Scythians: Greek depictions of Scythian archers on Attic pottery (sixth century BCE)

Information and descriptons: The images above are: Terracotta fragment of an Attic amphora jar with black-figures depicting an archer shooting an arrow, wearing a white Scythian cap, a short tunic, and shin-armour while holding a large quiver, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (550–540 BCE; inv. 2011.604.3.152); Attic drinking bowl with black-figures depicting a Scythian archer with a separate close-up of the unrestored main figure, now in the Louvre (530-520 BCE; inv. F126; h. 13.50 x d. 31.50 x l. 40 cm); Attic plate with red-figures (by Epiktetos) depicting a Scythian archer drawing an arrow from his quiver as he turns to shoot at the enemy, now in the British Museum (520-500 BCE; inv. GR 1837.6-9.59); and, Attic vase with red-figures (by Euphronios) depicting a Scythian archer with battle-ax, now in the Louvre (510-500 BCE).

Comments: There are significant materials indicating the early presence in Athens of northern Pontic peoples labelled “Scythians” by Greeks, and the image of “Scythian archers” features regularly in Attic and Athenian art and drama beginning in the sixth century. The first clear reference to importation of enslaved “Scythians” occurs in a speech by Andokides where he relates actions taken by the Athenian People after the battle of Salamis (ca. 470s BCE), including the purchase of three hundred “Scythian archers” (Andokides, Speeches 3.5). The red-figure and black-figure pottery featured in the images above are examples of the Scythian archer visual stereotype. In such depictions, the Scythian is consistently pictured with a Scythian cap, a short tunic and/or pants, protective armour (shield and / or shin-guards), and most importantly bow, arrow and quiver. The final image has the Scythian holding up a battle-ax. In some cases the Scythian is featured simply standing, but several examples here have the Scythian in active battle. This early Attic understanding of the Scythian fits with the literary portrayals of such northerners as primarily violent warriors. But the visual features here are characteristic of this early stage specifically.

Characters in Attic plays of the fifth century clarify that, by that time, some  “Scythians” were slaves possessed by the People and that some served as a sort of police force under the direction of the civic presidents (prytaneis) at least until 390 BCE. In Aristophanes, for instance, such first-generation enslaved “Scythians” are the brunt of negative jokes, where they are pictured speaking with strong or unintelligible accents, lusting after real or apparent girls or women, or defecating themselves in a cowardly fashion (Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 1001-1003, 1082-90, 1164-1175, 1190-1207; Lysistrata 422-475). So the Scythian could be the brunt of cruel jokes and negative stereotypes quite early on, and this would have implications for the negative experiences of such forced migrants. Grave inscriptions from later eras demonstrate the continued presence at Athens (as well as nearby Greek islands) of “Scythians” and other northern peoples from the Black Sea area.

To read more on the Scythian diaspora and inscriptions, go to the post at this link and also see Harland’s article “Pontic Diasporas in the Classical and Hellenistic Eras

Source of images: Photos by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (jar fragment: public domain, CC Zero), Tilemahos Efthimiadis (Louvre drinking bowl; CC BY-SA 2.0), Bibi Saint-Pol (close-up; public domain), Jastrow (British Museum; public domain), Bibi Saint-Pol (Louvre vase; public domain).

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published.