The Fierce Warriors of the Steppes: Who Were the Sarmatians?
The world of classical antiquity was filled with various tribes, cultures, and diverse peoples that dictated the unfolding events that shaped the world as we know it today. New and emerging cultures were shaped into tribes and nations, and would disappear as quickly as they came into existence. For most of this period, and the ones that came before, the vast Eurasian Steppe was a fertile ground for dominant cultures to emerge and grow powerful. The Sarmatians were one of these cultures: a powerful tribal confederation of a wider Scythian group of peoples . Fierce and skilled in warfare, the Sarmatians greatly expanded their boundaries and grew powerful, eclipsing the old Scythians and making their mark. In time they became a fierce adversary of the Romans and the Greeks, one of the “barbarian” peoples that threatened the age old boundaries of the classical world. But, what was their fate?
The vast Eurasian Steppe was a fertile ground for cultures, such as the Sarmatians, to emerge and grow powerful. ( Butorin / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Who Were the Sarmatians of the Eurasian Steppe
It is widely agreed that the Sarmatians emerged around the 7th century BC, coming to thrive in the vast regions of the Eurasian Steppe . These enormous expanses of grasslands form one gigantic corridor that extends from China all the way to the Hungarian plains. It is worth noting that the Sarmatians were not a single, unified nation. They were actually a group, or a loose confederation of nomadic tribes of the same root and stock, who spoke the same language or dialects of it. On a larger scale, they can be considered as closely related to Scythians and their culture, and perhaps even an offshoot of the same.
The tribes that were collectively known as the Sarmatians were nomadic peoples, gradually moving westward with their horse herds. To give us a better insight into the tribes that comprised the Sarmatians, the Greek writer Strabo mentions the following tribes as the main amongst the Sarmatians: the Roxolani, Iazyges, Siraces, Aorsi, and the Sauromatae. Many scholars consider the famous tribe of the Alans as the same stock as the Sarmatians, but do not group them in this collective.
The Sarmatians, just like the Scythians, spoke a language that belonged to the Iranian group of the Indo-European languages, related to modern Persian. This was a wider group known as Scytho-Sarmatian language group, which was once a single language known as Old Iranian. With time, as these groups inhabited enormous swaths of land, their dialects grew apart and formed into unique, separate languages. The Sarmatian dialects developed into clearly distinguishable North Iranian languages, which are today considered to be ancestral to the modern Alanian and Ossetian languages.
The Sarmatians were a powerful tribal confederation from the Scythian group of peoples. This representation of Scythians shooting with bows was found in the ancient Greek city of Panticapaeum, now in modern Ukraine. ( PHGCOM / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Sarmatians, as we said, emerged around 7th century BC, dwelling in those parts of the steppe east of the River Don and south of the vast Ural Mountains. Their lifestyle was almost entirely nomadic, centered around the herding of horses from which they gained a lot of goods that were crucial for their lifestyle: from war mounts, to mare milk, to food, all the way to hides, hairs, and leather.
It is widely agreed that the Sarmatians co-existed in peace with their cousins the Scythians. That is, until around the 3rd century BC, when they are mentioned as expanding over their borders. Diodorus writes that at that time the Sarmatians crossed over the Don River into the Pontic steppes north of the Black Sea, where they attacked the Scythians and drove them away from these fertile pasture lands. They would come to dominate this region for the next five centuries or so.
The mythical Amazons, believed to have existed amongst the Sarmatians, captured the imagination of many cultures of the time. Here they can be seen on a Greek terracotta lekythos (oil flask) ca 420 BC located at the MET Museum. ( Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC-BY 2.5 )
Amazonian Warrior Women and Barbarian Peoples of Faraway Lands
Sarmatians had one unique social trait that gave rise to many myths in the classical world. The major one of these is the myth of the Amazons . For the Greeks, the Amazons were mythical warrior women of faraway lands. It is possible that such women existed amongst the Sarmatians. Herodotus writes that the Sarmatian women were as skilled in the saddle and in war as were the men: they hunted, were skilled in mounted archery and javelin warfare, and were armored in the same way as their men. However, once Samatian women entered marriage, their role changed and they became more focused on the family.
