Kimmerians and Kolchians: Herodotos on other Pontic peoples (mid-fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Kimmerians and Kolchians: Herodotos on other Pontic peoples (mid-fifth century BCE),' Last modified November 28, 2022,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories, or Inquiries, portions of books 1, 2, 3 and 4 (link to Greek text and translation)

Comments (by Daniel Mitchell): Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Karia (Caria) provides our earliest account of Kimmerians and Kolchians, two distinct peoples living in the areas of modern Crimea and the Caucasus, respectively. Herodotos employs an array of sources for his information on these peoples, including Greek, Persian, and Scythian accounts. The Kimmerians and Kolchians are not connected by culture but rather geography, namely the natural land bridge between Crimea and the Caucasus, which encompasses the northeastern region of the Black Sea and links eastern Europe to Asia. In terms of content, Herodotos’ excursus on the Kimmerians and Kolchians is limited mostly to historical and geographic details, with limited digression on the social and cultural attributes of either peoples. This notable absence of ethnographic information likely stems from a combination of Herodotos’ limited source information and from the crafting of his historical narrative, in which he frames both peoples as subordinate pawns caught in the interplay between the major regional powers of the eastern Europe and Asia, namely the Scythians, Medes and Persians.

Herodotos’ account of the Kimmerians and Kolchians focuses predominantly on their geography and their historical relationships with the Scythians, Medes, and Persians, but it also covers some ethnographic topics, including the Kolchians in (Greek) mythology (1.2), the supposed Egyptian origins of the Kolchians (2.104-105), and the social structure of the Kimmerians (4.11-12). In general, it is difficult to ascertain Herodotos’ moral perspective on these different peoples, since he often frames his discussion of them in terms of deeds and actions, with ethnographic information being predominantly incidental. Herodotos’ characterization of the Kimmerians and Kolchians is mostly sympathetic, since it is clear that he styles both peoples as victims caught between the rampages of the nomadic Scythians to their north and power-hungry Persian Empire to their south (cf. 3.97; 4.11-12, 37). This sympathetic characterization manifests most clearly in Herodotos’ assessment of the Kimmerian refugees and their attacks on Ionian Greek settlements of Asia Minor, which he describes as transitory raids absent the will to conquer or control (1.6); this stands in opposition to the regional conquests undertaken by the Lydians, Medes, Scythians and Persians, all of whom Herodotos criticizes and characterizes as power-seeking in their own right (especially, the Persians).

Follow these links for Herodotos’ discussions of other peoples: Lydians (link), Scythians (link), Medes and Persians (link).

Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.


Book 1

[Kolchians and Greeks: Medea of Kolchis and the Argonauts]

2 . . . The Persians say that, after this [i.e. after Io came to Egypt], it was the Greeks who were guilty of the second wrong. (2) They sailed in a long ship to Aia, a city of the Kolchians (Kolchoi), and to the river Phasis [Rioni in Georgia]. After they finished the business for which they came, they carried off the king’s daughter Medea. (3) When the Kolchian king sent a messenger to demand reparation for the robbery and restitution of his daughter, the Greeks replied that, as they had been refused reparation for the abduction of the Argive Io, they would not make any reparations to the Kolchians.


[Kimmerians invade Asia Minor]

6 . . . (2) This Croesus [king of Lydia] was the first foreigner whom we know who subjugated some Greeks and took tribute from them, and won the friendship of others: the former being the Ionians, the Aiolians, and the Dorians of Asia, and the latter the Lakedaimonians [Spartans]. (3) Before the reign of Croesus, all Greeks were free: for the Kimmerian army that invaded Ionia before his time did not subjugate the cities but raided and robbed them.

