The ancient Scythians were renowned for their horsemanship and prowess in battle. What was the secret behind these nomadic peoples who were so dangerous and successful? Ancient Origins guest author Cam Rea reveals the strategies behind the Scythian victories.
The Scythians may not be the original inventors of asymmetrical warfare, but one could argue that they perfected it. Before and during the Scythian arrival, many nations fought by conventional methods. In other words, the established civilizations of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, used taxes to feed, equip, and maintain their large armies. Overall, one can see the massive expense it is to arm and defend a nation when war comes a-knocking. Lives and money are lost, doubly so if you go on the offensive at the expense of your nation’s pocket.
The Scythians, on the other hand, needed none of these, for they were tribal based and seemed to come together only in a time of war. Thus, most issues did not hinder them, such as the laws of supply and demand in the military economic sense, which would affect an established kingdom or empire. The land was their supplier and demand was when they were in need of resources. For Scythians to sustain life, they had to move to new regions in search of ample pastures suited for their horses to graze and abundant with game, while the land they moved from was left to rest. But one has to be cautious as well, for even though the Scythians moved around, many stayed within their tribal territory. In some cases, they ventured into another tribal territory due to the need to sustain life for both tribe and livestock.
Scythian Horseman depicted on felt artifact, circa 300 BC. Public Domain
When one examines the Scythian lifestyle, one can easily gain an understanding of the type of warfare necessarily carried on against more sedentary (non-migratory) people, like those in Mesopotamia. The Scythian took a guerilla approach to warfare as their method, not to be confused with terrorism. The term guerrilla warfare means irregular warfare and its doctrine advocates for the use of small bands to conduct military operations. Herodotus mentions their method of warfare when King Darius of Persia campaigned against them:
“It is thus with me, Persian: I have never fled for fear of any man, nor do I now flee from you; this that I have done is no new thing or other than my practice in peace. But as to the reason why I do not straightway fight with you, this too I will tell you. For we Scythians have no towns or planted lands, that we might meet you the sooner in battle, fearing lest the one be taken or the other wasted. But if nothing will serve you but fighting straightway, we have the graves of our fathers; come, find these and essay to destroy them; then shall you know whether we will fight you for those graves or no. Till then we will not join battle unless we think it good.”The description indicates that the Scythians against whom Darius is warring have no center of gravity; more on this later.
The Scythians are best known for swarming the enemy, like at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, where they demonstrated this tactic during the initial stages of the attack. The swarming tactic is the first stage before any other mechanism is executed, like feinting or defense in depth.
To summarize, the definition of swarming would be a battle involving several or more units pouncing on an intended target simultaneously. The whole premise of swarming in guerrilla warfare, as indicated in the U.S. Army Field Manual (FM) 90-8 on the topic of counterguerrilla operations, is to locate, fix, and engage the enemy, but to avoid larger forces, unless you possess units capable of countering the other. This would allow other units to take advantage of the enemy, which is rare in most battles involving the Scythians. The key principle of swarming is that it does not matter if you win the battle so long as you do not lose the war. It is designed to disorient the enemy troops.
The swarming tactic comprises many units converging on the intended target; however, the swarm moves with the target in order to fracture it. Thus, the method of swarming is to dislodge the enemy piecemeal, causing rank and file to implode. This is due to longstanding, snail-like movement during battle, meantime being continuously pelted from afar by projectiles; fear takes over, demoralizing an army. Roman soldiers were to have a taste of this, for they had a space of three feet all around them to allow for movement and maneuvering in battle. The Scythians took advantage of their three feet, as Plutarch mentions, at the battle of Carrhae: “Huddled together in a narrow space and getting into each other’s way, they were shot down by arrows.
The ancient Scythians were renowned for their horsemanship and prowess in battle. What was the secret behind these nomadic peoples who were so dangerous and successful? Ancient Origins guest author Cam Rea reveals the strategies behind the Scythian victories. Read Scythian Tactics and Strategy:
FeintingScythian tactics included feinting or withdrawing from either the battlefield or even the region. An example of feinting comes from a battle mentioned in Part I ( Scythian Tactics and Strategy: Blah - Part I ), the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE.
