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A History of Russia


Before 862 A.D.

This chapter covers the following topics:
The First Steppe Lords
The Cimmerians
The Scythians
The Sarmatians
The Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus
The Goths
The Huns
The Avars
The Rise of the Bulgars
The Khazars
The Magyars and Petchenegs
The Main Ingredients -- The Slavs and Varangians
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The land that today makes up Russia and its neighbors, until recently called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, covers an enormous area, one sixth of the total surface of the earth. Most of this land has a very cold climate and is covered by forests. Some of the forest is temperate and deciduous, like the forests in western Europe and the eastern US, but most of the acreage is evergreen, called taiga by the Russians. The only significant barrier in the taiga is the Ural mts., which are no higher than the Appalachians (about 5,000 feet), but for lack of a better boundary, they have been used to mark the border between Europe and Asia.

South of the forests are vast grasslands, called the steppe. The widest part of the steppe is the Ukraine, the most important farmland of eastern Europe. This part of the steppe is sometimes called the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, after the ancient name for the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinus). The steppe stretches in an almost unbroken path from Hungary to Mongolia, making an excellent highway for nomads with their herds to travel on. Most of these nomads migrated out of Mongolia originally, following the steppe until they reached India, the Middle East, or Europe. On the southwest border of the steppe are the Crimea and the Caucasus mts., the only places with a pleasant climate that have ever been part of Russia.

Map showing taiga, deciduous forest, and steppe.

The three climatic zones that cover most of European Russia.

The steppe has a rainfall high enough to support the grasses and other plant life on which animals feed, but before mechanized agriculture, it could not support sedentary farming. Thus, the residents of the steppes were herders from the start, always ready to move when their animals had finished grazing the surrounding pasture, and living on a diet of that was mostly meat and dairy products. Because their footloose lifestyle did not feed as many people as farming, there were probably never more than a million of them, but they had a huge portion of land, five thousand miles across, to themselves. Since they could not read or write, most of what we know about them comes from the civilized peoples they met on the fringes of their territory: the Chinese to the east, the Greeks, Assyrians, etc. to the west.

The peoples living in Russia and the former Soviet republics, not counting the Siberian tribes east of the Urals, can be associated in three basic groups: the Finno-Ugric peoples (usually just called Finns), Indo-Europeans, and Turkic or Mongol tribes. Only a few words are necessary to explain the Finns, because none of them became civilized until after the period covered in this chapter. History began with the Finns spread out thinly across the taiga, and over the ages they have quietly lost control over much of their forested realm, as other groups (mainly the Russians) moved in. Today the Finns have three countries to themselves (Finland, Estonia and Hungary); the rest are tribes like the Karelians, Saami (Lapps), Modvin, Okmi, Udmurt, and Samoyeds, who live in pockets scattered across northernmost Europe, Siberia, and in the Urals.

The Indo-Europeans are the most important group, because they include today's Russians. We believe they came from the Middle East originally, with the main Indo-European body following a counter-clockwise path around the Caspian Sea that brought them first to Central Asia, and then to the steppe. Because they went east before they went west, the Indo-European realm used to stretch much farther east than it does today; one tribe, the Tocharians, advanced all the way into what is now northwest China. However, the western end of the steppe gets more rainfall than the eastern end, so whenever a tribe packed its bags and moved, there was a general tendency to go west, in search of (literally) greener pastures. Consequently, tribes in Mongolia would migrate into Central Asia and western Siberia, tribes in Central Asia and Siberia would migrate to the Ukraine, and tribes in the Ukraine would enter central Europe.

It also appears that some Indo-Europeans took a more direct route to Europe, going directly across Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Aegean, but as the groups in this migration were future inhabitants of the Balkans like Greeks, Thracians and Illyrians, they won't play a part in this narrative. Nor will we talk much about those Indo-Europeans who went the farthest west, the Celtic and Germanic peoples. Although the Celts and Germans play a critical role in European history, if they passed through Russia, they did it long before anybody in the region could write about their journey. At best, they could have been the people behind the earlier cultures described in the next section. The Indo-Europeans we will be concentrating our attention on are the Balts and the Slavs. Those names have simple meanings; Slav means "glorious" and Balt means "white." Yes, the Balts claim to be the original white people.

Today there are 5 million Balts and 300 million Slavs. Because they are both Indo-European, the Balts and the Slavs probably once had a common ancestor, but we cannot trace when or where the split between the two groups took place. In the modern world, only two Baltic ethnic groups exist, the Latvians and Lithuanians. In ancient times, however, the Balts were spread over a larger area--besides Latvia and Lithuania, they also had northern Poland and northern Belarus. Because river names do not change as quickly as other geographical names (e.g., cities), it has been suggested from the names of rivers that before 1000 B.C., the Balts lived as far east as present-day Moscow, meaning that they ruled the upper parts of the Volga and the Don. There also used to be other Baltic groups, like the Prussians, but they were absorbed by their neighbors, especially the Germans. For example, the last speakers of the Prussian language died around 1700 A.D., so when you hear of the Kingdom of Prussia, which was proclaimed in 1701, it is a German state, not a Baltic or Slavic one.

Because they have been more successful over the ages, it is a bit easier to trace the origin of the Slavs. When we first hear of them, they lived around the Pripet Marshes (also called the Pripyat or Pinsk Marshes) in Belarus, using Europe's largest swamp as a line of defense against their enemies. The Lausitz culture, a late bronze age civilization that left fortified villages and cemeteries full of urns ("urnfields") in Poland and the southeast corner of Germany, also appears to have been Slavic. Nobody in northeastern Europe knew how to write at this early date, so we won't have solid information on the Slavs and their homeland until the sixth century A.D. For more information about the Indo-European migration, go to Chapter 1 of my European history.

The Turkic groups originated either in Mongolia, eastern Siberia, or both. They may have a common ancestor with the Finns, but if so, they went separate ways before the dawn of history. Unlike the Finns and Indo-Europeans, they started out as a purely Asiatic group, and from 700 B.C. to 1500 A.D. they pushed the boundary between white men and Asians westward. The result is that when historical records first appeared, the steppes of Central Asia were populated by nomads distantly related to the Iranians, but most of today's Central Asians show a clear connection to today's Mongolians. Leading the way in the barbarian expansion were the Huns, though historians have debated whether the Huns were more closely related to the Turks or the Finns. Currently the most popular theory is that the Huns started out purely Mongolian/Turkic, but absorbed the members of white tribes as they moved west, so that by the time they reached the frontiers of the Roman Empire, they were a multi-racial nation. Indeed, when the Turks moved into Turkey in the late eleventh century A.D., the result was exactly the same. Consequently there are red-haired Turks in central Turkey today (the Galatia of New Testament times), while other Turks in Central Asia look more Mongolian.

Though fearsome in the extreme, these barbarians could not set up a nation and culture as enduring as the one the Russians had. The Russians could never ignore their nomadic neighbors for long, and in the next chapter we will see Genghis Khan and his successors conquer the first Russian civilization. By mastering two military skills, archery and horsemanship, they were able to terrorize a settled population much larger than their own, but eventually the superior culture and technology of their victims prevailed. In China the Mongols were kicked out; in the Middle East the Mongols were absorbed into the Turks around them. In Russia we see a reversal of previous trends; after 1500 the Russians advanced to the east and south, occupying Siberia and the Ukraine. But though they shattered the local khanates, the Russians did not get rid of their opponents; they just bypassed their communities and moved on. Consequently in modern Russia you will still see ethnic minorities of Turkic origin like the Tatars, Chechens, Kalmyks and Bashkirs, living mostly near the Caspian Sea or the Urals. Indeed, until our own time, the Kalmyks had the distinction of being the world's westernmost Buddhist community. The Russians themselves remind us of their close ties to their former enemies with this proverb: "Scratch a Russian and find a Tatar."

The purpose of this chapter is to quickly cover the small amount of information we know about the various tribes that passed through Russia, before the Russians themselves appeared and founded a civilized state. Now let's get started.

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The First Steppe Lords

Several tribes and cultures came and went in prehistoric Russia. Recently archaeologists have discovered that the inhabitants of the steppe domesticated horses at a very early date, 3000 B.C. or even earlier. Because we already talked about the Indo-Europeans living in this area at the dawn of history, this means the Indo-European tribes were the first people who used the horse for anything besides food, and the domestication of the horse was their first contribution to civilization.

Before they got horses, the first steppe-dwellers presumably traveled on foot. There probably was an intermediate stage where the horse was strictly a draft animal; it pulled wagons until people learned how to ride it. We see this development in the first civilized states with horses; in the ancient Middle East, Vedic India, and Shang dynasty China, military units had chariots long before they had cavalry. The horse certainly would have helped a lot in traveling across the steppe, but even without it, those tribes could have completed the trip. We're talking millennia for the amount of time involved; a tribe in Mongolia could have made it to Hungary in a millennium, even if it only moved five miles per year. In doing so they went farther than the typical Egyptian or Babylonian would dream of traveling; most civilized people at this stage spent their whole lives in one spot.

