History of the Scythian peoples

Within the vast Iranian-speaking group that bears their generic name, the Scythians in the strict sense are the best known people and the best documented by history and archeology. We will therefore be satisfied here with the few necessary indications about our subject.


The Scythians

That Cimmerians were expelled as Herodotus claims, or whether there was a simple change of dominant tribes within the same nomadic continuum, the Scythians dominated the Pontic steppe from the 8th or early 7th century BC. AD Their onomastics are clearly iranian, and the "true" nomadic Scythians are indisputably Iranian-speaking, even if other ethnic groups share their way of life or are subject to their power (this has been assumed about the ancestors of the Slavs).

The nomadic, pastoral and warlike existence of the Scythians will also be that of their successors sarmatians and Alans. The rider's costume, part of his equipment and his tactics, certain objects of daily life will survive without much change until the Middle Ages and even later (such as the small tripod tables still used by the Ossetians under the name fyng).

This continuity also exists in social structures, religious beliefs, and artistic expression through the successive animal styles of “steppe art”. Archaeological data today allow us to break with the simplistic image of primitive nomads sometimes given of the Scythians and their successors.

Pastoral nomadism is not a mark of backwardness, but a complex economy which does not exclude either exchanges with neighboring sedentary populations, or even the existence of fixed establishments (wintering). The late Scythians, and after them the Sarmatians and the Alans, manifested a great aptitude for sedentarization and even for urban life, by choice or (more often) under the pressure of circumstances.

In many ways where comparison is possible, the technical capabilities of the Scythians match those of their sedentary neighbors, including in unexpected fields like architecture. The large "kurgan" or burial mounds of the Scythians and related peoples, far from being simple piles of earth, include elaborate structures: corbelled stone vaults, frames, wells and galleries of several tens of meters (the mound itself , among the Scythians, can be over 20 m high and 300 m in diameter).

The famous “gold of the Scythians”, but also the objects made of perishable materials discovered in the “frozen kurganes” of Altai, allow us to imagine the luxury enjoyed by the tribal aristocracies, and the relative comfort of daily life.

The first is the rapprochement which takes place on the coasts of the Black Sea between the Scythian culture and that of the colonists greeks. Its best-known translation is the admirable mixed decorative art of the 4th century BC. BC, but above all we must remember this ancient intimacy between Hellenism and “Scythigma”. The second is the Iranianization – more precisely the “Scythization” – of the northern and even central Caucasus, from the 7th century BC. AD We ren, against elements of Scythian culture even on the southern slope of the Greater Caucasus (necropolis of Tli).

Archeology distinguishes in the Caucasus properly Scythian monuments, other mixed (coexistence of Scythian and indigenous funeral rites, as in Narban near Naltchik), others still attributable to natives strongly influenced by the Scythian culture. Whether there has been, depending on the case, permanent domination, simple raids, symbiosis or fusion, reciprocal influences are evident, for example in animal art.

In the middle of the 1st millennium BC, the Scythians of Ukraine and the Caucasus were only the westernmost part of a large "Scythian", Iranian-speaking and nomadic group, which occupied the steppes between Don and Ural, and vast territories in Siberia and Central Asia. We locate to the east of the Don the Sauromates, who represent at least part of the ancestors of the future Sarmatians.

East of the Caspian and as far as the Amu Darya, the Massagetes and the Saces are in contact with the Persian Achaemenid. Cyrus the Great would have died fighting the first, and we know several representations Persians the latter (tributaries depicted at Persepolis, relief of King Skunkha at Béhistoun).

All these related populations come from the civilization of Andronovo (17th-9th centuries BC). Their links with the Western Scythians are well known in Antiquity: Herodotus reports that the Sauromates speak a "corrupt" form of the language of the Scythians, and the Persian inscriptions give the Scythians and the Sacians the same name of Sakâ.

It should be emphasized from now on - and this is true for later periods - that what ancient sources present to us as "peoples" are in fact rather confederations in the nomadic fashion, united around dominant tribes, liable to break up and to recompose quickly. Their names do not necessarily correspond with the dialectal distinctions that must have existed between different “Scythian” (Eastern Iranian) dialects, nor with well-individualized archaeological cultures.

The nomenclatures Greek and Persian do not coincide exactly: where Herodotus speaks of Scythians, Sauromates, Massagetae, and other "peoples", the Persians only know Sakâ differentiated by simple nicknames. The inscriptions of Darius thus evoke the Salai tyaiy Paradraya "from beyond the sea", the Sakâ tigrakhaudâ "with the pointed cap", and the Sakâ haumavargâ ("makers" or "worshipers of haoma (the sacred drink of the Aryas) ”, or even “wolves of the haoma”?).

The location of these different groups is discussed. The Sakâ tyaiy Paradraya are perhaps the Scythians of Ukraine; the two other varieties would represent Saces of Asia. The Haumavargâ seem to correspond to the "Amyrgetes" cited by Herodotus alongside the Bactrians, and the Tigrakhaudâ to his "Orthokorybantes".

The relative linguistic and cultural unity of these populations is not accompanied by any political solidarity, and the tribes are agitated by frequent migratory movements due to wars or to the modification of ecological conditions. These movements can gradually reverberate through this very fluid nomadic world.