Scythia (Scythian: Skulatā; Old Persian: 𐎿𐎤𐎢𐎭𐎼 Skudra; Ancient Greek: Σκυθια Skuthia; Latin: Scythia) or Scythica (Ancient Greek: Σκυθικη Skuthikē; Latin: Scythica), also known as Pontic Scythia, was a kingdom created by the Scythians during the 6th to 3rd centuries BC in the Pontic–Caspian steppe.
The names Scythia and Scythica are themselves Latinisations of the Ancient Greek names Skuthia (Σκυθια) and Skuthikē (Σκυθικη), which were themselves derived from the ancient Greek names for the Scythians, Skuthēs (Σκυθης) and Skuthoi (Σκυθοι), derived from the Scythian endonym Skuδatā.
The Scythians originated in Central Asia possibly around the 9th century BC, and they arrived in the Caucasian Steppe in the 8th and 7th centuries BC as part of a significant movement of the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe. This movement started when another nomadic Iranian tribe closely related to the Scythians, either the Massagetae or the Issedones, migrated westwards, forcing the Early Scythians to the west across the Araxes river, following which the Scythians moved into the Caspian Steppe, where they conquered the territory of the Cimmerians, who were also a nomadic Iranian people closely related to the Scythians, and assimilated most of them while displacing the rest, before settling in the area between the Araxes, the Caucasus Mountains and the Lake Maeotis.
During this early migratory period, some groups of Scythians settled in Ciscaucasia and the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains to the east of the Kuban river, where they settled among the native populations of this region, and did not migrate to the south into West Asia.
Arrival into West Asia
Under Scythian pressure, the displaced Cimmerians migrated to the south along the coast of the Black Sea and reached Anatolia, and the Scythians in turn later expanded to the south, following the coast of the Caspian Sea and arrived in the Ciscaucasian steppes, from where they settled in the area between the Araxes and Kura rivers before further expanding into the region to the south of the Kuros river in what is present-day Azerbaijan, where they settled around what is today Mingəçevir, Gəncə and the Muğan plain, and turned eastern Transcaucasia into their centre of operations in West Asia until the early 6th century BC, with this presence in West Asia being an extension of the Scythian kingdom of the steppes.
The earliest Scythians had belonged to the Srubnaya culture, and, archaeologically, the Scythian movement into Transcaucasia is attested in the form of a migration of a section of the Srubnaya culture to the south along the western coast of the Caspian Sea.
During this period, the Scythian kings' headquarters were located in the Ciscaucasian steppes, and this presence in Transcaucasia influenced Scythian culture: the akīnakēs sword and socketed bronze arrowheads with three edges, which, although they are considered as typically "Scythian weapons," were in fact of Transcaucasian origin and had been adopted by the Scythians during their stay in the Caucasus. Further contacts with the civilisation of West Asia, and especially with that of Mesopotamia, would also have an important influence on the formation of Scythian culture.
Arrival in the Pontic steppe
From their base in the Caucasian Steppe, during the period of the 8th to 7th centuries BC itself, the Scythians conquered the Pontic Steppe to the north of the Black Sea up to the Danube river, which formed the western boundary of Scythian territory onwards, although the Scythians may also have had access to the Wallachian and Moldavian plains.
Several smaller groups were likely also displaced by the Scythian expansion, such as the with the Sigynnae tribe from the North Caucasus region who were displaced westwards into the Pannonian Basin in the 8th century BC by the westward migration of the Scythians.
Using the Pontic steppe as their base, the Scythians over the course of the 7th to 6th centuries BC often raided into the adjacent regions, with Central Europe being a frequent target of their raids, and Scythian incursions reaching Podolia, Transylvania, and the Hungarian Plain, due to which, beginning in this period, new objects, including weapons and horse-equipment, originating from the steppes and remains associated with the early Scythians started appearing within Central Europe, especially in the Thracian and Hungarian plains, and in the regions corresponding to present-day Bessarabia, Transylvania, Hungary, and Slovakia, from the end of the 7th century onwards. Multiple fortified settlements of the Lusatian culture were destroyed by Scythian attacks during this period, with the Scythian onslaught causing the destruction of the Lusatian culture itself. Attacks by the Scythians were directed at southern Germania, and, from there, until as far as Gaul and even the Iberian Peninsula; these activities of the Scythians were not unlike those of the Huns and the Avars during the Migration Period and of the Mongols in the mediaeval era, and they were recorded in Etruscan bronze figurines depicting mounted Scythian archers as well as in Scythian influences in Celtic art.
During the 7th century the Scythians under their king Išpakaia were allied with the Cimmerians, and are believed to have threatened the frontiers of the Kingdom of Uratu during the reign of its king Argishti II, who reigned from 714 to 680 BC.
