Tomyris(б.з.б. VIс.BC) is the legendary Queen of the Saka-Massagetae. She became known due to Herodotus’ writings “History”. The history of punishment of the Achaemedean king Cyrus by Queen Tomyris became a symbol of justice.


Unfortunately, the information about the life and activities of the Massagetae Queen Tomyris is available only in the writings of Greco-Roman authors, beginning with the Scythian stories of Herodotus which gives information about the circumstances of the war of Tomyris against Cyrus and ending with the writings of Strabo, Polyenus, Cassiodorus and Jordan who also wrote about it. For example, Jordan, a Gothic historian, mentions Tomiris as the Queen of Gothia (in English Tomyris, Queen of the Getae) and the founder of City of Toma, the former capital of Small Scythia for several centuries (now it is the City of Constanta, Romania).

Sometimes the women were at the head of their peoples among the nomads of the Aral-Caspian region. Thus, we know the Saka ruler Zarina and Massagetae Queen Tomyris from the chapters of history [1, p.138]. As S. A. Yatsenko, a researcher, notes, “First of all, warrior women were an element of important and exotic myths for many settled peoples of antiquity. In classical art, images of Amazons were an important category of “Other” along with exotic barbarians, giants, etc.” [2, p. 8]

According to one of the information Tomyris was a descendant of the Scythian leader Ishpakaya, great-granddaughter of Madia, granddaughter or daughter of the legendary king Sypyr (Spargapises).

According to the history of Herodotus, the Persian king Cyrus II the Great undertook a campaign against the Massagetae after the conquest of Babylon (539 BC). Cyrus made a fatal campaign to the East in 530. Evidently, the situation on the Eastern border required immediate measures. “Cyrus the Great threw against it 200 thousand soldiers along the Caspian Sea, and built powerful floating bridges with battle towers [3, p. 54] It is said in O. Zhanaydarov’s book “Legends of Ancient Kazakhstan”, that “The wife of the late Tsar – hero Rustam was the Queen of Massagetae. Her name was Tomyris. She was sent ambassadors by Cyrus under the pretext of relationship. However, Tomyris realized that Cyrus was not seeking her in marriage, but her Kingdom, and refused him. Then Cyrus was an overt war to Massagetae” [4]

Further events in ancient literature are described in legendary narratives about the courage of Queen Tomyris. Thus, Herodotus in his work “History” reports that Cyrus, crossing the Arax River, arranged a trap for the Massagetae and was able to capture Spargapises, the son of Queen Tomyris. Finding out about these events, Queen Tomyris sent a message to Cyrus: “Blood-thirsty Cyrus, … give me my son and leave this country with impunity … If you do not, I swear to you by the sun, as ruler of the Massagetae, that I will give you blood to drink, even though you are insatiable”. Further on Herodotus captive Spargapises persuades Cyrus to take off his shackles, and when he got free, he snatched the sword from the guard and killed himself.

When Queen Tomyris found out about this, she gathered a large army and marched against Cyrus. During the battle, most of the Persian army was destroyed. This battle Herodotus mentioned as “The most cruel and great”. According to the book of B. Zhandarbekov “Saka” women “Amazon” who rushed with the Queen Tomyris to the attack, deciding a battle in their favor played a decisive role in the battles. Cyrus himself of the Achaemenid dynasty [5, pp. 67-75] died in this battle just “having reigned for twenty-eight years. Tomyris filled the bag with human blood and ordered the body of Cyrus to be found among the fallen. Having found, she plunged his head into a bag and, taking the piss out of it, said: “Although I see and defeated you in battle, but you have caused me great grief, cunning robbed me of my son, and I will saturate you with blood, as threatened” [6] or so: “… You thirsted for blood, king of the Persians, so drink it now to!”(Bulat Dzhandarbekov “Tomyris”). The story of the battle may have been borrowed by Herodotus from both the Achaemenid Chronicles and, more likely, from Scythian tales.  The victory of the Massagetae/Scythians and the full defeat of the Persians in showdown fight was the result of the battle [7, pp. 184-210]. 

