The Cimmerians or Kimmerians (Greek: Κιμμέριοι, Kimmerioi) were an ancient Indo-European people living north of the Caucasus and the Sea of Azov as early as 1300 BC until they were driven southward by the Scythians into Anatolia during the 8th century BC. Linguistically they are usually regarded as Iranian, or possibly Thracian with an Iranian ruling class.
After their exodus from the Pontic steppe the Cimmerians probably assaulted Urartu about 714 BC, but in 705, after being repulsed by Sargon II of Assyria, they turned towards Anatolia and in 696–695 conquered Phrygia. In 652, after taking Sardis, the capital of Lydia, they reached the height of their power. Their decline was rapid: Alyattes of Lydia finally defeated them over the period between 637 and 626. There are no further mentions of them in historical sources, but it is likely they settled in Cappadocia.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, of the 5th century BC, the Cimmerians inhabited the region north of the Caucasus and the Black Sea during the 8th and 7th centuries BC, in what is now Ukraine and Russia. The archeologist Renate Rolle and others have argued that no one has demonstrated with archeological evidence the presence of Cimmerians in the southern parts of Russia.
Although the 2006 Encyclopædia Britannica reflects Herodotus, stating, "They [the Cimmerians] probably did live in the area north of the Black Sea, but attempts to define their original homeland more precisely by archaeological means, or even to fix the date of their expulsion from their country by the Scythians, have not so far been completely successful", in recent research academic scholars have made use of documents dating to centuries earlier than Herodotus, such as intelligence reports to Sargon, and note that these identify the Cimmerians as living south rather than north of the Black Sea.
Scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries had relied upon Herodotus's account, but Sir Henry Layard's discoveries in the royal archives at Nineveh and Calah have enabled the study of new source material that is several centuries earlier than Herodotus's history. The Assyrian archeological record shows that the Cimmerians, and the land of Gamir, were located not far from Urartu, (an Iron Age kingdom centered around Lake Van in the Armenian Highland), south of the Caucasus. Military intelligence reports to Sargon in the 8th century BC describe the Cimmerians as occupying territory south of the Black Sea.
The first historical record of the Cimmerians appears in Assyrian annals in the year 714 BC. These describe how a people termed the Gimirri helped the forces of Sargon II to defeat the kingdom of Urartu. Their original homeland, called Gamir or Uishdish, seems to have been located within the buffer state of Mannae. The later geographer Ptolemy placed the Cimmerian city of Gomara in this region. After their conquests of Colchis and Iberia in the First Millennium BC, the Cimmerians also came to be known as Gimirri in Georgian. According to Georgian historians, the Cimmerians played an influential role in the development of both the Colchian and Iberian cultures. The modern-day Georgian word for hero, გმირი, gmiri, is derived from the word Gimirri. This refers to the Cimmerians who settled in the area after the initial conquests.
Some modern authors assert that the Cimmerians included mercenaries, whom the Assyrians knew as Khumri, who had been resettled there by Sargon. Later Greek accounts describe the Cimmerians as having previously lived on the steppes, between the Tyras (Dniester) and Tanais (Don) rivers. Greek and Mesopotamian sources note several Cimmerian kings including Tugdamme (Lygdamis in Greek; mid-7th century BC), and Sandakhshatra (late-7th century).
A "mythical" people also named Cimmerians are described in Book 11, 14 of Homer's Odyssey as living beyond the Oceanus, in a land of fog and darkness, at the edge of the world and the entrance of Hades. Most likely they were unrelated to the Cimmerians of the Black Sea.
According to the Histories of Herodotus (c. 440 BC), the Cimmerians had been expelled from the steppes by the Scythians. To ensure burial in their ancestral homeland, the men of the Cimmerian royal family divided into groups and fought each other to the death. The Cimmerian commoners buried the bodies along the river Tyras and fled from the Scythian advance, across the Caucasus and into Anatolia.
The Assyrians recorded the migrations of the Cimmerians, as the former people's king Sargon II was killed in battle against them in 705 BC. The Cimmerians were subsequently recorded as having conquered Phrygia in 696–695 BC, prompting the Phrygian king Midas to take poison rather than face capture. In 679 BC, during the reign of Esarhaddon of Assyria (r. 681–669 BC), they attacked Cilicia and Tabal under their new ruler Teushpa. Esarhaddon defeated them near Hubushna (Hupisna).
