From the Paleolithic to the Scythian
In the 18th Century BCE, on the borders of the great empires of antiquity, a new way of life emerged: that of the nomadic herdsmen, with their wealth in the huge herds of animals they controlled on the vast tracts of grass of the lands of the steppe. Their first representatives, the Cimmerians, according to classical sources, appearing from the east of the Black Sea, then occupied the steppes extending from Lower Transdanubia to the northern borders of the Caucasus. When around 700 BCE the Scythians took over the territories of the Cimmerians, the banished Cimmerian people forced their way through the Caucasus or the Balkans all the way to Asia Minor to pillage the Assyrian provinces for centuries to come. The steppes, from the Carpathians to the Tiensan and the Altai, from the Pamir to the Siberian taiga, came under the rule of various North Iranian-speaking equestrian nomadic people, who, in the Greek sources, are referred to collectively as the Scythians, and in ancient Persian texts as the Szaka. To the South, in the West Turkistan oasis belt, Iranian populated states were formed that were culturally partly settled, partly nomadic.
The Scythian tribes developed a close and complex relationship with the great antique empires on their southern border: at times trading with them, at times at war with them, and yet again, at other times serving them as mercenaries. Thanks to this fact, classical authors have provided us with several descriptions of their traditions and habits. These interpretations, however, were not always balanced or complete down to the smallest details. These views can be tempered with the evidence of archaeological research which informs us that the commentaries can be considered fairly trustworthy. We owe a great deal of gratitude for our knowledge to the images and representations of the period as well.
The inhabitants of the great ancient empires were quite fearful of the completely dissimilar lifestyle, and outlandish habits of the barbarians emerging at their eastern and western borders. This uncomfortable feeling of menace was increased by the mobility and skill with arms of their nomadic neighbours.
Central to the lifestyle of the equestrian nomads was the need of the male population, from boys to old men, to be constantly ready for battle. The flocks, the herds and studs were priceless – they represented wealth on four mobile feet. Nothing was easier than to add to their stock—their capital—by appropriating the animals of their nearby communities. High stepping horses represented particular quality and wealth and were much sought after. “Horse stealing” was a way of life on the steppes: it is mentioned both in orally transmitted epics and written sources. In the opus entitled ’The Secret History of the Mongols’, for instance, an epic collection available to the wider public, we learn that horse stealing is the motive behind several critical events. Although this form of augmenting riches is certainly derogatory to the injured party, as far as the the successful thief is concerned, it is nothing more than an amusing skill, a manly trial of strength and virtue. Driving away the animal was not considered a sin against morality and nothing demonstrates this better than the ancient myth of newborn Hermes stealing his brother Apollo’s cattle by a trick. Apollo comically hauls him over the coals, but it doesn’t have a negative effect on their relationship in the long term.
Guarding, stealing, and rounding up and driving the herds required that the nomadic tribes be armed. The fact that the nomadic people of the steppes were quickly identified as trading partners by their neighbors also contributed to this. Their exchange-value, their spare animals that is, were easily driven to the farmers of neighboring countries in (at times forced) exchange for grain, textiles, and luxury goods. These business trips were more favorably carried out when armed, because after the exchange had been made, or forced by means of arms, there was always the fear of retribution, retaliation or ambush. It is understandable therefore that even without any major war, conquest or campaign, the use of weapons was of major importance amongst the nomads. At the same time the horsemen driving away the herds needed to be always agile and mobile. It is due to this that the nomad people of the steppes were the ones that naturally formed and developed light weaponry cavalry, which played a significant role in history (including that of non nomadic nations as well) for thousands of years to come.
The most characteristic weapon of the light weaponry warrior or raider was the lightweight bow and arrow which had a longer range than any other weapon of the time. For scrimmages, a short sword for cut and thrust, a spear and a mace were also used. Moreover, because of their frequent appearance in battles, the whip and the lariat also could be looked upon as weapons. The clothes and protective wear of the warriors were made of lightweight material so they wouldn’t restrict free mobility when using weapons. When manufacturing armaments and harness, it was taken into account that the fighters at all times needed to be able to act quickly. Although in the epics of the steppes the hero frequently comes by his weapons directly from divine sources, these achievements in weaponry and armaments didn’t appear all at once as a godly gift, of course. Let us now therefore turn to the the history and evolution of individual weapons. First and foremost, we introduce those most characteristic nomadic weapons, the bow and arrow, as the primary focus of our examination.