Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.07.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.07.07

Andreas Gerstacker, Anne Kuhnert, Fritz Oldemeier, Nadine Quenouille (ed.), Skythen in der lateinischen Literatur. Eine Quellensammlung. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 334.   Berlin; München; Boston:  de Gruyter, 2015.  Pp. 401.  ISBN 9783110296716.  €109,95.  

Reviewed by Balbina Bäbler, University of Göttingen (

Table of Contents

This book offers a collection of excerpts of Latin literature where Scythians (and a range of other peoples that were in Roman times considered related to them) are mentioned. This is a useful undertaking that fills a lacuna for archaeologists, classical philologists and ancient historians interested in the matter.

The texts are presented in chronological order (according to the biographical data of their authors) and organized in five sections: Die Zeit der römischen Republik (pp. 39–5); Die augusteische Zeit (pp. 55–101); Vom Tod des Augustus bis Hadrian (pp. 105–282); Von den Antoninen bis Konstantin (pp. 287–307) and Ein Ausblick ins 4. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (pp. 311–365).

Every text is given in Latin and German, preceded by an introduction on the author and a short note concerning the content and context of the excerpt that follows. There is no critical apparatus, but on pp. 369–377 can be found the list of the editions that have been used. Coverage is intended to be comprehensive for the period from the beginning of Latin literature until 300 AD; the following time is covered (very sensibly) only by a selection of texts that seemed relevant to the editors. The introduction by A. Weiß is entitled “Die Skythen als paradigmatische [= exemplary?] Nomaden”, which seems to me somewhat misleading in view of the Latin texts presented in this volume, where the distinction between Scythians, Massagetai, Dahae and Goths is at least blurred, and not nomadism, but geographical remoteness, cold and wildness of the land and savagery of its inhabitants were the characteristic features ascribed to them.

In a short overview of the Scythians in Greek literature, which is presented as background, A. Weiß points out that nomads were not necessarily barbarians for the Greeks; indeed they are never called so in Herodotus (p. 20). The tradition of idealizing the Scythians as a wise and philosophical people, unspoiled by the luxuries of civilization, begins in Greek literature with Ephorus of Cyme.1 The twofold tradition of a wild and untamed people on the one hand, and the idealized image on the other, lived on in Roman times, as can be seen from the texts.

It is not quite clear to me what is meant (in the short paragraph on “archaeology und text”, p. 30f.) by the laborious sentence that the position was indeed held by some people that there was (with regard to the Scythian logos in Herodotus) in some cases a connection between text and archaeological heritage. This seems a rather curious understatement: so far, not only has every archaeological record in what was ancient Scythia corroborated Herodotus’ account, but also recent research in religious studies, focusing on the Indo-Iranian origin of the Scythians, and studies that made use of ethnological and folkloric traditions (especially in Ossetian conceptions and traditions) have confirmed (from a new perspective) many of Herodotus’ stories that before were hard to understand.2

The basic question, of course, is whether we really can speak of “sources” at all. As Weiß himself points out himself (pp. 27–30), the Scythians were in Roman times a culture of the past (from the 3rd century BC on they had been replaced by the Sarmatians; only in the Southern part of the Crimea did some Scythian remnants survive until Roman imperial times). They encompassed for Roman authors (esp. poets) all the peoples in the northern part of the known world; as a general term “Scythia” and “Scythians” stood for wildness and uncivilized barbarians. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of the texts date from the 1st and the 2nd centuries AD, when the Scythians served mostly as a convenient means to demonstrate the remoteness of the regions the reigning Roman emperor had conquered and the savagery of the peoples that nevertheless paid him tribute (see e.g. the excerpts of Horace, pp. 62–66). The poet Ovid (pp. 73–100) thought it appropriate for his readers to conjure up the same clichés of a barbarian country of unbearable and incessant cold, inhabited by ferocious barbarians incessantly shooting arrows to make abundantly clear that the emperor had to deliver him from his exile. (The same clichés served Seneca well in his tragedies, where murderous women like Medea are inevitably Scythian, pp. 145–163). Thus, these texts offer mainly information about popular prejudices and Roman imperial policy rather than historical or geographical realities.3

Several Roman authors, however, also adopted the positive, idealizing tradition about the wise and unspoiled Scythians (e.g. Pomponius Mela, pp. 108–119), Seneca in his epistles (pp. 158–161), or Curtius Rufus (pp. 204–226).

Indeed the ethnographical, historical and geographical depictions of the country and peoples of Scythia by the Roman authors are almost entirely taken over from Greek sources, mainly Herodotus, even when they deal with regions of which the Romans had first-hand knowledge. The Christian authors of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD turn out to be in this context rather dreary reading, since they relish in ascribing to the Scythians all sorts of typically “barbarian” gruesome behaviour (like human sacrifice, anthropophagy etc.), largely in order to incessantly apply it to their heretical opponents. Especially brilliant at this procedure is Tertullian whose archenemy Marcion was allegedly from Scythia (pp. 294–301; cf. Ambrose of Milan, who thunders in a similar way against his Arian antibishop Auxentius, p. 328f.).

How vague the conception of the Scythians had become in Late Antiquity can also be seen in the excerpts of historians who regularly label the Goths that troubled the Roman empire in the 4th cent. as Scythians (esp. the writers of the Historia Augusta, pp. 343–352).

It becomes clear that the Roman authors picked out from the information provided by the Greek tradition what was of special interest to them, as, for instance, the obviously fascinating skull-cups fabricated by the Scythians from the heads of their enemies (e. g. Pomponius Mela, p. 115f.; Silius Italicus, p. 144), natural occurrences like animals, herbs and gemstones of Scythia (Pliny, pp. 164–191), the wisdom of the Scythians (Curtius Rufus, p. 217) or their stratagems (Frontinus, 227f.). A deeper interest in the Scythians and their culture per se is almost never detectable.

Indices are provided on pp. 379–401. There are only a few misprints: p. 13 (eighth line from below) read: Rolle (instead of: Rollen); p. 47 read: Propemptikon (instead of: Proemtikon); p. 78 read: Erysichthon (instead of: Erysichthin); p. 220, line 8 read: ein Schild, der (instead of: das); p. 230 (Mart. Epig. 7,19,1–6) read: auf eine Planke (instead of: auf einer). Altogether this useful collection provides basic material for further research in an easily accessible manner.


1.   Here Ivantchik 2005, 18–52 should have been mentioned, who gives an in-depth analysis of the emergence of the idealization of the Scythians. A.I. Ivantchik, Am Vorabend der Kolonisation. Das nördliche Schwarzmeergebiet und die Steppennomaden des 8.–7. Jhs. in der klassischen Literaturtradition: Mündliche Überlieferung, Literatur und Geschichte (Berlin; Moskau 2005).
2.   Ivantchik 2005, 162–189; id., "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.
3.   This phenomenon has already been discussed in: B. Bäbler, "Greeks and Barbarians on the Black Sea Shore: Material remains and literary perceptions", in: D. Kacharava, M. Faudot, E. Geny (eds.), Pont-Euxin et Polis (Actes du Xe Symposium de Vani 2002, Besançon 2005) 49-62.

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