The Alans were the most easterly of the Sarmatian nations and the most durable, occupying the northern part of the lands between the Black Sea and the Caspian at least until the end of our period, subjugated in turn by the Huns, Khazars and Mongols, but always re-emerging. They differed from the other Sarmatians in being blonde instead of dark, and in that not all ever became armoured lancers. Arrian’s 2nd century AD “Order of Battle Against the Alans” assumes that all Alans will charge, but will be vulnerable to infantry missiles while doing so, which implies that most did not have horse armour. Some did, since it was reported later among Alans settled in Brittany. Elsewhere, Arrian says of Roman cavalry “some carry conti and charge in the Alan and Sarmatian fashion”. Alans were still charging desperately against the Catalan company in the 14th century, although by then certainly mostly light horse. Although not themselves especially aggressive as a nation, they frequently sent contingents to help others that were, leading to various short-lived settlements of conquerors or foederati scattered over the later Roman west and in due course absorbed by neighbouring cultures. They are typified by Claudian as the “restless Alans”.
The Alans were an Iranian-speaking people who lived as pastoral nomadic groups along the northern shores of the Caspian and Black Seas, in particular the region between the Volga and Don Rivers in present-day southern Russia. The Alans were most probably part of the larger Scythian and Sarmatian nomadic groups, which dominated the Eurasian steppes beginning in the eighth century BCE. The word “Alan” derives from the Old Iranian word arya, or “Aryan,” and so is related to the word “Iran” (Abaev and Bailey: Alans). A people called the Alani were first mentioned by Roman writers in the first century CE. In these accounts, the Alani are depicted as a bellicose and pugnacious people with an exceptional talent for breeding horses. The Alani are also mentioned in the context of a nomadic invasion of the Parthian Empire in 72 CE. They swept through Parthian territory from the northeast and reached Media in present-day western Iran, capturing the royal harem of the ruling Arsacid monarch, Vologeses I (Valakhsh I). From Media, they attacked Armenia and defeated the armies of Tiridates, who was nearly captured. The Parthians and Armenians were so alarmed by the devastation wrought by these nomadic invaders that they appealed to Rome for urgent assistance, but the Romans declined to help (Frye: 240). Fortunately for the Parthians and Armenians, the Alani returned to the vast steppes of Eurasia after they had collected a large quantity of booty (Colledge: 52). Sometime between 135 and 136 CE the Alani appeared again, this time as allies of the king of Iberia (present-day eastern Georgia in the southern Caucasus), attacking from the north; plundering Armenia, Atropatene (present-day Iranian Azerbaijan), and Media; and pushing as far west as Cappadocia in Asia Minor. The Arsacid monarch Vologeses III (r. 111/112–147/148 CE) dispatched a large force of 20,000, but they could not defeat the invading Alans. Having failed to contain the Alans, Vologeses may have resorted to bribing them. Once again, the Alans returned home without suffering a defeat (Colledge: 166).
Aside from paying bribes, the Romans, Arsacids, and later the Persian Sasanians neutralized the fierce Alan warriors and horsemen by recruiting them as mercenaries or fighting units in their armies. The Sasanians were intimately familiar with the Alans, and the “Gate of Alans” is mentioned in the inscription of the Sasanian king Shapur I at Naqsh-e Rostam near Shiraz in southern Iran. Sometime in the 4th century CE, those Alans who lived along the banks of the Don River broke up into two distinct groups after being attacked and defeated by invading Huns who had crossed the Volga River. Under pressure from the Huns, one group migrated westward, first to Southeast Europe and from there, together with Germanic tribes, to Roman Gaul (i.e., modern-day France, western Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxemburg) and Spain. Branches of the Alans, each ruled by its own king, settled in various parts of Europe and gave their name to the regions they adopted as their new home. Thus, the name of the province of Catalonia in Spain is believed to have derived from the deformation of Goth-Alania or Province of Goths and Alans. The French name “Alain” and the English name “Alan” as well as the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have also been linked to those Alans who settled in Europe (Abaev and Bailey: Alans). The second branch of the Alans settled in the northern regions of the Caucasus on the banks of the Kuban River in present-day southern Russia. In the 10th century CE, as a result of several centuries of activity by Greek and Georgian Christian missionaries, many Alans converted to Christianity, although a minority remained wedded to their pagan beliefs, traditions, and customs.
After the spread of Islam and the formation of Islamic caliphates, the Caucasus region was repeatedly attacked by Muslim armies. In the ninth century CE, the Alans as well as other communities of the Caucasus were impacted by military campaigns organized and carried out by the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad (r. 750–1258 CE). Despite being pressured by Muslims from the south, the Alans maintained their rule over a vast and powerful kingdom, stretching from Daghestan on the western shores of the Caspian Sea to Abkhazia on the southeastern shores of the Black Sea. The anonymous author of the 10th-century Persian geography Hodud ul-Alam min al-Mashriq ila al-Maghrib [The Regions of the World from East to West] described Alania as a vast country with 1,000 large rural communities of Christians and pagans who lived both in the mountains and on the plains (Anonymous, Hodud ul-Alam: 191). In the 13th and 14th centuries, the vast region extending from Central Asia to Iran, the Caucasus, and Anatolia was devastated by two major invasions, first by the Mongols, who destroyed urban and rural communities, and then by the Turkic world conqueror Timur (Tamerlane). In the Caucasus, Timur’s armies dismantled the military and political power of the Alan state, forcing the Alans to split into several groups (Abaev and Bailey: Alans). One group moved west and settled in Hungary. A second group joined forces with the Mongols and participated in their military operations as far east as China. The third group settled in the central regions of the Caucasus, where they live today.
The Ossetian people of the Caucasus region trace their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural heritage to the ancient Alans. Ossetians are divided linguistically into two groups: Ir and Digor (Frye: 40). The more numerous Ironian speakers, who are called Ir or Ironi, live both in North and South Ossetia, while the Digors live only in the western regions of North Ossetia. The territory of North Ossetia came under Russian rule in 1774, while southern Ossetia was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1801. In 1922, the new Soviet government divided Ossetia into two regions. North Ossetia remained part of Russia, and South Ossetia was established as an autonomous region within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia after the Russia–Georgia War of 2008. The majority of Ossetians are followers of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. A minority of Ossetians, however, are Sunni Muslims.
Abaev, V. I., and H. W. Bailey. “Alans.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1985, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/alans-an-ancient-iranian-tribe-of-the-northern-scythian-saka-sarmatian-massagete-group-known-to-classical-writers-from.
Alemany, Agusti. Sources on the Alans: A Critical Compilation. Leiden: Brill Academic, 2000.
Anonymous. Hodud ul-Alam min al-Mashriq ila al-Maghrib [The Regions of the World from East to West]. Edited by Manoochehr Sotoodeh. Tehran: Tahuri Bookstore, 1983.
Colledge, Malcolm A. R. The Parthians. New York: Praeger, 1967.
De Waal, Thomas. The Caucasus: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Frye, Richard Nelson. The History of Ancient Iran. München: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1984.