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Christopher I. Beckwith: The Scythian Empire. Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press 2023, XXXII + 377 S., 18 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-0-691-24053-4, USD 39,95
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Rezension von:
Henri-Paul Francfort
Maison de l'Archéologie et de l'Ethnologie à Nanterre
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Henri-Paul Francfort: Rezension von: Christopher I. Beckwith: The Scythian Empire. Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press 2023, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 9 [15.09.2023], URL:

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Christopher I. Beckwith: The Scythian Empire

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Prof. Beckwith offers an original synthesis of the history of the Old World from the Black Sea to the Yellow River, between the 8th and the 4th  century BC. The book develops eight previous lectures and articles delivered between 2016 and 2020 (xvi). The linguistic erudition and broad scope of Beckwith's book necessitate explanations about "Terminology", "Transcriptions and Conventions", "Sources and Citations" and "Abbreviations and Symbols" (xix-xxxii). An "Introduction" and a consistent "Prologue" (1-34) present the argument of the book. It is a reconstruction of an "Empire", established and ruled by the Scythians, coming on their horses from Central Eurasia, and organizing their rule by a "Scytho-Mede-Persian" empire in the Western areas, as well as the first Chinese Empire in the East. By ruling a large part of the Ancient World, the Scythians brought seven fundamental innovations to the evolution of Civilization: weapons, reorganization of army, socio-political structure, an "Eternal Royal Line", clothes, a language, religious and philosophical concepts.

The eight chapters tackle various questions by different approaches. 1. The ["Royal"] Scythians in the Central Eurasian Steppes (35-53), with the hypotheses of a feudal-hierarchical structure, a royal lineage (the Ariya), a Heavenly God (a Täŋgri or Ahura Mazda), a national foundation myth (three version in Herodotus), a "Royal Language" (αρια in the Rabatak Kanishka's inscription), a way of life as nomadic herders, and a literature, heroic but including the Gāthās of Zoroaster. 2. The Scythians in Media and Central Asia (54-80) presents the history of the conquest from Central Asia to the Zagros, following the Cimmerians, and the dynastic histories, using written sources for reconstructing the "creolization" of the Medes into "Scytho-Medes", leading to the Mede and Achaemenid empires. A parallel is suggested with the Chinese emergence of empire, where Dà Xià means, according to Beckwith, "great Ḥarya (Aria) Empire" (79-80, developed in the book's chap. 4 and 7): this was a change "from Archaic to Classical cultures" to be attributed to the Scythians. 3. The Scytho-Mede Persian Empire (81-114) develops the idea of Darius' monotheism opposed to the 'false gods' or Daivas of the polytheist "Old Mazdaists", reduced to Anāhita and Mithra only (repeated 45, 93, 96, 104, 106), and diminishing to second rank deities the gods of the Scythians listed by Herodotus (95-96). Beckwith develops and insists upon an essentially politico-religious dynastic history. 4. One Eternal Royal Line (115-138) argues in favour of an Aria lineage, from the Achaemenid Persians to Chinese, claiming that this word traces the expansion of the Scythian concept of a royal line of a Great King among many Asian peoples up to the Türk (125-138). 5. Imperial Scythian in the Persian Empire (138-166), with a limited number of words from the lexical data, supports the idea that Avestan and Median are "Imperial Scythian" languages, but Old Persian is not. 6. Classical Scythian in the Central Eurasian Steppes (167-205): this chapter comments "the language of the Classical Scythian period steppe Scythians"; the reconstructed "Classical West Scythian" lists fifty words, and the reconstructed "Classical East Scythian" fifteen only. Since a great part is reconstructed (including with the Old Chinese), we expect comments on this part from specialist linguists. 7. The Scythian Empire in Chao and the First Chinese Empire (206-221) comments the above mentioned Dàxià "Great Harya", meaning Bactria or "Ḥarya Empire", and builds a scenario for the appearance of the "Scytho-Chinese Empire" of Qín Shĭhuangdì from Zhào to Qín replicating the events of Iran, by listing the considered Scythian origin elements, from socio-political "feudal" structure to administration and sculpture. Incidentally, the Mauryan empire is also considered as a "Scytho-Mede-Persian successor". 8. The Scythian Capitals of Media, Chao, and Ch'in (222-233) is an attempt to connect Ecbatana (Hamadan, Iran) the Median capital, to "two of the great capital cities in Classical East Asia", via the vocable Agamatana. The Epilogue, Scythian Philosophy in the Classical Age (234-267), tries to put in a line the philosophers Anacharsis, Zoroaster, Gautama (Buddha) and Laozi and to make them Scythian philosophers, founders of all philosophy of the Ancient World, in Greece, Persia, India, and China; Beckwith adds a corollary on Karl Jaspers's Axial Age, putting the Scythians as "a solution to the Axial Age problem" of (262). One appendix deals with Zoroaster and Monotheism (269-282), and the second with Scythian and Scytho-Mede Dress and Weaponry (283-295).

