The Scythian Gift Bearers, Persepolis Those who wanted to discredit Herodotus as a responsible historian found that the best way was to concentrate their criticism on his report of the campaign conducted against the Scythians by King Darius of Persia around BCE This report occupies most of the Fourth Book Melpomene of Herodotus' Histories ; the balance of this book consists of a survey of Africa west of Egypt and, hence, can be presumed to be infantile like all things that concern Africa. Whereas the first three books present the Persian Empire as a great rational construction based on the scientific and cultural achievements of the preceding monarchies, the Fourth Book describes how the Persian Empire used the military strength inherent to its structure in relation to foreign territories, so that this book sets the technical frame of reference for the presentation of the military campaigns of King Darius and King Xerxes against Greece, the main concern of the last five books. Herodotus intends to explain the historical phenomenon that the Greek city states were able to challenge a state organization based on the rational exploitation of the physical and intellectual resources of a territory embracing a great part of the inhabited earth. The narrative of the Scythian campaign reveals how people willing to make extreme sacrifices for the defense of their liberty could take advantage of favorable geographical factors to frustrate even the boldest and most imaginative plan to make them crumble under the weight of Persian power.
The Strategy of Darius the Great Fig. Click to enlarge The strategy of Darius becomes clear once the geographical data have been defined. The King of Persia was confronted with the problem that has always beset the great Empires of Eurasia, how to cope with the threat of the nomadic people of the steppes.
This is a problem that beset the Chinese for millennia and with which they tried to cope by means of the most gigantic measures. This is a problem that the Roman Empire was not able to solve. It was not too long ago that the Turks were at the gates of Vienna and all Europe was trembling.
Even today the word Hun creates a feeling of fear in our minds. The Tatar invasions were the most important turning point in Russian history.
One could continue the list of the examples by roaming widely through the centuries and through all districts of Eurasia. The threat of the nomadic people of central Eurasia was particularly important for the rulers of the Persian Empire.
This is made clear by the very fact that the nations that ruled Iran in succession, the Medes, the Persians, and the Parthians, had come originally from the same group. At that time the people called Scythians by the Greeks and Saka by the Persians dominated an area that started from the Danube and extended east far beyond the Caspian Sea; Herodotus, however, uses the term Scythians to refer specifically to those members of this group that lived between the Danube and the Don.
He calls Scythia the territory between those two rivers, which for him is the European part of central Eurasia. This area was of particular interest to the Greeks because earlier it had been occupied by the Cimmerians who were expelled from it by the Scythians coming from the east.
Herodotus asserts that King Darius attacked the Scythians in order to take vengeance for the period of 28 years of Scythian domination in the Near East; in these terms he expressed the idea that the Persian Empire could not ever feel secure as long as it had not reduced the Scythians to submission.
The Scythian expansion into the Middle East came to an end only when the Medes allied themselves with the Babylonians and broke forever the power of the Assyrian Empire. Therefore to assume that King Darius engaged on the Scythian expedition out of a capricious whim indicates a lack of historical sense.
The problem of the Scythians was one of the great problems of the Persian Empire, and in trying to cope with it Darius employed measures that were proportional to its importance. Herodotus spends almost a ninth of his work in order to deal with it.
The Persian strategy was so conceived as to require the use of an almost unlimited number of men and resources. Herodotus begins the narrative with the words "Darius, having an immense reserve in money and an unlimited number of men to draw upon. Herodotus built his narrative against the background of a map of Russia, describing even its technical details, because the most important actor in this drama is the immensity of the Russian space and the nature of the Russian land.
The Scythians and their allies could count on the advantage of mobility; even though some of them had become tillers of the soil and had established permanent settlements of some sort, they were all willing and able to revert to their nomadic ways. Furthermore, they proved willing to resort to an extreme policy of scorched earth whose thoroughness is described in full detail by Herodotus.
King Darius tried to cope with them by mobilizing an army large enough to make a clean sweep of the entire Scythian land. His purpose was to dispose forever of the Scythians by smoking them out with a battle all across their territory, which roughly corresponds to the modern Ukraine.
The great Russian rivers, which Herodotus carefully locates, were a help to the Persians since they made it possible to supply a large army deep in enemy territory.
The scorched earth policy of the Scythians could be frustrated by a power that had the resources of Persia, if transportation was adequate.
King Darius did not advance directly from the heart of the Persian Empire across the Caucasus, going beyond the river Phasis that was the official borderline; rather, he decided on a plan of attacking the Scythians from the rear. Accordingly, he moved his troops all around the Black Sea in order to attack first of all that part of Scythia that was more prosperous economically and was settled in a more permanent way.
In order to invest directly the area around the mouth of the Dnieper, he had to move his troops into Asia Minor and from there, crossing the Bosphoros, into Europe. Continuing thence he had to lead them all across Thrakia to a crossing of the Danube. This required a preliminary military expansion in Thrakia which brought the Persians into direct contact with the Greeks of the mainland.
By a gigantic effort Darius succeeded in bringing his army across Asia into Europe, crossing first the Bosphoros and then the Danube with a force of aboutmen, supported by the entire strength of the Persian navy.
For the crossing of the Bosphorus and of the Danube there were constructed bridges for which the King resorted to the engineering skill of his Greek subjects. As Herodotus explains, the mere operation of concentrating and moving these troops by the Persians proves what a gigantic and efficient organization was the Persian Empire.Moreover, other geographic features, such as mountains and plains, have had an equally strong impact on history, like when Spartans used the mountain pass at .
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