Quite a few artifacts have been found that were made before the arrival of civilization in Russia, but the previously mentioned lack of writing means we cannot point to any pot, axe, or bone, and say "this belonged to an Indo-European," or "a Finn made this." Thus, we end up naming each of the prehistoric cultures after a modern town near one of its sites, or by the most common artifacts that culture left for us. For example, the Kurgan culture got its name from its burial mounds (kurgans), most of which are between the Don and Volga Rivers.(1) Here is a list, by no means complete, of those prehistoric cultures:

Culture Estimated Dates (B.C.) Location Notes
Cucuteni-Trypillian 5300-2600 Romania, Moldova, West Ukraine Also called the Tripolye culture.  Left many beautiful examples of pottery, and built the largest stone age settlements in Europe, with towns holding up to 15,000 people.  However, the inhabitants burned down their communities every sixty to eighty years, and built new ones on the ashes of the old sites.  Currently no one knows what prompted this extreme form of urban renewal.
Samara 5500-4800 Volga, near Samara Copper age technology, with three sites:  Syezzheye and Varfolomievka on the Volga, and Mykol'ske on the Dnieper.
Khvalynsk 5000-4500 Volga, near Saratov Another copper age culture, it extended west to the Sea of Azov and east to the Ural river.  Its graves suggest it was a forerunner of the Kurgan culture.
Sredny Stog 4500-3500 East Ukraine Oldest evidence of horse domestication.
Usatovo 3500-3000 Romania, Moldova, West Ukraine Temporarily occupied the same area as the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture.  It appears to have been a combination of the Cucuteni-Trypillian, the Cernavodă culture of Romania, and the Kurgan culture.
Yamna/Kurgan 3500-2300 East Ukraine, Southern Russia First European community to use bronze and the wheel.  Characterized by elaborate graves, in which a burial mound was built over the site and the bodies were covered with ochre.  Often animals like cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and horses were sacrificed, telling us that they lived mainly by herding.  One theory, the Kurgan Hypothesis, proposed that these were the original Indo-Europeans, and that they invaded Europe and Central Asia from their homeland on the steppe.  At any rate, they are the strongest candidate for the Aryan/Indo-European community, before it split up.
Fatyanovo-Balanovo 3200-2300 Between Lake Pskov and the upper/middle Volga Produced corded ware pottery and shaft graves lined with wood.  Only a few communities have been found so far.  They may be ancestors of the Balts; geographical features in the region have Baltic names.
Catacomb 2800-2200 Ukraine, West Kazakhstan Early bronze age, may be several minor cultures descended from the Yamna/Kurgan one.  Characterized by graves with a hollow space next to the main burial shaft (hence the "catacomb").  In some graves the dead were wearing clay masks.
Poltavka 2700-2100 Volga and Samara valleys, between Volgograd, Samara and Orenburg A middle bronze age, early Indo-Iranian culture.  Also descended from the Yamna/Kurgan culture, the main differences are the pottery styles and more metal artifiacts.
Abashevo 2500-1900 Volga and Kama valleys north of Samara, southern Ural mts. Late bronze age, mixed agriculture.  Chariots were used, while the burial mounds had few artifacts (usually just a pot or two).
Srubna 1600-1200 North shore of the Black and Caspian Seas, and the Kuban region Also called the Timber-Grave culture because of its wood-lined graves.  May be the direct ancestors of the Cimmerians.
Novocherkassk 900-650 Ukraine and South Russia, between the Prut and Don Rivers Early iron age, probably the Cimmerians before they migrated to the Middle East.  Influenced other cultures as far away as the Danube and the Volga.  Later on, Novocherkassk would be the capital of the Don Cossacks.  Some scholars call the early phase of this culture (900-750 B.C.) the Chernaya Gora culture.

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The Cimmerians

The oldest pre-Russian tribe/nation that we know anything about, aside from the artifacts they left, were the Cimmerians.(2) Conventional theory has them living on the north shore of the Black Sea, as early as 1200 B.C.; we already mentioned a possible connection with the Novocherkassk culture. Like the tribes after them, the Cimmerians were nomads, always on the move with herds of horses and cattle. A Cimmerian measured his wealth and status by the number of horses he owned. They probably traveled by chariot in the early years, but in the eighth century B.C., if not earlier, they replaced their chariots with mounted archers, presumably after learning how to ride horses from their eastern neighbors, the Scythians.

Some old history texts have suggested the Cimmerians were related to the Thracians, meaning they would have come from the Balkans originally. Others have tried to link the Cimmerians with the Germans or Celts, because the name "Cimmerian" sounds like Cimbri or Cymry. These theories went out of favor, though, when Assyrian records were found that mentioned the names of the last two Cimmerian kings: Dugdamme and Sandaksatru (also spelled Sandakhshatra). Those are Iranian-sounding names, so it now appears more likely that the Cimmerians were Indo-Iranians, the vanguard of the same group that included the Scythians and Sarmatians.

Our information on the Cimmerians comes from two sources: the Greeks and the Assyrians. Of the former, Homer gave a description of the Cimmerians (Kimmerioi) that is more myth than reality; he said they lived near the gates of Hades, in a gloomy land on the far side of the ocean encircling the known world (Odyssey, xi. 14 ff). The Greek historian Herodotus claimed they lived north of the Black Sea until the Scythians arrived in the area and forced them to leave. He went on to tell us that the Cimmerians could not agree on what to do; one faction chose to leave rather than fight, while the other faction felt it was better to die in their homeland. While the first faction was preparing to move out, the second, which included the royal family, split into two groups of armed men, and they fought each other until all of them were dead; then the first faction buried the bodies before departing.(3) However, we also know that a tribe called the Tauri lived in the Crimea from about 700 to 100 B.C.; they appear to have been a branch of the Cimmerian tribe that was allowed to stay, after they became vassals of the Scythians. Because of the Greek references, the Crimean peninsula got its name from the Cimmerians, and until modern times, the entrance to the Sea of Azov, today's Kerch Strait, was called the Cimmerian Bosporus.

The oldest Assyrian reference comes from King Sargon II (722-705 B.C.), who lived 270 years before Herodotus. When he fought Urartu (a kingdom in modern-day Armenia), he had help from a tribe called the Gimirri, "the people traveling back and forth"; everyone agrees this is not only another name for the Cimmerians, but also an excellent description of their lifestyle. Rusas, the king of Urartu, decided on a pre-emptive strike when the Cimmerians showed up on his frontier, but was defeated (720 B.C.), and the Cimmerians looted the country. At the end of the raid they camped in Mannea, a small Iranian kingdom on the shore of Lake Urmia. Then they joined Sargon for his campaign against Urartu in 714 B.C.(4) The Assyrians and Cimmerians did not remain friends, though, and when Sargon took on the Cimmerians in 705 B.C., they killed him in battle.(5)

From Armenia, the Cimmerians moved west, into Anatolia (modern Turkey). They overran and destroyed Phrygia, the dominant kingdom in this region (696 B.C.), and settled on the central Anatolian plain, which was perfectly suited to their cavalry. In 679 B.C., under a king named Teushpa, they attacked the minor states of Cilicia and Tabal, and Esarhaddon of Assyria stopped them at the battle of Hubushna. After that, bands of Cimmerians were reported west of Lake Van, in Media, and even in Elam along the Persian Gulf.

With Phrygia gone, the Cimmerians went after Lydia, a new kingdom between Phrygia and the Greek city-states on the Ionian coast. Their first attack on Sardis, the Lydian capital, was beaten off with Assyrian assistance (665 B.C.), but they returned in 652, sacked Sardis, and killed Gyges, the Lydian king. During the next decade they raided the Ionian Greeks, looted Paphlagonia, and captured Sinope, but made no headway against the Assyrians, even after that mighty empire started coming undone in the 630s. Finally, at some point between 626 and 600 B.C., the Lydian king Alyattes inflicted a crushing defeat on them, and the Cimmerians disappear from history. If any survived, they were absorbed into the nearest Scythian tribe.

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The Scythians

Because the Cimmerians came and went before Greek civilization got its act together (during the so-called "dark age of Greece"), we know little about them. However, the Scythians enjoyed their heyday in the same centuries as the Greeks did, and they traded with the Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast (see also this footnote from the page on this site about classical Greece), so they are familiar to any student of ancient history. The similarity of Scythian grave goods to Proto-Celtic ones tells us that there was also free commerce between the Scythians and the Hallstatt culture (800-450 B.C.) of the Celts.

The Scythians were Indo-Iranian nomads, meaning that they took part in the Indo-European migration of the second millennium B.C. Starting in the Middle East, they traveled east through Iran and north through Central Asia, before reaching the Russian steppes. Along the way several Indo-Iranian groups broke away, to settle Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and northern India. Those remaining turned west at the steppes, and entered the Ukraine; as noted previously, the Cimmerians may have been just ahead of the Scythians on that route. Because of their loose organizational structure, they eventually split into several tribes, and may have spoken more than one language, as they expanded to fill the whole land that the Greeks called "Scythia." Herodotus gives four names for the Scythian tribes that crossed into Europe: the Auchatae, Catiari, Traspians, and the Royal Scythians or Paralatae.(6) The tribes that stayed behind in Asia were called the Massagetae if they roamed Kazakhstan, and the Sakas or Sacae (a Persian name) if they camped on the borders of Persia and India. Whatever the tribe, they called themselves Skudat, meaning archers; apparently the word "Scythian" derives from that.

The Scythians are credited with the horse-based lifestyle that most Central Asian peoples, including today's Mongolians, have practiced ever since. Herodotus wrote a detailed description of their customs in the fourth book of his Histories, and many of their graves in Russia and Siberia have been excavated since 1700. Often the graves contain exquisite gold jewelry, some of the most realistic portrayals of men and animals ever made in gold, crafted by the Greeks as well as by the Scythians themselves. One of the finest collections of Scythian gold was started by Peter the Great (see Chapter 3), and is visible at the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg.

The Kul-Oba vase.

The Hermitage collection includes this Greek-made electrum vase, from the Kul-Oba kurgan burial near Kerch.

Three Scythian warriors.

The vase features a rare picture of Scythian warriors, shown here. The figure on the right is stringing a bow.

The Scythian burials discovered at Pazyryk, in the Gorno-Altai district of southern Siberia, are some of the best-preserved found so far, giving the name "Pazyryk culture" to the Scythians living in Siberia. Because those graves were dug in permafrost, everything placed in them was frozen until archaeologists opened them, so from those graves we have intact examples of the felt and leather clothing worn by these nomads. For example, one of their most useful inventions was trousers, which are less likely to get in the way of somebody on horseback than a loosely flapping robe. Finally, the frozen graves preserved the bodies buried in them, revealing to us that Scythian nobles wore tattoos.

