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Approximate extent of Scythia within the area of distribution of Eastern Iranian languages (shown in orange) in the 1st century BCE[1]

Scythia (UK: /ˈsɪðiə/, US: /ˈsɪθiə/;[2] Ancient Greek: Σκυθική, Skythikē) was a region of Central Eurasia in classical antiquity, occupied by the Eastern Iranian Scythians,[1][3][4] encompassing Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe east of the Vistula River, with the eastern edges of the region vaguely defined by the Greeks. The Ancient Greeks gave the name Scythia (or Great Scythia) to all the lands north-east of Europe and the northern coast of the Black Sea.[5]

The Scythians – the Greeks' name for this initially nomadic people – inhabited Scythia from at least the 11th century BCE to the 2nd century CE.[6][full citation needed] In the seventh century B.C. the Scythians ranged over large territories of Eurasia, from Black Sea to the borders of China.[7] Its location and extent varied over time but usually extended farther to the west and by far farther to the east than it's indicated on the map.[8]

Scythia was a loose nomadic empire that originated as early as 8th century BCE. Little is known of them and their rulers. The most detailed western description is by Herodotus. He may not have travelled in Scythia and there is scholarly debate as to the accuracy of his knowledge, but modern archaeological finds have confirmed some of his ancient claims and he remains one of the most useful writers on ancient Scythia. He says the Scythians' own name for themselves was "Scoloti".[9] Probably a part of Scythians became increasingly settled and wealthy on their western frontier with Greco-Roman civilization.


The region known to classical authors as Scythia included:

First Scythian kingdom[edit]

In the 7th century BCE Scythians penetrated from the territories north of the Black Sea across the Caucasus. The early Scythian kingdoms were dominated by inter-ethnic forms of dependency based on subjugation of agricultural populations in eastern South Caucasia, plunder and taxes (occasionally, as far as Syria), regular tribute (Media), tribute disguised as gifts (Egypt), and possibly also payments for military support (Assyria).[citation needed]

It is possible that the same dynasty ruled in Scythia during most of its history. The name of Koloksai, a legendary founder of a royal dynasty, is mentioned by Alcman in the 7th century BCE. Prototi and Madius, Scythian kings in the Near Eastern period of their history, and their successors in the north Pontic steppes belonged to the same dynasty. Herodotus lists five generations of a royal clan that probably reigned at the end of the 7th to 6th centuries BCE: prince Anacharsis, Saulius, Idanthyrsus, Gnurus (ru), Lycus (uk), and Spargapeithes.[13]

After being defeated and driven from the Near East, in the first half of the 6th century BCEE, Scythians had to re-conquer lands north of the Black Sea. In the second half of that century, Scythians succeeded in dominating the agricultural tribes of the forest-steppe and placed them under tribute. As a result, their state was reconstructed with the appearance of the Second Scythian Kingdom which reached its zenith in the 4th century BCE. (see further: History of Xinjiang)

Second Scythian kingdom[edit]

Scythia's social development at the end of the 5th century BCE and in the 4th century BCE was linked to its privileged status of trade with Greeks, its efforts to control this trade, and the consequences partly stemming from these two. Aggressive external policy intensified exploitation of dependent populations and progressed the stratification among the nomadic rulers. Trading with Greeks also stimulated sedentarization processes.

The proximity of the Greek city-states on the Black Sea coast (Pontic Olbia, Cimmerian Bosporus, Chersonesos, Sindica, Tanais) was a powerful incentive for slavery in the Scythian society, but only in one direction: the sale of slaves to Greeks, instead of use in their economy. Accordingly, the trade became a stimulus for capture of slaves as war spoils in numerous wars.

Scythia from the late 5th to 3rd centuries BCE[edit]

Coin, c. 310-280 BCEE, Scythia, Olbia.

The Scythian state reached its greatest extent in the 4th century BCE during the reign of Ateas. Isocrates[14] believed that Scythians, and also Thracians and Persians, were "the most able to power, and are the peoples with the greatest might". In the 4th century BCE, under king Ateas, the tripartite structure of the state was eliminated, and the ruling power became more centralized. The later sources do not mention three basileuses any more. Strabo tells[15] that Ateas ruled over the majority of the North Pontic barbarians.

Written sources recount that before the 4th century BCE the Scythian state expanded mainly to the west. In this respect Ateas continued the policy of his predecessors in the 5th century BCE. During western expansion, Ateas fought the Triballi.[16] An area of Thrace was subjugated and levied with severe duties. During the 90-year life of Ateas (c. 429 BCE – 339 BCE) the Scythians settled firmly in Thrace and became an important factor in the politics of the Balkans. At the same time, both the nomadic and agricultural Scythian populations increased along the Dniester river. A war with the Bosporian Kingdom increased Scythian pressure on the Greek cities along the North Pontic littoral.