The first mention of the Scythians in the records of the then superpower of West Asia, the Neo-Assyrian Empire, is from between 680/679 and 678/677 BC, when their king Išpakaia joined an alliance with the Mannaeans and the Cimmerians in an attack on the Neo-Assyrian Empire. During this time, the Scythians under Išpakaia, allied to Rusa II of Urartu, were raiding far in the south till the Assyrian province of Zamua. These allied forces were defeated by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon.
The Scythians and their allies the Cimmerians would engage in repeated wars with the Assyrians during the first decades of the 7th century. Scythian-Assyrian hostilities were eventually brought to an end when the Scythian King Bartatua married Assyrian princess Šērūʾa-ēṭirat. Bartatua's marriage to Šērūʾa-ēṭirat required that he would pledge allegiance to Assyria as a vassal, and in accordance to Assyrian law, the territories ruled by him would be his fief granted by the Assyrian king, which made the Scythian presence in West Asia a nominal extension of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Bartatua himself an Assyrian viceroy. Under this arrangement, the power of the Scythians in West Asia heavily depended on their cooperation with the Assyrian Empire; a fact which ensured the Scythians remained allied to the Assyrian Empire for many decades.
The Scythian alliance with Assyria ultimately led it into conflict with their former allies the Cimmerians, who were now primarily operating out of Asia Minor. During the first half of the seventh century the Cimmerians had amassed considerable power, to the extent that by 657 BC the Assyrian divinatory records were calling the Cimmerian king Tugdammi by the title of šar-kiššati ("King of the Universe"), which could normally belong only to the Neo-Assyrian King. However, this state of affairs was ephemeral and in 635 BC the Scythians, with the approval of Assyria, would conduct an invasion of Cimmerian territory in conjunction with the Lydians, a Kingdom in western Anatolia, ultimately defeating the Cimmerians and opening up Anatolian territory to Scythian settlement.
Decline and expulsion from West Asia
According to Babylonian records, around 615 BC the Scythians were operating as allies of Cyaxares and the Medes in their war against Assyria. The Scythians' abandonment of their alliance with Assyria to instead side with the Babylonians and the Medes being a critical factor in worsening the position of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and the Scythians participated in the Medo-Babylonian conquests of Aššur in 614 BC, Nineveh in 612 BC, and Ḫarran in 610 BC, which permanently destroyed the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
The Scythians were finally expelled from West Asia by the Medes in the 600s BC, after which they retreated into the Pontic Steppe. The inroads of the Cimmerians and the Scythians into West Asia over the course of the 8th to 6th centuries BC had destabilised the political balance which had prevailed in the region between the states of Assyria, Urartu, Mannaea and Elam on one side and the mountaineer and tribal peoples on the other, resulting in the destruction of these former kingdoms and their replacement by new powers, including the kingdoms of the Medes and of the Lydians.
Some splinter Scythian groups nevertheless remained in West Asia and settled in Transcaucasia and the area corresponding to modern-day Azerbaijan. One such splinter group joined the Medes and participated in the Median conquest of Urartu, while other Transcaucasian Scythian splinter groups retreated northwards to join the West Asian Scythians who had already moved into the Kuban Steppe previously.
One group formed a kingdom in what is now Azerbaijan under Median overlordship, but eventually hostilities broke out between them and Cyaxares, due to which they left Transcaucasia and fled to Lydia as refugees, although a section of these Scythians still remained in the southeast Caucasus, and were later mentioned by Titus Livius under the name of Sacassani, while the country was called the “Land of the Skythēnoi” by Xenophon and Sakasēnē by Ptolemy.
By the middle of the 6th century BC, the Scythians who had remained in West Asia had completely assimilated culturally and politically into Median society and no longer existed as a distinct group.
The territory of the Scythian kingdom of the Pontic steppe extended from the Don river in the east to the Danube river in the west, and covered the territory of the treeless steppe immediately north of the Black Sea's coastline, which was inhabited by nomadic pastoralists, as well as the fertile black-earth forest-steppe area to the north of the treeless steppe, which was inhabited by an agricultural population, and the northern border of this Scythian kingdom were the deciduous woodlands, while several rivers, including Don and Dnipro, flowed southwards across this region and emptied themselves into the Black Sea.
Between the 9th and 5th centuries BC, the climate in the steppes was cool and dry, which was a catalyst for the emergence of equestrian nomadic pastoralism in the northern Pontic region. The climate became warmer and wetter during the 5th century BC, which allowed the steppe nomads to move into the steppes proper.
In these favourable climatic conditions grass grew abundantly on the treeless steppe and permitted the nomadic Scythians to rear large herds of cattle and horses. The country which the Greeks named Hylaea (Ancient Greek: Υλαια, romanized: Hulaia, lit. 'the Woodland'), consisting of the region of the lower Dnipro river along the territory of what is modern-day Kherson and the valleys further north along the river, was covered with forests. Conditions in the southern lands near the shores of the Black Sea were propitious for agriculture.
