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

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythians: Greek depictions of Scythian archers on Attic pottery (sixth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 29, 2023,

Attic amphora jar fragment with black-figures depicting an archer wearing a white Scythian cap, a short tunic, and shin-armour while holding a large quiver with bow and arrow (550–540 BCE; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 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 red-figure plate depicting a Scythian archer drawing an arrow from his quiver as he turns to shoot at the enemy (520-500 BCE; The British Museum, inv. GR 1837.6-9.59):

Attic red-figure vase depicting a Scythian archer with battle-ax (510-500 BCE; now in the Louvre):

Comments: There are significant materials indicating the early presence in Athens of northern Pontic peoples labelled “Scythians” by Greeks. 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).

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