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doi: 10.2143/AWE.9.0.

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AWE 9 (2010) 115-135

HERODOTUS SCYTHIANS
VIEWED FROM A CENTRAL ASIAN PERSPECTIVE:
ITS HISTORICITY AND SIGNIFICANCE
HYUN JIN KIM

Abstract
The literary interpretation of Herodotus in classical scholarship has arguably abandoned the
fixation with the historical veracity of Herodotus account that characterised earlier Herodotean scholarship. The critical analyses of Detlev Fehling and Franois Hartog on the
historians Scythian logos (singled out for criticism) in different ways acted as catalysts for
this development which heralded a generation of more sophisticated critique of the text as
essentially a work of literature rather than history. Such an approach has had some positive
results, especially in identifying the various levels of literary colouring that characterise the
historians work. However, this article argues that the historical element simply cannot be
removed from its former position of centrality in literary interpretation. It calls for a greater
appreciation of the historicity of the Scythian logos by challenging the arguments through
which Hartog and Fehling triggered the movement away from history to literature. The
article shows that a more intensive application of comparative, Central Asian historical and
archaeological material in literary analysis, reveals that the logos as a whole is far more
deeply immersed in the world of steppe nomadism than is often thought possible in classical scholarship.

The Scythian logos of Herodotus with its strange and wondrous tales about the far
north has attracted much attention and critique in recent Herodotean scholarship.
In the plethora of scholarship on the logos the critical analyses of Fehling1 and Hartog2 have been particularly influential or notorious. Fehling inherited a tradition of
empirical, nearly positivistic textual analysis, which was focused primarily on proving Herodotus right or wrong. Hartogs famous work marked a movement away
from this approach to a more sophisticated appreciation of the literary and artistic
dimension of Herodotus. The historians work, through the lens of late 20th-century neo-historicism, was seen in the context of cultural history and was appreciated
as literature, not just history. Moreover, quite remarkably, despite significant differences in approach, both critics agreed that Herodotus account of the Scythians is

1
2

Fehling 1971; 1990.


Hartog 1980; 1988.

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largely, if not entirely, fictitious. Both works, therefore, in different ways contributed to the removal of the element of historicity from its former position of centrality to a peripheral role in all literary discussions on Herodotus.
This article, however, argues that historicity simply cannot be removed from
any literary interpretation of Herodotus Scythian logos. It shows that both analyses
mentioned above have serious limitations that result largely from their almost complete neglect of comparative, Central Asian historical material, a feature that is
sadly far too common in literary, theoretical interpretations of Herodotus. The
limited use of Central Asian historical or archaeological material to examine the
veracity or falsity of various portions of the Scythian logos is indeed nothing new.
However, this article, by subjecting the entirety of the Scythian logos to a more
intensive comparative analysis, shows that the logos as a whole is far more deeply
immersed in the traditions and culture of the Pontic steppe nomads than has previously been thought possible by both Fehling and Hartog and indeed classical scholarship in general.
It has often been noted that Herodotus was rather eclectic in his articulation of
the image of the Scythians and other eschatoi andron in his work, drawing different
elements from various Greek traditions and theories associated with the northern,
nomadic barbaroi, but of course not entirely depending on them either. This article
certainly does not reject the existence of literary colouring in the presentation of
Scythian nomoi and traditions in the Scythian logos. Herodotus obviously did massage or embellish the stories he had at his disposal with appropriate Greek parallels and the latest or trendiest theories about the north in order to make his account
both intelligible and interesting to his Greek audience.3 Given the extensive coverage of such phenomena in previous scholarship4 this article will focus more specifically on the issue of steppe nomadic elements which I would argue is central, allpervasive and integral to our understanding of the Scythian logos as a whole. It,
however, rejects the Prittchett line of approach that seeks to prove Herodotus correct in anyway possible.
If then it is acknowledged that Herodotus was also a literary artist as well as the
truth-teller that he claimed to be, does this then negate any possibility of attributing historical veracity to his representation of the Scythians? If there is any historical material in Herodotus, are they simply incidental to the purpose and method of
the literary artist (Herodotus)? Many critics, most notably the scholars categorised
by Pritchett as the liar school of Herodotus;5 Fehling, Hartog, West and Kimball
3
4
5

Hinge 2003, 69.


Most notably Thomas 2000, 28, 54, 6063, 68.
Pritchett 1993.

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Armayor, were of course often strongly dismissive of Herodotus claims to be telling a truthful account vis--vis the Scythians.6
Fehling in particular famously argued that Herodotus Histories is a work of fiction that is loosely based on historical facts, that his source citations in particular
are quite fictitious and should be regarded as a literary device that is designed to
conjure belief on the part of his audience. Fehling singles out the account of
Scythian origins in the beginning of Book 4 as an outstanding example of Herodotus inventing his sources.7 He asserts that what is presented by Herodotus as the
Scythian version of their own origin (4. 57) is not based on a genuine Scythian
tradition, but is rather based on Greek genealogical literature with its tendency to
present three brothers in the third generation: for example, Uranus and Cronus are
succeeded in the third generation by Zeus, Poseidon and Hades.8
However, this story and in fact virtually all other accounts regarding the Scythians in the Scythian logos, can be shown to originate from a nomadic milieu. As I
will subsequently demonstrate, these steppe elements are neither incidental nor
fictitious, but integral to the interpretation and understanding of the Scythian logos.
The ultimate steppe provenance of the story just mentioned above can be ascertained by a number of features9. First of all, we can observe that the legend attributes
success to the youngest child (the third son). Traditionally in steppe society it is the
youngest child who receives the greatest share of the family inheritance. One striking example of such a custom can be found in the foundation legend of the Mongol empire. According to the Secret History of the Mongols, it was the youngest son
of Alanqoa, Bodonchar, the direct ancestor of Genghis Khan, who became the
leader of his clan after his mothers death.10