Ammianus Marcellinus, the Roman historian, gives more detailed information about this battle in his writings: ““Such, first of all, is Cyrus. He crossed the Bosporus with a great army; but the Scythian Queen Tomyris was revenged in the heart for her sons, and destroyed his army to the last man” (XXIII. 6. 7). The lines from the work of Herodotus (I. 204 – 211), which gives a very lengthy and full of details description of the campaign of Cyrus against the Massagetae, served as the basis for this favor of Ammianus. The fact that Ammianus considers Tomyris the Queen of the Scythians also he has some subtance (Herodotus himself writes about the Massagetae that “some consider them also Scythians” (I. 201))” [8, pp. 188-189]. There are many legends about the heroism of the Saka Queen Tomyris among the people.

There are other versions of Herodotus as well. For example, according to Ctesius, the ancient historian of Artaxex Mnemon, Cyrus II (Kurush) was wounded in the war with the derbies and died of his wound on the third day [9].  While this discrepancy, according to M. A. Dandamayev it is explained by the fact that the derbies were part of a large and powerful Massaget Union of tribes. Berosus, a Babylonian historian, claimed that Cyrus died in battle with the dakhs, who are also reproduced as Scythians. According to one version, the remains of Cyrus were returned to his homeland, where they were buried with honors in a special mausoleum in Pasargadae – the capital of his Empire founded by himself. The tomb has been surviving to the present day [10, pp. 11-16].

Perhaps, an illustrated description of these events is presented on one of the wall paintings of the 7th – early 8th centuries in Penjikent. At one time, A. M. Belenitsky believed that there is a very ancient story of legends, perhaps even going back to the history of Cyrus the Great and the Saka Queen Tomyris at the end of the 6th century BC. [11 pp. 47–48]

There are several versions as to the meaning of the name Tomyris. Both Iranian, Greek and Turkic interpretation of the name is given.

Greek Τόμυρίς, Persian Tahm-Rayiš from ancient Iranian Tahmirih means “Brave”. Since the historians who first wrote about Tomyris were Greeks, the Hellenistic form of her name is most commonly used. Proponents of the Turkic name Tomyris emphasize that the name Tomyris is derived from “temir”, which in translation from Turkic language means “iron” and is set to “break iron” or “iron bend”. In this context, the name Tomyris is identical to the Turkic name Damira.  There are also versions that the name Tomyris has something in common with the name Tamara. And in history we know as the Georgian Queen Tamara, who came from the Bagration dynasty. Also, there is a third version: “Tomyris” could be formed from the name “Tahmina” which means “ruling” in Uzbek and Kazakh”.

Herodotus, in his Massaget excursion, gives detailed information about the Massagetae, describing the course of the war between Queen Tomyris and Cyrus in detail. Herodotus writes, “As it is said, the Massagetae are a large and brave tribe. They live in the East towards sunrise across the Arax River from the Issedons. Others consider them also a Scythian tribe”. [12, pp. 184-210]

In general, information about the nomadic tribes of the Aral-Caspian region “known to the ancient world, are few and accidental. However, they are in fact the only written evidence of the ancient Central Asian nomads of the 6th-4th centuries BC, apart from brief mentions in ancient Persian inscriptions and the Avesta”. [13]. The ancient authors (in 6th-4th centuries BC) divided nomadic tribes into the following groups: “The desert and steppe regions of the West of Central Asia were occupied by one group of nomadic tribes as “Massagetae” or “Derbies”. They were also mentioned as “Scythians” during the campaigns of Alexander the Great””. [13, pp. 87-88]

According to the Behistun arrow-headed inscription, which was carved in 516 BC on the rock to commemorate the victories of the Persian king Darius I, it says: “The Saka tribes are divided into three groups: Saka-haomavarga, making the drink haomu; Saka-paradaraya – “overseas” or “river” Saka and Saka-tigrahauda – “wearing Pointy hats” (translation of ancient authors). In the geographical work of Arimaspey (7th century BC) notes: “Some Massagetae and Saka are already found everywhere throughout the vast area”. Aristaeus Proconesus, the Greek writer of the 7th century BC, mentions them, the Scythians-Saka “Of all the shooters in the world, the most skillful, not letting arrows at a venture”. Further, we find information about the Saka among the Latin writers Pompey Throg and Ptolemy [14].

