THE SARMATIANS were not a unified people, but rather a number of groups of nomad peoples of similar stock, who wandered generally westwards over the Eurasian steppe - the vast corridor of grasslands, hundreds of miles wide and some 5,000 miles long, extending from China to the Hungarian Plain. They spoke an Iranian language similar to that of the Scythians, and closely related to Persian.
The Sarmatians emerged in the 7th century BC in a region of the steppe to the east of the Don River and south of the Ural Mountains. For centuries they lived in relatively peaceful co-existence with their western neighbours, the Scythians. Then, in the 3rd century BC or slightly earlier, they spilled over the Don to attack the Scythians on the Pontic steppes to the north of the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinus), and 'turned the greater part of the country into a desert' (Diodorus 2.43). The surviving Scythians fled westwards and sought refuge in the Crimea and Bessarabia, leaving their pasturelands to the incomers. The Sarmatians were to dominate these territories over the next five centuries.
The best known of the Sarmatian peoples were the Sauromatae, Aorsi, Siraces, lazyges and Roxolani. The Alans were essentially of the same Iranian stock as the Sarmatians, but are often considered a distinct people. These groupings were tribal confederations rather than individual ethnic tribes; indeed, Ammianus Marcellinus (31.2.13-17) and medieval Arab sources state specifically that the Alans were a coalition of different peoples.
Most Sarmatians were nomads whose grazing herds provided much of the food and clothing they required. They wintered on the southern fringes of the Russian steppe, close to the Black and Caspian Seas and Russia's great rivers, heading north for pasture in the spring. Accompanying them were their covered wagons which doubled as homes - Ammianus Marcellinus notes (31.2.18): “In them husbands sleep with their wives - in them their children are born and brought up”.
The early Sarmatians are now generally regarded as the reality behind the myth of the Amazons. According to Herodotus (4.116), women of the Sauromatae hunted, shot bows and threw javelins from horseback, and went to war dressed in the same clothing as men. This has been confirmed by archaeology: early Sarmatian female graves often contain bronze arrowheads, and occasionally swords, daggers and spearheads; while skeletons of girls aged 13 and 14 have bowed legs - evidence that, like boys, they were often in the saddle before they could walk. The status of women was so unusual that some writers (Pseudo-Scylax, 70) believed that women ruled Sarmatian society.
During the 1st century AD the Sarmatians and Alans truly began to enter recorded history when they conducted a series of spectacular raids on their civilised neighbours. Pouring into Asia Minor, they spread devastation among the Parthians, Medians and Armenians. At the same time other Sarmatian groups ravaged Rome's Danubian provinces of Pannonia and Moesia, before pushing their way along the lower Danube and into the Hungarian Plain to establish a more permanent presence. Some took up military service with the Romans, but for centuries Sarmatians remained unpredictable neighbours, starting wars at the slightest provocation. The pressure was so great that the Romans eventually allowed many to settle within the empire. It was largely as a result of the Sarmatian wars that the Roman army began to abandon its reliance on the legionary infantry and develop an effective cavalry arm - for which the lance-armed Sarmatian cavalry were to provide one important model.
During this time the Sarmatians maintained close contacts with the Greek centres on the northern Black Sea coast, in particular the kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus2. At its peak the Bosporan Kingdom covered the eastern part of the Crimean Peninsula, the western part of the Taman Peninsula (then an archipelago), and the mouth of the Don. In the mid-1 st century AD a dynasty of Sarmatian origin came to power in the Bosporan Kingdom and both state and army were 'Sarmatised' - to such a degree that Bosporan heavy cavalry cannot be distinguished from their Sarmatian counterparts. Indeed, Bosporan art is one of the historian's best sources for Sarmatian weaponry.
The emergence of the Goths was to destroy the Sarmatians' relationship with the Bosporans. The southward migration of the Goths from Scandinavia via modern Poland to the River Dnieper was under way by about AD 200; by about AD 250 the Goths had taken Olbia and moved east to the Crimea, replacing the Sarmatians and Alans as the dominant power of the region.
A century or so later, the arrival of the Huns from Central Asia was no I less traumatic. As waves of Huns and Goths set about tearing the Roman Empire apart, the Alans could do little but follow obediently in their wake. The currents drew them as far afield as Gaul, Spain and North Africa. Sarmatian and Alan contingents, ever smaller and less significant, also fought with the Romans. By the mid-5th century the Sarmatians were no longer in control of their own destiny, and by the 6th century little trace of them remained in western Europe. They had not disappeared, but I rather had been woven seamlessly into the colourful tapestry that was to emerge as Medieval Europe.
Sarmatian history is devided by archeologists into the following periods:
7th -4th centuries BC - Sauromatian
4th-2nd centuries BC - Early Sarmatian
2nd C BC - 2nd C AD - Middle Sarmatian
2nd-4th centuries AD - Late Sarmatian
c.507 BC Sauromatians help Scythians repel an invasion of the Pontic steppe by King Darius I of Persia.
310/09 BC Aripharnes, king of the Siraces, commands Sarmatians at battle of Thates River in support of Bosporan pretender Eumelos.
179 BC Gatalos, king of Sarmatians in Europe, mentioned in peace treaty between nations of Asia Minor.
107 BC Roxolani support Scythians against Crimean city of Chersonesos, but are defeated by Diophantes, general of Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus.
16 BC First Sarmatian incursions over lower Danube beaten off by Romans.
AD 34-35 Sarmatian mercenaries fight under Pharasmanes of Iberia during Parthian civil war.
AD 49 Siraces and Aorsi supply troops to rival factions in Bosporan succession war; Siraces' town of Uspe sacked by Roman faction.
AD 50 Iazyges supply cavalry to Vannius, Roman client-king of the Germanic Quadi, in his war against rival tribes.
AD 69 Some 9,000 Roxolani raiders are defeated in Moesia during spring thaw by Legio III Gallica.
c.AD 73 Alans raid Parthia, devastate Media and defeat Armenian king Tiridates.
AD 105/06 Trajan's second Dacian campaign: Dacian kingdom destroyed, Roman province of Dacia created.
AD 135 Alans raid Media and Armenia, but are repulsed from Cappadocia by the Roman governor Arrian.
AD 167-80 Marcomanian wars: lazyges support Germanic tribes against Rome.
AD 173/74 Iazyges invade Pannonia, but are defeated at 'battle on the frozen Danube' by Marcus Aurelius.
AD 175 Iazyges make peace with Rome and supply 8,000 warrior-hostages, of which 5,500 are sent to serve in Britannia.
AD 236-38 After campaigns against Iazyges, Maximinus Thrax is titled 'Sarmaticus Maximus
AD 282 Iazyges defeated in Pannonia by emperor Carus.
AD 297 Sarmatian auxiliaries fight in Galerius war in Persia.
C.AD 334 Slaves of the Danubian Sarmatians revolt and rename themselves 'Limigantes'.
AD 358-59 After revolting against Rome the 'Free Sarmatians' submit, but the Limigantes are slaughtered en masse by Constantius.
AD 375 Huns smash Gothic power north of the Black Sea: the 'migration period' of European history begins.
AD 378 Alan cavalry play key role in the crushing Gothic defeat of the Romans at Adrianople.
AD 409 Invasion of Spain by Vandals, assisted by Alans and Suevi.
AD 429 Alans accompany Vandals into North Africa and set up kingdom (to AD 533).
AD 451 Alans under King Sangiban fight at battle of Catalaunian Fields in Gaul.
AD 453 Alans fight for Attila the Hun at battle of Nedao River in Pannonia.
AD 453 Death of Attila: Hunnic empire collapses.