I. IRANIANS, 1st Wave:
NOTE: By about 1300 BC, groups of Iranian people had migrated from central Asia into what is now the country of Iran. They formed settled cultures there without ever developing the horse nomad way of life. They had frequent, often violent interaction with the horse nomads. The various sedentary Iranian groups who established states at various times throughout the Middle East include the Medes, Achaemenid Persians, Sassanid Persians, Safavid Persians, Buyids, Ayyubids, and others. See the following pages for how these settled, civilized Iranian cultures became frequent peripheral players in the world of the horse nomads. These sedentary Iranian peoples sometimes came into conflict with those kindred Iranian tribes who had adopted the horse nomad culture such as the Scythians.
Scythians (or Skythians or Scolotoi): The old story is that they called themselves the "Scythians" after the name of their legendary first king, Scythês. A spelling variation on "Scythês" is "Skoloxaïs." The current theory is that the word "Scythian" is derived from the Proto-Indo-European word "skeud-o," meaning "shooter" or "archer."
The Scythians were the people who first raised the horse nomad culture to its fullest potential. They thundered out of central Asia about 750-700 BC and drove the nascently horse-mobile Cimmerian (Kimmerian) tribes out of what is now the Ukraine. They ruled the Ukraine about 700-200 BC. The best reconstruction of events historians and archaeologists are able to make is that the Scythians chased the Cimmerians south through the Caucasus into the Middle East. The Cimmerians found refuge in what is now Turkey, destroying the indigenous civilization of the Phrygians in the process. This was the first example in history of the "chain reaction" paradigm that would play out multiple times on the steppe over the next several centuries, as described in the Introduction. Subsequent to their pursuit of the Cimmerians, according to the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, the Scythians spent the next twenty-eight years in the Middle East. By modern reckoning, these twenty-eight years took place during the 7th Century BC. The Scythians spent their time in the Middle East generally raiding, plundering, and terrorizing the settled cultures they found there. Archaeologists have found Scythian arrowheads embedded in clay defensive walls from that time in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. The Scythians were led by their King Partatua (also called Protothyes) during the first part of their time in the Middle East. Partatua married an Assyrian princess, a union producing his son and successor, King Madyes. Madyes led the Scythians to the border of Egypt, but they were bought off with bribes from the Egyptian pharaoh. While in the Middle East, the Scythians sometimes helped the Assyrians fight against the sedentary Iranian Medes and other times they helped the Medes fight against the Assyrians. In any event, the Scythians helped the Medes annihilate the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC. For a while, the Scythians dominated the Medes but the Medes rebelled and treacherously murdered the Scythian leadership. Then the Scythians returned home to the Ukrainian steppe.
The Scythians carried on thriving commerce with Greek colonial settlements on the coast of the Black Sea. Apparently, some Scythians settled down in the southern Ukraine and the Crimea to grow enormous quantities of grain for sale to the Greeks. Or perhaps the grain farmers were indigenous Slavic underlings of the Scythians. According to Herodotus, a group of people of mixed Greek and Scythian blood, called the Geloni, built a wooden city called Gelonus in the forested far northern margin of the Scythian realm. Archaeologists have confirmed the existence of this city of Gelonus and of another, similar city at a place which today is called Kamenka. Kamenka is on the lower Dnieper River in the southern part of what was the Scythian realm. These two cities, and other smaller settlements, served the free-ranging Scythian horse nomads as commercial and craftwork entrepôts.
Today, the Scythians are famous for the fabulous beauty and sophistication of their artwork. As wandering nomads, their artwork was all portable: ornamentation for their weapons, horse gear, tents, and clothing; also highly decorative cooking and eating utensils and jewelry for their own persons. Their distinctive art style is called the "Scythian Animal Style," featuring highly stylized, somewhat abstract depictions of wild animals, typically done in gold. The art the Scythians created all by themselves is superb; the artworks they commissioned Greek artisans to create for them are extraordinary.
