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European Kingdoms

Eastern Europe


Sarmatians (Indo-Iranians)
Incorporating the Prokhorovka Culture (300-100 BC), the Arraei, Koralloi, & Vangiones

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. These sweeping plains to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea had largely been abandoned by West Indo-Europeans during the Yamnaya horizon which fell, roughly, between 3500-2500 BC.

Indo-Iranians had migrated westwards to fill that void, and had doubtless found leftover West Indo-Europeans groups there to dominate (most likely the Tauri) or absorb (probably to produce the Agathyrsi, and perhaps others).

One such Indo-Iranian group, the Sarmatians (Sarmatai or Sarmatae), gained an imposed Scythian ruling warrior elite before they 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 the closely-associated Alani elements in tow (such as the Geloni) - to be mentioned by Herodotus when he described the tribes to the north of the Black Sea (such as the Agathyrsi, Androphagi, Budini, Gerrians, Melanchlaeni, Neuri, Scythians, and Tauri).

Until the fifth century BC however, the Sarmatians remained in their early 'Sauromatian' phase which describes them without their Scythian influences and prior to their domination of the steppe.

In time the Sarmatians settled much southern European Russia and the eastern Balkans. Like the Scythians to whom they were closely related, the Sarmatians were highly developed horse-riding warriors and, as part of the limited Prokhorovka culture (circa 300-100 BC), mound-builders too. Their administrative capability and political astuteness contributed to their gaining widespread influence.

By the fifth century BC they controlled territory between the Urals and the River Don. In the fourth century BC they crossed the Don to defeat the fading Scythians and replace them as the main authority across almost all of southern Russia by the second century BC.

The Roman province of Lower Moesia (today's Bulgaria) was penetrated during the reign of Emperor Nero. Sarmatians allied themselves with Germanic tribes to pose a formidable threat to the Romans in the west as late as the first century AD. Towards the end of their dominance their confederation invaded Dacia (today's Romania) and the lower Danube region. Only after that were they overwhelmed by the mighty Goths, during the third century AD. Many Sarmatians ended up joining the Goths when they crossed into the Roman empire.

Sarmatia as a region and a concept was destroyed by the Hunnic invasion of the steppe after AD 370. Many were assimilated into this new steppe empire, along with a great many other groups, some of which had been swept along with the Huns from the other side of the Urals. Others fled west to be assimilated into pro-Roman or anti-Hunnic tribes and unions. The Sarmatians had disappeared from the historical record by the sixth century AD.

While Sarmatians and Scythian were very similar groups, both possessing the usual Indo-Iranian steppe qualities of fine horsemanship and expert fighting abilities, Scythian gods were nature gods. Sarmatians venerated a god of fire to whom they offered horses in sacrifice, horses long being a valuable commodity for Indo-Iranians (although see below for hints of other gods).

Unmarried Sarmatian females also fought alongside the men, especially in the early years before other influences permeated Sarmatian society. They may have been the inspiration for Greek tales of Amazons. Sarmatian society itself started out as matriarchal in form (seemingly the origin of the Sarmatian name itself), before transitioning to a system which preferred male chieftains and then a male monarchy.

This could have been in response to the increased level of warfare which the Sarmatians faced in their new territory. The Sarmatians apparently referred to themselves (entirely normally for Indo-Iranians) as Aryans.

Breaking down the Sarmatian name is a curious experience. When the suffixes are removed the core word is 'sarma'. This is a colour, sometimes extended to an animal's colour. In Baltic tongues it is 'grey' (Lithuanian 'šir̃vas', meaning 'grey, greyish-blue', while Latvian has 'sirms'). The use of 'grey' was extended to ermines and weasels of that colour. In Indic the meaning is 'dark' (Old Indic 'śyā-má-', meaning 'black, dark'). Old Indic is closer to Scythian than is the Baltic, so the Sarmatians are likely 'dark people', probably in terms of hair colour.

During their expansion towards Central Europe, either a degree of fragmentation occurred amongst the Sarmatian collective, or individual units were simply better recorded than they could be on the steppe. In the first century BC the Sarmatian Iazyges migrated into the Dacian steppe in today's southern Hungary to settle there. Other recorded related tribes (although they were not necessarily strictly Sarmatians) included the Aorsi, Arraei, Koralloi, Roxolani, Serboi, and Siraces, while the Taifali appear to have been partially Germanised Sarmatians.

There was a Germanic tribe known as the Vangiones, noted by the poet, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, as the 'Wagniones'. That name was similar to the name of an earlier Sarmatian tribe of Vangiones which was translated as the 'wagon-dwellers'.