6
Some of their criticisms are certainly valid, especially those of West and Kimball Armayor.
Wests argument (2004, 83), that Herodotus lacked first-hand information on Scythia and relied
heavily on Greek informants, is probably correct. His inaccurate descriptions of the climate of Scythia
(4. 28. 1) and the processes involved in the production of koumiss (West 1999), strongly suggest the
likelihood of this hypothesis. Mistakes abound in his discussion on the dimensions of the Pontus (4.
8586) (see Kimball Armayor 1978; Hind 2002, 4143; Hartog 1988, 228). Herodotus probably
did not visit Scythia personally, but his probable Greek sources, through which he evidently had
access to genuine Scythian traditions, were for the most part reliable, as I will demonstrate shortly.
7
Fehling 1990, 4149.
8
Fehling 1990, 45.
9
See also Kim 2009, 11213.
10
For the full version of the legend see The Secret History of the Mongols in Onon 1990, 39;
Cleaves 1982, 49. See Grousset (1948, 319) for the example of Tolui, the youngest of Genghis four
sons who became the heir to the original patrimony of Mongolia, as the l otchigin le gardien du
foyer and whose descendants eventually became the Great Khans of the empire. See also Rashid AlDin in Boyle 1971, 163.

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The fact that there are other instances in the Histories of the youngest son
obtaining the kingship over his older brothers, for example Perdiccas who gains
control of Macedonia (8. 137139) and Syloson, who being the youngest of three
brothers, eventually becomes the ruler of Samos after the murder of Polycrates (3.
39), does not weaken this argument, given that the peculiarities of this legend place
it firmly in the context of steppe traditions and customs. Herodotus reports that
Colaxais, the youngest of the three brothers, after he had obtained the kingdom,
established for his own sons three lordships, one of which, where they keep the
gold, was the greatest (4. 7. 2). The partition of the realm between the sons of the
deceased ruler, with the largest portion falling to the designated successor (usually
the youngest, though not always), is a notable feature of steppe society. The Gothic
historian Jordanes in his Getica records that upon the death of Attila the Hun his
vast empire was divided between his many sons.11 The same kind of division also
took place after the death of Genghis Khan among the Mongols12 and in the various Turkic states such as the Seljuk sultanate and the Timurid empire.13
That Heracles in the Greek version of the foundation advises the serpent woman
to send away all the sons who fail to draw his bow and put on his belt (4. 9. 5) is
also extremely interesting. It is a well-attested fact that in the steppe sons other
than the hearth-child are sent away from the family encampment.14 The importance attached to the bow and the belt is also notable. Elaborately decorated belts
were one of the items prized by the Scythian nobility as attested in the discovery of
numerous belts and buckles in royal tombs.15 More importantly a warriors excellence as an archer determined his status in steppe society. The bow, the principal
weapon of nomadic horsemen, was consequently regarded as the insignia of rank.16
Thus in steppe legends excellence with the bow is one of the distinguishing features
of a ruler. An excellent example is the legend of Bamsi Beyrek included in the
11

Mierow 1915, 125.


Rashid Al-Din in Boyle 1971, 1718.
13
See Groussets chapters (1948) on the immediate successors of Genghis Khan, the Seljuk Turks
after Malikshah, and the Timurids.
14
Lister 1969, 19. Note also that when Genghis Khan divided his empire among his sons the
eldest son prince Jochi received as his fief the territory furthest away from Mongolia, namely Russia
and the western steppe. Chaghatay the second son received central Asia and the third son Ogotai
modern Dzungaria and the land of the Naiman (i.e. western Mongolia). The age of the prince was
the factor that determined the distance of his territory from the original homeland of the Mongols,
which fell to the youngest son Tolui. Rashid Al-Din in Boyle 1971, 163.
15
Rice 1957, 144. See also Basilov (1989a, 1214) for samples of Scythian buckles found in
modern Kazakhstan. For a suggestion that the significance of the belt lies in its symbolic value in the
Indo-Iranian tradition in which it represented vassalage or dependence on a more powerful prince, see
Ivantchik 1999a, 187.
16
Rudgley 2002, 94.
12

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mediaeval Turkish epic Dede Korkut. The young prince displays prodigious skill
with the bow and manages to hit the ring worn by his principal opponent from a
great distance, which impresses all the guests at the wedding feast and confirms his
status as a notable hero.17 What this demonstrates is the fact that even the Greek
version of the Scythians origin may contain elements of steppe tradition.18
Furthermore, as Ivantchik shows, the strong Indo-Iranian elements19 in the
Scythian foundation legend buttress the view that Herodotus could not possibly
have invented it himself and that it is indeed ultimately based on local traditions.
Ivantchik notes that the element xais with which all three names of the brothers
end (Lipoxais, Arpoxais and Colaxais) are etymologically connected to the Iranian
word xsaya (king).20 He also suggests quite plausible etymologies which would connect the names Cola, Arpo and Lipo with the Iranian words for soleil, eau and
montagne.21 Indeed the names are indicative of La division du monde en trois
niveaux which is ides principales de la cosmologie indo-iranienne ce qui est
attest par plusieurs textes des Vdas et de la tradition zoroastrienne.22 The three
levels evidently correspond to the three castes mentioned in various Indian and
Iranian texts (priest, farmer and warrior).23 The presence of these and the other
abovementioned non-Greek, steppe elements in the Scythian version of their origin
suggest strongly that the ultimate source of the legend was indeed Scythian.
Fehling also lightly dismisses the third version which suggests that the Scythians
were driven out of Asia by the Massagetae and subsequently displaced the Cimmerians whom they in turn put to flight. To Fehling the very notion of a succession of peoples replacing each other constitutes a motif which is hardly appropriate
in a serious work of reliable history.24 He argues that it is the strong and the victorious who expand, not those in trouble.25 Yet striking instances of the expansion
of peoples who have been expelled from their original territory fill the pages of

17

In Lewis 1982, 79. See also Braund 2002, 7778.