A common theme of Scythian art was the emphasis on animals. They depicted beasts on their jewelry, weapons, clothing, and horse trappings. Gold and bronze were the favored materials, and most art objects were small and portable; to a nomad, paintings and sculptures are impractical. The Scythians fashioned delicate pendants, belt hooks, and plaques of gold with decorative motifs of griffins, stags, horses, bears, and eagles. Design and creativity took precedence over minutely realistic portrayals. Animals also had religious connotations; they believed that animal spirits (totems) could help them reach the world of the afterlife.

Gold Scythian pectoral.

A Scythian pectoral.

The Scythian preoccupation with animals was because like other herdsmen, their survival depended on the well-being of their livestock. The herds supplied their food and drink; hides and wool provided clothing, tent and wagon covers, weapons, eating utensils, jewelry, and works of art. Animal sacrifices figured in religious rituals, and the size and quality of the herd was the way to measure one's wealth and status. Finally, the horses gave them the advantage of speed to flee from stronger enemies or to make surprise attacks on rival encampments or towns. To a herdsman of any tribe, the loss of animals is often a sentence of death, so they severely punished horse thieves, very often by death.

Because livestock do not require as much labor as crops, males in nomadic society can devote long hours to honing the martial skills needed to fight other tribes or the armies of civilized states. Unlike civilized societies, which can afford to give arms and military training to only a small percentage of the population, nearly every nomad was expected to be a skilled fighter; this added to the illusion that nomad "hordes" were bigger than they actually were. Young boys learned to ride almost as soon as they could walk. A skilled rider learned to depend on his legs alone to grip and direct the horse, thus freeing both arms to use a bow and arrow. Some could even swing beneath the belly of the horse and let loose arrow after arrow while denying the enemy a clear target. Scythians and other horse nomads like the Huns and Mongols could literally live on their mounts for days, giving them a mobility denied to all other peoples until the invention of the railroad.

The harsh environment they lived in, coupled with frequent fighting, made the Scythians very tough customers; in fact, the Greeks thought they were unbeatable in battle. Not only were the Greeks unable to match the Scythians in archery and horsemanship, but because the Scythians could outrun anybody else, they, and not their opponents, could choose when and where to fight. Herodotus dwelt on the more barbaric parts of their behavior, which he and many of his readers must have found gruesome beyond belief.(7) He wrote of men who hardly ever bathed and women who used a kind of mashed herb paste when they did so. They enjoyed wine, koumiss (fermented mare's milk), and were the first people on record to smoke hemp.(8) Warfare was so common that when the tribes gathered for their annual festivals, it was considered a disgrace not to have killed anyone since the previous festival. They were also literally bloodthirsty, drinking the blood of the first enemy they killed and drinking the blood of their animals in times of desperation. On the battlefield they collected scalps, and an honored victim's skull might be lined with gold and turned into a drinking cup. When a chief died, he would be buried with gold weapons, ornaments, and anything else he might need in the afterlife--including a wife and a servant. According to Herodotus, one year after the chief's funeral, fifty more servants and horses were also killed, stuffed with chaff, and impaled upright on stakes around the burial mound so that each horse appeared to be mounted with a rider. The result was that a vast expenditure of wealth (in gold, horses and human life) accompanied the burial of each ruler.

The Scythian religion was very similar to that practiced by the pre-Zoroastrian Iranians, and the Aryan invaders of India. The most important deity was Tabiti, also called simply "the Great Goddess." Herodotus identified eight specific Scythian gods, and tried to match them with their Greek equivalents. Here are the Scythian and Greek names he gave to six of them:

  • Tabiti - Hestia
  • Papaios - Zeus
  • Api - Gaia
  • Oitosyros - Apollo
  • Argimpasa - Aphrodite Urania
  • Thagimasidas - Poseidon
Herodotus also reported they worshiped Heracles and Ares--no surprise there--but did not give them Scythian names.

The Scythians played a role in the rise and fall of the empires on their border. When they pursued the Cimmerians into the Middle East, just before 700 B.C., they came in contact with the Assyrian Empire; the Assyrians called them Ishkuzai. Some of them settled in Azerbaijan; the Assyrian king Esarhaddon slew the Scythian king in 673 B.C., but forged an alliance with the next one, Partitava (673-653 B.C., called Protothyes in Greek, and Partatua in Assyrian), sealed with a marriage between Partitava and Esarhaddon's daughter. After that the Assyrians used the Scythians as mercenaries against other enemies of the empire besides the Cimmerians. Partitava was succeeded by Madyes (653-615 B.C.), and in 653 B.C. the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal persuaded him to invade and conquer Media. Media had previously been Assyrian territory, so Ashurbanipal evidently felt that if he could not hold onto that land, it was better to let a friend have it than an enemy. The 620s saw the Scythians raid Syria and Israel in Assyria's service (see this footnote), going all the way to the border of Egypt; they would have attacked Egypt as well, if Pharaoh Psammetich I hadn't bought them off. In 625 Media expelled the Scythians and gained its independence; nevertheless, Madyes continued to support Assyria for the rest of his reign, especially in defending Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. Only after Madyes was gone could the Medes and Babylonians persuade the Scythians to join them.

After the fall of Assyria, we don't hear from the Scythians again until the Persian Empire overthrew the Medes and Babylonians. Then the Scythians began to raid the empire's northern frontiers. In response, the first Persian "Great King," Cyrus, marched against the Massagetae, and they killed him in battle (529 B.C.). The next two kings, Cambyses and Smerdis, didn't have time to deal with the Scythian menace, so the problem was passed on to Darius I. Instead of simply striking across the Caucasus, Darius chose to attack from Europe; he may have planned to make a clean sweep of the Scythians by marching all the way around the Black Sea. Starting in 516 B.C. at Susa, his capital, he followed the Persian Royal Road, picking up soldiers as he went along, until his army numbered 70,000 men. To cross over into Europe, he had a bridge built at the Bosporus by tying boats together. In the Balkans, he conquered Bulgaria (then called Thrace), and won the submission of Macedonia; those countries would serve as advance bases later, when the Persians invaded Greece. Another boat-bridge allowed the Persian army to cross the Danube River. But once the Persians got north of the Danube, the Scythians refused to fight and withdrew to the Ukraine, where they employed the oldest known "scorched earth" policy; they burned crops and filled in wells as they retreated. Darius pursued, but he could never catch up with the enemy, which always remained just beyond the horizon. We aren't sure how far he went before turning back; some suggest he reached the Volga River, others think he stopped at the banks of the Dnieper. At one point he challenged their courage with a message that commanded them to fight or surrender. The Scythian chief, Idanthyrsus, replied that he would fight a battle if the Persians threatened the graves of his ancestors; otherwise, "Go weep."

Some time after that, the Persian and Scythian armies came within sight of one another, and Darius thought he was finally going to get the battle he wanted. Suddenly, several of the Scythians began shouting, and ran off in another direction. It turned out they saw a rabbit, and thought so little of the Persian army that they chose to go hunting instead! By now the Persians were exhausted, out of food, and their supply lines were perilously long. Darius realized the Scythians were wearing down his army, and got out while he could. There was a bad moment when he reached the Danube, and found part of his boat-bridge missing. An Ionian Greek unit was in charge of building and guarding the bridge, and while Darius was away, some Scythians came to the bridge and told the Greeks that if they destroyed it, and thereby kept Darius from coming back, it would be easy for them to revolt against the Persians later, and regain the freedom of their cities. The Ionian commander, however, chose to play it safe; he only destroyed the part of the bridge nearest to the Scythian bank of the river, and when Darius appeared, he sent some boats to rescue the Persians, and pointed to the part of the bridge that remained, saying that proved he was still loyal. The king accepted this argument; he was just glad to get away.

After 350 B.C., the migrations of other Indo-European groups displaced them from their lands. In Europe, the advance of the Macedonians to the Danube (under Philip of Macedon), followed by the expansion of the Celts into the Balkans around 300 B.C., made sure the Scythians would not hold onto any land south or west of the steppes. Even more serious was the expansion of the Sarmatians, another group of nomads who moved from the east into Ukraine, conquering most of the Scythians, sometime between 300 and 200 B.C. Those Scythians who weren't conquered, either fled to the Danube delta, or into the Crimea; the latter absorbed the Tauri, and lingered on into the Roman era, finally disappearing from history around the 3rd century A.D.. However, use of the name "Scythian" continued for a while after the Scythians themselves were gone, to indicate barbarians from the steppes. The Apostle Paul mentioned them in the New Testament, among the different peoples who are now equal in the eyes of Jesus (Colossians 3:11). And when the Roman emissary Priscus went to Attila's headquarters in Hungary (448 A.D.), he was led there by two men on horses who were called "Scythians," to distinguish them from the Ostrogoths and Huns that made up most of Attila's horde. Finally, the Scythian theme of animal-style art can be seen in the art of Europe during the early Middle Ages.

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The Sarmatians

The Sarmatians were yet another car in the westward-bound Indo-European train; like the Scythians, they spoke an Indo-Iranian language. In the middle of the fifth century B.C., there was a tribe the Greeks called the Sauromatae, living just east of the Don River; we now believe these were the Sarmatians before they moved into the Scythian lands. Greek writers like Herodotus also reported that the Sauromatae had red hair and blue eyes, leading to speculation that the tribe had some Finnish ancestors as well as Indo-Iranian ones.

Map of ancient Russia.

Russia in Scythian & Sarmatian times, showing the names the ancients gave to different parts of it. From Wikimedia Commons.

