Approximate extent of East Iranian languages in the 1st century BC is shown in orange.
|Regions with significant populations|
|Scythian languages, East Iranian languages|
|Related ethnic groups|
Descendants: Alans, Ossetians
The Sarmatians (Latin: Sarmatæ or Sauromatæ, Greek: Σαρμάται, Σαυρομάται) were a large confederation of Iranian people during classical antiquity, flourishing from about the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD. They spoke Scythian, an Indo-European language from the Eastern Iranian family.
Originating in Central Asia, the Sarmatians started their westward migration around the 6th century BC, coming to dominate the closely related Scythians by the 2nd century BC. The Sarmatians differed from the Scythians in their veneration of the god of fire rather than god of nature, and their women's prominent role in warfare, which possibly served as the inspiration for the Amazons. At their greatest reported extent, around 1st century AD, these tribes ranged from the Vistula River to the mouth of the Danube and eastward to the Volga, bordering the shores of the Black and Caspian seas as well as the Caucasus to the south. Their territory, which was known as Sarmatia to Greco-Roman ethnographers, corresponded to the western part of greater Scythia (mostly modern Ukraine and Southern Russia, also to a smaller extent north eastern Balkans around Moldova). According to authors Arrowsmith, Fellowes and Graves Hansard in their book A Grammar of Ancient Geography published in 1832, Sarmatia had two parts, Sarmatia Europea  and Sarmatia Asiatica  covering a combined area of 503,000 sq mi or 1,302,764 km2.
In the 1st century AD the Sarmatians began encroaching upon the Roman Empire in alliance with Germanic tribes. In the 3rd century AD their dominance of the Pontic Steppe was broken by the Germanic Goths. With the Hunnic invasions of the 4th century, many Sarmatians joined the Goths and other Germanic tribes (Vandals) in the settlement of the Western Roman Empire. A related people to the Sarmatians known as the Alans survived in the North Caucasus into the Early Middle Ages, utlimately giving rise to the modern Ossetic ethnic group.
Sarmatae probably originated as just one of several tribal names of the Sarmatians, but one that Greco-Roman ethnography came to apply as an exonym to the entire group. Strabo in the 1st century names as the main tribes of the Sarmatians the Iazyges, the Roxolani, the Aorsi and the Siraces.
The Greek name Sarmatai sometimes appears as "Sauromatai", which is almost certainly no more than a variant of the same name. Nevertheless, historians often regard these as two separate peoples, while archaeologists habitually use the term 'Sauromatian' to identify the earliest phase of Sarmatian culture. Any idea that the name derives from the word lizard (sauros), linking to the Sarmatians' use of reptile-like scale armour and dragon standards, is almost certainly unfounded.
Greek authors of the 4th century (Pseudo-Scylax, Eudoxus of Cnidus) mention Syrmatae as the name of a people living at the Don, perhaps reflecting the ethnonym as it was pronounced in the final phase of Sarmatian culture. The Avesta mentions Sairima as a region "in the west". In the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, this appears as "Salm", the reputed ancestor of the European peoples.
The Sarmatians emerged in the 7th century BC in a region of the steppe to the east of the Don River and south of the Ural Mountains in Eastern Europe. For centuries they lived in relatively peaceful co-existence with their western neighbors the Scythians. Then, in the 3rd century BC, they fought with the Scythians on the Pontic steppe to the north of the Black Sea. The Sarmatians were to dominate these territories over the next five centuries. Pliny the Elder wrote that they ranged from the Vistula River in Poland to the Danube.
In 1947, Soviet archaeologist Boris Grakov defined a culture flourishing from the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD, 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. 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
While "Sarmatian" and "Sauromatian" are synonymous as ethnonyms, they are given different meanings purely by convention as archaeological technical terms.
In Hungary, a great Late Sarmatian pottery centre was reportedly unearthed between 2001 and 2006 near Budapest, in Üllő5 archaeological site. Typical grey, granular Üllő5 ceramics forms a distinct group of Sarmatian pottery found everywhere in the northcentral part of the Great Hungarian Plain region, indicating a lively trading activity. A 1998 paper on the study of glass beads found in Sarmatian graves suggests wide cultural and trade links.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Scythian-Sarmatian cultures may have given rise to the myth of Amazons. Graves of armed females have been found in southern Ukraine and Russia. David Anthony notes, "About 20% of Scythian-Sarmatian "warrior graves" on the lower Don and lower Volga contained females dressed for battle as if they were men, a phenomenon that probably inspired the Greek tales about the Amazons."
The Sarmatians spoke Scythian language. The numerous Iranian personal names in the Greek inscriptions from the Black Sea Coast indicate that the Sarmatians spoke a North-Eastern Iranian dialect ancestral to Alanian-Ossetian (see Scytho-Sarmatian).
Like the Scythians, Sarmatians were of a Caucasoid appearance. Sarmatian noblemen often reached 1.70–1.80 m (5 ft 7 in–5 ft 11 in) as measured from skeletons, and they had sturdy bones, long hair and beards.
The Alans who were a group of Sarmatian tribes according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus "Nearly all the Alani are men of great stature and beauty, their hair is somewhat yellow, their eyes are frighteningly fierce".
