Sarmatians (Latin: Sarmatae, Sauromatae; Greek: Σαρμάται,
Σαυρομάται) were a large Iranian confederation that existed
in classical antiquity, flourishing from about the 5th century BC to
the 4th century AD.
Originating in the central parts of the Eurasian Steppe, the
Sarmatians started migrating westward around the 4th and 3rd centuries
BC, coming to dominate the closely related
Scythians by 200 BC. At
their greatest reported extent, around 1st century AD, these tribes
ranged from the
Vistula River to the mouth of the
Danube and eastward
to the Volga, bordering the shores of the Black and Caspian seas as
well as the
Caucasus to the south. Their territory, which was known as
Sarmatia to Greco-Roman ethnographers, corresponded to the western
part of greater
Scythia (mostly modern
Ukraine and Southern Russia,
also to a smaller extent north-eastern
Balkans and around Moldova). In
the 1st century AD the
Sarmatians began encroaching upon the Roman
Empire in alliance with Germanic tribes. In the 3rd century AD their
dominance of the Pontic
Steppe was broken by the Germanic Goths. With
the Hunnic invasions of the 4th century, many
Sarmatians joined the
Goths and other Germanic tribes (Vandals) in the settlement of the
Western Roman Empire.
Sarmatians were eventually decisively assimilated (e.g.
Slavicisation) and absorbed by the
Proto-Slavic population of Eastern
7 Greco-Roman ethnography
8 Decline in the 4th century
9.1 Sarmatia Asiatica and Europea
9.2 Possible influence on Arthurian legends
11 See also
14 External links
Map of the Roman empire under
Hadrian (ruled 117–138 AD), showing
the location of the Sarmatae in the Ukrainian steppe region
Sarmatae probably originated as just one of several tribal names of
the Sarmatians, but one that
Greco-Roman ethnography came to apply as
an exonym to the entire group.
Strabo in the 1st century names as the
main tribes of the
Sarmatians the Iazyges, the Roxolani, the
The Greek name Sarmatai sometimes appears as "Sauromatai", which is
almost certainly no more than a variant of the same name.
Nevertheless, historians often regarded these as two separate peoples,
while archaeologists habitually use the term 'Sauromatian' to identify
the earliest phase of Sarmatian culture. Any idea that the name
derives from the word lizard (sauros), linking to the Sarmatians' use
of reptile-like scale armour and dragon standards, is almost certainly
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder (Natural History book iv) and
the Sar- and Sauro- elements as interchangeable variants, referring to
the same people. Greek authors of the 4th century (Pseudo-Scylax,
Eudoxus of Cnidus) mention Syrmatae as the name of a people living at
the Don, perhaps reflecting the ethnonym as it was pronounced in the
final phase of Sarmatian culture.
The Greek terminology Sarmatai Gynaikokratoumenoi ("Sarmatians, ruled
by women") mirrors the Indo-Aryan *sar-ma(n)t, meaning "abundant in
women" and *sar-va(n)t, assumed to mean "womenly" or similar; from
Indo-Aryan *sar- ("woman"), cf. Indo-European *swe-sor ("sister"),
as derived by
Oleg Trubachyov in his study on Slavic history and
archaeology; he furthermore connects several Slavic ethnonyms to the
Sarmatians and Indo-Aryan.
Harold Walter Bailey (1899–1996) derived the base
word from Avestan sar- (to move suddenly) from tsar- in Old Iranian
(tsarati, tsaru-, hunter), which also gave its name to the western
Avestan region of Sairima (*salm, – *Sairmi), and also connected it
to the 10–11th century AD Persian epic Shahnameh's character
Recently, Belarusian-Ukrainian philologist R. M. Kozlova derived the
root *sъrm- from
Proto-Slavic adjective *sъrmatъ (-a, -o), meaning
"rich with sorma" ("shallows", referring to rivers), based on numerous
A Sarmatian diadem, found at the Khokhlach kurgan near Novocherkassk
(1st century AD, Hermitage Museum).
