We’ve been learning about barbarians lately, working up to the Fall of Rome (capital letters), because I want to make it to the Middle Ages. We’re working through Barbarians! Scythians and Sarmatians by Kathryn Hinds, and we’re really enjoying it. It’s a little above Meg’s level, but close enough to where I can scan and summarize it as we go.
Hinds does a truly excellent job working in age-appropriate quotes from ancient authors. It’s about those horse-riding nomad tribes who lived on the big empty patch of map around the Caspian Sea, east of Turkey and north of Persia.
These nomads were illiterate—which I guess makes sense, because it would be difficult to tote your nation’s books around with you everywhere. The girls and I spent some time discussing what it would be like to live without books. Meg was horror-stricken: “But then I wouldn’t know the Nancy Drew stories or the Encyclopedia Brown books!” I know how she feels. Some archaeologists relish the puzzle of figuring out writing-less societies, but I like evidence that comes from texts. Personal preference aside, you lose so much information when your chroniclers are all your enemies. We know a lot less about these peoples than we want.
So at the dinner table, Jonathan and the girls and I came up with a concept. These nomads tended to have a yearly circuit: our tribe spends June in that pasture, etc. So if we had lived back then, our family would settle down and become librarians to the Scythians. We would teach them to read and maintain a permanent library at one of their yearly locations. Also we would probably carry weapons to make sure we got our overdue books back.
I can’t imagine why this never became a thing.
My new favorite tribe is the Pointed-Hat Sakas. Really: that is what the Persians called them. In addition to their pointy hats, they also carried pointy battle-axes (“Like Vikings!” observed Meg), pointy spears, pointy long swords, pointy short swords, pointy daggers, and pointy poisoned arrows which fit neatly along with their composite recurve bows into a case hanging from their belt. A recurve bow, I learned, is one strung so tightly that it actually bends the other way when you unstring it. Now you know. The Pointy-Hat Sakas were the sort of mounted archers who ride with their knees so they can shoot you from far away, and then they get close and poke you with their other pointy things. And then they don’t even have the good manners to have a permanent village you can pillage then burn.
I can just imagine how they gave the Persian kings fits. The Massagetae tribe, who were Sakas and possibly even Pointed-Hat Sakas, had a queen who killed Cyrus the Great in battle. She told him ahead of time. I believe her exact threat was, “If you don’t give me back my son, I swear by the sun I will give you your fill of blood.” But did he believe her? Apparently not. He did not return her son, they fought, and Cyrus fell. Queen Tomyris is famous for removing the head from his dead body, dunking it in blood, and giving the usurper’s cursed head back to the Persians as a sign of her annoyance. Don’t mess with Queen Tomyris.
King Darius took over from Cyrus and went and stomped a bunch of Sakas. He wanted to go fight in Greece after that, but Scythia was in the way. But that was okay with Darius; he was happy to fight them too. But the Scythians pulled a Russian-retreat-in-winter strategy on Darius, running away, clogging wells, and burning everything they left behind, and they finally got him to return to Persia without ever fighting a pitched battle. I cannot imagine he was happy with them.
We’re also reading about the Sarmatians. After Rome took over Greece, they fought back and forth with the nomads. Sarmatians lived near the Caspian Sea, around the beginning of the first century AD, and Ovid the poet got exiled there. Exile made Ovid crabby. He did not like his new town of Tomis, and he was not happy with the local tribe of nomadic Sarmatians. They didn’t appreciate his poetry, they didn’t get decent haircuts, they carried poisoned arrows, and they raided Ovid’s new town every winter. Ovid himself, a fiftyish and VERY IMPORTANT poet, had to get up and defend the walls. Not happy.
I read Meg the Ovid quotes included in the book, because how could I miss that kind of opportunity? She listened patiently, but later told me she likes Winnie-the-Pooh’s poems better. That’s fair. It really isn’t great poetry in this translation anyway.
But I did a happy dance, with actual dancing, because we are giving her an education that lets her actually make that kind of judgment. Homeschooling win!
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; all other images courtesy of Carolyn Bales.