The Roman historian Plutarch mentions that the Parthian horse archers would not engage the Roman forces during battle, but would retreat, luring the Roman forces to follow. The trap was set and the Romans thought victory was in hand, until the fleeing horse archers turned and loosed arrows upon the pursuing Romans. The Romans in the pursuit soon realized they had made a terrible mistake, but it was too late. Nothing could be done but to make a defensive stand. Withdrawal allowed the feinting tactic to be used with proficiency due to Roman ignorance of their enemy. The Romans would try to advance, but with every attempt, the Parthian horse archers’ constant pelting with what seemed to be an endless supply of arrows would keep them in place.
Parthian horseman. ( Creative Commons )
Parthian camel units resupplied the horse archers by exchanging empty quivers for full ones, then and returning to their position. During this monotonous, never-ending event, the Romans would try to break the horse archer formations, only to be countered by heavy Parthian cavalry known as cataphract, which acted as the anvil to the Parthian hammer (arrows). The Battle of Carrhae was death by pieces for the Romans.
Therefore, when it comes to the feinting tactic, do not watch for the visible hand, but rather the invisible one. The Parthians and Scythians were notoriously successful in the feinting technique before the battle of Carrhae. Afterward, the countering measure to this tactic went largely ignored until Alexander the Great demonstrated a reversal.
A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan's Column in Rome ( Wikimedia Commons ).
One could make the argument that the Romans had faulty intelligence before Carrhae, but this would be unfair, although true to a certain extent. The truth of the matter is that the Romans invaded a land they did not know, looking to conquer a people they did not understand. In the end, both Rome and Parthia would continue to bash each other as the years turned into centuries, but neither side truly dominated the other.
Defense in Depth
Defense in Depth is most successful if your nation is rather large and unproductive, as in the case of the Scythians, who valued land and the ability to roam, rather than the luxuries of the cities, like Athens or Nineveh. The Scythians did seem to have cities or mobile villages, which may be a more correct term. As for the lazy luxuries of life, some settled, but the majority roamed about.
According to Herodotus: “We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight with you.” But Herodotus also stated: “Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback; and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess.” The Scythians did have slaves, according to Herodotus, who were blind and whose primary task was being a shepherd. Additionally, Herodotus also mentioned Scythians who grew corn and onions, which indicates that agriculture was common among some of the tribes. Therefore, the notion that the Scythians did not have cities or villages is partially untrue, depending on the Scythic tribe, of course.
The Scythians that Darius the Great attacked did not have cultivated lands or towns that could be beneficial to Darius’ forces. The Scythians conducted a scorched earth policy as Darius’s army marched further inland, following after them. The Scythians understood that an army marches on its belly and so do the animals accompanying them. What Darius could not use would be a weapon against his forces. The strategy would be defense in depth, scorched earth policy the tactic, and the outcome would be starvation. Starvation through burning was the preferred method used to rid of the Persians. The Scythians understood that they could defeat the enemy by allowing the land to swallow them both physically and mentally.
The heavy barrage of arrows would cause some to wander off, bit-by-bit, thus allowing horse archers to concentrate fully on the wandering enemy. In this scenario, one can argue that the initial battle tactic is to pelt the enemy with a volley of arrows, keeping the target tight in order to fracture it, which allows the horse archers to go from random pelting to accurately killing the enemy. In other words, they switch from firing up into the air to firing forward at the enemy, as demonstrated at Carrhae in 53 BCE.
Scythians shooting with the Scythian bow, Kerch (ancient Panticapeum), Crimea, 4th century BC. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Now, before we go any further, let me briefly make the case that swarming has many different methods or tactics, but the Scythian swarm is not like that of others. However, a swarm is a swarm, but the method varies. Case in point, “mass swarming” is the most sought- after method in both the ancient and medieval world, demonstrated by massive conventional armies that would eventually separate or disassemble and perform convergent attacks over a region or province from its initial phase. The “dispersed swarm” is the preferred tactic in guerrilla warfare, where the body separates and converges on the battlefield without forming a single body.
