Kushan History Kushan History

The Scythian Wave

Descriptions of the Yu-chi invasion of Bactria run something like this: The Yu-chi push across the Jaxartes and Oxus into Bactria, displacing in the process those nomadic peoples who had lived on the north side of the two rivers and in Bactria itself. This group was driven across Bactria sacking the cities of the Greeks and into Persia on the western side. Here, the Persians defeated the Saca or Scythian groups who then turned south. They pass through Arachosia and the southern mountain passes in the area (the northerly Kabul pass being held by a powerful Greek kingdom) and invaded the lower Indus valley. They went on to conquer Taxila and Kabul and the whole Indus region, to which they give the name Skythia, used by Greek writers1. Once there they fell under the suzerainty of the Persian kings, who founded an Indo-Persian dynasty in the late first century BC or early first century AD. The dynasty survived until the Kushans invaded northern India in the late first century AD.

This great Scythic Wave is to be found expressed most ably in the Cambridge histories 2. Tarn presents an alternative view, in his 'Greeks in Bactria and India', that no Scythian wave occurred and that the kingdom of Maues and his successors in India did not become Parthian but had always been Parthian. He dismisses the alternative as nothing more than a confusion of a passage of Strabo. Here I will set out the major features of the two arguments, and some of the evidence upon which they are based. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, a position held by so many historians needs to be explained. Secondly, the position has some merit. discussing.

On Tarns point, the section of Strabo 11.8.4 which does indeed follow immediately after his mention of the conquest of Bactria does describe a Scythian invasion of the region. However it makes clear reference to Cyrus the great and cannot be taken as following sequentially on from the conquest of Bactria. It is a digression covering events from hundreds of years earlier.

The dog that barked in the night

The principal argument against the advance of a Scythian wave is one constructed from silence. The literary sources for the period are quite consistent, both Chinese and Western, that it was the Yu-chi (or in Greek writings the Tochari and the Assi) who took Bactria away from the Greeks. Neither mentions a large horde of nomadic horsemen driven ahead of the invaders and into northern India.

The coins minted by the Scythians in northern India do bear Scythian names, but they cannot be easily distinguished from those coins bearing Parthian names, and in fact they overlap and have a commonality of style which makes it very difficult to see them as anything other than a single group. Again this is an argument by silence, because we have no evidence at all that the Scythians were pushed ahead of the Yu-chi we assume that they were not. In fact they were an extension of Parthian military power into the region, and that the the Indian terms Saca and Pahlava (Scythian and Parthian) are interchangeable.

On a more positive note it becomes easier to explain one feature which was always something of an anomaly on the older model. Despite advancing completely across Bactria in front of the Yu-chi. Turning south when they reached Parthia, passing through Arachosia before conquering the Indus valley then the Taxila region. While along the route having time to produce some superb works of art 3 from material looted from the Greek cities. The first coins these people minted were in Taxila.

This has always been a bit of a puzzle for those who accept the Scythian wave model, but if instead these people came from Parthia, striking into the Indus region to avoid the Yu-chi and then conquering Taxila. Presumably a coordinated invasion to seize the Greek territories. Then the art found in central Asia would be Yu-chi and the coins would make a lot more sense, minted as they are in the regions seized by the invaders.

Historians however are an inventive lot and there are some alternatives. The possibility that the group crossed the mountains north of Taxila has been ruled out as too difficult, the famous hanging pass, far too dangerous to move a large number of people through. Narain instead points out that it is only the coins of the very early Maues that occur in Taxila, and centered around it. Those of the kings who follow are found in the Arachosia and Indus valley region. He suggests then that Maues, who has proved an elusive figure is a mercenary captain who manages to seize power from within.

This shifts the coins back along the route taken but still doesn't explain why they don't occur in Bactria. Barbarian coins were being minted beyond the Jaxartes river before the invasion, and a large number of these anonymous coins are collected in the British museum. It seems unlikely that they stopped minting when they crossed through Bactria and then started again with a quite highly developed coinage in India, and likewise unlikely that they continued minting but we have failed to recover any of the coinage.

Invisible Hordes

Not that this explanation comes without a price. The Yu-chi were not native to Sogdia, or probably even to Ferghana. However archaeological work clearly shows that both Bactria and Sogdia contained large nomadic populations well in advance of the Yu-chi migration. Two mentions are made in literary sources. The Roman author Arrian says that Darius gathered two thousand mailed horsemen. Another source tells us that nomads were gathering north of the Oxus in hte second century.

These large nomadic populations did exist, so where did they go when the Yu-chi arrived? The logical explanation that they were displaced ahead of the Yu-chi as a wave of Scythian invaders, and that they became the saca's of India is unacceptable for the reasons mentioned above. An alternative is that they were simply absorbed by the Yu-chi, and that the nomadic hordes, noted for their amorphous nature simply merged together. The Hsiung-nu certainly practiced this form of tribal confederacy, bring defeated enemies such as the Wu-Sun into an alliance with them. In the west the Alans were absorbed into other groups in the same way. The only supporting evidence that can be offered is the division of Bactria into 5 sections, possibly some of which represent a certain level of autonomy for these new members of the Yu-chi.


Neither explanation has enough evidence to make it completely convincing. In fact the evidence in places is slightly contradictory, our archaeology shows clearly nomads that our literary evidence does not appear to admit. Personally I feel a wave of invaders pushed ahead of the Yu-chi should have created more impact, and without a great deal more evidence of that impact I am inclined to believe that the famous Indo-Saca kings are really Indo-Parthian kings.

Further Note

(August 1999)

When I first stated my conclusion I was firm in the belief that no Scythian wave had ever occured. However, my conclusion was based on a belief that there was no evidence for a Scythian wave. My attention has since been drawn to a Han-Shu 96A.10b. This passage a cleary refers to a nomadic people other than the Yu-chi. The Sau as they are called could be Sycthians. If they are Scythians then the passage would mean that they invaded through Kashmir, not from southern Bactria. Unless Chi-pin is not Kashmir but a broader area of Northern India. What makes this seem plausible is that Zürcher 4 adds a note in his translation of this passage. The note reads: 'Then follows the description of the country of Chi-pin; its plants and trees; its fertility; arts and trades; commerce; use of coins adorned with a mounted figure on one side and a portrait on the other...' The coins described are those of the Indo-Parthians and the description seems to suit North-West India far better than Kashmir.

The Han-Shu was composed largely between 35 AD and 80 AD. So it seems that this could be a description of the Azes dynasty in India. There is still no evidence that this group was pushed ahead of the Yu-chi, and the passage does not say the Yu-chi were responsible for the Sai moving. It may indicate a seperate Scythian group in India before the Parthians invade. The passage could also be corrupted information and misleading. Either way it is considerable importance to anyone looking at the Scythian wave.


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