Long Shadow of Herodotus: Joe Ricci on Ancient Rome’s own Perilous Frontier

While in St. Petersburg on a recent research trip, I was intrigued to learn that Joe Ricci, a colleague from my Princeton cohort, is living in the city long term.  After all, I knew Ricci as a scholar of Byzantine history, and Constantinople lies a rather long way from the Gulf of Finland, and Rome further still.  What follows is the outcome of a lengthy discussion about steppe-sedentary dynamics, Late Roman history, and Soviet archaeology.

State of the Field(s) and Ricci’s Intervention

There is a subfield within Central Asian studies sandwiched between history and anthropology that seeks to explain the interaction between pastoralist societies and sedentary ones.  Names like Khazanov, Barfield, di Cosmo, and Grousset loom large in this domain and often form the first couple of units on Central Asian introductory history courses.  What sustained empires on the steppe, where few material resources were to be found?  Why did nomadic empires invade sedentary ones and vice versa?

These questions tend to be answered from a Chinese perspective.  An omnipresent methodological problem associated with the study of pastoralist societies is that nomads did not, for the most part, write about themselves, and their history must consequently be interpreted through the eyes of their adversaries.  In the ancient period, long before the expansion (or even existence) of the Russian empire, China had by far the longest border with steppe zone and therefore produced the most sources relevant to nomad studies.

Ricci, however, entered the field of history to study Rome and dove into the study of nomadic societies from an entirely different platform.  If Central Asian studies and Roman history ever converge it is at the vanguard of the Attila’s invasion.  Romanists have occasionally dipped into the history of steppe societies during one of the periods when the empire was directly challenged by nomadic invaders, most notably the Huns.  (See, for instance, a classic study by Otto-Maenchen Helfen.)  The Avars, the only nomadic group to seriously threaten Constantinople (626 C.E.), and who eventually settled what is now Hungary, also feature in some studies.   However, scholars have not, for the most part, attempted to address steppe-sedentary relations systematically and over a long time period from the Roman perspective.

Spanning from the earliest appearance of the Huns around 350 C.E. and extending to the settlement of the Bulghars in the Balkans in 680 C.E., Ricci’s research offers a longue durée approach to the Roman steppe frontier.  “I want to trace this [steppe-sedentary] relationship from something that was ad-hoc to something that was actually strategized and systematized,” Ricci said.  He is also taking on the notion that the later steppe-based empires capable of penetrating into Roman territory constituted “progress” from the perspective of the average nomad. “Particularly in the period after the arrival of the Huns in Europe [circa 375 C.E.], nomads fielded larger armies capable of greater coercive force.  But this also led to great suffering on their own side: forced migrations, disruption, and death.”

Enemies of Rome

“It is really hard to over emphasize the importance of Herodotus for everything that followed,” Ricci said. The “Father of History” employed certain categories and invoked stereotypes of Scythian society that were mirrored in all subsequent writing about nomadic society.

The following is a well-known excerpt from Herodotus’s Histories (Book 4, Section 127) that nicely sums up the values, characteristics, and lifestyle of the nomads as perceived by Greeks.  In the passage, the Scythian king Idanthyrsus offers his reply to Darius who led an army north of the Danube to conquer the steppe:

To this message Idanthyrsus, the Scythian king, replied:—“This is my way, Persian. I never fear men or fly from them. I have not done so in times past, nor do I now fly from thee. There is nothing new or strange in what I do; I only follow my common mode of life in peaceful years. Now I will tell thee why I do not at once join battle with thee. We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight with you. If, however, you must needs come to blows with us speedily, look you now, there are our fathers’ tombs — seek them out, and attempt to meddle with them — then ye shall see whether or no we will fight with you. Till ye do this, be sure we shall not join battle, unless it pleases us. This is my answer to the challenge to fight. As for lords, I acknowledge only Jove my ancestor, and Vesta, the Scythian queen. Earth and water, the tribute thou asked, I do not send, but thou shalt soon receive more suitable gifts. Last of all, in return for thy calling thyself my lord, I say to thee, ‘Go weep.’

Some scholars have argued that Herodotus’ depiction of the Scythians was actually a prism through which he could critique Greek society.  Ricci takes this point, but also emphasizes that these stereotypes did not prevent the Romans from processing their very real knowledge of the steppe peoples into categories meaningful and useful to them.  “While the Roman depictions of nomads certainly come packaged with their biases, almost always steeped in references from Herodotus – hemp smoking, blood sacrifices, strange gods – these are not just made up descriptions.  Roman accounts have all sorts of specific details that could only have come from first-hand experience.”

