The first “mega-empire” in history, which broke through the 3 mln sq. km territory threshold, is now known as the Achaemenid Empire. It preceded the rise of other early mega-empires: the Mauryans, the Han Dynasty, and the Romans. Unlike these later empires, the origins of the Achaemenids are rather murky. Who were the people who built this empire?
A new book by Chris Beckwith, The Scythian Empire, answers this question in a new, and startling, way. It wasn’t Achaemenid Persians at all, the empire was started and developed by the Aria ~ Ariya ~ Hariya—the Royal Scythians. Beckwith is one of the most interesting and knowledgeable experts on the Inner Eurasians. He is conversant in Old Persian, Avestan, Semitic, Old Tibetan, and Chinese languages. In a series of books over the past 30 years he has built an impressive case for the centrality of Central Asia (with apologies to André Gunder Frank) in world history. Beckwith’s work has been an important corrective to the general neglect of the various people inhabiting the Great Steppe by many world historians. Our modeling and data analysis of Seshat data agrees with Gunder Frank and Beckwith about the centrality of Central Asia. So, hopefully, the Inner Asians will eventually reclaim their rightful place in world history.
Back to the origins of the Achaemenid Empire. Rather than summarizing the evidence that Beckwith brings to his reconstruction of the antecedents of this empire, I’ll try to fit it in an overall framework that I’ve constructed over the past decade, based on my readings of the relevant literature. In particular, I found the following two books very useful:
Vogelsang, W. J. (1992). The Rise and Organisation of the Achaemenid Empire: The Eastern Iranian Evidence. Leiden, Brill.
Kuzmina, E. (2007). The Origin of the Indo-Iranians. Leiden, Brill.
Needless to say, this story is quite tentative and I would be very interested in any corrections from real experts (unlike myself).
The story starts around 2000 BCE, when the Proto-Indo-Iranians (archaeologically known as the Sintashta culture) invented the chariot—one of the great military revolutions. This military technology gave Indo-Iranians ability to migrate into the belt of agrarian states south of the Great Steppe. One branch of them went to South Asia, while others went to Southwest Asia. The western groups are known as the Mittani and the Persians.
The Persians somehow ended up as rulers of southwestern Iran, the ancient Elam. This is a particularly murky part, as it is not clear when they arrived there. The currently accepted view, as reflected in Wikipedia, is that the Persians were part of the second wave of Iranian people, but there are several reasons to doubt it (I’ll get to it in a moment).
The next wave of expansion from the Great Steppe was triggered by the most consequential military revolution (before gunpowder), based on horse riding. The Iranic-speaking groups, Cimmerians and Scythians, wielding powerful recurved bows from the horseback, ran over the Middle East, getting as far West as Anatolia and as far South as Egypt. The Cimmerians came first, during the 8th century BCE, and were followed by Scythians a few decades later. According to Beckwith’s reconstruction, the Royal Scythian line, Aria, established an empire in Media by ~675 BCE. There were three Scythian kings, attested in the sources: Spakaya, Partatua, and Madyes. In 620 the Scythian rulers were overthrown by the Medians. Who were these “Medians”? According to Beckwith, before the arrival of the Scythians, Media was inhabited by multiple ethnic groups of diverse linguistic origins. Scythian men married local women, which gave rise to the new Scytho-Median elites, and it was a member of one of those who overthrew the last Scythian ruler (probably Madyes). Culturally, Medians were Scythians, as attested by the Scythian dress they wore and their weapons. Beckwith also shows that Scythian and Median languages were nearly identical, with dialectal differences as slight as that between the Americans and Australians. Incidentally, the Scytho-Median is also the language in which Avesta was written.
In contrast, Old Persian, although related to Scythian-Median-Avestan, had by that point diverged far enough so that it was probably not mutually comprehensive. And this is one reason why the Persians couldn’t be part of the second Iranic wave, they must have diverged from the common root with the Scythians multiple centuries, perhaps a millennium before.
Another reason is that the Persian clothing was quite different in style from Scythian (or Median): a robe instead of pants. You can shoot a bow from a chariot while wearing a robe, but fighting on horseback is much more comfortable while wearing pants.
Medes and Persians at the eastern stairs of the Apadana in Persepolis, Iran. Source: Wikimedia
Additionally, the Persians missed such characteristic Scythian features as a kind of a coat (candys), the hoody (bashlyk), and characteristic weapons, such as a short sword (akinaka) and an axe with a long handle (sagaris). This line of reasoning, however, is complicated by a later switch of Persians to the Scythian clothing. The reason, of course, was that Persians adopted horse-riding (and shooting bow from the horse back) from the second Iranic wave. By the time Herodotus wrote his Histories, the Persians instructed the next generation “in three things only: to ride, to use the bow and to speak the truth.”
Detail of a relief showing two men (left and right) wearing kandys.By درفش کاویانی – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28093163
Another difference was that the Persians were polytheists, while Scytho-Medians were monotheists. Thus, when the first Persian ruler, Cyrus, overthrew the last Median king, Zoroastrianism ceased to be the official religion of empire for a while (until Darius later restored it).
Summarizing, Beckwith argues that what we now call the Median and Achaemenid empires, should be counted as a continuation of the Scythian empire, established c.675 BCE, and lasting until the Alexander’s conquest.
Once again, much of this will be, undoubtedly, controversial, and I am curious to hear what others think. Also, there is another source of data to bring to bear on this question—ancient DNA.