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It Was Not ‘Race’, but Place, by Which We Once Defined Our Differences

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Historians of antiquity credit the traveler and geographer Hecataeus of Miletus (ca. 550–ca. 490 BCE) as the first Greek to map the whereabouts of Celts and Scythians. We know little about him except that he traveled to Egypt and recognized the extent and power of the Persian empire. But he must have been more widely traveled, for he locates the trading center Massilia (modern French Marseilles) in the land of the Ligurians, near the land of the Celts, and he mentions a Celtic settlement in what is now the southeastern Austrian state of Styria.  Hecataeus also sees much else: the Black Sea sits near the middle of the map, just to the right of “Thrace,” with the Sea of Azov sticking up above it. His Danube, Dnieper, and Don Rivers—correctly—empty into the Black Sea from the left, the center, and the Sea of Azov, and the Caspian Sea lies at the far upper right at the edge of the world. Lastly, Hecataeus takes a leap, placing the Scythians between the Danube and the Dnieper Rivers and the Celts in the west, left of what we call the Italian peninsula. A half century later, Herodotus ridiculed Hecataeus’s map as vague and untrustworthy, and so it is. But the Greeks were reaching out and learning more.


Comb with battle scene (partial), Scythian/Greek style, 430-390 B.C. / Ukraine, Solokha kurgan / The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Comb with battle scene (partial), Scythian/Greek style, 430-390 B.C. / Ukraine, Solokha kurgan / The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


“The Scythians are a ruddy race because of the cold, not through any fierceness of the sun’s heat. It is the cold that burns their white skin and turns it ruddy.”

Born seventy years after Hecataeus, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (ca. 480–ca. 427 BCE) had an advantage, and he seized it, gaining acclaim as the West’s first systematic historian, indeed as the father of history, a title given him by the great Roman orator Cicero. So lasting was Herodotus’s reputation that his likeness, real or imagined, was carved in stone in Greece a century or so after his death and copied later in Rome. Born and raised in what is now western Turkey, he traveled widely, took good notes, and produced the first unified world history, encompassing Egypt (“Africa”), western Asia (“Asia”), as well as Greece (“Europe”). Where earlier scholars had repeated hearsay, Herodotus seems actually to have visited Egypt, Babylonia, the Balkans, and the Black Sea region. He also most likely reported on Scythians as an eyewitness.


Herodotus’s History, written in 440 BCE, chronicles a succession of great wars fought between Persians and Greeks during the period 499–479 BCE. More important for our purposes, The History also describes barbarians surrounding the Greek known world. Quite naturally, Herodotus puts Greece in the middle of everything and sings its praises. Even so, by modifying Hecataeus’s map of fifty years earlier, he did improve upon it greatly. Of course, Herodotus’s world is still flat—that notion would stand for another thousand years. But he displayed it wider, including the entire Mediterranean Sea, the Celts in the Iberian Peninsula, and the Scythians north of the Black Sea. He also grants the Amazons an appearance, east of the other Scythians and north of the Caucasus.


Living in the eastern Mediterranean, Herodotus knew far more about eastern Scythians than about western Celts, who lived too far away for him to have good information. Much of The History describes the various Scythian tribes and their territory. Although concentrating on the settled “Royal” Scythians around the lower Danube, Dnister, and Dnieper Rivers—all emptied into the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov—Herodotus’s descriptions reach out to nomadic peoples far east of the Ural Mountains and around the Caspian Sea. Looking east from Athens, Herodotus held an advantage denied earlier historians, for by the time he wrote in the mid-fifth century, the Greek empire extended to the Black Sea, and some Scythian groups were in regular commercial contact with Greeks and Persians. Other various tribes, lumped into the Scythian mélange for convenience, were merely designated as wild.


Sharing a common view of Scythians as preeminent warriors, Herodotus was agog at what he described as their savage and drug-riddled life in what is now southern Ukraine, not to mention their circumcised penises. Herodotus knew, perhaps as an eyewitness—historians remain divided on this point—that Scythians smoked marijuana and substituted drug use for bathing: “The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.”


