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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Alani / Alans (Indo-Iranians)
Incorporating the Alauni

During the first millennium BC (and likely for much of the largely-unrecorded second millennium BC too) various Indo-Iranian tribes of the East Indo-European division dominated the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They took control from remaining West Indo-European groups, with the Agathyrsi rising early to supremacy over the other tribes. They in turn were superseded by the Scythians, and it was they who imposed a ruling elite over the early Sarmatians and Alani.

The Alani (or Yancai in Chinese records) were either neighbours of the Sarmatians or (as some claim) a division of the Sarmatians themselves. The fortunes of both groups were closely intertwined, and some of their constituent sub-groups could be mistaken as Alani or Sarmatians, depending on how they were being recorded by early writers.

The Sarmatians soon migrated from Central Asia towards the Ural Mountains, at a point between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. This was just in time for them - with a division of the Alani in tow - to be mentioned by Herodotus when he described the tribes to the north of the Black Sea (the Pontic steppe).

Following their own migration, the Alani retained a core of their people in the same general location - the northern Caucasus - for the greater part of their complicated history and into the modern day as Ossetians (in part).

Other groups which could be linked in some way to them ventured out along the familiar paths of Indo-European migration, reaching Central Europe in an initial phase so that they were present in Dacia, on the northern bank of the Danube, in the first centuries BC and AD. Initially the 'remainers' of the northern Caucasus were dominated by the Scythians and then the Sarmatians.

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as calling themselves Aryans when they entered India from around 1500 BC (although the tainted 'Aryan' term has been replaced by modern scholars with the more accurate 'Indo-Aryan').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

FeatureBecause the name 'Alani' and its many variations would have been highly popular with Indo-Aryan groups, there is no guarantee that various mentions of Alani, or variations of the name, in different locations actually link back to those Alani who settled in the northern Caucasus. Popular names tend to get used by all sorts of people within the same general cultural group, even today. Historians do tend to lump them together though (see feature link for more).

The Alani are first mentioned in the late sixth century BC by Herodotus, who noted the existence of the Geloni - either a closely related group or, far more likely, the same group of people. The fourth century AD Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus considered them to be the direct descendants of the Massagetae, while many others linked them to the Sarmatians, sometimes it seems as a form of elite unit.

In the first century AD two Roman historians, Josephus and Strabo both noted them. Josephus referred to them as Scythians living near the Don (Tanais) and the Sea of Azov. They seem to have been indivisible from the Sarmatians and the Geloni of the same region.

FeatureStrabo referred to them as the As or Asioi (this name, As or Os, is itself a contraction of Asura - as the 'Az' - which could be used by any number of Indo-Iranian groups right up to the seventh century AD - see feature link, right, for more information on As and Os). There were also (probable) elements of the Alani in the form of the Alauni and Roxolani along the Danube in the first century BC, showing how far their various (possible) divisions had migrated. The origins of the Spali are confused.

Attacked and conquered by the Huns, the main group of Alani in Scythia became allies (willingly or otherwise), and a large number travelled west with the Huns. Split by the attacks, some Alani tribes remained behind, dispersed across the steppe.

MapThey were forced by further waves of invaders - early Turkic groups (see map link, right, for more details) - to re-concentrate as the Caucasus Alani where they eventually founded the regionally-powerful kingdom of Alania, only to be conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. They re-emerged in the modern age as the Ossetians, based in modern Georgia and southern Russia.

FeatureCulturally, it appears that the Alani were supporters of the widespread Indo-European practise of Rte. The fact that it has survived into modern times among their Ossetian descendants as a religion confirms this. Rte (the Sanskrit form of the name as used by Indo-Aryans) was a practical philosophy for daily life and spiritual life whose followers were devoted to the truth as 'what is'.

This philosophy would have given its devotees a powerful advantage over their neighbours because they would have made practical, hard-nosed decisions rather than decisions based on fantasy or belief (see feature link for more information).

Uatsdin, a modern movement which in essence follows the same truth of 'what is', comes from the practice of Rte amongst Ossetians. In the exymology of the word, its last part - '-din' - is cognate with the Avestan 'daena', meaning 'insight, revelation'.

The first element is trickier though, and some examinations fail to delve deep enough into it. The modern Ossetian organisation of Rte is known as Atsætæ. The meaning given for its basis, 'Ætsæg', is 'right, true', but in fact this consists of a base element and a suffix together. The base is 'Æts-' which appears to be a flipped vowel version of the verb 'to be', of the 'ist' and 'est' variety rather than the Arte and Rte. The suffix '-æg' is the familiar 'like unto' or 'similar to' or 'in the manner of' suffix which is used in modern English in the form of '-ish' and '-ic' (such as in 'English' and 'Scandic').