All things considered, the Sarmatians lived pretty much the same nomadic lifestyle as the Scythians. Three differences between them and the Scythians are worth remembering:

1. Although animals remained the favorite art subject, in Sarmatian art floral motifs are almost as common.

2. They had warrior women. In Greek mythology, the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors, appear quite often. We cannot know for sure which non-Greek tribe the Amazons came from (assuming they existed), because the Greeks themselves didn't know for sure; some put the Amazons in Russia, some in Anatolia, and some in Libya. However, it appears that the Sarmatians are the best candidate. Herodotus claimed that the Amazons got into a fight with the Scythians near the Sea of Azov, and when the Scythians learned that their fierce opponents were women, they sent their most virile warriors to seduce them. Shortly after the weddings, the Amazons tried to rebel, because their new husbands tried to make them give up their militant ways, but eventually the two groups merged to form a joint tribe, the Sauromatae. The truth behind these legends appears to be that Sarmatian women would fight alongside the men. Several of the graves excavated so far belonged to warrior women; they often had battle-damaged bones, and were buried with weapons like swords, bows, and daggers; some were even buried wearing armor. One Greek author, Hippocrates, claimed that Sarmatian women could not marry until they had killed an enemy in battle.

At least once, the Sarmatians had a female ruler. According to the Greek author Polyaenus, a woman named Amage was their queen in the fourth century B.C. For some reason her husband was unfit to rule (I don't know if it was poor health or mental incompetence), so Amage acted as regent. In those days the Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus (see below) was an ally of the Sarmatians, and the Scythians were sending raiding parties into the Crimea. Amage sent the Scythian king a "cease & desist" warning, he ignored it, and she rode with 120 bodyguards to the Scythian camp, covering an estimated 140 miles in a single day. Nobody in those days was expected to travel so fast, so when Amage and the guards arrived, they took the Scythians by surprise. The king and most of his family, friends and guards were killed. Only the son of the Scythian king was spared; Amage let him live because he took an oath to obey her and leave her allies alone.

3. They were the first knights. For some reason the Sarmatians chose to use a heavy cavalry, instead of a Scythian-style light cavalry. Their main weapon was not the bow, but a sturdy iron lance. They also wore chainmail (one of the first peoples to use this type of armor), and sometimes dressed their horses with it as well. Personally I think the Sarmatians lived in the northern taiga, before they appeared on the steppes; horsemen with lances fight better in forests than mounted archers, while on the open plains, it is just the reverse (Charles Martel found this out when he fought the Moors in France)--more evidence of a Finno-Ugric connection. When the Sarmatians enjoyed success using the new strategy, other nations were encouraged to try it; e.g., around 100 B.C., the Parthians introduced a heavy cavalry to strengthen the light cavalry they had used up to this point.

Sarmatian warrior.

A Sarmatian lancer. From

Like their predecessors, the Sarmatians were not a unified tribe. By 200 B.C., if not earlier, they had split into three smaller tribes, the Iazygians, the Roxolani, and the Alans. The Iazygians were on the frontline; located west of the Dnieper River, they interacted with the Greeks and Romans more than the other tribes. The Roxolani got the eastern Ukraine, between the Dnieper and the Don; they included whomever survived from the Royal Scythians. The Alans kept the old Sarmatian homeland, which was in the zone they ruled between the Don and the Caspian Sea. The Alans, did move, however, between 50 and 62 A.D., relocating on the north slopes of the Caucasus mts. They may have done this because of pressure from one of their neighbors to the east, either the Tocharians (who subsequently migrated into India) or the Huns. In turn, the Alan migration put westward pressure on the Roxolani and the Iazygians; the latter left the Ukraine altogether. When we next hear from the Iazygians, they are resettled in present-day Hungary. There the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire stopped future advances.

The Romans first encountered the Sarmatians in the first century B.C., when Mithradates VI, the king of Pontus, recruited them for his anti-Roman wars in Asia Minor and Greece. Then when they entered Dacia (present-day Romania), they gave trouble for the Dacians at first, but later joined the Dacians against the Romans. The result was a long on-and-off war, which dragged on for twenty years in part because the current Roman emperor, Domitian, was incompetent, and in part because the Romans didn't have anything like the Sarmatian cavalry; at this stage they believed they could win all their battles with just foot soldiers. It took two campaigns from another emperor, Trajan, for the Romans to prevail and conquer Dacia (102 & 106 A.D.). The next emperor, Hadrian, kept Dacia but allowed the Sarmatians to have independence, on condition that they be allied to the Roman Empire.

While the Iazygians and Roxolani were stirring things up along the Danube River, the Alans staged a few raids across the Caucasus into Armenia and Iran. In 73 A.D. they devastated the Parthian province of Media (modern Azerbaijan), and defeated Tiridates, the pro-Parthian king of Armenia. However, when they raided the nearest Roman province, Cappadocia, in 135 A.D., they were turned back by the local governor, Arrian.

The Iazygians and Roxolani challenged the Romans again when Marcus Aurelius was emperor; this time they supported two German tribes on the Danube frontier, the Marcomanni and the Quadi (167-180). Rome eventually won again, and according to the terms ending the war, the Iazygians sent 8,000 warrior/hostages. 5,500 of these went to Britain, where they served as mercenaries. Recently it has been suggested that King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table were either Sarmatians originally, or they learned how to be knights from the Sarmatians, because western Europe had a shortage of knights until the eighth century, two or three hundred years after the supposed time of the Arthurian legend. Then in the third century, two more Roman emperors fought and defeated the Iazygians: Maximinus (236-238, he called himself Sarmaticus Maximus when he won) and Carus (282).

Most of the Sarmatians disappeared in the fourth century, but they did not become extinct; they lost their identity as separate peoples. Caught between the Huns and the Ostrogoths, the Roxolani were absorbed into the latter when they expanded onto the Ukraine (see below). The disappearance of the Iazygians was a bit more complicated. A faction of slaves in the tribe revolted against their overlords in 334 and named themselves the Limigantes. After they gained their freedom, the Limigantes staged some raids across the Danube; the Roman emperor Constantius II crushed them in 357, and resettled the survivors in lands on the Roman side of the border. We last hear from the other Iazygians in 374, when they ambushed and nearly annihilated two legions that were sent to stop them, in the province of Pannonia. From 230 onward a Germanic tribe, the Asding Vandals, lived in the same neighborhood as the Iazygians (between the Danube and Tisza Rivers), and we believe that those Iazygians alive after 374 joined them. Thus, the Vandals contained a Sarmatian element when they invaded Spain and North Africa (see this footnote for a comment on the Vandals being the least German of the Germanic tribes).

It may surprise you to learn that the third group of Sarmatians, the Alans, still exists today. When the Huns migrated into Europe, they scooped up the Alans and enrolled them in their horde, so some Alans saw action as far west as Gaul in the mid-fifth century. After Attila's empire broke up, the Alans returned to the north slopes of the Caucasus, where they managed to keep their home and their ethnic identity even while other barbarians like the Mongols moved through the area. When Ivan the Terrible conquered the Mongol Khanate of Astrakhan in the sixteenth century (see the next chapter), that brought the Russians up to the Alans' doorstep. It was between 1774 and 1801, during the reigns of Catherine the Great and Paul, when the Alan homeland was absorbed into the Russian state. However, another ethnic group nearby, the Georgians, called them Ossetians, and the Russians adopted that name, so the Alans of ancient and medieval times are today's Ossetians. When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia in 1812, Tsar Alexander I called on the empire's non-Russian minorities to send troops to defend the "Motherland,"; and the Alans/Ossetians who answered the call carried lances and wore chainmail, just like their Sarmatian ancestors. They did not make a difference in the battle for Moscow (the French weren't scared, and called them "Cupids"), but you could say that two eras met in that conflict, as well as two empires!

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The Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus

The Greeks colonized the shores of the Black Sea for two reasons, to trade with the steppe nomads and to grow grain for home consumption (back in Greece, good farmland was in short supply). Most of the colonies remained just city-states, but one did exceptionally well, keeping its independence for most of an 850-year span (about 480 B.C. to 370 A.D.), and becoming the longest-lived Roman client state. We call this state either the Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus, or simply the Bosporan Kingdom.

Real estate agents like to say there are three keys to success in their business--location, location, and location. That is exactly why the Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus prospered. First, its location on the Strait of Kerch gave it control over all traffic going in and out of the Sea of Azov. Second, around 350 B.C. it took the port of Kaffa (modern Feodosiya), the only port in the area which is ice-free all year long. This allowed Greek merchants to keep on sailing during the winter months, while other Black Sea ports were frozen in. Finally, because the kingdom was so far away from the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, the great empires of the day could conquer it, but they could not hold onto it for long.

Thumbnail map of the Bosporan Kingdom.

The Bosporan Kingdom, 389 B.C.-69 A.D. This is a thumbnail; the full-sized map is hosted on Wikipedia, and will open in a separate window.

Starting with only the city of Panticapaeum (modern Kerch), the first kings of the Cimmerian Bosporus came from a family called the Archaeanactidae. In 438 B.C. a Thracian (not a Greek, mind you) named Spartocus seized power, and the dynasty he founded, the Spartocids, ruled for more than three centuries after that. Those three centuries happened to be the kingdom's most prosperous time; besides exporting grain, fish and slaves, the kingdom produced some metalwork. The kingdom also expanded its borders, spreading out both east and west from the Strait of Kerch, until it controlled most of the Crimea and the whole eastern shore of the Sea of Azov. In the process of doing so they absorbed the Tauri, the tribe we believe was the last remnant of the Cimmerians (see above).

The period of Bosporan prosperity overlaps with the period we call the age of Hellenism. During the three hundred years after Alexander the Great, Greek culture was dominant throughout the known world, as Greeks spread it everywhere they went. The results of their missionary efforts were mixed; e.g., whereas the Seleucids tried to make everyone in their kingdom become Greeks, the Ptolemies built a Greek city in Egypt (Alexandria), while working to keep their Greek, Egyptian and Jewish subjects apart. It was the Bosporan Kingdom, on the other hand, that produced a truly integrated society, mixing Greeks with Thracians, Tauri, Scythians and Sarmatians.

