The Scythian Empire. Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China

Beckwith, Christopher I.
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ennio Biondi, L’Istituto di Scienze del Patrimonio Culturale

The study of the Scythians constitutes a complex, vast and fascinating topic for the historian of antiquity: it is a topic that has traditionally interested mostly scholars of Eastern Europe, but it should be underlined that since the 1980s the attention of the Western scientific community for the steppe civilizations has gradually grown, starting from the contacts with the Greek civilization. In this sense, the pioneering works edited by P. Leveque and O. Lordkipanidze and the magnum opus of A.I. Khazanov should be mentioned: even the publication of the classic study of F. Hartog, Le miroir d’Hérodote, who studies the Scythians only reflexively, focused on the nature of Herodotean historiography, has greatly stimulated the research in this perspective. Even recently there has been an increase in studies on various aspects related to the Scythian civilization by several scholars from different geographical areas.1 The traditional vision of the Scythians as a barbaric and violent people, "disturbers" of the great Western and Eastern civilizations is increasingly criticized, and there is now a tendency to study the original aspects of this civilization, the political and social forms in which their power expressed itself in the Eurasian plateau. Beckwitt 's book fits perfectly in this wake: he dedicates an overall essay to the Scythians which shows, right from the title, some important aspects connected to his research and methodology. In fact, the author titles the book ‘Scythian Empire’, and continues as a subtitle ‘Central Eurasia and the birth of the classical age from Persia to China’. Extremely significant positions therefore emerge, given that they imply the existence of a 'Scythian Empire' and the study of this within a very large context, i.e. Eurasia in general. Certainly, one of the merits of this book is considering the Scythians within a context which is not only that of the contact with the world of Pontic Greece, but of an enormous area which brought the Scythians into creative contact with the Medo-Persian empire on one side and China on the other.

The introduction of the book is short but very dense: the author insists on some aspects and asks some basic questions which then constitute the fil rouge of his discussion: the book consists of a prologue, eight chapters and an epilogue. Beckwith claims the idea that the Scythians organized themselves into a real empire: "they created the world first’s huge empire" (p. 2). It is an idea that traditionally has not had particular success among modern scholars despite the fact that the historian Herodotus (I 104-106) explicitly says that the Scythians dominated Asia for twenty-eight years, replacing the dominion of Medes, later re-established by King Cyaxares: in this regard Beckwith talks about Scytho-Mede-Persian Empire. To this aspect the author links the criticism of the traditionally negative vision of the Scythians portrayed by part of the ancient sources as violent and devastating barbarians; but this pars destruens is followed by a _construens _that sets ambitious and interesting objectives. The Scythians not only were not a set of tribes of violent stragglers who roamed the steppes, but they had a "revolutionary impact on the history of the Ancient Near East" (p. 3). This is precisely the main aim of Beckwith's study, namely, to propose an alternative vision of the history of Scythian civilization and its innovative aspects, how these affected ancient history in general, through a global approach that considers the Scythians no longer individually in their single contact with a specific population, but as active protagonists of the Classical Age of world civilization.

Beckwith enumerates seven important innovations that classical world history owed to the Scythians: shortly, if we can only agree on some of these, such as the introduction of new weapons and a new way of conceiving the organization of war, on the others the discussion is more complex. Starting from the idea of a substantial ethnic-cultural continuity of what he calls Scytho-Mede-Persian civilization, the author establishes a consequent homogeneity of the forms of organization of political power between these ancient civilizations. The author identifies a feudal system that starting from some complex pages of Herodotus regarding the organization of the Persian Imperial feudal system; Beckwith considers this one in parallel with the hierarchical structure of the Scythians, also in this case provided by Herodotus (IV 66), divided into three levels, namely basileiai, archai and nomoi. The conclusion is that the Medes, and therefore also the Persians "thus simply continued the Scythian imperial system, because they were Scytho-Medes" (p. 17). However, the issue should be explored further. First, if the scientific community is convinced that we cannot speak of a ‘Scythian empire’, supporting the opposite position should be justified through a theoretical reflection on what an empire is and, above all, on what is meant by empire in the ancient ages.2 Referring to Herodotus to assert this is equally dangerous, given the nature of the Histories and the way in which the historian represents the entire ancient Near Eastern continuum of which the Scythians are part. Regarding the description of the political-social history of the Scythians, the fourth book of Herodotus seems to refer to multiple chronological layers that are connected to different periods of the history of the Scythians. In Herodotus the Scythians are never actually described as organized into a form of imperial power: this is demonstrated, for example, by the description in the first book of the invasions of the Scythians in the Near East which devastated the Middle East and reached Ashqelon (I 104-106). In that case, although Herodotus speaks of a Scythian domination in Asia lasting twenty-eight years, the Scythians do not have a coherent and organized political project for the management of unitary power over the populations of Asia. In fact, they arrived in Media almost by chance, chasing those Cimmerians whom they had driven out of their territories. Rather, I believe that we can say the opposite of what the author claims, that the emergence of the Persian empire, on the Median one the discussion is enormously complex,3 that changed some sociopolitical aspects of the Scythian civilization: among these, some characteristics of the nomadism, a peculiar element of Scythian society, on which the author perhaps should have focused his analysis more.

Hence another question: The author presents the Scythians as a single people who frequented the steppes. This greatly facilitates the reading of the historical dynamics of ancient Central Asia, but we certainly cannot ignore the complex heterogeneity that did not escape in primis to the Greek sources: this translated into a great difficulty in defining the various ethnic groups that populated the steppes, and united under the conventional ethnonym ‘Scythians’. From this point of view, we can see Herodotus’ effort to represent the peoples of the steppes in two parallel ways; on the one hand the ‘Scythians’, on the other the numerous tribes, even very different from each other, which can be identified under this ethnonym. Beckwith proposes the method of investigation according to the continuity/homogeneity of the Iranian people, but in my opinion the question of the fragmentation and diversity of the steppe tribes should have been at least mentioned.

The book bases many interpretative proposals on the Scythian-Medo-Persian continuity, including that of the substantial Iranian religious monotheism, another of the seven alleged Scythian innovations. On the one hand this continuity allows us to trace a common substratum capable of explaining various elements of continuity between the three civilizations; on the other hand, it does not account for the specific differences between them that Herodotus also highlights, for example, when he speaks of Darius' expedition against the Scythians. We can see this in the speech of the Scythian king Hydantirsus to the Persian knight sent by Darius to ask him the reason that pushed them to flee and not attack battle (IV 126–127): here emerges all the diversity in the ways of living and of conceiving space between Scythians and Persians. These are aspects that must be certainly interpreted in the light of Herodotean' text, but they leave no doubt about the distance between Scythians and Persians on many elements of their civilizations.

In conclusion, this book constitutes an interesting novelty in the study of Eurasian ancient history: it puts the Scythians in the right context, the broad one, as we said, of the Eurasian plateau; it insists on the innovative aspects of Scythian culture and the role of contact and mediation that they played between Europe and Asia. However, some of the innovations that the author presents require in my opinion in-depth analysis and theoretical reflection which I hope that this book will consequently arouse in the scientific community. I think that this book will be successful in this perspective.

1 See for example, B. Bravo, Erodoto sulla Scizia e il lontano Nord-Est. Contributo all’interpretazione sul cosiddetto logos scitico, Roma 2018; E. Biondi, Erodoto e gli Sciti. Schiavitù, nomadismo e forme di dipendenza, Besançon 2020; S.V. Pankova/S.J. Simpson (eds.), Masters of the Steppe: the Impact of the Scythians and Later Nomad Societies of Eurasia. Proceedings of a Conference Held at the British Museum, 27–29 October 2017, Oxford.
2 See now (the author obviously could not have known it) R. Rollinger, Contextualizing the Achaemenid-Persian Empire. What Does Empire Mean in the First Millennium BCE?, in: G.P. Basello/P. Callieri/A.V. Rossi (eds.), Achaemenid Studies Today, Roma 2023, pp. 289–338.
3 See recently S. Balatti, Mountain Peoples in the Ancient Near East. The case of the Zagros in the first Millennium, Wiesbaden 2017.

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