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Friday, 29 December 2017 14:11

A HISTORY OF UKRAINE. EPISODE 10. THE SARMATIANS

Oleksandr Palii, A History of Ukraine, 29.12.2017 

 

EPISODE NINE HERE 


The Sarmatians started coming from beyond the Don River to settle in what is now Ukraine in the 3rd century BC. 

 

The ancestors of both the Sarmatians and Scythians moved east from the territory of Ukraine in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC but later returned. 

 

The name ‘Sarmatian’ means ‘girded with a sword’ in Indo-Iranian languages. Greeks even said that Sarmatians were “under women’s control” because of numerous female military units and the great power of their queens. Greeks called Sarmatian female warriors ‘Amazons’. They were as good fighters as men, and in some cases even better, because they weighed less and were better carried by horses. 

 

sarmatians vase
Amazons, Greek image, ca. 400 BC. 

 

The Sarmatians invented the military tactics of heavily armed armored cavalry, cataphracts, which was the first European precursor of the medieval knights. The Roman historian Tacitus called them the best horsemen in the world. 

 

At first, the Sarmatians attacked Scythian defense fortifications but later made peace with them. Starting in the 2nd century BC, a large resettlement began among the Scythians and the Slavs — to west of the Dnipro in the basins of the Ros, Rosava, Tiasmyn rivers and all the way to the Carpathian mountains. The Romans called the Carpathians as “Sarmatian mountains” from the 1st to the 4th century AD.

 

sarmatians melanipi
Melanipa, the queen of Amazons, the 1th century AD.

 

Initially, Sarmatians were nomads and lived in horse-drawn carts. Soon, however, the poorest of Sarmatians and later the entire Sarmatian population of the Ukrainian forest-steppe became agricultural. The most militant Sarmatian tribe, the Roxolani, settled along the Middle Dnipro. Sarmatians received income from the export of commodities, especially crops, to the Greek cities on the northern coast of the Black Sea.

 

Early in the 2nd century AD, after Rome annexed Dacia (modern Romania), the Roman Empire came close to Ukraine’s modern borders. 

 

The Roman poet Ovid, whom the emperor banished to the northwest coast of the Black Sea, wrote about constant Sarmatian attacks, complained that he was forced to speak Sarmatian more than Latin and that he saw “barbarians” everywhere — Sarmatians in their traditional wide trousers which later became part of the Ukrainian national costume.

 

sarmatians vase 3
Sarmatians, image on Trajan’s Column in Rome, 113 AD.

 

The Romans built huge earthen fortifications — Trajan’s Wall, named after the Emperor Trajan — in order to resist the offense of the Sarmatians and their allies the Slavs. Remnants of these walls are still preserved in the territory of Odesa, Ternopil and Khmelnytsky oblasts in Ukraine. 

 

The Sarmatians played a prominent role in the creation of the Ukrainian ethnos as they interacted with the Slavs within the Antean (Slavic-Sarmatian) tribal union. 

 

The name Rus’ most likely comes from the name of the Sarmatian tribe Roxolani. Initially, the Rus’ people actually were the remaining Roxolani who settled “on an island”: between the Dnipro, the Ros and Tiasmyn rivers in ancient times. Later in the 9th and 10th centuries AD, Arab and Persian travelers found some purely Sarmatian features in the Rus’ culture — the cult of the sword, the prevalence of wide trousers (sharovary) and hats with a pointed end (shlyk) which were later popular among Ukrainians, the name zhupan for chieftains and so on.

 

The Ukrainian Cossacks of the 16th-18th centuries AD also traced their origin and name back to the Roxolani. Rox meant ‘clear, transparent’ in Sarmatian. 

 

The Sarmatians made fine jewelry and weapons decorated with precious stones. The Sarmatian “polychromous” jewelry art style spread throughout medieval Europe. Some of their chieftains had their heads tied up in childhood to achieve their “noble” elongation. 

 

The Sarmatians participated in countless historical events: they attacked Rome and Byzantium, settled in the Balkans together with the Slavs, were Rome’s mercenaries in Britain, and founded joint states with Germanic tribes — with the Goths in Spain and with the Vandals in Africa. 

 

sarmatians greek

Battle of Greeks with the Amazons

 

However, the Sarmatians were divided into many separate tribes and eventually dissolved among various peoples. 

 

Some Sarmatian tribes (the Alans) existed in Sloboda Ukraine (near modern Kharkiv) and in the Crimea until the Mongol invasion in the 13th century.

 

TO EPISODE ELEVEN

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