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400 BC - 471 AD - Sarmatians

Among the different branches of the human race, the Sarmatians formed a very remarkable shade ; as they seemed to unite the manners of the Asiatic barbarians with the figure and complexion of the ancient inhabitants of Europe. According to the various accidents of peace and war, of alliance or conquest, the Sarmatians were sometimes confined to the banks of the Tanais; and they sometimes spread themselves over the immense plains which lie between the Vistula and the Volga. The care of their numerous flocks and herds, the pursuit of game, and the exercise of war, or rather of rapine, directed the vagrant motions of the Sarmatians. The moveable camps or cities, the ordinary residence of their wives and children, consisted only of large wagons, drawn by oxen, and covered in the form of tents. The military strength of the nation was composed of cavalry ; and the custom of their warriors, to lead in their hand one or two spare horses, enabled them to advance and to retreat with a rapid diligence, which surprised the security, and eluded the pursuit, of a distant enemy.

Their poverty of iron prompted their rude industry to invent a sort of cuirass, which was capable of resisting a sword or javelin, though it was formed only of horses hoofs, cut into thin and polished slices, carefully laid over each other in the manner of scales or feathers, and sewed upon an under-garment of coarse linen. The offensive arms of the Sarmatians were short daggers, long lances, and a weighty bow with a quiver of arrows. They were reduced to the necessity of employing fishbones for the points of their weapons; but the custom of dipping them in a venomous liquor, that poisoned the wounds which they inflicted, is alone sufficient to prove the most savage manners; since a people impressed with a sense of humanity would have abhorred so cruel a practice, and a nation skilled in the arts of war would have disdained so impotent a resource.

Whenever these barbarians issued from their deserts in quest of prey, their shaggy beards, uncombed locks, the furs with which they were covered from head to foot, and their fierce countenances, which seemed to express the innate cruelty of their minds, inspired the more civilised provincials of Rome with horror and dismay.

The Sarmatians were conquering tribes that invaded Scyihia or southern Russia, a great portion of the Ukraine, Gallicia, and Moldavia, and governed these countries nearly three centuries. The natives were not expelled, but the victors, like the Turks, changed the names of the vanquished and tributary states. The first Sarmatians mentioned in history were sprung, according to Herodotus, "from young Scythians and Amazons, or warlike women." Whether that origin be fabulous or not, the father of history considered the Sarmatians Scythian colonists, who inhabited the country on the east of the Tanais, perhaps between the lower Wolga and Caucasus, who spoke a Scythian dialect, corrupted by the language of their mothers, and retained several remarkable customs, among others, that of being accompanied in battle by women armed with two-edged axes.

Hippocrates, a contemporary of Herodotus, supposed the Sarmatians a Scythian people that differed from the other Scythians, for their women used the bow and the javelin; but in other respects, his account of the Scythians is applicable to the Sarmatians. "The people are swarthy, short, and fat, of a relaxed and phlegmatic temperament; the women are not fruitful, but their slaves being lean give birth to many children." The Greeks were struck with their small and lively eyes, and compared them to those of lizards; hence the incorrect etymology of their name, which was corrupted into Sauromates. The Roman authors had better opportunities of observing the nation, and they rejected the Greek derivation. The names of several Sarmatian tribes, as the Thisomatss, laxomalx, and others, are distinguished by the same final syllables. It is almost certain that these syllables had a common signification, and the meaning of Madai, Medes or men, is so obvious, and occurs so frequently in the ancient languages of Media and Persia, that it can hardly fail of being admitted.

The hypothesis accords well with the opinion of the ancients, who considered the Scythians and Sarmatians a Median people. It has been seen in name a former part of this work, that the Scythian words which have been preserved, belonged perhaps to the Zend or to a dialect connected with it. The people subject to the empire of the Scythians, or exposed to their devastations, some of whom purchased protection by paying tribute, were the Slavonians and the Finns. It is comparatively of little consequence that they were then unknown in history by their present names.

