The Sarmatians

Sarmatia: Poland’s Mythic Golden Age? – Crazy Polish Guy

The Sarmatians were a nomadic people who lived in the Black Sea steppe (modern-day Ukraine) at the time of the Roman Empire. They spoke an East Iranian language and lived on horseback and in covered wagons. Renowned warriors, the Sarmatians inspired legends as far as England and Greece.

Sarmatians and their predecessors the Scythians shared a similar culture. Both smoked cannabis, scalped their enemies and drank horse milk from human skulls. They were taller than their settled neighbours, and allegedly had red hair and light eyes.  Herodotus claimed women held equal social status to men and fought in battle alongside them. Modern historians denied his claims as fanciful until 20th century grave discoveries revealed Sarmatian women buried with armour and weapons.

According to legend, the Sarmatians were born of Scythian fathers and Amazon mothers. Herodotus claimed when the Greeks defeated the Amazons – a mythical nation of warrior women – they loaded prisoners onto a ship in the Black Sea. The captives mutinied and escaped into the marshes of Crimea. Here they met the Scythians, the land’s nomadic inhabitants. A group of Scythian men interloped with the escaped Amazons and their children became the Sarmatians.

According to the archaeological record, the Sarmatians originally lived east of the Scythians in modern-day Kazakhstan. Around the 3rd century BC, they migrated west and absorbed the Scythians, now ‘softened’ by sedentary Greek culture.

A HISTORY OF UKRAINE. EPISODE 10. THE SARMATIANSThe Sarmatians were not a single nation but a collection of nomadic tribes sharing a common culture. These included the Roxolani, Iazeges and Alans. Sarmatian warriors often raided the Roman Empire and were later part of the migrations which brought Rome to her knees.

Unlike other steppe nations such as the Scythians and Huns, Sarmatians favoured armoured lancers over mobile horse archers.  Their cavalry dominated ancient battlefields. Hippocrates, a Roman doctor, claimed Sarmatian women could not marry until they killed three men in battle.

In the winter of AD 171, Emperor Marcus Aurelius defeated a Sarmatian army on the frozen Danube. As tribute, 5,500 Sarmatian horsemen joined the Roman army. The emperor resettled the Sarmatian recruits to the frontier of Roman Britain to hold back the Celts beyond Hadrian’s Wall. These mounted warriors may have inspired the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Scythians and Sarmatians – Renegade Tribune

When the Huns invaded the Sarmatian homeland, only the Alan tribe survived. One group headed west, the other south. The first group joined Goths, Huns and Vandals as they moved into the Roman Empire, with some travelling as far as North Africa. Sarmatian cavalry were critical in the defeat of Attila the Hun at the Battle of Catalaunian Plains in AD 451.

Some Sarmatians forged a small kingdom in Central Europe, ruling over Slavic peasants. Their descendants are the Sorbs (or Wends), a West Slavic minority who still live in Germany today. The old Polish aristocracy also claimed descent from Sarmatian conquerors. Ultimately, the western Sarmatians assimilated into the developing Slavic and western European nations. The Spanish region of Catalonia is named after the Alans, as is the English name Alan.

The second group settled in the defensible Caucasus Mountains, where they became the Ossetians, an ethnic group who still speak an East Iranian language today.

Sources:, Herodotus – The Histories, Iranica Online, John Man – Amazons: the Warrior Women of the Ancient World

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Attila the Hun

Meaning, origin and history of the name Attila - Behind ...

Attila the Hun (400 – 453) is the most famous of the barbarian conquerors who destroyed the Roman Empire. He was the last and greatest leader of the Huns and built an empire covering Germany and most of Eastern Europe. Known as the ‘Scourge of God’, the name of Attila stirs fear to this day.

The Huns arrived in Ukraine in AD 370. Steppe nomads from the Eurasian interior, Huns practised cranial deformation and scarred the cheeks of their boys so they could not grow beards. Masters of mounted archery and psychological warfare, they terrified the peoples of Europe.

Rome, at the time, was still rich but split between east and west, ruled by weak men and overly reliant on barbarians to fight its wars. In the early 400s Germanic peoples like the Goths and Vandals, whose very names were bywords for terror and destruction, flooded the empire’s borders by force. The migrations shook Rome to its core. The Huns were behind it all.

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The Hunnic Empire in AD 450

Attila was born in modern-day Hungary in 406. He shared the Hunnic crown with his brother Bleda until he murdered him and took over. Attila threw his armies against the Eastern Empire until they paid him off. His army included not only Huns but Skirians, Gepids, Sarmatians, Lombards and Ostrogoths – any peoples willing to join. By AD 450 he ruled Rome’s barbarian frontier.

