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The migrations of the Alans during the 4th–5th centuries AD, from their homeland in the North Caucasus. Major settlement areas are shown in yellow, Alan civilian emigration in red, and military campaigns in orange.

The Alans, or the Alani, occasionally termed Alauni or Halani were an Iranian nomadic pastoral people of antiquity.[1][2][3][4][5]

The name Alan is an Iranian dialectical form of Aryan, a common self-designation of the Indo-Iranians.[2] Possibly related to the Massagetae, the Alans have been connected by modern historians with the Central Asian Yancai and Aorsi of Chinese and Roman sources respectively.[6] Having migrated westwards and become dominant among the Sarmatians on the Pontic Steppe, they are mentioned by Persian and Roman sources in the 1st century AD.[1] At the time they had settled the region north of the Black Sea, and frequently raided the Parthian Empire and the Caucasian provinces of the Roman Empire.[1] In 215-250 AD their power on the Pontic Steppe was broken by the Goths.[4]

Upon the Hunnic defeat of the Goths on the Pontic Steppe around 375 AD, many of the Alans migrated westwards along with various Germanic tribes. They crossed the Rhine in 406 AD along with the Vandals and Suebi, settling in Orléans and Valence. Around 409 AD they joined the Vandals and Suebi in the crossing of the Pyrenees into the Iberian Peninsula, settling in Lusitania and Carthaginiensis.[7] The Iberian Alans were soundly defeated by the Visigoths 418 AD, and subsequently surrendered their authority to the Hasdingi Vandals.[8] In 428 AD, the Vandals and Alans crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into North Africa, where they founded a powerful kingdom which lasted until its conquest by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD.[8]

The Alans who remained under Hunnic rule founded a powerful kingdom in the North Caucasus in the Middle Ages, which ended with the Mongol invasions in the 13th century AD. These Alans are said to be the ancestors of the modern Ossetians.[1]

The Alans spoke an Eastern Iranian language which derived from Scytho-Sarmatian and which in turn evolved into modern Ossetian.[2][9][10]


The various forms of Alan — Greek: Ἀλανοί, Alanoi; Chinese: 阿蘭聊 Alanliao (Pinyin) in the 2nd century,[11] 阿蘭 Alan (Pinyin) in the 3rd century[12] — and Iron (a self-designation of the Alans' modern Ossetian descendants, indicating early tribal self-designation) and later Alanguo (阿蘭國)[13] are Iranian dialectal forms of Aryan.[2][14] These and other variants of Aryan (such as Iran), were common self-designations of the Indo-Iranians, the common ancestors of the Indo-Aryans and Iranian peoples to whom the Alans belonged.

The Alans were also known over the course of their history by another group of related names including the variations Asi, As, and Os (Romanian Iasi, Bulgarian Uzi, Hungarian Jász, Russian Jasy, Georgian Osi). It is this name that is the root of the modern Ossetian.[15]



South Ossetia Digor (dialect) Iron (dialect) Jassic people North Ossetia-Alania North Ossetia-Alania Mongols Khazars Vandals Roxolani Huns Caucasus Ciscaucasus Danube Gaul Africa Province

Early Alans[edit]

Europe, AD 117-138. The Alani at the time were concentrated north of the Caucasus Mountains (centre right).

The first mentions of names that historians link with the "Alani" appear at almost the same time in Greco-Roman geography and in the Chinese dynastic chronicles.[9] The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus considered the Alans were "formerly called Massagetae,"[16] while Dio Cassius wrote that "they are Massagetae."[4] It is likely that the Alans were an amalgamation of various Iranian peoples, including Sarmatians, Massagetae and Sakas.[4] Scholars have connected the Alans to the nomadic state of Yancai mentioned in Chinese sources.[6] Yancai is first mentioned in connection with late 2nd century BC diplomat Zhang Qian 's travels in Chapter 123 of Shiji (whose author, Sima Qian, died c. 90 BC).[6][17] Yancai of Chinese records has again been equated with the Aorsi, a powerful Sarmatian tribe living between the Don River and the Aral Sea, mentioned in Roman records, in particular Strabo.[6]

