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Mastering the Art of War on Horseback

Emerging from a collection of scattered pastoral steppe tribes, most notably the Cimmerians, the Scythians unified as a group of nomadic horsemen with common customs and interests about 800 BCE. They appeared for the first time in history during the 7th century BCE, when they made an invasion into the Near East, riding as far south as Palestine. They occupied part of northern Iran for some 40 years. The Scythians were primarily archers, skilled at using the powerful composite bow from horse back. The Scythians nomadic way of life also enabled them to burn and destroy all their property before giving it up to the greatest invading army of the time, that of Darius, the Persian. All this was made possible by the mobility provided by vast herds of horses. The Scythians’ wealth was counted in horses. A belief in the continuation of material life after death caused the wealthy to take quantities of horses (in one case 400) with them into the grave.

Scythian Gold, 500-400 BCE

The importance of the horse to the Scythians is evidenced by the many artifacts with a horse motif recovered from their burial mounds. Through kindred tribesmen in the Atlas Mountains, the Scythians had access to an important source of gold. While they commissioned Greek goldsmiths to make many of their more refined objects, recent archaeological finds in the Republic of Tuva seem to indicate that they were skilled goldsmiths in their own right. From it they fashioned jewelry, arms, decorations, and food and wine vessels.

Fearless Warriors

A carving on a gold comb from the Solokha tomb illustrates the Greek goldsmith’s work commissioned by the Scythians. Although it represents a fight between Scythians, the one not yet unhorsed wears a Greek helmet. The trousers, so different from the scanty or flowing garments of the civilized world of that time, are typically Scythian and designed for the rider. We may thank the horse for this item of man’s dress.