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Who Were the Scythians?


The Scythians were a Persian nomadic people of the Central Asian steppes.

A gold Scythian artifact in Ukraine

Peter Kudlacz / Flickr.com

The Scythians were a nomadic people who lived in Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe between c. 900 BCE and c. 350 CE. Related to the Persians, but mixed with Turkic Central Asians as well, the Scythians are famous for the incredibly beautiful gold jewelry and artifacts discovered in their kurgans or tombs. They were found as far east as Mongolia early in their history, and some archaeologists believe that they may have been related to the Tocharians, another Eurasian people who lived in the Tarim Basin.

The Scythians were famed as warriors, and were among the first peoples to develop horsemanship into an art form. As they moved west from Asia, the Scythians encountered the Cimmerians, whom they crushed and assimilated. Within just a thirty year span, the new horse-riding nomadic group had conquered an empire that reached as far south as Syria and Judea, and threatened Egypt.

Persia's rulers at the time, the Medes, were able to repel the Scythians and free Anatolia from Scythian control. Some of the Scythians moved north in response, into what is now southern Russia. Eventually, they would make their way into other parts of Eastern Europe, notably Ukraine.

The Scythians were able to fend off an invasion by Darius the Great of Persia's Achaemenid Empire in 513 BCE, although Greek historian Herodotus charges that they simply melted away into the steppe and refused to engage. The last Scythian king whose name is remembered today was Ateas, who was killed in 339 during a war with Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father.

Despite their nomadic lifestyle, the Scythians developed an elaborate material culture, including the aforementioned artistry in gold. Members of the royal family would be buried with not only beautiful jewelry and golden death masks, but also weapons, sacrificed horses, and sometimes even human sacrifices. By the late classical period, Scythian warriors used double recurved bows and Persian-style swords; they wore chain-mail and bronze helmets into battle.

"The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia has an amazing collection of Scythian artifacts taken from burial sites."

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