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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia


Massagetae / Massagetes (Indo-Iranians)
Incorporating the Apasiacae, Augasii, & Derbices

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 and many large islands. The Greeks transcribed this as Axartes, or Yaxartes, or even Iaxartes/Jaxartes. Today the river flows through Kazakhstan, to the north of the border with Uzbekistan.

North and east of the river, the Massagetae or Massagetai formed one of many tribal groups in Central Asia. Assumed to be an Indo-Iranian people, they were thought by the ancients (other than Herodotus) to be related to the Scythian groups which also occupied the territory between the Aral and Caspian Seas, and perhaps to the Saka who are essentially the same people, with different writers giving them different names.

However, Ctesias at least makes a distinction between Massagetae and Saka, suggesting that there were indeed some differences between Scythians and Saka. The Massagetae 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.

They were neighboured by the Aspisi to the north, Scythians and the Dahae to the west (more Scythians or Saka), 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 (and therefore Sakas, discounting minor regional or potential dialect differences between them). 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 which have been uncovered). For spearpoints and arrowheads, and also battle axes, they made use of bronze. Gold was used for headgear, belts, and girdles, and their horses were also decked out in brass and gold fittings.

The Apasiacae were a Massagetae sub-group, although their precise location is uncertain because they were given several locations. They lived either along the eastern coast of the Aral Sea between the Oxus and the Jaxartes, or along the banks of the Oxus in western Bactria (farther to the south-east), or between the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea, all of which was at some point either Massagetae or general Saka territory.

The Augasii (or Augasioi in Latinised Greek) were another Massagetae sub-group. They are the most poorly-recorded of the three main groups but they could be one and the same as the Attasii of Chorasmia who were recorded by Strabo. Even then they are poorly-recorded.

The Derbices (or Derbikes and Derbikkai in Latinised Greek) were a third Massagetae sub-group. This one occupied territory to the north of the River Atrek, which follows the northern edge of the mountains of north-eastern Iran, at a right angle to the south-eastern corner of the Caspian Sea. The Median satrapy of Verkâna sat to the south of the river. They were neighboured by the Dahae. The Achaemenid era saw some Derbices migrate south-westwards along the Caspian Sea coastline to reach central Tabaristan on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus: Books 11-12, Volume 1, Marcus Junianus Justinus, John Yardley, & Waldemar Heckel, from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from The Persian Empire, J M Cook (1983), from Persica, Ctesias of Cnidus (original work lost but a section is repeated by Photius in ninth century AD Constantinople), 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: Zoroastrian Heritage, K E Eduljee, and The Geography of Strabo (Loeb Classical Library Edition, 1932).)

c.546 - 540 BC

During his campaigns in the east, Cyrus the Great initially takes the northern route from Persis towards Bakhtrish and Suguda to reassure or subdue the provinces. This route probably involves the 'militaris via' by Rhagai to Parthawa. At some point Cyrus builds a line of seven forts to defend his frontier in Suguda and the neighbouring region of Ferghana against the tribal Massagetae to the north, the strongest of these being Kyra or Kyreskhata (Cyropolis - the Greek form of its name).

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

Records for these campaigns are characteristically sparse, and the likelihood that the preceding Median 'empire' had not be quite as expansive as had previously been thought by scholars means that it was unlikely that they had provided information on the threat posed by the Massagetae.

However, although both sides of the Syr Darya are dominated by Indo-Iranians in this period, it seems likely that the wilder, more tribal people to the north of the river are already being differentiated from the more settled groups to the south. The fact that the Persian empire's borders general follow the line of the river would seem to support this idea.

fl 530 BC

Tahm-Rayiš / Tomyris / Turcic?

Queen. Name is Indo-Iranian. Greek form shown second.

? - 530 BC


Son and sub-commander. Committed suicide.

530 BC

FeatureThe end of the reign of Cyrus the Great (see feature link) is spent in military activity in Central Asia where, according to Herodotus, he dies in battle in 530 BC. Intent on taming the Massagetae, he advances across the River Axartes which is not only broad but which contains many large islands.

Ctesias relates that he is aided by Saka chief Amorges, although Ctesias is highly unreliable as a chronicler. The distinction is interesting though. Clearly - in the mind of Ctesias at least - the Massagetae are not counted here as a Saka tribe. Instead a modern scholarly consensus links them to the Scythians - effectively a western version of the Sakas. If true then they would appear to be an eastwards extention of the Scythians who have settled deep in Saka territory.

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great freed the Indo-Iranian Parsua people from Median domination to establish a nation which is recognisable to this day, but even his forces were unable to defeat the Massagetae horde once its blood was up

The leader of the Massagetae (in this region, if not overall) is Queen Tahm-Rayiš, an Indo-Iranian name. She could also be Queen Turcic, meaning the 'Iron Maiden', which sees its male equivalent in Timur of later Samarkand (both names remain fashionable today in modern forms). Her son is Spargapises, most certainly an Indo-Iranian-sounding name. Cyrus lays a trap by leaving his camp vulnerable and well stocked with wine, and one third of the Massagetae fall for it.

They are attacked and defeated by Cyrus, with a majority of them being captured rather than killed. Their commander, Spargapises, commits suicide in shame (or perhaps to avoid being used as a bargaining counter). The queen's remaining forces launch a massed attack which, after a long, hard fight, destroys Cyrus' army and kills the Persian king (although other sources give a different account of his fate).

516 - 515 BC

Achaemenid ruler Darius I embarks on a military campaign into the lands east of the empire which 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.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis
Saka Tikrakhauda (otherwise known as 'Scythians' who in this case can be more precisely identified as Sakas) depicted on a frieze at Persepolis in Achaemenid Persia, which would have been the greatest military power in the region at this time

The pointed caps they wear would be sized according to seniority, with the tallest being reserved for the chieftain. This group of Sakas has been linked to the Massagetae of Strabo, but the seemingly strong Scythian connection for the latter makes this unlikely. Strabo also identifies the Attasii and the Chorasmii of the region of Chorasmia as Massagetae, making them sub-groups of the main Massagetae collective.

331 - 328 BC

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

The related Sakas can also be found in relatively similar areas of territory in the third century BC, whiuch suggests a link to the Massagetae which cannot otherwise be proven. Almost exactly the same areas in 515 BC are claimed as being Saka, which suggests far more than a tenuous link.

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 which would eventually contribute to the downfall of the Greeks - the Sakas and Greater Yuezhi (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Modern Indian scholars also consider the Jats of the Punjab to be directly related both to the Massagetae and the Sakas, the latter in their subsequent guise of Indo-Scythians. Any Massagetae connection can only be due to their being part of the Saka migration from Central Asia into South Asia and north-western India. The inference - if they had indeed been Scythians rather than Sakas - is that they are subsumed by the far greater numbers of Sakas around them.

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