From Scythia to Camelot
By C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor
The Northeast Iranians
Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, and Ossetians
...This book argues that the core of the Arthurian and Holy Grail legends derives originally from a region known in antiquity as Scythia, that is, the western portion of the great "sea of grass" that stretches from the Altai Mountains to the Hungarian Plain (see map 1). We must therefore take a closer look at several of the ethnic groups that originated in this vast steppe region. Almost all of them spoke languages belonging to what linguists call the Northeast Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian substock of the Indo-European language family; most scholars now think that the linguistic differences among these several groups were minimal and that they not only shared a closely related set of dialects but also a common culture.
One of the earliest of these Northeast Iranian steppe peoples, or at least the earliest to have an impact on the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean basin, was known to the Greeks as the Scythians. Here we encounter a major terminological paradox: "Scythian" can be used in two ways. In the narrow sense it is limited to the ancient Scythian tribes, as described by Herodotus and other Greco-Roman authorities. In the broad sense it applies to all of the groups we will survey in this chapter, including the modern Ossetians, who can perhaps be considered "epi-Scythians." The region's ancient name, Scythia, reflects this inclusive notion that anyone who called the "sea of grass" home was a "Scythian."
The Scythians expanded into the West in several major waves (see map 2). The first, which Gimbutas describes as "proto-Scythian," originated well east of the Urals. Known archaeologically as the Timber-Grave Culture, this wave began expanding westward as early as 1800 B.c.E. A second wave, this time of Scythian mounted nomads who buried their dead in timber-lined tumuli, swept across the more settled, agricultural communities of the north Pontic steppes and incorporated some of the indigenous cultivators, who became known as "Agricultural Scythians" (ca. 1100 B.C.E.).S Then, ca. 600-550 B.C.E., a third wave migrated westward out of southern Siberia. These latecomers, who eventually pushed west along the north coast of the Black Sea as far as Bulgaria and who invaded northeast Iran as well, bore several ethnic labels (see map 3). Among them were the Massagetae (southeast of the Aral Sea), the Saka (northeastern Iran, western Afghanistan), the Thyssagetae (the central Urals), and a people Herodotus calls the "Sauromatae," who seem to have been the immediate ancestors (or earliest known example) of the Sarmatians.
Although all of these subtribes seem to have shared a similar way of life, the westernmost group, which roamed the Pontic steppes in the fifth century B.C.E. (ca. 450 B.C.E.), provided most of our nonarchaeological information about Scythian culture. According to Herodotus there were three major social strata (or tribes): "Royal Scythians," pastoral nomads who formed the ruling elite; "Warrior Scythians," also nomads, who maintained and extended the power of the former group; and "Agricultural Scythians," most likely comprising conquered, "Scythianized," indigenous peoples.
The Scythian economy was a mixture of pastoralism and settled cultivation, although the former seems to have taken precedence, as it still does among the Kazakhs and other modern inhabitants of the eastern portion of this region. As among those Altaic peoples who came to the region in more recent "mes, the horse was the primary, or at least the most prestigious, animal herded. The Scythians were the first great cavalry nation. Unlike the ancient Celts, who still relied on horse-drawn chariots as late as the first century C.E., the Scythians were mounted warriors who fought with both lances and bows, as well as long, slashing swords. These steppe nomads also wore trousers, overlapping scale armor, and conical helmets.
A millennium and a half later this warfare pattern, which was also characteristic of the Sarmatians and the Alans, was to have a fundamental impact on medieval European society; as Nickel points out, it was the basis upon which the concept of chivalry developed.
Unlike the Romans and, for the most part, the Celts, Arthur's people, as they are depicted in the medieval chivalric romances, seem to have preferred to fight from horseback and to have relied primarily upon a long slashing sword rather than upon a heavy thrusting spear and a javelin (or pilum) characteristic of the foot-slogging legionnaires. This, together with their relatively heavy body armor, which consisted of overlapping scales attached to a leather tunic, tallies well with what evidence we have of Sarmatian military technology, such as the images on Trajan's Column (see plate I). Even the custom of designating warriors by means of an emblem, which eventually evolved into the medieval concept of the heraldic device, may have its roots in the Sarmatian and Alanic practice of identifying clans and other kinship units by means of tamgas ("sacred symbols") emblazoned on helmets, shields, and other pieces of equipment (see fig. 2), many examples of which have been found in south Russian sites associated with the cultures in question.
As with the Alans draft animals and carts also played an important part in the Scythian economy, and we have evidence that while on the move they lived in wagons: indeed Herodotus said that they had no other homes. These carts were covered by felt tents that functioned like the yurts still to be found among the steppe nomads of central Asia.
The role of women in Scythian society, and in Northeast Iranian society as a whole, also needs to be noted, as it not only differed markedly from that played by women in the Greco-Roman world but also has implications for the role of women in the Arthurian tradition. The Greek legends about the Amazons are almost certainly derived from their observations of this culture. Scythian wives were expected to fight alongside their husbands when the occasion demanded, and Herodotus went far as to assert that among their eastern cousins, the "Sauromatae,... [there is] a marriage law which forbids a girl to marry until she has killed an enemy in battle."
According to Herodotus the Scythian religion centered on seven divinities, chief among them a goddess called Tabiti, whom he glosses as "Hestia." Another was a war-god whom he refers to as the "Scythian Ares," who was symbolized by a sword thrust into a pile of wood. Yet another major divinity seems to have been called Don Bettyr, who most likely was associated with the Don River (known to the Greeks as the Tanais) and who presided over plant and animal fertility.
