Approximate extent of East Iranian languages in the first century BC is shown in orange.
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The Sarmatians, Sarmatæ or Sauromatæ (Persian: سَرمَتی ها, Old Iranian Sarumatah 'archer', Greek: Σαρμάται) were a people of Ancient Iranian origin. Mentioned by classical authors, they migrated from Central Asia to the Ural Mountains around fifth century B.C. and eventually settled in most of southern European Russia, Ukraine, and the eastern Balkans.
At their greatest reported extent these tribes ranged from the Vistula River to the mouth of the Danube and eastward to the Volga, and from the mysterious domain of the Hyperboreans in the north, southward to the shores of the Black and Caspian seas, including the region between them as far as the Caucasus mountains. The richest tombs and the most significant finds of Sarmatian artifacts have been recorded in the Krasnodar Krai of Russia.
Around the year 100 BC, Sarmatian land ranged from the Barents Sea or Baltic Sea ("Oceanus Sarmaticus") to a tributary of the Vistula River, to the Carpathian Mountains, to the mouth of the Danube, then eastward along the northern coast of the Black Sea, across the Caucasus to the Caspian Sea and north along the Volga up to the polar circle.
In 1947, the leading Soviet historian Boris Grakov defined a culture apparent in late Kurgan graves, sometimes reusing part of much older Kurgans. It is a nomadic steppe culture ranging from the Black Sea to beyond the Volga, and is especially evident at two of the major sites at Kardaielova and Chernaya in the trans-Uralic steppe.
The date of the culture (from the seventh century BC to the fourth century AD) and the location are in synchronicity with the written information we have about the Sarmatians. Accordingly Grekov defined four phases:
The Sarmatians of Ptolemy fall into the Middle Sarmatian period. However, Grekov’s Sarmatia does not extend at all into the Balto-Slavic range, where the two elements have their own archeologies descending to the Balts and the Slavs.
Already anchored in the west in eastern Europe, the Huns were located to the north of the Alans and extended east to the borders of the Han Dynasty. These Huns were quite peaceful trading partners of the Alans. Their archeology and mode of life is nearly indistinguishable from that of the Alans. The various peoples of the extensive eastern plains did own distinctive bronze kettles. Also, the graves of the people of central Asia, including those of the Huns, include remains that many believe are of mixed features, just as are the peoples of central Asia today.
Whatever happened in the east to bring warriors from there upon the Alans did not introduce a new people to the steppes or to Europe. As far as the Sarmatians are concerned, the Hunnic augment from the east only worked an ethnic reversal of dominance. Some Alans chose to flee to the Romans and others to fight for the Huns. The former disappeared into Europe long ago, while the latter remain in the Caucasus region.
Herodotus (Histories 4.21) in the fifth century BC placed the land of the Sarmatians east of the Tanais, beginning at the corner of the Maeotian Lake, stretching northwards for fifteen days' journey, adjacent to the forested land of the Budinoi. Herodotus describes the Sarmatians' physical appearance as blond, stout and tanned; in short, pretty much as the Scythians and Thracians were seen by the other classical authors.
Herodotus (4.110-117), unaware of the Iranic name of this group, standing for 'archers', presents a fanciful pseudo-etymology of the Sauromatae, which he incorrectly derives from the Greek homophone 'Σαυρομάτης, "one who has lizard-like eyes", and explains it as being the unfortunate result of marriage between a band of young Scythian men and a group of Amazons. In the story, some Amazons were captured in battle by Greeks in Pontus (northern Turkey) near the river Thermodon, and the captives were loaded into three boats. They overcame their captors while at sea, but were not able sailors. Their ships were blown north to the Maeotian Lake (the Sea of Azov) onto the shore of Scythia near the cliff region (today's southeastern Crimea). After encountering the Scythians and learning the Scythian language, they agreed to marry Scythian men, but only on the condition that they move away and not be required to follow the customs of Scythian women. According to Herodotus the descendants of this band settled toward the northeast beyond the Tanais (Don) river and became the Sauromatians. Herodotus' account explains the origins of the Sarmatians' language as an "impure" form of Scythian and credits the unusual freedoms of Sauromatae women, including participation in warfare, as an inheritance from their supposed Amazon ancestors. Later writers refer to the "woman-ruled Sarmatae" (γυναικοκρατούμενοι). However, the fanciful and proven erroneous fictional additions by Herodotus regarding the etymology of the name of the Sarmatian people, i.e. Sauromatae, as being "one who has lizard-like eyes" (a ridiculous invention, when in fact the term Sauromatae actually means "Archer" from Indo-Iranian languages) indicates that Herodotus' account of the origins of the Sarmatians as being descendants of mythological Amazons is also very likely a fictional invention designed to explain certain idiosyncrasies of Sarmatian culture.
