published on 28 April 2011
The Scythians were an ancient Iranic people of horse-riding nomadic pastoralists who, throughout classical antiquity, dominated the Pontic-Caspian steppe, known at the time as Scythia.
The Scythians are thought to have originated from the Central Asian region of Persia, as a branch of the ancient Iranian peoples expanding north into the steppe regions from around 1000 BCE. The Scythians first appeared in the historical record in the 8th century BCE. The Histories of Herodotus provide the most important literary sources relating to ancient Scyths. He reported three versions as to the origins of the Scythians, but placed greatest faith in this version: "There is also another different story, now to be related, in which I am more inclined to put faith than in any other. It is that the wandering Scythians once dwelt in Asia, and there warred with the Massagetae, but with ill success; they therefore quitted their homes, crossed the Araxes, and entered the land of Cimmeria."
Around 676 BCE, the Scythians in alliance with the Mannaens attacked Assyria. The group first appears in Assyrian annals under the name Ishkuzai. According to the brief assertion of Esarhaddon's inscription, the Assyrian Empire defeated the alliance. Subsequent mention of Scythians in Babylonian and Assyrian texts occur in connection with Media. Both Old Persian and Greek sources mention them during the period of the Achaemenid empires, with Greek sources locating them in the steppe between the Dnieper and Don rivers.
In 512 BCE, when King Darius the Great of Persia attacked the Scythians, he allegedly penetrated into their land after crossing the Danube. Herodotus relates that the nomadic Scythians succeeded in frustrating the designs of the Persian army by letting it march through the entire country without an engagement. According to Herodotus, Darius in this manner came as far as the Volga River.
During the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE the Scythians evidently prospered. When Herodotus wrote his Histories in the 5th century BCE, Greeks distinguished Scythia Minor in present-day Romania and Bulgaria from a Greater Scythia that extended eastwards for a 20 day ride from the Danube River, across the steppes of today's East Ukraine to the lower Don basin. The Scythians apparently obtained their wealth from their control over the slave trade from the north to Greece through the Greek Black Sea colonial ports of Olvia, Chersonesos, Cimmerian Bosporus, and Gorgippia. They also grew grain, and shipped wheat, flocks, and cheese to Greece.
Strabo (c. 63 BCE - 24 CE) reports that King Ateas united under his power the Scythian tribes living between the Maeotian marshes and the Danube. His westward expansion brought him in conflict with Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359 to 336 BCE), who took military action against the Scythians in 339 BCE. Ateas died in battle and his empire disintegrated. In the aftermath of this defeat, the Celts seem to have displaced the Scythians from the Balkans, while in south Russia a kindred tribe, the Sarmatians, gradually overwhelmed them.
By the time of Strabo's account (the first decades of the first millennium CE), the Crimean Scythians had created a new kingdom extending from the lower Dnieper to the Crimea. The kings Skilurus and Palakus waged wars with Mithridates the Great (reigned 120–63 BCE) for control of the Crimean littoral, including Chersonesos and the Cimmerian Bosporus. Their capital city, Scythian Neapolis, stood on the outskirts of modern Simferopol. The Goths destroyed it later, in the mid-3rd century CE.
In the 2nd century BCE, a group of Scythian tribes, known as the Indo-Scythians, migrated into Bactria, Sogdiana and Arachosia. Led by their king, Maues, they ultimately settled in modern-day Punjab and Kashmir from around 85 BCE, where they replaced the kingdom of the Indo-Greeks by the time of Azes II (reigned circa 35 - 12 BCE).
In late antiquity the notion of a Scythian ethnicity grew more vague, and outsiders might dub any people inhabiting the Pontic-Caspian steppe as "Scythians", regardless of their language.
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