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European Kingdoms

Eastern Mediterranean

 

Agathyrsi (Geto-Scythians) (Thrace)

FeatureAs the successors of the Srubna/Timber-Grave culture of southern Russia, Scythians were semi-nomadic pastoralists who occupied much of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. In 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).

While the western branch of the Indo-European-speaking groups - the centum-speakers - largely headed towards Central Europe and Scandinavia, the eastern branches were much less adventurous at first, generally filling the void on the steppe. These groups, classed as Indo-Iranians, would eventually supply migratory peoples such as the Persians, Medians, and Indo-Aryans.

FeatureThey also supplied the Sakas and Scythians, generally one and the same people, albeit differentiated by some ancient authors. In effect they can be divided into eastern and western steppe Indo-Iranians respectively. Both names almost certainly come from the same original word, which may mean 'knife' or 'sword' (see feature link, right).

Their land 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.

The Agathyrsi (the Latin version of the name, via the Romanised Greek Agathursoi) exhibited a mixed Scythian and Geto-Thracian heritage. Their aristocracy was closely related to the main Scythian body in terms of names and customs, while the bulk of the populace were much more firmly Geto-Thracian, the dominant culture of the region in which the tribe lived.

The difference shows that a Thracian tribe or tribes had been taken over by an Indo-Iranian warrior elite. Herodotus provides support for this when he stated that the Agathyrsi were not Scythians but were closely-related to them.

FeatureBetween the ninth century BC and some point around which the eighth century became the seventh, the Agathyrsi occupied areas of the Pontic steppe over to Lake Maeotis in the east (the modern Sea of Azov, at the north-eastern corner of the Black Sea - see feature link).

Their neighbours on the eastern side of the River Don were the closely-related Cimmerians. That location was extrapolated by first century AD Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela, and fourth century AD Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, based on earlier Greek works.

By the time they were noted by Herodotus in the fifth century BC they were located around the source of the River Maris, in the mountainous region of ancient Dacia (the medieval Transylvania which is now in Romania). They also reached northwards into the Carpathian Mountains and eastwards into today's Moldova. The rise of the Scythian main body had seen them being forced westwards at an approximate point between 730-670 BC. Relations between the Agathyrsi and the Scythians remained understandably hostile afterwards.

Having been expelled, though, the Agathyrsi settled in what became Moldavia, Transylvania, and possibly Oltenia (western Wallachia). There this warrior elite body dominated the indigenous population, largely Thracians. By the fifth century BC they had become partially acculturated into the local Getic population and had adopted Thracian customs even while their kings generally continued to bear Indo-Iranian names.

Within another two centuries or so they had become completely absorbed into Thracian culture and language. The Getae population of which they became a part was soon to be dominated by the Dacians who themselves seem to have been heavily related to the Agathyrsi.

That name, Agathyrsi, comes from Persian and Greek records, and most notably via Herodotus. Its origin is unknown, but the root means 'to bring together, bind together'. Ramer reconstructed it as *Haxāϑrauša, with the somewhat oblique meaning of 'prospering the friend/socius'. The final part is modified into -θυρσος, referring to the composite vegetal wand of Bacchus, in Greek because the ancient Greeks associated Scythian peoples with Bacchic rites.

Edward Dawson provides clarity by stating that the name probably means 'those who joined together', a not unusual construction. Modern Germany is similarly a 'bundesrepublik', so the Agathyrsi may have been individuals who came together into a group, or a collection of tribes which did so as a confederation - entirely probable during their domination of the Pontic steppe. In both cases oaths of mutual allegiance would have been taken by all involved. The English words 'gather' and 'together' are cognates.

