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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Geloni (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 They in turn were superseded by the Scythians, and it was they who imposed a ruling elite over the early Sarmatians and Alani.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 Geloni were one such constituent sub-group, usually described as being Alani but sometimes being claimed as Sarmatians (and probably with very little difference between the two). In time the Sarmatians 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.

Herodotus mentioned the Geloni (otherwise referred to as Gilans, Gilonians, Gelae, or Heloni) in connection with a general description of tribes which had fallen under the domination of the Scythians, but who were then being faced with attacks by a Persian expeditionary force. At that time, around 513 BC, the Geloni occupied territory on the east bank of the Dneiper as it emerged from the Pripet marshes.

They were neighboured to the north by the Androphagi and to the south by the Budini, with the Melanchlaeni to their east. They were either closely related to the Alani or, far more likely, they were one and the same group of people.

The fourth century AD Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus considered the Geloni (and Alani) 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. It is entirely possible that all three groups - Geloni, Alans, and Sarmatians - are indivisible in this respect. Claudian in the same century notes the Geloni habit of tattooing their limbs.

FeatureTheir name is an interesting one. 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 it could be expected that the '-on' is the common ancient definite article, which would make the name 'Geloni' to mean 'The Gel', perhaps related to 'kal' in Sanskrit (see feature link for the full story).

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 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 The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), and from External Links: Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, 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, and Turkic History.)

6th century BC

During the earlier part of this century, the Utians and many other tribes which border the Persian satrapy of Mada - such as the Cadusii, Gelae (Geloni), and Tapuri of northern Media and the shores of the Caspian Sea - are classed as Anariaci, or 'not Indo-Iranians'.

This is clearly incorrect, so perhaps it is meant to describe non-Persian Indo-Iranians. Eventually, many of these groups are absorbed into the dominant Persian population while the Geloni soon migrate to the Dnieper.

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great freed the Indo-Iranian Parsua people from Median domination to establish a nation which is recognisable to this day, and an empire which provided the basis for the vast territories which were later ruled by Alexander the Great

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.

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 heavily 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.

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 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.

The Geloni, it would seem, have no choice in the matter of whether to support the Scythians as they appear to be Budini subjects at this time. In fact Herodotus thinks of them as former Greeks who had settled far up the Borysfen (the 'river from the north', today's Dneiper).

There they have built the aforementioned large fortified (wooden) city and called it Gelonos. Since then they have become partially Scythianised. Excavations in Ukraine's Poltava Oblast (to the immediate east of Kyiv) do indeed find the burned-out remains of a vast wooden city.

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 states that his records come from those Greeks who occupy colonies around the Black Sea's northern coast, so there is a good chance that they contain at least a germ of accuracy. The Geloni subsequently disappear from the historical record, probably integrated into the Budini and then the Scythians.

 
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