The Later Han Dynasty Chinese chronicle, the Hou Hanshu, 88 (covering the period 25–220 and completed in the 5th century), mentioned a report that the steppe land Yancai had become vassals of the Kangju and was now known as Alanliao (阿蘭聊)[18] Y. A. Zadneprovskiy suggests that the Kangju subjugation of Yancai occurred in the 1st century BC, and that this subjugation caused various Sarmatian tribes, including the Aorsi, to migrated westwards and playing a major role in ushering the Migration Period.[6][19] The 3rd century Weilüe also notes that Yancai is now known as Alan, although they are now no longer vassals of the Kangju.[20]

In the 1st century AD, the Alans migrated westwards from Central Asia, achieving a dominant position among the Sarmatians living between the Don River and the Caspian Sea.[4][5] The Alans are first mentioned in the Vologeses inscription which reads that Vologeses I, the Parthian king c. AD 51-78, in the 11th year of his reign, battled Kuluk, king of the Alani.[21] The contemporary Jewish historian, Josephus (37–100) supplements this inscription. Josephus reports in the Jewish Wars (book 7, ch. 7.4) how Alans (whom he calls a "Scythian" tribe) living near the Sea of Azov crossed the Iron Gates for plunder (AD 72) and defeated the armies of Pacorus, king of Media, and Tiridates, King of Armenia, two brothers of Vologeses I (for whom the above-mentioned inscription was made):

4. Now there was a nation of the Alans, which we have formerly mentioned somewhere as being Scythians, and inhabiting at the Lake Meotis. This nation about this time laid a design of falling upon Media, and the parts beyond it, in order to plunder them; with which intention they treated with the king of Hyrcania; for he was master of that passage which king Alexander shut up with iron gates. This king gave them leave to come through them; so they came in great multitudes, and fell upon the Medes unexpectedly, and plundered their country, which they found full of people, and replenished with abundance of cattle, while nobody durst make any resistance against them; for Pacorus, the king of the country, had fled away for fear into places where they could not easily come at him, and had yielded up everything he had to them, and had only saved his wife and his concubines from them, and that with difficulty also, after they had been made captives, by giving them a hundred talents for their ransom. These Alans therefore plundered the country without opposition, and with great ease, and proceeded as far as Armenia, laying all waste before them. Now, Tiridates was king of that country, who met them and fought them but had luck to not have been taken alive in the battle; for a certain man threw a net over him from a great distance and had soon drawn him to him, unless he had immediately cut the cord with his sword and ran away and so, prevented it. So the Alans, being still more provoked by this sight, laid waste the country, and drove a great multitude of the men, and a great quantity of the other prey they had gotten out of both kingdoms, along with them, and then retreated back to their own country.

The fact that the Alans invaded Parthia through Hyrcania shows that at the time many Alans were still based north-east of the Caspian Sea.[4] By the early 2nd century AD the Alans were in firm control of the Lower Volga and Kuban.[4] These lands had earlier been occupied by the Aorsi and the Siraces, whom the Alans had either absorbed or pushed westwards.[4] It is likely that Alan influence however stretched further westwards, encompassing most of the Sarmatian world, which by then for the first time possessed a relatively homogenous culture.[4]

In 135 AD, the Alans made a huge raid into Asia Minor via the Caucasus, ravaging Media and Armenia.[4] They were eventually driven back by Arrian, the governor of Cappadocia, who wrote a detailed report (Ektaxis kata Alanoon or 'War Against the Alans') that is a major source for studying Roman military tactics.

