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Related to Scythians: Huns, Cimmerians
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a general name for the principal population that once inhabited the lands north of the Black Sea; the population consisted of related tribes of the North Iranian language group of the Indo-European family.

The Scythians were related to the Sauromatians (Sarmatians), Massagetae, and Saka. They are considered by some researchers to be descended from the bearers of the Bronze Age Timber-frame (srubnaia) Culture, who began moving westward from the Volga Region in the 14th century B.C. Other researchers believe that the main body of the Scythians migrated from Middle Asia or Siberia and intermingled with the population of the northern shores of the Black Sea. Early Scythian history is marked by the Scythians’ war with the Cimmerians, who were ousted from the region north of the Black Sea in approximately the seventh century, B.C., and by Scythian campaigns in Asia Minor. In the 670’s B.C., the Scythians began conquests of Media, Syria, and Palestine, which led eventually to Scythian dominance in Southwest Asia; by the early sixth century B.C., however, they were forced out by the Medes. Signs of Scythian habitation have been noted in the Northern Caucasus as well.

The main areas of Scythian settlement were the steppes between the lower Danube and the Don, including the Crimean steppes and the regions adjacent to the northern Black Sea Shore; the northern limit of settlement is unclear. The Scythians were divided into several major tribes. Herodotus reported that the Royal Scyths, who lived on the steppes between the Dnieper and the Don, were dominant. Nomadic Scythians lived along the right bank of the lower Dnieper and in the Crimean steppes. Scythians who were cultivators lived between the Ingul and the Dnieper, in the same area as the nomadic Scythians, In the basin of the luzhnyi Bug, near the city of Olbia, lived the Callipidae, north of them the Alazones, and still further north the Aroteres. The boundaries of the areas settled by the individual tribes of Scythia, especially the Aroteres, are unclear.

Class formation in Scythian society was encouraged by close relations with the slaveholding cities north of the Black Sea and the Scythians’ active trade in livestock, grain, furs, and slaves. It is known that there existed among the Scythians a union of tribes that gradually acquired the features of a distinctive slave-holding state headed by a king. The king’s power, which was hereditary and considered divine, was limited by a united council and a people’s assembly. A military nobility, a class of attendants, and a priestly stratum emerged.

The Scythians’ war against the Persian king Darius I in 512 B.C. contributed to the political unification of the Scythians. At the turn of the fourth century B.C, the king Ateas eliminated the other Scythian kings and usurped all power. By the 340’s B.C. he had completed the unification of Scythia from the Sea of Azov to the Danube.

Archaeological research at Kamenka Gorodishche has shown that this settlement was the administrative, commercial, and economic center for the Scythians of the steppes when the Scythian Kingdom was at its height. Sharp changes in social structure in about the fourth century B.C. were reflected in the imposing burial mounds of the Scythian nobility that were built in the Dnieper Region. Kings and their attendants were buried in deep and elaborate burial structures within the royal burial mounds, which were sometimes 20 m high. When nobles were interred, wives, concubines, servants, slaves, and horses were also killed and buried. Warriors were interred with their weapons, which included short swords with gilded scabbards, numerous arrows with bronze tips, quivers or goryti covered with gold plating, and spears and javelins with iron tips. Rich graves often contained copper, gold, and silver vessels, Greek decorated pottery and amphorae with wine, and various ornaments, often the work of Scythian and Greek master jewelers. Basically the same rite was performed when common members of the Scythian community were buried, but the contents of the graves were poorer.

In 339 B.C., King Ateas perished in a war against King Philip II of Macedonia. Zopyrion, the deputy of Alexander the Great in Thrace, invaded the western possessions of the Scythians and besieged Olbia in 331 B.C., but the Scythians annihilated his army. By the end of the third century B.C., the power of the Scythians was significantly diminished under the onslaught of the Sarmatians, who had come from beyond the Don. The capital was moved to the Crimea, where the city of Neapolis, probably founded by King Scylurus, was built on the Salgir River, near what is now Simferopol’. In addition to the Crimea, the Scythians continued to hold on to the lands near the lower course of the Dnieper and Bug.

The Scythian Kingdom in the Crimea reached its high point in the second century B.C., when the Scythians tried to take control of the foreign grain trade and conquered Olbia and a number of the possessions of Chersonese. Scythian political activity suffered a temporary setback after the Scythians were defeated in a war against Diophantos, who entered on the side of Chersonese. In the second half of the first century A.D., however, under kings Pharsoe and Inysmeas, the Scythians again gathered strength and fought a number of times against the Bosporan state.

The Scythian Kingdom, with its capital in the Crimea, continued to exist until the second half of the third century A.D., when it was destroyed by the Goths. The Scythians completely lost their independence and ethnic identity when they intermingled with various tribes during the Great Migration of Peoples. The name “Scythian” ceased to have ethnic significance and was applied to various peoples inhabiting the area north of the Black Sea.

The Scythians left an indelible impression on history. Their success in economic development, including crafts and land cultivation, and in military affairs significantly influenced the history and culture of succeeding peoples of southern Russia.

The art of the Scythians is one of the most outstanding artistic achievements of the northern Black Sea region. The most interesting art objects discovered in Scythian burials are objects decorated in the animal style: quiver and sheath facings, sword hilts, bridle parts, mirror handles, clasps, bracelets, torques, and plaques used as decorations on quivers, armor, and horses’ harnesses and as women’s ornaments. In addition to deer, elk, goats, birds of prey, imaginary animals, and other animals, the objects depict combat scenes between animals, usually an eagle or bird of prey attacking a grazing animal. The pictures were executed in bas-relief by means of forging, chasing, casting, embossing, or engraving; the usual materials were gold, silver, iron, and bronze. Deriving from images of totemic ancestors, the depictions in the Scythian period represented evil and good spirits and served as magic amulets; they may also have symbolized the strength, agility, and bravery of the warrior.

The Scythian animal style is noteworthy for its unusual liveliness, the distinctiveness and dynamism of the images, and the remarkable adaptation of the representations to the forms of the objects. In the fourth and third centuries B.C, the animal images became increasingly ornamental, linear, and planar. Highly schematic stone representations of Scythian warriors were mounted on burial mounds. Beginning in the fifth century B.C., Greek artisans made decorative practical objects for the Scythians in conformity with Scythian artistic tastes.

The most famous art treasures of the Scythians who lived in the European part of the USSR have been found in the Kelermes barrows and in the Karagodeuashkh, Kul’-Oba, Solokha, and Chertomlyk burial mounds; the sites also contain the most famous works of Greek manufacture. Unique wall paintings have been discovered at Neapolis.


Latyshev, V. V. Izvestiia drevnikh pisatelei grecheskikh i latinskikh o Skifii i Kavkaze, vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1893–1906.
Grakov, B.N. Skify. Moscow, 1971.
Chernikov, S. S. Zagadki zolotogo kurgana: Gde i kogda zarodilos’ “skifskoe iskusstvo.” Moscow, 1965.
Smirnov, A. P. Skify. Moscow, 1966.
Sokrovishcha skifskikh kurganov v sobranii Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha. Text by M. i. Artamonov. Prague-Leningrad [1966].
Khazanov, A. M. Zoloto skifov. Moscow, 1975.
Rostovtzeff, M. The Animal Style in South Russia and China. Princeton. N.J.-London, 1929.
Jettmar, K. Die frühen Steppenvölker: Der Eurasiatische Tierstil. Baden-Baden [1964].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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