Materials from the site near Kamianka-Dniprovska, purportedly the capital of Ateas' state, show that metallurgists were free members of the society, even if burdened with imposed obligations. Metallurgy was the most advanced and the only distinct craft speciality among the Scythians. From the story of Polyaenus and Frontin, it follows that in the 4th century BCE Scythia had a layer of dependent population, which consisted of impoverished Scythian nomads and local indigenous agricultural tribes, socially deprived, dependent and exploited, who did not participate in the wars, but were engaged in servile agriculture and cattle husbandry.

The year 339 BCE proved a culminating year for the Second Scythian Kingdom, and the beginning of its decline. The war with Philip II of Macedon ended in a victory for Philip (the father of Alexander the Great). The Scythian king Ateas fell in battle well into his nineties.[17] Many royal kurgans (Chertomlyk, Kul-Oba, Aleksandropol, Krasnokut) date from after Ateas's time and previous traditions were continued; and life in the settlements of Western Scythia show that the state survived until the 250s BCE. When in 331 BCE Zopyrion, Alexander's viceroy in Thrace, "not wishing to sit idle", invaded Scythia and besieged Pontic Olbia, he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Scythians and lost his life.[18]

The fall of the Second Scythian Kingdom came about in the second half of the 3rd century BCE under the onslaught of Celts and Thracians from the west and of Sarmatians from the east. With their increased forces, the Sarmatians devastated significant parts of Scythia and, "annihilating the defeated, transformed a larger part of the country into a desert".[19]

The dependent forest-steppe tribes, subjected to exaction burdens, freed themselves at the first opportunity.[citation needed] The Dnieper and Southern Bug populace ruled by the Scythians did not become Scythians. They continued to live their original life, which was alien to Scythian ways. From the 3rd century BCE for many centuries the histories of the steppe and forest-steppe zones of the North Pontic area diverged. The material cultures of the populations quickly lost their common features. And in the steppe, reflecting the end of nomad hegemony in Scythian society, the royal kurgans were no longer built. Archeologically, late Scythia appears first of all as a conglomerate of fortified and non-fortified settlements with abutting agricultural zones.

The development of Scythian society featured the following trends:

  • The process of settlement intensified, as evidenced by the appearance of numerous kurgan burials in the steppe zone of the North Pontic-Caspian steppe. Some of them date to the end of the 5th century BCE, but the majority belong to the 4th or 3rd centuries BCE, reflecting the establishment of permanent pastoral coaching routes and a tendency to semi-nomadic pasturing. The Lower Dnieper area contained mostly unfortified settlements, while in Crimea and Western Scythia the agricultural population grew. The Dnieper settlements developed in what were previously nomadic winter villages, and in uninhabited lands.
  • Social inequality increased, with the ascent of the nobility and further stratification among free Scythian nomads. The majority of royal kurgans date from the 4th century BCE.
  • The subjugation of the forest-steppe population increased, as traced in the archeological record. In the 4th century BCE in the Dnieper forest-steppe zone, steppe-type burials appear. In addition to the nomadic advance in the north in search of the new pastures, they show an increase of pressure on the farmers of the forest-steppe belt. The Boryspil kurgans belong almost entirely to soldiers and sometimes even to women warriors. The heyday of steppe Scythia coincides with decline of the forest-steppe. From the second half of the 5th century BCE, importing of antique goods to the Middle Dnieper decreased because of the pauperization of the dependent farmers. In the forest-steppe, kurgans of the 4th century BCE are poorer than during previous times. At the same time, the cultural influence of the steppe nomads grew. The Senkov kurgans in the Kiev area, left by the local agricultural population, are low and contain poor female and empty male burials, in a striking contrast with the nearby Boryspil kurgans of the same era left by the Scythian conquerors.
  • City life took root in Scythia.
  • Trade with Northern Black Sea Greek cities grew, and increased the Hellenization of the Scythian aristocracy. After the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war of 431 to 404 BCE, Attican agriculture was ruined.[by whom?] Demosthenes wrote that Athens imported about 400,000  medimns (63,000 tons) of grain annually from the Bosporus. The Scythian nomadic aristocracy not only played a middleman role, but also actively participated in the trade in grain (produced by dependent farmers as well as slaves), skins and other goods.

Scythia's later history is mainly dominated by sedentary agrarian and city elements. As a result of the defeats suffered by Scythians, two separate states formed, the "Lesser Scythias": one in Thrace (Dobrudja), and the other in the Crimea and the Lower Dnieper area.[20]

Later Scythian kingdoms[edit]

Scythia et Serica, 18th century map.

Having settled this Scythia Minor in Thrace, the former Scythian nomads (or rather their nobility) abandoned their nomadic way of life, retaining their power over the agrarian population. This little polity should be distinguished from the Third Scythian Kingdom in Crimea and Lower Dnieper area, whose inhabitants likewise underwent a massive sedentarization. The interethnic dependence was replaced by developing forms of dependence within the society.

The enmity of the Third Scythian Kingdom, centred on Scythian Neapolis, towards the Greek settlements of the northern Black Sea steadily increased. The Scythian king apparently regarded the Greek colonies as unnecessary intermediaries in the wheat trade with mainland Greece. Besides, the settling cattlemen were attracted by the Greek agricultural belt in Southern Crimea. The later Scythia was both culturally and socio-economically far less advanced than its Greek neighbors such as Olvia or Chersonesos.

