Scythians: A Succinct Survey

During one of my brief forays into the city I used to dwell in late last year, I decided, on a whim, to visit the British Museum’s latest exhibition – Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia. I had not intended to view the exhibition on that particular trip but a fortuitous turn of events occasioned an unexpected free morning and as I was in Bloomsbury anyway, I decamped from where I was to go to my former default location when free in London: the British Museum.

The Scythians exhibition provides a somewhat well-structured but non-chronological look into an ancient culture that, at least till the past century, has always been looked at through the eyes of the ancient Greeks for many. A nomadic peoples, and forerunners on the steppe of the Huns and Mongols, they roamed from north of the Black Sea, across Siberia and the northern reaches of Iran, to the vastness of what is now northern China around the first millennium BC.

The exhibition’s narrative is one that cleaves away from the usual caricature we see in popular culture of nomadic peoples – people that are bereft of cultural expression or lack a complex society, essentially, people that conform to the lower-end of the now-obsolete and reductionist model of civilisational advancement. One of the first items a visitor sees is an fantastically ornate piece of workmanship, similar to the one below:


Gold belt buckle. 4th to 3rd Century BC.


The above is a fantastic example of the sophisticated workmanship of the ancient Scythians. A belt buckle, it is an item that has yielded much interpretation and answers about the mythological beliefs that many Scythians may have held but it is the production process of the item that is more fascinating. The separate wax moulds used to create the overall item is something that was highlighted by the British Museum: various pieces focused more on the production process rather than interpretation and this was refreshing to see. Often, after the gold appliqués were cast, stones and gems were inlaid and after the piece was polished and finished, it must have looked glorious.

As one moves into the main exhibition, a certain amount of light is shed on the history of scholarship on the ancient Scythians and particularly on the process by which various Tsars consolidated laws on archaeological fieldwork from the 17th Century onwards as well as laws relating to the possession of Scythian artifacts. The Kunstkamera was commissioned by Peter the Great as Russia’s first dedicated Museum and the initial state collection of Scythian artefacts were kept there. Various engravings of the Kunstkamera by Grigory Anikeyevich Kachalov were on display near a glorious painting of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller in the late 17th Century lent by the Royal Collection specifically for this exhibition.


Portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller given to the King of England during Peter’s tour of Europe.


A significant number of the items depicted animals, anthropomorphically or realistically to their perception, and it is clear that animals but particularly horses were central to many aspects of the lives of the Scythians. The colour palette on show as well as the range of styles and items display the vibrant culture of the Scythians: from fake beards to delicately woven multi-coloured cloth and ornate weaponry, the artistic range is breathtaking. Of course, the age old problem of thievery reared its ugly head at various points in the exhibition as we are told that various tombs were cleared out both in the past few centuries as well as in antiquity.

The cultural contacts with the Achamaenids, Chinese, Greek and other peoples are emphasised, not least in a few items and vases that displayed much cultural and artistic transference. One especially fortunate accident of nature and geography meant that a piece of ancient cheese preserved by the environment it was in, was on display as well!! That a culture left an unwritten past is confounding to modern viewers as well as our need to know more about the past but the exhibition display is fantastically detailed and the items themselves form a rich narrative about the lives of Scythians, their artistic, cultural and ritualistic inclinations that leave the viewer just about sated but yearning for more.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and there was much more on display than I could write here about. I believe it closes in a few days time but it is absolutely worth seeing. I honestly thought nothing could top the ‘Flaming June’ exhibition at Leighton House earlier last year in 2017 as my favourite exhibition of 2017 but this Scythians one did.



Images are for review purposes only.



Brief Review of ‘The Rise and Fall of The House of Medici’ by Christopher Hibbert

The Medici are one of those families of which a reputation centred around ostensible luxury has arisen over the centuries: vaunted for their sophistication and prosperousness and vilified for their ‘usury’ and corruption. What cannot be denied is their effect on Florentine, and Italian, history as well as their effects on all cultural developments that ensconce the renaissance.

This book is one I bought a long time ago and has subsequently been sitting on my bookshelf, content to be left alone. And so, with some anticipation, now that I have widened the scope of what I read, I picked it up and was instantly absorbed. A fairly small book, given it covers several centuries, it is over 300 pages long. Hibbert, a popular writer, is a perpetual biographer of the past; the temporal range of his writings cover well above a Millenia of human history.

It would be a gross mischaracterisation to portray this book as one one written in the vein of a ‘grand narrative’ or ‘diplomatic history’ of many history books even if the Medici were at the forefront of Florentine political life for several centuries. Rather, Hibbert organises his book as essentially a series of separate but interlinked biographies of the most popular member of the Medici family. This is punctuated especially by a constant focus on renaissance culture; various sculptors and artists make their way into Hibbert’s prose and there is an occasional whiff of the classical cultures of Greece and Rome hanging over his descriptions:


“Yet for Florence, as Cosimo had foreseen, the Council had far happier consequences. As well as profiting the trade of the city, it was an important influence on what was already being spoken of as the Rinascimento. The presence of so many Greek scholars in Florence provided an incalculable stimulus to the quickening interest in classical texts and classical history, in classical art and philosophy, and particularly in the study of Plato, that great hero of the humanists, for so long overshadowed by his pupil, Aristotle. (Hibbert; p.164)

The sensitivity Hibbert shows to the wider cultural influence of the Medici is interspersed throughout, and it is thoroughly delectable to read; his descriptions of the patronage of Michelangelo by Lorenzo is heavily touched upon as well as Cosimo’s interactions with Brunelleschi. Hibbert naturally focuses on the earlier years of the Medici: their nascence, fantastic rise, and stay at the apex of Italian city-state politics for two-three centuries. The later years of the Medici (16-18thC) occupy a smaller proportion of the book which is no great tragedy as the earlier Medici were certainly the more interesting to read about as opposed to the Tuscan rulers of the later Medici family.

