Cimmerian Culture Rises in Russia

The nomadic Cimmerians, the first people to domesticate the horse and use it in warfare, arose in what would later become European Russia and the Ukraine.

Summary of Event

The Cimmerians were an early people whose existence is shrouded in myth and legend. In the eighth century b.c.e., the Greek Homer referred to them in his epics as living in the far north, in perpetual darkness. This may have been the ancient Greeks’ way of attempting to describe the peculiar patterns of night and day near the Arctic Circle, where the sun barely sets in summer and scarcely rises in winter. Several Assyrian texts mention them as Ga-mir or Ga-mir-a-a, which roughly means “people traveling back and forth,” that is, nomads. In the Jewish Torah (which also constitutes the first five books of the Christian Old Testament), Moses referred to the Cimmerians as the Gomer horde. In the twentieth century, fantasy author Robert E. Howard made his sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian a member of the Cimmerian tribe, and his works became so popular that many casual readers associate the name “Cimmerian” primarily with those fictional adventures. As a result, it might be easy for a modern reader to conclude that the Cimmerians were an entirely mythical people.

However, archaeological research in the areas of modern Ukraine and European Russia has found that the Cimmerians were indeed a real ethnic group that lived north of the Black Sea. In fact, the name Crimea for the peninsula on the Black Sea shores of Ukraine comes from their occupation of that territory. Archaeological research has linked the Cimmerians with the Novocherkassk culture, which was located on the grassy plains of the Prut and the lower Don Rivers. Because the Cimmerians had no written language, it is impossible to say for certain what language they spoke, but it is probable that they were an Iranian people, speaking a language similar to the Farsi spoken in modern Iran. Some scholars have suggested a possible connection with the Sumerians who founded the first Mesopotamian civilization on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (modern Iraq), but this theory depends on similarities of names and artifacts that may be attributable to chance rather than historic descent.

The Cimmerians were a Bronze Age people who produced numerous metal artifacts, including some very sophisticated sculptural representations of various animals familiar to them. They also produced striking bas-relief sculptures of men riding horses. Cimmerian men were buried with bow, sword, and spear among their grave goods, and there is ample evidence that they fought as mounted archers. It was said that their women fought as fiercely as their men and were not permitted to marry until they had killed an enemy. These warrior women may have been the basis for the Greek myth of the Amazons.

The horse was a major factor in the culture of the Cimmerians. In fact, it appears that they were the first people to domesticate and ride the horse and that they invented the mounted nomad lifestyle. Domestication of the horse gave them considerable military advantages over their neighbors and enabled them to increase their territory greatly. By the eighth century, they were encroaching on the plains to the north of the Caucasus (the area between modern Rostov-na-Donu and Astrakhan), which alarmed the kingdom of Urartu (predecessor of modern Armenia). In 720 b.c.e., the Urartuan king, Rusa, made a preemptive attack on Cimmerian forces, only to be defeated. As a result, the Cimmerians invaded and looted the entire area.

This brought the Cimmerians into contact with Phrygia, a kingdom in what would become Turkey. The Phrygian king, called Mit-ta in Assyrian sources and Midas in the Greek (who may have served as the basis for the legendary King Midas of the golden touch and the donkey’s ears), called on the assistance of King Sargon II of Assyria but was defeated in battle and committed suicide rather than be captured. Subsequently, a new kingdom, Lydia, rose from the ruins of Phrygia and fought numerous battles with the Cimmerians over the next century. By 610 b.c.e., the Lydians were able to inflict several major defeats on the Cimmerians, who subsequently disappeared from history. Apparently they were subsumed by the Scythians, also horse-riding nomads.


The Cimmerians’ domestication of the horse has had profound effects on human history that have extended into modern industrial times. Horses completely revolutionized the lifestyles of every nomadic tribe that acquired them, from the Cimmerians themselves to the Huns and Mongols and even the native peoples of the North American Great Plains. Only with the development of gunpowder weapons, which must be produced by a settled civilization, was the perpetual threat of the mounted nomadic horde broken for good. From then on, civilizations remained vulnerable only to one another or internal decay. The importance of the horse in other areas of life, including agriculture and transportation, remained paramount until the development of steam and internal-combustion engines by industrial societies.

Further Reading

  • Davis-Kimball, Jeaninne, Vladimir A. Bashilov, and Leonid T. Yablonsky, eds. Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley, Calif.: Zinat, 1995. A collection of articles dealing with early nomadic tribes in the area of modern Russia and Ukraine.
  • Rolle, Renate. The World of the Scythians. Translated by F. G. Walls. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. An overview of the world of early horse-nomad tribes. Includes index and bibliography.
  • Trippett, Frank. The First Horsemen. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974. Discusses archaeological evidence of the earliest mounted nomad tribes. Includes index.
  • Wells, Peter S. Beyond Celts, Germans, and Scythians: Archaeology and Identity in Bronze-Age Europe. London: Duckworth, 2001. Deals with the problem of relying upon Greek and Roman texts, with their built-in biases, in understanding preliterate ancient peoples, particularly nomads.