The Sarmatians displaced the Scythians. Regarded as the forefathers of the Alans and Ossetians, ethnic groups in southern Russia, they lived in yurts and carried their possessions in ox wagons, spoke an Iranian dialect, lived on a diet of milk and meat and wore long trousers, soft leather boots and pointed hats. They used short bows, iron swords and fought in horseback and on foot. Their dead were buried in wooden structures within kurgans.

A. I. Melyukova and Crookenden Julia wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: “From the end of the 7th century B.C. to the 4th century B.C. the Central-Eurasian steppes were inhabited by two large groups of kin Iranian-speaking tribes – the Scythians and Sarmatians. While these two groups were ethnically close and their ways of life were very similar, each of them had their own historical destinies and characteristics, in economic and social development, as well as in culture. The periods of their greatest development and greatest significance in world history do not coincide. [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]

There is no evidence indicating where Sarmatian came from or how they got their name. They emerged from the Crimea and the steppes of Ukraine around the 3rd century B.C. and drove out the Scythians. They dominated an area that extended from Central Asia to the Hungarian plains for half a millennium. Their civilization was at its height from the 1st century B.C. to first half of the A.D. 1st century. By the A.D. 5th century they had been eclipsed by the Huns. They are not to be confused with the Samaritans of Palestine.

Roman cavalry battling the Sarmatians

The Sarmatians fought the Romans and were hired by them as mercenaries. A group of 5,500 Sarmatians was sent to Britain. Some believe they may have given birth to the Arthurian legend based on the fact that the Sarmatian leader fought on “all the continents” as King Arthur did and many similarities between the folklore from the Sarmatian homeland and the Arthurian legend.

Sarmatian Culture

Sarmatian arts and crafts included golden perfume bottles, wooden vessels used for libations, flutes carved from animal bones, and items decorated with wild boar, griffins and fish. The techniques and iconography suggest contacts with Armenia, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Iran, Mesopotamia, and northern India. They continued trading with Greeks but their art was not nearly as beautiful as the Scythian art.

A number of Sarmatian graves have been found between the Don and Volga rivers. Sarmatians buried their dead with their head oriented towards the south. Men were often buried with bronze and iron arrowheads or iron swords or daggers. Women were buried were a larger variety of items, such as mirrors, glass beads, spinning tools, and weapons.

Women held a high positions in society. They controlled wealth, led family rituals, hunted saiga, a steppe antelope. A woman was found with a bent arrowhead in her body indicating that she died in battle. There are stories about Sarmatian women not being allowed to marry until they killed in battle. Perhaps they not the Scythian warriors gave rise to the Amazon myth.


The Avars were another group of horsemen that caused havoc in Europe. Related to the Huns, they originated in the Altai regions of Central Asia. They raided Europe and were pushed out by Charlemagne in the 9th century.

homelands or possible homelands of the Avars, Magyars and Huns around the mid AD 6th century

Samuel Szádeczky-Kardoss wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: “Although our sources concerning the Avars are rather poor and their historical interpretation is not beyond dispute, the clearest picture that can be drawn of the European destinies of the Avars must rely, above all, on the testimony of Greek and Latin and – to a smaller extent – on the evidence provided by Oriental (Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Arabic) and Slavic sources. In spite of the fact that these sources view the Avars from the outside and represent a one-sided, Byzantine, Langobard or Frank point of view, they still constitute the most solid base for an approach to Avar history. There are no Avar records of any importance, and one must make do with such sources that are available. A survey of Avar history best begins with a conspectus of the main data culled from the available written sources. [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]

“As early as the 6th century B.C. a shaman-like wonderpriest called Abaris is known in the Hellenic tradition. It is however very questionable whether that name – supposedly a personal name of steppe origin – may be directly connected with the ethnic name of the Avars. The palimpsest of the Vatican, deciphered lately, seems to suggest the ethnonym “Aparnoi” which occurs in some manuscripts of Strabo may be a corrupted reading; and should not be considered a reference to the Avars. It is Priscus, chronicler of the great Eurasian migrations of about A.D. 463, who among the known Greek and Latin authors is the first to mention with certainty the name of the Avar people.”

In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “The Avars, Bulgars, and Magyars moved into the region once occupied by the Huns. It was the Avars who first introduced the stirrup to the Western world. The stirrup enabled mounted steppe warriors to wield lances much like the Western knight. Hildinger rightly observes the lance was not usually used in a couched position but wielded as a striking instrument. As evidence to support his view, he cites the pictorial scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry, a marvelous work of immense value to military historians. Charlemagne insured that the Avars threatened his borders no more and in 786 brought them under his yoke. [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^]

The Hungarian (Magyar) at Kiev

Magyars and Bulgars

Magyars were the last horse tribe to enter western Europe. They were pushed back in the 10th century into Hungary, where they converted to Christianity and became an important in the checking the raids by other horsemen from the east.

Christopher Berg wrote: “The Avars, Bulgars, and Magyars moved into the region once occupied by the Huns. The Bulgars, who posed little threat (once they accepted Christianity, adopted the Slavic language, and quietly assimilated with their neighbors), followed the Avars. However, the same could not be said of the Magyars. They were used as mercenaries by the Byzantines and Germans and wound up with Hungary. From there, they launched raids into Italy where steppe tactics were unknown. They employed feigned retreats with great success. To curb the continued encroachments of the Magyars, Otto I annihilated them at Lechfeld in 955. The survivors were assimilated into the local populace. Assimilation of various Barbarian cultures into larger, more powerful Barbarian tribes and confederations was common practice in early medieval Europe. Patrick Geary examines the changing ethnic composition of Central and Eastern Europe throughout the medieval period in his book The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton Univ. Press, 2003). [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin; History of Arab People by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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