Sarmatians

Sarmatia Europæa" separated from "Sarmatia Asiatica" by the Tanais (the River Don), based on Greek literary sources, in a map printed in London, ca 1770.

When one crosses the Tanais, one is no longer in Scythia; the first region on crossing is that of the Sauromatae, who, beginning at the upper end of the Palus Maeotis, stretch northward a distance of fifteen days’ journey, inhabiting a country which is entirely bare of trees, whether wild or cultivated. Above them, possessing the second region, dwell the Budini, whose territory is thickly wooded with trees of every kind. Herodotus Book 4

Sarmatians, Sarmatae or Sauromatae were a multi-ethnic confederacy mentioned in classical authors from Herodotus onward. Their major element in the south was undoubtedly Iranian, and perhaps in prehistory there was a founding Sarmatian tribe, or even two tribes, the Sarmatian and Sauromatian.

In history, however, many tribes were under the name, which was Sarmatian to some, and Sauromatian to others. Some authors say that they were the same. They ranged at greatest reported extent from the line of the Vistula and the mouth of the Danube eastward to the Volga, and from the mysterious domain of the Hyperboreans in the north southward to the shores of the Black and Caspian seas, including the region between them as far as the Caucasus mountains.

The full panoply of peoples under the aegis of the Sarmatians must have spoken many languages, most Indo-European, some not; but it is perhaps no coincidence that the boundary between the so-called centum and satem languages apparently fell at the European border of the Sarmatians. The centum speakers seem to have insisted on the distinction. The Sarmatians flourished in a timespan beginning before the earliest historical sources of Europe, and they endured until the arrival of the Huns. That event shattered whatever political unity they still had, causing their constituent peoples to go their own ways.

Name

Not many serious linguists are willing to take on the name of the Sarmatians professionally, the main problem being the difference between Greek Sauro- and Latin Sar-. One can always find proponents of the hypothesis that two distinct peoples existed, the Sauromatae and the Sarmatae. This is not a popular hypothesis, as both peoples would have to be using many of the same tribal names. Moreover, Jordanes, a churchman of mixed Gothic and Sarmatian background, states that they were the same.

There is a suggestion in Lubotsky's Indo-Aryan Inherited Lexicon (on the Leiden University IED site) that the name is related to the Avestan zarema-, "old", where the e is the indefinite sound (like the a in sofa). This is the same zar- that appears in Zarathustra. The exact sense is not clear, but words with that root can mean "senior" and "undying" (through being very old). This word has the advantage of being in the most appropriate language and of being able to be the source of both Sar- and Sauro-.

The Indo-European root, which is the *gerh- of Julius Pokorny, "old", where the g is palatal and the h is laryngeal number 2, open out exciting speculations. The word Greek, Latin Graeci, is from the same root, originating from an obscure Balkan tribe, the Graioi, which the ancients took to be "the old ones." In other words, Sarmatian is the satem equivalent of centum Greek. A genetic commonality would require an original in Proto-Indo-European. Such a connection is speculative at this point. The Iranians, however, were the last Indo-Europeans on what is thought by many to have been the original range in Kazakhstan. The region now is occupied mainly by Turkic speakers.

There are suggestions that Sarmatian came from the Turkic or Finno-Ugrian groups, such as some early form of Hungarian. These suggestions have not so far been generally accepted, as they do not account for the large number of Indo-European tribes once under the name before the dominance of the Huns.

History

Herodotus

Herodotus (4.21) in the 5th century BC placed the Sarmatians of which he knew on the eastern boundary of Scythia beyond the Tanais (Don) on a treeless steppe. Those Sarmatians, being in the early Iranian range of south Russia, were probably Iranian people akin to the Scythians/Saka. The numerous Iranian personal names in the Greek inscriptions from the Black Sea Coast indicate that the Sarmatians there spoke a north-eastern Iranian dialect related to Sogdian and Ossetic.

