The Getes

by Sundeep S. Jhutti


Iranian-speaking nomads have caught the attention of many societies, from early Greco-Roman, Persian, Indian, and Chinese writers to modern scholars intrigued by their unique, somewhat romantic lifestyle as horse-mounted warriors constantly searching for greener pastures, military challenges, and riches. Spread throughout the vast Central Asian steppes, they were known to the Greeks, the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese. In most early writings, be they Chinese, Persian, etc., these nomads were generally shown in negative light -- partly due to their uncouth ways, partly to their robbing and looting, but mostly due to fear and misunderstanding. As the nomads were typically the enemies of these settled societies, the negative view of them was augmented. It is, therefore, not rare to read in Indian scriptures about the Sakas, Kushans (Da Yuezhi), and even the Hunas (White Huns or Ephthalites) being considered as Mlecchas (foreigners, outcastes), Asuras (demons), etc. (Dhillon 1994, 15). Similar perspectives are alluded to in Persian or Chinese texts. Such is the fate of all unlettered societies whose history is told by outsiders. As such, they are frequently victims of bias.

Of these Iranian-speaking nomads, the best known were the Scythians, due to their contact with the west, particularly Greece. According to the Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary the Scythians were, "a member of a nomadic Indo-European people who settled in Scythia before the seventh century b.c. and were displaced by the Sarmatians. They were specially noted in warfare for their mounted archers and in art for their rich gold ornaments. They spoke an Iranian language" (W.E.D. 1988, 900). Since these nomads had no written language their history was been gathered by settled societies, who as aforementioned often times were enemies. Therefore, the accounts we have on them were not only scanty, but also tended to be very negative as settled societies viewed their own civilizations as superior.

Fortunately for our understanding of these Iranian nomads, Herodotus, the father of history, was intrigued, even compelled, by the ways of the "barbarians," so that he dedicated a great portion of his Histories solely to the Scythians during the days when the Persian and Egyptian empires were thriving.

Beyond his mythical suggestions of the origin of the Scyths and similar nomads, he was keen in noting another important and more eastern Iranian tribe called the Massagetae, whom he considered to be like the Scythians (Rawlinson 1928, 79). Herodotus writes about the Massagetae:

Now the Massagetae are said to be a great and warlike nation.... By many they are regarded as a Scythian race.... In their dress and mode of living the Massagetae resemble the Scythians [Rawlinson 1928, 75, 79].

Although they had very similar customs and shared a common language, this does not necessarily advocate that they were one entity.

The Massagetae of Herodotus were designated by the comprehensive name "Sakas" by the Persians, and it is believed by some scholars that the Saka Tigrakhauda or Peaked-capped Sakas were the Massagetae of Herodotus. In an article in Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age, Leonid T. Yablonsky writes, "Some scholars are inclined to identify the Saka-Tigrakhauda of the ancient Persian inscriptions with the Massagetae of Herodotus and to place them east of the Caspian Sea" (Yablonsky 1995, 250).

In addition, geographer Strabo applies the comprehensive name Scythian to the Sakas, Dahae, and Massagetae. He states:

Now the greater part of the Scythians, beginning at the Caspian Sea, are called Daae, but those who are situated more to the east are called Massagetae and Sacae, whereas all the rest are given the general name of Scythians, though each people is given a separate name. They are all for the most part nomads [Jones 1928, 5: 261].

Thus, the term "Scythian" was used by later writers sometimes to specify the Scythians proper, but also comprehensively, to address the Sakas, Massagetae, Dahae, and so on. This is especially evident in the works of the Alexandrian age writers who repeatedly called these nomads at "various times, 'Scythian,' 'Massagetae,' or 'Dakhs'" (Yablonsky 1995, 251). Interestingly, Alexander Cunningham, the former Director-General of the Archeological Survey of India, believed that the Dahae of the Greeks and the Dahyu of the Persians were the same word as the colloquial term daku used in India (Indo-English "dacoit"), which literally means "a robber or enemy" (Cunningham 1888, 32). The Scythians could have been perceived as dacoits by these sedentary societies, and these terms could have been those of reproach (Cunningham 1888, 32). The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica also holds this view,

The predatory tribes of Turan [Turkistan] (e.g., Massagetae) seem to have belonged to the same stock [Iranian]. These tribes are distinguished by the Iranian peasants as Daha (Gr. Daai), "enemies," "robbers"; by the Persians as Sacae; and by the Greeks generally as Scythians [E.B. 1911, 21: 202].

