The steppe lands north of the Black Sea were inhabited by a powerful nation of mounted nomad warriors known as the Sarmatians. The Sarmatians were the cultural group that included the Alani and Aorsi population who occupied the northern Caspian region. Ancient Roman sources suggest that the Sarmatians were divided into at least five large sub-nations that shared common ethnic and cultural features, but each had their own rulers, territories and political interests. During the first centuries AD, the Sarmatians began to expand their range and power westwards across the steppe lands that led from the Ural Mountains in southern Russia into Central Europe. They conquered many steppe-dwelling Scythian populations and absorbed them into their wider culture.
By the end of the first century AD, the Alani and Siraces occupied lands stretching west from the Caspian Sea to the River Don. On the north coast of the Black Sea the plain between the Don and the Dniester was claimed by a Sarmatian people called the Roxolani. Beyond the Dniester was the territory of the Iazyges who moved west to the plains of Hungary and the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire. The Sarmatians were therefore in a position to control crucial population movements across the northern steppe and threaten Roman interests in Europe.
Greek and Roman sources suggest that the Sarmatians had a similar lifestyle to traditional Scythians (mounted steppe nomads). Herodotus describes the Scythians as having `no established cities or fortresses, just house-bearers and mounted archers who live, not by tilling the soil, but by cattle-rearing and carrying their dwellings on wagons’. These customs made the steppe nations `invincible and unapproachable’. Writing in the Augustan era, Strabo describes how the Sarmatians `spend their lives in felt tents fitted to wagons, while around them are the herds that provide the milk, cheese, and meat that provide them with sustenance’. They did not store liquids in metal or fragile pottery vessels, as even bronze water jars would burst and fracture when their contents froze in the harsh steppe winters.
The Sarmatians could establish fortified compounds, but most of their population had no fixed habitations and no sacred temples. When Ammianus describes the Alani, he reports `An unsheathed sword is fixed downward in the ground and they reverently worship it as their God of War and the presiding deity of the lands that they range across.’ Pliny suggests that the early Sarmatians considered decorative tattoos to be a symbol of honour and reports that even their infants were marked with tattoos. During the winter months the Sarmatians led their ox-driven wagons down to meadowlands near shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. In summer they moved north again to graze their horses, cattle and sheep on the vast open steppe. Strabo explains, `They follow the grazing herds. In time they move to other places that have grass, living in the marsh-meadows about Lake Maeotis (Sea of Azov) in the winter and the plains in the summer.’ Their wagons followed the course of rivers on seasonal journeys across the Eurasian steppe which meant that their routes were mainly along a north-south range. The old, infirm and the women remained with the wagons, while mounted bands of male warriors gathered for hunting, raiding or war. Writing in the fourth century AD, Ammianus describes how the Alani remained one of the leading Sarmatian groups and preserved their nomadic lifestyle throughout antiquity.
Strabo describes how Sarmatian horses were comparatively small and difficult to control, but they were extraordinarily fast. The horses used for riding and war were castrated to better manage their temperament. This ensured that they remained silent and obedient when Sarmatian war-bands concealed themselves for ambush attacks. On long-range expeditions, mounted Sarmatians rode with spare mounts and used a relay system to cover great distances at a relentless pace. Ammianus explains that `they cover vast spaces in pursuit or retreat, on swift manageable horses, sometimes each rider leading one or two spare chargers, so they can preserve their strength by alternate rest periods.’ With this advantage Sarmatian armies might cover more than 50 miles per day.
Early Sarmatian warriors carried wicker shields and wore helmets and breastplates fashioned from thick layers of raw ox hide. They carried bows, but were also prepared for close combat with spears and swords. According to Strabo, in a pitched battle this light weaponry was not effective against a disciplined unit of well-armoured Greek infantry. He describes how in 100 BC, during a battle for control over the Crimea, a force of 50,000 Roxolani was overcome and massacred by a phalanx comprising only 6,000 Hellenic troops.
During this period the Sarmatians served as mounted mercenary forces in foreign wars occurring close to the Pontic-Caspian steppe by various kingdoms and other factions. The chief of the Sarmatian Siraces was said to have mobilized 20,000 mounted warriors to support Pharnaces II of Pontus (97-47 BC). Strabo thought that the Aorsi (Alani) might be able to field over 200,000 horsemen in the defence of their own territories. He estimated that this number might be larger if the more distant steppe clans mobilized, `for they held dominion over more land and rule over most of the Caspian coast’. The Greek writer Lucian heard stories from the Chersonesos kingdom about wars fought with the assistance of steppe allies. In one of these accounts 20,000 Alani and other mounted Sarmatians were recruited by a Hellenic king to fight an enemy force including 30,000 Scythians. These accounts suggest the scale of warfare conducted in the Pontic-Caspian region and Chinese records confirm that the Caspian Steppe (Yancai) could support over 100,000 mounted warriors.
In the early first century AD the Romans probably considered the Sarmatians to be a manageable threat. In AD 49, Julius Aquila, a Roman commander stationed in the Crimea, had to deal with a rebellion in the Chersonesos kingdom led by a dignitary who summoned cavalry support from the Siraces. Pro-imperial forces included native troops equipped in the Roman military manner backed by a small number of Roman cohorts numbering several thousand soldiers. But this army required cavalry support, so Aquila consequently formed an alliance with a Aorsi chief named Eunones who offered horsemen to fight for the Roman cause. Tacitus reports, `It was agreed that Eunones should engage the enemy with his cavalry and the Romans undertake the siege of towns.’