However, there were some Scythian tribes the Bosporan kings could not get along with, and late in the second century B.C. they recovered much of the Crimea. The last king of the house of Spartocus, Paerisades V, had no luck stopping Scythian raids, so he looked across the Black Sea and called on Mithradates VI, the greatest king of Pontus, to come to the rescue. Soon after that, in 107 B.C., Paerisades was killed by a Scythian named Saumacus, who led a rebellion against him. Diophantus, the general of Pontus, subsequently put down the rebellion and annexed the kingdom. Mithradates appointed his son Machares as regent of the Cimmerian Bosporus; while he held Pontus, Colchis (Georgia) and the Bosporan Kingdom, the Black Sea was his lake.

The composite kingdom of Mithradates VI fell apart when he was defeated by the Roman general Pompey in 66 B.C. He fled first to Colchis and then to the Crimea, where he planned to raise one more army to fight the Romans with. His son Machares refused to help, so Mithradates had him killed, took the Bosporan throne for himself, and began preparing for war. In 63 B.C. another son, Pharnaces, revolted against him; Mithradates was forced to withdraw to the citadel of Panticapaeum, where he committed suicide. Pharnaces at first got to rule the part of his father's kingdom that Pompey did not annex for Rome, but because Pompey was his patron, Pompey's enemy, Julius Caesar, would eventually come to get him. Caesar defeated Pharnaces in 47 B.C., and installed Asander, the son-in-law of Pharnaces, as client king of the Cimmerian Bosporus, thereby founding the kingdom's last dynasty. From 38 A.D. onwards, the Bosporan kings were also Roman citizens (this footnote explains why that was special).

In 62 A.D., the Roman emperor Nero deposed the current Bosporan king, Cotys I. He never explained why he did this, but we can make an educated guess. After the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, the Romans decided that their own governors were more reliable than local kings, so they were turning client kingdoms like Egypt, Judea, Morocco and Thrace into provinces, whenever they got an excuse to do so. Indeed, Nero had annexed Pontus for the same reason. However, as we mentioned above, the Crimea was too far away from Rome to manage very well. When Nero died in 68, the next emperor, Galba, kept Pontus but gave the Bosporan kingdom to the son of Cotys, Rhescuporis I. After that no other emperors tried to conquer the Crimea, though they made sure the client kings stayed friendly. The Sarmatians also meddled in Crimean politics from time to time, to make the kings favor them, too.

During the Roman era, the Bosporan Kingdom peaked under Sauromates (174-210), who won a decisive victory against the Scythians. After 250, however, the migration of the Goths to the Black Sea tipped the balance of power against the Bosporans. The last king whose name has come down to us is Tiberius Julius Rhescuporis VI (303-342). Then in the 370s we stop hearing from the kingdom itself. It's a safe bet it was destroyed in that decade either by the Ostrogoths moving east, or by the Huns moving west.

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The Goths

Unlike the other tribes in this chapter, the Goths were Germanic in origin, and migrated to the steppes from the west instead of the east. They started out in Scandinavia originally, and as the population of all German tribes multiplied, they pushed south into Germany. Finding their path out of Germany blocked on the west side by the Roman Empire, the Germans expanded south and east, following the Danube River. You could call this the first drang nach osten, because it was much like the more famous eastward German migration in medieval and modern times. Among the tribes the Goths led the way, until they reached the Black Sea in 230 A.D. On the Black Sea shore they acquired boats from the Bastarnae, another German tribe, and used them to raid the Bosporan Kingdom, Asia Minor and Greece in the 250s and 260s, plundering areas that had not experienced a rebellion or invasion in centuries. In 270 the Roman emperor Aurelian decided that Dacia/Romania was indefensible, and abandoned that province to the Goths. This success caused the Goths to split into three new tribes, the Gepids, Visigoths and the Ostrogoths. The Visigoths and Gepids stayed in Dacia, while the Ostrogoths advanced into the Ukraine, obtained horses and wagons, and adopted the lifestyle of the Sarmatians. While they had it, the Germans called the Ukraine Oium.

The greatest Ostrogoth king was one Ermanaric, who ruled from 342 to 372. Very little is known about him; most of what we have comes from German legends, where he is cast as a villain. The Roman historian Jordanes claimed that he lived to be 110, meaning he became king at the age of eighty, if the dates are correct. What we know for sure is that Ermanaric changed the Ostrogoth strategy, from simply driving away their neighbors (Sarmatians, Slavs and Balts), to conquering both their neighbors and the lands they lived on. Thus, under Ermanaric the Ostrogoth kingdom grew rapidly, until it stretched over all territory between the Baltic and Black Seas (modern Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia).

This expansion brought the Ostrogoths to the banks of the Volga River, where they faced the Alans to the south, and the Huns to the east. Ermanaric's winning streak ended when he challenged the Huns. The Hun leader at this time was named Balamir or Balamber, and his reaction was both sudden and violent; his mounted archers were faster than the Gothic lancers, and they destroyed everything Ermanaric threw against them. As his empire crumbled away, Ermanaric committed suicide in despair, and his successor, Vithimir (372-376), was quickly defeated and killed as well. By 375 the Huns were masters of the whole western steppe, from Hungary to the Caspian Sea. The Visigoths and those Ostrogoths who did not submit to the Hunnic yoke took refuge in the Roman Empire, during the last years of the fourth century. They would play an important part in the fall of Rome, but that story has already been covered in Chapters 5 & 6 of my European history.

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The Huns

Of all the barbarians the Romans met, the Huns frightened them the most. Originally they lived in Mongolia; we get their name from what the Chinese called them--Xiongnu (pronounced "shiong-nu")--which seems to have been an attempt to imitate the whinnying of their horses. Both the Chinese and the Romans describe the Xiongnu/Huns the same way; short, bowlegged nomads who lived their whole lives on horseback, were excellent archers, and had customs that made civilized men see them as brutal, repulsive and filthy. In the third century B.C. they built a powerful kingdom, and China responded by building the Great Wall to keep them out. After that, China became too strong for the Xiongnu to deal with; late in the first century A.D. the Chinese conquered Mongolia, and the Xiongnu migrated along the steppe highway until they reached the Caspian Sea.

The Xiongnu were probably typical Asiatics when they fought the Chinese, but as they moved west, they scooped up other tribes whose members were racially Caucasian, especially the Finns. So by the time they became the Huns, they were a multi-racial society. The Volga River became the frontier between the Huns and those tribes in the west, until the Huns crossed it in 372 to invade Europe. This set off a chain reaction, with the Huns driving frightened Germans into the Roman Empire. After the Huns destroyed Ermanaric's kingdom, they occupied the western steppes, but otherwise did not bother the Romans and the Germans as much as you might expect. They were probably divided between several chieftains at this stage, none of which was overly ambitious--none of their names have come down to us, anyway. In the 390s they swarmed across the Caucasus to raid Armenia, Persia and Eastern Roman provinces like Cappadocia and Syria, until Eutropius, an East Roman official, assembled a force of Romans and Goths strong enough to defeat them (398).

By 425, the Huns appear to have had three brothers in charge: Rugila and Mundzuk in the west, and Oktar in the east. In 433 Rugila died and leadership passed to the two sons of Mundzuk, Attila and Bleda. You've heard of Attila; Bleda, however, was soon killed, presumably by Attila. While Bleda was alive, the two brothers tried attacking the Persians, only to be defeated by the Persian king, Bahram V. After that, Attila's career--and victims--were all in Europe, rather than in Russia. The story of Attila the Hun is an exciting one, so click here to read what I wrote about it.

The Hun empire in 451.
Attila's empire at its peak, in 451.

Attila died in 453, and the empire he built soon followed. Led by the Gepids, the Germans crushed Attila's sons at the battle of the Nedao River (454). The surviving Huns returned to the steppes, except for a few who stayed in Hungary to raid the Eastern Roman Empire; when they found that even this was beyond their strength, they also withdrew to the steppes (470). Here they formed two groups, the Kutrigur Huns north of the Sea of Azov, and the Utigur Huns on that sea's eastern shore.(9) Roman diplomacy kept them divided; for the next century the Eastern Roman emperors paid them to kill each other. Next to them, a pocket of Ostrogoths regained their independence in the Crimea, so they survived as the last remnant of Ermanaric's legacy. That was how things stood when the next barbarian wave, that of the Avars, arrived on the scene.(10)

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The Avars

When you read the story of the Avars, you'll probably think it is a case of history repeating itself. Like the Huns, the Avars lost their original home in the Far East, and followed the Russian steppe to find a new one. In this case, a tribe called the Rouran (Jou-Jan or Juan-Juan in old textbooks) dominated Mongolia from 330 to 552 A.D.; many, but not all historians, believe that the Avars are refugees from this kingdom. Also like the Huns, they conquered the peoples they met on the steppes, but instead of staying there, they passed through, and set up their base of operations in Hungary.

Western civilization first heard about the Avars when they appeared north of the Caucasus. In 557 the Avars sent an ambassador named Kandikh, and Emperor Justinian granted an audience. The ambassador demanded land and tribute; Justinian responded by giving gifts of golden chains, golden saddles and bridles. Then Justinian sent his own ambassador, Valentinos, to the Avars, and he promised more valuable gifts if they would attack the Huns and Slavs who had been raiding the Balkans.

Diplomatic relations between the Avars and Romans got off to a good start, but soon the new arrivals became a problem for Constantinople. The first problem was that the diplomacy worked too well. The Romans had hoped that if the barbarians fought each other, they would cancel each other out. Instead, the Avars beat all their opponents and conquered everything between the Volga and the lower Danube (559-561). Does this sound like a reincarnation of the fifth-century Hun Empire? It gets better; Bayan, the Avar khagan (chief) from 562 to 602, was aggressive enough to be called another Attila. In 562 he staged an unsuccessful raid on the Franks in Germany; in 567, allied with a German tribe called the Lombards, he destroyed the Gepids. The Avars did such a fierce job on the Gepids that the Lombards decided to get out of the neighborhood, rather than quarrel with the Avars over Hungary, so they moved to Italy. In 568 the Avars made their first raid against the Empire, in Dalmatia (Croatia). The other problem with the Avars was that they didn't come alone. The tribe that drove them out of Mongolia, the Turks, was also heading west; the only reason the Turks did not catch up was because while they were in Central Asia, they stopped to destroy the White Huns and take their land (557). Those White Huns who weren't killed by the Turks fled to Europe and joined the Avars. In 576 the vanguard of the Turkish horde arrived, in the form of a raiding party. The Avars, mindful of past defeats, did not try to stop this invasion, but because the Turks were so far from home, they did not push very hard, either. They liberated the Alans and Utigur Huns from Avar rule, and even besieged the Roman port of Kerch, before most of them returned to Asia. One Turkish tribe, though, the Khazars, settled on the north shore of the Caspian Sea. Although the raid must have been considered a success, the Turks did not follow it up with another one, because the first Turkish state, the Göktürk Khanate, split into Eastern (Mongolian) and Western (Central Asian) khanates in 581.