A few Scythians were hired as mercenaries and police officers by the Greek city of Athens. Under the leadership of King Idanthyrsus, the Scythians successfully defended their Ukrainian homeland against an invasion by the army of the Achaemenid Persian Empire under King Darius I around 514-512 BC. The Scythians invaded Thrace (a region north of the Aegean Sea) in 496 BC as a means to secure their position against potential future Persian invasions. The Scythian King Atheas at least partly united the Scythians into something resembling a fully formed state. He had coins minted with his image on them. The Scythians were defeated in battle by the Macedonian Greeks led by King Philip II in 339 BC. Atheas was killed in this battle at the age of ninety. But this Macedonian success was transient; the Scythians retained their independence and power. They destroyed an invading Macedonian force led by one of Alexander the Great's generals in 330 BC. There was a Greek colonial state on the north shore of the Black Sea called the Bosphoran Kingdom. In 310-309 BC there was a Bosphoran civil war between rival claimants to the Bosphoran throne. The Scythians allied themselves with one side of this war. The excellent fighting qualities of the Scythian horse-mounted warriors brought victory to the side they supported at the Battle of the Thatis River. Some experts believe that Scythian women rode horses and hunted and fought alongside their men, giving rise to the Greek legends of the Amazons. The Scythians were driven into the Danube River delta and into the Crimea by the Sarmatians sometime shortly before 200 BC. They became at least partly sedentary. Those Scythians who moved into the Crimea made war from time to time on the Greek colonial cities there and later against Roman forces in the Crimea. The last remnants of the Scythians were overrun by the Germanic Ostrogoth horse nomad tribe about the middle of the 4th Century AD. The surviving Scythians lost their distinct ethnic identity during the great migrations of tribal peoples that were concurrent with the fall of the Roman Empire.
Dahae Confederation of some Scythian tribes:
Dahae "Proper": They lived east of the southern end of the Caspian Sea:
Parni Tribe of the Dahae:
Parthian Clan of the Parni Tribe: They arose east of the southern end of the Caspian Sea. Their first great leader was Arsaces who reigned in approximately 247-214 BC. The Parthians conquered the realm of the Seleucid Greeks in Iran and Mesopotamia in a series of wars starting prior to 148 BC and ending in 129 BC. (The Seleucid Greeks were one of several Greek dynasties that ruled various parts of Alexander the Great's empire after he died). They successfully defended Iran against the Roman Empire. Their horse-mounted archers destroyed an invading Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae, in what is now Syria, in 53 BC. The modern phrase "parting shot" comes from the phrase "Parthian shot," which refers to the ability of Parthian horse archers to shoot arrows back over their horses' tails as they sped away from their enemies. The Parthians were overthrown by the Sassanid Persians in 224 AD:
Suren Family of the Parthian Clan: They were a dynasty ruling over the eastern part of the Parthian Empire in what is now eastern Iran starting about 80 BC. They conquered migrant Saka people in what is now Pakistan around 44 BC. Modern scholars call the Surens who ruled in Pakistan the "Indo-Parthians." The Surens in Pakistan were conquered by the Kushans by about 135 AD.
Massagetae "Proper": They probably lived southwest of the Aral Sea. In 530 BC, under the leadership of Queen Tomyris, they destroyed an invading army of Achaemenid Persians led by King Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was killed. Tomyris took possession of his head.
Sakas (or Sakae): They stayed home in central Asia, east of the Aral Sea, when their Scythian kin moved west to the Ukraine. They were defeated by the Achaemenid Persian Empire of King Darius I in 520-519 BC. The Persians made a prisoner of the Saka king, Skuka. The Sakas were driven into what is now Pakistan by the Greater Yue-chi tribe around 130 BC. During their flight to Pakistan, the Sakas destroyed two little kingdoms in Afghanistan and Pakistan that were ruled by the Greek descendants of Alexander the Great's generals. They also inflicted significant, but temporary, damage on the Parthians killing two Parthian kings in battle. After arriving in what is now Pakistan, they were conquered by the Parthian Surens around 44 BC:
NOTE: The people whom the Persians called the "Western Sakas" were the Scythians.
Haumavarga (or Amyrgians): They lived in the Ferghana region and tended toward a sedentary lifestyle. They may be the same as the people called the "Sakaravaks." Along with the Tigraxuanda they made war on the Greco-Asiatic state of Seleucus, circa 293-292 BC.
Tigraxuanda (or Orthocorybantians): They lived in the Sogdia region and beyond the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River as well as in the Semirechye region (though some scholars place them in what is now Turkmenistan). Along with the Haumavarga they made war on the Greco-Asiatic state of Seleucus, circa 293-292 BC.
Apasiakoi: Called "Marsh" or "Water" Sakas, they had a culture tending toward the sedentary in the delta of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River on the northeast shore of the Aral Sea.
Khotanese: They were descendants of the nomadic Sakas. They became Buddhist and settled down around the oases on the Silk Road.