See also Visintin 2000, who, like Hartog, stresses the element of alterity in the legend.
19
Vouched for by Rostovtzeff 1993, 34.
20
Ivantchik 1999a, 145. Even Fehling admits this (1990, 45).
21
Ivantchik 1999a, 14547.
22
Ivantchik 1999a, 160.
23
See Ivantchik 1999a, 16465, where he gives a detailed account of the legend of the three sons
of Zoroaster. The eldest son became the priest, the second the farmer, and the third the warrior. This
corresponds perfectly with the etymologies suggested for the names of the three sons of Targitaus, as
in Indo-Iranian cosmology the sky (soleil) is identified with the warrior caste (Colaxais, the youngest),
the earth (montagne) with the priestly caste (Lipoxais, the eldest), and the underworld (leau) with the
producers/farmers (Arpoxais, the second son) (Ivantchik 1999a, 158). See also Corcella 1993, 232.
24
Fehling 1990, 4748.
25
Fehling 1990, 48.
18

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steppe history. In ca. 170 BC the Xiongnu of eastern Mongolia defeated the IndoEuropean tribe of the Yuezhi who fled in the direction of Bactria. The Yuezhi in
turn expelled the Saka, who for their part overran the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom
founded by Alexanders successors and finally settled in eastern Iran where the
region of Sistan is now named after them.26 The successes of the Avars (driven out
by the Turks), Magyars (driven out by the Pechenegs) and the Cumans (driven out
by the Mongols) need not be mentioned to prove my point. As Grousset explains
le moindre branlement produit une des extrmits de la steppe entrainera sans
cesse les consquences les plus imprvues aux quatre coins de [Eurasie].27
The endless migration of steppe peoples from one end of the Eurasian continent
to the other became an increasingly frequent phenomenon in the centuries after
Herodotus death. However, as Herodotus himself asserts, such migrations also did
take place much earlier in centuries before the writing of the Histories. Herodotus
accurately demonstrates the destructive consequences of the upheavals in the steppe
for sedentary peoples. The victory of the Massagetae over the Scythians in Asia
(4. 11. 1),28 like that of the abovementioned Xiongnu over the Yuezhi, forces the
defeated tribe to migrate to the Pontic steppe which was then inhabited by the
Cimmerians. The Cimmerians in the face of the Scythian onslaught29 withdraw
into Asia Minor where they almost destroy the nascent kingdom of the Lydians
(1. 15). Herodotus tells us that the Cimmerians captured all of Sardis except the
citadel (1. 15) and even raided Ionia (1. 6. 3).
The Herodotean version of the repercussions of the defeat of the Cimmerians for
the nations of the Near East is also based on a historically valid tradition or traditions. According to Herodotus, the kingdom of the Medes was destroyed by the
Scythians who in pursuit of the Cimmerians took the wrong route and fell upon
the Medes who were then besieging Ninus (1. 103104).30 Scythian armies under

26

See Narain 1990, 1556 for details.


Grousset 1948, 69.
28
For archaeological evidence of the Scythian origin in Asia, see Bokoyenko 1996.
29
For archaeological evidence for the expulsion of the Cimmerians by the Scythians, see Onyshkevych 1999, 25. As Tsetskhladze (2007, 42) points out, it is difficult to differentiate Scythians
from Cimmerians and other peoples in the archaeological remains. In all probability the Scythians,
like all the great nomadic confederations in later steppe history, were ethnically heterogeneous and
probably absorbed many of the Cimmerians into their confederation in the same way that the Huns
would later absorb the Alans and the Goths, thereby compounding the archaeologists difficulty in
identifying them. For the difficulty of identifying ethnicity in archaeology, see Tsetskhladze 2006,
1xi1xii.
30
For discussion on the role of the Scythians in the destruction of the Assyrian empire, see Gardiner-Garden 1987, 11.
27