Furthermore, some contemporary Greek writers suggest that the Sarmatian society was matriarchal, and women were revered as leaders. However, archaeological and scholarly evidence tells us that over the centuries the women gradually gave up the practice of war. Female skeletons of the early Sarmatian period have significantly bowed legs, including the skeletons of young girls. This tells us that, just like men and boys, the women spent great parts of their lives on horseback.
Roman mosaic from Daphne (in modern-day Turkey) showing an Amazonian warrior with a labrys in combat. ( Jacques MOSSOT / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
It wasn’t until around the 1st century AD that the Sarmatians entered the big picture with a considerable bang. It was at this time that they entered the classical records as the “barbarian” peoples that cross over the neighboring borders and wage war. Alongside the ferocious Alans, they crossed over into Asia Minor in great numbers, and fiercely attacked the Parthians, Armenians, and Medians. They even penetrated as far as the area of Danube, invading Roman provinces of Moesia and Pannonia. Once there, they managed to establish a significant and permanent presence in the Hungarian Plain. It is worth mentioning in relation to this that the Sarmatian tribe of the Iazyges had the biggest presence in this region of Danube, where their traces have survived to this very day amongst the unique Jasz peoples of Hungary, who spoke the Jassic language – an Iranian language and dialect of Ossetian – until the 17th century.
West Towards War – Neighboring the Romans
As the neighbors to the Romans near the Danube, the Sarmatians were a major threat. They were unpredictable, even in times of peace, and would attack at the slightest provocation, becoming a major thorn in the Romans side. Furthermore, the Sarmatians were well known for their military prowess and horseback warfare. Sarmatians were masters of mounted warfare, both with bows and with spears.
Relief sculpture on Trajan’s Column in Rome (Italy) depicting a cavalry battle against the Sarmatians. ( Public domain )
The Sarmatian peoples developed unique methods of warfare that would influence all those that came in contact with them. Where iron was not available, they would devise efficient weapons out of other materials: arrowheads and spear blades were made of bone, and cornel wood was used for hafts and bows. They were also widely known for their use of scale armor breastplates, which early on were made from horse hoof or bone. Another defining military detail was the use of lassoes which they would throw around their enemies while they were on horseback, to drag them and put them out of action. Their highly powerful cavalry had a big influence on the Romans and their subsequent development of a functioning cavalry branch.
Every since their first contact with the Romans on the Danube, the Sarmatian tribes were at war. The biggest Sarmatian tribe on the Danube was that of the Iazyges, who joined up with the Germanic tribes between 167 to 180 during the Marcomannic Wars, fighting with them against the Romans. Between AD 173 and 174, the Iazyges tried to invade Pannonia on their own, but were defeated on the frozen river Danube by the forces of Marcus Aurelius. This forced them to make a peace with the Romans in the following year, 175 AD. Through this peace they had to supply the Romans with a sizeable military contingent made up of around 8,000 warrior hostages. From these, about 5,000 would later serve in Britannia.
Front panel of a Roman Sarcophagus whose relief represents the submission of the Sarmatians. ( Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / CC BY 3.0 )
During the following decades, the Sarmatian Iazyges were a restless neighbor to the Romans, against which the latter always led military expeditions. They once again enter the historic record around AD 236, when the Emperor Maximinus Thrax lead several military campaigns against the Iazyges, for which he attained the title “Sarmaticus Maximus”. After the Iazyges are defeated again in 282 AD by the Roman Emperor Carus, they frequently appeared as auxiliary troops in the Roman ranks.
