Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.52

Charlotte Schubert, Anacharsis der Weise: Nomade, Skythe, Grieche. Leipziger Studien zur klassischen Philologie, 7.   Tübingen:  Gunter Narr Verlag, 2010.  Pp. 227.  ISBN 9783823366072.  €58.00.  

Reviewed by Balbina Bäbler, Göttingen (

The fascinating figure of the wise Scythian Anacharsis, who travelled widely in Greece, where he conversed with Solon, and who was killed on his return by his own brother while trying to inaugurate Greek rites, was first mentioned by Herodotus and became a fixture in the tradition on the “Seven wise men”. Schubert attempts to give a new interpretation of Anacharsis in his specific rôle as a Scythian nomad in the context of early Greek concepts of wisdom.1

The main methodological flaw of this work is the author’s strongly schematic, i.e. structuralist, reading of the whole Herodotus narrative (outlined on pp. 6-19 and 20-37), in which she uncritically follows F. Hartog whose work The Mirror of Herodotus (Berkeley 1988) she regards as pioneering (“wegweisend”, 158). Schubert’s whole interpretation of the Scythian logos is therefore governed by a fixed preconception of what Herodotus wanted the Scythian nomads to be and excludes a priori any possibility that anything in this logos might be genuinely Scythian and not invented by Herodotus to illustrate his own notions of wisdom and his “bipolar” (194) worldview.

Now archaeologists and ancient historians working on Scythia have seen long ago how accurately Herodotus described Scythian traditions and customs, and especially in recent years the work of A.I. Ivantchik, today’s leading expert on Scythia, has shown that Indo-Iranian, as well as archaeological, evidence leaves no room for any “invention of otherness” in Scythia.2 While Schubert cannot totally ignore the archaeological evidence, she regards these insights as only very recent and is quite unaware of current research;3 she also retains the obligatory structuralist jargon which is at times hardly comprehensible even for Germans but probably totally unintelligible for non-native speakers.4

Better written are chapters II (“Archäologie der griechischen Weisheit I: Die Sieben Weisen”, 48-68) and III (“Archäologie der griechischen Weisheit II: Der Weisheitswettkampf”, 69-92) where the author is obviously on familiar ground, i.e. Greek history of archaic and early classical times. Schubert explores the archaic conception of “wisdom” and its relation to the evolution of Greek political thinking; although the so-called Sages were well-known historical figures, the renowned circle of exactly seven of them is not known before Plato (69-75), and precise sources exist only about Solon (52-55). An important feature of Solon’ teachings was the concept of moderation; the much praised isonomia meant the equilibrium of forces both in a healthy body and in a well governed state (55-59), and already in Herodotus it had acquired the political meaning of the opposite of tyrannis (59-68). This development also led to a change in the Greeks’ perception of archaic wisdom, which seemed increasingly discredited because of its use in political rivalries. Schubert further explores this shift through the layers of tradition about the formation of the canonical circle of the Seven Sages in the 4th century BC. By then wisdom had become a contemplative, philosophical quality and no longer implied practical or political advice as in earlier times (88-90).

Ch. IV (“Die Botschaft des Skythenkönigs”, 93-116) starts rather abruptly with Herodotus’ narrative of Dareios’ campaign against the Scythians and the “answer” their king Idanthyrsos gives to Persian demands of surrender, consisting in a bird, a mouse, a frog and five arrows (Hdt. 4,127f.). Schubert compares this version of the story with the one recorded by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 5, 8, 44) and ascribed to Pherecydes (FGrHist 3 F 174): the sequence of the tokens is different (98), and Clement’s version mentions a plough as additional token. This leads Schubert to the conclusion that Pherecydes preserved an older version, which Herodotus adapted for his purpose, since a plough would not have fitted in his picture of the totally alien nomads situated outside the common cultural space shared by Greeks and Persians (101-104). In order to accept this interpretation, one would, of course, have to share the assumption that Herodotus really had such a purpose and such a world view in the first place. At the end of the story (4, 134, 2), both Scythians and Persians prepare for battle – which, however, is not fought, since the Scythians start to pursue a hare that suddenly appears; in Schubert’s view the historian tells this anecdote to mock “the widely diffused idealization of the Scythians” in his time (108f.). But is there enough evidence for the assumption of such an idealization? In Herodotus’ time, Athenians were well acquainted with the region (see note 5), and the presence of numerous Scythians in Athens as a police force is a notorious source of merciless laughter in Aristophanes.