The first comes from the proto-Germanic *wagnaz (which also appears in Old English as 'wægn', Modern English as 'wain', Old Saxon and Old High German as 'wagan', Old Norse as 'vagn', Old Frisian as 'wein', and German as 'wagen'). The proto-Germanic stems from an early proto-Indo-European word, *woghnos, from *wegh- meaning 'to carry' and 'to move'. The tribe were probably 'the wagons', with 'wagoners' being implied. Fascinatingly, what little is known of the earliest Indo-Europeans is that their expansion was enabled by their nomadic use of four-wheeled wagons.

FeatureIn extending westwards at their height the Sarmatians appear to have taken over territory from the Germanic Bastarnae tribe. Considerable cultural mixing was to be expected which may have worked its way right back to the Germanic homeland (see feature link). Since the specific deity name of Æsir is used both by Hindus in today's India and today's Iranians (in the form of Asura and Ahura respectively), then it is not a stretch to suppose that the Sarmatians also honoured the same group of deities.

Heavy contact between them and Germanics is reported by Roman writers who, quite frankly, seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between the two. Since the Sarmatians were horsemen, it is not unreasonable to expect that they ranged north into contact with Germanics even prior to the second century AD move south by the Goths which saw them enter Sarmatian lands. This, combined with their subject Bastarnae population, indicates that a great deal of mixing may have occurred between the two groups.

Could it even have been this contact and mixing which made it clear to the Goths that they would find a new home on the northern coast of the Black Sea? The Bastarnae dominated the Venedi. The Sarmatians dominated the Bastarnae. And finally the Goths dominated them all by the early third century AD, although it was Sarmatians who taught the Goths to fight as cavalry!

Later, in post-Roman centuries and after the disappearance of Sarmatians as an identifiable group in their own right, various subsequent groups were lumped in with the West Polans migrants who came to dominate what is now Poland. Included in this collective were the Venedi, the Vandali, the Lechs, and the Sarmats (Sarmatians who, as Indo-Iranians, shared the same group origins as the Balts and Slavs themselves). Their chronicled mentions by Roman, English, or Frankish sources are sometimes deliberately misinterpreted as references to early Slavs.

In fact, during antiquity, much of the territory to the north of the Black Sea was generally labelled as being Sarmatian or Scythian, leading some students of Slavic history to assume that the Sarmatians were in fact the early Slavs.

FeatureThis is largely seen as being incorrect as the Sarmatians had an Indo-Iranian origin (as mentioned). The early Slavs were eastern satem-speakers, but they were not Indo-Iranians (see feature link). Instead, the Sarmatians occupied territory which included some of the early Slavs, and a degree of integration between the two groups was inevitable over time. Following the Hunnic arrival some Sarmatians on the steppe were eventually absorbed by Slav groups.

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 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, 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 The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and Sarmatians (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Returning to the topic of ancient migrations of the Galindians, Ilya M Tarasov (Historical Format, No 2 (22), 2020, available for download via Academia.edu (in Russian)).)

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 (which Herodotus calls the Borysfen, meaning 'river from the north'), in what is now Belarus and probably northern Ukraine too.

The Scythians under Idanthyrsus seek help from the northern nations, along with the Agathyrsi and Tauri, to counter the Persian attack. He summons the kings of neighbouring tribes and so that they can discuss the situation.

The Budini, Gerrians, and Sarmatians (still in their pre-Sarmatian 'Sauromation' phase) agree to help the Scythians, while the Agathyrsi, Androphagi, Melanchlaeni, Neuri, and Tauri all refuse.

The Budini suffer the burning-down of one of their large fortified cities at the hands of Darius I as a result of the alliance. The others also suffer when the Scythians purposely retreat before the Persians and into their lands.

The Melanchlaeni are first, followed by the Androphagi and Neuri. All flee into the north as both armies enter their lands. The Agathyrsi stand firm though, threatening to attack either army should it come near. The threat works and the war recedes.

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)

300s - 100s BC

In 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. Seemingly being edged out of Central Asia by the expanding domains of the Kangju, the Sarmatians take advantage to swiftly establish their own domination over the steppe.

They establish themselves across the steppe as the creators of the Prokhorovka culture of mound-builders in the Belgorod Oblast area of modern Russia (on the north-eastern Ukrainian border).

Their steppe domain includes western areas of Saka territory, causing further outwards migration on the latter's part. Then, in the second century BC, they also gain control of eastern Central Europe, although the centre of their power largely remains to the north of the Caucasus. Their principal centres are around the lower Don, Kalmykia, the Kuban area, and the central Caucasus.