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king Madyes reached even Syrian Palestine and the Egyptian king, Psammetichus,
was forced to resort to bribery to protect his country from destruction.31
Despite some chronological problems the general accuracy of this Herodotean
account is confirmed by Assyrian historical records which show the presence of
Cimmerians and Scythians in the Near East in the time period suggested by the
historian.32 Assyrian sources report that in the year 679/8 BC the Cimmerians
made an incursion into Assyria, but were defeated by king Esarhaddon.33 Shortly
after this incident the Scythians make their first appearance in the Assyrian annals.
Esarhaddon makes the somewhat tendentious claim that he vanquished this enemy
also along with their Mannaean allies.34 He was in fact obliged to take the unprecedented step of marrying an Assyrian princess, his own daughter, to the king of
these rapacious nomads, in all likelihood Protothyes,35 the father of the famous
Madyes mentioned by Herodotus (1. 103).36 Esarhaddons inscriptions also confirm that the Scythians were actively involved in the war between the Medes and
the Assyrians, generally supporting the Assyrians, but sometimes conspiring with
the Medes37 led by a notable rebel whom I.M. Diakonoff identifies with Phraortes,
the son of Deioces.38
The rapacious and erratic behaviour of the Scythians towards the conquered
sedentary population (1. 106. 1) reported by Herodotus can also be understood in
the light of historical evidence that highlights the contempt with which the
nomads treated sedentary farmers.39 The Scythians wanton disregard of the rights
of their subjects and their capacity at the same time to utilise sophisticated, sedentary, institutional practices such as taxation (1. 106. 1)40 find numerous parallels
in the history of other Steppe empires, for example those of the Mongols and the
Timurids. Like the Scythians, the Mongols also made use of the system of taxation for administrative purposes, but, as Grousset notes, did not hesitate to pillage
their own subjects.41
31
See Vaggione 1973. See also Ivantchik (1999b, 509) for information on the Scythian raid into
Palestine and the citation of Jeremiahs allusion to the disaster from the north.
32
See Ivantchik 1999b, 50810. See also Drews 2004, 10507, who is more critical of Herodotus account. Nonetheless the essential historicity of the narrative cannot be denied.
33
Diakonoff 1985, 95.
34
Diakonoff 1985, 97.
35
Mentioned in Akkadian texts as Partatua (Ivantchik 1999b, 508).
36
Diakonoff 1985, 103.
37
Diakonoff 1985, 10406.
38
Diakonoff 1985, 106. See also Ivantchik 1999b, 517; Rolle 1989, 6972; Rice 1957, 4245;
Phillips 1965, 5255. For the most recent general work on the Cimmerians and Scythians in history
and archaeology, see Ivantchik 2001.
39
Hookham 1962, 53.
40
See Golden 1991 for examples.
41
Grousset 1948, 398.

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Even the slightly farcical tale of the Scythians battle against their slaves upon
their return may be based on a local Scythian tradition. As Rolle points out, archaeology attests that the whip, which the Scythians employ against their rebellious
slaves, was both a weapon and status symbol among the Scythians. Ancient portrayals of noble Scythians show the latterwith a Cossack-type whip (nagaica) in
their raised hands. When used skilfully the whip was an accurate and terrible
weapon, especially when used against the unprotected face of the enemy.42 History
also shows that the whip in the steppe was a weapon intimately associated with idea
of rank and status. In AD 575/6, the khan of the Western Turks, annoyed by the
dealings between the Byzantines and the Avars, his defeated enemies, told the Byzantine ambassador that the Avars were a race of runaway slaves who au seul aspect
de nos fouets,rentreront dans les entrailles de la terre!43 These features may well
be indicative of the probable Scythian rather than Greek origin44 of this particular
tale.45
As Luraghi notes,46 Fehlings observations concerning Herodotus tendency to
name the most obvious sources and his regard for party bias are essentially valid.
However, his argument that Herodotus deliberately invented his sources to deceive
his audience and add credibility to his account where none was actually due, is
perhaps excessive.47 This is by no means to suggest that all the sources and information in Herodotus are accurate or reliable, but that caution is needed before dismissing the undeniable steppe, nomadic element in the Histories brought to light
through this comparative approach.
If Fehling is too extreme in his conclusions, the same could be said of the equally
brilliant, but excessive views of the French critic Hartog who argues that Herodotus Histories are a collection of myths about the known world which the historian
himself has set in order within the context of Greek knowledge, and, in so doing,
constructed for the Greeks a representation of their own recent past.48 Thus, after
42

Rolle 1989, 74.


Grousset 1948, 228.
44
A Greek origin for the story can also be asserted. For instance the myth of the rebellion of halfbreed slaves, the Partheniai, against their Spartan masters is recorded in Aristotles Politics (1306b.30).
See also Herodotus 6. 83 where the slaves of the Argives temporarily take over the government of the
city after an Argive defeat at the hands of Sparta that left the city bereft of men.
45
Chernenko (1994, 51, citing Moruzhenko) thinks that the gold head decoration, depicting a
battle scene between two old Scythians and four young warriors, found in Perederieva Mogila, Zrubnoye is visual evidence for this legend found in Herodotus.
46
Luraghi 2001, 140. See also Hornblower 2002.
47
See Fowler 1996.
48
Hartog 1988, xxiii.
43

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dismissing the use of archaeological, historical, anthropological and all other external evidence as unhelpful,49 he declares that the Scythians of Herodotus should be
regarded simply as a signifier,50 symbolic of what the Greeks are not, a product of
the imaginary representation of the other.51 Consequently to Hartog the
Scythian logos is a discourse on the imaginary Scythians.52 He adds that the principle of inversion,53 for example the inversion between Hellenic nomoi and the
nomoi of non-Greeks and the inversion between the north and south of the oikoumene, should be used to understand Scythian nomoi. Details of Scythian customs
that do not fit the criteria of inversion are, he claims, meaningless.54
Hartog, furthermore, insists that Herodotus presentation of the Scythians as a
nomad power has no bearing on historical reality. He argues that the Scythians are
given kings and centralised rule simply because all other barbaroi are governed by
kings and that in order to categorise the Scythians among the barbaroi Herodotus,
due to narrative constraint, has envisaged the unthinkable. For, he asserts, the
existence of a power is a denial of nomadism.55 He also suggests that Herodotus
account of Darius campaign against the Scythians is largely if not entirely fictitious. He insists that narrative constraint leads Herodotus to compromise historical
veracity when describing the tactics used by the opposing armies in the conflict.
The Scythians, so he claims, are turned into Athenians of a kind,56 while their
adversaries the Persians, somewhat paradoxically, become quasi-hoplites,57 so that
through their adoption of traditional Greek strategy the otherness of Scythian tactics may be more clearly demonstrated.58 Such is the rigidity of his application of
modern, post-structuralist neo-historicism that Hartog even contemplates whether
the strategy employed by the Scythians reflects the somewhat unconventional strategy adopted by Pericles in the opening phases of the Peloponnesian War.59
However, as clearly demonstrated thus far, Herodotus portrayal of the early
history of the Scythians is on the whole, in the light of modern archaeology and
the subsequent history of the steppe, plausible and certainly not entirely fictitious.
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59

Hartog
Hartog
Hartog
Hartog
Hartog
Hartog
Hartog
Hartog
Hartog
Hartog
Hartog

1988,
1988,
1988,
1988,
1988,
1988,
1988,
1988,
1988,
1988,
1988,

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36.
8.
xxiii.
378.
214.
216.
201.
36.
44.
49.
20203. See also Payen 1997, 304, 34748.