Ch. V (117-145), though entitled “Skythische Seher: Ambiguität der Weisheit”, treats these diviners only briefly (135- 140) and mainly consists of a lengthy comparison of the world view attributed by Schubert to Herodotus and the work de aer. 12-24 (119-128, taken up again 167-174). Her aim is to establish “cultural classifications” in which to locate the kind of wisdom common to all Scythians. This forms a kind of background to ch. VI (“Anacharsis und die griechische Weisheit”, 146-174), which deals with the specific Greek form of wisdom and the way of life fitting for a wise man: leisure, musical competitions, and the like. According to Schubert, Anacharsis foundered on the dangerous side of wisdom when he tried to import the rites of Cybele into his homeland (4, 76).

Since Schubert regards Herodotus as writing about the Scythians to fit them into his “complicated construction of identity and alterity” (17), she does not take at face value Herodotus’ account of Scyles’ and Anacharsis’ troubles on their return (she assumes that Herodotus got the story of Anacharsis’ ill-fated homecoming from Hecataeus, Aristeas, Pherecydes or some other “Vorlage”: the possibility that he heard it at Olbia is not even mentioned); for Schubert the Scythians’ refusal to adopt foreign ecstatic rituals as well as their criticism of Greek traditions and customs has to be ironical, “doubly ironical” or even represents a “double re-encoding” (21, 131, 162).5

Schubert seems to be unaware that Scythian religious beliefs, gods, and ritual conceptions are demonstrably of Indo- Iranian origin and that by taking this into account modern scholars have been able to explain many anecdotes in Herodotus’ Scythian logos that formerly seemed strange or even fancifully invented.6 Thus Schubert misses an exciting opportunity to interpret the stories of Scyles and Anacharsis in the context of Scythian culture as we know it today. She never considers the religious background and the motivation of the Scythians’ fatal reaction against Scyles’ and Ancharsis’ actions: her interpretation is predetermined by her preconception that Herodotus uses some older Greek tradition and manipulates it to make it fit into his basically structuralist worldview. She never asks whether any Scythian behaviour or action recorded by Herodotus might also be explained by contemporary Scythian realities.

Ch. VII (“Anacharsis und die Weisheit der Nomaden”, 175-192) sums up Schubert’s belief that Herodotus told the story of Anacharsis only to validate his own concept of wisdom, which has to conform to a culture’s specific nomos: Anacharsis and Scyles were guilty of violating the boundaries of their own cultic space and punished accordingly, since (for Schubert) in Herodotus nomads are completely “immobile” in everything concerning cult and culture (179).

Thus, it never occurs to Schubert that Scythian religious and spiritual concepts might have been evolving: Ivantchik, however, has impressively shown how both older and newer Scythian cultural traditions are present in Herodotus’ Scythian logos.7 The same holds true for the Scythian gods: everything we know about Scythian religion and culture belies the notion of an unchanging society. Herodotus himself certainly does not paint it as such: already his stay at Olbia and conversations with Scythian sources proves the contrary. During his time a once completely aniconic religion had already undergone deep changes under Greek influence, of which he must have been at least partly aware. 8

Summing up, Schubert declares Anacharsis to be the paradigm of a nomad, giving as her reason for the elaboration of this figure the Persian Wars which caused a new phase of definition of the self and the other (183-188), and repeating her basic assumption that for Herodotus human life was “bipolar” (193f.)

The book leaves an uneven impression. The parts concerning archaic Greek wisdom and Greek medical writing are interesting, but Anacharsis as a Scythian remains unexplained. This is basically due to Schubert’s obvious ignorance about Scythia, the Scythians, and all the relevant research done during the last two decades. While the terms “nomad” and “Scythian” appear in the subtitle, Schubert does not really engage with the scholarly literature that might have given them real meaning. What is really necessary when dealing with these subjects is more interdisciplinary work, mainly with specialists having the necessary scholarly background in Scythian studies.


