Episode 7: The Romans and the Sarmations
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
The Sarmations were an Iranian-speaking culture (reflecting early interactions with China) that originated from a region east of the Ural mountains and north of the Caspian Sea. Around 300 BC they began to migrate west to the south Russian steppes. An extremely wealthy culture, they eventually controlled all trade along the Russian rivers to the Baltic Sea. This included the trade in amber,* which was highly prized in Greece and Rome. Their warriors were even more highly prized than Scythian soldiers. Intermarriage of Sarmation mercenaries with Greek populations promoted a taste in Sarmatia for Mediterranean products. The Sarmatians also sold and transported slaves and horses (the main source of horses for Roman cavalry).
As they moved further west they came into contact with Celtic and Germanic tribes, from whom they learned metal technology.
In addition to their mounted archers, they employed a heavy cavalry wearing metallic body armor. In the second century AD, the Romans adopted the Sarmation model of heavy cavalry. Under emperor Marcus Aurelius, Sarmation mercenaries were sent to Britain to subdue rebellious natives.
The Sarmations carried dragon banners into battle adapted from the Chinese. The Romans adopted Sarmation dragon symbology, subsequently absorbed into medieval European culture.
Their alliances with Rome led to the construction of Roman cities and fortresses on the Danube to 1) regulate trade into Rome’s northern European provinces and 2) permanent settlement of Sarmation nomads on (provincial) Roman pasture land. To reduce migration pressure, the Romans also captured thousands of Sarmations and resettled them in their northern provinces.
According to Harl, the Sarmations never built an effective confederation because Rome, a dictatorship, had no princesses to intermarry with Sarmations princes (and introduce them to the bureaucratic skills needed to develop centralized political power).
In the second century AD, the Goths left their homeland in Scandinavia and traveled down the Sarmation trade routes, enslaving Sarmations and attacking the Roman provinces. They learned military horsemanship from the Sarmations and set up a series of Goth confederations. They were driven back in the 3rd century AD and remained a loose confederation until the Huns arrived in Europe in 375 AD.
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*Amber is fossilized tree resin that takes a fine polish and is used in ornamental jewelry