In 654 BC or 652 BC – the exact date is unclear – the Cimmerians attacked the kingdom of Lydia, killing the Lydian king Gyges and causing great destruction to the Lydian capital of Sardis. They returned ten years later during the reign of Gyges' son Ardys II; this time they captured the city, with the exception of the citadel. The fall of Sardis was a major shock to the powers of the region; the Greek poets Callinus and Archilochus recorded the fear that it inspired in the Greek colonies of Ionia, some of which were attacked by Cimmerian and Treres raiders.
The Cimmerian occupation of Lydia was brief, however, possibly due to an outbreak of plague. Between 637 and 626 BC, they were beaten back by Alyattes II of Lydia. This defeat marked the effective end of Cimmerian power. The term Gimirri was used about a century later in the Behistun inscription (c. 515 BC) as a Babylonian equivalent of Persian Saka (Scythians). Otherwise Cimmerians disappeared from western Asian historical accounts, and their fate was unknown. It has been speculated that they settled in Cappadocia, known in Armenian as Գամիրք, Gamir-kʿ (the same name as the original Cimmerian homeland in Mannae).
Herodotus thought the Cimmerians and the Thracians closely related, writing that both peoples originally inhabited the northern shore of the Black Sea, and both were displaced about 700 BC, by invaders from the east. Whereas the Cimmerians would have departed this ancestral homeland by heading east and south across the Caucasus, the Thracians migrated southwest into the Balkans, where they established a successful and long-lived culture. The Tauri, the original inhabitants of Crimea, are sometimes identified as a people related to the Cimmerians and later the Taurisci.
Premodern historians asserted Cimmerian descent for the Celts or the Germans, arguing from the similarity of Cimmerii to Cimbri or Cymry. It is unlikely that either Proto-Celtic or Proto-Germanic entered western Europe as late as the 7th century BC; their formation was commonly associated with the Bronze Age Urnfield and Nordic Bronze Age cultures, respectively. It is, however, conceivable that a small-scale (in terms of population) 8th-century "Thraco-Cimmerian" migration triggered cultural changes that contributed to the transformation of the Urnfield culture into the Hallstatt C culture, ushering in the European Iron Age. Later Cimmerian remnant groups may have spread as far as to the Nordic Countries and the Rhine River. An example is the Cimbri tribe, considered to be a Germanic tribe hailing from the Himmerland (Old Danish Himber sysæl) region in northern Denmark.
The etymology of Cymro "Welshman" (plural: Cymry), connected to the Cimmerians by 17th-century Celticists, is now accepted by Celtic linguists as being derived from a Brythonic word *kom-brogos, meaning "compatriots", (i.e. fellow-Brythons as opposed to the Anglo-Saxons).
Appearance in myths of other peoples
In sources beginning with the Royal Frankish Annals, the Merovingian kings of the Franks traditionally traced their lineage through a pre-Frankish tribe called the Sicambri (or Sugambri), mythologized as a group of "Cimmerians" from the mouth of the Danube river, but who instead came from Gelderland in modern Netherlands and are named for the Sieg river or which could derive from that of the Cimbri as their chieftain names have the same suffix -rix.
Another possible link between the Cimmerians from rivers Tyras and Tanais and the Nordic countries and possibly the Sicambri of the lower Rhine is the fact that the eastern amber road was a trade link between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea over which there was a diffusion of cultures. The main eastern amber road was fully operational already BCE 1800 and went over rivers Dnepr, Pripyat, Western Bug and Vistula. There are also archaeological evidence in southern Scandinavia that there was an invasive culture arriving on the shores of the Baltic Sea around BCE 1200, which is about the same time that heralded the younger Nordic Bronze Age. It seems that this invasive culture stretched from the Vistula estuary over Scania, Zealand, Fyn and Himmerland in Northern Jutland and Helgoland, which largely encompasses an arch of the richest deposits of amber in Europe. It is known from the Greek cartographer Pytheas from Massilia, BCE 330, that this arch corresponded to the location of a people Pytheas called Gotones. Pytheas also mentions that the Gotones were neighbors of the Teutones that lived in south Jutland and Holstein.
