The Original Sarmatians: The Men Who Fought Attila the Hun
default, invasion_of_the_alansgettyimages.jpg, Invasion of the Alans or Visigoths, Gaul, early 5th century. A print from La France et les Français à Travers les Siècles, Volume I, F Roy editor,, center
Who were the Sarmatians? Not only did they inspire Polish nobles to appropriate their identity over a thousand years later, but they were weed-smoking, skull-smashing feminists. The novelist Wojciech Zembaty explains what it was that made these nomadic barbarians so appealing to Polish polite society.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, the old tired world of the Romans crumbled away in long gradual agony we now call ‘The Fall of Rome’. The Europe that we know today has its roots in the ashes of the Western Roman Empire, as it was swept away by barbaric invaders, rebellions, burdensome taxes, plagues and climate change. Nothing was permanent, everything was possible. Some historians call this moment of history the ‘Dark Ages’, while some call it a heroic era.
The ancient Sarmatians, a group of nomadic tribes living around the Black Sea until late antiquity, are somehow underrated among the invading barbarians that contributed to these dramatic world-changing events. But when western parts of the Roman Empire were being trampled by barbarian invasions, the Sarmatians were some of the toughest bad-ass players out there causing destruction.
While most nomadic nations preferred hit-and-run tactics and horse archery, the Sarmatians were famous for charging with lances and their heavy armour-clad cavalry, the cataphracts. They stood their ground against the biggest empires around and saw off great barbarian despoilers, including the Romans, the Sassanid Persians and ‘The Scourge of God’ himself: Attila the Hun.
But the word ‘Sarmatism’ has since become a term denoting the unique eastern-influenced culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was because the Polish gentry of this period insisted that these ancient nomadic warriors were their ancestors, and this in turn affected all walks of life. What inspired the Poles to make these claims? It was almost certainly the Sarmatians’ awesome story.
Take the highway west
Ilustracja sarmaci i scytowie, Europa wschodnia. Ze zbiorów Muzeum Kresowego Muzycznego Domu, fot.
Reprodukcja. Piotr Mecik/Forum
Historically, the great open plain, the steppe reaching from Hungary, Poland and Ukraine as far as Central Asia, was always an open ‘highway’ for migrating nomadic tribes. They travelled with their cattle, following cycles of vegetation, the prosperity of green pastures, and avoiding the drought of summer.
The Sarmatians were Indo-European nomads related to modern Iranians. In the 4th century BC, they partially replaced, partially joined, the former rulers of eastern Europe, the Scythians. The switching of power and name was a pattern that often repeated itself on the steppe. Tribes migrated toward Europe, conquered vast regions and formed relationships with settled people, who provided them with farmed food, military levies and labour. And, inevitably, they would wane, then get hit by another wave. Throughout the centuries, eastern Europe was targeted by many nomadic waves, including Huns, Avars, Bulgars and Magyars. Their last step would be the plain of modern Hungary, the ‘puszta’, as it is was end of the ‘highway’, the last territory suitable for nomadic herds on their march westward.
It’s important to remember, that the identity of steppe peoples is always a tricky thing to pin down. The nomads didn’t usually write down their own history. We distinguish them thanks to the scant remarks of more ‘civilised’ ancient scholars for whom the nomads were often enemies and savages.
But scholars from Greece and Rome often lacked detailed knowledge and used names according to convention. For example, they might describe some tribe as ‘Scythians’ only because another respected writer did. On the other hand, modern knowledge based on archaeological findings has its own limitations. If we find ‘Sarmatian’ jewellery in a tomb, without any written description, it’s not always proof of a Sarmatian presence. It could come from trade, the spoils of war or even imitation… like an ancient knock-off of Nike shoes.
Tribal identity itself was usually strongest among the ruling elite. Thanks to their horses and superior weaponry, relatively small numbers of such nomads could control vast territories inhabited by various ethnicities. Thus, the particular various Sarmatian tribal names, such as Roxolani, Iazyges and Alans, can be perceived as emblems and logos, perhaps deliberately chosen, in order to scare enemies, and gather influence.
