin with whom they have been feuding), the Scythians would often fashion their skulls into drinking cups and use them socially.
It is clear, then, that the Scythians were brutal warriors who represented a significant threat to the peoples of their time. Their creative use of weapons and nontraditional battlefield tactics earned them both victories and reputations that would outlast time.
References: Cernenko, E. V., The Scythians: 700-300 BC. (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2005); Dwyer. Bede, “Scythian-Style Bows Dis- covered in Xinjiang.” Asian Traditional Archery Research Network, 19 March 2004, http://www.atarn. org/chinese/scythian_bows, 1 March 2006; Godolphin, Francis R. B., “From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the U. S. S. R. 3000 B. C.-100 B. C.,” The Metro- politan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 32, No. 5, (1973-1974), pp. 129-149. http://links. jstor. org/sici? sici=0026-1521%281973% 2F1974%292%3A32%3A5%3C129% 3AHOTS%3E2.0. CO%3B2-A; Herodotus, The Histories, trans. by Aubery de Sleincourt (New York: Penguin Classics reprint, 2003); Kuzych, Ingert. “Scythian legacies,” The Ukrainian Weekly, 7 November 1999, No. 45, Vol. LXVII, http://www. ukrweekly. com/Archive/1999/ 459930. shtml, 2 March 2006; “The Legacy of the Horse.” International Museum of the Horse, 2000, http://www.imh.org/imh/kyhpl1b, 1 March 2006.