The way the Scythians conceived of their own origins also has important implications for our thesis. According to Herodotus the primeval being, whose name he transliterates as "Targitaos," had three sons. When three burning golden objects fell from the sky—a cup, a battle-ax, and a yoked plow—each son in turn attempted to gather them. Only the youngest, whom Herodotus calls "Kolaxais," was successful. From him were descended the "Royal Scythians" (the Paralatai), who had sovereignty over all. From the second son, "Lipoxai's," descended the "Warrior Scythians" (the Aukhatai), while from the eldest, "Arpoxai's," sprang the "Agricultural Scythians" (the Katiaroi and the Traspies). While there is still some argument as to whether these were separate tribes or social classes within a single tribe, one aspect of this myth is extremely important for our purposes: the emphasis placed on cups (see chaps. 8, 9, and 10).
Golden objects figure prominently in Scythian expressive culture, that is, graphic art, particularly in the so-called "animal style": highly realistic depictions of both wild and domestic animals on buckles, harnesses, brooches, and other objects (see plate 2). Often these pieces were made of the gold that is still to be found in the region, especially in the streams that issue from the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
Although the Scythians dominated the steppe region for several centuries, trading furs and gold for the manufactured products of the civilized world to the south and the west, by the beginning of the fourth century B.C.E. the western part of Scythia, or at least the territory controlled by the "Scythians proper", had been invaded by their eastern cousins, the Sarmatians.
The earliest mention of this branch of the Northeast Iranian community, which will loom large in what follows, can be found in Herodotus, who, as we have seen, called them the "Sauromatae." Once again we are confronted with a labeling problem—actually several labeling problems. The first of these concerns the relationship between "Sauromatae" (cf. Greek "Sauromatian") and "Sarmatian". According to Herodotus the Sauromatae were the immediate eastern neighbors of the Scythians. But were these Sauromatae a subset of a more widespread group, or nation, called Sarmatians? Or are the two labels synonymous?
"Sauromatae" probably can be interpreted as "Lizard People" (cf. Greek "lizard").
This is most likely a reflection of their principal totem, which seems to have been a windsock-like serpentine banner attached to a pole (see plate 3). Whether all of the tribes later lumped together as "Sarmatian"—the Roxolani, the Aorsi, the Iazyges, etc.— were actually "Lizard People" is still an open question. The prominent role played by lizards (or dragons) in the symbolism associated with the Arthurian legends, however, may indicate that the Sarmatian tribe that eventually found its way to Britain did indeed venerate this creature. In contrast the prominence given to cups in the continental traditions surrounding the Holy Grail indicates that the Alans, whose concern with cups survives in the Ossetic accounts of the Nartamongae, or "Revealer of the Narts," and who settled in various regions of Gaul and Spain in the fifth century, had a slightly different emphasis within the mythological system and were therefore to some degree culturally distinct from their Sarmatian cousins.
Here we encounter a second, and more complex, terminological confusion: that between "Sarmatian" (or "Sauromatian") and "Alan." The two nations, who almost certainly spoke closely related dialects, were frequently confused by outside observers. The ethnic self-identification terms Sarmatian and Alan may have been applied synonymously by these "eastern Scythians" themselves. In Britain, for example, we find the surnames Aleyn, Alan, and FitzAlan in particular abundance in the region most closely associated with Sarmatian settlement. Yet Sulimirski refers to the Alans as simply a "late Sarmatian people." The two labels are difficult to separate neatly. Although in this book we reserve the label Alan for the Northeast Iranians who settled in Gaul, Spain, and elsewhere, it is possible that the peoples in question did not make this distinction with any degree of consistency.
At this point we need to follow the fortunes of a particular Sarmatian tribe, the Iazyges. According to Sulimirski these steppe nomads were among the first of the Sarmatians to cross the Don River (ca. 200 B.C.E.), and by 20 or 30 C.E. they had reached the northern part of what is modern Hungary, that is, Upper Pannonia, north of the Danube on the periphery of the Roman Empire. There they would remain an identifiable ethnic group for at least the next 450 years. The history of this Sarmatian presence in Hungary is conventionally divided into three periods: Early (ca. 20-160 C.E.), Middle (160-260), and Late (260-430).
During most of the Early Period the lazyges seem to have been on good terms with the Romans. They refrained from invading the nearest Roman province of Pannonia and occasionally served as auxiliaries in the legions (see map 4). In 50 C.E. an Iazygian cavalry detachment fought alongside the Suevian king Vannius, a Roman vassal, and in 85-88 they fought as allies of Rome in Trajan's Dacian Wars. Thus long before the Romans actively engaged the lazyges in combat they had come to respect their military capabilities.
The Iazyges' first confrontation with Rome did not come until 92 C.E., a few years after the Dacian Wars, when they ravaged Roman Moesia. In 105 C.E. they again moved south of the Danube and invaded Dacia (modern Transylvania), in concert with their fellow Sarmatians (or Alans), the Roxolani, who attacked it from the east. The emperor Hadrian, however, eventually repulsed the lazyges, and a peace treaty was concluded that was to last for fifty years.