As mentioned previously, the Massagetae were likely a sub-tribe of the Sakas, or more specifically the Saka-Tigrakhauda. The Sakas, in particular, made their way to the Indian subcontinent. In his Guide to Taxila, Marshall, the former Director-General of Archaeology of India, says the following about the Sakian invaders of India:

Known to the western world under the comprehensive name of Scythians, to the Indians as Sakas, and to the Chinese as Sai or Sai-wang, these invaders came principally from the three great tribes of Massagetae, Sacaraucae, and Dahae, whose home at the beginning of the second century b.c. was in the country between the Caspian Sea and Jaxartes river [Marshall 1960, 24].

In addition to the tribes mentioned by Marshall, there were many other lesser-known nomadic tribes not mentioned, for example, the Thyssagetae, Tyrigetae, etc., who probably were like the Sakas. Marshall, therefore, believes that the Scythian term was an all-inclusive name applied to all Iranian-speaking Central Asian nomads. Cunningham, on the other hand, referring to the Scythian invaders of India, included the non-Iranian-speaking Ephthalites or White Huns. He states:

The different races of Scythians, which have successively appeared on the border provinces of Persia and India, are the following ... Sakas or Sacae, the Su or Sai of the Chinese...Kushans, or Tochari, the Great Yue-chi of the Chinese ... Kidaritae, or Later Kushans, the Little Yue-chi of the Chinese ... Ephthalites, or White Huns, the Ye-tha-i-lito of the Chinese [Cunningham 1888, 27].

Tod also classifies the White Huns as a "Scythian" people (Tod 1829, 131). Consequently, the comprehensiveness of the term "Scythian" was caused no doubt by the lack of consistency in the use of the term by the classical writers. Some have argued that the term was used almost exclusively from geographical perspective by the classical writers to denote invaders from Central Asia (Kephart 1960, 531). Yet another view is that the classical writers were not effectively able to tell the particular tribes apart, as aforementioned, given that the Alexandrian writers used different terminology for the same people (Yablonsky 1995, 251).

Now it is difficult to believe the Scythians were ever really one ethnic entity, since they were so greatly separated along the vast Central Asian steppes. This is further attested by the non-homogeneous ethnicity even amongst particular tribes themselves (Yablonsky 1995, 241-52). What seems more reasonable is that they were groups of many independent nations with a similar language and culture. Therefore, the comprehensive name "Scythian" probably signifies a people who shared a common culture, language, and extended geographical area. Names of tribe such as Massagetae, on the other hand, were more geographically specific, referring to in this case, a tribe east of the Caspian Sea with somewhat unique customs.

Leaving tribal origins aside, the history of these Scythian tribes is impressive. They were known by the Greco-Romans to the west, by the Chinese to the east, and by the Indians and Persians to the south. One of the most interesting aspects of these tribes was their mobility as mounted nomads who left little of Eurasia unexplored. In his In Search of the Indo-Europeans, referring to a map of Eurasia, Mallory says:

Reading from west to east we can include as Iranian speakers the major Iron Age nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppe such as the Kimmerians (?), Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans. The incredible mobility of these horse-mounted nomads becomes all the more impressive when we recall their westward expansions through Europe. Sarmatian tribes not only settled in the Danube region, but during the second century AD, were conscripted to defend the borders of Roman Britain. The Alans traveled as far as France and forced their way south through Spain, ultimately to establish a state in North Africa [Mallory 1989, 48-49].

Did the Scythians leave any place in Eurasia untouched? It cannot be overemphasized that the mobility of the Scythian tribes was often the result of their being driven on by other tribes, even kindred tribes, so that an event on one side of the steppes would cause a chain reaction of events reaching the other.

This was the case with the Hsuing-Nu (Huns), a nomadic Mongol people, who uprooted the nomadic Yuezhi near the Great Wall of China before the Christian era. The Chinese Emperor Zheng (Shi Huangdi, 246-210 b.c.) linked together the existing frontier walls into a continuous defense system, thereby creating the Great Wall of China (Haywood 2000, 26). As a result the restless Hsuing Nu tribe attacked their neighbors the Caucasian Wusun and Yuezhi, which led to a wholesale movement of these nomads (Dhillon 1994, 41). Not only were the fleeing Yuezhi uprooted, but so also were a perhaps kindred people, the Sakas, near the Aral Sea (Dhillon 1994, 41). Eventually this chain of events led to these nations appearing on the Indo-Iranian borderlands and settling in these regions (Dhillon 1994, 41). This same movement of tribes was the driving force that finally led the Alans to enter Roman territory (Dhillon 1994, Preface). Haywood provides a good summary of this large-scale movement:

The rise of the Xiongnu [Huns] had a destabilizing effect on the Iranian nomads to the west. In 170 the Xiongnu inflicted a crushing defeat on the Yue Qi [Yuezhi], who fled westward, unsettling the Sakas, before overrunning the Bactrian kingdom around 135. The Sakas headed south, first to invade the Parthian empire and, around 141, northern India, and were able to occupy much of the northwest without facing much serious opposition. On the western steppes, the Sarmatians defeated and absorbed the Scythians in the 2nd century and by 150 three distinct groups appeared: the Iazygians, the Roxolani, and the Alans [Haywood 2000, 28].