Sarmatians were part of the Indo-Iranian steppe peoples, among
whom were also
Scythians and Saka. These are also grouped together
as "East Iranians". Archaeology has established the connection
'between the Iranian-speaking Scythians,
Sarmatians and Saka and the
earlier Timber-grave and Andronovo cultures'. Based on building
construction, these three peoples were the likely descendants of those
earlier archaeological cultures. The
Sarmatians and Saka used the
same stone construction methods as the earlier Andronovo culture.
The Timber-grave and Andronovo house building traditions were further
developed by these three peoples. Andronovo pottery was continued
by the Saka and Sarmatians. Archaeologists describe the Andronovo
culture people as exhibiting pronounced
Great steppe of Kazakhstan in early spring.
Sarmatians are mostly identified with the Prokhorovka
culture, which moved from the southern Urals to the Lower
then northern Pontic steppe, in the 4th–3rd centuries BC. During the
Sarmatians seem to have grown and divided themselves
into several groups, such as the Alans, Aorsi,
Roxolani and Iazyges.
By 200 BC, the
Sarmatians replaced the
Scythians as the dominant
people of the steppes. The
Scythians had fought on
Pontic steppe to the north of the Black Sea. The Sarmatians,
described as a large confederation, were to dominate these
territories over the next five centuries. According to Brzezinski
and Mielczarek, the
Sarmatians were formed between the Don River and
the Ural Mountains.
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) wrote that they
ranged from the
Vistula River (in present-day Poland) to the Danube.
Sarmatians differed from the
Scythians in their veneration of the
god of fire rather than god of nature, and women's prominent role in
warfare, which possibly served as the inspiration for the Amazons.
Main article: Sarmatian culture
A Sarmatian-Parthian gold necklace and amulet, 2nd century AD. Located
in Tamoikin Art Fund
In 1947, Soviet archaeologist Boris Grakov defined a
culture flourishing from the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD,
apparent in late kurgan graves (buried within earthwork mounds),
sometimes reusing part of much older kurgans. It was a nomadic steppe
culture ranging from the
Black Sea eastward to beyond the Volga, and
is especially evident at two of the major sites at Kardaielova and
Chernaya in the trans-Uralic steppe. Grakov defined four phases:
Sauromatian, 6th–5th centuries BC
Early Sarmatian, 4th–2nd centuries BC
Middle Sarmatian, late 2nd century BC to late 2nd century AD
Late Sarmatian: late 2nd century AD to 4th century AD
While "Sarmatian" and "Sauromatian" are synonymous as ethnonyms, they
are given different meanings purely by convention as archaeological
In Hungary, a great Late Sarmatian pottery centre was reportedly
unearthed between 2001 and 2006 near Budapest, in the Üllő5
archaeological site. Typical grey, granular
Üllő5 ceramics form a
distinct group of Sarmatian pottery found everywhere in the
north-central part of the
Great Hungarian Plain
Great Hungarian Plain region, indicating a
lively trading activity. A 1998 paper on the study of glass beads
found in Sarmatian graves suggests wide cultural and trade links.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Scythian-Sarmatian cultures may
have given rise to the Greek legends of Amazons. Graves of armed
females have been found in southern
Ukraine and Russia. David Anthony
notes, "About 20% of Scythian-Sarmatian "warrior graves" on the lower
Don and lower
Volga contained females dressed for battle as if they
were men, a phenomenon that probably inspired the Greek tales about
Main article: Scytho-Sarmatian languages
Approximate extent of
East Iranian languages in the 1st century BC is
shown in orange.
Sarmatians spoke an Iranian language, derived from 'Old Iranian',
that was heterogenous. By the 1st century BC, the Iranian tribes in
what is today South Russia spoke different languages or dialects,
clearly distinguishable. According to a group of Iranologists
writing in 1968, the numerous Iranian personal names in Greek
inscriptions from the
Black Sea coast indicated that the Sarmatians
North-Eastern Iranian dialect ancestral to
Alanian-Ossetian. However, Harmatta (1970) argued that "the
language of the
Sarmatians or that of the
Alans as a whole cannot be
simply regarded as being Old Ossetian".