At the beginning of the Middle Sarmatian period, in 169 C.E., the lazyges threw in their lot with two adjacent Germanic tribes, the Marcomanni and the Quadi, and invaded Pannonia. In 175 C.E., after a hard-fought campaign, they were decisively defeated by the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who as a result took the title Sarmaticus and used it on his coins. The lazyges' "king," whom Dio Cassius calls Zanticus, came in person to Marcus's camp to sue for peace. Among the harsh terms the emperor imposed were that the lazyges remove themselves from the immediate vicinity of the Danube and that they contribute 8,000 armored cavalry to the Roman army. Some 5,500 of these new recruits, as Dio Cassius pointed out, were sent to Britain.
The Sarmatians in Britain
As the war was rapidly winding down in Pannonia, it was possible to divert troops to another hot spot: the north of Britain, where the Caledonian tribes, as well as the Picts, were making trouble. Like many a colonial power in more recent times—the British use of Sikhs and Gurkhas comes to mind—the Romans knew quality when they saw it and wasted no time recruiting their former foes into the legions. At the same time, of course, this reduced Zanticus's potential to make trouble, as his best warriors were now Roman soldiers. Most of the new recruits were sent to Bremetennacum, a major Roman cavalry post on the Ribble River near the modern Lancashire town of Ribchester. It was responsible for the defense on the region and portions of Hadrian's Wall, which at the time marked the effective limits of Roman control (see map 4). Unlike the local Britons, most of whom had kinsmen north of the Wall, the lazyges would be well over a thousand miles from home and therefore could be trusted not to open the gates to their relatives. This practice too has modern counterparts: the former East Germans typically recruited the guards along the Berlin Wall from Lower Saxony, about as far from Berlin as you could get and still be in East Germany.
From the available evidence it seems that few if any of the Iazygian auxiliaries ever managed to get back to their homeland in the steppes, and in accordance with Roman policy in these matters a colony of Sarmatian veterans was established Bremetennacum Veteranorum, a major Roman cavalry post near the modern Lancashire town of Ribchester in or near the vicus, or village, adjacent to the fort. Though we do not possess any specific description of the vicus at Bremetennacum, the Ravenna Cosmography refers to it as "Bresnetenaci veteranorum," which clearly designates it as a veterans' settlement. This particular vicus, together with the nearby fort, seems to have been strategically located, as several Roman roads passed through it from north to south, and there was an excellent highway leading eastward to the legionary headquarters at York (Eboracum).
Archaeological investigations at Ribchester and in an area just to the northwest, called the Fylde, have yielded a considerable amount of evidence that a Sarmatian community existed there for several centuries. An inscription dedicated to the Romano-British god Apollo Maponus asking for the continued well-being of the emperor Gordian was sponsored ca. 238-244 by the "N(umerus) eq(uitum) Sarmat(arum) Bremetenn(acensium) Gordian(orum)." Another artifact, now lost, seems to have included not only an image of a Sarmatian cavalryman but also an inscription mentioning "Sarmatae." From the account of this image given by Thomas Braithwaite in 1604 it closely resembled the relief found at Chester of a mounted warrior holding a dragon banner. The lost piece was described as a "naked horseman," which Richmond explains as most likely due to weathering. If the scaled armor depicted in relief were to have worn down, the mounted figure could easily have been mistaken for a nude man.
A fair number of Sarmatian-type artifacts—pots, tools, and so forth—have been found at Ribchester, and the whole impression is that of a stable ethnic enclave, one that endured long after the original veterans were dead and buried. Many of these Sarmatian emigres probably brought along their wives and children. But others may have married local British women; as Leslie Alcock puts it in discussing the vicus as a social institution u* Roman Britain, "here was the meeting place of auxiliary soldiers, whether provincial or barbarian in origin, and native women, which was to breed the future garrison of the fort." However, the community's close association with the Roman Hulitary establishment—as in other veterans' communities sons of soldiers were strongly motivated to follow their fathers' footsteps, as by doing so they could become citizens —probably helped it to maintain its ethnic identity and to resist total assimilation into the indigenous Celtic population.
In any event, as Sulimirski points out, the Sarmatian veterans' settlement at Bremetennacum was still in existence "in the early fifth century." In light of the Ossetic evidence (which will be discussed shortly) it is now possible to suggest that the quasihistorical Arthur, the dux bellorum ("war leader") who, according to Nennius and the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Badon, may well have been a member of this community. A leader who successfully led the descendants of the Iazygian veterans and a fair number of Celts in a temporarily successful campaign against the Saxon invaders would have inspired his own cycle of legends that may have eventually become identified with the epic tradition shared by the community he led.
Many Arthurian sites (see map 6) have been identified with Scottish locales around the region where the Iazyges were stationed on Hadrian's Wall. For example, the twelve battles of Arthur against the Saxons are said to have taken place at: (1) the "mouth of the river called Glein," (2-5) "on another river,... called Dubglas ... in the region of Linnuis," (6) "on a river. . . called Bassas," (7) "in the wood of Celidon" (Cat Coit Celidon), (8) at "Castle Guinnion," (9) at "the city of the Legion" (probably Chester or York), (10) on "the shore of the river . . . called Tribruit," (11) "on the mountain . . . called Agned," and (12) at "Mount Badon." The Annales Cambriae (960-980) give the date for the Battle of Badon as 518; however, this conflicts with testimony from Gildas, who lived at a time when witnesses to the battle were still living and who gives the date for this battle as ca. 495.