In 215-250 AD, the Germanic Goths expanded south-eastwards and broke the Alan dominance on the Pontic Steppe.[4] The Alans however seem to have had a significant influence on Gothic culture, who became excellent horsemen and adopted the Alanic animal style art.[4]

After the Gothic entry to the steppe, many of the Alans seem to have retreated eastwards towards the Don, where they seem to have established contacts with the Huns.[4] Ammianus writes that the Alans were "somewhat like the Huns, but in their manner of life and their habits they are less savage."[4] Jordanes contrased them with the Huns, noting that the Alans "were their equals in battle, but unlike them in their civilisation, manners and appearance".[4] In the late 4th century, Vegetius conflates Alans and Huns in his military treatise — Hunnorum Alannorumque natio, the "nation of Huns and Alans" — and collocates Goths, Huns and Alans, exemplo Gothorum et Alannorum Hunnorumque.[22]

Migration to Gaul[edit]

Around 370, according to Ammanius, the peaceful relations between the Alans and Huns were broken, after the Huns attacked the Don Alans, killing many of them and establishing an alliance with the survivors.[4][23] These Alans successfully invaded the Goths in 375 together with the Huns.[4] They subsequently accompanied the Huns in their westward expansion.[4]

Following the Hunnic invasion in 370, other Alans, along with other Sarmatians, migrated westward.[4] One of these Alan groups fought together with the Goths in the decisive Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, in which emperor Valens was killed.[4] As the Roman Empire continued to decline, the Alans split into various groups; some fought for the Romans while other joined the Huns, Visigoths or Ostrogoths.[4] A portion of the western Alans joined the Vandals and the Suebi in their invasion of Roman Gaul. Gregory of Tours mentions in his Liber historiae Francorum ("Book of Frankish History") that the Alan king Respendial saved the day for the Vandals in an armed encounter with the Franks at the crossing of the Rhine on December 31, 406). According to Gregory, another group of Alans, led by Goar, crossed the Rhine at the same time, but immediately joined the Romans and settled in Gaul.

Under Biorgor (Biorgor rex Alanorum), they infested Gallia round about, till the reign of Petronius Maximus and then they passed the Alps in winter, and came into Liguria, but were there beaten, and Biorgor slain, by Ricimer commander of the Emperor's forces (year 464).[24][25]

Coat of Arms of Alenquer (Alan-Kerk), in Portugal, which includes an Alaunt.

Under Goar, they allied with the Burgundians led by Gundaharius, with whom they installed the usurping Emperor Jovinus. Under Goar's successor Sangiban, the Alans of Orléans played a critical role in repelling the invasion of Attila the Hun at the Battle of Châlons. After the 5th century, however, the Alans of Gaul were subsumed in the territorial struggles between the Franks and the Visigoths, and ceased to have an independent existence. In order to quell unrest, Flavius Aëtius settled large numbers of Alans in various areas, such as in and around Armorica. Several towns with names possibly related to 'Alan', such as Allainville, Yvelines, Alainville-en Beauce, Loiret, Allaines and Allainville, Eure-et-Loir, and Les Allains, Eure, are taken as evidence that a contingent settled in Armorica, Brittany.[26] Other areas of Alans settlement were notably around Orléans and Valentia.[27]

Hispania and Africa[edit]

Kingdom of the Alans in Hispania (409–426 AD).
Kingdom of the Vandals and Alans in north Africa (526 AD).

Following the fortunes of the Vandals and Suebi into the Iberian peninsula (Hispania, comprising modern Portugal and Spain) in 409, the Alans led by Respendial settled in the provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginiensis: "Alani Lusitaniam et Carthaginiensem provincias, et Wandali cognomine Silingi Baeticam sortiuntur" (Hydatius). The Siling Vandals settled in Baetica, the Suebi in coastal Gallaecia, and the Asding Vandals in the rest of Gallaecia. Although the barbarians controlled Hispania they still compromised a tiny minority among a much larger Hispano-Roman population, approximately 200,000 out of 6,000,000.[7]

In 418 (or 426 according to some authors, cf. e.g. Castritius, 2007), the Alan king, Attaces, was killed in battle against the Visigoths, and this branch of the Alans subsequently appealed to the Asding Vandal king Gunderic to accept the Alan crown. The separate ethnic identity of Respendial's Alans dissolved.[28] Although some of these Alans are thought to have remained in Iberia, most went to North Africa with the Vandals in 429. Later the rulers of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa styled themselves Rex Wandalorum et Alanorum ("King of the Vandals and Alans").