Meanwhile in the Balkans, the Empire and the Avars quarreled over who owned the town of Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica). Bayan's response was to send raids into the Balkan provinces, going as far as Thrace, before the emperor paid a ransom on the scale of what Attila had extorted in the 440s. More dangerous to the Empire, in the long run, was that because the raids left much of the Danube unguarded, Bayan's Slavic subjects were able to pour across the frontier and cause troubles of their own. Only after the Romans won a war against their archenemy, the Persians, in 591, were they able to transfer troops to Europe, restore the Danube defenses, and even advance beyond them to punish the Avars on their home ground.

The next war between the Romans and Persians was their biggest--and the last. Late in the war, in 626, the Persians tried to take Constantinople from the east, and they persuaded the Avars to strike at the eastern Roman capital from its European side. It might have worked, had they not forgotten that the Roman navy still ruled the narrow strip of water between them. Unable to cross the Bosporus, the Persian army could only watch while the Avars mounted an ineffective attack against Constantinople's legendary walls.

In the end, this was the war that nobody won. The two empires were so ruined that when the Arabs attacked them in the 630s, they overran the Persian Empire completely, and took away more than half of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Avars were critically weakened, too; they never replaced the men they lost in their costly siege of Constantinople. Afterwards they could no longer control the peoples under their rule; the Slavs and Huns found themselves de facto independent, as the Avar realm shrank down to its core territory in Hungary and Transylvania. The Avar state lasted for nearly two more centuries, able to raid its neighbors, but never again did the Avars threaten to conquer anyone. They disappeared from central Europe when Charlemagne conquered Avar territory west of the Tisza River in 796, and the Danube Bulgars (see below) took the rest in 804.

There was also a small pocket of Avars on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Like the Alans/Ossetians, they have survived, not affected much by the invaders who passed through their territory, until the Russians took over in the 1800s. Today there are 1 million ethnic Avars; 850,000 of them live in Russia's autonomous Daghestan Republic, the rest live in other parts of Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine.

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The Rise of the Bulgars

The Bulgars were not a new tribe, moving in from beyond the borders of the known world, but a mixture of tribes we have already heard about. In 630 the Kutrigur and Utigur Huns revolted against Avar rule. The old name "Hun" no longer struck fear into anybody else, so they gave themselves a new name, Bulgar, which can either be a verb meaning "to mix", "shake, "stir"; or a noun meaning "revolt" or "disorder." Whatever they meant, the word is Turkish in origin, so we know that a number of individual Turks joined the Bulgars by this time; they also must have assimilated a few Scythians, Sarmatians and Goths. The first Bulgar leader was Kubrat (632-665, also spelled Kurt), a former Utigur chief. He established a kingdom based around the Sea of Azov, and the Don and Volga River valleys, and called it the Khanate of Great Bulgaria. His task was complete when the Byzantine Empire granted diplomatic recognition to his state in 635.

This kingdom did not long outlast its founder. Kubrat was buried near Poltava in the Ukraine; his treasure, more than 800 pieces of gold and silver called the Pereshchepina hoard, was discovered in 1912. The eldest of Kubrat's five sons, Batbayan, was crowned king, but the other sons did not recognize his authority and left, taking their own clans with them. This disunity meant the kingdom was an easy target when the Khazars attacked and destroyed it in 668.

The Bulgar response to this disaster was to go separate ways. A son of Kubrat named Asparukh took 30,000 to 50,000 Bulgars, the most important faction, and led them west to the Danube delta. Merging with the Slavs and Thracians already living there, they became the founders of the country we now call Bulgaria. Another faction, the Onogur Bulgars, chose to stay in the Ukraine, submitting to Khazar rule. A third group, led by Kotrag, yet another son of Kubrat, moved up the Volga River until they reached the area around modern Simbirsk, and there they founded the Kingdom of the Volga Bulgars. The Volga Bulgars converted to Islam in 922, their kingdom lasted until the thirteenth century, and ever since that time there has been a strong Moslem presence on the upper Volga and in the Urals. The Chuvash, a Turkic ethnic group living on the upper Volga, are probably their modern-day descendants.

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The Khazars

We mentioned the Khazars briefly in the last two sections of this chapter. For fifty years after their arrival, though, we do not hear a peep from them, and those were critical years, because the Khazars grew very strong during this time (576-626)(11). So strong that there is an Arab legend, probably untrue, which asserts that when the Persian king Khosrau I built his grand palace, he installed three golden thrones for the three most important guests he might receive: one for the Roman/Byzantine emperor, one for the emperor of China, and one for the Khazar khagan. Still, it appears that at this stage, the Khazars considered themselves vassals of the Western Turks, meaning that technically, the Khazar realm was the most distant province of the Western Turkish Khanate, now based in Kyrgyzstan.

In 626, during the last Perso-Roman war, the Roman emperor Heraclius called on the Khazars to join him in his counterattack against the Persians, and the Khazars contributed 40,000 men. At this time the Khazars were also invading the Transcaucasia region, and the Western Turkish ruler, called Zeibel in Byzantine sources and Tun Yabgu Khan in Asian sources, brought cavalrymen to help; with their assistance (and some engineers from Heraclius), the Khazars took Derbent in 627 and Tblisi in 628. Because the Alans were between these cities and the Khazar base of power at the mouth of the Volga River, the Khazars must have imposed their authority on the Alans by this time, too.

Shortly after these successful campaigns, the Arabs, motivated by Mohammed and Islam, entered the game. Between 642 and 652, when they weren't busy demolishing the Byzantine and Persian Empires, the Arabs probed morthwards, in the Khazars' direction. The Caucasus mts. are the highest mountain range in Europe, but they weren't that formidable a defense, because over the ages, barbarian raiders had found more than one pass through that barrier. Now the Arabs were coming through those passes the other way. Initially they tried to take Balanjar, the first Khazar capital, but in 652 the two sides met in a great battle that killed 4,000 Arabs, including their commander. After that rout, the Arabs chose not to bother the Khazars anymore, and took their chances fighting the Byzantines instead.

The Khazar state.

Khazaria, showing the core territory (dark blue) and surrounding areas the Khazars conquered later. From Wikimedia Commons.

In 659 the Western Turkish Khanate was smashed by a Chinese invasion, so the Khazars no longer had to be vassals to anybody. This marked the beginning of their most aggressive stage; then in 668 came the aforementioned Khazar attack which scattered their Bulgar rivals. The Khazars were now masters of the land around both the Black and Caspian Seas. They also continued to maintain good relations with the Byzantine emperors. When the emperor Justinian II was exiled in 695, he took refuge with the Khazars, and the current khagan, Busir Glavan, gave him his sister in marriage; she was baptised, given the Christian name of Theodora, and when Justinian returned to the throne, she became the next empress. In 733 another emperor, Leo III, reminded the Khazars that they had an alliance by arranging for a marriage between his son, Constantine V, and Tzitzak, daughter of the Khazar khagan Bihar. She changed her name to Irene after being baptized, and the son that couple had, the future Leo IV (775-780), was also called Leo the Khazar.

Though the Khazars came out winners in the first Arab-Khazar war, they had lost Georgia to the Arabs, and after the eighth century began they felt confident enough to take it back. The second Arab-Khazar war (722-737) was a seesaw struggle; sometimes the Khazar heavy cavalry would strike south through the passes of the Caucasus, sometimes the Arab light cavalry would strike north through the same passes. For the Khazars, the high point came in 730, when they overran both Georgia and Armenia, invaded northwest Iran, and won a total victory at the battle of Ardabil. One year later, the Khazars advanced to Mosul in Iraq, and to Diyarbakir, just north of Syria. The Khazar commander, Barjik, was killed at Mosul, but because the Arab capital was currently at Damascus, the Khazars must have looked far more dangerous than the Byzantines. 732 saw the Arabs gain the initiative and take Balanjar, but because they had no bases north of the Caucasus, they had to go home for the winter. Finally in 737 an Arab army, led by the future caliph Merwan, reached the lower Volga, annihilated the Khazar army of Bek Hazer Tarkhan, and captured Itil (also spelled Atil), the largest Khazar city.

Other nations have been destroyed by such a defeat, but the Khazars got off remarkably easily. The Arabs did not send soldiers to occupy the country, or administrators to reorganize it to their tastes. They did not even stay, because the Arab government, the Umayyad Caliphate, was dying, and they had to put down rebellions against it; in fact, Merwan soon became Merwan the Ass, the last Umayyad caliph. When the Khazar khagan asked for terms, the most important demand Merwan made was that the khagan convert to Islam. The khagan did so, but because the Arabs had been so lenient, he was a Moslem in name only; he may have renounced his new faith as early as 740, only three years later. History books often talk about how most of Europe was saved from Islam because the Franks stopped Moslem invaders at the battle of Tours, and because the Byzantines held them up at Constantinople for centuries, so don't forget the Khazar contribution; they prevented the entry of Islam into Europe from a third direction.

Still, the defeat of 737 had been a traumatic one. First, the Khazars never meddled in affairs south of the Caucasus again; they only bullied the Bulgars and the Slavs. With everyone else they chose to trade, and thus were regarded as the most civilized barbarians. Second, Balanjar was too close to the frontier, so they moved the capital to Itil, where it stayed thereafter.