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from Les Alains, Cavaliers des steppes, seigneurs du Caucase Ie-XVe siècle, Vladimir Kouznetsov & Iaroslav Lebedynsky (Editions Errance, Paris 2005), from Etnicheskaja istorija Severnogo Kavkaza, A V Gadlo, from Eucharisticos (Thanksgiving), Paulinus of Pella, from the Life of St Germanus of Auxerre, Constantius of Lyon, from The Pechenegs: Nomads in the Political and Cultural Landscape of Medieval Europe, Aleksander Paroń (Translated by Thomas Anessi, Brill, 2021), from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), and from External Links: Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Proto-Bulgarian Runic Inscriptions, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and Genetic clues to the Ossetian past, Asya Pereltsvaig (Languages of the World), and The Alans (Marres Education), and Turkic History.)

513 - 512 BC

As the centuries have gone by, the Scythians have become involved in wars against the invading Persians. Thanks to this the northern tribes along Scythian borders are also disturbed. Herodotus describes these wars in Book IV of his history, these being the earliest surviving written records concerning the history of Eastern Europe, at the end of the sixth century BC.

River Dnieper (Ukraine section)
The River Dnieper - the Borysfen to Herodotus, the Danapris to the Romans - long provided a conduit between the Black Sea and the Baltic lands to the north with the Neuri living around its headwaters in modern Belarus

Herodotus mentions and approximately locates the seats of the Neuri, Androphagi, Melanchlaeni, Budini, and other tribes living to the north of Scythia. With the Pripet marshes seemingly the natural border between Scythia and the Neuri, the latter dwell beyond the Scythian farmers (Slavs) at the headwaters of the Dnieper.

The Budini at least are influenced by the Geloni who themselves seem to be heavily Greek-influenced (Herodotus calls them Greeks who have migrated from the Black Sea to settle amongst the Budini). The influence must certainly have come from the many Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast, with the result being that the Budini have Greek temples and partially worship Greek gods.

The Scythians seek help from the northern nations to counter the Persian attack, but the chieftains of the Neuri, Androphagi, Melanchlaeni, Agathyrsi, and Tauri do not agree to be Scythian allies. The Budini, though, do ally themselves with the Scythians, and they suffer the burning-down of one of their large fortified cities at the hands of Darius I as a result of the alliance.

Map of European Tribes
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, and with an especial focus on 52 BC (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

90s BC

The nomadic Yancai - later referred to as Alan-na - are recorded by Sima Qian of China, centred on the northern shore of the Aral Sea. They may be a wandering group of Alani, but they may equally be a group which has adopted a variation of the same name - a form of the Indo-Iranian 'Arya', meaning the 'civilised' or 'respectable'. Arabic records of the Alani from around AD 1000 (during the height of the kingdom of Alania) would seem to support a connection.

Around the same time, two tribes on the banks of the Danube in southern Central Europe are generally linked to the Alani as sub-divisions of the main body (although the alternative theory offered here is that they are entirely separate groups which are simply using variations of the same name).

The first of these is the Alauni, located on the south bank of the river, between that and the town of Iuvavum (modern Salzburg in Austria). They are neighboured to the north by the Celtic Sevarces, to the east and south by the powerful Taurisci and the Ambisontes, and to the west by the Vindelici.

The other sub-division or similarly-named group is the already-mentioned Roxolani, who are known to arrive in the region of the Baragan steppe in modern Romania in the first century BC. They quickly find themselves neighboured to the north by the Daci, and to the east, south, and west by smaller Dacian tribes.

Carinthia
The modern southern Austrian region of Carinthia marked the upper edge of the Adriatic hinterland which was first occupied by Celts towards the end of the fourth century BC

fl AD 70

Külük / Kuluk

Defeated the Medians and Armenians in a raid south.

1st century AD

Elements of the Alani can now be confirmed as occupying territory to the north of the Sea of Azov. They are extending their influence to control the trade routes between the northern Black Sea coast to the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea. They are showing warlike traits which are typical of Indo-Iranian tribes of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, with one leader named Külük leading a successful raid southwards to defeat an Armenian force.

Shortly before his death in AD 24, Strabo completes ongoing work on his Geography. It contains a description of the peoples and places known to this Greek writer who latterly lives in Rome. He describes the Alani as As or Asioi. This is 'Asiani' in Latin - possibly a confusion with the Greater Yuezhi or their immediate neighbours. Alternatively the Alani could extend far into Central Asia and, if the Asiani are indeed a division of the Greater Yuezhi, then so too could be the Alani.

c.125

By now, Chinese records confirm the unification of the Yancai peoples as the Alanliao (or the 'old Yancai'), who have expanded towards the Caspian Sea. They appear to remain dependent upon the Kangju, at least for a time, before becoming dominant in Sarmatia. They cause concern for the Roman empire thanks to southwards incursions into the Danubian province and the Caucasus during this and the next century.

