The broad term used by Greeks and Romans to characterize the lands to their north and east, roughly from the Danube to the Don, Caucasus, and Volga. Typically, classical writers present Scythia as a chill wilderness, an ‘otherness’ of savages and uncivilized practices (from blinding, scalping, and flaying through tattooing to the drinking of wine unmixed with water). Scythians and Scythian customs were a favourite literary theme from Herodotus onwards. The historicity of such accounts is uncertain, but their ideological function has been established beyond doubt. Classical writers were esp. interested in Scythian nomadism, uncivilized but attractive in its primitive simplicity (see barbarian). So, Scythia might be imagined as a source of ignorance: e.g. the uncivilized Scythian archer‐police‐slaves of 5th‐cent. Athens as mocked by Aristophanes. But it can also be a source of wisdom, as personified by the legendary figure of the wise Scythian prince Anacharsis.
In the early 7th cent., acc. to Herodotus, Scythians forced the Cimmerians southwards across the Black (Euxine) Sea and themselves campaigned deep through the near east. From c.600 the arrival of Greek settlers and traders on the north coast of the Black Sea brought Scythians into close contact with a new cultural influence. In 513 Darius I launched an unsuccessful Scythian expedition (see miltiades). The first fortified city appeared in Scythia on the steppes of the lower Dnieper c.400. Through the 4th cent. Scythia was at the height of its prosperity, esp. under King Atheas, who established his authority as far as the Danube, only to be killed by Philip II. In 331 the Scythians were still strong enough to defeat the large army of Alexander (2) the Great's general Zopyrion. But, disunited, they were conquered in turn by a new force from the east, the Sauromatians (see sarmatians).
Subjects: Classical Studies.