A great revolution took place; Mithridates, the Asiatic Hannibal, formed the ambitious project of penetrating into Italy by the north-east, a project which was accomplished at a later period by the Cimbrian and Gothic nations.' The general excited the Sarmatians to cross the Tanais, and to overturn the Scythian empire. Their migrations commenced about the year 81 before the vulgar era, and were continued upwards of a century. The Sarmatians overran, laid waste, and partly conquered all the countries bounded by a line drawn from the Tanais to the Transylvanian mountains, and by another line extending also from the Tanais, and terminating near the embouchure of the Vistula.

Pliny alludes to these invasions; he says, that "the Scythians have disappeared, their country is now inhabited by Germans and Sarmatians." It is difficult to imagine how compilers of history and geography could believe that the Sarmatians," a swarthy race, an unfruitful people," occupied the immense space which Sarmatia covers on the ancient maps. As well may the names of Russia, Turkey, and former Poland be considered the boundaries of distinct people, while they mark only the limits of empires. Is the Greek a Turk, the Magiar an Austrian, the Finn a Russian, or the Basque a Frenchman, were the Italians Goths under Thcodoric? The answer to these questions is not doubtful. In like manner, the Slavonic people between the Oder and the Vistula, or the Lygii in the plains, the Mugilanes on the hills, the Navarhales in the marshy lands, the Carpi, Jiiessi, and other tribes on the Carpathians, the Venedes or Wends in Prussia and Lithuania, the Fenni in Polesia and Black Russia, the other Finnic hordes in central Russia, retained their national existence, their language and customs, although they became for a time the subjects of the Sarmatians.

By the 3rd century BC, the Sarmatian name appears to have supplanted the Scythian in the plains of what is now south Ukraine. The geographer, Ptolemy, reports them at what must be their maximum extent, divided into adjoining European and central Asian sections. Considering the overlap of tribal names between the Scythians and the Sarmatians, no new displacements probably took place. The people were the same Indo-Europeans they used to be, but now under yet another name. The Sarmatians were a conquering tribe, distinct from the inhabitants of the countries over which they ruled. Sarmatians are represented in history at the time of the the Pannonian invasion, about the year 375.

Sarmatians were still a force the Romans had to reckon with in the late 4th century A.D. Ammianus Marcellinus (29.6.13-14) describes a severe defeat, which Sarmatian raiders inflicted upon Roman forces in the province of Valeria in Pannonia in late 374 A.D. The Sarmatians almost annihilated both a legion recruited from Moesia and one from Pannonia, which had been sent to intercept a party of Sarmatians who had been pursuing a senior Roman officer named Aequitius deep into Roman territory. The two legions failed to coordinate and their quarrelling allowed the Sarmatians to catch them unprepared and deal a stunning blow.

The Sarmatians, conquered by the Roman general Theodosius, were forced to implore the clemency of the emperor Valentinian. The deputies were presented before him, the prince heard them, and asked indignantly why better looking men had not been sent. The ambassadors answered that they were selected from the chosen men of their nation. "O unfortunate Rome," exclaimed Valentinian, "when such abortions dare invade it!" At the same time, he struck his hands, groaned loudly, and fell lifeless from a paroxysm of rage."

The Sarmatians remained dominant until the Gothic ascendance in the Black Sea area and then disappeared at the Hunnish destruction of the Gothic empire and subsequent invasion of central Europe. From bases in Hungary the Huns ruled the entire former Sarmatian territory. Such were the short, unwieldy, and swarthy Sarmatians of old Hippocrates. The Slavonians, as described by Procopius, were tall, well made, and robust. They are so still. Mistaken vanity retains the banal phrase and the Poles style themselves the descendants of the illustrious Sarmatians.

With the year 471, the name Sarmatia disappears entirely, and it is replaced in the Byzantine historians with that of Slavia-Sclavonia. The Slavi or Sloveni, advanced westward, in the rear of the Germans. They extend already over the immense plains of modern Prussia, Poland, and Russia. They drive the last German tribes across the Elbe. They occupy the fertile valley of Bojenheim (Bohemia), and the Carpathian ridge separates them from the Longobards and Gepidae on the Danube. They were divided into many kindred nationalities.

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