A terrifying reputation
Sarmatians. Two deformed human skulls. Probably dated in the 3rd century BC. Kerch Historical and Archaeological Museum. Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Ukraine, photo: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images
The bearded, long-haired, red-headed Scythians, were the first nomadic culture described by ancient scholars, such as Herodotus. They already showed features that would continue with later nomadic nations. No settled nation could defeat them, as they had no cities and towns to conquer. When the powerful Persian king Cyrus tried, the Scythians took his life. Alexander the Great did a little better, but even he didn’t try to control their lands.
Perhaps it was also some of their rather frightening hobbies which put off potential conquerors.
They collected the skulls of their enemies, cutting off the top above the eyebrow line, in order to make it stable, filling the skull with gold and using it upside-down as a cup for ‘kumys’, a wine-like beverage from the fermented mare’s milk. They liked to fashion human skin too, using it to make horse harnesses, saddles and armour. They used composite bows, made from wood and animal horn, and they loved to smoke marijuana.
This last hobby was cultivated in a special tent, resembling the spiritual sweat lodge tradition of native Americans, with cannabis seed thrown onto hot rocks and the ensuing weed haze absorbed by happy barbarians in a sauna-like manner. In the 17th century, the Polish nobleman writer and soldier Jan Pasek observed the same leisure activity among Crimean Tatars.
But the ancient Scythians and Sarmatians did something else that was far more shocking to their contemporaries, especially the Greeks. These blood-soaked, human skin-wearing, pot-smoking savages embraced feminism.
At the end of the 4th century, the famed court poet of Emperor Honorius mentioned two Sarmatian tribes in his writing:
The Massagetae who cruelly wound their horses that they may drink their blood, the Alans who break the ice and drink the waters of Maeotis’ lake.
Excerpt from In Rufinum by Claudian
One historian from the period, Ammian, mentioned their impressive body shape, blonde hair and fierce eyes. For some reason, the invading barbarians from the wilderness were always much bigger and stronger than the poor city folk they came upon. Maybe it was because of the fresh air. But the most shocking sight when Sarmatians appeared was their liberated women.
The first sources that mention Sarmatians often connect them with the legend of the Amazons. According to Herodotus, the Greeks in Asia Minor defeated a tribe of warlike women, and sent them, as slaves, onto a ship. The women rebelled, took control of the ship and settled in a lowly-populated area called Sarmatia, on the northern shores of the Black Sea. The Scythians fought them but to no avail, so later they sent lovers to face them instead of warriors. Thus the Sarmatians that arose were said to be the fruit of treachery and love, the children of rebel women and Scythian gigolos.
Another source comes from Hippocrates, patron of modern medicine, who wrote that Sarmatian girls stopped their right breast’s development during puberty by putting hot metal around the nipple. The goal of this practice was to preserve the right arm’s energy for archery. He also wrote that, in some tribes, a girl had to wait until she had killed at least three enemies before she was eligible for marriage.
These Amazon-like legends were well known and often repeated. And doubted. From the archaeological findings, we do know that well-born Sarmatian ladies were often buried with weapons, and that some of them were viewed by their tribes as powerful witches. According to the Gothic historian Jordanes, some expelled witches later became the mothers of the demonic Huns. Some of these deceased female warriors bear the marks of battle wounds upon examination, so their armour and weaponry were not just ceremonial.
Even the name ‘Sarmatians’ can be derived from the Indo-Aryan ‘sar’ which mean ‘rich in women’ or ‘ruled by women’. For the bigoted, masculinity-obsessed ancient Greeks, who were far from ideals of gender equality and kept their ladies imprisoned at home, the female warriors among the Scythians and Sarmatians were a shocking sight.
According to some modern scholars, Sarmatian gender equality was based on their environment. The harsh conditions of life on the steppe, with its extreme temperatures, droughts, wars and high probability of a tribe’s utter extinction, required that even women and children joined battles. Every widow had to remarry and their succession system, similar to the Celtic system of Tanistry, was also different from ‘civilised’ nations, giving more rights to women.
Enemies of Rome
Roman soldiers in battle against the Sarmatians. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration , photo: North Wind Picture Archive/East News
After becoming neighbours with the Roman Empire in the 1st century, Sarmatians acted as enemies, allies and mercenaries. During Traian’s conquer of Dacia, Sarmatian tribes first fought alongside the Dacians, but abandoned them before their final defeat. Emperor Marcus Aurelius died fighting the Germanic Quadians and the Sarmatian tribe of Iazyges. Because of his victories, he received two honourable nicknames and titles, ‘Germanicus’ and ‘Sarmaticus’, as those two words referred to the enemies of Rome from the North and the East.
