The Scythian Empire

Peter Turchin

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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?

The Achaemenid Persian Empire c. 500 BCE. Simeon Netchev (CC-BY-NC-SA)

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.

A note on the margins: don’t miss my blog post about the evolution of pants (that’s trousers for those of you on the other side of the Atlantic).

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Victor

A wonderful, thought-provoking analysis. I am always interested in the history of the descendant cultures of Central Asian steppe nomads, especially those of Arya origin, and I find this take especially compelling.

Edward

The Achaemenid polity was decentralised and more reminiscent of confederations between steppe nomadic tribes. We should call it the Achaemenid Super-confederation. It was a continuation of the Scythians but empire was not their civilizational method.

Persia was the limit of direct Achaemenid rule. Its bureaucracy (or military) was capable of infrastructure works (canal and roads) beyond Persia but it did not maintain bureaus in the conquered territories and only directly-appointed the Satrap. It was nothing like e.g. Western Han 200 BC or the direct military colonisation approach the Roman Empire took especially in the Western half of their Empire.

Sub-kings (Satraps) ruled themselves and sent tribute to Persia, the province of the King of Kings. The term ’empire’ covers many polity structures. One of the most common is network of rulers, wherein little chiefs owe allegiance to the big chief, and this is what the ‘Achaemenid empire’ was like.

kane_1371

Wrong on so many grounds.
One being the fact that Persians themselves considered themselves emperors.
The word King of Kings wasn’t used as a random title.
Secondly the satraps did not rule themselves independently, we see this in Ionia, in Sardis, in Anatolia, in Colchis.
They all had direct communication with central government.
Third the claim that there were no bureaucracy covering the entire empire is baffling.
Why do you think the royal road existed? What was the purpose of the “Chapars”?

Last edited 11 months ago by kane_1371
Edward

The Satraps were not independent, they were allowed a lot of independence. The palace administration in Persia sent observers to check up on their loyalty. That was the principle means of communication. The Satraps were not there to implement the policy agenda of Persepolis and the other capitals (all in Persia).

Maybe you can explain to me what you mean by ‘bureaucracy’. The Satraps/regional kings (under the King of Kings) had their own satrapal administrations attached to their palace. This was not a Persian-state wide bureaucracy operated from Persia. The Royal Road was built to enhance communication between the satellite regions and the center.

Given enough time and development Achaemenid may have developed a true bureaucracy but this had not happened before Alexander. The centralising infrastructure is evidence of movement along a path to true empire, but empire as we should strictly define it was a long way off then.

In comparison, the Western Han had iron bureaus all over the country with staff appointed from the capital Chang’an. They had regional administrations where many levels of staff were appointed directly from the central bureaucracy in Chang’an. These people could eventually be promoted to work in the capital region itself. That’s a bureaucracy, that did not exist in the Achaemenid ‘super-confederation’.

Western Han bureaucracy also appointed its own people without involvement of the Emperor. For a long time it became a check on the power of the emperor and exercised its own authority. If an organization of administrators cannot exercise their own power it is simply a palace administration not a bureaucracy, so we also need to be careful how we use that word.

Arsalan, Iran

In the Achaemenid kingdom, each satrap was not governed independently, but there was a military Commander next to him, and by this way the satrap was controlled by the king if kings so the satraps did not have army.
Its suggested to read Inscription remained from Akhamedians to know where did they come from?
they were from old Anshan the south of Iran, their fathers ruled Anshan for many years before Cyrus,
writhing historical books by using two other books is not a good way to do a research.

Respectfully,It is suggested to find relationship between Sumerians and Akhamedians by comparing remains Common words between old Sumerian words and Lorish language (which is speaking in Anshan area at the moment). Many similar words are still exists which are using in lorish now.

Fsrzod

Because Persians did not slave ordinary people.May be the captured Roman army soldiers.

Roger Cooper

Herodotus 1.73, discusses marital connections between the Scythians and the Medes. In 1.104 he discusses the Scythians conquering the Medes.

I don’t think you can draw strict boundaries between the Persians, Medes and Scythians. However, there was big difference between the Scythians out on the Steppe and their cousins in the Iranian plateau.

John Strate

It is interesting how the evolution of mililtary technology is an important causal factor underrlying political evolution and other aspects of cultural evolution. Much evidence seems to support the views of conflict theorists.

meika

You can see my take On Beckwith’s second book, and the context dealing with the Buddhism and Pyrrhonism as countercultures to this new idea of empire with one god, one ruler, one of everthing (covered in his Greek Buddha) at https://whyweshould.substack.com/p/christopher-i-beckwiths-the-scythian

kane_1371

These are some baffling claims.
Disregarding decades of if not centuries of work to make up a story about Scythians.
Why?

Hal

I feel like the Assyrians at least deserve a mention here. While perhaps not an empire they were the regional power prior to Cyrus’ conquests, were they not?

Nathanael

Cyrus is famous for inventing multicultural imperial policy, under which each region was to a large extent self-governing, and allowed to keep its own language, culture, and religion.

This makes it kind of hard to pigeonhole his empire as being one culture. It really was Cyrus’s empire.

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