See E. H. Minns, Scythians and Greeks (1913, repr. 1976); T. Rice, The Scythians (1957); H. W. Bailey, Indo-Scythian Studies (1985).
The first Scythian state arose among Scythians who penetrated in the seventh century BC from the territories north of the Black Sea into the Near East. It was dominated by interethnic forms of dependency based on subjugation of agricultural populations in eastern South Caucasia, plunder and levied contributions (occasionally, as far as Syria), regular tribute (Media), tribute disguised as gifts (Egypt), and possibly also payments for military support (Assyria). The Scythian social structure was much decentralized. The main features of the Scythian social organization developed before the seventh century B.C. (Khazanov 1975).
It is likely that the same dynasty ruled in Scythia during most of its history. The name of Koloksai, a legendary founder of a royal dynasty, is mentioned by Alcman in the seventh century B.C. Prototi and Madi, Scythian kings in the Near Eastern period of their history, and their successors in the north Pontic steppes belonged to the same dynasty. Herodotus lists five generations of a royal clan that probably reigned at the end of the seventh to sixth centuries BC: prince Anacharsis, Saulius, Idanthyrsus, Gnurus, Lycus, and Spargapithes. (Herodotus IV, 76). Ateas, reigning in the fourth century B.C., probably was an usurper, but he also tried to connect his origin with the ancient dynasty.
After being defeated and driven from the Near East, in the first half of the sixth century BC, Scythians had to re-conquer lands north of the Black Sea. In the second half of that century, Scythians succeeded in dominating the agricultural tribes of the forest-steppe and placed them under tribute. As a result their state was reconstructed with the appearance of the Second Scythian Kingdom which reached its zenith in the fourth century BC.
Scythia's social development at the end of the fifth and in the fourth century BC involved its privileged stratum in trade with Greeks, efforts to control this trade, and consequences partly stemming from these two: aggressive external policy, intensified exploitation of dependent population, progressing stratification among the nomadic rulers. Trading with Greeks also stimulated sedenterization processes. The proximity of the Greek city-states on the Black Sea coast (Pontic Olbia, Cimmerian Bosporus, Chersonesos, Sindica, Tanais) was a powerful incentive for slavery in the Scythian society, but only in one direction: the sale of slaves to Greeks, instead of use in their economy. Accordingly, the trade become a stimulus for capture of slaves as war spoils in numerous wars.
The Scythian state reached its greatest extent in the fourth century BC during the reign of Ateas. Isocrates (436–338 BC, Panegyricus 67) believed that Scythians, and also Thracians and Persians, are "the most able to power, and are the peoples with the greatest might." In the fourth century BC, under king Ateas, the tribune structure of the state was eliminated, and the ruling power became more centralized. The later sources do not mention three basileuses any more. Strabo tells (VII, 3, 18) that Ateus ruled over majority of the North Pontic barbarians.
Written sources tell that expansion of the Scythian state before the fourth century BC was mainly in the western direction. In this respect Ateas continued the policy of his predecessors in the fifth century BC. During western expansion, Ateus fought the Triballi (Polyaenus, Stratagems VII, 44, 1). A part of Thracians was subjugated and levied with severe duties. During the 90-year life of Ateas, the Scythians firmly settled in Thrace and became an important factor of political games in the Balkans. At the same time, both the nomadic and agricultural Scythian populations increased along the Dniester. A war with the Bosporian Kingdom increased Scythian pressure on the Greek cities along the North Pontic littoral.
Materials from the site near Kamianka-Dniprovska, purportedly the capital of the Ateas’ state, show that metallurgists were free members of the society, even if burdened with imposed obligations. The metallurgy was the most advanced and the only distinct craft speciality among the Scythians. From the story of Polyaenus and Frontin, it follows that in the fourth century BC Scythia had a layer of dependent population, which consisted of impoverished Scythian nomads and local indigenous agricultural tribes, socially deprived, dependent and exploited, who did not participate in the wars, but were engaged in servile agriculture and cattle husbandry.