Of course, Hibbert is attentive to religious matters, particularly the two Medici Popes and especially Leo X. What is at the fore of Hibbert’s re-telling of the fortunes of the Medici is his succinct but bountiful prose; he has clearly inquired into every facet of the Medici’s history and brought out the best and most alluring stories. Granted, there is a deficit of social history but that is to be expected in a popular book of this kind, whose primary readership are perhaps less interested in the conditions of the lower Italian classes in 14th Century Florence than the opulence and refinement of the Medici and other noble families in Florence.

There is little in the way of negativity that I can write about the book save that I dislike that many plates and illustrations, like with this book, are placed in the centre of the book. This, I actively dislike yet I can imagine it being a practical publishing issue but it would be good to not have to constantly flick through a book to see an illustration of what an author is describing.

Nevertheless, the extensive bibliography, notes on artworks; portraits; sculptures and buildings are to be commended, if only for the opportunity it provides for readers to find more books based on the notes. The book is a fantastic introduction to the Medici family and by extension, some elements of the Rinascimento.

Stoic Logic.

“By the term ‘Logic’ today we usually mean the formal analysis of arguments. While this sort of abstract reasoning was an important part of logic in antiquity, ancient logic was much broader that its modern counterpart. ‘Logic’ translates ‘logike‘, and ‘logike‘ is that part of philosophy that examines logos – reason, language or argument – in all of its forms, including formal arguments, rhetorical arguments, speech, grammar, philosophy of language and truth (i.e. epistemology). The formal abstract reasoning that now constitutes logic was known in antiquity as one part of dialectic, and dialectic was just one part of  ‘logike’.

Stoicism. John Sellars. 2006. (Pg 55.)

An excellent summation of the disjuncture between the contemporary meaning of logic and its ancient meaning.



Pikes on a Ship: Defence of the Achaeans.

Reading about the past is a delightful pastime. What is even more illuminating is the moment when text and image match, especially with ‘primary sources’. This is especially invigorating the further back one goes in time, particularly in the ancient world where visual depictions of reality and abstractions can at times be indecipherable (a simple issue, I think, resulting from temporal distance). Art in the ancient world is at times a matter of our perception, let alone the reaction of those who viewed ‘art’ in the ancient world.

Classical literature is often littered with visual descriptions of singular moment recorded by paintings or sculpture, and even more conspicuously, Mythology. Statues of Herakles, other mythological heroes and Gods and Goddesses abounded in the ancient world. Of Course, Ekphrasis is quite common in parts of ancient Greek literature, but a description of warfare from Homer’s Iliad that is also displayed in a painting from the Minoan-era is even rarer. One example is in Homer’s Iliad, when the poet narrates the defence of the Achaean’s camp from the ferocious onslaught of Hector and the Trojans and in true Homeric style, he describes the event in over several books with seemingly tangential yet highly pertinent details that add more colour to his verse in a cool and satiated style.

In book 15:

“So the Trojans swept over the wall with a loud yell, driving their chariots on, and began a close-combat fight by the sterns: the Trojans from chariots, with double-edged spears, and the Achaeans, after climbing high on to their black ships, with the long jointed pikes that they had lying in the ships for fighting at sea, clothed at their point in bronze.”   The Iliad, Book Fifteen. Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Anthony Verity.

Verity writes in his endnotes to how a Theran fresco displays this phenomenon, where pikes are used on ships, being glued together. I confess I have no idea how they would have been used in such a context, but it is the display of it in painting that captures my imagination. The image below shows, after much looking, what I think Verity alludes to in his endnote to the above quote:

Bronze-age Ship with pikes.

Bronze-age Ship with pikes in the bow.


The image is taken from the Athens National Archaeological Museum and the painting is located in Akrotiri, Santorini. I believe it is dated to around sometime in the first half of the 2nd Millenium BC. Anyway, it is a joy to behold.

Regarding Translation of Plato’s Imagined Republic.

“The title Republic is a bad translation of the Greek politeia. The Greek word does occur a number of times in the book, as well as forming the title, and in this translation it has invariably been rendered as ‘political system’. Politeia is the public and political life of a community; in Latin this is res publica, ‘public business’; Greek words used to be referred to by their Latin or Latinized titles: hence Republic. The book, however, is not by any stretch of the imagination a treatise on republicanism or Republicanism. Nevertheless, the title is immovable.”

Introduction to Republic, translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford World Classics.

It is because of information like this that I do prefer Oxford World Classics (OWC) over Penguin Classics. The bibliography, notes and introduction in OWC make them, I think, the best popular series of world literature.