The Roman-Aorsi army advanced against the rebel districts with the armoured cohorts and the native infantry forming the centre point of the battle line and the Sarmatian horsemen formed up along the front and rear. They assaulted a fortified rebel town called Uspe which was defended by moats and earthwork ramparts created by heaping layers of soil between wickerwork hurdles. The Roman army used spears and firebrands to drive back the garrison from their wooden towers and burn their wickerwork defences. By nightfall large parts of the defences were destroyed and the Roman army prepared to assault the town using ladders to scale the breached earthworks. Spokesmen from the town sought terms and offered the entire population of 10,000 people as slaves if their lives were spared. Tacitus reports that the offer was rejected since it would have been `extremely difficult to maintain a cordon of guards round such a multitude. It was better they should die by the law of war.’ When the inhabitants of Uspe were massacred, the shocked communities from surrounding districts quickly renounced their support for the rebellion. This conflict demonstrated how quickly urban settlements on the northern coast of the Black Sea could transfer their allegiance and resources between dominant factions.
By this period the Sarmatians were adopting new forms of armour and equipment that greatly increased their military prospects. Mounted Sarmatians began to wear conical metal helmets and distinctive coats of scale-armour made from the hard plates of horse hooves strung together with strong sinew or sewn onto ox hide. When Pausanias visited Athens he saw Sarmatian armour displayed in the Temple of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine who was venerated with snake imagery. Pausanias describes this Sarmatian armour as being `like a reptile’ and fashioned `like a closed pine cone’. He explains that `Sarmatian breastplates are as well-crafted and sturdy as those of the Greeks, for they can withstand the blows of missiles.’ It was confirmation that these `foreigners are as skilled artisans as the Greeks’. Ammianus confirms that horn-armour was still utilized in the fourth century AD when the Alani fought `in cuirasses made from smooth and polished pieces of horn, fastened like scales to linen shirts’. Some Sarmatian armour could have been crafted from small iron or bronze plates riveted onto leather or sewn onto heavy cloth. When Tacitus describes the Roxolani he reports that `their princes and all their nobility wear iron scales and hard hide and although this armour is impenetrable to blows, it is difficult for the wearer to get up when thrown from his mount.’
A first century Roman poet named Valerius Flaccus imagined an attack by `fierce Sarmatians who thronged together with savage yells, their corselets ridged with flexible chain mail which also covered their steeds’. Trajan’s Column depicts the armour-encompassed Sarmatian mercenaries who fought for the Dacian kingdom in their war against the Empire (AD 101-106). The reliefs show fleeing Sarmatian horsemen dressed in long-sleeved scale-covered coats and protective leggings with a barde that extends down to their horses’ hooves. As this length of barde would have restricted the movement of the horse, these images must be based on inaccurate eye-witness descriptions.
The Sarmatian cavalry fought with long slashing swords and the remains of these weapons have been found on the steppe in small grave mounds known as kurgans. Armoured warriors also began to carry long lances held in both hands to spear enemy combatants with a direct forward charge. When Tacitus describes Sarmatian warriors in AD 68 he reports that long-swords and twohanded lances of `excessive length’ were part of their standard arms and `it is not their custom to use shields.’ Valerius Flaccus describes these lances as `a pinewood shaft that stretches out over the head and shoulders of their horse, which they rest firmly on their knees. The lances cast a long shadow over the field of conflict ready to be driven with the might of warrior and steed swift through the midst of the foe.’ Arrian reveals that the Romans called these lances `contus’ and suggests that they were a particular innovation of the Sarmatians. Tacitus explains that this combination of lance and heavy armour meant that `when the Sarmatians charge on horseback, hardly any battle-line can withstand their assault.’ Sarmatian riders were also skilled in the use of lassoes and Pausanias reports that they could `throw a lasso around any enemy, then by turning around on their horses take them off-balance’.
Sarmatian armies rode into battle with draco (dragon standards) made from a hollow metal head with a long sleeve-like streamer attached made from brightly coloured silk. When the riders charged at an enemy these banners became dramatically animated. The wind whistled through the funnel head and the silk `tail’ thrashed about to resemble dragons flying above the heads of the riders. Scenes from Trajan’s Column depict captured arms and equipment including draco standards with fish, wolves and dog-heads.
The Late Roman army adopted Sarmatian-style standards for their own military units and Ammianus describes how the Emperor Julian addressed his troops in front of a carefully arranged display of gilded ensigns (AD 357). He was `surrounded by gold and jewelled dragons, woven from purple fabric fixed to spearpoles. The broad mouths of the dragons were open to the breeze and they hissed as if animated by anger, as their tails wound in the wind.’ In his war against the Persians, Julian was able to rally a unit of Roman cavalry as they fled the battlefield. He rode into their midst with his distinctive standard and Ammianus reports, `They recognised his purple dragon ensign, fitted to the top of a very long lance and spreading out like the slough of a serpent. The tribune of one of the squadrons stopped and although pale and shaken with fear, he rode back to renew the battle.’
Ammianus had served as a soldier in the fourth century Roman army and he claimed that the Sarmatians were `more suited to predatory incursions than to regular war’. They did not maintain garrisons or conduct long-term sieges, but they became a substantial threat to the Empire due to opportunistic attacks that inflicted substantial losses on Roman armies and damage to imperial territory. Their expansion also caused population movements that created fear and disorder on the Roman frontiers.