The Iazyges initially remain settled between the Don and the Dnieper while the Roxolani cross the latter river. The Siraces and the Aorsi both migrate in this approximate period across the Volga to establish themselves in the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The Siraces at least come into contact with Greek coastal colonies there and absorb a degree of Greek influence.

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

fl c.185 - 183 BC


A king of the Sarmatians. Named in peace treaty.

c.185 - 183 BC

Following Roman victories over Macedonia and the Seleucids in Syria (190 BC), Pharnaces I of Pontus allies the kingdom to Rome. In 183 BC he completes the conquest of neighbouring Paphlagonia by taking the city of Sinope.

However, he must also conclude a peace treaty with some of his enemies, including the dangerous masters of the Pontic Steppe, the Sarmatians (under Gatalos).

fl c.110s? BC


A king of the Sarmatians. Dissolute.

fl c.110s? BC


Wife. Regent queen of the Sarmatians.

c.120 - 110? BC

Amage takes command when her dissolute husband fails to prove an effective ruler along the Euxine Sea coastline. She acts as judge during disputes, stations garrisons, repulses enemy invasions, and becomes famous through Scythia.

The people of the Tauric Chersonesus are being harassed by a neighbouring Scythian king. They request support from Amage, so she takes command here too. The king is requested to cease in his attacks, and when he refuses she surprises him with an attack by a seasoned force with her at its head. The king is killed and his son raised in his place on condition that peace is maintained.

Crimea's southern coast
Crimea's southern coast largely consists of mountains and sharp descents towards the sea line, all of which was inhabited by the Tauri and then the Tauric Ostrogoths

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. The power-base of the Iazyges is similarly disrupted and then destroyed, forcing them westwards too, which makes space for the Roxolani to slip in.

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

62 - 61 BC

In response to Rome's incursions into the Danube delta, King Burebista of the Getae has united all of the Getae into a single kingdom. He has also established overlordship of the neighbouring Bastarnae and local Sarmatians.

Burebista raids regularly into Roman-held territory and, in 63 BC, the Bastarnae manage to massacre the Roman infantry of the inept proconsul of Macedonia, Gaius Antonius (uncle to Mark Antony).

fl first century BC


Sarmatian king minting coins in Olbia Pontikē.

fl first century BC


Sarmatian king minting coins in Olbia Pontikē.

AD 77

The Roman geographer, Pliny the Elder, briefly mentions the 'Bastarnae and other Germans'. They may (now) be a sedentary tribe, but their increasingly close affiliation with the neighbouring Sarmatians implies an increasingly semi-nomadic way of life - or at least a return to one after a period of settlement. Clearly the Bastarnae are now thought of as being Germanic.

It is in this century that two Sarmatian tribes enter the historical record. The Arraei establish close contacts with the Romans before they settle in Thracian lands to the south of the Danube. The Koralloi also settle in the same area alongside a Scythian group.

Philip V of Macedonia
If the Bastarnae were ever paid in coin for their efforts in Macedonia then they would have received coins like this, bearing the head of Philip V of Macedonia


Writing at this time, Tacitus mentions a large number of tribes in Germania Magna which include the Peucini. He describes them as being iron ore miners who may be vassals of the powerful Quadi. It appears that mixed marriage between them and Sarmatians is not uncommon, altering their appearance as a people to some extent.

By the later part of the first century BC, the situation to the west of the Vistula is uncertain and is changing rapidly. Noted by Tacitus, a host of Germanic tribes have occupied territory on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea in the past century or so, including the Gepids, Goths, Heruli, Scirii, and Vandali.

Farther south, in modern southern Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and western Ukraine, the situation is even less clear, with elements of former Celtic tribes existing alongside encroaching Germanic tribes, including the Celtic Boii and Lugii, and the Germanic Buri, Marcomanni, and Quadi.

Tacitus does not use the Vistula as a boundary, or even describe a boundary between Germania and the lands to its east. He does describe the Venedi as living along the eastern fringe of Germania, inferring some kind of borderland, but is uncertain of their ethnic identity.

He refers to them as having borrowed from Sarmatians in their habit of plundering the mountainous and wooded country along the length of the Vistula.

Tombstone of Tacitus
The tombstone of Tacitus once marked the final resting place of one of Rome's most important authors, who not only chronicled the creation of the empire, but also listed the many barbarian tribes of Europe and the British Isles (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 4.0 Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike International)

Even so, he says that they should be classed as Germans thanks to their settled houses, the shields they carry, and their fondness for travelling fast on foot, as opposed to the horse-riding Sarmatians. Clearly he is linking them with the nearest, most similar people without being aware of their origins.


