Women warriors and non-binary males are among the surprise appearances in Barry Cunliffe’s revelatory book about the nomadic people whom classical Greek writers called Skythoi. The Scythians, as they are usually known, flourished from the 700s to around 200 BC, mainly in what is now Ukraine. These Scythians had arrived by migrating westward along an east–west highway less familiar than the Silk Road but just as important for world history: the Steppe Corridor. This harsh and treeless expanse of temperate grassland reaches for nearly five thousand miles, from Manchuria to the plains of Hungary.
Cunliffe proposes a volcanic model for the predations of Scythian warrior bands, with population pressures ‘building up’ and ‘erupting from time to time’. Ancient nomads on the Steppe Corridor were pulled towards the sunset, where the pastures grew lusher. At the same time cycles of overpopulation linked to climate change in the Altai mountain region of eastern central Asia periodically pushed nomadic splinter groups westward. Classical writers assigned names, and sometimes dates, to different waves of warrior nomads entering the area north of the Black Sea. From the late eighth century BC, the Scythians started to displace earlier arrivals to the region called Cimmerians. Starting in the 300s, the Sarmatians began to challenge the Scythians, finally overwhelming them in around 200 BC. As Cunliffe shows, archaeological research has revealed many affinities between the various nomadic groups.
Animal lovers may protest that the real stars of the book are the ‘fine, long-legged’ horses of the Eurasian steppes, relations of the wild Przewalski’s horses that still roam free in Kazakhstan. Scythian horse masters bred them, rode them, milked them (‘not an easy task’) and ate them,