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March of the Scythians: From Sargon II to the Fall of Nineveh Paperback – March 20, 2013
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About the Author
Cam Rea lives in Indiana. He is a Military Historian. Mr. Rea has written several books and numerous articles for Classical Wisdom Weekly. His most current publication is "Hebrew Wars: A Military History of Ancient Israel from Abraham to Judges."
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There is so much information in this book that I cannot even do it justice by picking through it for this review. All I can say is that if you are interested in this period of history, or are interested in the horse archers of the steppe, read this book and it will expand your knowledge even further.
Great read, and thank you for writing this book.
If I could ask the author to conquer another subject, it would be to ask him to write a volume about the Parthians--another great empire that is woefully underrepresented in history.
A secondary merit, but not an inconsiderable one, is that this seems to be a self-published book, and the author's first. A third merit is the author's attempt to tackle such a topic, given the relative paucity of the written sources, and the fact that many of the areas where "the action" takes are not exactly the most accessible to archaeologists, to put it very mildly. A related merit is the effort that has gone into this book to tell the little known story of the Scythian nomads and raiders and their role in the demise of the once powerful Assyrian Empire.
There are however also multiple problems with this book.
One is that most of the sources about the Scythians (and the Cimmerians) come from their enemies, from the Assyrians in particular. Otherwise it comes from the far away Greeks and was written long after the events that they relate. Herodotus was writing about a century and a half after the Scythians sacked Nineveh, for instance.
This is my first problem with this book. It simply does not discuss and analyse the sources it uses. It is nevertheless essential to do so, especially in such a context when you have no written sources from the Scythians themselves. This is because there is a need to determine in what ways they may be biased (they always are in some ways) or, more generally, what these sources may really be worth. For the Greek sources, and Herodotus in particular, one of the issues is to ascertain to what extent the information he provides is reliable, as opposed to semi-legendary accounts and gossip about what happened in a distant land a long time ago.
The Assyrian (and more generally the Mesopotamian) sources raise the somewhat different issue when writing about the nomad raiders that they might simply not be telling the whole truth, especially when it is not exactly flattering from the respective monarchs. This means that some unpleasant events (defeats or even the killing of the King) may be passed under silence, or at least considerably minimised or explained away. It means that the author has to check and match the various sources for a given event - they may diverge significantly - and then interpret them and explain and justify his interpretations. In many cases, it also means that all you can up with is "an educated guess", at best, or speculations at worst.
Finally, the fragments of the story that can be pieced together are just that: fragments, and one-sided ones. The implication is that the book is somewhat mistitled. As its subtitle suggests, it is just as much, if not more, about the demise of the Assyrian Empire, repeatedly attacked by coalitions of enemies from all sides, as it is about one of these enemies, the Scythians. Moreover, the importance of the later is this destruction, while certainly significant, is essentially unknown, although the author chose to emphasise it to the point where you almost get the impression that the Scythians were one of the leading forces that destroyed the Assyrian Empire.
Where they really so important, or where one or several forces of nomadic Scythians hired (or brought in) by the other sedentary powers which were the enemies of the Assyrians to help "do them in"? They could also have been "opportunistic raiders" that invaded whenever the Assyrian Empire was overstretched or otherwise weakened by rebellions, defeat, a difficult succession and civil wars. Another possibility is that several bands or tribes of Scythians were hired as auxiliaries, given pastures or allowed to settle on them and tasked with preventing others from roaming and raiding from across the Caucasus. We essentially do not know. All of these options are at least plausible, but are not explicitly discussed.
My second problem stems from the first. Essentially, the author has chosen to tell a story where the main role is attributed to the Scythians, although we know nothing about the numbers involved in the events in which they took part. War bands of a few hundred or perhaps in the low thousands seem more likely than whole armies of tens of thousands of horsemen, if only because of the logistical issues involved in watering and feeding the horses across the Middle East. Here again, this is no more than a guess, even if a plausible one. It is a pity that there is no such discussion in the book.