15 . . . [Ardys, king of Lydia] took Priene and invaded the country of Miletos. It was while he was monarch of Sardis [i.e. the capital city of Lydia] that the Kimmerians, driven from their homes by the nomad Scythians, came into Asia and took all of Sardis except for the acropolis. 16 Ardys reigned for forty-nine years and was succeeded by his son Sadyattes. . . and after Sadyattes came Alyattes. (2) Alyattes waged war against Deioces’ descendant Cyaxares and the Medes, drove the Kimmerians out of Asia, took Smyrna (which was a colony from Kolophon) and invaded the lands of Klazomenai.


[Scythians invade Asia while pursuing the Kimmerians along the east coast of the Black Sea]

103 . . . (3) [Cyaxares, king of Media] defeated the Assyrians in battle. But while he was besieging their city, a great army of Scythians came down upon him, led by their king Madyes son of Protothyes. They had invaded Asia after they had driven the Kimmerians out of Europe. Pursuing the Kimmerians in their flight, the Scythians came to the Median land. 104 It is a thirty days’ journey for an unencumbered man from the Maiotian lake [Sea of Azov] to the river Phasis [Rioni] and the land of the Kolchians.

It is easy to cross into Media from the Kolchians: there is only one people between them, the Sapinians [a people living in Armenia] and passing this people brings you into Media. (2) Nevertheless, the Scythians did not enter [into Median territory] using this method. They turned aside and came by the upper and much longer way, keeping the Kaukasos [Caucasus] mountains on their right [i.e. they travelled south-east with the western coastline of the Caspian Sea to their east and the Caucasus mountain range to their west]. There, the Medes met the Scythians, who defeated them in battle, deprived them of their rule, and made themselves masters of all Asia.


Book 2

[Digression on supposed Egyptian origin of the people of Kolchos, with reference to circumcision]

104 For it is plain to see that the Kolchians are Egyptians. What I say, I myself noticed before I heard it from others. When it occurred to me, I inquired of both peoples: the Kolchians remembered the Egyptians better than the Egyptians remembered the Kolchians. (2) The Egyptians said that they considered the Kolchians part of Sesostris’ [equivalent of Senwosret, on which go to this link] army . I myself guessed it, partly because they are dark-skinned and woolly-haired, though that indeed counts for nothing since other peoples are as well. But my better proof was that the Kolchians, Egyptians and Ethiopians are the only peoples that have practised circumcision from the beginning.

The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves acknowledge that they learned the custom from the Egyptians, and the Syrians of the valleys of the Thermodon [Terme] river and the Parthenios, as well as their neighbours the Makronians, say that they learned it lately from the Kolchians. These are the only ones that circumcise, and it is seen that they do even as the Egyptians. But as to the Egyptians and Ethiopians themselves, I cannot say who learned it from the other. For it is clearly a very ancient custom. That the others learned it from interactions with Egypt I hold to be clearly proved by this: Phoenicians who interact with Greece cease to imitate the Egyptians in this matter and do not circumcise their children.

105  Let me address another matter in which the Kolchians are like the Egyptians. They and the Egyptians alone work linen, and have the same way, a way peculiar to themselves, of working it. They are similar in all their manner of life and in their speech. Linen has two names: the Kolchian kind is called by the Greeks “Sardonian” [not to be confused with the island of Sardinia in Italy]. That which comes from Egypt is called “Egyptian”.


Book 3

[Kolchians payment of tribute to the Persian empire]

97 These were the governments and appointments of tribute. . . (4) Gifts were also required of the Kolchians and their neighbours as far as the Kaukasos mountains (which is as far as the Persian rule reaches, the country north of the Kaukasos paying no regard to the Persians); these were rendered every four years and are still rendered today, namely, a hundred boys and as many young girls.


Book 4

[Legends of Kimmerians’ original territory, Scythian conquest, and migration]

11 There is yet another [Greek] story, to which account I myself especially incline. It is to this effect: When the nomadic Scythians inhabiting Asia were involved in a difficult war with the Massagetians, the Scythians fled across the Araxes [Aras, Turkey] river to the Kimmerian land [modern Crimea], for the land which the Scythians now inhabit is said to have belonged to the Kimmerians before.