Hippocrates (De Aere, etc., 24) explicitly classes them as Scythian.
Strabo mentions the Sarmatians in a number of places, never saying very much about them. He uses both Sarmatai and Sauromatai, but never together, and never suggesting that they are different peoples. He often pairs Sarmatians and Scythians in reference to a series of ethnic names, never stating which is which, as though Sarmatian or Scythian could apply equally to them all.
In Strabo the Sarmatians extend from above the Danube eastward to the Volga, and from north of the Dnepr into the Caucasus, where, he says, they are called Caucasii like everyone else there. This statement indicates that the Alans already had a home in the Caucasus, without waiting for the Huns to push them there.
Even more significantly he points to a Celtic admixture in the region of the Basternae, who, he says, are of Germanic origin. The Celtic Boii, Scordisci and Taurisci are there. A fourth ethnic element being melted in are the Thracians (7.3.2). Moreover, the peoples toward the north are Keltoskythai, "Celtic Scythians" (11.6.2).
Strabo also portrays the peoples of the region as being nomadic, or Hamaksoikoi, "wagon-dwellers" and Galaktophagoi, "milk-eaters" referring, no doubt, to the universal koumiss eaten in historical times. The wagons were used for porting tents made of felt, which must have been the yurts used universally by Asian nomads.
Pliny the Elder writes (4.12.79-81):
|“||From this point (the mouth of the Danube) all the races in general are Scythian, though various sections have occupied the lands adjacent to the coast, in one place the Getae … at another the Sarmatae … Agrippa describes the whole of this area from the Danube to the sea … as far as the river Vistula in the direction of the Sarmatian desert … The name of the Scythians has spread in every direction, as far as the Sarmatae and the Germans, but this old designation has not continued for any except the most outlying sections ....||”|
According to Pliny Scythian rule once extended as far as Germany. Jordanes supports this hypothesis by telling us on the one hand that he was familiar with the Geography of Ptolemy, which includes the entire Balto-Slavic territory in Sarmatia, and on the other that this same region was Scythia. By "Sarmatia", Jordanes means only the Aryan territory. The Sarmatians therefore did come from the Scythians.
All Germania is divided from Gaul, Raetia, and Pannonia by the Rhine and Danube rivers; from the Sarmatians and the Dacians by shared fear and mountains. The Ocean laps the rest, embracing wide bays and enormous stretches of islands. Just recently, we learned about certain tribes and kings, whom war brought to light.
According to Tacitus, like the Persians, the Sarmatians wore long, flowing robes (ch 17). Moreover, the Sarmatians exacted tribute from the Cotini and Osi, and iron from the Cotini (ch. 43), “to their shame” (presumably because they could have used the iron to arm themselves and resist).
By the third century BC, the Sarmatian name appears to have supplanted the Scythian in the plains of what is now south Ukraine. The geographer, Ptolemy, reports them at what must be their maximum extent, divided into adjoining European and central Asian sections. Considering the overlap of tribal names between the Scythians and the Sarmatians, no new displacements probably took place. The people were the same Indo-Europeans they used to be, but now under yet another name.
|“||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 corneal-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. These facts are not necessarily incompatible with Tacitus, as the western Sarmatians might have kept their iron to themselves, it having been a scarce commodity on the plains.
The greater part of the foreign names occurring in the inscriptions of Olbia, Tanais and Panticapaeum are supposed to be Sarmatian, and as they have been well explained from the Iranic 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.
In the late fourth century A.D. 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 A.D. The Sarmatians almost destroyed 2 legions: one recruited from Moesia and one legion from Pannonia. The last had been sent to intercept a party of Sarmatians which had been in pursuit of a senior Roman officer named Aequitiu. The two legions failed to coordinate allowing the Sarmatians to catch them unprepared.
The Sarmatians remained dominant until the Gothic ascendancy in the Black Sea area and then disappeared at the Hunnish destruction of the Gothic empire and subsequent invasion of central Europe. From bases in Hungary the Huns ruled the entire former Sarmatian territory. Their various constituents enjoyed a floruit under Hunnish rule, fought for the Huns against a combination of Roman and Germanic troops, and went their own ways after the Battle of Chalons (a stand-off), the death of Attila and the disappearance of the Chuvash ruling elements west of the Volga.
