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Scythians migrated from Central Asia, settling in the Black Sea steppes, where they formed a powerful empire with the centre on the Crimean Peninsula, subjugating the settled peoples there, engaged in agriculture and breeding.
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The term Scythians was first used by ancient Greek writers to describe the nomadic tribes of Iranian origin. They probably came to Asia Minor in the 8th century BCE. In the 70s of the 7th century BCE the Scythians, led by King Ispakaios, joined the Medes and the Maneans against Assyria. Their importance must have already been considered at this time, for they forced the Assyrian ruler, Esarhaddon, to peace. His guarantee was to be the wedding of the daughter of the Assyrian leader Baratatui with the king of the Scythians. In order to understand the significance of this fact, we must remember that Assyria was at that time one of the greatest and most powerful states of the Ancient East. Soon after peace, the Scythians reached Palestinian Syria, and from there they set off for Egypt. However, they were unable to break into it, because Pharaoh Psammetych I met them with gifts, asking them to stop their march. As it can be seen from the above description, in the 7th century BCE they were one of the major powers of the ancient East.

Moving steadily on, they conquered new lands more and more. And so, for example, in pursuit of the Cimmerians, a people inhabiting quite large areas of Asia Minor, they reached the Black Sea zone, where they settled. They occupied the area from the Prut River to Donets, so that in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE settle down all over Transcaucasia. Thus, they controlled the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Having ruled over Crimea, the whole of Transcaucasia and part of Kazakhstan were one of the greatest powers of the world at that time. This period is therefore the apogee of the territorial development of Scythia. This by no means meant that they were content with their possessions. They were a constant threat to the Persian Empire, from where Darius I led his armies against them. His army of 700,000 warriors was defeated in 514 BCE. Over the next 400 years, they made the Greek colonies dependent on each other.

At the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE The Scythians invaded the lands of today’s Poland, following the route from Hungary, on the southern side of the Carpathians and crossing the Moravian Gate. The attack on the tribes belonging to the Lusatian culture began with the Silesian group, which contributed to its fall. There were also raids on the lands occupied by the Upper Silesian-Lesser Poland group. However, it was as if on the sidelines of the main direction of the invasion. We can also notice traces of their expeditions in central Poland. There was a custom among the Scythians that a soldier after a battle beheaded the killed enemies whom he had knocked down. The number of heads collected determined the size of the share of the spoils.

Division of the Scythians

The division of the Scythians into Great Scyths otherwise known as royal and other groups probably stems from errors or generalizations of ancient writers. They were probably completely different peoples, perhaps related to the Scythians, conquered during the expulsion of the legendary Kimmer. There were supposed to exist three types of Scythians – Kallipids – Hellenic Scythians – most likely a group of Scythians, which was influenced by Greek culture, Scythians-plowmen, Scythians-nomads, and proper – Royal Scythians.

Social relations were typical of a centralized state. The royal power was hereditary and survived until the end of the state’s existence. The Scythian kings used all means of ideological influence to maintain their power. Primitive state power resembled family institutions in many respects.

Scythian graves bring a lot of interesting information. An example is the fact that in the graves of young Scythian women were found, among others, weapons. In some cases, women were found in full combat gear. This may prove that the fair sex served in the Scythian army. As a rule, rich equipment was found next to the skeletons, including gold items, bronze bracelets, harnesses etc. The tombs clearly show how stratified the Scythian society was. The rite of burying the death itself was not uniform. Both cremation and burial in the ground were practised.

The Scythian state fell in the 3rd century BCE as a result of the steadily growing role of the Sarmatians. Despite desperate attempts, it was not possible to save him. On top of all this, there were disasters with the Roman legions. As a result, the Scythian population assimilated with the Sarmatians. As an interesting fact, according to one of the last censuses in Russia, over 100,000 people admit to being Scythian.

Scythian army

A Scythian warrior from the 7th-6th century BCE
The Scythians were an exceptionally militant people. According to Herodotus, during feasts, they used the skulls of their killed enemies to toasts, sometimes set in gold. Only those men who had such a cup made of the skull of a self-killed enemy were allowed to join the feast.
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The armament of the Scythians did not differ much from what was adopted during this period, as it also depended on the wealth of a given warrior everywhere. Most of them fought on horseback. Only the poorest by necessity stood on foot to fight. The amount of infantry increased towards the end of the Scythian existence. The main defensive armour was lamellar armour (in the case of the poor, probably a leather caftan, without plates sewn on it), a helmet and a shield. Perhaps the richest used also leg covers, made in a similar way to the rest of the armour. Greek greaves were worn rarely, and rather only in the vicinity of Crimea. The horse was armed with certain elements, mainly leather, and less often metal.
The shield, as in the case of many other peoples, played a large, symbolic and decorative one, and a lot of attention was paid to its decoration. It was made of wood, often reinforced with pieces of iron in the form of scales. Perhaps the richest used shields were entirely covered with a single layer of iron. Gold elements were also placed for decorative purposes.

