History Files
 

Please help the History Files

Contributed: $213

Target: $420

2023
Totals slider
2023

The History Files is a non-profit site. It is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and your help is still very much needed. Please make a small donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your incredible support really is appreciated.

European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Aorsi (Indo-Iranians)

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 They in turn were superseded by the Scythians, and it was they who imposed a ruling elite over the early Sarmatians and Alani.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 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 Aorsi (or Aorsoi in Greek references) were one such constituent sub-group, usually described as being Sarmatians (although there was very little difference between them and the Alani). In time the general Sarmatian confederation settled much of southern European Russia and the eastern Balkans. Like the closely-related Scythians, they were highly developed horse-riding warriors. Their administrative capability and political astuteness contributed to their gaining widespread influence, and it was through this that many of their sub-groups were able to spread far into Central Europe.

The name Aorsi is comparatively easy to break down, even though the options are derived from language which is more than a millennium or so later. Remove the suffix 'i' to leave the root 'aors'. In Avestan the word 'arsha [arshan]' means 'male (animal); brave, valiant'. Pokorny provides the Ossetian: 'ars', meaning 'bear' (Ossetian being a direct descendant of the Alani tongue). The two meanings could possibly be cognates. The tribe was 'the bears', a brave, valiant bear which could mark out its own territory and defend it.

The chief Aorsi settlement, when mentioned by ancient writers, was located between the Tana´s, the Euxine, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus. Strabo places the Sarmatians here, south of the Scythians, although he (correctly) states that they are also Scythians, probably meaning that they like the Scythians travel on wagons - typical Indo-European steppe practice. Two of these Sarmatian groups are the Aorsi and Siraces, some of whom are nomads while others dwell in tents and cultivate the land.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from the Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, J P Mallory & D Q Adams (Eds, 1997), from The Pechenegs: Nomads in the Political and Cultural Landscape of Medieval Europe, Aleksander Paroń (Translated by Thomas Anessi, Brill, 2021), and from External Links: The United Sites of Indo-Europeans, and Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians, and Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Sarmatians (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

339 BC

The Scythians are defeated by the Macedonian king, Phillip II, and the Scythian king, Ateas, is killed. His kingdom collapses, heralding the end for Scythian domination. The Sarmatians take advantage to swiftly establish their own domination over the steppe when they establish themselves the Belgorod Oblast area of modern Russia (on the north-eastern Ukrainian border).

Map of Scythian Lands around 500 BC
This map attempts to show the Scythian lands at their greatest extent, failing to extend northwards thanks to the Balts (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Siraces and the Aorsi both migrate in this approximate period across the Volga to establish themselves in the northern foothills of the Caucuses Mountains. The Siraces at least come into contact with Greek coastal colonies there and absorb a degree of Greek influence. The Aorsi may straddle the Volga, given the later depth of their domain.

c.100 BC

During an unknown point in the second century BC, a division of the Osi migrates south to enter Pannonia, on the southern bank of the Danube. Here they become lowland farmers, surrounded by the Illyrian Antari tribe who seem not to oppose their arrival (possibly this is due to the dominance of the Celtic Taurisci confederation).

For the Osi, the Germanic advance from the north means that by around 100 BC the remaining Osi in Galicia are cut off from the Celtic world by the infringement of the Quadi. They have to pay tribute to the militarily dominant Germanics and a tribe of Sarmatians. Unusually, though, they are not absorbed by the Germanics and manage to retain their language.

Sarmatians are becoming increasingly numerous in territory to the west of the Vistula. The Siraces and the Aorsi are both already applying increasing pressure on established core Sarmatian territories, forcing elements westwards.

Sarmatian warrior
Sarmatians followed the Agathyrsi and Scythians onto the Pontic steppe, and were followed by the Alani and, unfortunately for all of them, the Huns

The power-base of the Iazyges is similarly disrupted and then destroyed, forcing them westwards too. The Aorsi establish control over territory between the Caucuses and the Aral Sea far to the east where they dominate or push out previously dominant Saka groups. The westernmost branch may be a divided unit, as Strabo classifies the rest as the northern Aorsi or 'Upper Aorsi', greater and more powerful than either the 'little' Aorsi or the Siraces who dominate the northern Caucuses.

63 - 62 BC

Pontus becomes a Roman province through Pompey, although some areas become principalities and free cities which are not absorbed into the empire until between 7 BC and AD 63. The Siraces profit greatly from the Roman occupation, organising the sale of twenty thousand horses. They and the Aorsi are both becoming rich from their trade through the Armenians and Babylonians.

mid-1st c BC

Spadines

King of the Aorsi.

Spadines is mentioned in Strabo's Geography as the leader of a fugitive group of Aorsi, which is divided from the 'Upper Aorsi'. The latter group is much more powerful, apparently dominating the coastal area around the Caspian Sea. They continue to trade with India and the Babylonians via the Armenians and Medes. Whether these are related to the Alani or are simply using a variation of the same name is unclear.

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 their namesakes) in southern-central Europe in the first century BC, in the form of the Alauni and Roxolani

fl AD 49?

Eunones

King of the Aorsi. Roman supporter.

AD 41 - 49

Zorsines of the Siraces has a fortification at Uspe when he takes part in the war against the Dandarii which is being fought by the Armenian king, Mithridates. Mithridates later has his throne taken from him by Roman Emperor Claudius but is defeated when he and Zorsines offer battle against his replacement.

The pro-Roman Aorsi under Eunones pursue Mithridates and clash with Zorsines at Uspe. The town offers ten thousand slaves to end the siege but this is declined. Zorsines eventually has to abandon Mithridates, providing hostages to Rome and acknowledging Roman authority. The Siraces are weakened by this outcome while the Aorsi are strengthened.

c.1000

Around this time, in the late tenth century AD or early eleventh, the Persian poet Ferdoûsî (941-1026) and the Arabic historian Al-Bîroûnî both mention the apparent fact that the Alani, Aorsi, or Asii in former times had lived on the lower reaches of the River Amu Darya (the River Oxus of the Greeks). This would seem to support the Chinese record of the Yancai in the first century BC and the link between them and the early Alani, while the Aorsi have long since been absorbed by the more powerful Alani.

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 Caucuses

 
Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.