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Hartogs rather hasty assumption that the existence of power is a denial of nomadism60 exposes the inadequacy of his approach, as he fails to appreciate the value of
comparative history that reveals the dynamic potential of nomadic peoples and
their polities. In the 13th and the 14th centuries, at the height of Mongol rule,61
no one in Eurasia would have suggested that nomads cannot constitute a power.
What is more, it would be difficult indeed for anyone to deny that the Huns who
invaded Gaul under Attila were a formidable power. Neither would any Greek in
the time of Herodotus or Herodotus himself for that matter have considered the
Scythians, who one knew to have possessed the capacity to defeat the Great King
Darius, incapable of power.62
Hartogs comment that a nomad power is something inconceivable: if it is a
power, it can not be nomad63 stems in fact from the mistaken presupposition that
nomadism renders all development and centralisation of authority impossible. Yet
Herodotus himself had no such presuppositions. He in fact speaks of a nomarch in
each province of the Scythian kingdom (4. 66). In 4. 62. 1 he also mentions the
nomes. This is all the more important in that the same word is used to denote
administrative units of Egypt and Persia.64 To Hartog this is simply an example of
Herodotus observing the principle of symmetry between Egypt and Scythia and
explaining Scythian practices in Egyptian terms. However, the level of administrative sophistication achieved by the Xiongnu65 in Mongolia and Turkestan, whose
empire co-existed with that of the Scythians, should radically alter ones interpretation of Herodotus account of Scythian administrative organisation.66
The Xiongnu managed to achieve an astonishing degree of centralisation. Their
society was characterised by an elaborate and complex hierarchy, which is outlined
in detail by the 1st-century BC Han Chinese historian Sima Qian.67 This account
tells us that the Xiongnu administrative hierarchy had three levels. The supreme
power rested in the hands of the Shanyu/Chanyu (emperor, originally pronounced
dargwa68) who was assisted in his duties by the Ku-tu marquises who ran the cen60

Hartog 1988, 201.


Marshall 1993, 13637.
62
See Thucydides 2. 97. 6 for a Classical Greek assessment of the military capacity of the
Scythians.
63
Hartog 1988, 202.
64
Hartog 1988, 19.
65
Sogdian contemporary writing seems to suggest that the Xiongnu (Chinese transliteration of
their name) were called Huns by their enemies. Their connection with the European Huns is uncertain, but possible (see de la Vassire 2005; Torday 1997, 172; Kim 2009, 11415).
66
See Torday 1997, 88. For a later example of state formation, social hierarchy and administration of the Turkish Khaganate, see Golden 1982, 5052.
67
Shiji 110: 9b-10b in Watson 1961, vol. 2, 16263.
68
Pulleyblank 2000, 64, also the origin of the Turkic title Tarkhan and the Mongol Daruga.
61

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tral imperial government and co-ordinated the affairs of the empire. At the next
level the 24 imperial leaders (each titled Ten Thousand Horsemen) acted as imperial governors for the major provinces of the empire and were usually close relatives
of the Shanyu or members of the Xiongnu aristocracy.69 The successor to the throne
was usually appointed the Wise king of the Left, i.e the ruler of the eastern half of
the empire.
At the bottom of the administrative hierarchy was a large class of subordinate or
vassal tribal leaders (sub-kings, prime ministers, chief commandants, household
administrators etc.) who were under the command of the 24 imperial governors,
but enjoyed a level of local autonomy70 A non-decimal system of ranks was used for
the political administration of tribes and territory within the empire which included
groups of many different sizes.71 However, a more rigid system of decimal ranks
(thousands, hundreds, tens) was used in times of war when large armies were
formed from troops drawn from different parts of the steppe under a single command structure.72
It is highly probable that Herodotus was in fact referring to a similar organisation among the Scythians.73 The nomarchs are likely to have been division commanders of the kind found among the Xiongnu. The Scythian legend of their origin which divides their nation into three parts (4. 7) may also reflect a similar
tripartite division of power among the leading tribes which characterised the
Xiongnu form of government.74 The Scythians of Herodotus, therefore, probably
possessed a politically organised state and sehr festen herrschaftlichen Institutionen75 and comparative, historical evidence once again allows us to cross-examine
the validity of Herodotus account.
At the pinnacle of the Scythian political structure was the king whose power,
contrary to what Hartog believes, was in all probability very real and certainly not
a mere product of narrative constraint which imposes the need to assign a king to

69
Kollautz and Miyakawa 1970, 44 though it is also clear that some former rulers of conquered
peoples were allowed to remain kings/chiefs as well under appropriate Xiongnu overlordship and
over-kings.
70
Barfield 1981, 4849.
71
Kollautz and Miyakawa 1970, 44.
72
Grousset 1948, 54; Barfield 1981, 49.
73
See Pulleyblank 2000, 53, for the possible Scythian impact on early Xiongnu culture.
74
Khazanov 1984, 178. The Xiongnu would develop three aristocratic clans linked via family/
marriage ties to the Shanyu: the Huyan, Lan and Xubu, which formed the ruling, upper stratum of
Xiongu society (see also Pulleyblank 2000, 68). The three aristocratic clans corresponded to the three
principal divisions of the empire, probably like those of the Scythians mentioned in Herodotus. These
ruling clans, along with the royal family led separate subdivisions of nomads.
75
Bichler 2000, 97.