As we can see, in terms of the designation of the various nomadic tribes living in Western Asia and the Black Sea region, there is a complete confusion, both in time and in the territorial framework of the tribes’ settlement. So, opponents of the Achaemenid are mentioned in different ways, for example, Herodotus names them Massagegs; Ctesias of Cnidus names them Derbies; Berosus names them Dai (Dakhs). The common name of all these tribes was the Hellenic ancient Greek name “Massagetae” or “Scythians” or the ancient Persian “Saka”. As S. G. Klyashtorny, a researcher, writes, “Massagetae is a common ancient name of the Aral Sea tribes that have a common genealogical tradition and, perhaps, a common eponym, i.e. a common ancestor, most often mythical, after whom the people are named” [15].

The Massagetae were a nomadic people who lived in the vast areas of Mangyshlak, Ustyurt, Northern Caspian and Aral Sea regions [16] (Uniquely, Strabo places Massagetae between the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea (which does not exclude their spread to the Eastern Aral Sea region)), and, within Achaemenid terminology could be considered as “Saka”. Although, “Some Greek authors mentioned generically “Scythians” (Diod. 2.44, Iust.1.8, Arr.Anab. IV.11.9, V.4.5), and others (for example, Herodotus) – did not, reserving for them only the designation “Massagetae””. This discrepancy of terms is compared with the provisions of Strabo “on the using of the names “Saka” and “Massagetae” to the tribes on the other side of the Caspian Sea, from which it is again concluded that Strabo here speaks of a certain Transcaspian people, who are mentioned as “Scythians” (properly: “Saka”), then “Massagetae” – i.e., the Massagetae of Herodotus. Thus it is confirmed, it would seem that the Massagetae could relate to the community of “Scythians/Saka”. [17]. Further, A.A. Nemirovsky, a researcher, writes that “Meanwhile, Herodotus, repeatedly and in detail mentioning “Massagetae” and underlined (Hdt. I, 215-216; Hdt. IV, 11) distinguishing them from the “Scythians” / “Saka” (as he says the Persians name the “Scythians”, Hdt.VII, 64), does not include the Massagetae, unlike the Saka, nor in the list of peoples dependent on the Achaemenids under Darius (Hdt. III, 89-97), nor in the list of peoples represented in the army of Xerxes (Hdt. VII, 61-96). Thus, according to Herodotus, the Massagetae as a whole are not included in the Achaemenid power [17, pp. 220-221].

Another unexpected fact is that the Saka are given in many sources as ancient Iranian nomadic tribes. But A. N. Garkavets, a well-known researcher, in new readings of Issyk runic inscriptions, reveals that in the 4th century BC the Turkic in the Great Steppe was the language of international communication, and for most of its inhabitants also as a native language [18].

The analysis of the use of the ethnonym “Massagetae” by the historian Procopius shows us that this term obviously serves Procopius as a kind of military terminustechnicus. Procopius emphasizes the most militarily prominent part of the nomadic world by means of this term [19]. Saka-Massagetae, controlling a significant part of Central Asia, traditionally acted as an active factor of local (regional) policy [10, pp. 11-12], while being in good relations with the Achaemenids.

Besides Cyrus, Darius I fought with the Saka in 519-518 BC, and he was defeated. At this time the Saka were commanded by three kings Sakesfar, Amork and Tomyris. But in 520-518 BC Darius still managed to put under the command of some Saka. If “Cyrus the Great threw to war with the Saka 200 thousand soldiers along the Caspian Sea, built powerful floating bridges with battle towers and was defeated in 529 by the Northern Queen Tomyris, then in 512 BC Darius the Great threw against Scythia up to 800 thousand soldiers and 600 warships. He reached the Don, but fled away in disgrace. In those years, the riches of the Scythian Treasury and the kingdoms included in the power are estimated at 28 – 96 thousand gold talents”. [3]

The war with Saka-Massagetae was a consequence of the fact that “after the death of Cambyses in Egypt in 522 BC there was an internal conflict in the state, connected with confusion of succession to the throne. In the struggle that ended with the accession of Darius I Hystaspes, the Central Asian elites, apparently, supported his opponent – whether the younger son of Cyrus Bardia, or the magician Gaumata, representing himself as the named Prince. The repression of Darius, which fell on Central Asia, was the result of the loss of the internal political struggle”. [20]