NOTE: Several eastern Iranian groups settled down to form sedentary urban cultures around the oases in the desert of what is now northwestern China. They established rich, autonomous trading cities along what became the Silk Road, which connected Rome and China. The Chinese and various steppe nomad tribes spent centuries fighting over possession of these cities.
Chorasmians (or Khwarezms): They had a settled culture southeast of the Aral Sea.
Sauromatians (or Sauromatae): They were horse nomads living in the northern Caucasus in the 6th-4th Centuries BC. They were allies of the Scythians in their war against the Achaemenid Persians of King Darius I around 514-512 BC. Some experts believe it was Sauromatian, not Scythian, real-life warrior horsewomen who were the basis of the Amazon legend. The Sauromatians were conquered by the Sarmatians.
Sarmatians: They arose in the foothills of the southern Ural Mountains during the 4th Century BC. They conquered the Sauromatians. The Sarmatians drove their Scythian kin from the Ukraine sometime shortly before 200 BC. The Sarmatians were also famous for their warrior women who inspired legends about Amazons. They wore heavy armor and used lances as weapons. Their artwork was a more austere variation of the Scythian Animal Style. By about 200 AD, some Sarmatians served as auxiliary horse soldiers in the Roman Army, with some of these serving in Britainwhere they may have become the basis for the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table!
The basis of the so-called Sarmatian-Arthurian connection can be summarized as follows. Before the Sarmatian troops arrived in Britain in Roman service, there was no established practice in Britain of fighting from astride a horse with a lance while wearing heavy armor; and, of course, the image of the lance-wielding equestrian knight-in-shining-armor is the central motif of Arthurian legend. The Sarmatian practice of worshipping before a sword thrust into the ground obviously suggests the "Sword in the Stone" story from the larger Arthur story. And one of the Roman commanders of the Sarmatian troops in Britain was named Artorius. All these coincidences are enough to make romantically inclined people swoon and to give even the most cynical and jaded analyst pause. The Hollywood movie King Arthur, released in 2004, plays up the Sarmatian-Arthurian connection with gusto.
The Sarmatians were categorized as follows by ancient authors:
"Royal" Sarmatians: We may assume these were the ruling clans of the greater Sarmatian nation.
Issedones: The location of these people in central Asia is uncertain but may have been northeast of the Aral Sea. According to the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, they practiced ritual cannibalism on their elderly males. Herodotus also said Issedone women had high social status and could have several husbands.
Urgi: They are thought to have lived in the north-central Ukraine. Today, "Urgi" is the name of a town in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.
Aorsi: They were the largest of the Sarmatian tribes. They lived in what is now Kazakhstan for centuries before being driven west. They formed an alliance with the Romans to defeat the Siraces and the Bosphoran allies of the Siraces in 40-45 AD. They were eventually absorbed by the Alans.
Siraces (or Siraki): They moved into the northwestern Caucasus shortly before 300 BC and lived there until about 200 AD. They allied themselves with the Bosphorans but they and the Bosphorans were defeated by an alliance of the Romans and the Aorsi in 40-45 AD. After this defeat, the Siraces sank into obscurity.
Saii: Presumably, they lived in the south-central Ukraine. But in the confusion that inevitably attends ancient sources, this supposedly Sarmatian tribe could in fact have been a Thracian tribe living on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea.
Iazygians (or Jazyges): They lived in the western Ukraine. They were pushed into what is now Hungary by the Roxolani by 80 AD. They then made war on the Romans with some success until they were finally suppressed by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 175 AD. They became the Sarmatian tribe most famous for providing military units for the Roman Army. They were forced to provide 8,000 horse warriors for Roman service, of which, 5,500 were shipped to Britain where they may have formed the basis of the Arthurian legends. They were absorbed by the Germanic Asding Vandal tribe by 230 AD and disappeared as a distinct group.
Roxolani: They lived in the eastern Ukraine. After being pushed westward by the Alans, they in turn pushed the Iazygians out of the western Ukraine by 80 AD. They made frequent war on the Romans, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. They also provided a number of troops for service in the Roman Army. They were conquered by the Germanic Ostrogoth horse tribe during the 4th Century AD.