In a study conducted in 2014 by Gennady Afanasiev et al. on bone
fragments from ten Alanic burials on the Don River, DNA was extracted
from seven.[clarification needed]
In 2015, the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow conducted research on
various Sarmato-Alan and Saltovo-Mayaki culture
Kurgan burials. In
these analyses, the two Alan samples from the 4th to 6th century AD
turned out to belong to yDNA haplogroups G2a-P15 and R1a-z94, while
two of the three Sarmatian samples from the 2nd to 3rd century AD were
found to belong to yDNA haplogroup J1-M267 while one belonged to
R1a. Three Saltovo-Mayaki samples from the 8th to 9th century AD
turned out to have yDNA corresponding to haplogroups G, J2a-M410 and
Like the Scythians,
Sarmatians were of a
Sarmatian noblemen often reached 1.70–1.80 m (5 ft
7 in–5 ft 11 in) as measured from skeletons. They had
sturdy bones, long hair and beards.
In the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD, the Greek physician Galen
declared that Sarmatians,
Scythians and other northern peoples had
reddish hair. They are said to owe their name (Sarmatae) to
Alans were a group of Sarmatian tribes, according to the Roman
historian Ammianus Marcellinus. He wrote, "Nearly all the Alani are
men of great stature and beauty, their hair is somewhat yellow, their
eyes are frighteningly fierce".
Herodotus (Histories 4.21) in the 5th century BC placed the land of
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 (4.110–117) recounts that the Sauromatians arose from
marriages of a group of
Amazons and young Scythian men. In the story,
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 their language as an "impure" form of Scythian. He credits the
unusual social freedoms of Sauromatae women, including participation
in warfare, as an inheritance from their Amazon ancestors. Later
writers refer to the "woman-ruled Sarmatae"
Hippocrates explicitly classes them as Scythian and describes
their warlike women and their customs:
Their women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the
javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay
aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies,
and they do not marry before they have performed the traditional
sacred rites. A woman who takes to herself a husband no longer rides,
unless she is compelled to do so by a general expedition. They have no
right breast; for while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot
a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to
the right breast and cauterize it, so that its growth is arrested, and
all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right
Polybius (XXV, 1) mentions them for the first time as a force to be
reckoned with in 179 B.C.
Strabo mentions the
Sarmatians in a number of places, but never
says much about them. He uses both the terms of Sarmatai and
Sauromatai, but never together, and never suggesting that they are
different peoples. He often pairs
reference to a series of ethnic names, never stating which is which,
as though Sarmatian or Scythian could apply equally to them all.
Strabo wrote that the
Sarmatians extend from above the
to the Volga, and from north of the
Dnieper River 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 said, were of Germanic origin. The Celtic
Taurisci are there. A fourth ethnic element
interacting and intermarrying are the
Thracians (7.3.2). Moreover, the
peoples toward the north are Keltoskythai, "Celtic Scythians"
Strabo portrays the peoples of the region as being nomadic, or
Hamaksoikoi, "wagon-dwellers," and Galaktophagoi, "milk-eaters." This
latter likely referred to the universal koumiss eaten in historical
times. The wagons were used for transporting tents made of felt, a
type of the yurts used universally by Asian nomads.
Pliny the Elder
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",
only the Aryan territory. The
Sarmatians were, therefore, a sub-group
of the broader Scythian peoples.
Tacitus' De Origine et situ Germanorum speaks of "mutual fear" between
Germanic peoples and Sarmatians:
All Germania is divided from Gaul, Raetia, and
Pannonia by the Rhine
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
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).
Sarmatian cataphracts during Dacian Wars as depicted on Trajan's
By the 3rd 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, but were referred to
under yet another name.
Later, Pausanias, viewing votive offerings near the Athenian Acropolis
in the 2nd century AD, found among them a Sauromic breastplate.
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 cornel 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
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
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.
In the late 4th century, Ammianus Marcellinus describes a severe
defeat which Sarmatian raiders inflicted upon Roman forces in the
province of Valeria in
Pannonia in late AD 374. The
destroyed two legions: one recruited from
Moesia and one from
Pannonia. The last had been sent to intercept a party of Sarmatians
which had been in pursuit of a senior Roman officer named Aequitius.
The two legions failed to coordinate, allowing the
Sarmatians to catch
Decline in the 4th century
Alans and Ossetians
Sarmatians remained dominant until the Gothic ascendancy in the
Black Sea area, Oium.
