Sarmatia was a region between the River Vistula (in modern-day Poland) and the Caspian Sea, covering parts of what is now Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Romania and the lower Danube. Prominent from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD, it was inhabited by a loose grouping of nomadic people known as the Sarmatians. According to the Greeks, they were the children of the Amazons; certainly they were fierce warriors.

The Sarmatians were a nomadic pastoral race of skilled horsepeople, who spoke an Indo-Iranian language, having kinship to the Persians, Medes and Parthians. They originated in central Asia north-west of the Caspian Sea, and in the 3rd century BC crossed the River Don, which lies north-east of the Black Sea, to invade the territory of the Scythians, with whom they were ethnically related. The Sarmatians gradually moved westward into the Balkans and eastern Europe. Their early history is unclear, due to the lack of written records, but in the west their interactions with the Romans were widely recorded.

In Europe, they allied themselves with the neighbouring Germanic tribes against the Roman Empire, although later in their history some of them switched allegiance to the Roman side. These western Sarmatians were gradually driven south and west by the Huns, and settled around the Danube and the Carpathian mountains (what is now southern Poland, Slovakia and Romania); this later homeland is also sometimes called Sarmatia. In histories of the Roman Empire, Sarmatia refers to the region between the Vistula and Volga rivers, whose people posed a significant threat to the Romans' north-eastern borders.

From the 3rd century AD, the European Sarmatians became blended with the Germans and disappeared as a race. Around the Volga and the Don, the Asian Sarmarians were driven out of their homelands by further invaders from central Asia in the 4th century AD. No written records have survived from them, and only the names of a few of their leaders remain as the last fragments of Sarmatian culture.

More recently, Sarmatia has been used as a fanciful or poetic name for Poland.


The main tribal groupings of the Samartians were the Rhoxolani or Roxolani, the Iazyges, the Aorsi and the Alans or Alani. Because of the Sarmatians' nomadic lifestyles, these tended to be loose alliances of smaller groups, rather than close-knit communities.

The Iazyges settled between the Don and the Dneiper, to the north-west of the Black Sea, in the 2nd century BC. They were allies of Mithradates the Great in the 1st century BC, and their subsequent westward movement took them to the plains of the lower Danube east of the River Theiss, where they harried the Roman province of Dacia in the first centuries AD. They were defeated by Marcus Aurelius in AD 175, and to celebrate the victory Aurelius took the title "Sarmaticus". Following this, the Romans banished them from the Danube region and forced them to contribute 8000 cavalry to the Roman army, 5500 of whom were sent to Britain. The Iazyges continued to fight, both against the Romans and against eastern tribes. In 472 they were defeated by Theodoric king of the Visigoths, and the Sarmatian kings Beukan and Babai were slain.

The Rhoxolani lived on the steppes north of the Black Sea and what historical records we have show they were defeated in the Crimea by Diophantus, a general of Mithradates the Great, around 100 BC. In the 1st century BC they moved westwards to the Danube, where they fought the Romans, before being overrun by the Goths.

The Aorsi were an early tribe, living mostly to the east of the Volga. In the 1st century AD they were eclipsed in power by the Alani.

The Alani or Alans came from the Caucasus and were powerful in the area between the Volga and the Don until the 2nd century AD. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD they were forced by invasion to move westward towards the Danube, eventually being overrun by and merging with Vandals and Huns until they vanished around the 5th century AD. They are believed to be the origin of the surnames Alan and Allen, as well as the ancient breed of dog known as the Alan, Alani or Alaunt. The Alani are said to be the ancestors of the Ossetes of North Ossetia-Alania, a Russian republic in the Caucasus, the people of which speak the Iranian language Ossetic.


According to Greek writers such as Herodotus and Hippocrates, the Sarmatians were known for their fierce warrior women and matriarchal society. Herodotus claimed the Sarmatians were the offspring of Scythians and Amazons; he added that no woman was allowed to wed before she killed a man in battle.

Hippocrates said the women "have no right breasts ... 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 arm."

Although Herodotus is not always trustworthy, there is some archaeological evidence to support the important role of some Sarmatian women in war: many eastern Sarmatian women were buried with weapons and armour, and they often had pride of place in military graveyards where they lay alongside male warriors.

Main sources:

  • "Sarmatia". Infoplease. 2000. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0843689.html
  • T. Sulimirski. "Sarmatian - Iazyg presence in the Carpathian basin and western Europe". Vanished Civilizations of the Ancient World. Ed. Edward Bacon. http://www.acronet.net/~magyar/english/96-10/szarme.htm
  • Silkroad Foundation. "The Women Warriors - the Sarmatians". http://www.silk-road.com/artl/sarmatian.shtml (February 25, 2003).
  • "Lost Peoples: Invaders in the Balkan Peninsula". Balcanica. 1999. http://www.balcanica.org/history/lostInvaders.html

Thanks to Gritchka for pointing out the link between the Alani and the Ossetes.

As my middle name is Alan, I will now ignore associations with Alan Partridge and proclaim my kinship with a great warrior race.

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