Why should there be an end to the fighting?
It is true that, after generations of struggle, our horses now graze on most of the lands the Scythians once called their own and that we rule over a large territory. We now count the time it takes to travel across it in months and our people and herds prosper, but the great steppe still extends beyond our dominions. There are yet more pastures to win for our flocks to grow even larger, and there live peoples not unlike us, who build no cities and dwell in wagons and tents. They also wage war as we do, largely on horseback with most as swift mounted archers that no foot troops will ever catch and some also wearing armor and wielding spears. Those will not be easy battles, but a strong ruler could bind those peoples to him and command an immense host of riders: an army such as has never been seen before.
Yes, merchants must now travel through our lands to carry their wares from east to west and from north to south and from such trading we have grown wealthier than our fathers. However, the traders still finish their journeys in the cities of the Yavanas, the Greeks, on the seashore at our southern border. All trade eventually goes there and their dwellers are rich beyond measure from it. They drink wine every day if they so wish and own all sorts of luxuries: fine pottery and bright arms and armors. What warriors would not follow a lord with such wealth at his command? How great would be the fame of such a leader?
East or west, north or south. In the end, will it matter where we ride first? Wherever we go, there will still be other lands, other nations beyond: the land of Hayasdan and the kingdoms of the Yavanas and then others whose names we do not yet know. Regions said to be even richer, fertile and of mild climate, abundant in streams and grazing. There is no man in our tribes who is not eager to please the God of War, whose name is not to be spoken aloud and whom we see in the naked sword, by winning fame and fortune through war and battle. Why, then, not let the dragon standards fly forever? Why not ride until the seas deny us passage? As long as there are riches and glory to be won and land upon which horses can gallop, why should there be an end to the fighting?
The Sarmatians comprised a number of groups of nomads who roamed, generally in a westward direction, over the western portion of the Eurasian steppes. They were related culturally and, in all likelihood, ethnically to the Scythians and both spoke Iranian languages that appear to have been quite similar.
The first traces of the Sarmatians are archeological. They date from the seventh century BCE and come from an area east of the Don, or Tanais, River, south of the Ural Mountains and north of the Caspian Sea. Findings seem to be concentrated along the courses of the Ural and lower Volga rivers and constitute an archeological culture that extends up to the fourth century BCE and has been linked with certainty to the Sauromatae of the Greek sources.
These Sauromatae represent the first appearance of the Sarmatian peoples in western sources and the adaptation, or corruption, of their name into Greek and, later, Latin has given us our current name of Sarmatians. The name Sauromatae appears to be clearly of Iranian origin and seems to have meant 'black mantles' (*sau-roma-ta, where sau = black, roma = fur and -ta is the plural marker). Other etymologies have been suggested, but this seems the most likely as Herodotus, who first spoke of the Sauromatae and located them east of the Scythian domains, also recorded the Melanchlainos (Greek for 'black capes') to the northeast of the Scythians. Also, a decree from the Greek city of Olbia, on the northern coast of the Black Sea near the mouth of the Dnieper River, from the early second century BCE mentions the Saudarates (*sau-dâra-ta = wearers of black) among several neighboring barbarian tribes.
We have adopted 'Sauromatae' as the faction’s name in EB, as it is a designation in either the Sarmatian language or one very close, and we do not know with certainty how the Sarmatians called themselves. In this account, however, we will use the name Sauromatae in a restricted sense to refer to the peoples corresponding to the archeological culture of the seventh to fourth centuries BCE. It seems plausible that the Sarmatians might have referred to themselves with their own variation of the ancient auto-ethnonym 'Arya,' attested from very old times and widespread among the Indo-Iranian peoples (Avestan Airyô, Sanskrit Âryas, Old Persian Ariyâ). For example, Pliny speaks of the 'Arraei Sarmatians, also called Areatas' (*Arya-ta). With dialectal labdacism (the evolution of the group 'ry' to 'l'), 'Arya' also appears in the name of the Alans (Alana < *Aryana) and of the Roxolani Sarmatians (*Rôxš-Alan < **Rauxša-Aryana = white, bright or luminous Alans).
However, we do not know to what extent this applies to all the other Sarmatian groups. The names history has preserved for them (Aorsi, Iazyges, Siracae, Urgi, Sai, etc.), while often clearly of Iranian origin, do not seem related to 'Arya,' although those designations may not be the names they used for themselves. Consequently, we have opted for Sauromatae.
