For thousands of years, the nomadic inhabitants of the Eurasian Steppe terrorized the civilized lands on their periphery with frequent raids. On those occasions when they were unified under powerful warlords, their fear factor skyrocketed, as they launched terrible invasions that could extinguish empires. Steppe nomads had strategic mobility that allowed them to raid settled lands at will, and depart with their booty before the locals could mobilize a response. They could choose when, where, and whether to fight the forces sent by the civilized lands to bring them to heel. The nomads’ strategic mobility was complemented by three tactical advantages.
First, their horses gave them battlefield mobility, which made it difficult for adversaries who were not also similarly equipped with horses to force them to fight to the death. If things began to go wrong for them, the nomads could usually retreat, and live to fight another day. Second, their preferred weapon, the recurved bow, led to tactical mismatches that afforded a standoff distance from which to kill in relative safety. They could thus attrit less mobile armies with arrows until they were weakened and demoralized before they swept in to finish them off. As seen below, the most important advantage was the third.
18. A Tough Life on the Steppe Made its Warriors Formidable and Fearsome
The final and greatest advantage enjoyed by the Steppe nomads was their very persons. Their upbringing in the harsh Steppe, with much of their lives spent on horseback, created a deep pool of hardy warriors. In the settled lands, only a minority of the population could be mobilized as fighters, because most people are needed in the fields and workshops. The Steppe nomads had no fields and little manufacture, while their food source, their animal flocks and herds, could be tended to by children and women.
That left nearly the entire adult male population of fighting age available as warriors. The one saving grace that allowed civilization to survive is that it was difficult to unite the Steppe clans and tribes. To bring together the fractious nomads in sufficiently large numbers to overwhelm their civilized neighbors was a bit like herding cats. While small-scale raids on settled lands were a near-constant, leaders of the caliber of a Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun, who could realize the Steppe’s full and horrific potential, were few and far in between.
Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun are the most famous Steppe leaders, but there were others who in their day gave their civilized contemporaries no end of trouble. One such was Idanthyrsus, a sixth-century BC king of the Scycthians, a nomadic Iranian-speaking tribal confederacy that inhabited the Steppe between the Carpathians and central China. The Scythians controlled an overland trade network that connected the Greeks, Chinese, Persians, and Indians, and they formed the first of the Steppe empires that terrified the adjacent settled lands for millennia.
In the seventh century BC, the Scythians began to raid into the Middle East. Their first major disruptive role was the key part they played in 612 BC in the destruction of the Assyrian Empire, an event that forever extinguished a nation that had existed for over a millennium, and that had dominated the ancient Middle East for centuries. In 513 BC, King Darius I of Persia sought to end Scythian raids on his empire once and for by conquering the troublesome nomads. As seen below, it did not go well.
16. An Ancient Persian King’s Attempt to Tame the Scythians
King Darius I assembled a huge army and launched an invasion along the western Black Sea coast and into today’s southern Ukraine and Russia. The Scythians simply retreated into the vastness of the Steppe, took their families and herds with them, and avoided the decisive pitched battle sought by Darius. King Idanthyrsus laid waste in the countryside, blocked wells and destroyed pastures, and all the while, his warriors attrited the invaders with skirmishes and hit and run attacks. A frustrated Darius challenged Idanthyrsus to stop his flight and fight, or admit his weakness, submit, and recognize the Persians as his lords. The Scythian’s response, as recorded by Herodotus, highlights just how difficult it was to bring turbulent nomads to heel and force them to fight if they did not want to.
Idanthyrsus replied to Darius: “This is my way, O Persian. I have never fled in fear from any man and I do not flee from you now … We have neither cities nor cultivated land for which we might be willing to fight with you, fearing that they might be taken or ravaged … As for lords, I recognize only my ancestors Zeus and Hestia … As to you calling yourself my lord, I tell thee to ‘Go weep’“. Darius had to give up and turn back, and his invasion amounted to little more than an expensive and fruitless demonstration. Scythians continued to raid the Persian Empire for centuries after until its destruction by Alexander the Great and continued to raid the former Persian lands for centuries beyond that.
15. Darius Got Off Light Compared to This Predecessor on the Persian Throne
Darius got off relatively easy in his failed attempt to conquer his Steppe nomad neighbors. He wasted time and effort and money, and suffered some embarrassment and loss of prestige, but came out of it alive. Not so Cyrus the Great, the greatest king of ancient Persia, founder of the Persian Empire, and one of Darius’ predecessors. Cyrus experienced a fatal debacle when he took on the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation that stretched across the Central Asian Steppe from east of the Caspian Sea to the borders of China.
