The Sarmatians (Latin: Sarmatae or Sauromatae, 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.
- Greco Roman ethnography
- Decline in the 4th century
- Possible influence on Arthurian legends
- List of Sarmatian tribes
Originating in Eastern Europe, between the Don River and the Ural Mountains 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 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, ultimately giving rise to the modern Ossetic ethnic group.
The Sarmatians were eventually decisively assimilated (e.g. Slavicisation) and absorbed by the Proto-Slavic population of Eastern Europe.
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 regarded 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.
Both Pliny the Elder (Natural History book iv) and Jordanes recognised the Sar- and Sauro- elements as interchangeable variants, referring to the same people. 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.
Oleg Trubachyov derived the name from the Indo-Aryan *sar-ma(n)t (feminine – rich in women, ruled by women), the Indo-Aryan and Indo-Iranian word *sar- (woman) and the Indo-Iranian adjective suffix -ma(n)t/wa(n)t. By this derivation was noted the unusual high status of women (Matriarchy) from the Greek point of view and went to the invention of Amazons (thus the Greek name for Sarmatians as Sarmatai Gynaikokratoumenoi, ruled by women).
Other scholars, like Harold Walter Bailey, derived the base word from Avestan sar- (to move suddenly) from tsar- in Old Iranian (tsarati, tsaru-, hunter). It was also derived from the name of Avestan region in the west Sairima (*salm, < *Sairmi), and connected with the 10–11th century AD Persian epic Shahnameh's character "Salm".
Recently R. M. Kozlova derived it from *Sъrm- < Proto-Slavic adjective *sъrmatъ (-a, -o), with the meaning "that is rich with sormima" i.e. shallows, referring to the rivers.
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 (23–79 AD) wrote that they ranged from the Vistula River (in present-day 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 (buried within earthwork mounds), sometimes reusing part of much older kurgans. It was a nomadic steppe culture ranging from the Black Sea eastward 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 the Üllő5 archaeological site. Typical grey, granular Üllő5 ceramics form a distinct group of Sarmatian pottery found everywhere in the north central 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 Greek 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 the 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.
In a study conducted in 2014 by Gennady Afanasiev et al. on bone fragments from 10 Alanic burials on the Don River, DNA could be extracted from a total of 7.
In 2015, the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow conducted research on various Sarmato-Alan and Saltovo-Mayaki culture Kurgan burials. In these analyses, the two Alan samples from the 4th to 6th century AD turned out to belong to yDNA haplogroups G2a-P15 and R1a-z94, while two of the three Sarmatian samples from the 2nd to 3rd century AD were found to belong to yDNA haplogroup J1-M267 while one belonged to R1a. Three Saltovo-Mayaki samples from the 8th to 9th century AD turned out to have yDNA corresponding to haplogroups G, J2a-M410 and R1a-z94.
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. They had sturdy bones, long hair and beards.
The Alans were a group of Sarmatian tribes, according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus. He wrote, "Nearly all the Alani are men of great stature and beauty, their hair is somewhat yellow, their eyes are frighteningly fierce".
In the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD, the Greek physician Galen declared that Sarmatians, Scythians and other northern peoples have reddish hair.
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.
Herodotus (4.110–117) recounts that the Sauromatians arose from marriages of a group of Amazons and young Scythian men. 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 their language as an "impure" form of Scythian. He credits the unusual social 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). Herodotus' assertion that the Sarmatians were descendants of mythological Amazons is likely a fiction to explain certain idiosyncrasies of Sarmatian culture as compared to Greek.
Hippocrates explicitly classes them as Scythian and describes their warlike women and their customs:
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.
"Polybius (XXV, 1) mentions them for the first time as a force to be reckoned with in 179 B.C."
Strabo mentions the Sarmatians in a number of places, but never says much about them. He uses both the terms of 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.
Strabo wrote that the Sarmatians extend from above the Danube eastward to the Volga, and from north of the Dnieper River 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 said, were of Germanic origin. The Celtic Boii, Scordisci and Taurisci are there. A fourth ethnic element interacting and intermarrying are the Thracians (7.3.2). Moreover, the peoples toward the north are Keltoskythai, "Celtic Scythians" (11.6.2).
Strabo portrays the peoples of the region as being nomadic, or Hamaksoikoi, "wagon-dwellers," and Galaktophagoi, "milk-eaters." This latter likely referred to the universal koumiss eaten in historical times. The wagons were used for transporting tents made of felt, a type of 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.
Tacitus' De Origine et situ Germanorum speaks of "mutual fear" between Germanic peoples and Sarmatians:
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, but were referred to under yet another name.
Later, Pausanias, viewing votive offerings near the Athenian Acropolis in the 2nd century AD, found among them a Sauromic 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. 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, which is known today as 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 'servants' Limigantes. 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, 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.
The Sarmatians were eventually decisively assimilated (e.g. Slavicisation) and absorbed by the Proto-Slavic population of Eastern Europe around the Early Medieval Age.
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 Batraz, 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. A more extensive study of the Alano-Sarmatian impact on the Roman Empire and the Arthurian tradition is presented by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor in From Scythia to Camelot.