Scythian Gold

  The Decline of the Scythian Empire: Causes, Consequences, and Legacy  , About 3,000 years ago, the ancient Scythians were a force to be reckoned with. Beginning with their emergence from Iran around 900 BC to the peak of their power in the 4th century BC, the nomadic tribes, who shared all aspects of Scythian culture, were distributed in Eurasia.

Their territory once extended over a million square miles, from the ends of China and India to eastern Europe, beyond the Black Sea. More than two dozen tribes flourished in this area, including groups such as Pontic Scythians, Royal Scythians, Saka, Massages and other.

The Scythian people

The Scythian people are known for their nomadic lifestyle and rich culture. They needed a lot of space to roam as these people were not just nomads but horse nomads. A common trait among the Scythian tribes was their ability to breed horses for transport, especially war horses.

Their ability to attack an opponent with alarming speed—and just as quickly to disappear into their vast lands when pursued—made them a terror to face and nearly impossible to contain and defeat.

In addition to their fighting skills, many Scythian groups were extremely wealthy. Researchers have found grave sites of the ruling elite, replete with a large number of golden artifacts, exquisite clothing and weapons, and dozens of horses sacrificed to join their masters in the afterlife.

Scythian gold battle crest, 430-390 BC (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

What happened to them? The same thing that happened to other ancient cultures throughout history.

The Scythian Empire

So they had power, wealth, and control over a significant portion of the known world. Yet by 200 BC the Scythians had already been displaced as the dominant culture in their lands. From then until about 300 AD, the power and influence of the Scythians continued to decline until they occupied a relatively small region, having largely abandoned the nomadic lifestyle that had defined them for so long.

Over time, other groups emerged and encroached on their lands – or became more adept at preventing the Scythians from encroaching on theirs. Despite their fearsome reputation, it gradually became clear that the horse lords were not invincible; they began to find themselves on the losing end of major conflicts. In 339 BC, for example, the Scythians under Czar Ateasattempted to cross the Danube River and were met by the Macedonian forces of King Philip II.

Defeating the Invincible

Philip completely defeated his opponent, killing Ateas and enslaving tens of thousands of captives. Ten years later, the Sakas, a Scythian tribe of the Asian steppes, lost a significant engagement against another Macedonian army at the Battle of Jaxarte. Behold, Philip’s son—you shall know him as he Alexander the Great — actually managed to corner the notoriously elusive nomads, killing their leader and securing his borders.

Read more: The Amazon Warrior Women of Ancient Scythia

When it comes to the collapse of ancient civilizations, war and economic decline are usually two of the biggest contributors. Losing battles means losing men, territory, resources and influence. In 310 BC the Scythians were defeated by another group of nomadic tribes, on Sarmatians, largely reducing their domain to the Crimea. Over the next several hundred years, their decline would continue.

Who are the Scythians today?

Scythian exhibit at the Esik Museum, Kazakhstan. (Credit: Cholpan/Shutterstock)

Whether by conquest or otherwise, the ancient Scythian tribes were assimilated, merging over time into various tribes and ethnic groups. Here are just a few cultures, ancient and modern, that claim Scythian heritage—sometimes even when the evidence for that heritage is decidedly scant or the product of downright wishful thinking.


The Ossetian the people of the Caucasus Mountains, located between Russia and Georgia, are sometimes called modern Scythians and are hailed as the closest living relatives of the ancient Scythian tribes. However, it is also claimed that they descended from the Sarmatians or alani, who were similar ethnicities. In addition to Russian, these people also speak Ossetian, an East Iranian language that some consider to be a remnant of the original Scythian language groups.

Huns and Goths

The so-called barbarian tribes which so plagued the Roman Empire in its later days were sometimes associated with the ancient Scythians. The goth, however, were a Germanic tribe with no real connection to these Eurasian horse people. The Huns, however, shares many cultural traits with the Scythians. Of course, both were nomadic groups, skilled horsemen and fierce warriors, but the Huns emerged from Central Asia separately. By the 3rd century AD, the surviving Scythian tribes were engulfed by the Huns, Goths, and others. Eventually the word “Scythian” would become something of a generic term for barbarian warriors.

Russian commemorative stamp of a 19th century painting depicting a Scythian battle scene. (Credit: domain/Wikimedia Commons)


A particularly significant number of Eastern Europeans Russians, UkrainiansHungarians and others—like to say that they are descendants of the Scythians, and jealously yearn for ancient gold and other artifacts. And why not? Who wouldn’t want to claim kinship with an evil clan of warriors who loved to drink the blood of an enemy from a cup made from that enemy’s skull?

This may explain why popular images in this part of the world include everything from seals to blood action movies this function skits as main characters. But The fact ismost Russians and Ukrainians are descended from Slavs. Hungarians are mostly descended from Hungarian settlers, although various Hungarian ethnic groups claim descent from Turks, Huns and, yes, Scythians. Then again, even Scots and on Irish want to claim Scythian origin.

If you really want to split hairs, the Scythian tribes were spread over such a wide area over such a long period of time, it’s entirely possible that many modern humans in Asia and Europe have genetic traits that go all the way back to the once mighty horse warriors of the steppes . So maybe the Scythians didn’t die out after all.

Read more: Who were the ancient Scythians?

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