Zhang Qian, ambassador and explorer
Zhang Qian was a Chinese ambassador and explorer who, between 138-126 BC, met and documented many of the steppe tribes, including the Yancai to the north of the Aral Sea

134 - 136

The Alani are again showing their warlike demeanour by attacking Albania, Media, and Armenia. They penetrate as far as Cappadocia. Probably the only way in which Vologeses III of Parthia is able to persuade them to withdraw is by paying them.

fl 175

'Lucius Artorius Castus'

Alani leader who took a Roman name in Britain.

175

The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, defeats the Iazyges tribe of Alani (otherwise known as Sarmatians, and again revealing that there is very little difference between the two groups).

FeatureHe takes them into Roman service and settles them in northern Britain, at Ribchester, south of Lancaster. The Alani are assigned to the VI Legion Victrix, commanded by an Alani warlord who is renamed Lucius Artorius Castus - definitely not a candidate for the role of 'King' Arthur of the Britons (see feature link).

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

193

The Siraces receive their final mention in historical records during some disturbances in the Bosporan region in this year. The details seem to be unclear but the Siraces are not mentioned again. They are subjugated and absorbed by the increasingly powerful Alani with who they share very few differences, even down to their mutual Greek influences.

c.225 - 250

During this period the Goths continue to migrate south-eastwards from the southern Baltic coast, entering Moldavia and western Ukraine. Defeating the Spali (a possible division of the Alani), they form a loose hegemony over the tribes of the region, almost certainly including the Bastarnae.

The sixth century Eastern Roman historian, Jordanes, calls this new realm Oium, or Aujum. Archaeology supports the migration if not the name of its leader, showing a southwards drift for the people of the Willenberg culture until they merge with the indigenous Zarubintsy culture in Ukraine to form the Chernyakhiv culture.

c.240s - 250s

The Alani (or Yancai) are no longer dependent upon the Kangju, as recorded by the Weilüe history of the Chinese Wei dynasty. Presumably this means that they have moved far enough to the west to avoid the Kangju. If that is correct then it would also seem to signify the completion of the westwards migration of Alani groups over the past three centuries.

Map of Three Kingdoms China AD 220-263
In AD 220 the Late Han Chinese empire was officially transferred to the Wei or Cao Wei dynasty, while the Alani were migrating out of their reach (click or tap on map to view full sized)

fl c.280s

Askhkadar

King of the Alani.

c.280

In or around this year Kundajiq ('king') Askhkadar of the Alani becomes father to a daughter by the name of Arsecid (variously shown as Asxen and Ashken). She will go onto marry King Tiridates IV of Armenia who is perhaps thirty years her elder.

Farther south, the Sassanids build a wall from the southern coast of the Caspian Sea to the mountains near the city of Gorgon in Hyrcania (modern Gonbad-e-Kavus), The wall is named the Qizil-Alan (although later generations refer to it as Alexander's Wall), and it seems to be designed to prevent Alani penetration into Persia via the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea.

372 - 406

The Huns burst into Scythia and defeat the Alani, splintering their tribes. Probably with little choice in the matter, the Alani ally themselves with the Huns, following them as they head west. Some Alani tribes manage to remain, migrating into the valleys of the northern Caucasus where they maintain their identity and provide the future basis for Kabardians and Ossetians.

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

The Huns and those Alani who are migrating westwards with them arrive in the territory to the north of the Danube where they conquer and absorb many tribes and groups there, including the Roxolani. The Huns eventually unify into a single cohesive force and begin to threaten the western Roman empire having already clashed clashing with the Ostrogoths.

Overrunning them, in 376 the Huns and their allies also defeat the Visigoths. Subsequently, there appear to be various rulers of these 'western' Alani, perhaps of individual tribes alone. They are part of the Hunnic confederation and are subsequently allied to the Vandali.

fl late 300s?

Beler

A leader of the 'western' Alani. Hunnic vassal.

fl 406 - c.413

Respendial

A leader of the 'western' Alani at the Rhine crossing.

c.406 - c.414

Goar / Gokhar

A leader of the 'western' Alani at the Rhine crossing.

406 - 409

In 406 the majority of 'western' Alani leave the Huns behind and cross the Rhine at Mainz, entering into the Roman empire. They would seem to consist of two main divisions, with Respendial leading one of them and Goar leading the other. They move in association with the Suevi and Vandali.

Crossing the Rhine
The main bodies of the Vandali, Alani, and Suevi tribes crossed the Rhine at the end of 406, resulting in panic and chaos within the Roman empire

Refused permission to settle by the Franks at the crossing of the Rhine, the Vandali are instead attacked by them but the Alani come to their rescue and save the day. Subsequently, the Alani and Vandali settle initially in southern Gaul (around Orleans and Valence), where they cause chaos. Much of the population of all three groups migrates into Iberia by 409, disrupting the Gallic empire of Constantine III.