A reference to the ninth battle of Arthur against the Saxons may occur in the Gododdin, a poem in which Aneirin of central Scotland tells of a disastrous expedition, supposedly by Celts, into Yorkshire near Catterick. Only one thirteenth-century manuscript of this poem survives. The language suggests a date °f composition of ca. 600 C.E.; however, the original poem may have been composed much earlier and the language updated during oral transmission. In this tale all but one of the three hundred warriors are slain.
The leader of this expedition was said to be "no Arthur." We believe that those responsible for this transmission were descendants of the lazyges who were in charge of defending Yorkshire and the border regions.
As we discussed earlier, there is some confusion about the use of "Sarmatian" and "Alan." Although the name Alan (both as a first name and as a last name) was extremely popular on the Continent, the name is barely attested in Britain before the Norman Conquest (1066). Some scholars derive the name Alan in the Arthurian tradition from the Celtic-Breton name Alan, which is attested only after the settlement of the Sarmatians and the Alans in Britain and Gaul. Charvet argues that Alein is a Celtic name and that the two saints named Alain from the north of Britain, one of whom founded the Abbey of Lavaur (600s) in Brittany, were descended from the Celts. As Bachrach points out, however, it is far more probable that the name Alain (and variants like Ailan and Ellaini) came from the Alans who invaded Gaul in the fifth century, while it is possible that, given the confusion over the use of the term Alan, these saints Alain came by their unusual name from a Sarmatian, rather than Celtic or Alanic, source. For example, inscriptions in northern Britain read "Elainus" ("Alan") as well as Ala Sarmatarum ("wing of Sarmatians"). Moreover, such names as Aspianis, which look more Alanic than Sarmatian, also appear.
Given the number of historical figures named Alan who appear in southern Scotland and northern Britain, it is probable that Ribchester was not the only settlement of Sarmatians in Britain and that some of the Iazyges served closer to the Wall. Weston notes that the Verdam edition of the Dutch Fergus (Fergus el Galienne) lists a "great Alan of Gallowy [i.e., Gall-way]" ("groote Alanus de Galweia"). Weston firmly believed that this Alan of "Gallowy" in Scotland had a definite influence on the Arthurian tradition. In northern Britain Brian FitzAlan de Bedale, grandson of Brian FitzAlan, sheriff of Northumberland and Yorkshire (who came from a succession of Bryan FitzAlans and Alan FitzBryans), held lands on both sides of the Scottish border, and his genealogy was traditionally derived from Alain Fergant, duke of Brittany. He owned a copy of the Perlesvaus, which was copied especially for him on a visit to the Continent. Perlesvaus is probably the most Alanic of all the Grail texts, and, of all the manuscripts of the Grail available to the continental monks who copied this manuscript for FitzAlan, it is curious that the abbot thought that this particular version was somehow so appropriate a gift for the British noble that thirteen monks were set to copy the story in a mad rush so that FitzAlan mid take the manuscript back with him to England without suffering any delay in his mission.
We now turn to the other major contributors to the contact between East and West. The Alans were said to be "tall and handsome, [and] their hair inclines to be blond." Like the other Northeast Iranians we have considered they moved frequently, practiced polygamy, and lived much of their lives in their carts id wagons. Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth-century Roman historian who provides the most vivid picture of these nomads, as moved to observe that "in the wagons the males have intercourse with the women, and in the wagons their babies are born and reared; wagons form their permanent dwellings, and wherever they come, that place they look upon as their natural ie."
They were also consummate horsemen—"the young men grow up in the habit of riding from their earliest boyhood and regard it as contemptible to go on foot"—and loved fighting. Indeed, they considered war their primary profession and typically sided with whoever offered them the most in exchange r their skills. The Romans took advantage of this cultural trait id used the Alans as laeti, or military colonists, who were designated to control other "barbarian" tribes (cf. the lazyges). In Italy the Romans forced the Alans to remain stationary. As a result these Alans assimilated rapidly into Roman culture, losing their fighting ability and value as laeti within two generations. In Gaul the Romans allowed the Alans to maintain their nomadic ay of life, and these warriors, as they journeyed across the Continent, through the Pyrenees and into northern Spain, had significant impact on the cultures that surrounded them. In me ways these Alans still assimilated readily into the territories they occupied. They intermarried both with Romans and indigenous peoples, often settling in villages and learning to speak the local language. But their Alanic heritage was important to them. An example of this can be seen in the tendency of Christian Alans to name their sons Goar after the famous, pagan, Alanic war leader of the fifth century. They also preserved other elements of their way of life that would have a great effect on the regions in which they settled.
Markale argues that the religion of fifth-century Gaul was a synthesis of "oriental" cults, druidism, and Roman traditions. One of these "oriental" religions was that of the non-Christian Alans. He sees the arrival of all of the "barbarians" in Gaul as a boon to Christianity, which he views as more compatible with the "barbarian spirit" than with the rationally and historically oriented spirit of Rome. About this time Cassian came from "Scythia Minor (known today as Dobruja, a region in Rumania and Bulgaria between the Danube and the Black Sea)." He landed at Marseilles and founded a monastery near the Church of St. Victor, bringing more eastern influence of a particularly Scythian nature into the region. Monks from the resulting orientalized church in Gaul (rather than from the Celticized church in Ireland), who were led by St. Augustine, converted Britain to Christianity in 597. Given the number of Alans who were in the church of Gaul by this time, there may well have been Alans among these monks. Alan mercenaries may have accompanied these monks as well. Perhaps this missionary activity was responsible for the legends of Joseph of Arimathea's arrival in Europe via Marseilles, of his missionary work in Britain, and of his carrying the Grail to that country, in the company of a bodyguard of soldiers from the East.
