Military history



Persians vs. Scythians, 512 BC

THE ANCIENT CITY-STATES of Mesopotamia were the first polities to be ravaged by nomadic guerrillas. They were far from the last. Nomads would become history’s most pervasive and successful guerrillas.

The essential problem that confronted their enemies is simple to state but hard to resolve: How do you catch raiders? Unencumbered by elaborate equipment or lengthy supply trains, they have almost always been able to move faster than conventional military units. Their motto might as well be a modern phrase as simple as “Catch me if you can.” Most pursuers have failed. Notable early failures may be found in ancient Persia under the Achaemenid dynasty.

This was one of the greatest empires of the ancient world, with its capital first in Pasargadae and then in Persepolis. From colossal stone buildings ringed by imposing columns, bureaucrats presided over a vast realm broken down into provinces governed by satraps (governors), ruled according to a complex body of law, funded with an efficient system of tax collection and some of the world’s first banks, linked together by all-weather highways and a horse-borne postal system, and defended by a crack army whose elite were known as the “Immortals.”

The architect of Persia’s rise was King Cyrus II (“the Great”), of whom the Greek soldier-scholar Xenophon wrote in glowing terms that he “struck all men with terror and no one tried to withstand him; and he was able to awaken in all so lively a desire to please him that they always wished to be guided by his will.”26 Sadly, Cyrus’s magic did not work with the nomads of the steppe. He met his end in 529 BC, apparently while campaigning against Massagetae tribesmen in Central Asia.27

He was succeeded by a young lance bearer, Darius, who seized the throne from one of Cyrus’s sons. Darius, also styled “the Great,” was more fortunate than his predecessor, but not much more successful in his clashes with the Scythians, another race of steppe nomads who were closely related to the Massagetae. The Scythians and Massagetae were cut from essentially the same cloth as all of the horse-riding nomads or seminomads—Huns, Xiongnu, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, Seljuks, Mongols, Tatars, Manchus—who would terrorize the Eurasian plain until the eighteenth century AD. They also had more than a bit in common with the Sioux, Cheyenne, Apache, and other tribes that would attack American settlements in the trans-Mississippi West in the nineteenth century. All of the Eurasian tribes migrated with their herds of sheep, goats, horses, cattle, camels, and sometimes yaks across the grasslands of Asia in search of suitable pasture. They survived on whatever their livestock could provide—from meat and milk for their diet to leather and hides for their clothing and dung for their fires—and they lived in tents known as yurts. Their hard way of life made them expert horsemen and archers far more adept at warfare than most of the sedentary peoples they encountered. Every man was a warrior, and the average warrior’s ferocity was legendary. The world’s first historian, Herodotus, wrote in the fifth century BC that the “Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle” and makes a drinking cup out of the skull. Some Scythians, Herodotus claimed, even flayed “the right arms of their dead enemies” and made capes or quiver covers out of their skin.28

Darius decided to punish these ferocious raiders for their raids into his territory. Around 512 BC, he crossed the Bosporus over a pontoon bridge—an impressive feat of military engineering—and advanced with hundreds of thousands of soldiers through the Balkans into what is today southern Ukraine. Much to Darius’s frustration, the Scythians refused to stand and fight. Knowing they were too weak to counter the Persians in open battle, the Scythians chose to retreat, Herodotus wrote in his Histories, “driving off their herds, choking up all the wells and springs as they retreated, and leaving the whole country bare of forage.”29 Darius became so frustrated that he sent a plaintive message to Idanthyrsus, the king of the Scythians, demanding, “Thou strange man, why dost thou keep on flying before me. . . . [C]ome, let us engage in battle.”

Idanthyrsus sent back a disdainful reply: “That is my way, Persian. . . . 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. . . . [W]e shall not join battle, unless it pleases us.”30

This illuminating exchange neatly summarizes the gulf of incomprehension that separates “regular” armies from their “irregular” foes. It could have taken place between virtually any civilized king and nomad chieftain in the ancient or medieval world or between many a president or prime minister and guerrilla or terrorist leader today. At least Darius was smarter than many commanders who have been in his sandals. He knew when he was beaten. He trudged back to Persia with his army still intact.

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