History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 175

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

European Kingdoms

Eastern Europe


Gerrians (Scythians? / Slavs?)

As the successors of the Srubna/Timber-Grave culture of southern European Russia, Scythians were semi-nomadic pastoralists who occupied much of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They herded their precious cattle from pasture to pasture throughout the year while travelling in wheeled carts or mounted on horses which had been bred on the steppe for as much as three thousand years before the Scythians themselves were first recorded in history.

FeatureIn this they were no different to their ancestors, Indo-Europeans whose massive outward migrations formed the Yamnaya horizon between about 3500-2500 BC (see feature link for more on Indo-European origins).

Their land on the northern side of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe, and encroaching towards the Caspian Sea, became known to the Greeks as Scythia, and that name easily outlasted the political and cultural unity (if such a thing existed) of the Scythians themselves. It was still being used in the fifth century AD to illustrate the advance of hybrid Indo-Iranian/Turkic tribes into the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

The Scythians would also seem to have dominated the early Slavs, prior to their outwards expansion following the collapse of the Hunnic empire. Slav origins have generally been pinned to the area between the Middle Dnieper and the Bug, both well within Scythia. By the fifth century BC - when such domination is heavily suggested by Herodotus - the Scythian and Slavic languages may still have been mutually almost-intelligible, rather like Italian and Spanish today. Conversations may have been heavily sprinkled with 'huh?' and 'what?' of course, but the meaning would have been grasped.

The Slavs were never turned into Scythians. Instead they were always subjugated peoples who were ruled by this Indo-Iranian elite which was known as the Scythians. The Slavs would seem to have been the farmers for whichever nomad group was in command of the region, right down to the Huns when they swept in during the fourth century AD.

The Gerrians (alternatively Gerroi or Gerrhus) were introduced into the historical record by Herodotus. He named them and then said that 'on the other side of the [River] Gerros we have those parts which are called the "Royal" lands and those Scythians who are the bravest and most numerous and who esteem the other Scythians their slaves'.

FeatureFrom this it would seem that the Gerrians were themselves Scythians, but subject to the 'royal' Scythians. This is not certain however. The Slavs were also termed 'Scythian farmers' so the possibility exists that the Gerrians were another group of Slavs, or even that they were 'remnant' West Indo-Europeans (see feature link).

When it comes to influences and interaction, the name 'Gerros' which is used both for the river and the region is rather intriguing. Remove the Greek suffix and 'Ger' remains. It is understood that the Germanic groups (North-West Indo-Europeans but with a mysterious influence from eastern Indo-Europeans) are supposed to have been named after their spears, but what if the spears had been named after the men? This is not unlikely.

The word 'man', for example, dropped out of usage in Latin, replaced by 'homo', a shortened form of 'humanus', meaning 'earth man'. The word 'man' had instead been transferred to refer to a man's hands, with 'man' literally referring to a hand.

Such a shift is similar to English naval slang in the last half of the second millennium AD, with 'hands' being taken to refer to men, as in 'all hands on deck'. This supplies the possibility that the mysterious eastern Indo-European influence on the Germanics in Scandinavia was in fact Saka (Scythians by another form of the same name) who originated from around Gerros.

Steppe plains of Ukraine

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from Comments on Indo-Iranians and Tokharians: a response to R Heine-Geldern, Marija Gimbutas (American Anthropologist, 1964.66:893-898), from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and from External Links: Encyclopaedia of Ukrainian History (in Ukrainian), and Tomb Containing Three Generations of Warrior Women (Smithsonian Magazine), and Rites of the Scythians (Archaeology).)

c.1200s BC

From an early date, quite probably before their existence is recorded (and the 1200s BC has been mentioned as a likely period), a large proportion of the early Slavs in the Middle Dnieper basin fall under the rule of the Scythians of which the Gerrians are a part (whether Scythian or Slav themselves). The Finno-Ugric tribes and the eastern Balts living in the forested areas to the north remain outside the orbit of strong Scythian influence.

Scythian warriors
The appearance of ferocious mounted Scythian warriors in the lands to the south of the Balts must have instilled a sense of worry and fear in many groups, but the Balts always managed to remain independent of their control (although armour such as that pictured here certainly did not appear so early)

12th century BC

Iron appears in Central Europe in this century, but not until the eighth century BC does it revolutionise lives and only then does it reach Northern Europe. It remains rare, though, until the appearance of the Scythians (any precise dating for that appearance being, of course, debatable).

c.800 - 600 BC

FeatureThis is the period of Scythian expansion from the Black Sea area into Central Europe. These steppe horsemen are the successors of the southern Russian Srubna culture of the Bronze Age.

Now also dominating eastern Anatolia and the Zagros Mountains they acquire much of the Caucasian and Cimmerian cultural legacy and mix this with their own Pontic-Caspian steppe cultural elements (see feature link). These oriental influences appreciably change the material culture of Central Europe.

The year 652 BC marked the apogee of Cimmerian power, with their conquest of the kingdom of Lydia, but their supremacy would last only another eleven or so years before defeat and total eclipse

625 BC

At the beginning of his reign, Huwaxshatra of Media is considered a vassal of the Scythians until he throws off their yoke in 625 BC and takes sovereign control of his country. The Scythian king, Madys, and his fellow leaders are massacred by the Medians while his defeated people flee back into Scythia.

Now they abandon their former territory to the south of the Caucasus mountains. Instead they begin the reconquest and renewed domination of the 'lesser' Scythian tribes. Presumably included amongst this number are the Slavs, and possibly also the Gerrians if they are not 'royal' Scythians themselves.

513 - 512 BC

As the centuries have gone by, the Scythians have become involved in wars against the invading Persians. Thanks to this the northern tribes along Scythian borders are also disturbed.

Herodotus describes these wars in Book IV of his history, these being the earliest surviving written records concerning the history of Eastern Europe, at the end of the sixth century BC. He mentions and approximately locates the seats of the Neuri, Androphagi, Melanchlaeni, Budini, and other tribes living to the north of Scythia.

Map of Scythian Lands around 500 BC
This map attempts to show the Scythian lands at their greatest extent, failing to extend northwards thanks to the Balts (click or tap on map to view full sized)

With the Pripet marshes seemingly the natural border between Scythia and the Neuri, the latter dwell beyond the Scythian farmers (Slavs) at the headwaters of the Dnieper (which Herodotus calls the Borysfen, meaning 'river from the north'), in what is now Belarus and probably northern Ukraine too.

The Scythians seek help from the northern nations to counter the Persian attack, but the chieftains of the Neuri, Androphagi, Melanchlaeni, Agathyrsi, and Tauri do not agree to be Scythian allies. The Budini, though, do ally themselves with the Scythians, and they suffer the burning-down of one of their large fortified cities at the hands of Darius I as a result of the alliance.

The others also suffer when the Scythians purposely retreat before the Persians and into their lands. The Melanchlaeni are first, followed by the Androphagi and Neuri. All flee into the north as both armies enter their lands.

The Agathyrsi stand firm though, threatening to attack either army should it come near. The threat works and the war recedes. The Scythians remain, but the Gerrians disappear from history.

River Dnieper (Ukraine section)
The River Dnieper - the Borysfen to Herodotus, the Danapris to the Romans - long provided a conduit between the Black Sea and the Baltic lands to the north with the Neuri living around its headwaters in modern Belarus

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.