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every non-Greek power.76 Among the Xiongnu, to use once again the same analogy, the political power wielded by the Shanyu was truly formidable. Chinese
sources report that Maodun, the Shanyu, could boast of having subjugated 26
states and reduced them to obedience as a part of the Xiongnu nation.77 In war the
Shanyu could reputedly mobilise an army of 140,000 men from among his subjects.78
Herodotus portrays the Scythian king in a similar way. As the head of the socalled Royal Scythians who held supremacy over all other groups of Scythians the
king, like the Shanyu, was the military leader in times of war, as is demonstrated
by Idanthyrsus direction of the war against the Persians. In times of peace the king
was also apparently the distributor of justice and presided over duels between relatives (4. 65. 2). Furthermore, the taking of the census by king Ariantes (4. 81) and
the punishment he used to enforce his decree (4. 81. 5) reveal the existence of royal
power which turned Scythia into a real state with eine bedeutende integrative
Kraft.79
The king was also evidently a semi-divine figure. The episode in 4. 68 demonstrates this fact. Herodotus informs us that the Scythians regarded the illness of
their king as the direct result of perjury through swearing by the royal hearths80 by
one of his subjects. Perjury is thus a form of regicide.81 This notion of the almost
mystical connection between the king and his people was evidently linked to the
cult and deification of royal power82 among the Scythians which in archaeology is
well illustrated by the toreuticand the cult-symbols depicted on it, whose spread
over the country was wide.83 The story also provides interesting insights into
Scythian judicial procedure and the importance of diviners or shamans in nomadic
societies. Shamans, as V.N. Basilov notes, served as intermediaries between humans
and spirits (deities),84 and their basic functions included healing diseases,85 hence
their involvement in identifying the perjurer responsible for the kings illness.
Furthermore, Herodotus assertion that certain Scythians had become settled is
confirmed by archaeology.86 Herodotus relates that the Budinians who are part
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86

Hartog 1988, 200.


Y 1990, 123.
Y 1990, 124.
Bichler 2000, 90.
Hartog 1988, 119.
Hartog 1988, 125.
Melyukova 1990, 106.
Sulimirski 1990, 154.
Basilov and Zhukovskaya 1989, 161.
Basilov and Zhukovskaya 1989, 161.
Archibald 2002, 56.

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Greek and part Scythian had established a town called Gelonus (4. 108. 1) which
was later burned down by Darius (4. 123. 1). According to Rolle, archaeologists
have discovered more than a hundred fortified settlements in the forest steppe
region87 which closely resemble the wooden town described by Herodotus. Some
scholars even believe that they have found in the large ancient settlement of Belsk
the town of Gelonus.88 There is evidence of craft industry, agriculture and even
horticultural activity in this town.89
Therefore, given all this evidence, Hartogs assertion that the Scythians of Herodotus are merely imaginary and do not reflect the historical Scythians seems
unfounded. In fact especially so when we turn our attention to the Scythian nomoi
which Hartog, erroneously, views simply as the polar opposites of Greek customs,
literary creations, the sole purpose of which is to provide the means of interpreting
otherness. Otherness is certainly a factor, but contrary to what Hartog asserts it is
impossible to explain the Scythian customs in Herodotus by simply resorting to an
absent Greek model for each and every one of them. In fact even Hartog is forced
to admit that the rhetorical figure of inversion is certainly too narrow to account
for many of the Scythian nomoi.90 I would argue that it accounts for very little.
Hartog dismisses all the features that do not fit into the inversion91 as either
meaningless or as inventions designed to conjure belief by their very otherness.92
However, most of these meaningless details and customs can be shown to be
based on historical facts, not make-believe. For instance many of the strange and
gruesome features of the burial nomoi of the Scythians recounted in great detail by
Herodotus are confirmed by modern archaeology and anthropology. Herodotus
relates that the corpses of Scythians other than the king are carried about for 40
days and then buried (4. 73. 1). As Rolle points out, this custom was evidently
connected with the belief that after 40 days the soul leaves the body, which is
typically Indo-European. In fact the belief was so fundamental that it persisted
until modern times in eastern European Christianity.93
The huge burial mounds of the Scythian kings mentioned by Herodotus (4. 71.
4) still remain in the steppes of the Ukraine, as a lasting memorial to the power of
these nomadic potentates. Archaeology also provides abundant evidence for the
87
88
89
90
91
92
93

Rolle 1989, 117.


Rolle 1989, 119.
Rolle 1989, 119. See also Tsetskhladze 2007, 48.
Hartog 1988, 215.
Hartog 1988, 216.
Hartog 1988, 216.
Rolle 1989, 27.

