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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Sigynnae (Indo-Iranians?)

During the first millennium BC (and likely for much of the largely-unrecorded second millennium BC too) various Indo-Iranian tribes of the East Indo-European division dominated the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They took control from remaining West Indo-European groups, with the Agathyrsi rising early to supremacy over the other tribes. They in turn were superseded by the Scythians, and it was they who imposed a ruling elite over the early Sarmatians and Alani.

The Alani were either neighbours of the Sarmatians or (as some claim) a division of the Sarmatians themselves. The fortunes of both groups were closely intertwined, and some of their constituent sub-groups could be mistaken as Alani or Sarmatians, depending on how they were being recorded by early writers.

The Sarmatians soon migrated from Central Asia towards the Ural Mountains, at a point between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. This was just in time for them - with a division of the Alani in tow - to be mentioned by Herodotus when he described the tribes to the north of the Black Sea.

The land of these Scythian nomads 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 Sigynnae (or Sigunnai in Latinized Greek) were largely obscure in terms of their origins. They were nomads, though, just like the Scythian-Maeotian hybrid Sindi or the mysterious Grauci alongside whom they occupied territory in today's Hungary. This is thought to have encompassed the eastern part of the Pannonian basin (or Carpathian basin), referred to by Apollonius of Rhodes as the 'plain of Laurion'. They should not be confused with the identically-named Sigynnae who lived on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea.

It is highly likely that they were Indo-Iranians, part of a westwards push between about 800-600 BC by the Scythians from the Pontic steppe when they first gained ascendancy there and were attempting to expand outwards. Herodotus reported that the Sigynnae claimed to be colonists from Media who had travelled to the plain via the Caucasus Mountains.

That story is largely accepted even today, with it being likely that they were either Medians who were drawn northwards by the Scythians during their domination there, or that they were a North Caucasus tribe which gained a Scythian elite to command it (the preferred theory). Either way they could easily have migrated west across the Pontic steppe alongside other elements such as the Sindi.

The Sigynnae owned small shaggy ponies with flat noses which could not be ridden by horseman, although the Sigynnae themselves were certainly steppe horsemen. Instead these ponies were used in four-horse teams to pull the carts in which the Sigynnae travelled. Indo-European steppe nomads were much more likely to use oxen for this task. They are much easier to harness, with a beam across their foreheads, while horses do not automatically push with their heads.

Using horses was a progressive development, with someone having to figure out how to harness them, a more complicated system which involved strapping across their chests. Once done, though, horses proved stronger and better at pulling carts or chariots. The Sigynnae seem to have been part of that progressive development.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from the Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, J P Mallory & D Q Adams (Eds, 1997), from The Scythian Domination in Western Asia: Its Record in History, Scripture, and Archaeology, E D Phillips (World Archaeology, 1972), from The Scythian: His Rise and Fall, James William Johnson (Journal of the History of Ideas, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959), from The Scythians: Invading Hordes from the Russian Steppes, Edwin Yamauchi (The Biblical Archaeologist, 1983), and from External Links: Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians, and Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and Sarmatians (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Rites of the Scythians (Archaeology).)

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. Between the eighth and sixth centuries BC iron is still extremely rare in territory which is controlled by the Balts, and the general cultural level continues to have almost a pure Bronze Age character.

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)

The dividing line at about the end of the eighth century BC signifies a change in culture due not so much to technological innovation as to new historical events - the appearance of the Scythians as a recognisable collective entity (any precise dating for that appearance being, of course, debatable).

They swiftly dominate the steppe, while also culturally intruding into existing groups such as the Tauri, and possibly form new ones such as the Sindi.

c.800 - 600 BC

This 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 which itself had constantly been pushing towards the west.

They appear in Moravia (now eastern Czechia), and what is now Romania and Hungary - almost certainly, but not inarguably, Scythians - and continue that westwards push.

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)

These Scythians (which include a detachment of Sindi and probably the Sigynnae too) introduce eastern types of horse gear, oriental animal art, timber graves, and inhumation rites (gaining the name of Timber-Grave culture from this). The outward edge of this advance, when it reaches the middle Danube, would appear to be responsible for forming the Mezőcsát culture there.

The Sigynnae settle on the Hungarian plain, eventually losing contact with the main Scythian host. They are noted by Apollonius of Rhodes as living alongside the Grauci and Sindi on the 'plain of Laurion'.

This is thought to be the eastern Pannonian basin (otherwise known as the Carpathian basin), essentially the later Transylvania. Herodotus notes them as living to the north of Thrace. The region later falls under Celtic and Illyrian domination.

Scythian Amazon burial remains at Devitsa
In 2019 findings were announced regarding four female Scythian burials at Devitsa in Russia (to the north-east of the border with Ukraine), all of which could be dated to the 300s BC and which contained weapons - the eldest of the four women was even buried 'in the position of a horseman', riding as one of Herodotus' warrior Amazons would have done (see reference link in the sources)

c.513 BC

The Scythians, dominant on the Pontic steppe, do not succeed in penetrating the defences of the Balts in the north. Only a few arrowheads of Scythian type have been found in East Prussia and southern Lithuania. A chain of western Baltic strongholds in northern Poland and in the southern part of East Prussia arise which very probably are built for resisting the invaders.

The Scythian high tide wanes towards the end of the fifth century BC. After that they no longer appear in the north, and possibly it is Baltic resistance which helps to end the Scythian threat.

The Sigynnae and their neighbours eventually fall under the domination of the Sarmatians as they fill the controlling void left by the Scythian collapse. The region later becomes a hotly-contested one as Celts, Germanics, Romans, and Huns vie for superiority there.

Minor units such as the Sigynnae are soon submerged by greater cultural and linguistic forces than they can ever hope to survive.

Sarmatian warrior
Sarmatians followed the Agathyrsi and Scythians onto the Pontic steppe, and were followed by the Alani and, unfortunately for all of them, the Huns

 
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