History Files


Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia




Massagetae / Massagetes
Incorporating the Attasii & Chorasmii

The River Syr Darya (otherwise known as the River Tanais) flows into the Aral Sea from the Tian Shan Mountains (a western part of the Himalayan mountain chain). Its name in the Persian-dominated second half of the first millennium BC was Yakhsha Arta, which referenced its 'great pearly' waters. The Greeks transcribed this as Axartes, or Yaxartes, or even Iaxartes. Today the river flows through Kazakhstan, to the north of the border of Uzbekistan.

North and east of the river, the tribe of the Massagetae was one of many tribal groups in the region. Assumed to be an Indo-Iranian people, they were thought by the ancients to be related to the Scythian groups who also occupied the territory between the Aral and Caspian Seas (and perhaps most especially to the Sakas who may even be the very same people, with different writers giving them different names). They are known mainly due to the writings of Strabo and Herodotus, who described them as living off their herds and a plentiful supply of fish from the Yaxartes (Jaxartes, or Syr Darya). They were neighboured by the Aspisi to the north, Scythians and the Dahae to the west, and the Wusun to the east. The provinces of Chorasmia and Sogdiana lay to the south, with Ferghana to the south-east.

In terms of dress and mode of living the Massagetae resembled the Scythians (ie. Sakas). Both fought on horseback and on foot, being familiar with both methods. Both used bows and lances, with their favourite weapon being the battle axe. Gold or brass was heavily used (and this is fairly consistent with artefacts that have been uncovered); for spear points and arrowheads, and also battle axes, they made use of brass. Gold was used for headgear, belts, and girdles, and their horses were also decked out in brass and gold fittings.

(Additional information from Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus: Books 11-12, Volume 1, Marcus Junianus Justinus, John Yardley, & Waldemar Heckel, and from External Link: Zoroastrian Heritage, K E Eduljee.)

c.546 - 540 BC

At some point in his eastern campaigns, it seems that Persian king, Cyrus the Great, adds the eastern regions of Arachosia, Bactria, Drangiana, Chorasmia, and Margiana to the empire, although records for these campaigns are characteristically sparse.

The River Syr Darya
The 'pearly waters' of the River Syr Darya which empties into the Aral Sea, and which in the sixth century BC formed the south-western boundary of the territory of the Massagetae

fl c.530 BC

Tahm-Rayiš / Tomyris

Queen. Her name is Iranian with the Greek form also shown.

530 BC

FeatureThe end of Cyrus the Great's reign is spent in military activity in Central Asia where, according to Herodotus, he dies in battle in 530 BC. Advancing across the Axartes to fight Tomyris' forces, he defeats part of the Massagetae army in a sneak attack. He also captures the queen's son, Spargapises, who commits suicide. The queen's remaining forces promptly destroy Cyrus' army and kill the Persian king.

516 - 515 BC

Achaemenid ruler Darius embarks on a military campaign into the lands east of the empire that takes him first into the lands of the nomadic Scythians. Three groups are identified, one of which is the Saka Tigrakhauda who occupy open grasslands around the Aral Sea, in modern south-western Kazakhstan. The pointed caps they wear would be sized according to seniority, with the tallest being reserved for the chieftain. It is this group of Sakas that is most likely to be the Massagetae of Strabo. Strabo also identifies the Attasii and the Chorasmii of the Greek-named region of Chorasmia as Massagetae, making them sub-groups of the main Massagetae collective.

330 BC

Alexander the Great's Greek empire conquers the Persian empire. In two years of further campaigning in the east of the empire, the Axartes comes to form its north-eastern border, leaving the region beyond it independent. There are no further records mentioning the Massagetae, but the fourth century AD Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus considers the later Alans to be their direct descendants (it is possible that the Alans are formed from various remnants which include the Massagetae).

Map of Bactria and India 200 BC
The kingdom of Bactria (shown in white) was at the height of its power around 200-180 BC, with fresh conquests being made in the south-east, encroaching into India just as the Mauryan empire was on the verge of collapse, while around the northern and eastern borders dwelt various tribes that would eventually contribute to the downfall of the Greeks - the Sakas and Tocharians (click on map to show full sized)

The related Indo-Scythians can also be found in relatively similar areas of territory in the third century BC, suggesting a link there that cannot otherwise be proven, and almost exactly the same areas in 515 BC, suggesting more than a link. Modern Indian scholars also consider the Jats of the Punjab to be directly related both to the Massagetae and Indo-Scythians.