The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China by Christopher I Beckwith - review by Paul Cartledge

Paul Cartledge

The First Imperialists?

The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China


Princeton University Press 416pp £35 order from our bookshop

Few authors, academic or otherwise, come bedecked with as many glittering prizes as does Christopher Beckwith, distinguished professor in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. He took his PhD in Inner Asian studies in Indiana’s Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies as long ago as 1977. This means that Beckwith comes at the people or peoples we call the Scythians from a decidedly Eastern standpoint, in contrast to, say, the more Western-focused Barry Cunliffe, whose book The Scythians appeared a few years ago. Whereas Cunliffe is an archaeologist, Beckwith is a linguist, a practitioner of what he calls ‘classical comparative-historical linguistics’. His book contains no fewer than thirty-two pages of preliminaries, including three on ‘Transcriptions & Conventions’, in which he states that he will be citing texts written in Old Iranic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Old Tibetan, as well as ancient Greek. 

Beckwith straightforwardly tells us that the Scythians were ‘the earliest historical Central Eurasian steppe people’, a category that for him includes the Cimmerians, ‘their Scythian-speaking relatives’. He sets out to trace their lifestyle and influence from central Eurasia to China, taking in especially the world of the ancient Persians. The book’s chronology extends from the seventh century to the fourth century BC. Beckwith chooses to focus on topics misunderstood, neglected and (especially) unnoticed by his colleagues and competitors, presenting both new sources and new interpretations to help clear up misconceptions. This is not, therefore, a book for beginners. Readers should also be aware that his inferences, conclusions and claims are large, bold and controversial.

The book’s eight sturdy chapters cover such matters as the Scythians in the central Eurasian steppes, the Scythian royal lineage, the Scythian language, Scythian relations with China and the Scythian capitals of Media (in northern Iran), Chao and Ch’in. These are followed by an epilogue in which Beckwith does not

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