Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Scythian Police Force of Athens in the 6th-4th centuries BCE

The Scythian archers, called taxotai, were a hypothesized police force of 6th-, 5th- and early 4th-century BCE Athens that is recorded in some Greek artworks and literature. The force is said to have consisted of 300 armed Scythians (a nomadic people living in the Eurasian Steppe) who were public slaves in Athens. They acted for a group of eleven elected Athenian magistrates who were responsible for arrests and executions and for some aspects of public order in the city including the Assembly and the Council. Their number is said to have swelled to 1,200 at some point, so they may have also been involved in wartime conflicts as well.

Scholars agree that a Scythian police force of some sort existed in Athens in the 5th century BCE and possibly as early as the 6th century BCE, although no one knows when it was first established or how long it lasted. Swiss archaeologist Balbina Bäbler points to 4th century BCE grave steles including the stele of Getes as well as buried Scythian arrowheads as evidence of their continued existence at that time but admits it is impossible to know whether these Scythians represent a continuation of the police force known earlier or whether Scythian families simply still lived in Athens.

Scholars are also unsure why Athenians would employ "barbarians" for such purposes, although they think it's possible that foreign slaves far from home would compose a more faithful police force than locals would. Scholars have found the Scythians' use of bows and arrows in a crowded city like Athens puzzling, too.  I suppose its is no less plausible than the use of pistols in large modern cities today, though.

As portrayed on Attic vase paintings, Scythian archers were distinguished by high pointed headdresses and wide trousers although they may have had no relationship to the Scythian police force. Scythians speaking broken Greek were comedic characters in Aristophanes' play Thesmophoriazusae, too, but again their connection to the police force is not clear. 

 Departure of the warrior in front of the home's women and his white-haired father. He is accompagnied by a Scythian archer. Side A from an Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, 530-520 BCE now in the collections of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Hoplite putting his armor on, surrounded by two Scythian warriors, Side A of an Attic red-figure belly-amphora, From Vulci now in the collections of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Attic Black-Figure Psykter painted in the manner of the Lysippides painter, Attic, 530 BCE, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum.  Image courtesy of Bruce White Photography. Two chariots seen in a frontal view decorate this Athenian black-figure psykter or wine cooler. Each chariot carries a driver and a warrior whose heads are just visible over the edge of the chariot car. On one side Skythian archers, identified by their distinctive tall caps, hold the outside trace horses, and on the other side, fully armed warriors flank the chariot. The Greeks used psykters to chill the wine at a symposium or drinking party. Wine diluted with water was poured into the psykter, whose wide bulbous body was then floated inside a larger vessel filled with snow or cold water. Scholars believe that this is the earliest complete psykter to have survived from antiquity.

Archer drawing an arrow from his quiver as he turns to shoot at the enemy by Epiktetos, 520-500 BCE. Interior from an Attic red-figured plate. From Vulci now in the collections of the British Museum.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.


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