Herodotus (4.110-117) reports a tale of the origin of the Sauromatae (Sauromates in the Greek of Herodotus), as the descendants of a band of young Scythian men and a group of Amazons. Herodotus' account, in a way, explains the origins of the Sarmatians' north-eastern Iranian language (as an impure form of Scythian). Moreover, it explains the unusual freedoms of Sauromatae women, including participation in warfare, which is deemed as an inheritance from their Amazon ancestors. Later writers call some of them the "woman-ruled Sarmatae" (γυναικοκρατούμενοι). Hippocrates (De Aere, etc., 24) classes them as Scythian.

Herodotus describes the Sarmatians' physical appearance as blond, stout and tanned; in short, pretty much as the Scythians and Thracians were seen by the other classical authors.

Strabo


Sarmatian wagon model

l Strabo mentions the Sarmatians in a number of places, never saying very much about them. He uses both Sarmatai and Sauromatai, but never together, and never suggesting that they are different peoples. He often pairs Sarmatians and Scythians in reference to a series of ethnic names, never stating which is which, as though Sarmatian or Scythian could apply equally to them all.

In Strabo the Sarmatians extend from above the Danube eastward to the Volga, and from north of the Dnepr into the Caucasus, where, he says, they are called Caucasii like everyone else there. This statement indicates that the Alans already had a home in the Caucasus, without waiting for the Huns to push them there.

Even more significantly he points to a Celtic admixture in the region of the Basternae, who, he says, are of Germanic origin. The Celtic Boii, Scordisci and Taurisci are there. A fourth ethnic element being melted in are the Thracians (7.3.2). Moreover, the peoples toward the north are Keltoskythai, "Celtic Scythians" (11.6.2). We know now from language studies that the Celts did play a significant role in Slavic ethnogenesis. Perhaps the words of Strabo are telling us between the lines that it was happening in his time.

Strabo also portrays the peoples of the region as being nomadic, or Hamaksoikoi, "wagon-dwellers" and Galaktophagoi, "milk-eaters" refering, no doubt, to the universal koumiss eaten in historical times. The wagons were used for porting tents made of felt, which must have been the yurts used universally by Asian nomads before pick-up trucks and mobile homes, and are still used in some locations.

Tacitus

Sarmatian clothes

In Tacitus (Germania) we read of "mutual fear" between the Germans and the Sarmatians (Sarmati) and Dacians (ch.1). Those Sarmatians had to have been much further west than the Don River. We also read that, like the Persians, the Sarmatians wore long, flowing robes (ch 17). Moreover, the Sarmatians exacted tribute from the Cotini and Osi, and iron from the Cotini (ch. 43), "to their shame" (presumably because they could have used the iron to arm themselves and resist). It is no surprise to find the Sarmatians in the last chapter in which they are mentioned (ch. 46) called "squalid", "slovenly", "ugly", which shows that the Romans shared the Germanic fear of them. Tacitus also characterizes them as roving nomadically over the mountains and forests of east Europe.

Pliny the elder

Tacitus is not the only Roman military man to have been interested in the Sarmatians; the admiral, Pliny the Elder, relying on intelligence from Roman military stations in the north (by that time amber from the Baltic was being purchased by Roman agents on location), provides the most defining statement regarding the Sarmatians (4.12.79-81):

From this point (the mouth of the Danube) all the races in general are Scythian, though various sections have occupied the lands adjacent to the coast, in one place the Getae ... at another the Sarmatae ... Agrippa describes the whole of this area from the Danube to the sea ... as far as the river Vistula in the direction of the Sarmatian desert ... The name of the Scythians has spread in every direction, as far as the Sarmatae and the Germans, but this old designation has not continued for any except the most outlying sections ....

What this passage seems to tell us is that the Scythians or Scythian rule once extended even to the Germans, but now remained only in the far districts. Jordanes supports this hypothesis by telling us on the one hand that he was familiar with the Geography of Ptolemy, which includes the entire Balto-Slavic territory in Sarmatia, and on the other that this same region was Scythia. By Sarmatia Jordanes means only the Aryan territory. The Sarmatians therefore did come from the Scythians.

Pausanias

Sarmatian Cataphract from Tanais: Marble block with the image of a horseman (2nd century A.D.)