The whole premise of swarming in guerilla warfare is to engage quickly but to avoid larger forces. Pharnuches, one of Alexander’s generals, made the fatal mistake by falling for the Scythian feinting tactic, in which he chased after the Scythians, only to find himself ambushed and swarmed. Pharnuches should have never been given command, because he was a diplomat, not an experienced officer.
Mosaic detailing the famous military leader and conqueror Alexander the Great/Alexander III of Macedon. Public Domain
The Battle of Jaxartes is a fine example of the swarming tactic, but rather small in scale. The Scythians harassing the forces of Alexander did not appear to be a large force. Rather, the Scythians at the battle intended to demoralize the enemy, and if that did not work, they could always lead the enemy farther inland and begin the strategy of defense in depth. Alexander knew better after he defeated the Scythians at Jaxartes in 329 BCE. Alexander understood quite well that if he were to pursue the Scythians further inland, his forces would be open to hit and run attacks, famine, and psychological attrition, none of which is desirable. Even Alexander understood the limits of empire, especially when his worldview did not incorporate the lands to the north.
The Battle of Jaxartes was a loss for the Scythians and a victory for the Macedonians. However, two important demonstrations of the tactics are visible at the battle. The first tactic is swarming, the second is what I like to call the swarm-anti-swarm tactic developed by Alexander, commonly referred to as “anti-swarming.” In fact, Alexander had to swarm in order to achieve victory. The swarm-anti-swarm counters the enemy with a bait-unit. Once the enemy converged from several sides, the remainder of the forces would converge on the area and swarm the enemy. Alexander learned quickly to adopt this tactic of closing in on the enemy and attacking from all directions for future use.
Darius was ignorant of the people he wished to conquer; he showed no knowledge of the people or terrain he was about to invade. Because of this attitude by Darius, his brother, Artabanus, warned that the proposed campaign to conquer the European Scythians was far too risky, and even if it was successful, the economic benefits were limited. Nevertheless, Darius had to learn the hard way. For the Scythians, it was a good way to prevent a possible second invasion.
As mentioned, the Scythians used the land to their advantage, knowing that Darius would follow as long as the bait was present. The Scythians burnt all that grew, causing Darius to follow his enemy across burnt terrain in hopes of finding food for both his men and animals. The Scythians began hit and run attacks during mealtime and even at night, preventing the men from eating or even sleeping, irritating them even more. The Scythians knew that as long as Darius followed in pursuit, he would gain nothing, not even an engagement. Psychological and physical attrition would set in by attacking the enemy’s stomach and his need for rest, causing irrationality among the troops and further deteriorating the chain of command.
Scorched earth tactics, or burning anything useful to the enemy while withdrawing, was an effective military strategy. Public Domain
In the end, the Scythians won a great victory by not engaging the enemy in conventional warfare, but beat the Persians through starvation and sleep deprivation, since an army can move only for so long before it needs to fuel up again in both rest and food. By denying both, the Scythians utilized a form of defense in depth that saved them from Persian conquest.
Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an electrum cup from the Kul'Oba kurgan burial near Kerch. The warrior on the right is stringing his bow, bracing it behind his knee. Hair seems normally to have been worn long and loose, and beards were apparently worn by all adult men. The other two warriors on the left are conversing, both holding spears or javelins. The man on the left is wearing a diadem and therefore is likely to be the Scythian king. Public Domain
Featured image: Detail, decorative comb depicting weapons and dress of Scythian Warriors 5th Century BC. Public Domain
By Cam Rea
- Ian Morris, Why the West rules--for Now: the Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 277-279.
- Herodotus, The Histories, 4. 127.
- Sean J.A. Edwards, Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future, (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2000), xii.
- U.S. Department of Defense, Counterguerrilla Operations, (Washington DC: Department of the Army, FM 90-8, August 1986), Chapter 4, Section III. 4-10.
- Polybius. 18.30.6
- Plutarch, Crassus, 25.5
- John Frederick Charles Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, (New York and Washington D.C.: Da Capo Press, 2004), 118-120.
- Ibid, 4.46.