Front Lines

THE HISTORIES by Herodotus of Halicarnassus, fifth century BCE, is the founding work of history written by anyone not a god. Its fourth book—subtitled Melpomene, after the muse of tragedy—gives an account of the Scythians, a martial confederation of nomadic Eurasian tribes that converged around the northern coasts of the Black and Caspian Seas, with hunting or just warring grounds stretching between today’s Balkans and Siberia.

Herodotus relates that after three decades of battle, during which the Scythians vanquished Cimmeria (Crimea) and Media (northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey), the ragged, scarred army returned “home”—returned to a land, as Herodotus tells us, that had no capital. Still, upon this belated homecoming, the Scythians “found an army of no small size prepared to oppose their entrance. For the Scythian women, when they saw that time went on, and their husbands did not come back, had intermarried with their slaves.”

George Rawlinson—a nineteenth-century British historian whose translation of Herodotus remains standard, while his colonialist views have not—continues:

When therefore the children sprung from these slaves and the Scythian women grew to manhood, and understood the circumstances of their birth, they resolved to oppose the army which was returning from Media. And, first of all, they cut off a tract of country from the rest of Scythia by digging a broad dyke from the Tauric mountains to the vast lake of the Maeotis. Afterwards, when the Scythians tried to force an entrance, they marched out and engaged them. Many battles were fought, and the Scythians gained no advantage, until at last one of them thus addressed the remainder: “What are we doing, Scythians? We are fighting our slaves, diminishing our own number when we fall, and the number of those that belong to us when they fall by our hands. Take my advice—lay spear and bow aside, and let each man fetch his horsewhip, and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands, they imagine themselves our equals in birth and bravery; but let them behold us with no other weapon but the whip, and they will feel that they are our slaves, and flee before us.”

Thusly Scythia was reconquered: “The Scythians followed this counsel, and the slaves were so astounded, that they forgot to fight, and immediately ran away.”

In Enlightenment Europe, it became a popular poetic trope to refer to the “barbaric” Russians as descendants of the Scythians—a people that, according to Herodotus, slaughtered any captives it didn’t enslave and used their skulls as drinking vessels.

Three decades of post-Soviet expansion have brought tragedy to Chechnya, Moldova, and Georgia. Now Russian forces are in Ukraine—Crimea, again. Europe today should take note. Only three things ever defeated the Scythians: ethnic strife (as settlement created an oligarch class); a failing economy dependent on trading, and not always producing, a single commodity (in this case, grain); and lastly, the meddling of the Goths, those other “barbarians,” from Germany.