Herodotus, reporting events of the late sixth century BCE, reports the Sauromatae to be the eastern neighbors of the Scythians and their allies against the invading Achaemenid Persians and has them living on the left, i.e. eastern, bank of the Don and beyond. He also explained that the Sauromatae were the descendants of Scythian young men who took runaway Amazons as wives and settled in the lands between the Don and the lower Volga, an area which is one of the hot spots of the archeological Sauromatian culture. Herodotus also ascribes the role played by women in Sauromatian society to this Amazonian inheritance: he describes Sauromatae women riding, hunting, and fighting alongside the men. Archeology has also provided some support for these claims by turning up substantial numbers of graves of females, both Sauromatian and of later cultural stages of the Sarmatian peoples, containing weaponry. Also, skeletons of girls aged thirteen to fourteen already showed bowed legs, indicative of a life spent on horseback.
Sometime during the fourth century BCE, the Sarmatians started expanding, mostly westwards. This was accompanied by changes in the archeological culture, such as details of funerary rites, pottery, weaponry (swords with straight guards and antennae pommels, instead of the akinakes-like angled guards of the Sauromatian phase), to what is commonly called ancient Sarmatian or Prokhorovka culture, which would last up to the first century BCE. By the second half of the fourth century BCE, the pseudo-Scylax, a Greek source, still speaks of the Sauromatae east of the Don but also knows about the Syrmatae west of that river. Already by the century’s end, Sarmatian tombs are found on the eastern bank of the Dnieper, and in the third and second centuries they become numerous there. In the late third or very early second century BCE, the Sarmatians may have crossed west beyond the Dnieper, as attested by at least one Sarmatian grave on its right, i.e. west, bank dating from that period. It is certain that, during the second century BCE, the Sarmatians completed their occupation of almost all the steppe between the Dnieper and the Danube, the last remnants of what was once ancient Scythia.
Since the early second century BCE, Sarmatian groups also appear diversely involved in the affairs of the BosporanKingdom and the Greek cities on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Sarmatians sometimes even extorted tribute from the cities. On other occasions, they would ally with a Greek city against the Late Scythians, now relegated to the eastern half of the CrimeanPeninsula and the lower Dnieper, though they could also side with the Late Scythians in their constant conflicts with the Greek cities. Thus, in 110 BCE, Mithridates VI Eupator, king of Pontos, sent his general Diophantes to aid of the city of Chersonesos against a coalition of Sarmatians and Scythians. Diophantes was victorious and Mithridates gained a foothold on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Eventually, those events would lead to Mithridates gaining control of that whole area, the BosporanKingdom included, and to continued Sarmatian support for the Pontic Kingdom in its conflicts against Rome up to the defeat of Pharnaces I, Mithridates’ son, at Zela by Julius Caesar.
Sarmatian expansion up to the second century CE occurred largely at the expense of the formerly powerful Scythians, the previous masters of the Pontic steppe between the Don and the Danube. Diodorus Siculus, writing many years after the events, stated that the Scythians were all exterminated in the course of numerous battles, but archeological data do not support such a claim. To what extent Scythian replacement by the Sarmatians involved displacement, annihilation, and assimilation is far from clear, however. It seems well established that all three processes, which are not mutually exclusive, occurred, but their relative importance is by no means evident.
This expansion occurred mostly, though not exclusively, westward. For example, some Sarmatian groups moved southwest from the Volga area into Ciscaucasia, occupying the steppes between and directly beside the Kuban and Terek rivers. Archeology shows they were already present in the area between the Don, the Sea of Azov, and the Kuban river in the fourth century BCE. The Siracae Sarmatians would later be placed in that area by Greek and Roman sources. It has been in this southern appendix of the great Pontic steppe where, through the Medieval Alans of the Caucasus, some descendants of the Sarmatians, the modern Ossetians, have remained.
There are also traces of Sarmatian presence in Central Asia. For example, numerous findings from the Ustyurt Plateau, between the Caspian and AralSeas, are stylistically very close to the Sauromatian and Prokhorovka cultures. Also, nomad graves from near Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan, dating to the end of the fourth or early third century BCE, show Sarmatian traits. Finally, swords closely similar to the Prokhorovka type have shown up in ancient Bactria in contexts dated to the second to first century BCE.
It is not clear what set the Sarmatians in motion, and a variety of causes have been advanced: climate changes (a persistent drought affecting areas of the steppe is hinted at by a lower level of the Caspian Sea during the third century BCE), increases in Sarmatian population, or events in Central Asia, such as Alexander’s campaigns and the rise of the Xiongnu, eliciting a sort of chain reaction. However, none of those seems to offer a perfect, all-encompassing explanation. All may have contributed, but, again, it is unknown to what extent.