Marble 40х35 cm, from the ancient city of Tanais on the Don. The horseman is in the garb of a Sarmatian or Alan mounted warrior: long scale armour held on by a broad belt, a fluttering cloak with fibula brooch, trousers tucked into soft boots, and a rounded conical helmet. His main weapon is a lance kontos. According to the Greek inscription, the image depicts a historical person, Triphon, the deputy [?] of the ruler of the Bosporus in the ancient city of Tanais. Compare Pausanias' description of armor (text below).

Later, Pausanias, viewing votive offerings near the Athenian Acropolis in the 2nd century A.D. (Description of Greece 1.21.5-6), found among them

a Sauromatic breastplate.

On seeing this a man will say that no less than Greeks are foreigners skilled in the arts: for the Sauromatae have no iron, neither mined by themselves nor yet imported. They have, in fact, no dealings at all with the foreigners around them. To meet this deficiency they have contrived inventions. In place of iron they use bone for their spear-blades, and cornel-wood for their bows and arrows, with bone points for the arrows. They throw a lasso round any enemy they meet, and then turning round their horses upset the enemy caught in the lasso.

Their breastplates they make in the following fashion. Each man keeps many mares, since the land is not divided into private allotments, nor does it bear any thing except wild trees, as the people are nomads. These mares they not only use for war, but also sacrifice them to the local gods and eat them for food. Their hoofs they collect, clean, split, and make from them as it were python scales. Whoever has never seen a python must at least have seen a pine-cone still green. He will not be mistaken if he liken the product from the hoof to the segments that are seen on the pine-cone. These pieces they bore and stitch together with the sinews of horses and oxen, and then use them as breastplates that are as handsome and strong as those of the Greeks. For they can withstand blows of missiles and those struck in close combat.

Pausanias' description is well borne out in a relief from Tanais, illustation top right. These facts are not necessarily incompatible with Tacitus, as the Sarmatians on the west might have kept their iron to themselves, it having been a scarce commodity on the plains. If true, this circumstance argues for a lack of central government or even for bad communication (as opposed to the Persians).

Pontic inscriptions

The greater part of the barbarian names occurring in the inscriptions of Olbia, Tanais and Panticapaeum are supposed to be Sarmatian, and as they have been well explained from the Iranian language now spoken by the Ossetians of the Caucasus (the Ossetic language), these are supposed to be the modern representatives of the Sarmatians and can be shown to have a direct connection with the Alans, one of their tribes.

Ptolemy

By the 3rd century BC, the Sarmatian name appears to have supplanted the Scythian in the plains of what is now south Ukraine. The geographer, Ptolemy, reports them at what must be their maximum extent, divided into adjoining European and central Asian sections. Considering the overlap of tribal names between the Scythians and the Sarmatians, no new displacements probably took place. The people were the same Indo-Europeans they used to be, but now under yet another name.

Ammianus Marcellinus

Sarmatians were still a force the Romans had to reckon with in the late 4th century A.D. Ammianus Marcellinus (29.6.13-14) describes a severe defeat, which Sarmatian raiders inflicted upon Roman forces in the province of Valeria in Pannonia in late 374 A.D. The Sarmatians almost annihilated both a legion recruited from Moesia and one from Pannonia, which had been sent to intercept a party of Sarmatians who had been pursuing a senior Roman officer named Aequitius deep into Roman territory. The two legions failed to coordinate and their quarrelling allowed the Sarmatians to catch them unprepared and deal a stunning blow.

End

The Sarmatians remained dominant until the Gothic ascendance in the Black Sea area and then disappeared at the Hunnish destruction of the Gothic empire and subsequent invasion of central Europe. From bases in Hungary the Huns ruled the entire former Sarmatian territory. Their various constituents enjoyed a floruit under Hunnish rule, fought for the Huns against a combination of Romans and Germanics, and went their own ways after the Battle of Chalons (a stand-off), the death of Attila and the disappearance of the Chuvash ruling elements west of the Volga. They played a significant part in the rise of early Russia.

Sarmatian tribes

Below is a list of tribes considered by some ancient writer respected as an authority to be among the people called Sarmatian, or to be in territory considered Sarmatian. Note that the political and ethnic affiliations of the Sarmatians as well as their territory varied somewhat over the centuries. Some of the ethnic groups or tribal entities listed by one author may be considered part of some other group by another. Moreover the Sarmatians were not always everywhere distinct from other groups, most notably the Scythian, from whom some think they came.

