Friday, October 27, 2023

Review of book The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China

 I recently read Christopher I. Beckwith The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China, Princeton University Press 2023


Summary: Christopher I. Beckwith, relying heavily on an astonishing knowledge of linguistics and ancient languages, shows in his latest book that the Scythians were a single people speaking a single language, with a monotheistic religion, who created an actual empire that strongly influenced the Near East, China, and everywhere in between. This contradicts traditional scholarship.




This is a brilliant book, a monograph, as much linguistic as historical, very heavy going in some parts. It is very scholarly. Beckwith has studied these topics his entire life.


His thesis is that there was at one time a united Scythian empire that contributed a great deal, especially ideas, to ancient civilization both in the Middle East and in China. He approaches this partly on linguistic grounds but using archaeology, history, and any other disciplines he can draw from.


From my point of view, I have often wondered how the Medes seemed to come out of nowhere to destroy Assyria and then rapidly form their own empire, only to be overthrown by the Persians, who also seemed to come more or less out of nowhere. Beckwith says that the Medes learned much of what they knew from the Scythians, who controlled Media for 28 years (according to Herodotus); even the Medes’ common language was Scythian, but also modes of dress and warfare. Mede and Scythian bows and arrowheads, for example, are indistinguishable.


The Medes took over from the Scythians after those 28 years and within decades had destroyed Assyria perhaps with some help from the Scythians and Babylonians. Then the Persians (Cyrus the Great) took over the Scytho-Mede empire, and Darius took over Cyrus' empire, not so much war as coup.


I am not a linguist and could not follow all the details of the linguistic arguments down to the level of Chinese script and even pictographs, but Beckwith tries to show that several ancient languages (such as the language of the Avesta religious tracts) were in fact Scythian. He shows that many loan words in old Persian were Scythian. He tries to show that the organization of the Persian Empire is derived from how the Scythians organized their empire. He tries to show that four great philosophies/philosophers of the ancient world are derived from Scythia (Anacharsis, Buddha, Taoism, Zorastrianism). The Scythians, he says, had a single god, not a pantheon, and the monotheism that appeared in the ancient Near East derives from that point of view.


He also shows that the West Scythians had similar effects on China, including that the First Emperor of China was brought up in a Scythian culture.


I don’t know how experts in the field will react to this, although the tendency is to stick with what you know rather than accept the new way of looking at things. Prior to now the Scythians have been regarded as mere “barbarians,” not founders of a great empire.


He convinced me, but it’s easy to be convinced when there is no one else presenting counter arguments. Beckwith himself tries to present counter arguments and has very detailed notes and discussions of scholarship and different possibilities. The book seems to be very, very, thorough, perhaps Beckwith’s masterpiece.


How did I get this book? I actually wanted Beckwith’s earlier book Empires of the Silk Road: a History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present but my local library did not have it, and this one sounded like it might be as interesting. I suspect the Silk Road book is written for a broader audience but I don’t know.


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