(2) The Kimmerians, at the advance of the Scythians, deliberated as men threatened by a great force should. Opinions were divided and both were strongly held, but the opinion of the princes was the more honourable. For the people’s opinion was that their part was to withdraw and that there was no need to risk their lives for the dust of the earth, while the princes were for fighting to defend their country against the attackers. (3) Neither side could persuade the other. The people could not persuade the princes, nor the princes persuade the people. The one party planned to depart without fighting and leave the country to their enemies, while the princes were determined to lie dead in their own country and not to flee with the people. For they considered how fortunate their situation had been and what negative consequences were likely to come upon them if they fled from their native land. (4) Having made up their minds, the princes separated into two equal bands and fought with each other until they were all killed by each other’s hands. Then the Kimmerian people buried them [the princes] by the Tyras [Dniester] river, where their tombs are still to be seen. After they buried them, they departed from the land and the Scythians came in and took possession of the barren land.

12 And to this day there are Kimmerian walls in Scythia, and a Kimmerian “ferry” [perhaps referring to the narrow entrance into the Sea of Azov], and there is a country Kimmeria [modern Crimea] and a strait named the Kimmerian strait. (2) Furthermore, it is evident that the Kimmerians in their escape from the Scythians into Asia also made a colony on the peninsula where the Greek city of Sinope [Sinop, Turkey] has since been founded. It is clear that the Scythians pursued them and, losing their way, invaded Media. (3) For the Kimmerians always fled along the coast, and the Scythians pursued with the Kaukasos mountains on their right until they came into the Median land, turning inland on their way [cf. 1.104 above]. That is the other story current among Greeks and foreigners alike.

[Other legends of forced migrations of peoples, including Kimmerians]

13 There is also a story related in a poem by Aristeas son of Kaustrobios, a man of Prokonnesos. This Aristeas, who was possessed by Phoebos [Apollo], visited the Issedonians (Issedones); beyond these peoples, he said, live the one-eyed Arimaspians (Arimaspoi), beyond whom are the griffins that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreans, whose territory reaches to the sea. (2) Except for the Hyperboreans, all these peoples (and first the Arimaspians) are always at war with their neighbours. The Issedonians were pushed from their lands by the Arimaspians, and the Scythians in turn by the Issedonians, and the Kimmerians, living by the southern sea [i.e. the Black Sea], were hard pressed by the Scythians and left their land. Thus Aristeas’ story does not agree with the Scythian account about this land. . . [material omitted].


[Kimmerian climate]

28 All the above mentioned land is exceedingly cold: for eight months of every year there is unbearable frost, and during these you do not make mud by pouring out water but by lighting a fire. The sea freezes, as does all the Kimmerian Bosporos [i.e. the entire area around the modern Kerch Strait], and the Scythians living on this side of the trench lead armies over the ice, and drive their wagons across to the land of the Sindians (Sindoi). . .


[Kolchian and Kimmerian geographical information]

37 The land where the Persians live extends to the southern sea which is called Red [i.e. the Erythraian Sea, including the Arabian Sea]. Beyond these to the north are the Medes, and beyond the Medes the Sapinians (Saspires), and beyond the Sapinians are the Kolchians, whose land extends to the northern sea [i.e. the Black Sea] into which the Phasis river flows. So these four peoples live between the one sea and the other sea. . . [material omitted].

45 But it is plain that none have obtained knowledge of Europe’s eastern or northern regions, so as to be able say if it is bounded by seas. Its length is known to be enough to stretch along both Asia and Libya. (2) I cannot guess for what reason the earth, which is one, has three names, all women’s, and why the boundary lines set for it are the Egyptian Nile river and the Kolchian Phasis river (though some say that the Maotian Tanais river [Don river, Russia] and the Kimmerian Ferries [Sea of Azov] are boundaries). I cannot learn the names of those who divided the world, or where they got the names which they used. . .

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