The Role of the Rus on the Central Steppes and Their Conversion to Christianity

Episode 18: Pechenegs, Magyars and Cumans

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

For me the most significant part of this lecture concerns the history of the Rus, Vikings who migrated from Sweden to the central steppes around 750 AD. During the 9th century AD, Rurik the Rus established a trading center in Novgorod, which they subsequently moved to Kiev to cut out the Khazar middlemen, [1] who were taxing their forest products and slaves as they passed through Khazar territory to Constantinople. Following this move, the Rus and Pechenegs formed an alliance to sack the Khazarian capitol Atil, leading to its collapse in the late 10th century.

The Pechenegs, migrating west from Görturk Khanate [2] after losing their ancestral lands to to the Seljuk Turks, formed a trade agreement with the Rus to move forest products and slaves along the Volga River and Caspian Sea to Constantinople and the Muslim world. These very ancient trade routes had brought the Scandinavian Goths (originally a forest people) onto the steppes in the 3rd century AD. It also led to an amalgam of Goths and Sarmations [3] that drastically weakened the Roman Empire at the end of the 3rd century.

Following the Rus leader Vladimir’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 988 AD, the Rus and Pechenegs became enemies. As Christians, the Rus were no longer allowed to sell Slavic slaves to the Turks and Arabs. As the slave trade dried up, the Pechenegs began raiding Rus territories to kidnap slaves they could sell on to Arabs and Turks.

In 1183 AD, the Cumans also went to war with the Rus over their refusal to sell them slaves. After organizing their cavalry along the lines of Cuman nomads, the Rus were victorious The 19th century Borodin opera Prince Igor is based on an epic poem about a Rus prince’s successful rebuff of a Cuman invasion.

After European Crusaders sacked the Byzantine empire in 1204 AD, the Cumans would become the primary tribe on the Central Steppes until 1236 AD, when Batu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, swept into Cuman and Russian territory.

In 1091 AD the Byzantine emperor allied with the Cuman Turks (which had occupied and assimilated the Khazar Khanate) to wage a vicious war that killed roughly 80,000 migrating Pechenegs.

At the end of the 9th century, the Magyars, [4] under pressure from repeated Pecheneg raids, also migrated west to the Hungarians plains. From there, they in turn conducted repeated raids against the Byzantine Balkan provinces and against Italy and Western Europe.

[1] See The Arrival of Khazarians on the Steppes and Their Conversion to Judaism

[2] See The Turkmen Role in the Rise of the Tang Dynasty

[3] See The Role of Sarmatian Nomads in Rome’s Military Success

[4] Originally a forest people from the Ural mountains who migrated onto the steppes to become pastoral nomads and traders (of fur, game and fish), the Magyars (founders of modern Hungary) were the only steppes people during this period not to speak a Turkic language. The Magyars spoke a Finno-Ugric language.

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

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

How Scythian Nomads Influenced Early Greek and Persian Civilization

Episode 4 Scythians, Greeks and Persians

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns the Iranian speaking nomads of the western and central Eurasian steppes. The Scythians controlled the latter from Early Iron Age (800 BC) to 300BC. The fifth century BC Greek historian Herotodus, who encountered them in the Greek colony Olbia*, was the first to write about them.

He described the Scythian federation as consisting of Inner (Royal) Scythians and Outer Dependent Tribes. According to Harl, this method of governance dates back to the Bronze Age Yamnaya Proto-Indo-European (steppe) culture (2000-1800 BC). The Royal Scythians summoned the Dependent Tribes when they went to war and also controlled the trade flowing down their rivers.

Some of the Dependent Tribes grew grain along the shore of the Black Sea, which the Royal Scythians sold it to the Greeks. Slaves and flax, timber and amber (all pilfered from from Baltic forest peoples) also featured in nomad trade with the Greeks. Greek elites were also really fond of with intricately worked Scythian jewelry and leather and woodwork. Scythian warriors also served as mercenaries to early Greek kings and successors to Alexander the Great.

These trade routes, later taken over by Turkic speaking Khazars and eventually the Mongolian Golden Horde, persisted until Russia conquered this region in the 16th century.

Herodotus describes in detail (later confirmed by archeological findings) the horse sacrifices that accompanied royal Scythian burials. Fifty horses (and riders) would be sacrificed and stuffed to accompany royal personages to the afterlife. He also describes warrior princesses (the source of the Amazon myth) who interacted freely with male warriors and princes.

The Scythians also interacted with Asia Minor and Mesopotamia from the Bronze Age on. After the Persian** king Cyrus conquered the entire Middle East in the the 6th century (see Prehistory: The Persian Empire Conquers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Libya, Kushan, the Indus Valley, and the Early Greek City States), he mounted a disastrous military expedition against them.

Alexander the Great also engaged in military skirmishes with them following his conquest of Persia. He eventually gave up trying to conquer them and set up Greek-style cities along his northern frontier to regulate their trade and collect taxes.

The Scythian federation collapsed in the third century BC, overrun by the Sarmatians. They had been pushed west by the Xiongu as they were driven west by Han Chinese armies.***

*Olbia was on the northern shore of the Russian Black Sea.

**According to Harl, the Persians were descended from Iranian-speaking nomads who moved south with their horses and their composite bows to assimilated into the settled Mesopotamian population.

***See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Eartly Chinese Civilization

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