It does not seem mere coincidence that the timeline for the "barbarian" invasions of Rome corresponds very closely to that of the similar invasions of northwest India and northeastern Iran, or that Huns were associated with these assaults. For example, the Alans reached Gaul in a.d. 408 (Dhillon 1994, 91), and the Ephthalites conquered Transoxiana and Bactria around 440 and reached India around 455-460 (Grousset 1970, 67-68).

McGovern provides a bird's-eye view of the movement of these tribes:

The Sakas, like their neighbors, the Alani, were destined to play an important part in later history. But whereas the Alani spread westward into Europe, the Sakas chose the lands south of them for the seat of their later actions; and at one time they were lords of much of Eastern Iran and Northern India [McGovern 1939, 40].

And yet this does not appear to be the first such movement of Central Asian tribes. Earlier it was mentioned that the Scythians may have had similar customs and language, but it is doubtful that they were ever one ethnic entity. This statement, however, could be partially untrue. The dominance by one group in particular, the Massagetae, who in post-Alexandrian times were classified as Sarmatians, may have led to some homogeneity across most of the steppes. McGovern wrote, "The decay and eventual downfall of the Scythians was due almost entirely to invasion by their distant kinsmen, the Sarmatians" (McGovern 1939, 38). The Sarmatians were "a member of the nomadic Indo-European people who displaced the Scythians on the lower Don. First the enemies and then the allies of Rome, they were displaced by the Goths in the third century a.d." (W.E.D.1988, 887).

So the Scythians were gradually displaced and absorbed by their distant kinsmen, the Sarmatians. McGovern goes further, to list the Massagetae, Dahae, Alans, and Sacae as Sarmatian tribes (McGovern 1939, 462-64). The term "Sarmatian" gradually began to replace "Scythian" in classical accounts; this was also a Central Asian Iranian-speaking tribe (Littleton and Malcor 2000, 16). Littleton and Malcor call them "Eastern Scythians" (Littleton and Malcor 2000, 16). And for good reason, as the Sarmatians were not much different from Scythians -- they spoke an Iranian language and wore trousers, soft leather boots, and round or peaked caps, although some also went bare-headed (Sulimirski 1970).

Regarding the Sarmatians, Jeannine Davis-Kimball wrote a rather interesting paragraph in her popular book Warrior Women:

Around 400 b.c., the Sauromatians began to be displaced by people known to the ancients as Simatians or Sarmatians. No one is certain of the origins of these people; although they were also Caucasoids and spoke an Indo-Iranian language, their skeletons revealed a variety of ethnic types, with some being tall and large boned ... while others were shorter and delicate in stature. My theory, based on a number of notable comparisons between funeral offerings, is that some of these people might have been younger generations of Saka who were forced from their territories near the Tien Shan Mountains or the southern Aral Sea by the need for additional summer pasturelands. Around the third century a.d., they began migrating westward and eventually these expert horsemen equipped with sophisticated weapons and armor constituted a real threat to the Roman legions guarding the Danube frontier. The enterprising legionnaires, however, defused the situation by recruiting some of the Sarmatians to join their army. In a.d. 175, more than five thousand of the steppe tribesmen (most likely along with their families) were dispatched to the northern English border to guard Hadrian's Wall, which helped repel incursions into Roman Britain by the Picts and the Celtic Scots. Twenty years later, the Sarmatian regiment was redeployed to Gaul (the ancient designation for France and Belgium) to quell a rebellion. Later they were returned to Britain, and as they grew old, the battle-weary Sarmatians retired to a veteran's home in Lancashire. (It seems as if they had taken to the British climate, proving that almost anything is better than the weather of the steppes.) The Sarmatian presence in Gaul and Roman Britain never ceases to fascinate me -- I always wonder how many unsuspecting modern-day Frenchmen and Britons, as well as Americans of those extractions, possess the genes of the ancient steppe warriors [Davis-Kimball 2002, 32].