On the whole however the ancients recognized a separate unity, whether of political affiliations, language, or both, called the Sarmatian. We do not know its languages for certain. From its location, it must have included some form of Balto-Slavic, but Iranians were part of the range as well. Some of the names are like names in other regions. They are not necessarily speakers of languages in those regions, as they may have assimilated, or the name may refer to a linguistically related people.

  • Abii, Achaei, Acibi, Agathyrsi, Agoritae, Alauni, Alontae, Amadoci, Amaxobi, Amazones, Aorsi, Anartophracti, Arichi, Arsietae, Asaei, Aspurgeani, Atmoni, Avarini
  • Basilici, Basternae, Biessi, Bosporani, Bodini, Borusci, Burgiones
  • Carbones, Careotae, Cariones, Carpiani, Caucasii, Cercitae, Chaenides, Chuni, Cimmeri, Coestoboci, Conapseni
  • Diduri
  • Exobygitae
  • Finni
  • Hamaksoikoi, Heniochi, Hippophagi
  • Galactophagi, Galindae, Gelones, Gerri, Gevini, Greater Venedae, Gythones
  • Hippemolgi, Hippopodes, Hyperboreans
  • Iaxamatae, Iazyges, Igylliones, Isondae
  • Materi, Melanchlaeni, Melanchlani, Metibi, Modoca, Mysi
  • Nasci, Navari, Nesioti
  • Ombrones, Ophlones, Orinei, Osili, Ossi
  • Pagyritae, Perierbidi, Peucini, Piengitae, Phrungundiones, Phthirophagi, Psessi
  • Rheucanali, Rhoxolani
  • Saboci, Sacani, Sali, Sargati, Savari, Scythian Alani, Senaraei, Serbi, Sidoni, Siraceni, Stavani, Sturni, Suani, Suanocolchi, Suardeni, Sudini, Sulones
  • Tanaitae, Tauroscythae, Thatemeotae, Tigri, Toreccadae, Transmontani, Tusci, Tyrambae, Tyrangitae
  • Udae
  • Vali, Veltae, Venedae, Vibiones
  • Zacatae, Zinchi

Archaeology and ethnology

There is an archaeology of the Alans, which has been labeled the archaeology of the Sarmatians. In 1947 B.N. Grakov defined a culture apparent in late kurgan graves, sometimes reusing part of much older kurgans. It is a nomadic steppe culture ranging from the Black Sea to beyond the Volga, and is especially evident at two of the major sites at Kardaielova and Chernaya in the trans-Uralic steppe.

The date of the culture: from the 7th century BC to the 4th century AD, and the location, is right for the Sarmatians. Accordingly Grakov defined four phases:

  • Sauromatian, 6th-5th centuries BC
  • Early Sarmatian, 4th-2nd centuries BC
  • Middle Sarmatian, late 2nd century BC to late 2nd century AD
  • Late Sarmatian: late 2nd century AD to 4th century AD

The Sarmatians of Ptolemy fall into the Middle Sarmatian period. However, Grakov’s Sarmatian does not extend at all into the Balto-Slavic range, where the two elements have their own archaeologies descending to the Balts and the Slavs. One might therefore conclude that the Alans were the dominant element of the confederacy.

Archaeology springs a few surprises on students of the Roman empire. In the Roman authors the existence of the Chinese is little suspected. Many earlier scholars concluded that the Chinese were unknown to the Romans. And yet, they appear in Ptolemy as the Seres, to the east of the Scyths, and Ptolemy was certainly a favorite text of late Roman students and scholars. Ptolemy seems to have been familiar with most of the far east as well as central Asia and the central Asian subcontinent.

Perhaps the peoples there were too remote for serious consideration; however, they were not at all remote to the Alans. Alanic women of the Middle and Late Sarmatian Periods wore pendant hand mirrors imitating Chinese mirrors of the same period. They were ornate bronze disks silvered or tinned on one side.