They were led by Tomyris (flourished 500s BC), a formidable warrior queen who defeated Cyrus and brought his brilliant career of uninterrupted conquests to a sudden halt in 530 BC. As recounted by ancient sources, the Massagetae were nomads who spoke an Iranian language and led a hardy pastoral life on the Eurasian Steppe. They tended their herds most of the time, interspersed with raids into the civilized lands that bordered the Steppe. Their raids eventually grew too bothersome for Cyrus, who had recently founded the Persian Empire, and whose realm now encompassed many of the territories subjected to Massagetae attacks.
14. The Ancient Nomad Queen Who Did in a Great Conqueror
Cyrus the Great led an army into the Steppe to bring the Massagetae to heel. He won an initial victory against a nomad contingent commanded by Queen Tomyris’ son, with a ruse in which the Persians “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. The Massagetae captured the wine, and unused to the drink, got gloriously drunk. Cyrus then turned around, fell upon the inebriated nomads, and killed many of them, including Tomyris’ son. The Massagetae queen sent Cyrus a message in which she challenged him to a second battle, and the overconfident Cyrus accepted. She personally led her army this time.
As described by Herodoutus: “Tomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been…. They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually, the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too.” The Persian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, Tomyris had Cyrus’ corpse beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, she is quoted as having addressed Cyrus the Great’s head as it bobbed in the blood: “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall“.
13. Artemisia, the Formidable Ancient Warrior Queen
Queen Artemisia I of Caria (flourished in the fifth century BC) ruled Halicarnassus in Caria – a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire in southwestern Anatolia. She was the daughter of the king of Halicarnassus, who named her after the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In addition to being a queen, she was also a formidable naval commander who fought for Persia’s King Xerxes when he invaded Greece. Artemisia was most famous for her role in the naval Battle of Salamis. Her side lost that engagement, but she nonetheless distinguished herself in combat.
When Artemisia came of age, she married the satrap of Caria, and after his death, she assumed the throne of Caria as regent for her underage son. Ancient reports depict her as a courageous and clever commander of men and ships, who was an asset to Xerxes when he decided to invade Greece. She demonstrated that she was a capable commander and a tactician in the naval Battle of Artemisium, 480 BC, which was fought simultaneously with the more famous Battle of Thermopylae. She so discomfited the Greeks in that engagement that they put a sizeable bounty on her head, and offered 10,000 drachmas to whoever killed or captured her. The reward went unclaimed.
12. The Only Persian Naval Commander Worthy of Mention by Herodotus
The naval Battle of Artemisium was followed by the even greater naval Battle of Salamis soon thereafter. Herodotus describes Artemisia as the only commander on the Persian side worthy of mention: “I pass over all the other officers [of the Persians] because there is no need for me to mention them, except for Artemisia, because I find it particularly remarkable that a woman should have taken part in the expedition against Greece. She took over the tyranny after her husband’s death, and although she had a grown-up son and did not have to join the expedition, her manly courage impelled her to do so“.
After the Battle of Salamis, Artemisia escorted Xerxes’ sons to safety, after which she fades from reliable ancient history records. Legend has it that her end came after she fell madly in love with a man who ignored her, so she blinded him in his sleep. However, her passion continued to burn hot despite his disfigurement. To rid herself of her feelings for him, she decided to leap from a tall rock that reportedly held mystical powers, such that jumping off it would snap the bonds of love. Instead, she fell down and snapped her neck.
11. Solon Returned to Ancient Athens to Find Factionalism and a Would-be Tyrant
As seen above, after he enacted his reforms, Solon left Athens for a decade. When he returned, the Lawgiver discovered that his city-state had divided into regional factions, one of them controlled by Peisistratos, a popular general. Solon suspected that Peisistratos planned to overthrow the government and set himself up as a tyrant. He was not wrong. To be fair to Peisistratos and other ancient Greek tyrants, however, it should be noted that the word “tyrant” in that time and place did not carry the modern connotations of brutal oppression.
Instead, a tyrant was more narrowly defined as a populist strongman who, often with a support base of commoners excluded from power by an aristocracy, overthrew an oligarchy and replaced it with his own one-man rule. Many tyrants were wildly popular – except with the aristocracy and the aristocrats whom they had removed from power, of course. Commoners had little power in the aristocratic system, so they were no worse off ruled by one tyrant than when they had been when they were ruled by a clique of nobles.
10. Ancient Greek Aristocratic Governments Were Usually Bad For Business
In many ways, while some Greek tyrants could and did turn bad, tyranny as an institution in ancient Greece was not all bad. Tyrants typically overthrew oligarchic regimes in which all the power had been hogged by a narrow slice of aristocrats. Once the power of the aristocracy was reduced, government under tyrants tended to be more equitable, rather than wildly skewed to benefit the nobles. Economically, commoners also tended to be better off under the tyrants, who usually encouraged endeavors such as commerce and crafts and manufactures.
Such activities had typically been viewed by the nobles and their overthrown governments as socially gauche at a minimum. Thus, in a best-case scenario, commerce and manufacturing suffered from the aristocratic regimes’ benign neglect. That is when they were not actively opposed by the aristocrats’ governments. Commerce and manufacturing were often seen as threats to the nobility. From their perspective, such activities destabilized the social order because they allowed jumped up commoners to become as rich as or richer than their social betters.
9. Ancient Greek Tyranny Was Often the First Step Towards Democracy
An ancient Greek tyranny was often a necessary step on the road to democracy because it removed out of the way the barrier of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had a strong interest in weakening the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries. So they tended to adopt populist policies that appealed to commoners, whose support was necessary for the tyrant’s continued hold on power. Only after the aristocracy had been weakened, and its stranglehold on power broken, would there be an opening for democracy.
That is what happened in ancient Athens, whose poorest and the most populous region was the Hill District. Its impoverished residents had derived little practical benefit from Solon’s reforms except for a prohibition against their enslavement for debt. Other than that, all that Solon had given them was a meaningless vote. So the people of the Hill invited Peisistratos to make himself a tyrant of Athens. With their support, he marched on the city in a procession headed by a tall girl dressed up as the goddess Athena, who blessed Peisistratos and declared it her divine will that he be made a tyrant. The other Athenians saw through the mummery, however, and chased him and his followers out of town.
Peisistratos fled Athens and headed to northern Greece, where he bought silver and gold mines, and got rich off their proceeds. He then invested his wealth in mercenaries, returned to Athens and tried again, this time with a well-equipped private army instead of a girl dressed up as a goddess. It worked, and in 546 BC, he overthrew the government and proclaimed himself a tyrant. He governed as a champion of the lower classes, and his tyranny was a wild success. Peisistratos suppressed Athens’ rival factions, exiled his aristocratic enemies, and confiscated their landholdings. He broke up the nobility’s large estates into small farms, which he redistributed to his followers, and thus cemented their support for his regime.
The new tyrant adopted a slew of other popular policies. He loaned small farmers money for tools, lowered taxes, and standardized the currency. He enforced the laws even-handedly, promoted the cultivation of olives and grapes, and encouraged commerce and craftsmen. He also funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia and promoted theater, culture, and the arts. By way of infrastructure, he built an aqueduct, implemented a public buildings program, and beautified the city. By the time Peisistratos died, circa 527 BC, Athens was peaceful and more prosperous than it had ever been, with a growing and increasingly affluent middle class.
Ancient British warrior queen Boudicca (circa 25 – 61 AD) reigned over the Iceni tribe, and sparked and led a massive revolt against the forces of the Roman Empire that had recently conquered Britain. She was born into a tribal royal family, and as a young woman married Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni. Prasutagus ruled his tribe as a nominally independent ally of the Romans, and upon his death in 60 AD, he left his wealth to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor Nero.
The assumption was that Nero would return the favor and bestow imperial protection upon the deceased tribal king’s family. Instead, the Romans simply seized all of Prasutagus’ assets and annexed his kingdom. When Boudicca protested, she was flogged, and her two teenage daughters were assaulted by Roman soldiers. Understandably incensed, she launched a revolt in East Anglia, which quickly spread. In the course of the revolt, Boudicca and her warriors put London and numerous other Roman towns and settlements to the torch and killed as many as 70,000 Romans and British collaborators.
Disgruntled Britons rallied to the side of Queen Boudicca by the tens of thousands, and she led them in a whirlwind campaign of vengeance. They swept out of East Anglia with the Iceni queen at their head on a war chariot and annihilated a legionary detachment sent to subdue them. They then went on a rampage, in which they burned the ancient predecessors of modern Colchester, Saint Albans, and London. They also massacred tens of thousands of Romans and Romanized British collaborators. They tortured and executed their captives in a variety of gruesome ways. Those who fell into their hands were often impaled, flayed, burned alive, or crucified.
Eventually, the Romans rallied, gathered their legions into a powerful force, and marched off to meet Boudicca. When the armies finally met, the Romans were greatly outnumbered, but they were a disciplined force of professional legionaries, pitted against a poorly trained and disorganized enemy. Boudicca led her forces in person and courageously charged at the Romans in her war chariot, but courage was not enough. Discipline and professionalism prevailed, and the Romans won. Defeated, Boudicca committed suicide to deny the Romans the satisfaction of parading her in chains in a triumphal parade.