The major defeat of the Iazyges during the so-called Sarmatian Wars was in a battle on the frozen river of Ister, the ancient name of the Danube. As described by Roman chronicler Dion, the nomads thought that the ice surface of the river would give them an advantage because their horses were used to such slippery terrain. But the Roman infantry weren’t routed. They stood closer, threw their shields on the ground and used them as a sturdy base for one foot. When the surprised Iazyges lost their initial impact, the Romans managed to grab them and throw them from their horses. In the chaotic, close-distance struggle, their heavier armour was a decisive factor.
Defeated Sarmatians were often spared and incorporated into the Roman army. Some Sarmatian auxiliaries, or support troops, travelled as far as Britain with them. Considering that Sarmatians are supposed to be the legendary ancestors of modern Poles, we could insist that a Polish presence on the British Isles is rather older than one might initially expect. As old as the presence of the Germanic ancestors of the English. As shown in the 2004 movie King Arthur, it was perhaps Sarmatian riders that contributed to the myth of the Romano-Brittonic hero who slew the ravaging Angles and Saxons, otherwise known as Arthur.
In battle, Sarmatians used a long lance wielded with both hands called a kontos. Supported by the weight of a charging horse, such a weapon could impale a few opponents at once. Their cavalry, especially of the Alans, were like the tanks of antiquity, the ancestors of Mediaeval knights. Most likely originating from Central Asia, the Sarmatian invention of the kontos influenced the military tactics of the Iranian empires of the Parthians and Sassanids. Since those were major enemies of Rome, the Eternal City had to adopt it too – from the 4th century onward, the kontos became a popular weapon among the Roman cavalry. Some believe that Sarmatians were also the inventors of stirrups, allowing riders to move and charge without fear of falling.
A cataphract, or heavily-armoured horseman, could fight against great numbers of enemies. But he was very expensive to equip and maintain. Quality over quantity. As a result, their favourite military tactic shaped their social system, and Sarmatian societies were far from egalitarian. The noble elite of these ‘proto knights’ controlled vast territories of conquered peasants from various tribes. Such slave-inhabited kingdoms were not too durable and prone to rebellions.
The age of migrations
Cultural history, from left: pre-christian garb of western europe, dacier, langobard duke arechis, 591-641, with environment, frank, scythians, historical illustration, photo: bildagentur-online/Getty Images
In the 4th century, the territories of the Sarmatian tribes were incorporated into the kingdom of Ermanaric, king of the eastern Goths, otherwise known as the Ostrogoths. His vast empire was said to have reached from the Ural Mountains to the Danube, from Finland to Crimea. It contained Germanic and Slavic tribes, various nomads, Greeks from old Black Sea colonies and even Finno-Ugric peoples from northern Russia. The Sarmatians seemed to dwell quite compatibly among the Goths and even taught them their cavalry tactics. But the reign of Ermanaric didn’t last long, as a new wave of invaders rolled through the Great Plain Highway.
It’s hard to judge whether the Huns were in reality as horrible and repulsive as Roman sources describe them. The Romans were certainly biased and scared. According to them, the Huns emerged from the fires of hell. Their skulls were deformed and their limbs twisted, with scarred plain faces and no mercy in their hearts. The Roman descriptions are quite racist, in fact, repeatedly mentioning the ‘narrow eyes’ of the Huns and their exotic flat faces. They even suggested that Huns flattened their babies‘ noses in order to make wearing a helmet easier. But it was propaganda. When the Huns invaded the Roman Empire, the were already a snowballing, multinational horde, absorbing all tribes in their path. According to archaeological research, only 20% of the warriors who reached Hungary had Mongolic features. The Romans thought that the Huns mark their faces with scars to prevent beards from growing, but it’s more likely that these self wounds were inflicted during funerals as part of mourning rituals. Other shocking and repulsive Hun habits, such as collecting skull caps, drinking human blood and eating the flesh of their foes (boiled in gigantic golden cauldrons), were in fact common to most barbaric tribes. One thing is sure though: they caused great turmoil.