The Saka epic begins with the Cimmerian invasion in the 8th-7th centuries in the Western Asia. Then the return campaigns of the Achaemenid kings Cyrus and Darius are against the Saka-Massagetae. “If the Massagetae are really mentioned in the Achaemenid inscriptions, the mighty tribal Alliance of the Dakhs (Dai) could most claim to be identified with them). In 3rd century BC the name of Dakhs (Dai) completely forces out the older common name as Massagetae. In 238 BC, one of the Dai tribes, the parnae (Parthians), led by the Arshakids, established a new Empire in Iran, replacing the heirs of Alexander” [15]. Thus, Massagetae finally become Dakhs and the three-century history of the evolution of the name of the tribe Massagetae comes to an end. 


We can find familiar motifs and significant similarities in the folklore of the Central Asian peoples (Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Turkmens, etc.) as distant echoes of the feat of the Massagetae Queen Tomyris. For example, the images of the Massagetae Queen Tomyris and the Saka Queen Zarina are seen behind the images of the Karakalpak epic heroine Gulayim and the power ruler of Khorezm Tyurabek-kanym.

The story of the punishment of the bloodthirsty Cyrus by Queen Tomyris became a symbol of justice in many plots, for example, many artists painted pictures on this subject with the image of Queen Tomyris which then became an ornament in the halls of the courts. 

In general, the tribes of the Massagetae Confederation became the main ancient ethno-cultural substrate, manifested in the culture of the later nomadic ethnic groups of the region.

S. E. Azhigali, a well-known researcher, notes that “there are a number of monuments of the 5th – 2nd centuries BC left by Massagetae and their descendants in the North-Eastern Caspian region, including the “Royal” mounds on Buzachi Peninsula, Emba, the unique sanctuary of Baite on Ustyurt and the Dikiltas complex on Tyupkaragan. A group of remarkable monuments connected with the Massagetae ethnic runtime is known in the South-Eastern Aral Sea region: the late constructions of the Tagisken necropolis (Tupsken), the mausoleum of Balanda II, etc.” [16].

Most likely, the Saka are the successors of the tradition of the tribes of the Andronov culture. Saka-Massagetae became the creators of the Pazyryk culture, the core of which was located in the Altai, and then the Saka who moved to settle along the Middle Syrdarya basin, in the valley of the Akhangaran River captured the monuments of the Burgulyuk archaeological culture. Saka-Massagetae tribes left the archaeological Kayrakkum culture in the basin of the Middle Syrdarya, which researchers refer to the late Bronze Age and Early Iron. In particular, the unique Saka-Scythian classical culture mentioned as “animal style” should be noted in this galaxy of achievements. “Animal style” was the result of close contacts of the Saka-Scythians with different peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia [21].

So, the mound “Issyk”, dug in 1969-1970, presented a unique opportunity to research the features of the “animal” ornamentation of the Saka of Semirechye in detail. In the book “Saka” the “Issyk” young man became identified with the son of Queen Tomyris Spargapises due to the skillful artistic presentation of B. Zhandarbekov. A.K. Akishev, a well-known Kazakh researcher of the “Issyk” Kurgan, notes that the art of the “animal style” of the Saka of Semirechye “belongs to a peculiar direction in the Scythian-Siberian art of the peoples who inhabited the “band of mountains” of Altai, East Kazakhstan, Semirechye and Central Asia. He is appropriated to the features of the artistic method characterized by the “style of quotations” of Achaemenid art as the processing of the Central Asian, especially Assyrian and Iranian traditions in the local spirit, in harmony with the purely “Altaic” features of the “animal style” [22]. Most of the items of “animal style” of the Issyk leader’s decoration were ritual. Thus, “the design of the headdress reflected the idea of three spheres with the “world tree” sprouting through them”. The images of animals-protectors of mountain areas and herds (argali, goat) and zoomorphic spirits and souls were included in the complex of the cult of the Supreme God, in contact with the cattle-breeding complex of the cult of fertility” [22, pp.58-59].