Priscus was the only writer to have met Attila in person. He describes him as short but fierce, humble but ambitious, kind to his friends but ruthless to his foes. While his commanders lavished in Roman silver, Attila ate with wooden plates and utensils and dressed in a humble nomad’s robes. Like Dracula, he impaled his enemies on wooden stakes.

In 451, Attila went west.  Honoria, a Roman princess cloistered to an older man wrote to the king, offering herself as his bride, and all Gaul as her dowry.  Attila’s army crossed the Rhine. As he marched on Orleans, Aetius, a Roman commander who had spent his boyhood a hostage amongst the Huns, forged an unlikely alliance with Rome’s old enemies the Visigoths. They defeated Attila’s army at the Catalaunian Plains, near modern-day Chalons.  Attila withdrew to Germany and licked his wounds.

Next, he invaded Italy. Attila razed the city of Aquileia and marched on Rome. Pope Leo met Attila and persuaded him not to go further. Legend has it he reminded him of Alaric the Goth, who died shortly after sacking the eternal city in 410. God would punish Attila with the same fate were he to follow in Alaric’s footsteps. Attila did retreat, though it was less likely Leo’s words and more an outbreak of malaria in the ranks.

Attila the Hun’s mistake was never building a legacy. Centuries later Genghis Khan recognised that for steppe conquerors to survive, they had to adapt. He named an heir and adopted the customs of the conquered. Attila did not. He was content to remain a marauder for life, moving from place to place, burning cities and taking loot. When he died, the vassal tribes broke away and his sons and generals destroyed the empire fighting over the scraps. The last of the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 466. The rest joined other tribes or vanished eastward.

Attila the Hun bears a mixed legacy. He is loved in Germany and Hungary but hated in Italy and France. The Hungarians, despite arriving 800 years later, see him as an ancestral spirit.

The Western Roman Empire outlived Attila but fell in 476 when the Germanic general Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Both their fathers had ridden with Attila the Hun.

Sources: John Man – Attila, the Barbarian King who Challenged Rome

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Turkic Migrations

possible turksThe Turkic Migrations were the greatest population movement before Colombus.  Throughout the Middle Ages, Turkic speaking nomads conquered and settled across Central Asia and Anatolia – assimilating some, replacing others. Once slave-soldiers, they came to rule the Muslim world.

Today there are seven Turkic nations, ordered by population:

  • Turkey
  • Azerbaijan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Kyrgyzstan

Significant minorities also live in Russia and China.

The Turks originated in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. Their name comes from the Chinese Tujue, meaning combat helmet, after a hill where they once lived. The early Turks were horse nomads and raiders who wrote in a runic script, worshipped the sky and worked iron.

The Gokturk Khaganate (Celestial Turks) ruled the Asian Steppe from 552-744. Under the Gokturks a common Turkic identity was born and when the confederation fell, Turkic peoples migrated in all directions, intermarrying with and absorbing native peoples where they went. Accordingly, the wider Turkic ethnicity encompasses a range of peoples and appearances.

Their migratory waves are reflected through language.

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Speakers of the Oghur branch were the first Turks to migrate west (unless counting the Huns, who may have been Turkic). They included the Khazars, Bulgars and Chuvash. The Khazars, who converted to Judaism, ruled Ukraine from 648 – 1048. The Bulgars forged an empire in the Balkans, became Orthodox Christians and assimilated with their Slavic subjects. Only Chuvash in Russia is still spoken. In the Oghur languages, the common ‘z’ suffix becomes ‘r’: both ‘Oghur’ and ‘Oghuz’ mean tribe.

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The Kipchak Branch is named after the Kipchak Confederation (1067-1271) of southern Russia. They fought against, then for the Mongols when they invaded, from whom many descend. Most were Muslim by the 1300s and, of all the Turks, stayed nomads the longest. They include the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tatars and Bashkirs.

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The Siberian Branch
migrated northward before the rise of the Gokturks and mingled with the indigenous forest people. They traditionally herded reindeer and bred cattle and ponies to withstand Siberian winters. Today they mix Turkic shamanism with ‘modern’ religions – Christianity for the Yakuts and Buddhism for the Tuvans.  

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The Southeastern Branch includes Uzbek and Uyghur.  The Uyghurs of Mongolia overthrew the eastern Gokturks and in the 800s, migrated to western China. They settled down, adopted agriculture, a written script and Manichaeism. They were Buddhist for a time then Muslim.  The Uzbeks settled the oasis cities of Central Asia as soldiers in the Mongol Horde, ruling until the Russians came.

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The Oghuz
of Central Asia were heirs to the Gokturks. After converting to Islam, Oghuz Turks served as slaves, mercenaries and bodyguards for Persian and Arab lords. So reliant did the caliph in Baghdad become on his Turkic generals, that by the 900s, the Seljuk tribe was the power behind the throne.