The Hun invasion of Ukraine and western Russia was a stone that caused a great avalanche known as the Völkerwanderung, the great migration of nations. And just like Germanic Goths and other tribes, Sarmatians were forced to flee or obey when the Huns arrived. It was at that moment that most Sarmatian tribes disappeared from history. Defeated Sarmatians repeated the old pattern of the steppe’s ethnogenesis and became absorbed by a new wave of nomads.
The Alans cripple the Romans
Sacking of Rome by the Visigoths led by Alaric I in 410, during the reign of Emperor Honorius. Colored engraving, photo: Prisma/UIG via Getty Images
The only Sarmatian tribe that prevailed and managed to keep their identity until the modern era were the Alans. Some of them joined the Huns, while others stayed in their mountain fortresses in the Caucasus. Another group joined the fleeing western Goths, the Visigoths, as they tied to peacefully settle in the Roman province of Thracia (more or less where Bulgaria is today).
The Visigoths had their own reasons to hate the Romans. Fleeing before the Huns, the Goths made an agreement with the Romans, who let them settle as foederati within their territories. The whole nation first crossed the Danube and reached Thracia, where they were to be put into refugee camps controlled by Roman officials and fed.
The feeding part didn’t work out so well. Emperor Valens wanted to settle these barbarians in the border lands, and gradually turn them into settlers and soldiers. But local Romans hated Goths, according to some scholars, because of religious differences. But generally, migrating barbarians were both feared and hated around then. Corrupted officials engaged in stealing most of the migrants’ provisions and selling them off. The proud Visigoths were soon forced to sell their family heirlooms, armour and swords so that they could exchange them for anything edible. They even munched on rotten dog carcasses before the Romans suggested that since their nice weapons and treasures had already been sold off, perhaps they would sell their children into slavery. This was the final straw for the Visigoths.
The result was a major Gothic rebellion and the Romans’ greatest military defeat, and perhaps the most influential: the Battle of Adrianople in the year 378. The Alans fought as allies to the victorious Visigoths. The Romans were utterly destroyed, losing their whole imperial army of 40,000 men and Emperor Valens himself and, what was most disastrous, their whole officer cadre, which was never rebuilt. Some believe that they lost this battle because their iconic unit, heavy infantry, was proven to be obsolete when confronted with the heavy lancers of the Alans and Visigoths. Either way, from that point on, the Romans lost their ability to stop invading barbarians by themselves. Until the age of Justinian and Belisarius, namely the next 150 years or so, they were forced to rely on fragile and desperate alliances with other barbarians. It was not even their famous tactic of ‘divide et impera’ (divide and conquer), but rather ‘sic them against each other and pray we survive’.
Turning against Attila
Until the year 406, most of the Alans acted as involuntary allies of the Huns. But that year, the opportunity for rebellion appeared. One of two major natural and military borders of the Western Roman Empire, the Rhine river, froze. At the same moment, the thinned-out Roman forces were called to Italy, threatened by barbarians. The Alans took their chance. They crossed the Rhine and forged a new alliance with the Germanic tribe known as the Vandals. From then on, the Alans started to act like various smaller warbands, rather than one tribal nation. Some tribes remained in the east, establishing their Caucasian strongholds. Those Alans are the only Sarmatian nation that have survived until today. Now they are known as Ossetians, their lands today spread across Russia and Georgia and still famously contested.
The group that joined the Vandals went on to plunder Gaul, leaving ruins in their path. The Vandals were quite famous for their destructive skills. In Spain, these Alans were exterminated by their old rivals, the Visigoths. The surviving Alans helped the Vandals conquer Carthage, burn the entire Roman fleet and famously sack the city of Rome.
Another group, led by King Saul, allied with the Romans. They took part in the Battle of Pollentia in the year 402, when the Roman army attacked the Visigoths, who were trying to invade Italy. The Visigoths were Arian Christians then, and on that date of 6th April, they were celebrating the important mass of Easter. It was highly inappropriate for the Romans to attack their foes on such an occasion. Luckily for them, the allied Alan army was pagan. They had nothing against the devious and surprising attack on the praying Goths. Many died, including the charging King Saul. The Gothic king Alaric lost his family, who were taken as hostages, and the battle is considered one of the last Roman victories – even if there were not many actual ‘Romans’ on the battlefield.