Goths attacked Sarmatian tribes on the north of the Danube in what is today Romania. The Roman Emperor Constantine called Constantine II up from Galia in order to run the campaign. In very cold weather the Romans were overwhelmingly victorious, destroying 100,000 Goths and capturing Ariaricus the son of the Goth king.[7 ]
In their efforts to halt the Goth expansion on the north of Lower Danube (present-day Romania), the Sarmatians armed their slaves. However, after the Roman victory the local population revolted against their Sarmatian masters, pushing them beyond the Roman border. Constantine, on whom the Sarmatians had called for help, defeated Limigantes, the leader of the revolt, and moved the Sarmatian population back in. In the Roman provinces, Sarmatian combatants were enlisted in the Roman army, whilst the rest of the population was distributed throughout Thracia, Macedonia and Italy. Origo Constantini mentions 300,000 refugees resulting from this conflict. The emperor Constantine was subsequently attributed the title of SARMATICUS MAXIMUS.[7 ]
Ancient DNA of 13 Sarmatian remains from Pokrovka and Meirmagul kurgans was extracted for comparative analysis. Most of the genetic traits determined were of western Eurasian origin, while only a few were of central/east Asian origin.
In a recent excavation of Sarmatian sites by Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, a tomb was found wherein female warriors were buried, thus lending some credence to the myths about the Amazons. Amazons are reported as Sauromatae wives.
In Hungary a great Late Sarmatian pottery center was reportedly unearthed between 2001–2006 near Budapest, in Üllő5 archaeological site. Typical gray, granular Üllő5 ceramics forms a distinct group of Sarmatian pottery found everywhere in the north-central part of the Great Hungarian Plain region, indicating a lively trading activity. A recent paper on the study of glass beads found in Sarmatian graves suggests wide cultural and trade links.
Those Sarmatians, being in the early Iranian range of south Russia, were probably 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 there spoke a north-eastern Iranian dialect related to Sogdian and Ossetic.
Like the Scythians, Sarmatians were of Caucasian appearance; before the arrival of the Huns it is thought that few of the western steppe peoples had Asiatic or Turco-Mongol features.
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Below is a list of tribes considered by various ancient writers to be among the people called Sarmatian, or to be in territory considered Sarmatian. Note that the political and ethnic affiliations of the Sarmatians as well as their territory varied somewhat over the centuries. Authors do not all identify the same tribes.
One can always find proponents of the hypothesis that two distinct peoples existed, the Sauromatae and the Sarmatae. This is not a popular hypothesis, as both peoples would have to be using many of the same tribal names. Moreover, Jordanes, a churchman of mixed Gothic and Sarmatian background, states that they were the same and that the Goths changed their name in some places to Sarmatians before conquering.
There is a suggestion in Lubotsky's Indo-Aryan Inherited Lexicon (on the Leiden University IED site) that the name is related to the Avestan zarəman-, "old". This is the same zar- that appears in Zarathustra. The exact sense is not clear, but words with that root can mean "senior" and "undying" (through being very old). This word has the advantage of being in the most appropriate language and of being able to be the source of both Sar- and Sauro-.
The Avesta contains references to a people sairima.
The numerous Iranian personal names in the Greek inscriptions from the Black Sea Coast indicate that the Sarmatians spoke a North-Eastern Iranian dialect ancestral to Ossetic (see Scytho-Sarmatian).
A popular belief ("Sarmatism") in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, held that the Commonwealth's nobility were descended from the Sarmatians. No concrete evidence exists to support this belief.
Bruno Genito, 1988, The Archaeological Cultures of the Sarmatians with a Preliminary Note on the Trial-Trenches at Gyoma 133: a Sarmatian Settlement in South-Eastern Hungary (Campaign 1985), Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli, Vol. 42, pp. 81–126. Napoli.
Bruno Genito, 1990, The Late Bronze Age Vessels from Gyoma 133, S.E. Hungary, The Stratigraphical Evidence, Communicationes Archaeologicae Hungariae, pp. 113–119. Budapest.
Bruno Genito, 1993, Trial-Trenches at Gyoma 133: a Sarmatian Settlement in South-East Hungary: a Second Interim Report (The 1986–1987 Campaigns), Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli, 53, 1, pp. 35–53. Napoli.