Bäbler 2011a: B. Bäbler, Das Land der Skythen – ein Wolkenkuckucksheim Herodots?, in: N. Povalahev, V. Kuznetsov (Eds.), Phanagoreia, Kimmerischer Bosporos, Pontos Euxeinos (Göttingen 2011) 103-139
Bäbler 2011b: B. Bäbler, Ein Spiegel mit Sprung: Das Skythenbild in François Hartogs “Le miroir d’Hérodote”, in: N. Povalahev, V. Kuznetsov (Eds.), Phanagoreia und seine historische Umwelt. Von den Anfängen der griechischen Kolonisation (8. Jh. v. Chr.) bis zum Chasarenreich (10. Jh. n. Chr.) (Göttingen 2011) 111- 136
Ivantchik 2011: A.I. Ivantchik, The Funeral of the Scythian Kings: The Historical Reality and the Description of Herodotus (4.71-72), in: L. Bonfante (ed.), The Barbarians of Ancient Europe. Realities and Interactions (Cambridge 2011)


1.   Schubert ignores earlier work dealing with the story of Anacharsis as part of the discourse of Greek ethnicity, e.g. B. Bäbler, Fleissige Thrakerinnen und wehrhafte Skythen. Nichtgriechen im klassischen Athen und ihre archäologische Hinterlassenschaft (Stuttgart/Leipzig 1998) 163-174; D. Braund, Scythian Laughter: Conversations in the Northern Black Sea Region in the 5th Century BC, in: P. Guldager Bilde, J. Hjarl Petersen (Eds.), Meetings of Cultures in the Black Sea Region: Between Conflict and Coexistence (Aarhus 2008) 347-367; and esp. the methodologically interesting considerations of the literary and archaeological traces of “identity switching” by F. Fless, A. Lorenz, Griechen, Skythen, Bosporaner. Zu den Problemen “ethnischer Etikettierungen” von Gräbern in den Nekropolen Pantikapaions, in: Eurasia Antiqua 11, 2005, 57-77.
2.   Ivantchik 2011; his earlier research is summed up in Bäbler 2011a.
3.   Cf. 102f. n. 302 and 157f. n. 465 where important works on the subject are omitted; on p. 142, Herodotus’ Scythians are even located on the “Western” shore of the Black Sea.
4.   Her favorite sentence, repeated almost verbatim in various other articles (see, e.g., Schubert, Zum problematischen Verhältnis von res fictae und res factae im antiken Nomadendiskurs, in: A. Weiß (ed.), Der imaginierte Nomade, Wiesbaden 2007, 30): “Die Irreführung durch die sichtbaren Dinge, die Scheinbarkeit der gegebenen Objektivität des Faktischen stellt er dem Leser nicht explizit, aber deutlich in den formalen und inhaltlichen Mustern dar, die er verwendet.” (15 f.) On this fashionable manner of speaking see now Bäbler 2011b, 113-115.
5.   The structuralist approach overlooks how well informed Athenians of the 430s were about the Black Sea Region, especially after Pericles’ Pontic expedition; see e.g. D. Braund, The Sindians of the Taman Peninsula ca. 400 BC: Polyaenus’ Tirgitao, Numismatics and Demosthenes’ Grandfather, in: S.L. Solvyov (Ed.), Greeks and Natives in the Cimmerian Bosporus 7th -1st Centuries BC (Oxford 2007) 17-21.
6.   The groundbreaking work in a Western language in this respect was certainly A.I. Ivantchik, Une légende sur l’origine des Scythes (Hdt. IV, 5-7) et le problème des sources du Scythicos logos d’Hérodote, in: Revue des Études Grecques 112, 1999, 141-192. The basic book of D.S. Rajevskij, The world model of Scythian culture: Problems of the “Weltanschauung” of Iranian-speaking peoples of the Eurasian steppes (Moscow 1985) has regrettably never been translated from the Russian and thus remains virtually unknown in the West. A very good introduction to the Scythian pantheon can be found in Y. Ustinova, The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom (Leiden etc. 1999) 67-174.
7.   Ivantchik 2011 (with the earlier literature on this phenomenon).
8.   Bäbler 2011b, 126-134 (summing up earlier research on Scythian religion).

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