There are some vestiges of the Alans in Portugal,[29] namely in Alenquer (whose name may be Germanic for the Temple of the Alans, from "Alan Kerk",[30] and whose castle may have been established by them; the Alaunt is still represented in that city's coat of arms), in the construction of the castles of Torres Vedras and Almourol, and in the city walls of Lisbon, where vestiges of their presence may be found under the foundations of the Church of Santa Luzia.

In the Iberian peninsula the Alans settled in Lusitania (cf. Alentejo) and the Cartaginense provinces. They became known in retrospect for their massive hunting and fighting dog of Molosser type, the Alaunt, which they apparently introduced to Europe. The breed is extinct, but its name is carried by a Spanish breed of dog still called Alano, traditionally used in boar hunting and cattle herding. The Alano name, however, has historically been used for a number of dog breeds in a few European countries thought to descend from the original dog of the Alans, such as the German mastiff (Great Dane) and the French Dogue de Bordeaux, among others.

Medieval Alania[edit]

Map showing the location of Alans, c. 650. (small yellow area, near the middle of the map)
Main article: Alania

The Alans who remained in their original area of settlement north of the Caucasus (and for a time east of the Caspian Sea as well), came into contact and conflict with the Bulgars, the Gökturks, and the Khazars, who drove most of them from the plains and into the mountains.[31]

The Alans converted to Byzantne Orthodoxy in the first quarter of the 10th century, during the patriarchate of Nicholas I Mystikos. Al-Mas'udi reports that they apostasized in 932, but this seems to have been short-lived. The Alans are collectively mentioned as Byzantine-rite Christians in the 13th century.[31] The Caucasian Alans were the ancestors of the modern Ossetians, whose ethnonym derives from the name Ās (very probably the ancient Aorsi; al-Ma'sudi mentions al-Arsiyya as guards among the Khazars, and the Rus' called the Alans Yasi), a sister tribe of the Alans. The Armenian Geography uses the name Ashtigor for the most westerly located Alans, a name which survives as Digor and still refers to the western division of the Ossetians. Furthermore, in Ossetian, Asi refers to the region around Mount Elbrus, where they probably formerly lived.[31]

Some of the other Alans remained under the rule of the Huns. Those of the eastern division, though dispersed about the steppes until late medieval times, were forced by the Mongols into the Caucasus, where they remain as the Ossetians. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, they formed a network of tribal alliances that gradually evolved into the Christian kingdom of Alania. Most Alans submitted to the Mongol Empire in 1239–1277. They participated in Mongol invasions of Europe and the Song Dynasty in Southern China, and the Battle of Kulikovo under Mamai of the Golden Horde.[32][better source needed]

In 1253, the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck reported numerous Europeans in Central Asia. It is also known that 30,000 Alans formed the royal guard (Asud) of the Yuan court in Dadu (Beijing). Marco Polo later reported their role in the Yuan Dynasty in his book Il Milione. It's said that those Alans contributed to a modern Mongol clan, Asud. John of Montecorvino, archbishop of Dadu (Khanbaliq), reportedly converted many Alans to Roman Catholic Christianity.[33][34] In Poland and Lithuania, Alans where also part of powerful Clan of Ostoja.

It's believed that some Alans resettled to the North (Barsils), merging with Volga Bulgars and Burtas, eventually transforming to Volga Tatars.[35][not specific enough to verify] It is supposed that Iasi, a group of Alans have founded a town in NE of Romania (about 1200–1300), called Iași near Prut river. Iași became the capital of ancient Moldova in Middle Ages.[36]

Later history[edit]

Map of medieval Alania (10th–12th century), according to Ossetian historian Ruslan Suleymanovich Bzarov.