411 - 413

Gundahar of the Burgundians and Goar set up Jovinus as their puppet Roman usurper. He is defeated by the Visigoths and, as they subsequently move southwards, an important group of Alani joins them with Respendial as their leader. Goar and his division of Alani remain behind. Addac succeeds Respendial in Iberia.

c.413 - 418

Addac / Attaces

In Iberia. Killed in battle against the Visigoths.

414

The Visigoths come into renewed conflict with Emperor Honorius which culminates in the siege of Vasatis (modern Bazas in south-western Gaul) in 414. Paulinus of Pella, a Christian poet who is one of those being besieged inside the city, records the fact in his work Eucharisticos (Thanksgiving) that the Visigoths are supported by a group of Alani.

Having previously established a level of friendship with the unnamed king of these Alani, Paulinus persuades him to side with the city's Roman defenders. The Alani leader does so, turning over his wife and son to the Romans as hostages. The Visigoths withdraw from Vasatis and retreat into Iberia while the Alani are settled as Roman allies.

Ravenna
Ravenna became Rome's imperial city in 402, and remained Italy's capital under succeeding Gothic, Ostrogothic, and Eastern Roman administrations

426

The Suevi settle in north-western Iberia. With the Visigoths becoming more powerful in southern Gaul and northern Iberia, the weakened Alani in Iberia officially merge with the Asding Vandali when Gunderic accepts the Alani kingship (later Vandali kings include 'Alani' amongst their titles).

The Alani would also appear to be the source of the name of the later Spanish province of Catalonia (the province of 'Goth-Alani'). Together the Alani and Vandali migrate farther south, leaving at least some of their people behind in Gaul - notably the group under Goar and the second group around Vasatis.

fl c.430s - 446

Eochar / Gokhar / Goar

In Gaul. Unlikely to be the same person as circa 406.

fl 440

Sambida

In Gaul. Leader of a separate group?

440

The Chronica Gallica of 452 records the fact that, in 440, a leader of the Alani (presumably one of at least two groups in Gaul at this time) by the name of Sambida is granted land around the Valentia district of south-eastern Gaul. This would seem to be a third group of Alani in Gaul, although it is possible that they are part of the group which had been settled around Vasatis around sixteen years before.

442

As confirmed by the event above for 440, at least two (and possibly three) groups of Alani have been settled by Rome in Gaul, sharing the land with the Gallo-Roman inhabitants. The presence of one of these groups of uncouth barbarians, possibly on the Loire, leads to a major clash between them and the Gallo-Roman owners of the region, with the Alani ejecting the Romanised Celts.

Aëtius
The figure on the right is thought to be Aëtius, although there is some doubt, and the possibility exists that the sarcophagus on which this relief sits could even have been built half a century before this period

While the deal proves good for Rome in that this group of Alani remains available for military service, it is not so favourable for provincial landowners. Given that Sambida's group has settled in the south-east, this Loire group could be that of Eochar, although no Alani leader is named.

446

In Brittany, a King Eochar of the Alani is ordered by Aëtius, the controlling power in the Roman empire, to put down a rebellion of bacaudae (peasants). Eochar is persuaded to hold off by St Germanus of Auxerre, as recorded in the Life of St Germanus of Auxerre.

fl c.451/453

Sangipan / Sangiban

In Gaul. Leader at the Catalaunian Plains and on the Loire.

451

To preserve their new domains, the Visigoths and Franks fight on the side of Rome to halt the advance of the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, close to the chief town of the Catalauni Gauls. The Huns call on their subject allied tribes, which include the Gepids, Ostrogoths, Scirii, and Taifali.

Rome also has units of independent Alani, Armoricans, and a larger body of Taifali on its side. Because Sangipan has already promised Attila that he would open the gates of Aurelianum (Orleans) to him, the Alani are placed in the centre of the Roman line with more reliable allies on either side of them. For this reason the Alani bear a large part of the brunt of Hunnic attacks.

Attila the Hun
Despite his great success over the barbarian tribes of eastern and Central Europe, Attila's stalemate against an allied Roman-led army in 451 was a blow to his prestige, and his death soon afterwards caused his empire to crumble

? - 464

Beorgor

A leader of 'western' Alani in northern Italy. Killed by Ricimer.

With Aurelianum having been taken by the Visigoths, the Alani of Western Europe are apparently absorbed into the general population during the fifth century. They are totally submerged by the Frankish conquest of Gaul later in the same century. Those Alani who had followed the Vandali into Africa disappear into the local population there. However, the Alani of the Caucasus survive as an identifiable people.

 
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