In the last decades of the Western Roman Empires, most of its forces, from common soldiers to leading generals, were barbarians. The Christian population didn’t want to fight, or just couldn’t, unable to bear the weapons and armour of their forefathers. High taxation caused many to rebel, with locals often welcoming barbarian invaders and joining them. The Alans helped to crush such a rebellion in northern France in the Armorica region. Later, this part of Gaul was colonised by refugees from Britain, who were running away from the Saxons. The Alans settled there, adapted well and eventually assimilated. Their descendants were probably part of William the Conqueror’s army, slaughtering Harold’s infantry on the slopes of Hastings in 1066, the battle that changed Britain’s history for good.
Perhaps the most famous achievement of the Alans was the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, also known as the Battle of Chalons. In 451 AD, Attila the Hun invaded Gaul. Attila was in charge of a great coalition of more then twenty tribes, but the same could be say about his opponent, the Roman general Flavius Aetius. Calculations vary, but both armies counted circa 100,000 soldiers.
His army contained a few Roman officers, garrison soldiers from abandoned fortresses on the Rhine, allied Visigoths, Britons from Armorica, allied Saxons and many more. During the battle, the Alans, led by King Sangiban, were placed in the very centre against the elite corps of Attila himself. According to the Gothic historian Jordanes, who hated the Alans, it was because they couldn’t be trusted. Another explanation is that they were the only ones, among the desperate assembly of Roman forces, who could match him. And they did, piling mountains of bodies onto the battlefield. They forced Attila to flee for the first time, saving Gaul and ruining his legend of invincibility. According to some historians, starting with Edward Gibbon, this battle was crucial in preserving European civilisation. Today, many don’t agree with that pompous opinion, stating that the Hun empire crumbled anyway after the death of Attila. One thing is sure: without the Alans, we wouldn’t even be having this debate.
Can we speak of a Sarmatian legacy today? Of course, there is North and South Ossetia and its language, related to ancient Sarmatian and other Indo-Iranian languages. But it’s a mystery how the Alans managed to survive there. For sure, the mountains of the Caucasus were a good hideout. According to some historians, the Alans were too mean, warlike and fierce to simply melt into the local population. Considering that legendarily cruel nomads, such as the Huns and Avars, melted without a trace, this might be considered a very particular compliment. For example, many geographical names in France still keep the ‘Alan’ part as a memory of their military settlers and local conquerors. But perhaps the most enduring part of their legacy is the mediaeval horse-mounted knight. According to historian Michel Rouche, the famous cavalry tactic of the Alans was the inspiration for the early knights that originated in France.
And there’s pants. It was ancient nomads who invented trousers, as popular male skirts, robes, tunics and chitons were not really meant for the saddle. The Celts and Germans took the custom from them. ‘Trouser-wearing’ was even a popular offensive term in ancient Greece and Rome, referring to people who were filthy savages like Scythians, Sarmatians and Gauls. So each time you zip them up, remember.
Today, the ancient steppe people are revered in Ukraine and Russia. There is also the phenomenon of Polish Sarmatism, a cultural trend from the 16th and 17th century. A thousand years after the Battle of Chalons, another nation of riders, from the lands on the edge of The Great Steppe, decided that they were the new Sarmatians, descendants of Attila’s enemies. The Poles had many reasons for that, one of them being the contemporary fashion back then to seek out such glorious ancestors. The ruling Polish nobles would use their supposed Sarmatian legacy to distinguish themselves as a political elite, claiming different ethnic origins over the ‘inferior’ remainder of society, namely peasants and townsfolk. Also, they wanted a reputation as people who could control vast lands. The Sarmatian period in Poland comes soon after Poland and Lithuania came together in the Union of Lublin to create the mega-state known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The ruling Polish nobles most likely wanted to establish themselves as hard-nosed survivors that were able to deal with any foe, just like the Sarmatians.
You could say that the reputation of brave, warlike horsemen earned by those ancient warriors makes for an attractive brand worth attaching yourself to. Even if they did wear the skin of their enemies.
Written by Wojciech Zembaty, Dec 2018