The descendants of the Alans, who live in the autonomous republics of Russia and Georgia, speak the Ossetian language which belongs to the Northeastern Iranian language group and is the only remnant of the Scytho-Sarmatian dialect continuum, which once stretched over much of the Pontic steppe and Central Asia. Modern Ossetian has two major dialects: Digor, spoken in the western part of North Ossetia; and Iron, spoken in the rest of Ossetia. A third branch of Ossetian, Jassic (Jász), was formerly spoken in Hungary. The literary language, based on the Iron dialect, was fixed by the national poet, Kosta Khetagurov (1859–1906).

Physical appearance[edit]

The fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that the Alans were tall, and blond:

Nearly all the Alani are men of great stature and beauty; their hair is somewhat yellow, their eyes are terribly fierce.[37]


In a study conducted in 2014 by VV Ilyinskyon on bone fragments from 12 Alanic burials on the Don River, 6 samples turned out belonging to yDNA Haplogroup G2 and 6 samples belonging to mtDNA I. The fact that six of the samples belonged to the same y- and mtDNA raises the possibility that the tested individuals belonged to the same tribe or even were close relatives. Nevertheless, this is a strong argument for direct Alan ancestry of Ossetians and against the hypothesis that Ossetians are alanized Caucasic Speakers, since the major Haplogroup among Ossetians is G2*.[38]

In 2015 the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow conducted researches on various Sarmato-Alan and Saltovo-Mayaki culture Kurgan burials. In this analyses, the two Alan samples from 4th to 6th century AD turned out with yDNAs G2a-P15 and R1a-z94, while from the three Sarmatian samples from 2nd to 3rd century AD two turned out both with yDNA J1-M267 and one with R1a.[39] And the three Saltovo-Mayaki samples from 8th to 9th century AD turned out with yDNAs G, J2a-M410 and R1a-z94 respectively[40]


Archaeological finds support the written sources. P. D. Rau (1927) first identified late Sarmatian sites with the historical Alans. Based on the archaeological material, they were one of the Iranian-speaking nomadic tribes that began to enter the Sarmatian area between the middle of the 1st and the 2nd centuries.


The ancient language of the Alans was a Northeastern-Iranian dialect either identical, or at least closely related, to Proto-Ossetic, which is confirmed by evidence left by John Tzetzes, a Byzantine poet and grammarian who lived at Constantinople during the 12th century and who was related to Maria of Alania. Tzetzes gave a few sentences in the Alanic language, along with Greek translation, in his ‘Theogony’, and most of the words in the sample have modern Ossetic conterparts including the greeting “Da ban xas” (“Good day”) known from the Jász word list of 1422 as well (“Da ban horz”, and comparable to the Digoron “Da bōn xwārz” and Iron “Da bōn xōrz”, the most common Ossetic greetings to this day. Most linguists regard the language of Tzetze’s sample as Proto-Ossetic.


In the 4th–5th centuries the Alans were at least partially Christianized by Byzantine missionaries of the Arian church. In the 13th century, fresh invading Mongol hordes pushed the eastern Alans further south into the Caucasus, where they mixed with native Caucasian groups and successively formed three territorial entities each with different developments. Around 1395 Timur's army invaded Northern Caucasus and massacred much of the Alanian population.