Generally living a luxurious lifestyle, Agathyrsi nobles were noted for their rich and extensive tattoos and their practice of dying their hair dark blue as a way of distinguishing themselves from their Thracian subjects. Tattoos were chequered, using blue-black ink, and covering faces and limbs. The more socially advanced the wearer, the more intense and intricate would be the tattoos. Agathyrsi women were especially enthusiastic about their tattoos.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Getae in Southern Dobruja in the Period of the Roman Domination: Archaeological Aspects, S Torbatov, 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, from The Scyths, T Sulimirski (The Cambridge History of Iran: Volume 2: The Median and Achaemenian Periods, I Gershevitch (Ed), Cambridge University Press, 1985), from Rome and the Nomads: The Pontic-Danubian Realm in Antiquity, Roger Batty (Oxford University Press, 2007), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia of Ukrainian History (in Ukrainian), and Rites of the Scythians (Archaeology), and Remarks on the Presence of Iranian Peoples in Europe and Their Asiatic Relations, Marek Jan Olbrycht (PDF available for download via Academia.edu), and The Cimmerian Problem Re-Examined: the Evidence of the Classical Sources, Marek Jan Olbrycht (PDF available for download via Academia.edu), and Some Interlinguistic Iranian Conundrums, Alexis Manaster Ramer (PDF, available for download via Academia.edu).)

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, for instance, and the general cultural level continues to have almost a pure Bronze Age character.

Map of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Greece 1200 BC
This map largely concentrates on the Indo-European migrations across the Balkans in this period, but the western edge of proto-Scythian lands are also shown here (whether those proto-Scythians were actual historical Scythians or the very similar Agathyrsi who were the first of the two to achieve domination), well before the occupants of the steppe came to the notice of Classical authors (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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 is, of course, debatable, but they are known to displace the Agathyrsi from the Pontic steppe in order to achieve their regional superiority.

? BC

Agathyrsus

Legendary. Eldest of the three Scythian founders.

The theory that the Agathyrsi are the first to appear and dominate out of all Scythian groups comes from the fact that the legendary Agathyrsus is named as the eldest of the three Scythian ancestors. He is born of the union between the god Targitaos and the 'Snake-Legged Goddess' whose Scythian name appears to have been lost.

FeatureOnce dominant, the Agathyrsi would have commanded the remaining population of West Indo-Europeans who remained on the steppe (see feature link).

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)

c.800 - 600 BC

This is the period of Scythian expansion from the Black Sea area into Central Europe. These steppe horsemen who appear in Moravia (now eastern Czechia), and what is now Romania and Hungary (and who are almost certainly but not inarguably Scythians) are the successors of the southern Russian Srubna culture of the Bronze Age which itself had constantly been pushing towards the west.

These Scythians introduce eastern types of horse gear, oriental animal art, timber graves, and inhumation rites (gaining the name of Timber-Grave culture from this). Before entering Central Europe, they conquer the Cimmerians on the northern shores of the Black Sea and in the northern Caucasus, driving them out - and also the Agathyrsi - to dominate the northern Black Sea region.

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.

Darius the Great of Persia
The central relief of the North Stairs of the Apadana in Persepolis, now in the Archaeological Museum in Tehran, shows Darius I (the Great) on his royal throne (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 4.0 International)

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.

Herodotus mentions and approximately locates the seats of the Neuri, Androphagi, Melanchlaeni, Budini, and other tribes living to the north of Scythia. 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.

Their neighbours are the Androphagi, identified with the Mordvins of central Russia, to the east of the lower Oka.

fl 513 BC

?

Unnamed Agathyrsi king during the Persian expedition.

The Scythians under Idanthyrsus seek help from the northern nations, along with the Agathyrsi and Tauri, to counter the Persian attack. He summons the kings of neighbouring tribes and so that they can discuss the situation.

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

The Budini, Gerrians, and Sarmatians agree to help the Scythians, while the Agathyrsi, Androphagi, Melanchlaeni, Neuri, and Tauri all refuse.

The Budini 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.

fl c.450s? BC

Spargapeithes

Agathyrsi king. m daughter of Teres I of the Odrysae.

mid-400s BC

Ariapeithes, the Scythian king during this period, marries the unnamed daughter of Teres I of the Odrysae but is murdered by Spargapeithes of the Agathyrsi. His son, the half-Thracian Scyles, is subsequently chased out of the Scythian kingdom by his own people due to his continuing promotion of Greek culture and traditions.

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)

4th century BC

Aristotle notes the continued existence of the Agathyrsi, although nothing else is known about them in this period. Scythian raids into the north have already experienced a sudden drop-off, and the Scythian kingdom itself is not flourishing.

Conditions on the steppe are changing, as they are in Thrace. The Agathyrsi receive no further mentions in history, apparently giving way to the Dacians (who are possibly directly related anyway).

 
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