Herodotus (Histories 4.21) in the 5th century BC placed the land of the Sarmatians east of the Tanais, beginning at the corner of the Maeotian Lake, stretching northwards for fifteen days' journey, adjacent to the forested land of the Budinoi.
As seen in Roman depictions of Sarmatians, they are of caucasian types
Herodotus (4.110–117) gives a story of the Sauromatians' origin from an unfortunate marriage of a band of young Scythian men and a group of Amazons. In the story, some Amazons were captured in battle by Greeks in Pontus (northern Turkey) near the river Thermodon, and the captives were loaded into three boats. They overcame their captors while at sea, but were not able sailors. Their ships were blown north to the Maeotian Lake (the Sea of Azov) onto the shore of Scythia near the cliff region (today's southeastern Crimea). After encountering the Scythians and learning the Scythian language, they agreed to marry Scythian men, but only on the condition that they move away and not be required to follow the customs of Scythian women. According to Herodotus, the descendants of this band settled toward the northeast beyond the Tanais (Don) river and became the Sauromatians. Herodotus' account explains the origins of the Sarmatians' language as an "impure" form of Scythian and credits the unusual freedoms of Sauromatae women, including participation in warfare, as an inheritance from their supposed Amazon ancestors. Later writers refer to the "woman-ruled Sarmatae" (γυναικοκρατούμενοι). However, Herodotus' belief that the Sarmatians were descendants of mythological Amazons is very likely a fictional invention designed to explain certain idiosyncrasies of Sarmatian culture.
Their women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies, and they do not marry before they have performed the traditional sacred rites. A woman who takes to herself a husband no longer rides, unless she is compelled to do so by a general expedition. They have no right breast; for while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterize it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right
shoulder and right arm.
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).
Strabo also portrays the peoples of the region as being nomadic, or Hamaksoikoi, "wagon-dwellers" and Galaktophagoi, "milk-eaters" referring, 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.
Pliny the Elder writes (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 ...
According to Pliny, Scythian rule once extended as far as Germany. 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 were, therefore, a sub-group of the broader Scythian peoples.
All Germania is divided from Gaul, Raetia, and Pannonia by the Rhine and Danube rivers; from the Sarmatians and the Dacians by shared fear and mountains. The Ocean laps the rest, embracing wide bays and enormous stretches of islands. Just recently, we learned about certain tribes and kings, whom war brought to light.
According to Tacitus, 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).
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.
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. These facts are not necessarily incompatible with Tacitus, as the western Sarmatians might have kept their iron to themselves, it having been a scarce commodity on the plains.
In the late 4th century, Ammianus Marcellinus describes a severe defeat which Sarmatian raiders inflicted upon Roman forces in the province of Valeria in Pannonia in late AD 374. The Sarmatians almost destroyed two legions: one recruited from Moesia and one from Pannonia. The last had been sent to intercept a party of Sarmatians which had been in pursuit of a senior Roman officer named Aequitius. The two legions failed to coordinate, allowing the Sarmatians to catch them unprepared.
Decline in the 4th century
The Sarmatians remained dominant until the Gothic ascendancy in the Black Sea area. Goths attacked Sarmatian tribes on the north of the Danube in Dacia, what is today Romania. The Roman Emperor Constantine called his son Constantine II up from Gallia to run a campaign north of the Danube. In very cold weather, the Romans were victorious, killing 100,000 Goths and capturing Ariaricus the son of the Goth king.
In their efforts to halt the Gothic expansion and replace it with their own on the north of Lower Danube (present-day Romania), the Sarmatians armed their captives. After the Roman victory, however, the local population revolted against their Sarmatian masters, pushing them beyond the Roman border. Constantine, on whom the Sarmatians had called for help, defeated Limigantes, the leader of the revolt, and moved the Sarmatian population back in. In the Roman provinces, Sarmatian combatants were enlisted in the Roman army, whilst the rest of the population was distributed throughout Thrace, Macedonia and Italy. The Origo Constantini mentions 300,000 refugees resulting from this conflict. The emperor Constantine was subsequently attributed the title of Sarmaticus Maximus.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Huns expanded and conquered both the Sarmatians and the Germanic Tribes living between the Black Sea and the borders of the Roman Empire. From bases in modern day Hungary, the Huns ruled the entire former Sarmatian territory. Their various constituents flourished under Hunnish rule, fought for the Huns against a combination of Roman and Germanic troops, and went their own ways after the Battle of Chalons, the death of Attila and the appearance of the Chuvash ruling elements west of the Volga- current Russian territory.
Possible influence on Arthurian legends
Scholars C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas posited that the legends of King Arthur and The Holy Grail derive from Sarmatian legends. The authors find parallels between the Sarmatian legend of Batradz, a Sarmatian King commanding his companions to throw his magical sword into a lake and Arthur's instructions to Sir Bedivere to throw his magical sword Excalibur into a lake. The authors also use historical records to demonstrate the presence of a 2nd-century AD colony of Sarmatian veterans at Bremetennacum, in modern Lancashire, as a historical source for the legends entering Britain.