Goths attacked Sarmatian tribes on the north of
Danube in Dacia, in what is today Romania. Roman Emperor
Constantine I called his son Constantine II up from Gallia to run a
campaign north of the Danube. In very cold weather, the Romans were
victorious, killing 100,000
Goths and capturing Ariaricus the son of
the Goth king. In their efforts to halt the Gothic expansion and
replace it with their own on the north of Lower
Sarmatians armed their 'servants' Limigantes. After the
Roman victory, however, 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, 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 Thrace, Macedonia and
Origo Constantini mentions 300,000 refugees resulting from
this conflict. The emperor Constantine was subsequently attributed the
title of Sarmaticus Maximus.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, the
Huns expanded and conquered both the
Sarmatians and the Germanic Tribes living between the
Black Sea and
the borders of the Roman Empire. From bases in modern-day Hungary, the
Huns ruled the entire former Sarmatian territory. Their various
constituents flourished 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, the death of
Attila and the
appearance of the Chuvash ruling elements west of the Volga- current
Sarmatians were eventually decisively assimilated (e.g.
Slavicisation) and absorbed by the
Proto-Slavic population of Eastern
Europe around the Early Medieval Age. A related people to the
Sarmatians known as the
Alans survived in the North
Caucasus into the
Early Middle Ages, ultimately giving rise to the modern Ossetic ethnic
Sarmatia Asiatica and Europea
Main article: Sarmatia Asiatica and Sarmatia Europea
Sarmatia Europea in map of Scythia, 1697.
Maciej Miechowita (1457–1523) used "Sarmatia" for the Black Sea
region and further divided it into Sarmatia Europea, which included
East Central Europe, and Sarmatia Asiatica. Following him,
cartographers created several maps of these regions. In the 19th
century several authors tried to locate their extent.
Possible influence on Arthurian legends
Scholars C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas posited that the legends
King Arthur and
The Holy Grail
The Holy Grail derive from Sarmatian legends. The
authors find parallels between the Sarmatian legend of Batraz, a
Sarmatian king commanding his companions to throw his magical sword
into a lake and Arthur's instructions to Sir
Bedivere to throw his
Excalibur into a lake. The authors also use historical
records to demonstrate the presence of a 2nd-century AD colony of
Sarmatian veterans at Bremetennacum, in modern Lancashire, as a
historical source for the legends entering Britain. A more
extensive study of the Alano-Sarmatian impact on the
Roman Empire and
the Arthurian tradition is presented by Littleton and Linda A. Malcor
Scythia to Camelot.
Main article: Sarmatism
Sarmatism (or Sarmatianism) is an ethno-cultural concept with a shade
of politics designating the formation of an idea of Poland's origin
Sarmatians within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The
dominant Baroque culture and ideology of the nobility (szlachta) that
existed in times of the
Renaissance to the 18th centuries.
Together with another concept of "Golden Liberty", it formed a central
aspect of the Commonwealth's culture and society. At its core was the
unifying belief that the people of the Polish Commonwealth descended
from the ancient Iranic Sarmatians, the legendary invaders of Slavic
lands in antiquity.
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List of ancient Iranian peoples
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^ Filologija. 40. JAZU. 2003. p. 49.
^ Валентин Седов (2017). Славяне.
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^ Kuzmina 2007, p. 51.
^ Kuzmina 2007, p. 64.
^ Kuzmina 2007, p. 78.
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^ Sinor 1990, p. 113.
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^ Handbuch der Orientalistik, Iranistik. By I. Gershevitch, O. Hansen,
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^ дДНК Сарматы, Аланы Google Maps
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^ Strabo's Geography, books V, VII, XI
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fluminibus, a Sarmatis Dacisque mutuo metu aut montibus separatur:
cetera Oceanus ambit, latos sinus et insularum inmensa spatia
complectens, nuper cognitis quibusdam gentibus ac regibus, quos bellum
^ Description of Greece 1.21.5–6
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^ James Minahan, "One Europe, Many Nations", Published by Greenwood
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Alans who were pushed out of the Terek River lowlands and in the
Caucasus foothills by invading
Huns in the fourth century A.D.
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^ Littleton, C. Scott; Malcor, Linda A. (2000). From
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^ P. M. Barford, The
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