More important of all, the Khazar leadership decided that it needed a modern religion. Until now, all Turks had been pagans; they had shamans for priests, and their most important deity was a sky-god named Tengri. In Dark Age Europe, the alternatives to sky-worship were monotheistic creeds: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Khazar decision marked them as the strangest barbarians to ever come out of Asia: they chose Judaism. Yes, some distant relatives of Genghis Khan became Jewish barbarians!

Unfortunately, like everything else concerning the Khazars, we know maddeningly little about their conversion. To start with, we aren't even sure when it took place. Traditionally historians have assumed they converted in the 740s, but recently some have suggested that they did it around 800, or even as late as the 860s, because Christian missionaries weren't active in eastern Europe until St. Cyril went on his journey to Bohemia.(12) What's more, we don't know how widespread the conversion was. These days, most books suggest that conversion was limited to high-ranking Khazar families; many, perhaps most, ordinary Khazars remained pagan, and the Khazar rulers tolerated all religions within their realm (no pressure was put on their non-Khazar subjects to convert).

On top of all that, the Jewish Khazars themselves did not tell us why they converted. The most popular story asserts that both the Byzantines and Arabs had sent envoys to a ruler named Bulan Sabriel, urging him to convert to their religions. To settle the matter, he arranged a debate between three theologians: one Christian, one Moslem, and one Jew. Naturally, all three theologians praised their own doctrine; the Christian denounced Islamic teachings; the Moslem denounced Chritian teachings; the Jew denounced the tenets of both Christianity and Islam. Then Bulan Sabriel asked what each thought of the holy books of the other religions, and because all of them had good things to say about Moses and the Torah, Judaism came out the winner in the debate.

One thing is clear--politics must have helped decide the matter. If the Khazars had chosen Christianity or Islam, they would have been forced to look to a foreign leader--either the pope, the caliph, or the Byzantine emperor--for guidance. Therefore they became Jews because there were no political strings attached.(13) They may have also noted that Jews could travel and trade freely in both Christian and Moslem countries. Finally, we know that Jews were living in Russia as early as the sixth century, having been expelled from the empires of the day; they could have given Judaism some good publicity already.

There was an inconclusive border war between the Khazars and Arabs in 798, because a Khazar princess was given in marriage to the Arab governor of Armenia, and she died in childbirth too soon after that. Otherwise, the Khazars got along well with the Abbasids, the ruling Arab dynasty after 750. And not just with the Abbasids; they were at peace with everybody for most of the ninth century. It's just as well, because they declined somewhat after 800. When the Petchenegs (see below) showed up on their frontiers, the Khazars were not strong enough to keep them from passing through the part of the steppes they claimed for themselves. They did have a response, though, when another group of new barbarians, the Vikings, came down from the north. In 833 they hired Byzantine architects to build a city with modern fortifications, to make sure they kept control over the lower Don River; that became Sarkel, the number two Khazar city. Another line of defense came from a new tribe under their rule, the Magyars. So when the Vikings and Slavs wanted to sail on the Don or the Volga, they only did so with the Khazars' approval.

The Khazar state lasted until 965, when the Russian prince Svyatoslav destroyed Sarkel. It was followed by one or two short-lived successor city-states, on the shores of the Caspian, and the Khazars existed as a distinct people at least until the Mongols arrived in the thirteenth century. Indeed, some of today's eastern European Jews may be descended from them.(14) After 800, however, Khazar history is tied in with the Magyars, Petchenegs and Vikings, so this narrative will now move on to cover what those newcomers did.

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The Magyars and Petchenegs

The Magyars started out as cousins of the Finns, meaning that they came from the north, not the east, to reach the steppe. When they first appear in the historical record, around the fifth century, they lived in the part of the Urals now called Bashkortostan. At an uncertain date, in the second half of the eighth century, part of the Magyar tribe migrated south to the eastern Ukraine, between the Don and Dnieper Rivers.(15) This was supposed to be Khazar territory, but because the Magyars were vassals of the Khazars immediately after this, our guess is that either the Magyars moved there with the Khazars' approval, or the Khazars ordered them to relocate.

According to Magyar legend, they were organized into seven tribes when they settled the steppes. They absorbed the tribe already there, the Onogur Bulgars, and while this did not change the Magyar ethnic makeup much, it gave them a new name; henceforth, outsiders would call them Hungarians, a variation of the Onogur name (see also this footnote). Around 830, three Khazar tribes that we call the Kabars revolted, and when they failed to overthrow the Khazar leadership, they fled to the frontier and joined the Magyars. The Kabars became an eighth Magyar tribe, meaning that the Magyars spoke two languages for a while (Magyar and Khazar), and when the Hungarians got a king later on, their first ruling dynasty, the Arpads, came from the Kabars.

I got a kick out of this Hungarian commercial when I saw it on YouTube. According to it, the Magyars had a fast food delivery service even before they became civilized!

The Magyars were useful mercenaries for the Khazars, defending the frontier from enemies to the north and west. However, they could not stop a new enemy from the east. The Petchenegs (Patzinaks in Greek) were the Turkish tribe that had been living most recently on the north bank of the Syr Darya River, in present-day Kazakhstan. Byzantine sources describe them as the wildest, most uncouth Turks the West had encountered so far. Around 790 they were expelled from this area by the Oghuz (Ghuzz in Arabic), the Turkish tribe behind them, and they resettled between the Ural and Volga Rivers; around 850 they crossed the Volga and invaded Europe. The Khazars were strong enough to beat off Petcheneg attacks on Itil and Sarkel, so following the path of least resistance, the invaders passed on the north side of those cities and fell on the Magyars. By 889 the Magyars had been forced to leave; they crossed the Dnieper and settled in the western Ukraine. The Petchenegs, now allied with the Danube Bulgars, kept up the pressure, so in 896 the Magyars gave up on the Ukraine altogether, and moved into present-day Hungary. Their story after this is continued in my European history. As for the Petchenegs, now that the whole Ukraine was theirs, they became a serious obstacle to the Vikings and Slavs expanding southwards, and they forced merchants crossing the steppe to travel in armed convoys. We will see them again in the next chapter.

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The Main Ingredients -- The Slavs and Varangians

Now it is time to bring in the ancestors of today's Russians. At the beginning of this chapter, we noted that they got started on the banks of the Pripet Marshes. The Greeks and Romans knew of them and called them Venedi, but no civilized explorer visited their home before the sixth century A.D., so most of what was known about the early Slavs came as hearsay from the Germanic tribes living next to them. Unfortunately the Romans got their best look at the Slavs when the Germans captured them and sold them into slavery. In time, so many of these people ended up in captivity that the name Slav, which originally meant "glorious," became the root for the English word "slave."

The Slavs were peaceful, disorganized and poor, so they were conquered frequently. If you look at a map showing Europe between 342 and 626 A.D., you probably won't see the Slavs, because their homeland was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, Huns or Avars. But while they could not outfight their more aggressive neighbors, they could outbreed them, and because those excess sons and daughters needed land of their own to live on, they went forth to settle plots nobody else was working.(16) They expanded north against the Finns, and east until they encountered the Volga Bulgars and the Khazars. To the west they pushed as far as the Elbe River; it must have helped that the Germans also wanted to go west, into the lands that once belonged to the Roman Empire. In the south they entered the Balkans, harassing the shrinking Byzantine Empire until some of them even settled in Greece.(17)

The Slavs in 700.

When the Avar empire disintegrated, most of eastern Europe went by default to the Slav tribes. Communication broke down over such great distances, especially after 758, when the German duke of Bavaria established a protectorate over the Slavs living in Austria; now the Germans, Avars and Danube Bulgars effectively cut off the Slavs in the Balkans from their relatives. Separated, the Slavs broke up into three smaller groups: the Eastern Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians), Western Slavs (Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks), and Southern or "Yugo-Slavs" (Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins, and Macedonians, later the Bulgarians joined them). When the Slavs converted to Christianity, that became another source of division: the Slovenes, Croats, and all of the Western Slavs chose Catholicism (and when they learned to write they used the Latin alphabet); most of the others chose Orthodoxy, and with it the Cyrillic alphabet, a script combining Latin, Greek, and a few new letters, invented by two missionaries who went to the Western Slavs in the 860s, St. Cyril and St. Methodius. Ever since that time the Orthodox Russians and the Catholic Poles have hated each other, never getting along for any length of time.(18)

Slavic language map
A map showing where the Slavic languages are spoken today. Source:, a website that no longer exists.

The initial push that started the Eastern Slavs down the road of civilization came from one more race of barbarians--the Swedish Vikings, or Varangians. In the eighth century this group crossed the Baltic Sea and set up some trading posts on Kurland, the coast of Latvia. They did not get along well with the Balts living here, so before long they shifted their attention to the Gulf of Finland. Following the short Neva River from the Gulf, the Varangians reached Lake Ladoga and founded their first Russian settlement, called Aldeigjuborg in Norse and Staraya Ladoga in Russian (753?). Next they began exploring the rivers that came from inland. The Slav-inhabited forests contained wood, furs, honey, wax, amber and iron, but the resource that really attracted the Vikings was water! From the land of the Eastern Slavs came rivers flowing in every direction: north (the Volkhov and Northern Dvina) to the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean, east (the Volga) to the Caspian Sea, south (the Dnieper and the Don) to the Black Sea, and west (the Berezina, Niemen, and Western Dvina) to the Baltic. All these streams originate in the Valdai hills, about 300 miles north of modern Smolensk; it was a small matter to sail up one river to its source, drag the boat overland a few miles, and then place it in another river to go in a different direction.(19) Their exploration of the rivers was both quick and successful, for in 838 a Varangian delegation entered the Black Sea and sailed across it to Constantinople. The Vikings were eager to get the fabulous treasures of the Byzantine and Arab lands, and this network of rivers became an ideal highway for their dragon-ships.