According to Goffart the Romans thought of the Goths as 'Scythians" because they inhabited the lands the ancient Scythians had inhabited and used "Goth" as a new term for the same people instead of thinking of a new people on the old land. In actuality the Romans may have known what they were talking about, given the number of Sarmatian and Alan tribes that were allied with the various tribes of Goths. Two Alan tribes who boasted such alliances were primarily responsible for the Alan settlements of Gaul, with one group invading from the north by crossing the Rhine in 406 (the northern contingent) and the other group sacking Gaul by crossing the Alps from the south ca. 411 (the southern contingent; see map 7).
Alans fight against Romans
The Northern Contingent. Honorius was emperor of the Western Roman Empire when the Alans of Pannonia, with the Asding and Siling Vandals and the Suevi, crossed the Rhine on December 31,406. There the Alans split into two groups under the kings Goar and Respendial when Goar offered his services to Rome. Respendial's Alans and the Asding Vandals, after defeating the Franks, sacked Trier, Reims, Amiens, and Arras (406-407).
Constantine III, who usurped the imperial throne in Britain in 407, forced Respendial's anti-Roman Alans across the Pyrenees into Spain, but he allowed Goar's pro-Roman Alans to settle in Gaul near the Loire (see map 8). These Alans remained a major influence in Gaul throughout the Middle Ages (see map 9). The name Goar has many variations, and may be reflected in the name of Lancelot's half-brother "Ector" (for all the connections to "Hector"), since "Goar" appears as Goar, Goeric, and, notably, Eothar (the name that is used for Arthur in some continental legends) in France and Iaeukhar in modern Ossetic. King Euric (r. ca. 467), whose name may be derived from yet another form of Goar, held power on both sides of the Pyrenees. Although he is said by many historians to be Visigothic, his name would indicate that he at the very least had Alanic ties, if not Alanic blood.
In 443 the Roman general Aetius moved the Burgundians from the Rhine to Sapaudia (Savoy) to protect "the Alpine passes to Italy," instead of employing his usual tactic of using Alans. His reasoning seems to have been that these tribes were less frightening to the local settlers than were the Alans, the only non-Teutonic people who ever settled permanently in Gaul. This use of Burgundians, however, is unusual. Aetius's preference for using Alans in strategic positions in Gaul is well documented. He frequently employed the Alans as a buffer against the Visigoths and the bacaudae, or rebellious peasants, of Armorica. He also placed the Alans under Sambida "around Valence [i.e., Valencia] along the Rhone in 440," and he settled Goar's Alans near Orleans, which became the Alan capital in
Gaul, where the Alans remained as a documentable, influential force throughout the early Middle Ages. Aetius gave these Alans agri deserti, "property entered in the public assessment registers that, for whatever cause, was not paying its tax." In a sense these Alans became the Roman tax collectors in Gaul. Along with the Germanic invaders they "took only portions of the old Roman estates while establishing new ones on much the same pattern." The colonists who refused to divide their estates with the Alans were ejected by the nomads. We know so much about the details of these settlements because, as Goffart noted, "for some reason, the chroniclers entered into greater detail when relating Alan settlement than when concerned with Visigoths or Burgundians." This interest among chroniclers may stem in part from the fact that the Alans were so distinct from their neighbors in the region that they were noticed more readily, and in part from the possibility that, given the number of Alans in the region, the chroniclers themselves may have been part-Alan and hence fascinated with the history and culture of their own people.
Soon after the settlement at Orleans Aetius allowed Gear's Alans to sack and settle in Armorica. In 445-446 Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, forced Goar and his Alans to stop their advances on Armorica, but the old bishop died on his way to Ravenna to ask Galla Placidia, the half-sister of Emperor Honorius, who was serving as regent for Emperor Valentinian III and who had had extensive contact with the Alans of southern Gaul, for aid in the matter. The Alan settlements were concentrated around the areas where the author (or authors) of the Vulgate Cycle and Chretien de Troyes composed their works, as well as in Brittany (formerly Armorica), where the first references to Lancelot appear in written texts. It is conceivable that any one of the descendants of these Alans or of the people whose traditions they influenced carried an oral version of the legends of Lancelot with them to Switzerland, where Ulrich von Zatzikhoven heard the tale and composed the Lanzelet (ca. 1194-1205).
Alans, bacaudae , Burgundians, and Franks made up the force that in 451 sent Attila into retreat from Chalons-sur-Marne toward Troyes. These Alans were led by Sangiban, who was by then in command of the Alans at Orleans (remember that Goar and his Alans were now settled in Armorica).
