Scythians / Sacae

"Scythians" (Greek Σκύθαι) and "Sacae" (Old Persian Sakâ): two renderings of Skudat ("archers"?), the name of the nomads of the Central Asian plains.

Funeral stele of a Scythian ruler

The Central-Asian steppe has been the home of nomad tribes for centuries. Being nomads, they roamed across the plains, incidentally attacking the urbanized countries to the south, east and west.

The first to describe the life style of these tribes was a Greek researcher, Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE. Although he concentrates on the tribes living in modern Ukraine, which he calls "Scythians" (Σκύθαι), we may extrapolate his description to people in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and possibly Mongolia, even though Herodotus usually calls these eastern nomads "Sacae". In fact, just as the Scythians and the Sacae shared the same life style, they had the same name: in their own language, which belonged to the Indo-Iranian family, they called themselves Skudat , which probably means "archers". The Persians rendered this name as Sakâ and the Greeks as Skythes or Skythai. The Chinese called them, at a later stage in history, Sai.

Tribes are, almost by definition, very loose organizations. Every now and then, new tribal coalitions came into being, and sometimes, new languages became prominent among the nomads from the Central-Asian steppe.

The oldest group we know of is usually called Indo-Iranian. (The old name "Aryan" is no longer used.) There are no contemporary reports about their migration, which can only be reconstructed from later languages. It is reasonably certain that at the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the speakers of the Proto-Indo-Iranian language moved from Ukraine to the southeast. From an archaeological point of view, their migration is attested in the change from the Yamnaya culture into the Andronovo culture.

Scythian archer on an Athenian dish
Scythian archer on an Athenian dish

They invaded the country that was later called Afghanistan, where they separated into an Iranian and an Indian branch. The first group settled in Aria (a name that lives on in our word "Iran"), where they settled after 1000 BCE; the second group reached the Punjab c.1500 BCE. From the second millennium on, three groups of languages can be discerned: the Indian group (Vedic, Sanskrit...), the Scythian group (in the homeland on the steppe), and the Iranian group (Gathic, Persian...). Even when, in the sixth century, the Achaemenid Empire was at its most powerful and the Persians lived in comfortable towns, they still remembered their earlier, nomadic life style, as Herodotus points out:

The Persian nation contains a number of tribes, and the ones which Cyrus assembled and persuaded to revolt were the Pasargadae, Maraphii, and Maspii, upon which all the other tribes are dependent. Of these, the Pasargadae are the most distinguished; they contain the clan of the Achaemenids from which spring the Perseid kings. Other tribes are the Panthialaei, Derusiaei, Germanii, all of which are attached to the soil, the remainder - the Dahae, Mardi, Dropici, Sagarti - being nomadic.{{Herodotus, Histories 1.125; tr. Aubrey de Selincourt.}}

A second group of nomads known to have gone south may be the tribe of the Cimmerians. Their name Gimirru, which was given to them by the Assyrians, may mean "people traveling back and forth". The Cimmerians destroyed the kingdoms of Urartu (an old name for Armenia) and Phrygia (in Turkey) in the last quarter of the eighth century BCE. A group that Herodotus identifies as Scythians even reached Ascalon in Palestine. According to Herodotus, they ruled the northwest of Iran (which Herodotus calls Media) for twenty-eight years.

Map of the world of the Scythians
Map of the world of the Scythians

In the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the Persians discerned several nomadic tribes on the Central-Asian steppe. As we have seem, they called them Sakâ. We know the names of these tribes from Persian royal inscriptions and can add information from Herodotus and other Greek authors.

Sakâ tigrakhaudâ. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis.
Sakâ tigrakhaudâ. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis.

The steppe nomads frequently attacked the urbanized regions to the east, south or west. Usually, this created great havoc, although after some time, they went back to their homeland. It was necessary for the attacked states to defend themselves. The Indians thought that they did not need walls because they were protected by the Himalayas but still, in c.110 BCE, the valley of the Indus was run over. The Chinese built the "Wall of ten thousand miles" to protect themselves. The rulers of the Achaemenid empire, from Cyrus the Great to Alexander the Great, may have built walls as well. One of these is mentioned in the eighteenth sura of the Quran and in medieval legend, and may be identified with known archaeological remains in Golestan (Iran). Both Cyrus and Alexander built garrison towns along the river Syrdar'ya or Jaxartes; our sources call them Cyreschata and Alexandria Eschatê.

Two Tatars, one wearing a pointed cap (drawing by Joan Blaeu)

Nomadism continued to exist into the first and second millennium CE. Several tribes may be mentioned. The Alani (whose language lives on in modern Ossetian) are known from the first century CE; they lived in modern Kazakhstan. Later, they moved to the west, being pushed forward by the Huns, which are known from Chinese texts as the Xiung-nu. Later tribal formations were the Avars, the Chasars, the Bulgars, the Turks, the Magyars, the Cumans, the Tatars, the Mongols and the Cossacks.


  • J. Harmatta, "Herodotus, historian of the Cimmerians and the Scythians" in: Hérodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposés suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquité classique, tome XXV) (1990 Genève), 115-130.
  • Stephanie West, "Scythians" in: Egbert Bakker, Irene de Jong and Hans van Wees (eds.), Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002 Leiden), pages 437-456

This page was created in 1996; last modified on 1 July 2020.