The year 339 BC was a culminating year for the Second Scythian Kingdom, and the beginning of its decline. The war with Philip II of Macedon ended in a victory by the father of Alexander the Great, the Scythian king Ateus fell in battle well into his nineties (Trogus, Prologue, IX). Many royal kurgans (Chertomlyk, Kul-Oba, Aleksandropol, Krasnokut) are dated from after Ateas’ time and previous traditions were continued, and life in the settlements of Western Scythia show that the state survived until the 250s B.C. When in 331 BC Zopyrion, Alexander’s viceroy in Thrace, "not wishing to sit idle", invaded Scythia and besieged Pontic Olbia, he suffered a crushing defeat from the Scythians and lost his life (Justin, XII, 1, 4).
The fall of the Second Scythian Kingdom came about in the second half of the third century BC under the onslaught of Celts and Thracians from the west and Sarmatians from the east. With their increased forces, the Sarmatians devastated significant parts of Scythia and, "annihilating the defeated, transformed a larger part of the country into a desert" (Diodorus, 11,43,7).
The dependent forest-steppe tribes, subjected to exaction burdens, freed themselves at the first opportunity. The Dnieper and Buh populace ruled by the Scythians did not become Scythians. They continued to live their original life which was alien to Scythian ways. From the third century BC for many centuries the histories of the steppe and forest-steppe zones of North Pontic diverged. The material culture of the populations quickly lost their common features. And in the steppe, reflecting the end of nomad hegemony in Scythian society, the royal kurgans were no longer built. Archeologically, late Scythia appears first of all as a conglomerate of fortified and non-fortified settlements with abutting agricultural zones.
The development of the Scythian society is marked by the following trends:
Scythia's later history is mainly dominated by sedentary agrarian and city elements. As a result of the defeats suffered by Scythians two separate states were formed, two Lesser Scythias, one in Thrace (Dobrudja), and the other in the Crimea and the Lower Dnieper area (Strabo VII, 4, 5).
Having settled this Scythia Minor in Thrace, the former Scythian nomads (or rather their nobility) abandoned their nomadic way of life, retaining their power over the agrarian population. This little polity should be distinguished from the Third Scythian Kingdom in Crimea and Lower Dnieper area, whose inhabitants likewise underwent a massive sedentarization. The interethnic dependence was replaced by developing forms of dependence within the society. The enmity of the Third Scythian Kingdom, centred on Scythian Neapolis, towards the Greek settlements of the northern Black Sea steadily increased. The Scythian king apparently regarded the Greek colonies as unnecessary intermediaries in the wheat trade with mainland Greece. Besides, the settling cattlemen were attracted by the Greek agricultural belt in Southern Crimea. The later Scythia was both culturally and socio-economically far less advanced than its Greek neighbors such as Olvia or Chersonesos.
The continuity of the royal line is less clear in the Lesser Scythias of Crimea and Thrace than it had been previously. In the second century BC, Olvia became a Scythian dependency. That event was marked in the city by minting of coins bearing the name of the Scythian king Skilurus. He was a son of a king and a father of a king, but the relation of his dynasty with the former dynasty is not known. Either Skilurus or his son and successor Palakus were buried in the mausoleum of Scythian Neapol that was used from ca. 100 B.C. to ca. 100 AD. However, the last burials are so poor that they do not seem to be royal, indicating a change in the dynasty or royal burials in another place.
Later, at the end of the second century BC, Olvia was freed from the Scythian domination, but became a subject to Mithradates the Great. By the end of the first century BC, Olbia, rebuilt after its sack by the Getae, became a dependency of the Dacian barbarian kings, who minted their own coins in the city. Later from the second century AD Olbia belonged to the Roman Empire. Scythia was the first state north of the Black Sea to collapse with the invasion of the Goths in the 2nd century AD (see Oium).