How Did the Scythians Influence the Achaemenid Empire

Scythian/Saka Warrior from the Tomb of Xerxes.

The Scythians are one of the most overlooked and least understood of all the ancient Near Eastern peoples, which partly due to the nature of their culture. Much like other peoples of the steppes who came after them, the Scythians were warrior nomads who were known throughout the civilized world for their archery and horsemen skills.

Because of those skills, the Scythians were often in demand as mercenaries by various kingdoms and therefore sometimes played a major role in the course of history. From China in the east to Greece in the west, Scythian hordes quickly brought waves of destruction to countless cities and just as quickly returned to the steppes. Historical records from the ancient Near East show that the Assyrians, Medes, and Egyptians all had dealings with the Scythians, but the Achaemenid Persians were probably affected the most by the Scythians.

Early in the history of the Achaemenid Empire, rulers such as Darius I (ruled 522-486 BC) and Xerxes (reigned 486-465 BC) continually fought and attempted to subjugate the Scythians, or “Saka” as they called them, in order to incorporate them into their vast empire. Although the early Achaemenid kings were only nominally successful in their attempts to conquer the Scythians, by the second half of the fourth century BC the Scythians/Saka were more sedentary and a part of the Achaemenid Empire. Finally, by the rule of Darius III (ruled 336-330 BC) the Scythians played a major role defending the Achaemenid Empire from Alexander the Great and his Macedonian-Greek army.

Scythian History and Culture

Bridles, bits, and Other Equipment Used by Scythian Horsemen.

The Scythians’ as an ethnic group were born on the steppes and at their height inhabited an area that stretched from the western part of European Russia to China. [1] The vast area that the Scythians inhabited brought them into contact with people of varying ethnic backgrounds, through trade and warfare. Because of that, the Scythians were a mixed group by the time of the Achaemenid Empire, but their origins can be traced through their language.

Like the Persians, the Scythians spoke a language that was of the Iranic branch of the Indo-European language family. In fact, the Scythians’ language was very close to the Avestan language the Persian emperors spoke and the language that was used to compile the Zoroastrian religious books in later centuries. [2] Despite their Indo-European background and early ethnic affinity with the Persians, the Scythians maintained a nomadic existence while the Persians became sedentary, resulting in the two groups diverging quite a bit. Although the Persians preserved many of their cultural traditions, namely their religion and language, they also adopted many ideas and mores from their Near Eastern neighbors. The Scythians continued to be nomads of the steppes, but split into a number of autonomous tribes and mixed considerably with other peoples in central and east Asia. [3]

What made the Scythians unique and successful as a people was their ability to combine their prowess as horsemen and warriors. More than 2,000 years before Genghis Khan swept across the steppes, the Scythians invented many of the tactics that would make the Mongol conqueror famous and feared. Among the many archaeological discoveries found in Scythian tombs in Ukraine were some of the world’s oldest horse bits, which allowed the Scythians to control their horses better. [4] The Scythians could ride for days and once they arrived at a battle they rarely left their horses.

The Scythians’ primary weapon was a double-curved, composite bow made of horn and strung with sinews, which they began using by at least 1,000 BC. [5] Based on pictorial reliefs from Assyria, it is believed that the Scythians shot their bows from horseback, much like the Parthians did centuries later. [6] Of course the Scythians did not always fight on horseback. Although the Scythians dwelled primarily on level ground, their invasions sometimes brought them to lands that were not as conducive to horseback fighting and one does not necessarily stay on horseback during a battle. In those cases, the Scythians would use a two and a half foot sword to dispatch their enemies. [7]

The Scythians and Their Near Eastern Neighbors

Modern Drawing of Two Scythian Warriors.

By the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the Scythians established a legitimate empire that encompassed much of what is today Iran. According to the Greek sources, the Scythian empire was established by Madyes, the son of Protothyes, and although it was ephemeral, only lasting twenty-eight years, it deeply influenced the history of the Near East in the early first millennium BC. [8]

According to the fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, the Scythians fought the Egyptians and then allied with the Assyrians against the Medes and Neo-Babylonians. [9] The Scythians were on the wrong side, though, as the Assyrians were vanquished and most of their empire went to the Neo-Babylonians, while the Medes took control of Iran. Many of the Scythians returned to their semi-nomadic existence, but some were allowed to stay on as mercenaries in the Medes’ army. [10] The Scythians who decided to stay and serve the Medes did not have to wait long for another group to come to power in Iran, while those who left joined other Scythians on the northern steppes to bring chaos to the marches of civilization.