We also know that from Pliny the Elder, AD 79, that the stretch of lands between the Vistula Estuary to the Black Sea was called 'Scythia'. Thus it is possible that there was a top-stratum of Cimmerians knights taking hold of the Baltic amber deposits as early as BCE 1200 – 1000 and that they later gave rise to the Gotones, Teutones and Cimbrii and in consequence to the Sicambri as well. Looking for other indications it seems that 'Cim' is cognate with an IEP 'khim' from which is derived 'home' in English and 'heim' in Old Norse. The second part 'mer' would either mean 'sea' probably pointing to a homeland near the Black Sea, or potentially meaning 'great' (cc: Gothic 'Waldamar').
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Only a few personal names in the Cimmerian language have survived in Assyrian inscriptions:
- Te-ush-pa-a; according to the Hungarian linguist János Harmatta, it goes back to Old Iranian Tavis-paya "swelling with strength". Mentioned in the annals of Esarhaddon, has been compared to the Hurrian war deity Teshub; others interpret it as Iranian, comparing the Achaemenid name Teispes (Herodotus 7.11.2).
- Dug-dam-mei (Dugdammê) king of the Ummân-Manda (nomads) appears in a prayer of Ashurbanipal to Marduk, on a fragment at the British Museum. According to professor Harmatta, it goes back to Old Iranian Duγda-maya "giving happiness". Other spellings include Dugdammi, and Tugdammê. Edwin M. Yamauchi also interprets the name as Iranian, citing Ossetic Tux-domæg "Ruling with Strength." The name appears corrupted to Lygdamis in Strabo 1.3.21.
- Sandaksatru, son of Dugdamme. This is an Iranian reading of the name, and Manfred Mayrhofer (1981) points out that the name may also be read as Sandakurru. Mayrhofer likewise rejects the interpretation of "with pure regency" as a mixing of Iranian and Indo-Aryan. Ivancik suggests an association with the Anatolian deity Sanda. According to Professor J. Harmatta, it goes back to Old Iranian Sanda-Kuru "Splendid Son". Kur/Kuru is still used as "son" in the Kurdish languages, and in modified form in Persian as korr, for the male offspring of horses.
Some researchers have attempted to trace various place names to Cimmerian origins. It has been suggested that Cimmerium gave rise to the Turkic toponym Qırım (which in turn gave rise to the name "Crimea").
Based on ancient Greek historical sources, a Thracian or a Celtic association is sometimes assumed. According to Carl Ferdinand Friedrich Lehmann-Haupt, the language of the Cimmerians could have been a "missing link" between Thracian and Iranian.
- Koban culture (Northern Caucasus, 12th to 4th centuries BC)
- Cernogorovka culture (9th to 8th centuries)
- Novocerkassk culture (8th to 7th centuries, between Danube and Volga)
- 800 BC Cimmerians begin migration out of the Pontic-Caspian steppe into Anatolia following incursions into their territories by Scythians.
- 721–715 BC – Sargon II mentions a land of Gamirr near to Urartu.
- 714 – suicide of Rusas I of Urartu, after defeat by both the Assyrians and Cimmerians.
- 705 – Sargon II of Assyria dies on an expedition against the Kulummu.
- 695 – Cimmerians destroy Phrygia. Death of king Midas.
- 679/678 – Gimirri under a ruler called Teushpa invade Assyria from Hubuschna (Cappadocia?). Esarhaddon of Assyria defeats them in battle.
- 676-674 – Cimmerians invade and destroy Phrygia, and reach Paphlagonia.
- 654 or 652 – Gyges of Lydia dies in battle against the Cimmerians. Sack of Sardis; Cimmerians and Treres plunder Ionian colonies.
- 644 – Cimmerians occupy Sardis, but withdraw soon afterwards
- 637-626 – Cimmerians defeated by Alyattes II.
- c. 515 – Last historical record of Cimmerians, in the Behistun inscription of Darius.
Robert E. Howard used the name "Cimmerians" for the people from whom his most well-known character, Conan the Barbarian, is descended. The people depicted in the Conan books have a quasi-Irish culture (for example, "Conan" is an Old Irish name), and are depicted as being the legendary ancestors of both the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland and the historic Cimmerians of the Black Sea.
Episode 10 of the Stargate series takes place on the planet Cimmeria (P3X-974), a planet inhabited by Viking descendants – making these "Cimmerians" even more loosely related to the historical ones – see Cimmerians (Stargate).
Use of the Cimmerian language and history is referenced and even metaphorically central to the apocryphal nature of progress in the plot of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. It is described by Italo Calvino's characters as ancient and unknown but to a very select few individuals, and use of the language in writings was a matter of conspiracy theories.
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