Aetius's successor, Aegidius, used the Alans, Sarmatians, and Armoricans against the Franks (450s). He armed jus troops from the weapons factories at Soissons. At Orleans in 463 he added Franks from Tournai, under Childeric, to his forces to defeat the Visigoths. (The Tournai treasure in Childeric's tomb included "a cloak ornamented in Sarmatian style with a swarm of golden cicadas.") Childeric's successor, Clovis, used these same Franks to defeat Syagrius, Aegidius's son, and to take Soissons. The Prankish chroniclers rewrote the history of their battles, claiming that the Franks repeatedly defeated the Alans of Armorica. The Merovingian attitude toward the Alanic and Sarmatian settlers in Gaul, however, was to remain ambiguous. Clovis himself (ca. 490-491) commanded some units of colonial Sarmatians. Although the Merovingians later exhibited great animosity toward the Alans of the region that by this time was called Brittany, there is every reason to suspect that the Alans who took part in the Battle of Orleans maintained a good relationship with the Merovingian kings (see chap. 9). The Merovingian kings favored Alanic advisers, particularly from the families of Aquitaine, and the Carolingians were descended from the Alans (through Goeric's relative St. Arnulf).
Geoffrey Ashe points out that "there is some evidence for a British presence in Armorica [prior to the fifth century] . .. but serious colonization took place in the late 450s." Although Gildas describes this settlement as flight from the Saxons, most of the emigrants came from southwestern Britain probably by arrangement with Aegidius, the Roman military commander of northern Gaul, for the purpose of bolstering defenses, particularly in the Loire Valley. Moreover several late fifth-century "saints," mostly Welsh, are said to have crossed to Armorica and to have been active in organizing Breton communities. In any case the population of Europe went into a steep decline in the sixth century, in part due to the "violence and depopulation following Rome's collapse in the West, aggravated by the great plague cycle that commenced in the 340s." Thus, when a fresh wave of emigration occurred on a larger scale in the first half of the sixth century, the settlement was largely peaceful because of the abundance of vacant land. The aristocratic landholders of the Roman colonial period, several of whom were Alans, generally maintained control of their estates. These landholders and not their serfs were the patrons of the medieval Arthurian manuscripts. The local Armorican people were absorbed, with the Celts and the free Germanic farmers of the region usually slotting into the political structure at the level of the "semi-servile . . . villagers (or villains)." About this time the name Brittany started to be used. As a result of this settlement some rulers seem to have reigned on both sides of the Channel.
In the mid-seventh century the well-known, historical Judikael (Jezequel or Gicquel) was king of the Dumnonii (see map 7). Judikael sided with the counts of Rennes and Nantes under the Gallo-Franks. He founded the Abbey of Paimpont, and Markale believes that the nearby Camp des Rouets was the location from which the stories of the Round Table were spread on Armorican soil. Judikael was the son of the daughter of King Rispoe and Alain, the brother of Paskweten, which suggests that JudikaeT may well have been of Alanic heritage. Upon reaching old age Judikael entered a monastery. Note that the Alans considered only death in battle to be honorable. Old men were held in great scorn. The original Alanic method of handling this problem was for the son to kill his parents. Once the Alans became Christians, this practice would no longer lave been accepted. Given the number of Alans who entered the church upon reaching "old age" at a time when it was fashionable for most people to enter the church in their teens e.g., St. Patrick), this custom among the descendants of the Alans may have been an adaptation of the earlier ritual killings, with the entry into the monastery or nunnery serving as something akin to "death" as far as the world was concerned.
Later a certain Alain the Great (le Grand) became governor of Brittany. He defeated the Normans and installed Bretons as rulers of this "colony." This Alain was the brother of Paskweten and the ultimate ancestor of many Alains of Brittany, including Alain the Red, who fought at the Battle of Hastings.
Markale argues that the courts of the kings of Vannes and Of the Dumnonii constituted for a time in Armorica a political and religious center between the lands of the Gallo-Romans and the Gallo-Franks. Although Markale does not see Vannes as becoming definitively Breton until the seventh century, remaining largely Gallo-Roman until that time, he still proposes this capital as the main source for the distribution of Celtic culture on the Continent. In particular Markale sees Vannes as being in the lands of the Rohans. The Rohans supposedly settled Armorica from Britain in the time of the Romans. Although Markale assumes that this family is Celtic, it is more likely that the family is descended from the Alans of Vannes. Several of the Rohans bore the name Alain. For example, Viscount Alain IX de Rohan (1431) constructed a church on the site of the Battle of Trente following the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). In the seventeenth century the Rohan family of the village of Josselin claimed that their lineage was more ancient than that of the kings of France, tracing their roots to the legendary Conan Meriadoc, who appears in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. According to Bachrach this illustrious ancestor reputedly cut out the tongues of the Alanic women and children (the men were executed) whom he captured "so that the strange barbarian speech from the steppes would not corrupt the purity of the conquerors' language." Some scholars, however, argue that Meriadoc's barbaric treatment of the Alans is an onomastic legend rather than historical fact. Historical evidence indicates that a number of Alans survived this violent conflict with the Celts, with the Celts slotting into the existing social system in Brittany below the level of the nobility. Since at least some of these Alans appear to be ruling in the vicinity of Vannes throughout much of the Middle Ages, Meriadoc's people probably intermarried eventually with these powerful local Alans, if for no other reason than political expediency. Given the number of Alains in the Rohan line alone, this family at the very least seems to have adopted this practice.