After their occupation of old Scythia, the Sarmatians kept expanding west and, therefore, would eventually come into contact with Rome. The Iazyges hugged the Black Sea coast and moved on to the lower Danube. Here they seem to have been stopped for a while by the powerful Dacian kingdom of Burebista, and from there, in 16 BCE, they launched their first incursion into Roman territory in Macedonia. Sarmatian raids across the Danube like this would plague the Romans for the next three hundred years. When Dacian power diminished, the Iazyges moved northwest to eventually settle in the plain between the Danube and Tisza rivers where, now often in conjunction with Germanic tribes, they kept being a thorn in the side of Rome, despite brief stints as Roman allies, even after their defeat by Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his Sarmatian War in 174 CE. As part of the peace conditions imposed upon them, the Iazyges had to provide the Roman army with eight thousand cavalrymen. Nonetheless, in 184 and during the whole third century CE Roman Emperors had to keep campaigning against them.
When the Iazyges left the lower Danube, the Roxolani, who had remained between the Danube and the Dnieper, moved into this area and took up the raiding of the Roman provinces across the river. During the first of Emperor Trajan’s Dacian Wars, the Roxolani were allied with the Dacians against the Romans. Again, their defeat would not preclude their resuming raiding, and Roman money subsidies proved a more effective way to keep the peace along the frontier.
During the third and fourth centuries CE, Sarmatian power suffered greatly from the arrival of, first, the Goths and other eastern Germans and, later, of the Huns into Sarmatian dominions. The Sarmatians and Alans, either a Sarmatian group or very close relatives, became less and less independent peoples and masters of their own destiny and more and more part of confederations ruled by other nations. The wanderings of those leagues and the tumults of the time of the Great Migrations would carry Sarmatians and Alans as far as the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa. There, like in their original homelands, they would eventually vanish, assimilated into more powerful nations, but not without having added their contribution to what would become medieval Europe.
Sarmatians are remembered as mounted warriors. In particular, the most common image of them that has come down to us is of armored lancers whose charge was nearly irresistible. Nonetheless, the lancer can be considered a relatively late development of the Sarmatian military. For much of their history, and certainly for most of that history that is within EB, Sarmatian armies, like those of so many steppe nomads before and after them, were mostly composed of horse archers. Even after the lancer had appeared and risen to prominence, mounted archery appears to have remained an integral and important component of Sarmatian tactics, with even the lancers themselves carrying a bow besides their long contus sarmaticus and longswords. Similarly, finds of armor from the Sauromatian period show that the earliest Sarmatian armies already had a core of heavy cavalry which was provided by the upper classes able to afford protective gear for themselves and, sometimes, even their horses. This structure with a nucleus of heavier, aristocratic cavalry better prepared for melee surrounded by swarms of light horse archers is common to many steppe armies.
This switch towards a more direct approach needs to be correctly understood, as the battle descriptions found in the sources show that it remained firmly within the steppe traditions of mounted warfare. The sources speak abundantly of the powerful charge of the contus-wielding Sarmatians. However, those same sources also indicate that, despite outward appearances, those were not mad, potentially suicidal, actions. If faced with a solid battle line, a firm wall of spears held by men resolved to stand their ground, the seemingly wild charge would turn into an apparently equally wild retreat. Of course, more often than not, it was a feigned retreat, a maneuver no less controlled than the previous charge and designed to lure an enemy into a pursuit that had good chances to throw its formation into disorder, prevent units from providing mutual support, and that would open up chances for such maneuvers as outflanking and charges to the rear for the Sarmatians.
The shift from a harass and evade doctrine towards greater emphasis on hand-to-hand combat and shock action is not easy to date precisely. Of course, it could well have been a fairly gradual process that occurred over a substantial amount of time. Written sources suggest that the transition had not happened yet in the late second century BCE, at least in the area around the AzovSea, but that it was completed by the first decades of the first century CE. The Sarmatians that fought against the Pontic general Diophantes in the Crimea in 110 BCE are described as lightly armed and unable to stand their ground against heavier troops. In contrast, by 35 CE we find the Sarmatians eschewing mounted archery contests and instead charging headlong into Parthian cavalry. By 69 CE, the Romans dealing with Roxolani raids already have it as an established fact that their charges are very dangerous and nearly unstoppable.