List of Sarmatian tribes
- Basileans
- Free Sarmatians
- Lemigantes
- Iaxamate
- Ancient Iranian peoples
- Clan of Ostoja
- Sinor, Dennis. "The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, Volume 1, p113.". 17 January 2015. Cambridge University Press 1990. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- J.Harmatta: "Scythians" in UNESCO Collection of History of Humanity – Volume III: From the Seventh Century BC to the Seventh Century AD. Routledge/UNESCO. 1996. pg. 182
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- "Sarmatian". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
- Apollonius (Argonautica, iii) envisaged the Sauromatai as the bitter foe of King Aietes of Colchis (modern Georgia).
- Arrowsmith, Fellowes, Hansard, A, B & G L (1832). A Grammar of Ancient Geography,: Compiled for the Use of King's College School (3 April 2006 ed.). Hansard London. p. 9. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
- Arrowsmith, Fellowes, Hansard, A, B & G L (1832). A Grammar of Ancient Geography,: Compiled for the Use of King's College School (3 April 2006 ed.). Hansard London. p. 15. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
- James Minahan, "One Europe, Many Nations", Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. pg 518: "The Ossetians, calling themselves Iristi and their homeland Iryston are the most northerly Iranian people. ... They are descended from a division of Sarmatians, the Alans who were pushed out of the Terek River lowlands and in the Caucasus foothills by invading Huns in the fourth century A.D.
- Richard Brzezinski and Mariusz Mielczarek (2002). The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450 (Men-At-Arms nr. 373). Oxford: Osprey Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-84176-485-6.
- Chemical Analyses of Sarmatian Glass Beads from Pokrovka, Russia, by Mark E. Hall and Leonid Yablonsky.
- Anthony, David W. (2007). The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05887-3.
- Handbuch der Orientalistik, Iranistik. By I. Gershevitch, O. Hansen, B. Spuler, M.J. Dresden, Prof M Boyce, M. Boyce Summary. E.J. Brill. 1968.
- Galen. De temperamentis 2. 5
- Day 2001, p. 55-57
- Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax, 70; cf. Geographi Graeci minores: Volume 1, p.58
- De Aere XVII
- Strabo's Geography, books V, VII, XI
- J. Harmatta, Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians, 1970, ch.1.2
- Germania omnis a Gallis Raetisque et Pannoniis Rheno et Danuvio fluminibus, a Sarmatis Dacisque mutuo metu aut montibus separatur: cetera Oceanus ambit, latos sinus et insularum inmensa spatia complectens, nuper cognitis quibusdam gentibus ac regibus, quos bellum aperuit.
- Description of Greece 1.21.5–6
- Amm. Marc. 29.6.13–14
- Origo Constantini 6.32 mentions the actions
- Eusebius, Vita Constantini, IV.6
- Charles Matson Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, Chapter X.
- Origo Constantini 6.32 mention the actions
- Barnes Victories of Constantine page 150–154
- Grant Constantine the Great pages 61–68
- Charles Manson Odahl Constantine and the Christian Empire Chapter X
- Littleton, C. Scott and Thomas, Ann C., "The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends ", The Journal of America Folklore, Vol. 91, No. 359, Jan.-Mar., 1978, American Folklore Society, pp. 513-527.
- Prichard Cowles, James. "Ethnography of Europe. 3d ed. p431. 1841". 17 January 2015. Houlston & Stoneman. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- "Nomads of the Steepes". March 2014. Regnal Chronologies. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
- Prichard Cowles, James. "Ethnography of Europe. 3d ed. p433.1841". 17 January 2015. Houlston & Stoneman, 1841. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- Richard Brzezinski and Mariusz Mielczarek, The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450 (Men-At-Arms nr. 373), Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002. ISBN 978-1-84176-485-6.
- Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. 2002. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines. Warner Books, New York. first Trade printing, 2003. ISBN 0-446-67983-6 (pbk).
- Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, Vladimir A. Bashilov, Leonid T. Yablonsky, Eds. Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley: Zinat Press 1995. ISBN 1-885979-00-2
- Day, John V. (2001). Indo-European origins: the anthropological evidence. Institute for the Study of Man. ISBN 0941694755. Retrieved March 2, 2015.
- Tadeusz Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (vol. 73 in series "Ancient People and Places") London: Thames & Hudson/New York: Praeger, 1970.
- Alexander Guagnini (1538–1614), Sarmatiae Europeae descriptio, Spira 1581.
- Bruno Genito, 1988, The Archaeological Cultures of the Sarmatians with a Preliminary Note on the Trial-Trenches at Gyoma 133: a Sarmatian Settlement in South-Eastern Hungary (Campaign 1985), Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli, Vol. 42, pp. 81–126. Napoli.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sarmatians.|
- Encyclopædia Britannica 1911: "Sarmatae"
- Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians
- Ptolemaic Map (Digital Scriptorium)
- Map of Sarmatia 1697
- Kurgans, Ritual Sites, and Settlements: Eurasian Bronze and Iron Age
- THE ANONYMOUS PILGRIM OF BORDEAUX (333 A.D.)
- Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Sarmatians