The Scyths and Geography

The Scyths and the History of Geography

The Greeks and later the Romans were well acquainted with the Scyths.  They despised them as Barbarians and had no personal interest in them;  but they traded extensively with them.  The Greeks imported grain, honey, furs, leather and above all slaves;  they exported ceramics and other civilised goods.  The Romans and the Persians recruited mercenaries amongst the Scyths.

The Greeks built cities on the North Coast of the Black Sea where this trade was carried out;  when these territories fell under the control of the Roman empire, and later of the Goths, trade continued.  Scythian imports into the Greco-Roman world have left no traces for historians but the Greek antiquities on the North Shore of the Black Sea are well known, and have been documented, especially by Russian archaeologists.

All ancient Greek and Roman geographers placed the Scyths in the Crimea and the Pontic steppe.  And there they remained into the middle ages.

The Age of Exploration forced European geographers to re-write the map of the world which they had inherited from antiquity.  The ancient geographers had a most abbreviated view of Asia.  They thought that the Caucasus and the Himalaya were the same mountain range;  they imagined India and China as no bigger than Greece;  they did not even suspect the existence of vast territories north of China.

Late medieval and early Renaissance geographers had many resources at their disposal to draw a new, more accurate map of the world.  Ancient geography, for all its limitations, provided a starting point.  Christian missionaries were less secretive about their geographic competence than the ancient traders.  Explorers provided written materials full of geographical details.  The astrolabe, the compass, etc and improving mathematical knowledge (in particular the calculation of longitude) provided scientific underpinnings for the new maps.

In their attempt at reconciliating ancient geography with reports of recent explorers, the geographers of the late medieval and the renaissance period ran into difficulties over the Scyths — who where merely a historical name by that time.  In this period the territories once occupied by the Scyths had been through many political vicissitudes;  most recently they had been incorporated into the Kievan Rus’, and were now part of the Golden Horde.

Sometime during this period from the explorations of the 13th century to the Enlightenment, the Scyths were displaced by geographers from southern Russia, to the north of China.  This displacement was not questioned by modern historians, and has caused much confusion about the Scyths.  They were now perceived to have been Mongolians — a race unknown to the Greeks and the Romans — and not Finno-Ugrians.

The purpose of my research is to trace the confusion over the Scyths through the writings of explorers like Plano di Carpini, Marco Polo, Columbus, and the geographers who used them as sources to re-write the map of the world, such as Waldseemueller, Muenster, Mercator — right into the Age of the Enlightenment.  I intend to evaluate the means which the sources used to locate cities and nations (the compass, etc) and the quality of their information;  next I will evaluate the competence of the cartographers who schematized this information.

Printing was invented in the middle of this period, and had a profound impact on cartography;  this also will be the object of investigation.

Somewhere in those five centuries, I hope to identify how this displacement of the Scyths took place.  I also hope to find out why generations of scholars have failed to reconcile the very clear information of ancient authors about the Pontic origins of the Scyths with the mistaken perception of the Renaissance geographers who shipped them off to Siberia without benefit of a critical examination.

Two articles are planned:  a major one dealing with the philology and the metrology of travelers’ reports and Renaissance cartography;  a lesser one dealing with issues of text transmission when classical scholars from the seventeenth century to the present have accepted the displacement of the Scyths, and totally scrambled the original documents;  there may be also some independent philological notes:  Adversaria Scythica.

This research will also involve a detailed discussion of Deguignes, and his massive work on the Huns.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: