The Role of Sarmatian Nomads in Rome’s Military Success

Episode 7: The Romans and the Sarmations

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

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.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.


*Amber is fossilized tree resin that takes a fine polish and is used in ornamental jewelry

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5694984/5695000

Militarized Nomads: Who were the Scythians, Huns and Mongols?

Ancient World History: Huns

Episode 16: The Importance of the Nomads

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

One of my favorite lectures, this presentation covers the militarized pastoral nomads who dominated Central Asia from 5000 BC onward. According to Benjamin, the “life ways” of pastoral nomad conquerors only became feasible after when he calls the 5th millenium “secondary products revolution,” ie the discovery of secondary uses (ie blood, milk, hair, leather, and traction power) for domesticated animals. Domestication of the horse in the 5th millenium BC made it possible for pastoral nomads to establish vast military empires.

Benjamin covers three main networks of militarized nomads known for terrorizing sedentary civilizations: the Scythians, the Huns and the Mongols. Obtaining their weapons (bows and arrows, axes, swords and maces) from sedentary civilizations, all three played an invaluable role developing the Silk Road trade networks between China and they Mediterranean.

The Scythians terrorized the Greek city states. Although the Roman Army successfully kept them at bay,  they eventually caused the collapse of the Assyrian Empire. Eventually networks of Scythian tribes extended as far east as Uzbekistan and China. Weakened by battles with the Celts and Sarmatians,* they were assimilated by the Goths in the third millenium BC.

The Huns, who appeared between the fourth and sixth century AD, devastated Europe’s Germanic tribes and the late Roman Empire.

The Mongols who appeared in the 13th century AD created the larges contiguous empire in world history.


*The Samatians were are large Iranian confederation around 500 BC

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/importance-nomads