Sarmatian Tribes: The Siraces, Aorsi, Roxolani, and the Iazyges
The Siraces, perhaps the smallest Sarmatian tribe, were still powerful enough to earn a fearsome reputation amongst their adversaries. Around the end of the 5th century BC, the Siraces would migrate en masse from the area of modern Kazakhstan and more towards the west, settling in the lands between the Caucasus mountains and the Don River, around the 4th century BC. It was here that the Sarmatians had one of the earliest contacts with the Greeks – through their colonies on the Black Sea.
The Sarmatians were "barbarian" nomadic peoples who were skillful at horseback warfare, showcasing their might to all who came in their way. ( Public domain )
As the decades progressed, the Siraces progressed in certain ways from their ancestral nomadic lifestyle from their base camp in their new homeland. Only the aristocracy preserved their nomadic traditions, while the rest of the tribe became settled to a large extent. Even though they were smaller than the other tribes, the Siraces could still amass a lot of men. Strabo tells us that the King of the Siraces, Abeacus (who ruled around the time of Pharnakes, King of the Bosporan Kingdom from 63-47 BC) could summon a considerable force of 20,000 mounted men. The Siraces adopted many Hellenic lifestyle aspects, but still preserved their Sarmatian identity.
Aorsi was the name of the more significant Sarmatian tribe, living to the North of the Siraces, behind the Don River. The Aorsi settled this area after migrating from the East, and could field a much larger army, with 200,000 horsemen apparently at their disposal. It is said that the Aorsi were the masters of the Caspian Coast region. They entered into a conflict with their cousins the Siraces around 50 AD, when they chose to support the pro-Roman faction in the Bosporan Wars. The Siraces were greatly weakened after this war and would eventually disappear from historic records around AD 193.
The Roxolani were one of the more important Sarmatian tribes, who together with the Iazyges roamed further west than the others. Settling in the area around the Sea of Azov, in modern day Southern Ukraine, the Roxolani are first mentioned around 107 BC. At this time they entered into a conflict against King Mithridates VI and their force of 50,000 horsemen was defeated. After this defeat, the Roxolani were forced into the service of Mithridates, with whom they waged war against the Romans.
The Iazyges on the other hand were much more capable and presented a larger threat to the Romans, especially as they settled furthest to the west of all the Sarmatian tribes. Their coexistence with both the Romans and the Roxolani fluctuated over the centuries, moving across the scale from enemies to allies. But it is clear that the Iazyges were a considerable threat to the Romans for many centuries.
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The Sarmatian tribes entered into a steep decline around the 4th century AD when Germanic Goths came into the picture, using their mighty force to attack the Sarmatians across the Danube. Afterwards, in the late 4th and the early 5th century, the rapid Hunnic expansion once more eclipsed the Sarmatians. They became subjects of Attila their numbers and significance waned. Eventually, the remaining Sarmatian tribes were assimilated by the Slavic tribes in the early medieval period, as early as 600 AD. Their closest relatives, the Alans, survived the longest, lasting into the early Middle Ages. Their DNA lives on today in the modern ethnic group of the Ossetians.
Scenes of battles between Romans, Sarmatians and Germans carved into a marble sarcophagus in Rome. ( Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / CC BY 4.0 )
The Eventual Failure of the Fierce Sarmatian Horsemen
The fate of ancient peoples is an old and oft repeated tale. Centuries pass and generations pass with them. The turning tides of war and migrations cause entire cultures and civilizations to disappear rapidly. Such is the story of the Sarmatian tribes. The vast steppes of Eurasia were home to these fierce horsemen, but the fate of the fierce is often destined to eventual failure. In their fierceness they raced west, in conquest and expansion, showcasing their might to all who came in their way. But this created wedges between the different Sarmatian tribes, causing them to drift apart, becoming enemies and eventually mercenaries to opposing sides. With their strength stretched and weakened, their downfall was an inevitable outcome. Nevertheless, the Sarmatians and the Scythians entered the pages of history as the mighty barbarians of the Eurasian Steppe .
Top image: The Sarmatians and Scythians were skillful at horseback warfare and fierce adversaries of the Romans and Greeks alike. Source: Lunstream / Adobe Stock.
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