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IRANIAN PEOPLES

THE SARMATIANS


 

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Nomadic and sedentary (Imperial) Iranic Peoples in 6th century BCE

 

 

Sarmatians, Sarmatae or Sauromatae (the second form is mostly used by the earlier Greek writers, the other by the later Greeks and the Romans) were a people whom Herodotus (4.21-117) in the 5th century BC put on the eastern boundary of Scythia beyond the Tanais (Don). They were Iranian people akin to the Scythians / Saka. The numerous Iranian personal names in the Greek inscriptions from the Black Sea Coast indicate that the Sarmatians spoke North-Eastern Iranian dialect related to Sogdian and Ossetic.

Herodotus (4.110-117) reports a tale of the origin of the Sauromatae, as the descendants of a band of young Scythian men and a group of Amazons, in this way explaining what would have been their N.-East Iranian language – as an impure form of Scythian – and the unusual freedoms of Sauromatae women, including participation in warfare – as an inheritance from their Amazon ancestors. Later writers call some of them the "woman-ruled Sarmatae" (γυναικοκρατούμενοι). Hippocrates (De Aere, etc., 24) classes them as Scythian.

Tacitus disparaged the Sarmatians (Germania, ch. 46) whom he placed in woodlands, not steppes, and thought had a "degraded aspect"; his picture of Sarmatians as "living on horseback and in wagons" sounds more likely.

Later, Pausanias, viewing votive offerings near the Athenian Acropolis in the 2nd century AD (Description of Greece 1.21.5-6), found among them: 

 

a Sauromatic 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, illustation top right.

The greater part of the names occurring in the inscriptions of Olbia, Tanais and Panticapaeum are supposed to be Sarmatian, and as they have been well explained from the Iranian language now spoken by the Ossetians of the Caucasus (the Ossetic language), these are supposed to be the modern representatives of the Sarmatians and can be shown to have a direct connection with the Alans, one of their tribes.

By the 3rd century BC the Sarmatians appear to have supplanted the Scythians proper in the plains of what is now south Ukraine, where they remained dominant until the Gothic and Hunnish invasions. Their chief divisions were the Rhoxolani; the Iazyges, with whom the Romans had to deal on the Danube and Theiss; the Taiphali; and the Alani.

Herodotus describes Sarmatians' physical appearence as blond, stout and tanned.

Sarmatians were still a force the Romans had to reckon with in the late 4th century AD. Ammianus Marcellinus (29.6.13-14) describes a severe defeat which Sarmatian raiders inflicted upon Roman forces in the province of Valeria in Pannonia in late 374, when they almost annihilated both a legion recruited from Moesia and one from Pannonia, which had been sent to intercept a party of Sarmatians who had been pursuing a senior Roman officer named Aequitius deep into Roman territory; the two legions failed to coordinate, and their quarrelling allowed the Sarmatians to catch them unprepared and deal a stunning blow.

The term Sarmatia is applied by later writers to as much as was known of what is Central and Eastern Europe, including all that which the older authorities call Scythia, the latter name being transferred to regions farther east. Ptolemy's Geography gave maps of European and Asiatic Sarmatia.

 

 

Bibliography:

Brzezinski, R., et al, The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450 (in series Men-At-Arms 373) I

Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. 2002. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines. Warner Books, New York. 1st Trade printing, 2003.

Tadeusz Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (vol. 73 in series "Ancient People and Places") Praeger Publishers, 1970

 

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