Archeology provides some additional pointers on when the switch occurred. The kit of the armored lancer, consisting of scale armor, large spearhead and longsword, begins to appear in Sarmatian graves in the Volga region in the third and second centuries BCE. The troop type might have been copied from the neighboring Massagetae and Sakas. Those peoples had a tradition of armored cavalry dating back to the fifth century BCE and beyond, and Alexander’s campaigns presumably put them into contact with Macedonian Companion cavalry that were able and willing to charge home with their xysta. A terracotta from Koï-Krylgan-Kala in Uzbekistan of the fourth or early third centuries BCE shows an apparently unarmored lancer wielding a long lance and another from Khumbuz-Tepe shows an armored one on an equally protected horse. In any case, it seems clear that there were armored lancers in Transoxiana in the third century BCE and that the troop type spread from there.
Sword, Fire and Sun: Sarmatian Religion
Evidence about the religion of the Sarmatians is extremely scarce and heterogeneous. No ancient ethnographer or historian recorded the names or number of their deities or wrote down their myths. We are, therefore, left to deal with occasional allusions in the sources, archeological material, and inferences from other, presumably related, religious systems and from archaic elements in the folk religion of the modern Ossetians. Moreover, it is likely that religion varied among Sarmatian groups and along time.
One of the few certainties in this matter is that the Sarmatians worshipped a god of war on whose name, as in the case of its Scythian cognate, there seems to have been a prohibition to be spoken aloud. Again as in the Scythian case, it was represented by a naked sword thrust into the ground and received offerings of blood as part of its cult. Generally, that cult does not seem to have entailed temples or a distinct priest class, the lack of which is a general feature of Sarmatian religious practices.
Greek sources from the third century BCE claim that the Sarmatians also adored the Fire. There is archeological support for this in the importance of the Fire in Sarmatian funerary rites. Further backing comes from the importance that the Fire has retained in the cult of the Medieval Caucasian Alans and the modern Ossetians. Also, Tabiti, the main Scythian deity, whom their king Idanthyrsus called queen of the Scythians, seems to have been a goddess of the hearth, as Herodotus likened her to Hestia. It seems likely that, as with other Iranian peoples, the Fire was a purifier for the Sarmatians because the Ossetian word for pure, saint' is sygdag, which comes from an Iranian root with the sense 'burn'.
Possibly related to the cult of the Fire, there seems to have been a cult of the Sun as well. Herodotus and Strabo register such a practice for the Massagetae and Armenian sources record it among the Medieval Alans of the Caucasus. Among the modern Ossetian descendants of the latter, the fire of the hearth is called 'son of the Sun,' pointing to the link between fire and sun cults.
The Sarmatian Legacy
It often seems that the nomadic peoples of the steppe have contributed little, if at all, to the making of contemporaneous western culture. However, the Sarmatians probably are at the root of the well-known and influential cultural icon that is the medieval knight. A knight is in essence a mounted, armored lancer and the Sarmatians can rightly claim to be its first physical model in Europe. After centuries of contact, the mounted lancer was widely adopted from the Sarmatians by both the Late Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes who would eventually overrun it. Medieval Europe, knights included, would emerge from the mixture of these elements.
Moreover, another popular element of western culture may owe more to the Sarmatians and the steppe nomads than usually realized. The Arthurian legend incorporates many diverse influences, being in that representative of medieval Europe. One of those elements, perhaps its core, may directly link the Arthurian stories to the nomads of the steppe. We have already mentioned that in 175 CE the defeated Iazyges had to supply eight thousand horsemen to the Roman army. Of those, five and a half thousand were sent to Britain, and we know some were sent to garrison the western portion of Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman officer who commanded part of the Sarmatian contingent was called Lucius Artorius Castus. Moreover, in 180 to 185 CE the Caledonii, with support from the Goidilic Irish, overran the eastern part of the Wall and penetrated deeply into Roman territory, killing the governor of Britain and the legate of Legio VI Victrix near modern York and ravaging the eastern regions. However, the region where Artorius Castus and his Sarmatians were posted was spared and remained a safe island amidst much destruction. We, then, have a group of armored horsemen who revere a naked sword thrust into the earth and who, led by a man called Artorius, manage to repel or contain a barbarian invasion. It would seem plausible that these events could have provided an initial nucleus that, over the course of the following centuries, would have attracted other, later traditions and cycles to produce the Arthurian tradition as we know it today. The iconic and archetypical Arthurian story might have been woven around a core in which the horsemen from the Eurasian steppe, their modes of waging war, and their religious traditions played a leading role.
The Sauromatae are a people of the horse, and their armies reflect it. The bulk of the Sauromatae are light unarmored horse archers mounted on tough steppe ponies, supported by a heavy lancer corps made up of the nobility of the tribe. Using tactics that have served them and their predecessors for generations, few armies can catch up to and combat effectively a steppe army. In the few cases when infantry is needed, poor tribesmen can fight as skilled foot archers.