The Scythians and the Achaemenid Persians

Map of the Achaemenid Empire Showing the Scythians the “Saka Beyond the Sea.”

By the time the Achaemenid Persians defeated the Medes for control of Iran and then conquered the rest of the Near East in the sixth century BC, the Scythians, or the “Saka” as the Persians knew them, played an important role in the history of the region. After the Achaemenid Persians began having problems with the Greeks, but before the Greco-Persian Wars officially started, Darius I led an army into Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Black Sea region in 503 BC. The Persian campaign primarily took place around the mouth of the Danube River at the Black Sea and was probably intended to cut Greek supply lines to and from that region.

The Persian fleet was left at the mouth of the Danube, with Darius leading his army on foot, which indicates it was probably not far reaching in its objectives. [11] The Greeks, though, were not the problem the Persians encountered. According to Herodotus, the Scythians continually harassed the Persians and defeated them when they would engage in open battle:

“On every occasion the Scythian cavalry proved superior to the Persian, which would give ground and fall back on the infantry for support; this checked the attack, for the Scythians knew the Persian infantry would be too much for them, and regularly turned tail after driving in the cavalry. Similar raids were made at night.” [12]

Although Herodotus wrote that Darius gave up and pulled his army out of the region, a multi-lingual cuneiform inscription from Behistun states that Darius conquered the Saka. Although no date is given, it either refers to the same expedition or a follow up that Herodotus failed to mention. It states:

“Saith Darius the King: Afterwards with an army I went to Scythia, after the Scythians were wear the pointed cap. These Scythians went from me. When I arrived at the sea, beyond it then with all my army I crossed. Afterwards, I smote the Scythians exceedingly; another (leader) I took captive; this one was led bound to me, and I slew him. The chief of them, by name Skunkha – him they seized and led to me. Then I made another their chief, as was my desire. After that, the province became mine.” [13]

From that point on, the Saka were usually depicted in texts and inscriptions as a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire, bringing tribute to Darius I and Xerxes I. As was often the case in the ancient world, the Scythians were pushed out of their territory by a larger and more vigorous tribe, the Sarmatians. The Western Scythians then went south and joined the Achaemenid Empire in its fight against Alexander the Great. [14] The Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, in what is today norther Iraq, proved to be a turning point in world history – it was the Darius III’s and the Persians’ last chance to stop Alexander and the Macedonians. According to the second century AD Greek historian, Arrian, the Saka fought valiantly for the Persians.

“Meanwhile towards the right until he was almost clear of the area which the Persians had levelled during the previous days. . . A counter-attack by the Scythian cavalry and their supporting Bactrians drove them back by weight of numbers, whereupon Alexander sent in against the Scythians Ariston’s Paeonian contingent and the mercenaries. . . A close cavalry action ensue, in which the Macedonians suffered the more severely, outnumbered as they were and less adequately provided with defensive armour than the Scythians were – both horses and men. None the less the Macedonians held their attacks, and by repeated counter-charges, squadron by squadron, succeeded in breaking the enemy formation.” [15]

After the battle, the Saka knew that the Achaemenid Empire was finished so they agreed to all of Alexander’s terms. They would then fight for the Macedonians as they had for the Persians.


The Scythians or Saka were warrior horsemen from the steppes of what is today Russia. They lived on the edges of civilization for centuries before finally entering the historical record in the early first millennium BC, impacting the fate of several ancient Near Eastern kingdom. The kingdom they influenced the most, though, was the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Scythians were a thorn in the side of the Persians early in Darius I’s reign, but they were eventually incorporated into the empire as horseback warriors. Although the Scythians helped defend the Achaemenid Empire from Alexander the Great, they realized that it was a lost cause and so came to terms with the new Hellenistic world.


  1. Rice, Tamara Talbot. The Scythians. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1957), p. 33
  2. Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 51
  3. Rice, p. 39
  4. Anthony, pgs. 215-20
  5. Antony, p. 223
  6. Yamauchi, Edwin. “The Scythians: Invading Hordes from the Russian Steppes.” Biblical Archaeologist 46 (1983) p. 94
  7. Rice, p. 57
  8. Phillips, E. D. “The Scythian Domination in Western Asia: Its Record in History, Scripture and Archaeology.” World Archaeology 4 (1972) p. 94
  9. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 2003), Book I, 103-6
  10. Rice, p. 45
  11. Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbraums, 2002), p. 33
  12. Herodotus, Book IV, 129
  13. Kent, Roland G. Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon. Second Edition. (New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1953), p. 134
  14. Rice, p. 49
  15. Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 1971), Book III, 13-14