Ptolemy, who writes in the mid-second century, records the existence of the Serboi tribe of Sarmatians. They live on the western flank of the Volga as it exits into the Caspian Sea, near the marshlands on the river's western bank. This area forms part of the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains, with flat, sweeping plains which stretch to the north in today's southern Russia.

166 - 169

A new Marcomanni confederation is formed which also includes elements from many other tribes including the Buri, Iazyges, Quadi, Sarmatians, Suebi, and Victohali. Together they cross the Danube and invade Dacia, penetrating as far as Italy.

This forces the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to spend the rest of his life campaigning in the Danube region to contain the problem. The resistance which is put up by the Romans surprises the tribes, so some seek individual peace treaties with Rome.

Roman defensive tower
Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius had concentrated on defining the Roman empire's borders, defending the territory they had. That would have included building watch towers along the limes in the Danube region which the Marcomanni managed to break through

As recorded by Cassius Dio, both the Iazyges and the Buri seek peace, and some concessions are granted to them, but neither are willing to join the Roman side until they receive pledges that the emperor will 'without fail prosecute the war to the uttermost; for they were afraid he might make a treaty with the Quadi, as before, and leave enemies dwelling at their doors'.


FeatureRoman Emperor Marcus Aurelius defeats the Iazyges. He takes them into Roman service and settles them in northern Britain, at Ribchester, south of Lancaster. They are assigned to the VI Legion Victrix, commanded by an Alani warlord who is renamed Lucius Artorius Castus (an unlikely candidate for the battle leader, Arthur, of the fifth century - see feature link).


The Peucini are part of an invasion of Roman territory along with Dacians and Sarmatians, principally under the leadership of the Marcomanni. Emperor Marcus Aurelius dies while conducting what would have been a final campaign against the alliance. As it is, he leaves the problem not entirely resolved, and Rome's attention turns elsewhere.

The Danube delta homeland of the Peucini Bastarnae was just north of the former Greek port of Histria, which may have been conquered when the tribe temporarily held power to the south of the delta region


The Greek historian Cassius Dio claims the Bastarnae are Scythians, perhaps misunderstanding their mixed Germanic-Sarmatian heritage of at least a century and-a-half. By this time the Goths have migrated into early Moldavia and western Ukraine to form a loose hegemony over the tribes of the region, almost certainly including the Bastarnae.


Roman Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Decius fights the Goths and Sarmatians at the Battle of Abrittus (otherwise known as the Battle of Forum Terebronii). Both he and his son are killed, making him the first emperor to suffer this fate in a battle against non-Roman enemies.

Given the Goths' relationship with the tribes of Dacia and Moesia, it seems likely that the Bastarnae are also involved, although few specific tribes are named in written records.

270 - 274

Beginning with Emperor Aurelian, a series of remarkable soldier emperors commences the process of reunifying and restoring the Roman empire. Aurelian defeats the Germanic barbarians who had crossed the Danube, including Goths, Sarmatians and probably Bastarnae, and kills the leader of the Goths. This act begins a shift of power amongst the barbarian tribes.

Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus Goth depiction
The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicts a Roman victory over Goths around AD 250, but victory in the many Roman-Goth conflicts of this period was just as likely to go the other way

374 - 375

The Romans assassinate the ruler of the Quadi, which angers not only the Quadi themselves, but also the Marcomanni and Sarmatians. They invade Pannonia, albeit briefly (with the Marcomanni presumably helping the others across the border which they are supposed to be defending).

The following year, Emperor Valentinian I punishes the Quadi by staging a retaliatory invasion of their territory. The brief war ends with peace terms being agreed, and the event marks the last time the Romans enter what is now Slovakia.

It also marks the last hurrah for Sarmatians. Their population in central and Eastern Europe is gradually absorbed by larger bodies while their more easterly steppe elements are dominated by the Hunnic empire, or take on elements of Greek colonial culture, or become indivisible from the still-powerful Alani.

Ultimately, expanding Slav tribes directly absorb many Sarmatian groups, including the Serboi. Today's Kabardians, Ossetians, and neighbours are almost the only direct descendants of surviving core Alani and Sarmatian bodies.

Szybowcowa Hill in Lower Silesia
Slavs migrated outwards to occupy areas of Europe which had previously been home to the Germanic Vandali and the Celtic Naharvali before them, including the rolling hills of Silesia

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