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Barbarian Europe

What's in a Name - Alani & Roxolani

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 1 July 2023

The Alani confederation was formed out of various smaller units, all of which shared an Indo-Iranian heritage alongside their neighbours, the Sarmatians.

Both were very much part of the horse-riding, cattle-herding steppe culture of the vast steppe to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and, in their early days it seems, the Aral Sea too.

Ending up with a core territory in the northern Caucasus, they were subject to vassalage by greater powers such as the Huns and Khazars. Even so, they retained a strong identity, and are mentioned often in the historical record - especially by the Byzantine Greeks who dealt extensively with the tribes and states around the Black Sea.

Their language and culture, though, absorbed several influences to add to that Indo-Iranian origin, mostly proto-Turkic, Caucasian, and Slavic. Their name (and many of the names of their leaders) was shown in a multitude of ways, with and without external influences, so examining it is not necessarily a brief process.

Something to remember in this process is the realisation that academics can be a little too literal-minded when breaking down names.

It's a good idea to bear in mind the fact that meanings get extended, that they are not fixed. They can start out by being used metaphorically, and then the metaphor becomes accepted as the new meaning; or they can be used to describe the end effect, and what was the known cause of something becomes its effect, with no change in the word being used to describe it.

An example of the latter is 'proof' and 'prove', which originally meant 'to test'.

The Alani name

The name 'Alan' or 'Alani' is easily seen as an altered form of the Indo-European 'Arya', meaning the 'civilised' or 'respectable. Their East Indo-European cousins were documented as referring to themselves as Aryans when they entered India from around 1500 BC (although the now-tainted 'Aryan' term has been replaced by modern scholars with the more accurate 'Indo-Aryan').

This rather elitist naming was presumably in reaction to the apparently barbarous people they encountered (although this adoption clearly occurred well before any of them entered India because it was also prevalent amongst Indo-Iranians of Central Asia).

Because the name would have been highly popular with Indo-Aryan groups, though, there is no guarantee that various mentions of Alani or variations of the name in different locations actually link back to those Alani who remained in the northern Caucasus. Popular names tend to get used by all sorts of people within the same general cultural group, even today, and there were several pockets of Alani or variants, such as Roxolani.

However, assuming that 'Alani' means 'Aryan' may not even be correct. The shift from the 'r' of 'Aryan' to the 'l' of 'Alani' is especially difficult to understand. It may have undergone multiple transition points to reach that result.

One form of 'Alani' would seem to be 'Geloni', a very similar - possibly identical - group of Alani or Sarmatians who were living near the Don (Tanais) and the Sea of Azov at the same time. Herodotus mentions them.

Map of Barbarian Europe 52 BC (Small)
This map shows the general locations of the Celtic (blue) and Germanic tribes (orange) amongst others in the first centuries BC and AD (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Medieval towers in Ingushetia

These medieval towers which stand in what is now the territory of Ingushetia would have been part of the later kingdom of Alania in the northern Caucasus

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians

The initial 'g' in 'Geloni' would soften very easily to an 'h', which provides another naming for them as Heloni or Halani. Then the 'h' would be softened and dropped to produce 'Alani'.

If the original form is Gelon then we could expect the '-on' to be the common ancient definite article, which would make the name 'Geloni' to mean 'The Gel', perhaps related to 'kal' in Sanskrit.

The Roxolani name

The Roxolani appeared in Eastern Europe quite early on in the first century BC. They could be found along the Danube - on its northern bank - in the first century BC.

Fighting in the Scythian-Pontus war of about 100 BC, they were on the losing side. There seem to be few further mentions of them in history, although their final downfall did not occur until the arrival of the Huns.

Germanic and Indo-Aryan languages place the modifier first, so 'rox' would be 'royal' or, in Germanic, 'royal domain' - think 'reich' which came to mean 'empire'.

Alans fighting Romans
The Alani formed part of a major incursion into Roman territory in the fifth century AD, but there had already existed sizable pockets of them (or related groups) in southern-central Europe in the first century BC, in the form of the Alauni and Roxolani

The next part of Roxolani is the '-ol-' in the middle. This possibly originates in 'hol', 'xol', or 'gel' in Europe and is the actual tribal noun 'an', the definite article, ie. English 'the'. This is seen in the majority of Germanic and Celtic tribal names in Northern Europe. The 'i' at the end of the name is the Latin plural suffix.

Overall the name can be taken to mean 'The Royal Xol' - the use of 'x' is strong in Avestan, being pronounced as a 'kh' - or 'The Royal KHole' or 'KHel'.

A check of Sanskrit (instead of Avestan, which lost its 'L') reveals 'kula' as a name for anything which may be grouped. In that case, 'Kula' could be cognate to 'khol'.

In idiomatic English then, the name could be 'The Royal Host'. This use of 'an' in Roxolani also points to Germanic tribes being descended from eastern Saka tribes of some sort, and perhaps being closely related to the Alans.


Main Sources

Ammianus Marcellinus - Res Gestae

Asya Pereltsvaig - Genetic clues to the Ossetian past (Languages of the World)

David W Anthony - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

J Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

Herodotus - The Histories (Penguin, 1996)

Strabo - Geography (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903)

Vladimir Kouznetsov & Iaroslav Lebedynsky - Les Alains, Cavaliers des steppes, seigneurs du Caucase Ie-XVe siècle (Editions Errance, Paris 2005)

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

The Alans (Marres Education)



Maps and text copyright © Edward Dawson & P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.