The strategy and tactics of combat became another achievement of Saka-Massagetae culture. As S. S. Ivanov notes, “it can be reconstructed according to the authors of antiquity that the battles of the 6th – 5th centuries BC took place as follows: the battle began with the main body of light cavalrymen rushing to the enemy and at full gallop fired at him a lot of arrows, trying to inflict maximum damage on him, and sharply turned back. Such rapid raids could be repeated several times. Then a considerable part of the warriors dismounted, joined with the infantry, if any, and fell upon the enemy, who was considerably depleted, strained by the attack, and found contact in a stubborn hand-to-hand fight. A feigned retreat was another tactic used by the Saka-Massagetae to lure enemy units into a carefully disguised ambush, or to destroy small groups that had broken out in pursuit of the supposedly panicked retreating Saka warriors [23].

The attack of the cavalrymen, built by Klin, became a feature of the Saka-Massagetae military art which decided the contest in favor of Satyr during the battle on the Fath River – a stream tributary of the Lower Kuban, which came down to us a few centuries later due to Diodorus Sicilian [24]. The development of the martial art of the Parthian cataphracts, the massive use of cavalry and primarily heavy cavalry was another contribution. In this connection, S. Klyashtorny, a researcher, notes that “It is necessary to pay attention to an important detail of the Dakhs’ armament that is the armor protected the riders and their horses. Herodotus notes this kind of double armor a century earlier only in the Massagetae: “They put copper shells on horses’ chests” [Herodotus, 1,215]. The appearance of cataphractarii-cavaliers in heavy plate armor and on armored horses, is noted not only by written sources, but also documented by archaeological finds in the country of Dakhs and Massagetae. This kind of protective armor was preserved in the following centuries in the related Dakhs Parthians, but is not noted in other steppe tribes” [15].

Many ancient authors, describing the campaigns of the Persians in Greece noted the participation of Central Asian warriors from among the Saka-Massagetae. So Saka were marked during the campaign of Darius I against the Athens state in the famous battle of Marathon. “The Saka infantry forces are mentioned in the description of the battle in the Thermopylae passage, the Bactrians and the Saka fought at Plataea [Herodotus, VIII, 113; ІХ, 31, 71]. A hundred and fifty years later, the Central Asian troops joined the Persian army fighting against the forces of Alexander the Great by order or agreement of the last Achaemenid king Darius III Codoman” [10, pp. 14-15].


The history of Tomyris was very popular and reflected in the tradition of Western art. So the plot of Herodotus seemed very impressive for medieval artists such as, Rubens, Allegrini, Luca Ferrari and Mattia Preti. Gustave Moreau and sculptor Severo Calzetta da Ravenna are among those who depicted Tomyris and the events in her life.

Peter Paul Rubens wrote Tomyris twice, in 1620 and 1622.

“Tomiris with the head of Cyrus.” 1620. The Louvre.

“Tomiris with the head of Cyrus.” 1622. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA


Portrait of Tomiris by Andrea del Castaño, 15th century

Tomiris is assigned the role of the leader of the Scythians in the computer game Civilization VI. Kazakhstani film Studio “Kazakhfilm” (2019) made a feature film about the heroics of “Tomyris” where Akan Satayev became the Director of this film. Tomyris Street in Shymkent is named after Tomyris. In Astronomy, the asteroid (590) Tomyris, discovered in 1906, is named after Queen Tomyris. In Kazakhstan the name Tomyris became very popular in honor of the Massagetae Queen Tomyris.

A monument was erected in honor of the Massagetae Queen Tomyris in the capital of Kazakhstan –  Nur-Sultan.

Saka mounds dating from the 7th – 5th centuries BC are the memory and the most remarkable feature of the landscape of Almaty region. They form chains, clusters and burial mounds. The most famous among them are Besshatyr, Issyk, Talgar, Borolday, Novoalekseyevsky, Kugaly, Turgen, Chilik, Kegen, and Kargaly.  The famous Besshatyr barrows in the Ili River valley and the Issyk barrow, rare in richness of finds, are a vivid reminder of the Saka culture. “A large Besshatyr mound with a diameter of 104 m and a height of 17 m, surrounded by a shaft, is a genuine architectural structure. A burial chamber made of the trunks of Tien Shan firs was built inside the mound. Unfortunately, these “Royal” tombs were robbed in ancient times” [14. 15].

Thus, Queen Tomyris made a great contribution to the history and culture not only of the Great Steppe, but also to the world history and culture of mankind.


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Avtor: Izbairov A.K., Candidate of Historical Sciences