Vannes was a center of continental rather than of insular Christianity. The church at Vannes, dating from the seventh century, is older than those at Rennes and Nantes. It was founded by a Gallo-Frankish enclave in Breton territory. These Gallo-Franks are said to be not Breton but from the "Pays de Galles." Although this phrase is traditionally taken to mean "Wales," there is a strong possibility in this case, given the number of rulers of Vannes who bore the name Alan (see chaps. 3, 4, and 9), that this ruling family came from a much greater distance than Wales, namely the steppes. Their dialect is more Gallo-Roman than the other dialects derived from the insular British dialects, bearing similarity to the "occitan" dialect. This odd fact indicates that the rulers of this region were not native Celtic speakers. Markale argues that Vannes was ruled by Celts, albeit under Roman influence from 56 B.C.E. onward. However, this was not the case.
Alan, count of Vannes, a descendant of Gear's Alans and Alan Judual (see chap. 4), united these and other major cities of Brittany under his control before his death in 907. Alain Barbetorte defended these newly unified cities against raiders from the north, and his kinsman, Conan, founded a line of nobles in Brittany, many of whom bore the name Alan. One of the most famous of these descendants was Count Alan the Red of Brittany, who in the eleventh century was one of the closest allies of William of Normandy. Early in the Battle of Hastings he used the Alanic battle tactic of the feigned retreat. Later in the encounter William copied the maneuver and won the battle. For his role Count Alan was singled out after the battle.
Constance, daughter of William the Conqueror and wife of Alan IV (Fergant), count of Brittany, was buried in the cathedral of Rennes. In her sepulcher was found a cross that was inscribed:
Here lies Constance, daughter of William, duke of
Normandy, and wife of Alan, duke of Brittany, who
departed from the living A.D. 1073.
This line of Alan nobles survived until the marriage of Conan IV's heir, Constance, to Geoffrey, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1181, well into the period when the Grail romances were written.
Aside from being members of the nobility of the region, the Alans had a great impact on what would eventually become Norman and Breton chivalry. They introduced the highly praised steppe pony and the Alan hunting dog to the region. The Alans' horses gave them great mobility and unpredictability in movement. Boys were trained to ride at a very early age, and the warrior spent most of his life on his horse. The Alans were mounted spearmen who also fought with bows and arrows at a distance and lasso and sword at close range. Their war cry was a well-practiced battle tactic, as was their "feigned retreat," which was feared by the Roman generals. The "feigned-retreat" tactic occasionally was recorded as an actual retreat by chroniclers unfamiliar with this method of fighting (cf. the "cowardly" behavior of the Alans at the Battle of Chalons). The Alan dislike for fighting on foot also appears in Breton cavalry units at the Battle of Hastings, where the Breton units refused to dismount even though this was an accepted practice in medieval warfare. Similarly Chretien de Troyes has the knights remain mounted to fight with swords, a practice that the German author Hartmann von Aue (b. ca. 1155) finds "boorish."
The connection between Arthur and Brittany was still strong in the twelfth century when Eleanor (Alienor) of Aquitaine (with her Alan-style name) was championing the legends through her courts of love (see chap. 5). In the Latin chronicle Draco Normannicus, by Etienne de Rouen (1169), Arthur is still alive in the twelfth century. He exchanges letters with Henry II in which the monarchs discuss the sovereignty of Brittany. Arthur eventually reserves final authority over Brittany, but he allows Henry to claim the feudal rights to the land as his vassal. This seems to reflect the Alanic attitude toward other rulers on the Continent from Gallo-Roman times on: allowing Roman, Merovingian, Carolingian, French, and even British kings to rule over them while seeing themselves as having ultimate control over the land. This attitude can be seen in such figures as Lancelot, who shares the rule of his kingdom with Arthur.
The Southern Contingent. The history of the Alans of southern Gaul begins in the East, where they fought sometimes for and sometimes against the Romans. As scholars are beginning to point out, the very concept of distinguishing between "Romans" and "barbarians" in Late Antiquity is a bit absurd For example, the famous Visigothic Roman general Stilicho (d. 408) used a force of Huns, Alans, and Goths under the command of Sarus to defeat Radagaisus (ca. 402).
In the late fourth century Stilicho settled several tribes of Alans in Raetia and Noricum (the western portion of modern Switzerland near the sources of the Rhine and the Danube). These Alans were still practicing their native religion, and their descendants still spoke their own language as late as the sixth century. But by far Stilicho's most enduring alliance was with the Visigothic commander Alaric, who had under his command an important contingent of Alans. According to Stilicho's plan Alaric was supposed to take his troops to Gaul, defeat Constantine III of Britain, and drive out the Vandals and Respendial's Alans. He was then supposed to establish military bases at Mainz and Strasbourg. Stilicho and Alaric both died before the plan could be put into effect. The usurper Constantine III of Britain chased the Vandals and Respendial's Alans into Spain. He pursued the barbarians, only to be defeated by the future emperor Constantius and beheaded (408). Athaulf, Alaric's brother-in-law and successor, apparently tried to carry out the remainder of Stilicho's plan. An eyewitness, Paulinus Pellaeus (see chaps. 9 and 10), records that these Alans were among the barbarians who held him hostage at Bordeaux and that he later made a deal with them to support him against their Visigothic allies at Bazas. It was here, at Bazas in 414, that Athaulf ran afoul of this same Constantius. The Visigoths headed for Spain, where Constantius gave chase and ransomed Galla Placidia, shortly after the murder of Athaulf.
In 454 Valentinian III murdered Aetius in Rome. The following year the Vandals under Gaiseric, with their Alan allies, used their sea power to sack Rome, and two of Aetius's retainers, Optila and Thraustila, who are identified simply as "barbarians," assassinated Valentinian. Valerin, who captures Guinevere in an attempt to rape her in the Lanzelet, might be a representation of this emperor.
