Scythians Drive the Cimmerians from Central Asia

The Scythians hunted the Cimmerians, driving them out of the Volga River Valley, Armenia, the borders of Assyria, and Asia Minor.

Summary of Event

The Cimmerians, a nomadic people referred to in the Bible as the Gomer, were a militarily aggressive Indo-European people of Iranian lineage. The Cimmerians settled along the northern coast of what is today known as the Black Sea (known in ancient Greek literature as the Southern Sea), specifically in modern Ukraine east of the Dnieper River. Modern scholars believe that Cimmerian culture arose on what is now known as the Crimean Peninsula in the late eleventh century b.c.e. The first known reference to the Cimmerians appears in the poetry of Homer and dates from c. 714 b.c.e., when the Cimmerians defeated a number of peoples and occupied the lands of several civilizations in Asia Minor and the Near East, particularly the kingdom of Media in present-day Iran and the Assyrian Empire in modern-day Iraq.

The Cimmerians’ antagonists, the Scythians (also known as the Scyths), shared with them an Indo-European origin. The Scythians spoke a language that belonged to the Iranian linguistic group and most likely originated in the steppe of southwestern Russia. Of all the extant ancient historians, Herodotus is the only one to discuss the nomadic Scythians and their interaction with the Cimmerians in any detail. Herodotus’s knowledge of the Scythians’ exploits came from the fact that groups of Greek settlers, with whom Herodotus had lived, encountered the Scythians during their colonization of territory of what is today southern Russia.

In his detailed historical narrative Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709), Herodotus mentions that the Scythians, who he noted were formidable warriors, invaded Cimmerian territory. This event, which is also mentioned in Chinese records of the time, probably occurred in the eighth century b.c.e. (ancient accounts disagree regarding the exact time of this episode). According to Herodotus, the Scythians crossed the Araxes River (located in present-day Armenia), which had been controlled by the Cimmerians. On learning of the Scythians’ impending arrival, the Cimmerians convened a meeting of their legislative council to determine a course of action. Herodotus notes that the session was unable to reach a consensus on how to deal with the Scythian threat, and consequently two factions emerged. One group resolved to leave the area immediately and avoid a confrontation with the Scythians, who were well known throughout western Asia and the Mediterranean region as accomplished soldiers. The other coalition, whom Herodotus refers to as the Royal Tribe, decided to remain and fight the Scythian invaders. These individuals were killed in their failed bid to turn back the marauding Scythians. Herodotus indicates that the graves of the Cimmerian defenders were still visible near the Tyras (modern-day Dniester) River. The Scythian onslaught compelled those Cimmerians who had chosen not to fight to abandon their territories along the Volga River Valley in southern Russia as well as their lands in the southern Caucasus Mountains. After relinquishing these holdings to the Scythians, the remaining Cimmerians fled across the Caucasus west into Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).


Despite their expulsion from the Volga region and Armenia at the hands of the Scythians, the Cimmerians and their civilization were not completely extinguished. The writings of Herodotus reveal that Cimmerian culture survived the Scythian invasion. He notes that Cimmerian castles were still present during his day (the fifth century b.c.e.) and that some locations retained their Cimmerian names. Furthermore, Herodotus remarks that after fleeing the Scythians, the Cimmerians built settlements that would later serve as the foundations for the Greek colonies that arose in the Black Sea region during Herodotus’s day, particularly the Greek city of Sinope (modern-day Sinop, Turkey).

The Cimmerians’ experience with the Scythians led them to take up arms and seek new lands to the west. The Cimmerians’ luck improved after they crossed the Caucasus—they successfully plundered the Lydian city of Sardis in present-day western Turkey and destroyed another important Lydian city, Magnesia. Eventually, however, the Lydians were able to turn the tide against the newcomers, and the Cimmerians were defeated by the seventh century b.c.e. Apparently, Cimmerian civilization did not survive beyond this period, as no records of the Cimmerians exist after their encounter with the Lydians.

As for the Scythians, their encounter with the Cimmerians did not signal the end of their territorial expansion. Before its decline in the late third century b.c.e., the Scythian Empire extended over 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers), from Ukraine in the west to present-day Kazakhstan in the east. The Scythians’ significance in the ancient world is clear given Herodotus’s lengthy discussion of their activities as well as the biblical reference to the Scythians (Colossians 3:11).

Further Reading

  • Boren, Henry C. The Ancient World: An Historical Perspective. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986. A classic text that covers the ancient cultures that occupied western Russia, the Caucasus, and the Near East.
  • Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Robin A. Waterfield, edited by Carolyn Dewald. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. This is the definitive ancient source on the Cimmerians and Scythians—particularly books 1, 4, and 7—from arguably the greatest of ancient historians.
  • Rice, Tamara Talbot. The Scythians. 3d ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1961. A classic work on the Scythians that covers their interactions with the Cimmerians. Well illustrated.
  • Von Soden, Wolfram. The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1994. An approachable introduction to the Cimmerians and their relationship with the Scythians.
  • Wells, Peter S. Beyond Celts, Germans, and Scythians: Archaeology and Identity in Iron Age Europe. London: Duckworth, 2001. Discusses the process of identifying and discussing a nomadic or migratory “people” solely from archaeological evidence and commentary by outside writers. Discusses the movements of and conflicts among the Scythians and Cimmerians.

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