Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians
J. Harmatta


2. Strabo's Report on the Western Sarmatian Tribal Confederacy

Strabo in his description of the western part of the Pontic region mentions the Sarmatians several times, speaking of them in general terms. However, in the most essential passage he mentions particular tribes: VII 3, 17:

Strabo thus enumerates four Sarmatian tribes: the Iazyges, Royal Sarmatians, Urgi and Roxolani and according to his description, their location on the whole might be conjectured thus: the Iazyges, the Urgi and Royal Sarmatians between the Dnieper and the Danube, furthermore, according to Strabo's description, the southernmost part was occupied by the Iazyges, and the Urgi took up the northern position while the Royal Sarmatians were in the center between the two former tribes. The fourth tribe, the Roxolani, lived east of these between the Dnieper and the Don. Thus a certain plan in the sites of these tribes is to be observed: in the center is the royal tribe surrounded as it were by a protective ring formed by the other tribes. It is certainly no coincidence that among these Sarmatians, one "royal" tribe can be found. In the tribal confederacies of nomadic peoples two main types may be distinguished: in the first, tribes live side by side, loosely connected and at the


most cooperate more closely in times of danger. In the other case all tribes are under the leadership of one of the tribes and are closely and cooperatively united under its power. A strong central power and strict military organization often give to these nomadic tribal confederacies an impressive power which renders possible the establishment of empires of vast extent. The varied character of nomadic tribal confederacies had been observed already by the Byzantines, e. g. Leo the Wise makes a clear distinction between "the idle nomadic" Scythians, i. e. nomad peoples "living under many chiefs" and the Scythians "under strong leadership" (XVIII 42; ). The tribe heading the tribal confederacy in accordance with its position considers itself high above the others. So it follows, according to the description of Herodotus, that the Persians hold themselves to be by far the most eminent of men, and the farther the other peoples life from them, the meaner grade they occupy in Persian estimation (I 134). It is again Herodotus who reports (IV 20) that the leading Scythian tribe also regards the other Scythians as its slaves. In accordance with this domineering spirit based on a strongly stratified society, this leading tribe is called "Royal Scythians" (see Herodotus IV 22, 56, 59).

That this connotation is not solely a Greek invention is probable also on the strength of the above mentioned data; it seems, however, that there is direct evidence in one of Strabo's reports of such nomenclatures being rooted in the social attitude and linguistic usage of Iranian nomads. Strabo, when dealing with the origin of Arsaces and of the Parni, gives the name of the Dahian tribe living beyond the Maeotis:

(IX 9, 3). According to Vasmer's view the tribal name  was based on the fact of the "Royal" Scythians having lived on the same place prior to these. It originated from the Iranian word xšayant- "dominating" and refers to the linguistic matter of the Sarmatians. [33] Vasmer, however, overlooked that this report of Strabo is taken from a source which in keeping with the geographical conception resulting from Alexander the Great's campaigns, had imagined the Syr-Darya to be identical with the Tanais-Don and imagined Lake Aral and the Caspian Sea to be linked and both to be identical with the Maeotis—Sea of Azov. Thus the Dahae, or their  tribes have nothing in common with the "Royal Scythians" or the later Sarmatians and cannot be located near the Sea of Azov, but they might have occupied the steppes north of Lake Aral. This stands out clearly from another passage of Strabo (XI 8, 2) where along with the  and the  he enumerates also the  as a tribe of the Dahae living on the Aralo-Caspian steppes. There can hardly exist any doubt as to the identity of the tribal names of  and the , and so we may see in the bearers of this name in all probability an Eastern Iranian tribe.

Even though the connection with the "Royal Scythians" must be abandoned despite the argument that the tribal name of  derives from the Iranian word xšayant-, it nevertheless seems a plausible explanation both from the point of view of phonetics and semantics. It is true that the Old Iranian sound group -aya- has a much more common development in -ay- or ē, etc. than in -ā-. Notwithstanding, there are several examples of this too, [34] so that it might also be applied to the name of . From the point of view of semantics this explanation is born out by Strabo

33. M. Vasmer, Untersuchungen über die aeltesten Wohnsitze der Slaven, I: Die Iranier in Südrußland, Leipzig, 1923. p. 45.

34. See H. Hübschmann, Persische Studien, Strassburg, 1895. p. 167; G. Morgenstierne, Indo-Iranian Frontier Languages. II. Oslo, 1938. p. 61.


who calls this Dahian tribe also , and though it is not absolutely certain that the meaning of the latter name tallies with the former, in any case it is close to it. The name of  is probably identical with Old Iranian *parvya- = "first" (cf. Old Persian paruviya-, Avestan paouruya-, paoirya- "der erste, primus" Bartholome, AirWb. 874) [35]. Thus belonging to the same semantic sphere as the tribal name of  it denotes the "ruling, leading, first", that is to say "royal" tribe. From the viewpoint of meaning the name of the ruling clan of the Royal Scythians offers an exact parallel. Herodotus (IV 6) reports this in the form of  and since Müllenhoff it has been customary to regard it as the Scythian word corresponding to the Avestan paradāta- "Ehrentitel des Fürsten Haošyaŋha" signifying probably "voran, an die Spitze gestellt" (see Bartholomae, AirWb. 854) [36]. It is possible that the name of  after all, like the Scythian , is no more than the name of the ruling dynasty of the , that is of the "Royal Dahae".