Before the arrival of the Scythians, this region of the Pontic Steppe was dominated by the Agathyrsi, who were nomadic Iranian people related to the Scythians. The Scythian migration pushed the Agathyrsi westwards, away from the steppes and from their original home around Lake Maeotis, and into the Carpathian region.
Beginning in the late 4th century BC, another related nomadic Iranian people, the Sarmatians, moved from the east into the Pontic steppe, where they replaced the Scythians as the dominant power of the Pontic steppe by the Sarmatians, due to which "Sarmatia Europea" (European Sarmatia) replaced "Scythia" as the name for the region.
Beginning with the Hellenistic period, the Graeco-Romans also extended the designation "Scythia" to the southern Russian steppes in general, and they also applied it to refer to the whole of the treeless steppe ranging from the Danubian plains in the west to the Chinese marches in the east.
In contemporary modern scholarship, the name "Scythian" generally refers to the nomadic Iranian people who dominated the Pontic steppe from the 7th century BC to the 3rd century BC, and the name "Scythia" is used to describe this region of the Pontic steppe inhabited by the Scythians.
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- Cernenko 2012, p. 3: "The Scythians lived in the Early Iron Age, and inhabited the northern areas of the Black Sea (Pontic) steppes. Though the 'Scythian period' in the history of Eastern Europe lasted little more than 400 years, from the 7th to the 3rd centuries BC, the impression these horsemen made upon the history of their times was such that a thousand years after they had ceased to exist as a sovereign people, their heartland and the territories which they dominated far beyond it continued to be known as 'greater Scythia'."
- Melyukova 1990, pp. 97–98: "From the end of the 7th century B.C. to the 4th century B.C. the Central- Eurasian steppes were inhabited by two large groups of kin Iranian-speaking tribes – the Scythians and Sarmatians [...] "[I]t may be confidently stated that from the end of the 7th century to the 3rd century B.C. the Scythians occupied the steppe expanses of the north Black Sea area, from the Don in the east to the Danube in the West."
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- Sulimirski 1985, pp. 149–153: "During the first half of the first millennium B.C., c. 3,000 to 2,500 years ago, the southern part of Eastern Europe was occupied mainly by peoples of Iranian stock [...] The main Iranian-speaking peoples of the region at that period were the Scyths and the Sarmatians [...] [T]he population of ancient Scythia was far from being homogeneous, nor were the Scyths themselves a homogeneous people. The country called after them was ruled by their principal tribe, the "Royal Scyths" (Her. iv. 20), who were of Iranian stock and called themselves "Skolotoi" (iv. 6); they were nomads who lived in the steppe east of the Dnieper up to the Don, and in the Crimean steppe [...] The eastern neighbours of the "Royal Scyths," the Sauromatians, were also Iranian; their country extended over the steppe east of the Don and the Volga."
- Sulimirski & Taylor 1991, p. 547: "The name 'Scythian' is met in the classical authors and has been taken to refer to an ethnic group or people, also mentioned in Near Eastern texts, who inhabited the northern Black Sea region."
- West 2002, pp. 437–440: "Ordinary Greek (and later Latin) usage could designate as Scythian any northern barbarian from the general area of the Eurasian steppe, the virtually treeless corridor of drought-resistant perennial grassland extending from the Danube to Manchuria. Herodotus seeks greater precision, and this essay is focussed on his Scythians, who belong to the North Pontic steppe [...] These true Scyths seems to be those whom he calls Royal Scyths, that is, the group who claimed hegemony [...] apparently warrior-pastoralists. It is generally agreed, from what we know of their names, that these were people of Iranian stock [...]"
- Jacobson 1995, pp. 36–37: "When we speak of Scythians, we refer to those Scytho-Siberians who inhabited the Kuban Valley, the Taman and Kerch peninsulas, Crimea, the northern and northeastern littoral of the Black Sea, and the steppe and lower forest steppe regions now shared between Ukraine and Russia, from the seventh century down to the first century B.C [...] They almost certainly spoke an Iranian language [...]"
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[Saka] gold belt buckles, jewelry, and harness decorations display sheep, griffins, and other animal designs that are similar in style to those used by the Scythians, a nomadic people living in the Kuban basin of the Caucasus region and the western section of the Eurasian plain during the greater part of the 1st millennium bc.
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- Ovid's poems Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto about his exile in Tomis contain some details of Scythia.
- Lucian's Toxaris tells stories of Scythian friendship and heroism.
- "Scythie : Une bibliographie introductive" [An Introductory Bibliography on Scythia], Bibliothèque des Sciences de l'Antiquité, Université Lille (in French)