The continuity of the royal line is less clear in the Lesser Scythias of Crimea and Thrace than it had been previously. In the 2nd century BCE, Olvia became a Scythian dependency. That event was marked in the city by minting of coins bearing the name of the Scythian king Skilurus. He was a son of a king and a father of a king, but the relation of his dynasty with the former dynasty is not known. Either Skilurus or his son and successor Palakus were buried in the mausoleum of Scythian Neapol that was used from c. 100 BCE to c. 100 CE. However, the last burials are so poor that they do not seem to be royal, indicating a change in the dynasty or royal burials in another place.

Later, at the end of the 2nd century BCE, Olvia was freed from Scythian domination, but became a subject to Mithridates I of Parthia. By the end of the 1st century BCE, Olbia, rebuilt after its sack by the Getae, became a dependency of the Dacian barbarian kings, who minted their own coins in the city. Later from the 2nd century CE Olbia belonged to the Roman Empire. Scythia was the first state north of the Black Sea to collapse with the invasion of the Goths in the 2nd century CE (see Oium). At the end of the 2nd century CE, King Sauromates II critically defeated the Scythians and included the Crimea into his Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus, a Roman client state.

Scythian kings[edit]

Scythian king Skilurus, relief from Scythian Neapolis, Crimea, 2nd century BCE

Scythian tribes[edit]

Many different groupings of Scythian tribes include the following:

Scythia in derivative works[edit]

  • The videogame, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, portrays the Scythians as powerful warriors who take control of the Persian capital city, Babylon
  • The videogame, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, is set within a fantastical version of Scythia. The nameless protagonist is informally referred to as 'The Scythian.'
  • In the turn-based strategy game Rome: Total War, Scythia is featured as an unplayable barbarian faction.
  • In the grand strategy game, Civilization VI, Scythia is a playable civilization.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (2014-11-14). "Scythian – ancient people". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Archived from the originalFree registration required on 2017-03-27. Retrieved 8 May 2018. [verification needed]
    Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (2014-04-16). "Scythian". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Archived from the originalFree registration required on 2014-05-21. Retrieved 16 May 2015. [verification needed]
    "Scythia (historical empire)". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 11 September 2018. THIS IS A DIRECTORY PAGE. Britannica does not currently have an article on this topic. 
  2. ^ "Definition of 'Scythia' | Collins English Dictionary". Archived from the original on 2017-12-01. Retrieved 2017-12-01. 
  3. ^ "Scythia". Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. Retrieved 16 May 2015. 
  4. ^ "The Scythians". Archived from the original on 2015-03-28. 
  5. ^ William Smith (ed.). "Scy´thia". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854). Archived from the original on 2015-07-17. 
  6. ^ Thomas A. Lessman (2004). "World History Maps". Talessman's Atlas. Thomas Lessman. Archived from the original on 8 December 2013. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  7. ^ Bell-Fialkoff, Andrew Villen, ed. (2000). The role of migration in the history of the Eurasian steppe : sedentary civilization vs. "barbarian" and nomad (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 190. ISBN 0312212070. OCLC 909840823. 
  8. ^ Giovanni Boccaccio’s Famous Women translated by Virginia Brown 2001, p. 25; Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press; ISBN 0-674-01130-9 ".....extending from the Black Sea in a northerly direction towards Ocean." In Boccaccio's time the Baltic Sea was known also as Oceanus Sarmaticus.
  9. ^ Σκώλοτοι (Scōloti, Herodotus 4.6)
  10. ^ Sinor, Denis (1990). The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, Volume 1. Cambridge University. ISBN 0521243041. Retrieved 21 August 2014. 
  11. ^ Unterländer, 2017
  12. ^ Harry Thurston Peck (1898). Harpers Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. 
  13. ^ a b Herodotus IV, 76
  14. ^ Isocrates 436–338 BCE, Panegyricus 67
  15. ^ Strabo VII, 3, 18
  16. ^ Polyaenus, Stratagems VII, 44, 1
  17. ^ Trogus, Prologue, IX
  18. ^ Justin, XII, 1, 4
  19. ^ Diodorus, 11, 43, 7
  20. ^ Strabo VII, 4, 5.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ovid's poems Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto about his exile in Tomis contain some details of Scythia.
  • Alekseev, A Yu.; Bokovenko, N.A.; Boltrik, Yu; Chugunov, K.A.; Cook, G.; Dergachev, V.A.; Kovalyukh, N.; Possnert, G.; van der Plicht, J.; Scott, E.M.; Semeetsov, A.; Skripkin, V.; Vasiliev, S.; Zaitseva, G. (2001), "Chronology of Eurasian Scythian Antiquities Born by New Archaeological and C14 Data", Radiocarbon, 43 (2B): 1085–1107 
  • Bunker, Emma C. (2002). Nomadic art of the eastern Eurasian steppes: the Eugene V. Thaw and other New York collections. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780300096880. 
  • Khazanov, A.M. (1975), Золото скифов [Social history of Scythians] (in Russian) 

External links[edit]