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grisly human sacrifices conducted in honour of the dead monarch noted by Herodotus (4. 7172). Excavators have discovered in kurgans sacrificed victims, both male
and female, buried together with the dead king.94 In one particularly well-known
royal grave from around 400 BC excavated in Chertomlyk the wife, several serfs and
a groom95 were found together with the dead monarch, which of course reminds us
of Herodotus comment that one concubine, groom and other attendants of the
Scythian king were throttled to death to accompany their master (4. 71. 4).
Furthermore, the sacrifice of horses, which accompanied the offering of human
victims, is confirmed by the presence of horse skeletons in Scythian tombs. In one
Scythian tomb located in Pazyryk over 150 horse remains have been found together
with the corpses of 15 human victims.96 In addition the mutilation of the flesh,
which characterises the ritual mourning for the dead king among the Scythians (4.
71. 2), is a custom that is widespread among the nomads of Eurasia. Jordanes
reports that the Huns who superseded the Scythians and Sarmatians as the masters
of the western steppe, upon the death of Attila, plucked out the hair of their heads
and made their faces hideous with deep wounds, that the renowned warrior might
be mourned, not by effeminate wailings and tears, but by the blood of men.97 The
resemblance between the two set of customs is obvious for all to see.98
Herodotus also records that when the Scythians enter into a sworn agreement
they take blood from the parties to the agreement by making a little cut in the
body with an awl or a knife, and pour it mixed with wine into a big earthenware
bowl, into which they then dip a scimitar and arrows and an axe and a javelin.
When this is done, those swearing the agreement, and the most valued members of
their retinue, drink the blood after solemn curses (4. 70). Depictions on excavated
gold plaques from the Scythian era show that such a custom did indeed exist and
was linked to the custom of blood-brotherhood.99
Herodotus information on the Scythians inhaling the smoke and fumes emitted by
burning cannabis seeds (4. 75. 1), which he evidently regarded as a form of vapour
bath, has also been proved accurate. As Rudenko and Rolle points out, whole sets
of hemp-inhaling equipment were found in the frozen tombs100 of the Scythians of
94

Rolle 1989, 2931.


Sulimirski 1990, 194.
96
See Rudenko 1970, 25; also Rolle 1989, 43. For further references on Scythian burial customs,
see Corcella 1993, 290.
97
Mierow 1915, 123. For further information on the Huns, see Maenchen-Helfen 1973.
98
Kim 2009, 11415.
99
Rolle 1989, 6162.
100
Rudenko 1970, 62, 284; Rolle 1989, 94.
95

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the Altai. Herodotus, who probably had never smoked pot, naively attributes the
howls of joy of the Scythians to their enjoyment of the vapour bath.
Even the somewhat unbelievable story of the Scythians chasing after a hare
rather than engaging the exasperated Persians (4. 134. 1) may be based on a local
tradition. Indeed pictorial representations on the gold plaques excavated from
Scythian royal tombs suggest that a Scythian national sport of particular interest
was the spearing of hares from horseback.101 King Scyles bizarre marriage to his
fathers widow (4. 78) also concurs with the steppe practice noted by the Chinese
in their dealings with the Xiongnu and Wusun,102 whereby the son inherits his
fathers wives with the exception of his own birth mother.
It is also interesting to note that the ultimatum sent by the Scythians to Darius
(4. 131132) has a good claim to historicity.103 The Scythians send Darius a bird,
a mouse, a frog and five arrows as symbols warning of the imminent destruction of
his army. A similar ultimatum, West demonstrates, was sent in historical times by
Toktai, the khan of the Golden Horde, to his all too powerful vassal Nogai. Toktai
sent as a declaration of war a hoe, an arrow and a handful of earth, which Nogai
interpreted thus: If you hide in the earth, I will dig you out. If you rise to the
heavens, I will shoot you down. Choose a battlefield.104 In fact this method of
communication between enemies was extremely common among the nomads of
the steppe. For example in 1510 Muhammad Shaybani, the khan of the Uzbeks,
sent to Shah Ismail of Persia a dervishs begging bowl as an insult designed to poke
fun at the fact that the Shahs ancestors were dervishes and at the same time a
threat demanding the surrender of all temporal powers to the legitimate ruler of
the world, that is himself, the descendent of Genghis Khan.105
One other aspect of the Scythian logos still needs to be discussed, namely the
military tactics of the Scythians. The strategic withdrawals and harrying tactics
employed by the Scythians of Herodotus in their war against the Persians reflect
the mode of warfare used by every nomadic army against a numerically superior
sedentary foe. As Sinor comments, the Scythians brought virtually to perfection a
method of warfare which, for almost two thousand years, held its own against other
military systems, without undergoing significant improvements.106 In fact Scythian
tactics were still being used with success in the 15th century by the nomadic Oirats

101
102
103
104
105
106

Rolle 1989, 98.


Rudenko 1970, 211.
West 1988, 211.
West 1988, 208.
Grousset 1948, 561.
Sinor 1990a, 13.

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whose Taishi (prince) Esen, like the Scythian Idanthyrsus before him, inflicted a
terrible defeat upon a sedentary emperor by luring his enemy deep into nomad territory and then destroying his army piecemeal through harrying tactics.107
Herodotus astutely notes that the Scythians dependence upon cattle for food rather
than on cultivated land (4. 46. 3) allowed them to successfully implement these
tactics. The excellent quality of the horses of the steppe108 was another decisive factor in determining the outcome of the almost incessant conflict between the nomads
of the steppe and their sedentary enemies. Herodotus comment that the Scythian
horse always routed the Persian horse and the Persian cavalry would fall back in
flight on their infantry (4. 128. 3), suggests that he was probably aware of this
fact.
Herodotus even regards nomadism, which made these tactics feasible, not simply as a way of life, but a strategy which imposes a way of life109 (4. 46). Hartog
regards this conception of nomadism as a strategy as the natural consequence of
Herodotus attempt to turn the Scythians into quasi-Athenians. As noted earlier,
the Scythian war is in Hartogs view a largely fictitious story that is designed to
mirror the greater conflict between the Greeks and Persians. Thus the strategy
employed by the Scythians is also regarded by him as merely a reflection of the
strategy adopted by the Athenians in the war against Xerxes or possibly of Periclean
strategy of the Peloponnesian War.
However, as I have already demonstrated, the distinguishing features of the
Scythians war against Darius, their strategic withdrawals and harrying tactics, are
those that one would expect to find in a war involving a nomadic power. The
strategy of Idanthyrsus has far more in common with those of the Xiongnu and the
Mongols than with any improvised strategy on the part of the Greeks.110 It is fair
to say that it is native to the steppe.111 The two conflicts, as they are presented by
Herodotus, could not be more different. The Scytho-Persian war ends without a
single pitched battle being fought. The issue of the Graeco-Persian war, however,
in complete contrast is determined by decisive battles. What is more, the Scythians