So what was the driving force behind the expansion of the Sarmatian tribes who gradually absorbed their kindred Scythian tribesmen? In his book The Sarmatians, T. Sulimirski offers an opinion:

The destruction by Alexander the Great of the Achaemenid (Persian) monarchy and his subsequent conquest of Bactria and Sogdiana in 330-328 BC also influenced the history and development of all the peoples of Central Asia. Neither the Chorasmians nor the Massagetae were subjugated by Alexander, but as a result of having to fight against the highly trained and organized Macedonian army, they developed new military tactics using armoured cavalry, the 'cataphracti'. Some authors think that the Massagetae owed their conquests solely to the use of this armoured cavalry against weaker adversaries [Sulimirski 1970, 81].

Sulimirski continues, "In the fourth and third centuries BC, the Massagetae subdued nearly all the nomad tribes of Central Asian north of the Macedonian frontier, eastward to the Tien-Shan Mountains, and possibly many tribes of the Kazakhstan steppes; this led to a tremendous extension of their culture which to a great extent derived from that of Achaemenid Iran" (Sulimirski 1970, 81). Therefore, the battles against Alexander in Bactria and Sogdiana led to a great improvement in Massagetan military technology, who were already essentially a cavalry nation. Moreover, this mechanism led to the expansion of their culture east to China, west to the German frontier, and perhaps even southward to India. So did the Massagetae provide at least some continuity between the vast steppes, before this nation was scattered by the Huns? Are there more precise ways to examine their legacy?

This leads us to the thesis of this article. In a rather bold paragraph in their recent book on The Tarim Mummies, James P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair suggest that there may have been more cohesion among these nomads than was previously believed. They wrote in the following paragraph regarding the Yuezhi nomads near the border of China:

Da (Greater) Yuezhi or in the earlier pronunciation d'ad-ngiwat-tieg, has been seen to equate with the Massagetae who occupied the oases and steppelands of West Central Asia in the time of Herodotus; here Massa renders an Iranian word for "Great," hence "Great Getae." ... Others have seen in this word an attempt to capture in Chinese the name of a tribe that is rendered in Greek as the Iatioi who are recorded in Ptolemy's geography. The original pronunciation has been reconstructed as gwat-ti or got-ti or gut-si, which opens up distant lexical similarities with the Goths (the German tribes of northern and eastern Europe), the Getae (the Dacian, i.e., Balkan, tribes northwest of the Black Sea), the Guti (a people on the borderlands of Mesopotamia), the Kusha (our Kushans), the Gushi (a people mentioned in Han texts and regarded as brigands along with the peoples of Kroran), or a combination of some but not all of the above (Mallory and Mair 2000, 98-99).

This comparison of like-sounding tribal names, although merely a paragraph in length, could potentially generate volumes of discussion and can help us understand more definitively the nature of the barbarian invasions in ancient Rome, the powerful Kushan Empire in India, the possible origins of the Guti people, the Guti kings of Mesopotamia, and the similarity between the Goths, Getae, and the Yuezhi. Moreover, this opens up the possibility that at least some of the people termed "Scythians" were a single tribe -- the Getae. So could there have been a nation of nomads who knew themselves as Gets, Gats, Guts, or Yuts?

This is not the first time that the suggestion has been offered that the Yuezhi could be related to Goths. In his Tableaux Historiques De L'Asia, Julius Von Klaproth (1783-1835) wrote:

Le nom des Yue ti ou Yut rappelled celui des Yuts ou Goths, qui sont venus en Europe: il serait tres possible que les Yutes, arrives en Scandinavie avec Odin, aient ete le meme peuple qui, trois siecles avant notre ere, habitair encore ... noor et a l'ouest de la province chinoise de Kan sou. Ceci supposerait l'emigration des Goths de l'Asie centrale posterieure a celle des autres peoples germaniques (Klaproth 1826, 289).

A rough translation:

The name of Yueti or Yut recalls that of Yuts or Goths, which came to Europe: it would be very possible that the Yutes who arrived in Scandinavia with Odin, are the same people who three centuries before our era, still inhabited the area ... northwest of the Chinese Kansu province. This would suppose the emigration of the Goths of Central Asia after that of the other Germanic peoples.

This identification between the Yuezhi and the Goths by Klaproth suggests that the tribes involved in the movement of nomads into Roman territory may have been greater than modern scholarship holds. Could it be that the Goths, along with the Alans, were pushed into Europe under pressure from the Huns? Moreover, could these same tribes be found in the Indian and Persian frontiers? The South Asian Jats are one such group that may lead us in the proper direction, as their settlement corresponds geographically with the Indo-Scythian settlement on the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps by examining the customs and characteristics of this living population we can better understand the role the Getae played in history.