Scythian Tactics and Strategy: Devastating Guerilla Archers - Part I
The ancient Scythians were renowned for their horsemanship and prowess in battle. What was the secret behind these nomadic peoples who were so dangerous and successful? Ancient Origins guest author Cam Rea reveals the strategies behind the Scythian victories.
The Scythians may not be the original inventors of asymmetrical warfare, but one could argue that they perfected it. Before and during the Scythian arrival, many nations fought by conventional methods. In other words, the established civilizations of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, used taxes to feed, equip, and maintain their large armies. Overall, one can see the massive expense it is to arm and defend a nation when war comes a-knocking. Lives and money are lost, doubly so if you go on the offensive at the expense of your nation’s pocket.
The Scythians, on the other hand, needed none of these, for they were tribal based and seemed to come together only in a time of war. Thus, most issues did not hinder them, such as the laws of supply and demand in the military economic sense, which would affect an established kingdom or empire. The land was their supplier and demand was when they were in need of resources. For Scythians to sustain life, they had to move to new regions in search of ample pastures suited for their horses to graze and abundant with game, while the land they moved from was left to rest. But one has to be cautious as well, for even though the Scythians moved around, many stayed within their tribal territory. In some cases, they ventured into another tribal territory due to the need to sustain life for both tribe and livestock.
- Secret Chamber Found at Scythian Burial Mound Reveals Golden Treasure of Drug-Fueled Rituals
- Elite Iron Age Scythian warrior discovered with bronze arrowhead embedded in his spine
- The Royal Kurgan of Kerch: The Burial Mound Built by a King
Scythian Horseman depicted on felt artifact, circa 300 BC. Public Domain
When one examines the Scythian lifestyle, one can easily gain an understanding of the type of warfare necessarily carried on against more sedentary (non-migratory) people, like those in Mesopotamia. The Scythian took a guerilla approach to warfare as their method, not to be confused with terrorism. The term guerrilla warfare means irregular warfare and its doctrine advocates for the use of small bands to conduct military operations. Herodotus mentions their method of warfare when King Darius of Persia campaigned against them:
“It is thus with me, Persian: I have never fled for fear of any man, nor do I now flee from you; this that I have done is no new thing or other than my practice in peace. But as to the reason why I do not straightway fight with you, this too I will tell you. For we Scythians have no towns or planted lands, that we might meet you the sooner in battle, fearing lest the one be taken or the other wasted. But if nothing will serve you but fighting straightway, we have the graves of our fathers; come, find these and essay to destroy them; then shall you know whether we will fight you for those graves or no. Till then we will not join battle unless we think it good.”
The description indicates that the Scythians against whom Darius is warring have no center of gravity; more on this later.
The Scythians are best known for swarming the enemy, like at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, where they demonstrated this tactic during the initial stages of the attack. The swarming tactic is the first stage before any other mechanism is executed, like feinting or defense in depth.
To summarize, the definition of swarming would be a battle involving several or more units pouncing on an intended target simultaneously. The whole premise of swarming in guerrilla warfare, as indicated in the U.S. Army Field Manual (FM) 90-8 on the topic of counterguerrilla operations, is to locate, fix, and engage the enemy, but to avoid larger forces, unless you possess units capable of countering the other. This would allow other units to take advantage of the enemy, which is rare in most battles involving the Scythians. The key principle of swarming is that it does not matter if you win the battle so long as you do not lose the war. It is designed to disorient the enemy troops.
The swarming tactic comprises many units converging on the intended target; however, the swarm moves with the target in order to fracture it. Thus, the method of swarming is to dislodge the enemy piecemeal, causing rank and file to implode. This is due to longstanding, snail-like movement during battle, meantime being continuously pelted from afar by projectiles; fear takes over, demoralizing an army. Roman soldiers were to have a taste of this, for they had a space of three feet all around them to allow for movement and maneuvering in battle. The Scythians took advantage of their three feet, as Plutarch mentions, at the battle of Carrhae: “Huddled together in a narrow space and getting into each other’s way, they were shot down by arrows.”