5. Athletic Events Proliferated in the Ancient World
Athletic scenes can be seen on the walls of many tombs, temples, and palaces of various ancient civilizations such as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Minoans, and Mycenaeans. The Minoans for example really liked gymnastics, and they depicted such events, plus scenes of bull jumpers, boxers, runners, and wrestlers on graceful frescoes. However, those athletic events were usually one-offs and were mostly for royalty, aristocrats, and the upper classes. The ancient Greek Olympics were the first regularly held athletic competitions, open to all freeborn Greek men. Women could enter chariot races by proxy if they sponsored a team, but could not personally participate.
The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC at Olympia, in the city-state of Elis, to honor Zeus. They were one of the four Panhellenic Games, although the most prestigious one. The others were the Pythian Games, held at Delphi in honor of Apollo; the Nemean Games held at Nemea, in honor of Zeus and Heracles; and the Isthmian Games, held in the Isthmus of Corinth, in honor of Poseidon. Olympic Games were held for over a thousand years, with the last recorded competition in 393 AD. However, archaeological evidence indicates that some games might have been held after that date.
The modern Olympic Games are a mega global event – the mega global event – whose only close rival is perhaps soccer’s FIFA World Cup. In the most recent games, the 2020 (or 2021) Tokyo Olympics hosted more than 11,000 athletes from 205 nations, plus the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Olympic Team. All of them were eager and primed to compete over a seventeen-day stretch for glory and medals in 339 events, divided between 33 sports and 50 disciplines. The difference between that and the original Olympics is stark, to say the least.
The variance between the scope and scale of today’s Olympics and the original event would probably astonish and amaze ancient Greek participants and audiences. They simply could not have imagined what their competition would one day become. When the Olympic Games were first inaugurated in 776 BC, and for over half a century through 724 BC, there was only one athletic event: the stadion. It was named after the building in which it was held, which became stadium in Latin, and from which the English word stadium is derived.
3. Ancient Olympic Runners Differed From Modern Ones
The sole athletic event in the early ancient Greeks’ Olympic Games was the stadion. It was named after a building that was big enough to contain 20 competitors, who ran an approximately 200 yard or 180-meter sprint. The first few races might have been slightly longer, however, as the original stadion in Olympia had a track that was 210 yards or 190 meters long. The athletes lined up, and games officials were positioned at the jump-off blocks to keep a sharp eye out against false starts.
Modern runners take off from a crouch, but ancient Greek sprinters took off from an upright position, with their arms stretched out before them. They were also naked. It is unclear how the original start line was marked, but by the fifth century BC at the latest, there was a stone start line, known as the balbis. In due course, a set of double grooves about four to four and a half inches apart were carved into the balbis for runners to place their toes and get some leverage to launch themselves at the start of the race.
2. The Ancient Greeks Based Their Calendars on the Olympic Games
Ancient Greek stadion sprinters awaited the start of the race, muscles coiled and ready to take off down the track. Behind and to their sides hovered Olympic Games officials to ensure that nobody left the start line too early. Before them lay a packed earth track, at the end of which awaited another set of games officials, whose task was to decide the winner – and spot and disqualify any cheaters. If it was too close and the officials determined that it was a tie, there would be a do-over, and the race would be rerun. Finally, the signal to start came – a sharp trumpet blow. The competitors exploded into action, took off, and within a few frantic seconds, the race was over.
Because the stadion was the original Olympics’ sole competition, those few seconds encapsulated the entirety of the athletic portion of the original Olympic Games. However, it is hard to grasp today just how important those few seconds were to the participants. The ancient Greeks often dated events not by a numbered calendar like we do today, but by four-year Olympiads, and the Olympiads were named after the winner. So the winner of the original stadion race literally won a place in the history books.
Because the ancient Greeks dated events based on four-year Olympiad cycles, the winner of the stadion race – the only competition in the first half-century of the Olympic Games – achieved a degree of fame and prestige difficult to grasp today. Since the Olympiad was named after him, from then on out, people would include his name whenever they referred to all that happened in the four-year cycle of his victory. Something along the lines of: “such and such happened in the first (or second, or third, or fourth) year of [Olympic Winner’s Name] Olympiad“.
Eventually, more athletic events were added to the competition, such as wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus, long jump, and chariot racing. However, the stadion still held pride of place as the Olympic Games’ most prestigious competition, and the four-year Olympiad cycles continued to be named after its victor. Because of that, historians today are able to name just about every stadion winner. The first of them – and thus the first Olympics champion, was a cook from the city-state of Elis named Coroebus, who won the stadion in 776 BC.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading