The Scythian Empire


Christopher Beckwith’s The Scythian Empire represents a major challenge for archaeological understandings of what many pre- and proto-historians have been inclined to see as a merely ‘tribal’ phenomenon. His book is magisterial, presenting a wealth of crucial new readings and arguments from Akkadian, Chinese, Tibetan, Sogdian, Slavonic, Indic, and other sources, plausibly inferring the presence of what should all along have been obvious from the Herodotean account of Darius I’s failed campaign in what is now Ukraine in 513 BC. Namely, that the Achaemenids were existentially threatened by something bigger than a localised nomadic wild bunch with ostentatious horse harnesses. Darius knew that because, as Beckwith tells us ‘he refers to himself as “seed of an Ariya” – offspring of a Royal Scythian’, and the action as part of a ‘civil war’. Beckwith’s opening claim, ‘we have more good hard data for Scythian history than it seems anyone ever suspected – more than enough to show that they founded the first true empire, and the biggest one for over a millennium, which stayed united for as long as most of the later and better-known steppe empires’, finally seems fully justified.

If the book is magisterial as history, there is a necessary disappointment for archaeologists. A disclaimer and qualification here: I have co-authored with Beckwith, appear in acknowledgements, and know that archaeology fails to impress the Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University: ‘The Scythians are today almost exclusively the province of archaeology and art . . . much of the writing on them is quite negative in tone . . . and the idea that [they] actually established anything resembling an empire is beyond imagining . . . ’.

We may differ in our views on steppe slavery (a complex debate), but I particularly regret that material sequelae – settlement archaeology, isotopic, aDNA, and archaeometallurgical analyses – hardly figure, referenced in footnotes if at all. The Ulski Aul kurgan in the Koban, with its 360-horse sacrifice, goes unmentioned. Ditto, the golden pectoral from Tovsta Mogila, showing pastoral scenes from Scythian myth, commissioned from a south Etrurian goldsmith – surely one of the most truly imperial objects to survive from any place or time. And no absolute scale implications, economic or otherwise, are drawn from brief mention of the ‘huge walled city of Bel’sk’ or Herodotus’s ‘smaller trading city like it, Gelonus’. Arguably Bel’sk is Gelonus: Herodotus’s estimated area of 30km2 compares well with the actual 40km2 at Bel’sk in Poltava Oblast (a super-oppidum, but by no means a ‘city’).

That Beckwith does not justify the paucity of archaeology is the book’s main weakness. Consolations are many. Especially thrilling is the linguistic identification of three Scythian regional capitals, each called *Agamatāna: in Media (Ecbatana), Chao (modern Handan), and Ch’in (later Hsien-yang). This is a book that focuses on forms of imperial feudal hierarchy and philosophies of rulership, as historically apprehensible. Riding out the discomfort of statements like ‘The Cimmerians are archaeologically identical to the Scythians’ (Endnote 6), archaeologists should not write a word more about Scythia until they have read it.

The Scythian Empire 
By Christopher Beckwith
Princeton University Press, £35 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0691240534