NOTE: There were many Germanic tribes living in central Europe. Of these, only the easternmost of them, the Ostrogoths, developed a true horse nomad culture as they expanded into the Ukraine during the 4th Century AD, conquering the Roxolani, the last of the Scythians, and the Bosphoran Kingdom on the way. Their great warrior chieftain in this adventure was named Ermanaric. Their steppe realm was destroyed by the Black Huns in 372-375 AD. Ermanaric committed suicide. According to legend, there were two famous Ostrogothic female warriors named Hervor who were grandmother and granddaughter to each other. Their title was "shield maiden." The story is told that the younger Hervor died heroically in battle fighting against the Black Huns. Both she and her "shield maiden" title may be seen as a prototype for the character of Éowyn of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings books and movies.
Alans (or Alani): They were probably descended from the Massagetae. They arose northeast of the Aral Sea sometime before 100 BC. By 80 AD, they had migrated into the Caucasus and pushed against the Roxolani who in turn pushed against the Iazygians. They assimilated the Aorsi along the way. They served as mercenaries for the Roman Empire. They were the last existing tribal grouping of the Sarmatians. During the 3rd Century AD, they made a common practice of cranial deformation, which was the deliberate elongation of their own living human skulls for aesthetic or group identification reasons, by binding the heads of their infants between stiff surfaces. Their homeland in the Caucasus was conquered by the Asiatic Black Huns about 370 AD. One clan of Alans joined with the Germanic Vandal tribe in their migration from Germany, across France and Spain, to north Africa, about 390-439 AD. Some Alans joined the Black Huns as allies. Another force of Alans fought as allies of the Romans and the Germanic tribes in France against Attila the Hun (leader of the Black Huns) in 451 AD. This meant there were Alans fighting on both sides in the war between the Romans and the Black Huns. Small groups of Alans settled all over Western Europe, where they may have formed part of the seed of the horse-mounted knights of the Middle Ages. Those Alans still in the Caucasus recovered their freedom after the Black Huns were broken up in 454 or 455 AD. Those Alans still on the steppe survived being briefly overrun by the Avars in the 6th Century AD. The Alans still in the Caucasus were conquered by the Khazar Turks around 650 AD. They became Christian in the early 900s AD. They gained their freedom from the Khazars when the Khazars were destroyed by an invasion of allied Russians and various western Turkic Oghuz tribes in 965 AD. The resurgent Alans reestablished their realm in the Caucasus. The Alans in the Caucasus were conquered by the Asiatic Mongols of Ogedei Khan by about 1240.
The Christian Ossetians living in the Caucasus today are descended from the Alans. Their little district of present-day Russia was officially called "North Ossetia," but they liked to call it "Alania." In 1994, they officially renamed themselves the "Republic of North-Ossetia-Alania." Their touring folk dance groups are highly regarded. South Ossetia was one small part of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Ethnic conflict between Georgians and South Ossetians became open war in 1991-92. The result was that most of South Ossetia became a de facto independent state with Russian support although it received no recognition from the international community. In 2008, the Georgian military invaded South Ossetia, an act which brought on war between Georgia and Russia. Thanks to overwhelming Russian military might defeating the Georgians, the result of this extremely brief war lasting several days was the confirmation of South Ossetia as an independent state. Tensions remain high and border incidents continue to occur as of this writing.
Yue-chi (or Yüeh-chih): They originated on the northwestern borders of China. They were defeated by the Hsiung-nu around 206 BC. They suffered a second and decisive defeat at the hands of the Hsiung-nu in 175 BC. They fled to the west, splitting into the "Greater" and "Lesser" Yue-chi as they went:
Greater Yue-chi (or Greater Yüeh-chih): They suffered yet another defeat at the hands of Hsiung-nu in 162 BC and resumed their flight to the west. They found refuge east of the Aral Sea, driving the Sakas south into what is now Pakistan around 130 BC:
Kushans (or Kusana): They became the ruling tribe of the Greater Yue-chi. They conquered the Surens in what is now Pakistan by about 135 AD. They absorbed the Lesser Yue-chi around the same time. They became a nomad dynasty ruling over a settled civilization that was notable for its prosperity and cultural sophistication. They facilitated the spread of Buddhism. They were subjugated by the Sassanid Persians around 225 AD. Briefly resurgent Kushan principalities were overrun by the White Huns in the late 400s AD.
Lesser Yue-chi (or Lesser Yüeh-chih): After fleeing from the Hsiung-nu following the great defeat of 175 BC, they found refuge in the region to the east of their "Greater" kin. They were absorbed by the Kushans by about 135 AD.
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