The decorative motivs are reminiscent of Scythian art with similarities to both Chinese and Mycenaean Greek themes. Similar mirrors are known from Japan. Alanic women decorated their clothing and shoes with beads of glass and precious stones embroidered into the cloth, many of which by analysis have been traced to a Chinese origin. And yet the remains of the Alans indicate they were entirely Europoid in appearance.

One might presume a trade intermediary, which kept the Alans from intermarriage with the Chinese for the times. Authors such as Jordanes (a Gothicised Alan) and Ammianus Marcellinus lead us to believe that the Huns burst in upon the Ostrogoths completely by surprise from totally unknown regions to the east containing horrible monsters and fearsome innumerable enemies on horseback. This view must be old wives’tales from unfortunate Gothic refugee dependents.

In fact Ptolemy mentions the Chuni as one of the peoples in the Sarmatian domain. Scholars did not know what to make of this, or of the Serbi, who were located on the Volga. The consensus now is that the Serbi were early Serbs, who were nomadic, and the Chuni were Huns. The latter were not only known to the Sarmatians and therefore to the Goths, but were subordinate to each in turn.

Already anchored in the west in east Europe, the Huns were located to the north of the Alans and extended east to the borders of the Han Dynasty. These Huns were quite peaceful trading partners of the Alans. Their archaeology and mode of life is nearly indistinguishable from that of the Alans. The various peoples of the extensive eastern plains did own distinctive bronze kettles. Also, the graves of the people of central Asia, inluding those of the Huns, include remains that many believe are of mixed features, just as are the peoples of central Asia today.

Whatever happened in the east to bring warriors from there upon the Alans did not introduce a new people to the steppes or to Europe. As far as the Sarmatians are concerned, the Hunnic augment from the east only worked an ethnic reversal of dominance. Some Alans chose to flee to the Romans and others to fight for the Huns. The former disappeared into Europe long ago, while the latter remain in the Caucasus region.

The Polish idea of "Sarmatians"


Polish Szlachcic. Painting by Jan Piotr Norblin.Main article: Sarmatism

"Sarmatism" (Polish: sarmatyzm) was the name of the lifestyle and culture of the szlachta (gentry) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from at least the 16th century to the end of the 18th century. The name and the culture were reflected in contemporary Polish literature, like that of Jan Chryzostom Pasek's Memoirs or poems of Wacław Potocki. Szlachta wore long coats trimmed with fur (żupany) and thigh-high boots, and bore sabres (szable), the "Sarmatian" costume they liked to be painted in, proclaiming their link to their presumed legendary ancestors, the historic Sarmatians, and the cultural ideology that sustained their connections with a nobility on horseback, equals among themselves (the "Golden Freedom") and invincible to foreigners (according to Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory 1995, p. 38). Sarmatia (Polish: Sarmacja) was also the unofficial, semi-legendary and poetic name of the Commonwealth, which became fashionable in the 17th century, designating qualities associated with the literate citizenry of the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In contemporary Poland, "Sarmatian" (sarmacki) is a form of ironic self-identification, and is sometimes used as a synonym for the Polish national character.

Recent research

Kazakh shepherd south of Aqtöbe, western Kazakhstan

In a recent excavation of Sarmatian sites by Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, a tomb was found wherein female warriors were buried, thus lending some credence to the myths about the Amazons. Following the excavation in 2003 by Dr. Davis-Kimball, she and Dr. Joachim Burger compared the genetic evidence from the site with the nomadic Kazakhs, and have found a striking genetic link – verified later by the University of Cambridge [1] – and lending credence to the long-held thesis that the ancient Turkic people who expanded into this region neither exterminated nor completely drove out the original Iranian inhabitants, but indeed assimilated a significant number of them.

A recent paper on the study of glass beads found in Sarmatian graves suggests wide cultural and trade links [2].

Trivia

"Sarmatian Knights" were prominently featured in the 2004 film King Arthur.

References

  • Brzezinski, R., et al, The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450 (in series Men-At-Arms 373) ISBN 184176485X
  • Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. 2002. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines. Warner Books, New York. 1st Trade printing, 2003. ISBN 0-446-67983-6 (pbk).
  • Tadeusz Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (vol. 73 in series "Ancient People and Places") Praeger Publishers, 1970

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