107

For a more detailed account of the conflict between Esen and the Chinese emperor (who,
unlike Darius, failed to escape and was held in captivity for some years), see Rossabi 1998, 23334.
108
Sinor 1990a, 8.
109
Hartog 1988, 202.
110
Pritchett (1993, 200) makes reference to the fact that the historians of Alexander provide
descriptions of Scythians tactics that parallel the descriptions given by Herodotus.
111
There are certainly narrative parallels between the Scythian war and the Graeco-Persian war
and a degree of invention on the part of Herodotus is entirely conceivable. See Bichler 2000, 295;
Bornitz 1968, 12527. However, steppe elements are also clearly present in the account.

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are tenacious in their pursuit of the defeated enemy, as befits a nomadic army.112
The Greeks in contrast are only too glad to see Xerxes withdrawing to Persia with
the bulk of his army and do not try to deter his return. Whether the Scythian war
actually did involve a march across enormous distances, as Herodotus suggests, is
another question altogether and is really unknowable.113
Thus Herodotus or his sources evidently did possess a greater understanding of
steppe society and its military practices than modern critics such as Hartog give
him credit for. The oddities and extremes that he mentions in his account of
Scythian life and history are mostly historical realities, not make-believe. Indeed
Hartogs attempt to turn the Scythians with the quasi-Athenians and his near complete neglect of the historical element in the Scythian logos produce some awkward
discrepancies and irregularities. For instance there is a great deal of confusion as to
who exactly constitutes the quasi-hoplites (i.e. the Athenians).
For Hartog the Scythians are the quasi-Athenians fighting against a despotic
power, namely Persia. Yet in Scythia the Persian army, which should logically be
the anti-hoplite force, more closely resembles the conventional Greek hoplite army
than the defenders, the nomadic Scythians. Hartog himself is forced to admit this
very fact. He notes that the army of Darius appears as a quasi-Greek army114 in
Scythia, since it includes the infantry that the Scythians, being a purely cavalry
force, lack. Therefore, we are left with a paradoxical picture in which the quasiAthenians are found waging war in a manner that is more similar to the mode of
warfare of the aggressor, the Persians.
As Hinge suggests, in the case of the Scythians at least, the analogies and patterns
that arise occasionally between Greeks and Scythians are not necessarily due to the
interpolation of Greek categories into a Scythian context. They are rather the
result of the formulation of Scythian customs and beliefs in a Greek discourse;115
i.e. they should rather be regarded as indicators of Herodotus attempt to Hellenise
the Scythians to the extent that their behaviour and history would become intelligible to a Greek audience.

112
The tenacious pursuit of the Scythians find parallels in the famous pursuits of the Mongols of
their defeated foes. The pursuit of the Khwarezm Shah by the generals Jebe and Subotai Bahadur is
particularly noteworthy. See Grousset 1944, 34046 and Jackson 2009, 31.
113
As Lateiner (1989, 156) points out Herodotus geography of Eastern Europe is hopelessly
confused and the details of the narrative of the war itself is likewise difficult to explain or even to
justify. This may well reflect his lack of first-hand knowledge of the region.
114
Hartog 1988, 46.
115
Hinge 2003, 69.

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The uniquely Scythian elements in the account of the Scythian war and the
description of Scythian customs show that Herodotus understands and appreciates
the distinctive features of Scythian society and are a telling proof that he does not
try to make unnecessary analogies or create non-existent polarities. They also indicate clearly that genuine steppe customs and traditions are central to his overall
representation of the Scythians in the Scythian logos. However, this by no means
suggests that there is no validity in the doubts raised by a number of critics concerning Herodotus accuracy nor is it a denial of the reality of the limited application of both past and contemporary Greek theoretical constructs on the Scythians
in the Histories by Herodotus.
Most of the steppe customs and historical details that we have presented in this article would be known to scholars engaged in the research of Central Asian history and
nomad customs. He or she would be highly amused and perplexed by the fact that
anyone could possibly consider them to be make-believe. Yet this is exactly what is
asserted by arguably the two most prominent Herodotean scholars of the past five
decades! Such an embarrassing situation arises, as has been shown throughout this
article, from the tendency in current literary scholarship on the Scythian logos to
largely neglect or treat as peripheral non-Greek and non-European historical and
comparative material even when analysing the account of a people beyond this geographical or conceptual boundary. Hartog and Fehling, though approaching the text
from radically different perspectives, nonetheless arrive at the same erroneous conclusions precisely because neither a solely text-based, empirical analysis as in the case
of Fehling or a strictly theoretical and literary interpretation (Hartog), though both
are valuable in their own right and have contributed to the development of Herodotean scholarship, can adequately grasp the full breadth of Herodotean inquiry.
Fixation with the truth had clouded earlier scholarship on Herodotus and Hartogs innovative, neo-historicist analysis marked a fresh break away from this cycle.
However, his approach fails in the sense that it creates a too rigid a barrier between
history and literature (extremely odd) and restricts the Histories to an arguably
post-structuralist, European, cultural framework. In short a more balanced approach
that is more comprehensive, interdisciplinary and comparative must be adopted in
the future literary interpretation of Herodotus.

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