Many of the Alan families in the region begin to rule Bishoprics as early as the sixth century. With the collapse of the imperial government in Gaul bishops usually filled the political vacuum. These bishops were generally drawn from the "office-holding families of the old Roman aristocracy," which the mid-fifth century included the Alans of Gaul. There is an unbroken line of Alan rulers in both northern and southern Gaul, in both the church and in the nobility, well into the period in which the Arthurian legends were composed.
It is thus probable that people descended from the Alans of Gaul, who preserved the name, armor, horse, dog, and fighting techniques of their ancestors, might have preserved a few ancient Alanic stories as well.
The Alans in the East
The Alans were also influential in the eastern Roman Empire from the late fourth century. In 378 one tribe of Alans fought alongside the Goths in the assault against Emperor Valens.
Several important figures in the eastern empire were related to Alans. Emperor Maximinus the Thracian (r. 235-238) had an Alan mother and a Gothic father. The famous sixth-century eastern general Vitalian (died ca. 518) was a "Scythian," whose relative, a "Scythian" monk, bore the name Leontius. The "Scythian" monks, who traveled to Constantinople in 519 under Leontius, were noted for their adherence to the "Scythian formula," which attempted to reconcile the differences between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites by proclaiming that "Unus ex trinitate passus carne" ("One of the Trinity became flesh").
In addition to physical relationships the Alanic culture influenced the eastern empire's traditions as well. Randers-Pehrson points out that "even Theodosius's heavenly supporters were hardly Roman. The apostles John and Philip came to him in a vision, on horseback like Gothic cavalrymen. Mounted saints were usually eastern,... but they were also enormously popular among the Copts."
Perhaps the most important eastern Roman who figures in the Arthurian traditions is the emperor Leo I. With the death of Valentinian III and the series of short-lived emperors who followed him, Leo I, emperor of eastern Rome and his Alan general, Aspar, become the major obstacles to the "barbarian" invasions in history and to Arthur's claiming the crown of Western Rome in legend. Note that these traditions of eastern Romans in the Arthurian legends are known only in the West.
With the death of Aspar the Alanic influence in the East diminished. The result was that a buffer zone of sorts was raised between any western versions of Alanic stories, in their Arthurian or other forms, and the lands of Alania and its environs in the Caucasus (see map 10) where the legends of the arts would flourish.
It remains for us to discuss the last remnants of the Alans in the East. Among the several small ethnic enclaves that have managed to survive in the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains is a curious people known as the Ossetians (see map). Although sharing in the Caucasic culture developed over the centuries by such immediate neighbors as the Kabardians, the Circassians, and the Georgians, the roughly half-million Ossetians possess a unique culture and linguistic heritage, for they are the last living descendants of the Alano-Sarmatians to speak a Northeast Iranian dialect. As we have seen, these people tell a cycle of legends, known as the Nart sagas, that bear
strong resemblance to Europe's Arthurian tradition. Although is conceivable that the European Arthurian tradition diffused the Caucasus Mountains, there is no evidence to justify this assumption.
We do know that certain Celtic tribes had penetrated the Danube area as early as the fifth century B.c.E., and another far-flung Celtic tribe, the Cotini, seems to have had some contact with the Germanic Quadi and possibly with the Sarmatians in the same general region at the end of the first century c.E.
Campbell argued that the legends claiming that the Celts descended from a people from the East Mediterranean were true. It appears extremely doubtful, however, whether these eastern Celts could have transmitted the raw material from which the Ossetians later fashioned their heroic sagas, for the available evidence suggests that whatever their prototypes, the British legends about Arthur are not attested until at least the fifth century. Such details as the story of Arthur's death, which so remarkably parallels the Ossetic account of the death of Batraz, had probably not yet evolved in Europe—let alone diffused to what was then the other end of the Celtic-speaking world—at the time the Cotini and other eastern Celts might have been in contact with some Sarmatians.
There is also the remote possibility that some elements of the fully developed Arthurian tradition may have diffused to the Caucasus in the early Middle Ages, for we do know that these stories penetrated the German-speaking regions of central Europe at least by the beginning of the twelfth century, and there is an image of Arthur in the Cathedral of Otranto in southern Italy that can be dated to ca. 1050. In the late 1200s the Dominicans sent missionaries into Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkestan, India, and China. Yet it is unlikely that these missionaries got up into the northern Caucasus region, and thus they almost certainly did not transmit the Arthurian legends to that territory.
But Ossetia is still a long way from central Europe, to say nothing of southern Italy, and if these stories did eventually reach the Caucasus one would expect to find evidence that they were known also to the medieval Slavs, Romanians, Georgians, and other Eastern European peoples who lived between the Germans and the Ossetians ca. 1000. To the best of our knowledge there is no such evidence. The immediate neighbors of the Ossetians all know some of the Nart sagas, but the pattern of diffusion here clearly centers on Ossetia; just as the stories of King Arthur diffused from western to central and southern Europe in the early Middle Ages, so the stories of Batraz, Satana, Uryzmaeg, and the rest seem to have diffused in fairly recent times throughout the Caucasus.
Having surveyed the background of the Northeast Iranian cultures, we are now in a position to examine several of the important parallels between the Arthurian and Ossetic traditions, beginning with the figures of Arthur and Batraz.
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