The best books to understand the Scythians

David Austin Beck Author Of The Greek Prince of Afghanistan
By David Austin Beck

Who am I?

I'm an author who believes that history contains an endless number of stories of how our past peers dealt with and contributed to the tension, fusion, and reinvention that is human existence. When writing The Greek Prince of Afghanistan, which focuses on the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom of ancient Afghanistan, I included a Scythian character, because I felt the novel’s story, like humanity’s story, is best told through multiple perspectives. The above books helped me greatly in that effort.

I wrote...

The Greek Prince of Afghanistan

By David Austin Beck,

Book cover of The Greek Prince of Afghanistan

What is my book about?

The Greek Prince of Afghanistan follows the early life of Demetrius, prince of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom of ancient Afghanistan. He lives in a world of cultural fusion and conflict, and he faces threats from every direction. From the west, an army approaches under the banners of Antiochus, a Hellenistic monarch obsessed with ruling the lands once conquered by Alexander. From within, tensions build between the kingdom's Greek elite and non-Greek subjects. In desperate need of allies for the imminent war, Demetrius rides north to secure an alliance with the Scythians, a people rumored to eat their prisoners and feed their elderly to the dogs. But with his kingdom divided, their help may not be enough.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe

Why did I love this book?

Barry Cunliffe has time and again proved himself to gracefully weave serious scholarship with compelling reflection. As he does with his other books, he builds conclusions and raises questions based on the most recent archaeological evidence. The Scythians are greatly misunderstood, their legacy shaded by the often-disparaging views of their contemporaries. Barry Cunliffe’s archeological approach helps the Scythians speak through the things they left behind.

By Barry Cunliffe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Scythians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Brilliant horsemen and great fighters, the Scythians were nomadic horsemen who ranged wide across the grasslands of the Asian steppe from the Altai mountains in the east to the Great Hungarian Plain in the first millennium BC. Their steppe homeland bordered on a number of sedentary states to the south - the Chinese, the Persians and the Greeks - and there were, inevitably, numerous interactions between the nomads and their neighbours. The Scythians fought the
Persians on a number of occasions, in one battle killing their king and on another occasion driving the invading army of Darius the Great from…

Book cover of Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present

Why did I love this book?

While only one chapter of Empires of the Silk Road is dedicated to the Scythians, this book is a compelling introduction to Central Eurasian peoples throughout history. Beckwith’s work stabs right at the heart of ancient and modern writings that frame the Scythians and other nomadic peoples within a pejorative “barbarian” framework. More than that, he explores how societies such as the Scythians viewed themselves, which differs greatly from other approaches, which use them only as a foil to more sedentary peoples.

By Christopher I Beckwith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Empires of the Silk Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first complete history of Central Eurasia from ancient times to the present day, Empires of the Silk Road represents a fundamental rethinking of the origins, history, and significance of this major world region. Christopher Beckwith describes the rise and fall of the great Central Eurasian empires, including those of the Scythians, Attila the Hun, the Turks and Tibetans, and Genghis Khan and the Mongols. In addition, he explains why the heartland of Central Eurasia led the world economically, scientifically, and artistically for many centuries despite invasions by Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Chinese, and others. In retelling the story of the…

The Histories (Translated by Robin Waterfield)

By Herodotus, Robin Waterfield (translator),

Book cover of The Histories (Translated by Robin Waterfield)

Why did I love this book?

If one wanted to understand the study of the galaxy, they might start with Galileo. Something similar could be said about starting with the historian Herodotus to understand ancient peoples (and the study of them). Was he serious about his craft? Yes. Was he a product of his time? Yes. Should you take everything he writes as fact? Absolutely not. So why read Herodotus? Because he was the first person (as far as I know) to study the Scythians for the purpose of scholarship. Moreover, his work contains many of the stories that scholars since his time have tried to prove, disprove, or reinterpret. In short, if you want to join a conversation, it can be helpful to know how it began.

By Herodotus, Robin Waterfield (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Histories (Translated by Robin Waterfield) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Herodotus is not only known as the `father of history', as Cicero called him, but also the father of ethnography; as well as charting the historical background to the Persian Wars, his curiosity also prompts frequent digression on the cultures of the peoples he introduces. While much of the information he gives has proved to be astonishingly accurate, he also entertains us with delightful tales of one-eyed men and gold-digging ants. This readable new translation is
supplemented with expansive notes that provide readers the background that they need to appreciate the book in depth.

ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100…

The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander

By Robert B. Strassler, James Romm,

Book cover of The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander

Why did I love this book?

Arrian is one of the few primary sources used to illuminate the campaigns of Alexander the Great. It is also one of the few primary sources to focus directly on the Scythians – in this case, the Saka (an eastern group of Scythians). After conquering the Bactrian region, Alexander faced war with the Scythians, as well as local rebellions, which the Scythians played a role in. Arrian’s account is an important source for understanding the Scythians as it speaks directly to the clash of an army built for pitched battle against an army build for more mobile warfare.

By Robert B. Strassler, James Romm,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Landmark Arrian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, widely considered the most authoritative history of the brilliant leader’s great conquests, is the latest addition to the acclaimed Landmark series.
After twelve years of hard-fought campaigns, Alexander the Great controlled a vast empire that was bordered by the Adriatic sea to the west and modern-day India to the east. Arrian, himself a military commander, combines his firsthand experience of battle with material from Ptolemy’s memoirs and other ancient sources to compose a singular portrait of Alexander. This vivid and engaging new translation of Arrian will fascinate readers who are interested in classical studies, the history…

Book cover of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Why did I love this book?

Scythians and other nomad peoples are often studied and framed as a foil to sedentary societies, with the latter held up as further step along a path of “progress”. Against the Grain completely upends this notion, framing early states (the sedentary counterparts to nomadic people) as unnatural and authoritarian, and nomadic lifestyles as attractive alternatives. While not a study of the Scythians, specifically, this book is an important counterpoint to the sedentary-states-are-better framework that has characterized much discussion on Scythians.

By James C. Scott,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Against the Grain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An Economist Best History Book 2017

"History as it should be written."-Barry Cunliffe, Guardian

"Scott hits the nail squarely on the head by exposing the staggering price our ancestors paid for civilization and political order."-Walter Scheidel, Financial Times

Why did humans abandon hunting and gathering for sedentary communities dependent on livestock and cereal grains, and governed by precursors of today's states? Most people believe that plant and animal domestication allowed humans, finally, to settle down and form agricultural villages, towns, and states, which made possible civilization, law, public order, and a presumably secure way of living. But archaeological and historical…

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