By way of example, Ricci referenced the sixth-century, excellently-titled Strategikon attributed to the Emperor Maurice about his campaign in the Balkans.  The passage quoted here (Book 11, Sections 1-4) wraps specific, contemporary information about nomads into a Herotodus-inspired package (including the very term “Scythian” as a catch-all term for nomads, which was archaic by that time):

The Scythian race is one in their mode of life and organization, and they consist of many people. Alone those of the Turks and Avars pay attention to military order, making them stronger than the other Scythian peoples in battle and close combat.  That of the Turks is numerous and free, lacking cunning and skill in most matters, and nothing other are they trained in than to stand bravely against their enemies.  That of the Avars is villainous, cunning, and most experienced in wars. They have a monarchy and bear cruel punishments for their sins from their leaders, not out of love, but rather by fear are they governed and do they bear labors and hardships sincerely. They bear heat and cold and a great lack of necessities, being nomadic.  Superstitious and treacherous and unkind and unreliable, ruled by the greed of money, despising oaths, not guarding treaties, nor satisfied by gifts, but before receiving the thing given, they plan a plot and the overthrow of those things resolved.

Soviet Archaeology

So far none of this explains what brings Ricci to St. Petersburg.   One of the challenges faced by scholars of Roman history is that there are very few sources available that have not already been edited, translated, and exploited by the scholars that went before.  Aside from a handful of scholars who study iconography, Byzantinists do not generally work in Russian, and so Ricci’s ambition was to combine the Roman sources that deal with the steppe zone – such as those quoted above – with Soviet archaeological reports detailing excavations conducted throughout Urkaine and Russia in decades past. 

Ricci digs through these reports at the Institute for the History of Material Culture in St. Petersburg.  He faces a substantial technical challenge in that the material tends to be highly specific and set in isolation from any broader historical narrative.  However, the archaeological findings at times reveal a world of material culture absent in the written record – a culture all the more poignant when accompanied by pictures.

This first image is most likely an example of the famous “Scythian gold,” in this case unearthed near Kiev.

Scythian Jewelry from Kiev
Scythian Jewelry from Kiev


These next two pictures are chronologically closer to Ricci’s topic.  Both were drawn from a very famous seventh-century burial assumed to be the tomb of Khan Kubrat, the leader of Great Bulgaria before the Bulgars migrated into the Balkans.  Interestingly, the first plate depicted is actually Sasanian by origin, depicting the shah hunting.

Sasanian Plate
Sasanian Plate

These last objects are Byzantine rings with Greek anagrams.  Historians do not agree on the precise meaning of the rings, but it is generally assumed that they refer to some sort of patrician status granted to Kubrat by the Byzantine emperor and may actually have his name on the rings.

Khan Kubrat jewelry
Khan Kubrat jewelry

The Fringes of Empires, the Heart of the Steppe

The picture painted by Ricci is at once familiar and peculiar to scholars of Central Asian history.  Just like the Xiongnu that have formed the basis for so many studies of this nature, nomads on the Roman frontier served as a conduit between cultures and civilization.  The images above reveal Khan Kubrat receiving tribute from both the Persian and Roman empires at the same time, exchanging material culture on all fronts.

On the other hand, his vantage point highlights some notable differences.  “The Chinese sent major conquering armies out into the steppe to try and arrive at a definitive solution to their nomad problem.  And it always ended badly.  The Persians also had a major expedition into the steppe.  The Romans, by contrast, never sent a major expedition north of the Danube.  It was beyond the imagination of the Romans or seemed foolish on the face of it.  The Romans always tried to avoid pitched battles with nomads.  They bought them off or fought wars through proxies.”

Ricci argues that these differences actually strengthen the steppe-sedentary theories established in Central / Inner Asian studies.  As demonstrated by the rings in Khan Kubrat’s grave, and by the testimony of Emperor Maurice cited above, the Romans certainly engaged in a tributary relationship with the nomads, but not on the same scale as the Chinese.  “Some Roman sources complain about paying lots of tribute to the Huns, but this episode was relatively short-lived.  At first scholars thought that the Huns were sapping the Roman empire at the high tribute point of twenty-one hundred pounds of gold.  However, the writers were representing the landed class that had to front the taxes to pay the tribute; it was actually not a huge deal for the Roman treasury.”

The Romans, therefore, were more distant from nomadic societies and sent less treasure out into the steppe.  Consequently, the nomads had fewer resources at their disposal, which explains why Rome was never threatened by a nomadic empire on the scale of the Xiongnu or the later Türk Empire.  In a sense, then, the Roman case is useful for illustrating the inverse of the paradigms so well established in the Inner Asian arena by the scholars referenced at the outset of this post.  As Ricci’s project demonstrates, the Western steppe was very much a part of Eurasian history more broadly, as was the Roman Empire itself.