The Scythians used many kinds of weapons – a bow, a spear, a sword, an axe. However, while having the last two, and especially a sword, was closely related to the means at hand, the bow was the primary weapon, possessed by every warrior, regardless of status. Hercules was to teach the Scythians to use this weapon.

The shape of the Scythian bow resembles the letter Sigma, arrowheads were usually made of bronze, sometimes of bone or gold. Usually, they were triangular in shape or they were large flat points with a barb at the end, many arrowhead patterns were found. The Scythians – at least in part – poisoned the arrows. If they did, they would usually pollute the caverns with animal excrement, etc. When entering the battle, the rider took about a hundred arrows with him, carried in the quiver. The bow was carried in a bag, it was only removed when used.

The Scythians were excellent archers. For this reason, in the middle of the 6th century BCE Pisistrat enlisted the Scythians into the Athenian army. As mercenaries, they served alongside the Athenian phalanx in battles, and in the city, they were used to maintain order. For this reason, their images are a frequent decorative motif of Attic vases. In the 5th century BCE, the king of Persia hired the Scythians to learn archery for his Persian warriors.

Various types of spears or javelins were in common use, and are found in virtually every tomb. Some historians believe that due to the size of the graves, the Scythians did not use long spears, but this is not convincing evidence. Certainly, they used a weapon of this type with a length of about 180 cm, both for fighting and throwing. The length of the spearhead varied – from 30 to 70 cm.
The Scythians used double-edged swords, about 60-70 cm long. The single copy that was found was over a meter long. The Scythians probably took their weapons from the previous inhabitants of the area. A 40 cm dagger of similar construction was also used. Mostly animal motifs were used to decorate the weapons, sometimes mythical animals were used.

The role of women, both in society and in the conduct of wars, is undefined. There are quite contradictory views, ranging from claiming that all women took part in the struggle to completely denying it. The fact that bows were found in some of the women’s graves indicates that – at least occasionally – they went into battle.

Scythian circle

The basic and the most effective manoeuvre used in combat by horse archers were the so-called “circle”. The idea was incredibly simple. The idea was to stay beyond the range of the enemy’s polearm as long as possible, and at the same time to fire the bow yourself.

This tactic was dictated by several factors

    • The mounted archer could fire effectively and reasonably only forward, obliquely to the left and backward. In order not to interrupt the fire, all manoeuvres could be performed only to the right, or possibly to the rear (Parthians only).
    • The number of arrows the archer had at his disposal was usually 30. A well-trained archer could fire an average of 10-15 arrows at full gallop in a single attack. theoretically, it was possible to fire 30 arrows, but it was necessary to take into account the fact that in such a situation the archer was defenceless, but also unable to fight for a long time (about 30 minutes) – his fingers refused to obey and accurate shots were impossible.
      Achieving such results was possible only with the use of a special ring to tighten the string. Without it – by stretching the string of the composite bow with your bare fingers – the maximum number of arrows that can be fired if you want to keep your fingers healthy is 30 arrows throughout the day.
    • The effective range of a composite bow is approximately 250 meters.

Let’s get to the point – the “circle” manoeuvre itself was as follows.
A line of horse archers approached the enemy at a slow trot or at a walk-in in order to keep the formation slowly. At a distance of 400-500 meters, it was converted to a gallop, and then the fire was opened. Shots were fired in the rush, mostly diagonally to the left. The archers approached 30-50 meters to the walkers, and 150-200 meters to the ride and turned right at the given signal. The first turn was made by the commander riding on the right-wing, the rest of the goose following in his footsteps.

The divisions into which the line of archers was divided, could not be larger than 30-50 warriors, because more of them would cause a blockage or the left-winger would fall into the formation of a friend. The commander began to make a circle, and the rest of the formation followed. The warrior fired at the enemy while he was in front of him, while driving at the back of the circle, he corrected his gear, evened out his array, and stretched his fingers.

The enemy was not shot at random, blindly. Firing of the entire squad of archers was directed to the point chosen by the commander. Concentrating the arrows falling at different angles and from different directions in one place made it difficult to effectively cover yourself with the shield. The chic in this place usually cracked or was seriously thinned.

This tactic was especially dangerous for infantry without archers. No shield offered sufficient protection against fire from several dozen meters, and there was no way to harm with a spear at such a distance. Anyway, the concentrated fire could easily turn the target into a “pincushion”, which could no longer be effectively covered due to its weight.

The archers normally made 2-3 circles, then in a row behind the commander retreated to give way to the next line. This one was repeating the same manoeuvre. This tactic was extremely simple and transparent. It always curved to the right, and it was easy to keep chic. if it was possible to deploy at least 3 such line units on the battlefield and to exchange horses and retrieve a supply of new arrows, this manoeuvre could be repeated indefinitely. no wonder some horse archer battles lasted several days.

  • Zbigniew Bukowski, Krzysztof Dąbrowski, Śladami kultur azjatyckich cz. I, Od Jerycha do Pomostu Beringa, Warszawa 1978
  • Aleksiej Smirnow, Scytowie

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