Herodotous’s Scythians also drink the blood of the first man they kill in battle, then cut off their victims’ heads for delivery to their king or chief for payment: “The Scyth is proud of these scalps,” Herodotus reports, “and hangs them from his bridle-rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks, like the sheepskin [garments] of our peasants, by sewing a quantity of these scalps together.” Bodies of the vanquished serve a further use as showy quivers for arrows made of the skin of a right arm: “Now the skin of a man is thick and glossy, and would in whiteness surpass almost all other hides. Some even flay the entire body of their enemy, and stretching it upon a frame carry it about with them wherever they ride.” The skulls of their very worst enemies served as drinking cups, lined, if the Scythian could afford it, with gold.


As for the Amazons, Herodotus found them fascinating as well. After marrying and settling down, “[t]he women of the Sauromatae have continued from that day to the present to observe their ancient customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands, sometimes even unaccompanied; in war taking the field; and wearing the very same dress as the men.” The History also describes man-women as skilled soothsayers called “Enarees.”


Hippocrates, ancient Greece’s greatest physician and the father of Western medicine, from the Greek island of Kos (off the coast of Herodotus’s Halicarnassus, in western Turkey), also wrote widely and with great confidence on many other matters at the peak of Greek imperial power in the third and fourth centuries BCE. His De aëre, aquis et locis (Airs, Waters, and Places), a universal encyclopedia from 400 BCE, includes the barbarian ways of Scythians, Asians, and Greeks and, true to his medical interests, their practices of sexuality and reproduction.


For Hippocrates, topology and water determine body type, leading to differences between peoples of bracing, high terrain and those in low-lying meadows. Lowlanders he posited as broad, fleshy, and black haired: “they themselves are dark rather than fair, less subject to phlegm than to bile. Similar bravery and endurance are not by nature part of their character, but the imposition of law can produce them artificially.” People living where the water stands stagnant “must show protruding bellies and enlarged spleens.” Where the living is easy, as in the fertile lowlands, men pay the price in manhood: “the inhabitants are fleshy, ill-articulated, moist, lazy, and generally cowardly in character. Slackness and sleekness can be observed in them, and so far as the arts are concerned they are thick-witted, and neither subtle nor sharp.”


Generalizing further about the two types he assumes live in the high country, Hippocrates believed that those in a level, windy place will be “large of stature” and “like to one another; but their minds will be rather unmanly and gentle.” By contrast, those confined to places where the soil is thin and dry and the seasons change dramatically “will be hard in physique and well-braced, fair rather than dark, stubborn and independent in character and temper. For where the changes of the seasons are most frequent and most sharply contrasted, there you will find the greatest diversity in physique, in character, and in constitution.”


Getting to the nub of the matter, Hippocrates’ mountainous, rugged Greece clearly shaped his concepts of its European penumbra. A land “blasted by the winter and scorched by the sun,” produced handsome men: “hardy, slender, with well-shaped joints, well-braced, and shaggy.” The fierce Greek/European temperament would seem to explain Greek imperial domination as well as manly Greek/European beauty: for “where the land is bare, waterless, rough, oppressed by winter’s storms and burnt by the sun, there you will see men who are hard, lean, well-articulated, well-braced, and hairy; such natures will be found energetic, vigilant, stubborn and independent in character and in temper, wild rather than tame, of more than average sharpness and intelligence in the arts, and in war of more than average courage.”


Such applause for European hardness would reappear over time, depending on the exposure of scholars to armies (mercenary and voluntary) and the relative prestige of militarism, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Americans widely envied the military might of European colonial powers.


Though Hippocrates places various Scythian tribes in a number of different regions and assigns to them an array of body types, he oddly concludes that they all look more or less alike. Some live along the Ukrainian Sea of Azov, the mild northern bay of the Black Sea (also known in antiquity as Palus Maeotis, on the border region between Hippocrates’ Europe and Asia). Others inhabit a cold, humid region and drink water from snow and ice, which Hippocrates believed had an effect on skin color: “The Scythians are a ruddy race because of the cold, not through any fierceness of the sun’s heat. It is the cold that burns their white skin and turns it ruddy.”

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