The Scythians were nomadic horsemen who dominated a vast realm of the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine and southern Russia, from the seventh century to the third century b.c. Unlike other ancient peoples who left not a trace, the Scythians continued to haunt and terrify long after they were gone. Herodotus recorded that they “ravaged the whole of Asia. They not only took tribute from each people, but also made raids and pillaged everything these peoples had.” Napoleon, on witnessing the Russians’ willingness to burn down their own capital rather than hand it over to his army, reputedly said: “They are Scythians!”
The more chilling moral for modern audiences involves not the Scythians’ cruelty, but rather their tactics against the invading Persian army of Darius, early in the sixth century b.c. As Darius’s infantry marched east near the Sea of Azov, hoping to meet the Scythian war bands in a decisive battle, the Scythians kept withdrawing into the immense reaches of their territory. Darius was perplexed, and sent the Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, a challenge: If you think yourself stronger, stand and fight; if not, submit.
Idanthyrsus replied that since his people had neither cities nor cultivated land for an enemy to destroy, they had nothing to defend, and thus no reason to give battle. Instead, his men harassed and skirmished with Persian foraging parties, then quickly withdrew, over and over again. Each time, small groups of Persian cavalry fled in disorder, while the main body of Darius’s army weakened as it marched farther and farther away from its base and supply lines. Darius ultimately retreated from Scythia, essentially defeated, without ever having had the chance to fight.