Barry Cunliffe, the Emeritus Oxford University Professor of European Archaeology, has form where the Scythians are concerned. His wonderfully full, commented bibliography (called Further Reading here) includes numerous examples of what we must now regard as his preparatory studies for this splendid volume under review. It is splendid in several ways, but not least in the number, range, and quality of its illustrations. (It takes six pages to list their sources, and the mere assemblage of them from a heterogeneous multiplicity of origins will have been a Herculean task.) Given all that, the book’s cover price is almost ridiculously low for what is also a beautifully produced hardback, so one can only assume that the publishers are anticipating or hoping for a large volume of sales.
Yet, though very clearly written and argued, this is not exactly a trade book for the general reader, let alone a coffee table book. Indeed, such readers might—as Professor Cunliffe himself recommends—be well advised to consult a good exhibition catalogue as “an ideal way to gather first impressions of the Scythians and their remarkable way of life.” There have been a number of Scythian-related exhibitions over the years, including a recent excellent one at the British Museum in 2017. I myself first encountered the Scythians—or rather their startlingly brilliant material remains—firsthand in 1975 in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), where I was privileged to be given a private tour by the late Professor Kseniya Gorbunova. But the more one gets to know the material remains, the more one realizes that these Scythians are by no means an “easy” subject, and the more often one is left with puzzling and as-yet-unanswerable questions.
Starting with their name: as with the “Phoenicians,” but for a different reason, we don’t actually know what the Scythians called themselves, if indeed there was a single agreed collective name in universal or even widespread use. The different reason is that, whereas the Phoenicians were literate (indeed, they invented the ancestor of the alphabetic script that the ancient Greeks developed, and which provides the name “alphabet” itself), the Scythians not only were anonymous, but they also dispensed entirely with the creation of any written texts, let alone literature. It is thanks to the ancient Greeks, of whom more anon, that we call them “Scythians,” but the contemporary Persians of the Achaemenid empire (ca. 550–330 B.C.), with whom they came into sometimes unwelcome contact, also called them “Saka.”
Scythians were nothing if not hippomanic or equifixated.
Then there is the question of geography and mode of life. Cunliffe is established in the field of European archaeology, but the Scythians were far more Asiatic than they were European, in language as in cultural affiliation and inspiration. At most and at best they straddled the Euroasiatic divide—or junction. “The Steppe” of Cunliffe’s subtitle, in the singular, moreover, rather understates the number, size, and range of the steppelands we are dealing with here. From Manchuria to Hungary there extends for nearly five thousand miles a treeless expanse of temperate grassland, and over much of that expanse Scythian peoples, tribes, and bands managed to extract a living, for over half a millennium (say from the seventh to the second century B.C.). Many of them were indeed (to stay with the subtitle) warriors, some of the women provocatively so, as well as the men, and most of them were no doubt most of the time nomadic—but not always. What perhaps might have been included somewhere in the subtitle is the word “horse”: Scythians were nothing if not hippomanic or equifixated.
Finally, there is the question of sources of evidence. Archaeology, notoriously, is mute—the spade may not be able to lie, but that’s partly because it cannot speak. To interpret the material remains, which can be stubbornly ambiguous, we require fine-grained, sophisticated, and above all unbiased contemporary written evidence. As Cunliffe all too well and very often makes clear, such evidence is desperately thin on the ground where the Scythians are concerned. What wouldn’t we give for the memoirs of the supposed sage Anacharsis (Greek spelling), a half-Scythian, half-Greek noble or even royal by birth who allegedly so relished the Greek side of his ancestry that he spent a considerable time living in Athens, far from his home in what is now Crimea. As it is, the surviving Persian sources both written and iconographic have no interest in the Scythians except as slightly quaint subjects or potential subjects of a mighty, multicultural empire. The Greek written sources, however, too often resorted to what A. D. Momigliano half-ironically labeled “alien wisdom,” picturing the Scythians as stereotypical “barbarians,” i.e., anti-Greeks, who did everything Greeks didn’t and vice versa.
Two of those anti-Greek things obtrude: the role played by Scythian women in war and the Scythians’ alleged manner of drinking alcohol. The Greeks’ word for the sort of courage or bravery demanded in battle was andreia, literally “manliness” or “virility”; women for them were, by definition, the unwarlike half of any population. Contrast this with the women of the Scythians—or, to take the ultimate Greek male fantasy projection of Scythian women, the mythical Amazons. (Cunliffe austerely gives them a bare mention, but they bulked very large indeed in the ancient Greeks’ imaginations and were accorded a prominent place on the Parthenon, no less.) Archaeologists can’t make up their minds just how the burials of Scythian women with weapons of war should be interpreted (it probably makes a big difference whether or not the archaeologist is female, as in the case of the pioneering German specialist Renate Rolle), but it does seem clear that the Scythians themselves would not have shrunk from crediting them with andreia.
Herodotus’s Scythian logos (discourse) is as much, if not more, about Greeks and how they saw themselves as it is objectively about how the Scythians actually were.
The “father of history” Herodotus, however, used andreia of a woman just once—of Artemisia, queen of his native Halicarnassus, whom he represents patriotically as a key advisor of the invading Persian King Xerxes the Great. I mention Herodotus—and this is one of the rare occasions on which Cunliffe’s suggestions for further reading are seriously less full than they ought to be—because he is one of our major sources on the Scythians; indeed, much of the fourth book, out of nine in all, of his Greco-Persian Wars Histories is devoted to them. Scholars have delighted in proving Herodotus either right or wrong in regard to particular details of the Scythians’ culture, e.g., their allegedly cannabis-laden royal funerals; but, as François Hartog brilliantly demonstrated four decades ago in his Mirror of Herodotus (not cited here), this is really to miss the point. Herodotus’s Scythian logos (discourse) is as much, if not more, about Greeks and how they saw themselves as it is objectively about how the Scythians actually were.
Cunliffe should also surely have mentioned the Spartan king (Cleomenes I, reigned ca. 520–490 B.C.) who Herodotus reports learned from Scythians how not to drink in the properly Greek style: that is, he learned to take his wine neat, unmixed. Whether or not Scythians were as addicted to the bottle—or rather the wine-skin—as Greeks liked to believe, an awful lot of the objects with which they preferred to be buried were indeed created for the consumption of wine. Cunliffe offers an illuminating conspectus of Scythian consumption culture in his appended “Gallery” of ten “objects,” five of which, all ceremonial, are a gold beaker, a silver beaker with gilding, a silver drinking cup with gilding, another silver cup with gilding, and a silver wine amphora.
The other five in his “Gallery” are: a cast gold comb, a gold helmet, a silver-plated gorytos (quiver), an embossed gold-plate diadem, and a gold pectoral. It is tempting, no doubt, to read the scenes depicted as representing everyday life. All or much of Scythian human life is depicted here—and death, including human sacrifice. But Cunliffe’s cautious “whether historical or mythical” is probably a more apt approach. Entering into the mind or mentality of the Scythians as regards their supernatural beliefs, for example, is a ticklish business. A further complicating factor is that some of these magnificent artworks were created by Greek, not Scythian, craftsmen.
D. H. Lawrence relished the “mysteries” of the Etruscans (another of those peoples named collectively not by themselves but by others). To an extent, it is precisely their mystery that lends the Scythians their charm and allure, and readers of a similar taste could do worse than to read Naomi Mitchison’s brilliant The Corn King and the Spring Queen, a 1931 novel of Scythia and Sparta set in the third century B.C. But more archaeologically and historically minded readers will relish Cunliffe’s Scythians precisely because it has little or no truck with such fancies—or fantasies.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 75
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