My third problem is the author's tendency towards gross anachronisms and over-simplifications. A heavily armoured Scythian simply did not have "an appearance somewhat like that of the medieval knights in Europe." Similarly, the Scythian bow was obviously not "the AK-47 of the Ancient Near East." These comparisons are simply meaningless or even incorrect for the Scythian bow clearly did not have the rate of fire of a modern assault rifle, however skilled Scythian horse archers (or any other nomad horse archers both before and after them) may have been in using their bows. They are a number of other such comparisons across the book.
Another type of problem is the author's tendency to amalgamate bits and pieces. One example is the discussion about the Scythian bow, which is presented as "unique". This was certainly the perception in the sedentary kingdoms in the Middle East when they were first confronted with composite bows, although nomads on the steppes other the Scythians may have also been using composite bows during the same period (most likely, unless one tries to postulate that the Scythians were more technologically advanced than other nomads and there is not a shred of evidence to support this kind of claim), and perhaps even also similar bows. Again, and contrary to the impression given by the author, we simply do not know.
Then there are the author's statements about the performance of a bow in 300 BC where an archer from Olbia (who, interestingly, bears a Greek and not a Scythian name) managed to shoot an arrow over a distance exceeding 520 meters. First, it is because this feat was so exceptional that it was recorded on his tombstone. Second, there is no indication regarding the type of bow that he may have used. Contrary to what is suggested by the author, there is nothing to assure that the bow used was of the same type as that ascribed to the Scythians some three hundred years earlier. They are even reasons to doubt this, since it seems more than likely than the Scythians, whose equipment evolved all along their history, also may have modified (and possibly improved) their bows over such a long period.
To conclude this overlong review on this fascinating topic, and although there are many other points that could have been raised, I appreciated the author's choice of topic and efforts in tackling it, even if I did not so much appreciate his non-historical methods and choices. Three stars for a book that, despite my reservations, is certainly well-worth reading.
The main problem when writing about Cimmerians is that our main sources are Herodotus who wrote about 200 years after the Cimmerians vanished, and some incomplete inscriptions on stone bequeathed to us by the Assyrians, who were the deadly enemies of the Cimmerians and didn't necessarily tell the truth about them. The Cimmerians were great warriors and metal workers, but as far as we know they lacked writing skills, so they have left us no primary account of themselves or their campaigns.
Cam Rea tries to make up for the vast gaps in knowledge by educated conjecture. He quotes extensively from original inscriptions, which all begin to sound the same after a while as the Assyrians' prime objective is to glorify their kings and cover up their defeats rather than render a dispassionate account of the facts. However, he does not tell us anything that can't be discovered by reading Herodotus and a quick trawl through the internet.
Although the book begins reasonably entertainingly with an account the final campaign of Sargon II, it rapidly descends into turgid, repetitive, rambling conjecture in which Mr Rea constantly reminds us how little we actually know, and how unhelpful the stone inscriptions are.
For me, the best part of this book, and why it gets three stars and not one, are the appendices at the end; in which Cam Rea explores the weapons and battle tactics of the Cimmerians, including fascinating details about how they painted and poisoned their arrows with snake venom and how their arrow heads were designed to inflict maximum pain and suffering on their victims. Cam Rea is a military historian and suddenly begins to sound authoritative when he describes the swarming tactics of ancient armies. The only problem is that he focuses on battles that took place hundreds of years after the Cimmerians vanished, such as Carrhae in 53 BC.
In summary, I think it's great that someone has tried to throw some light on a vital passage of poorly documented history. Unfortunately, he hasn't come up with the goods. The fact he's had to publish this book himself tells us that main stream publishers probably reached the same conclusion.
Note for Kindle readers: the kindle version of this book doesn't download as smoothly as it might. I kept coming across some strange passages written in Russian on my first download, not to mention a few blank pages. However it all sorted itself out over a couple of hours and everything was fine in the end.