As the time went by, Digor in the west came under Kabard and Islamic influence. It was through the Kabardians (an East Circassian tribe) that Islam was introduced into the region in the 17th century. After 1767, all of Alania came under Russian rule, which strengthened Orthodox Christianity in that region considerably. The vast majority of today's Ossetians are followers of the traditional Ossetian religion.[citation needed]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d "Alani". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2015. Retrieved 1 January 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d "ALANS". Encyclopædia Iranica. Bibliotheca Persica Press. 2015. Retrieved 16 May 2015. 
  3. ^ Waldman & Mason 2006, pp. 12–14
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Brzezinski & Mielczarek 2002, pp. 10–11
  5. ^ a b Zadneprovskiy 1994, pp. 467–468
  6. ^ a b c d e Zadneprovskiy, pp. 465–467
  7. ^ a b "Spain: Visigothic Spain to c. 500". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2015. Retrieved 1 January 2015. 
  8. ^ a b "Vandal". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2015. Retrieved 1 January 2015. 
  9. ^ a b Alemany 2000, p. ?.
  10. ^ For ethnogenesis, see Walter Pohl, "Conceptions of Ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies" Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings, ed. Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein, (Blackwell), 1998, pp 13–24) (On-line text).
  11. ^ The Hou Hanshu
  12. ^ The Weilüe
  13. ^ Kozin, S.A., Sokrovennoe skazanie, M.-L., 1941. p.83-4
  14. ^ Alemany 2000, p. 3.
  15. ^ Alemany 2000, pp. 5–7.
  16. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus. Roman History. Book XXXI. II. 12
  17. ^ Watson, Burton trans. 1993. Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian. Han Dynasty II. (Revised Edition), p. 234. Columbia University Press. New York. ISBN 0-231-08166-9; ISBN 0-231-08167-7 (pbk.)
  18. ^ Hill, John E. 2003. "Annotated Translation of the Chapter on the Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu." Revised Edition – to be published soon.
  19. ^ Zadneprovskiy 1994, pp. 463–464
  20. ^ For an earlier version of this translation
  21. ^ Vologeses inscription.
  22. ^ Vegetius 3.26, noted in passing by T.D. Barnes, "The Date of Vegetius" Phoenix 33.3 (Autumn 1979, pp. 254–257) p. 256. "The collocation of these three barbarian races does not recur a generation later", Barnes notes, in presenting a case for a late 4th-century origin for Vegetius' treatise.
  23. ^ Giovanni de Marignolli, "John De' Marignolli and His Recollections of Eastern Travel", in Cathay and the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Volume 2, ed. Henry Yule (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1866), 316–317.
  24. ^ Isaac Newton, Observations on Daniel and The Apocalypse of St. John (1733).
  25. ^ Paul the Deacon, Historia Romana, XV, 1.
  26. ^ Bernard S. Bachrach, "The Origin of Armorican Chivalry" Technology and Culture 10.2 (April 1969), pp. 166–171.
  27. ^ Bernard S. Bachrach, "The Alans in Gaul", Traditio 23 (1967).
  28. ^ For another rapid disintegration of an ethne in the Early Middle Ages, see Avars. (Pohl 1998:17f).
  29. ^ Milhazes, José. Os antepassados caucasianos dos portugueses – Rádio e Televisão de Portugal in Portuguese.
  30. ^ Ivo Xavier Fernándes. Topónimos e gentílicos, Volume 1, 1941, p. 144.
  31. ^ a b c Barthold, W.; Minorsky, V. (1986). "Alān". The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, Volume I: A–B. Leiden and New York: BRILL. p. 354. ISBN 90-04-08114-3. 
  32. ^ Handbuch Der Orientalistik By Agustí Alemany, Denis Sinor, Bertold Spuler, Hartwig Altenmüller, p. 400–410
  33. ^ Roux, p.465
  34. ^ Christian Europe and Mongol Asia: First Medieval Intercultural Contact Between East and West
  35. ^ (Russian) Тайная история татар
  36. ^ A. Boldur, Istoria Basarabiei, p. 20
  37. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus. Roman History. Book XXXI. II. 21. "Proceri autem Halani paene sunt omnes et pulchri, crinibus mediocriter flavis, oculorum temperata torvitate terribiles et armorum levitate veloces."
  38. ^ [1]
  39. ^ [2]
  40. ^ [3]


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