In 1071 a Seljuk army defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert and seized Anatolia.  Turkic tribes flooded the region and over time native Greeks and Armenians adopted Islam and the Turkish language. The remainder were killed or expelled in the early 20th century. The modern Turkish are genetically closer to Greeks and Armenians than other Turkic people: only 15-20% of their ancestry being Central Asian. Azeri, Turkish and Turkmen belong to the Oghuz Branch.

Turkish migrations.jpg

Turkic migrations. Sakha – Yakut, Cuman- Kipchak.

The Diplomat,, Science on the Web, Wikipedia

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Steppe People

Mongolia – Pure adventure with a Nomadic family – The Inspirer
The Eurasian steppe is a sea of grass stretching from Hungary to Manchuria.
In the old days, it supported neither agriculture nor cities. Its inhabitants were pastoral nomads who lived in felt tents and moved with the seasons, living on a diet of meat and dairy from their herds.

The harsh steppe climate and nomadic life bred tough warriors. Steppe peoples like the Turks and Mongols were raised on the saddle, and masters of the bow. What nomads couldn’t raise themselves they took from others. Farmers proved easy targets. Raiders plundered settled communities of animals, valuables and slaves then melted away before organised armies could respond.  In the cutthroat world of the steppe, only the warlike survived.

south korena mounted archer.jpg

Skilled mounted archers fire when all four hooves are off the ground to get a clear shot.

The saddle, stirrups and composite bow revolutionised nomadic warfare. Mounted archers could stand in their stirrups and fire at full gallop, controlling their horse with their knees. Under Genghis Khan the average Mongol warrior could twelve arrows a minute and hit a bird mid-flight. Man for man, cumbersome foot soldiers were little match for an organised nomadic army.

What nomads lacked, however, was the unity and numbers of their civilized neighbours. Canny rulers strove to keep the steppe tribes weak and divided through tribute, espionage or bribery. Chinese and Roman Emperors and Arab caliphs hired nomadic cavalry to fight on their behalf.

Eurasian steppe

The Eurasian steppe (blue) covers parts of modern-day China, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Hungary

Occasionally a charismatic warlord or khan united the tribes against their neighbours – a constant fear for the peoples of Europe, China and the Middle East. Men like Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Attila the Hun slaughtered millions. After a few generations, however, barbarian overlords would typically ‘civilise’, settle down and adopt the ways of their subjects. In some cases – as in Turkey or Hungary – they retained their language and cultural identity; in others they assimilated completely – like the Mongols in Iran and China.

The Orkhon Inscription of 8th century Mongolia reads:orkhon.jpg

“The Chinese with silver and gold and sweet enticements draw the [Turkic] peoples into their style of life. Their lazy courts drew our peoples to them and as a result many have died and have been ultimately conquered by the Chinese. Deserting the dark forest many looked toward the south saying ‘I would settle in the plains’. O Turks if you go and settle in that country, you will perish! But if you remain nomads in the forest, where there are neither riches nor cares, you will preserve an ever-lasting empire O Turks!”

Indo-Europeans were the first to domesticate the horse. In ancient times they roamed the steppe on chariots and spread their languages across India, Europe and Iran. Notable examples are the Scythians, Sarmatians and Goths.

The Huns triggered the Germanic Migrations which destroyed Rome, and forged a brief empire in Eastern Europe. Their cousins, the Hephthalites and Sveta Hunna, ravaged Central Asia and northern India in the 5th century.

The Turks arose in Eastern Mongolia in the 500s. When the Chinese expelled them they migrated west. After Genghis Khan annihilated the Iranians of Central Asia, Turkic peoples took their place.

Magyars from the Ural Mountains terrorised Europe in the 900s. In 1000 they converted to Catholicism and founded Hungary.

Charge of the Mongol cavalry in Northern China | East ...

The Mongols conquered history’s greatest land empire in the 12th century. Of their successors, however, only the Golden Horde in Russia maintained a nomadic existence. The Mongols and ancient Turks lived similar lifestyles but spoke different languages. They worshipped the sky god Tengri and called their rulers ‘Khagans’. By 1000 AD most Turks were Muslim.

Despite their prowess, nomadic warriors could not compete against firearms. A rifle, unlike the bow, requires little skill to use. From the 15th to 19th centuries, the Russians and Chinese tamed the steppe and subjugated its people.  The age of the nomadic empire was at an end.

Today (outer) Mongolia and the Turkic nations of Central Asia are independent. East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia remain part of China. Roughly 40% of Mongolia’s people still live as nomads.

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