Beckwith's book is impressive with a large array of erudition oriented towards trying to demonstrate the importance of the Scythians in Eurasian history, and the existence of a "Scythian empire".

Putting the Scythians in the centre of the stage is certainly important, so many years after René Grousset's, L'empire des steppes (1939) which largely ignores the periods preceding the Middle Age. Adding to the picture Antiquity after the Cimmerians' invasion is fine. However, considering that the Scythians founded a real empire can be subject to discussions, regarding its supposed homogeneity from Black Sea to Yellow River, in linguistic, cultural, political, and religious domains: the semantic extension of "empire" is in question, as is the use of "Scythian" vs. "Steppic". [1] The hard data are scanty, and Beckwith spends much effort on linguistic and religion, while one cannot be sure that Eastwards, beyond the Urals or Bactria, Indo-Iranian languages were practiced. Similarly focusing on religious history as a dynastic quarrel about monotheism vs polytheism (Anahita and Mithra only) seems very simplified, especially if we consider the numerous images of female major deities in the art of the steppes people (Véronique Shiltz and Esther Jacobson's research is ignored). The domain of archaeology is often bypassed or summarized by using a small number of scientific-popular books, or selected reports (absence of the synthesis publications by H. Parzinger and many Russian authors [2]). The enormous rich body of archaeology and art is ignored, except some well-known Achaemenid or Greek pictures for illustrating dress and weapons. However not only archaeology can enlarge considerably the factual basis, but it apparently contradicts some of Beckwith's propositions: for instance, the question of the cities in the steppe must be considered since the Bronze Age (Sintashta, Arkaim, etc.), as well as the origins of the use of horses and subsequent military organization (chariots of Sintashta Andronovo cultures, and Shang China). The big question of the funerary customs (burial, exposition, or cremation), closely linked to prestige exchanges [3], and with religions, from Inner Eurasia to Iran, is absent. The three tired social hierarchy of power, methodologically, can be used almost everywhere for anything in the steppes, from the universe of shamanism to the burial categories of the Altay Pazyryk culture (works of V. Kubarev and others). Consequently, for the Scythians, the term "feudalism" seems not adapted, when "tribal structure" appears better, combining power and family matrimonial alliances and confederations for wars. [4]

In short, if the focus put on the Scythians is welcome, as is a schematical simplification of the history, it requires a careful examination to be accepted in its entirety, especially in respect to the huge quantity and complexity of archaeological data.


[1] Ursula Brosseder: Rezension von: Victor H. Mair / Jane Hickman (eds.): Reconfiguring the Silk Road. New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity. The Papers of a Symposium Held at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, March 19, 2011, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 2014. In: sehepunkte 15 (2015), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2015], URL: ; Ursula Brosseder: The Xiongnu Empire. In: Handbook of Ancient Afro-Eurasian Economies Volume 1. Contexts (2016), 195.

[2] H. Parzinger: Die frühen Völker Eurasiens vom Neolithikum bis zum Mittelalter. Munich 2006.

[3] See for instance: Xiaolong Wu: Cultural hybridity and social status: elite tombs on China's Northern Frontier during the third century BC. In: Antiquity 87/335 (2013), 121-136;

Jianhua Yang and K. M. Linduff: A contextual explanation for "Foreign" or "Steppic" factors exhibited in burials at the Majiayuan cemetery and the opening of the Tianshan Mountain Corridor." In: Asian Archaeology 1 (2013), 73-84.

[4] M. Godelier : Les tribus dans l'histoire face aux États. Paris 2010.

Henri-Paul Francfort