The first generation of Varangians were not numerous enough to pose much of a threat to the Slavs whose lands they passed through; they were even less dangerous to the Magyars and Petchenegs on the other side, because they were spread very thin by the time they got that far south. However, there were plenty more back in Sweden, eager for a better life than what they would have if they stayed home. The second generation on this enterprise built a string of fortified towns in the north, between 830 and 860: Izborsk, Polotsk, Belozersk and Rostov. The most important town of all was called Holmgard in Norse and Novgorod ("New City") in Russian. From these advance bases they struck south. The Slavs could not resist, and soon their villages became conquered Varangian settlements.

We are now at the point when the Eastern Slavs and Varangians united to become the Russians. Because this chapter was only meant to cover what happened in Russia before there were any Russians, the narrative will break off here. This is not the end of the story, just the end of the prelude leading up to the real story, which will begin in the next chapter. I look forward to seeing you there!

This is the End of Chapter 1.


1. I wouldn't be surprised if thousands of years from now, some future archaeologists uncover our civilization, and if they cannot understand our language, they might call us the "Coke Bottle People," because they will find many examples of the container we have spread to even the most remote parts of the world (See "The Gods Must Be Crazy" for somebody who found a coke bottle and didn't know what it was.). Also, archaeologists interpret any change in the style of pottery they're digging up as evidence of other changes, so they might think a major political upheaval took place near the end of the twentieth century, when soft drink makers switched from glass to plastic bottles!

2. If you're a science fiction/fantasy fan, you have probably heard of the Cimmerians already, because Conan the Barbarian, everybody's favorite sword-and-jockstrap fighter, was a Cimmerian. In Robert E. Howard's stories, the Cimmerians were a tribe living beyond the Hyborian kingdoms, but the only thing these Cimmerians had in common with the real Cimmerians was the name.

Conan the Barbarian

3. Herodotus, The Histories, Book 4, chapters 11-12.

4. Because Sargon and his successors never mentioned Cimmerians living north of the Caucasus, this has caused some modern historians to argue that the Cimmerians had always lived in the mountains of Georgia and northern Iran. I don't think so myself, because once the Cimmerians got moving, they roamed farther and did far more damage than you would expect from the vassals of a vassal state (Sargon had also conquered Mannea).

5. Today nobody views Sargon II as a hero, and why should they? In my Middle Eastern history series, I wrote that Sargon murdered the previous Assyrian king, and that he began his reign by taking away ten of the tribes of Israel, turning them into the "Ten Lost Tribes." However, I am now wondering if Sargon's last battle saved civilization as we know it. Of all the civilized nations at that time, only the Assyrians, with their first-rate standing army, could take on the Cimmerians and have any chance of winning. After 705 B.C. the Cimmerians attacked other nations; they must have felt the Assyrians were too tough for them. The historian William MacNeill has pointed out that until 500 B.C., civilization was in danger of being snuffed out completely by barbarians, because civilized men occupied such a tiny portion of the world in those days. Did Sargon's sacrifice buy time for the Middle East, the way the sacrifice of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae bought time for the Greeks, allowing them to defeat the Persians later on? If the Assyrian Empire had fallen to the Cimmerians, could the Egyptians, the Elamites, or any other ancient kingdom survive?

Sargon II
Sargon II, from

6. Herodotus also reported (Book 4, chapter 108) that the capital of the Scythians was a large wooden city named Gelonus. Modern archaeologists have cautiously identified Gelonus with Belsk, a site near modern Poltava in the Ukraine.

7. The Greeks made an exception for Anacharsis, the son of a Scythian chief who also had Greek ancestry. In the early sixth century B.C., while the famous statesman Solon was ruling Athens, he walked into Solon's house and offered friendship; Solon, liking his wit, accepted. Anacharsis was later remembered as one of the earliest philosophers, the so-called "Seven Sages of Greece," though none of his works survived to our time. Some see him as a forerunner of the Cynics, because he lived simply, like Diogenes.

8. They didn't roll it into joints like today's junkies. Instead they made a fire under a tent canopy, threw the hemp in, and started laughing! They mainly used it for religious purposes, not for fun; Scythian shamans were buried with bags of cannabis.

9. Not all Huns were active in Europe during the fifth century. North of the Caspian Sea was a tribe called the Sabirian Huns; the only time civilized people even noticed them was in the 540s, when the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian tried unsuccessfully to make an alliance with the Sabirian Huns against the Persians. The White Huns, also called Ephthalites, were so far away that Attila had no authority over them. Based in Central Asia, the White Huns raided Persia and India, with results as devastating as what Attila did in Europe.

10. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and by 486 the last person claiming to be the Western Roman emperor was dead. Therefore we don't have to distinguish between "Eastern" and "Western" Roman Empires after this, because only one Empire was left. Historians continue to call it "Eastern" to distinguish it from the old (pre-Constantinian) Roman Empire; whereas the old Empire spoke many languages and had many religions, the new Empire was mostly Greek-speaking and mostly Christian. We also call the new Empire the Byzantine Empire for the same reason, from Byzantium, the original name for Constantinople. Just keep in mind that back in the day, nobody called the Empire "Eastern" or "Byzantine"; for the rest of its existence, it was just "Roman."

11. Alas, all that we know on how the Khazars got started has been stated in this chapter. We don't have a complete list of khagans/kings, for example, and all the dates concerning their reigns are fuzzy at best. In addition, the second most important man in the Khazar state was the commander of the army, called a bek in Turkish; when a Khazar leader is mentioned in outside records, we often cannot tell if they are talking about the ruling monarch, or the bek. No wonder some conspiracy theorists think the real story of the Khazars has been hidden or suppressed.

Turkish poster of the Khazars
An unidentifed Khazar khagan and the Khazar flag, from a Turkish poster.

12. After they converted, Khazar leaders, as you might expect, had Hebrew names: Aaron, Benjamin, Menahem, Manasseh, Isaac, Hannukah, Hezekiah, Obadiah, and Joseph. It's too bad we don't have dates for any of their reigns; if we did, we could calculate an approximate date for when they converted.

13. They did not even go with mainstream (Rabbinical) Judaism. The only Jewish scriptures that interested them much were the Tanakh, the books of the Old Testament. My guess is that the Khazars had learned to read too recently to appreciate the scholarly work the rabbis did after the Old Testament was finished. Thus, they were a lot like the Karaites, a medieval Jewish sect that accepted the Old Testament but rejected commentaries like the Talmud.

14. I made the statement about European Jewish descent with caution, and recommend all readers do the same. When composing this chapter, the best reference source I had for the Khazars was The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler (New York, Random House, 1976). The first half of the book I heartily recommend, because it does a great job of covering the Jewish, Arab, Byzantine, Russian and other literary sources we have on the Khazars. In the second half, however, Koestler sought to prove that there is no such thing as a "Jewish race," arguing that most of the Jews who lived in Russia later on were descended from the Khazars, not from the people of the Bible. Consequently there are several websites with online versions of the book, to promote anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism; you will probably find a few of them if you Google the word "Khazars."
In response to that, I would point out that the main piece of evidence put forth in the book is obsolete. Koestler tried to trace ancestry by comparing Jewish blood types with those of Europeans and Asians, because DNA testing was not available in the 1970s. When DNA testing was done more recently, it showed a definite connection between Jews and other Middle Eastern peoples (plus a few surprises like this one!). We also need to remember that over the centuries, Russian Jews have preferred to speak Yiddish, which is a Germanic language, not a Turkic one. Most of those Jews ended up in Russia because the Russians annexed more than half of Poland and Lithuania in the 17th-19th centuries. In fact, the former Polish-Lithuanian territory was declared "the Pale of Settlement," and most of Russia's Jews and Catholics were not allowed to live anywhere else. To wrap up this long comment, Russian Jews can claim to have Khazar ancestors, but I doubt if they outnumber their Ashkenazi (European) ancestors.

15. The ethnic group living in Bashkortostan today, the Bashkirs, is another Turkish tribe. If you are looking for the descendants of those Magyars who stayed behind when the bulk of them moved out, try the Voguls, an endangered Finno-Ugric group in northwest Siberia.

16. The only population estimate I have heard for the early Slavs has them growing from three hundred thousand in 500 A.D., to 7.3 million in 1000. This is a more than 24-fold growth; divide it by 500 and you get an increase of about 4.8 percent per year. Nowadays a 3 percent growth rate is considered very high, and when you factor in that the Slavs did not have modern medicine to prevent a lot of childhood deaths, they would have needed to have more kids than us to achieve a high growth rate, so it looks like they were breeding like the proverbial rabbits! Fortunately the growth did not have to come from fertility alone. According to the Strategikon, a Byzantine military manual written around 600, the Slavs were good at persuading their non-Slav neighbors (e.g., Finns, Balts, Bulgars) to join them. And of course it is possible that our population guesses are off, because they are based on what the Byzantines said about the size of Slav armies, and those kind of figures get exaggerated all too often. Finally, we need to keep in mind that you can't feed many people when you live in a swamp, so whether their numbers grew fast or slow, the Slavs would have wanted to get away from the Pripet Marshes as soon as possible--that explains the rapid expansion.

17. This is one of the best-kept secrets of Greek history; it explains why the modern Greek language is so different from the Greek spoken by Homer, Pericles and the Apostle Paul. Edward Gibbon claimed that in his day, there was a remote area in Greece that the Slavs did not reach, where the natives spoke an ancient form of Greek.

18. Religious division is one of the reasons why the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Moslems cannot get along today in the former Yugoslavia, though they all speak the same language.

19. For the overland crossings, they greased the boats with tar. Indeed, Smolensk got its name from the Slavonic world for tar, smol.
In the twentieth century, a series of canals and lakes created by Joseph Stalin replaced the earlier portages. With the opening of the Volga-Don Ship Canal in 1952, Moscow became a port to five seas: the Baltic, White, Black, Azov, and Caspian Seas.

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