From the point of view of the Western Sarmatians, it is of the utmost importance that the appearance of "royal tribes" in the Iranian nomadic tribal confederacies went hand in hand with the formation of strong central power. It is, therefore, easy to approach the assumption that the Sarmatian tribes between the Danube and the Don described by Strabo do not suggest "idle" nomads living either loosely linked, or independently from each other, side by side, but much rather a tribal confederacy under a strong central leadership which, in the times referred to by Strabo, held a considerable part of the Pontic region in their sway. With regard to Eastern European history it is perhaps unnecessary to stress the importance of the existence of a strong Sarmatian tribal confederacy between the Danube and the Don, the question being only to what period this empire might be assigned.

The report quoted from Strabo certainly presents some clues to this effect. He mentions, after describing the geographical location of the Sarmatian tribes, that the Roxolani fought under the command of their leader Tasios against the generals of Mithridates Eupator in alliance with Palakos, king of the Crimean Scythian state, but were defeated by Diophantos, one of Mithridates' generals. This event was recorded at that time in the inscription dedicated by the Chersonesians in honour of Diophantos (Dittenberger, Syll.3 No 709). His victory is put roughly between 110 and 106, namely about the first years of Mithridates' reign. [37] Accordingly Strabo's description reflects the conditions of the last decade of. the second century B. C, so that we can assume the existence of the Western Sarmatian tribal confederacy in this period.

We should, however, move on much safer ground if Strabo's source or sources could be denned more closely. To this, however, we have no direct clues; in fact it is not even certain whether the whole description is taken from one source or whether it is collated from several places. The latter view is taken by Rostovtzeff who attributes — in general in Strabo's Book VII. and also in the particular passage in question — the geographical data to Artemidoros, the ethnographical descriptions to Posei-onios, and the historical parts to Hypsikrates. [38] This in relation to the description of the Sarmatian tribes means in practice that Strabo, in this relatively brief passage took the enumeration of the tribes from Artemidoros, his remark on the struggle of the Roxolani against Mithridates from Hypsikrates, while the description of the

35. See Vasmer, 15. Die Iranier in Südrußland 47.

36. Loc. cit. 15.

37. See Niese—Hohl, Grundriß der Römischen Geschichte, München, 1923. p. 198; Dittenberger, Syll. 3 No. 709, see footnote; Münzer, RE XV, pp. 2164.

38. Skythien und der Bosporus I, pp. 92, 126 ff.


nomadic way of life and the armour of the Roxolani date from Poseidonios. We may, however, state that the unity of the construction of the description does not corroborate this view. The remark on the historical role of the Roxolani is organically linked up with the geographical enumeration, moreover the description of their armaments is added to one part of the historical remark as an explanation, as if it were to throw a light on the cause of the defeat:

Eventually the description of the Roxolanian armaments refers back to the other Sarmatian tribes:  and this is the transition to the description of nomadic ways of life. This part appears to be tacked loosely on to the end of the report and owing to this some hesitation can be seen in scientific literature too in assigning it to its proper place and stating whom it concerns. In general it is customary to connect it with the Roxolani. [39] Diehl, however, tries to connect it with the nomads fighting on Palakos' side. [40] The latter conjecture seems to have little foundation because there is no mention at all in the text of "nomads" fighting on the side of Palakos, on the other hand Diehl may be right in holding that the description cannot refer to the Roxolani, because the opening:  clearly sets them apart in contrast to the description of the Roxolani. The sentence concluding the description of the armaments of the Roxolani, on the other hand, may contain a clear indication. It refers back to the other Sarmatian tribes; the report after a more detailed treatment reverts to the enumeration of Sarmatian tribes, where as to their way of living there is only this brief sentence: . To this the beginning  is a direct reference which is followed immediately by the description of nomadic ways of life. Thus no clue whatever may be derived from the structure of Strabo's report about its compilation from diverse sources, in fact the unity of its composition definitely points to an origin from one source, which may have been Poseidonios who actually dealt with the story of Palakos too (FGrHist. 87 F 32). Yet, should there remain but one possibility and should we be obliged to forego naming the source, it is indubitable that the description of Strabo dates from the time of Mithridates' campaigns in the Pontus and that it was taken from a work dealing with these. This is borne out by Strabo himself, who holds the opinion that the northern region of the Pontus, from Tyras to the Colchians, became first known from the campaigns of Mithridates and his generals (I 2, 1) and for this reason he himself used the works of the historians of Mithridates' wars as yielding the most reliable material as his source (XI 2, 14). [41]

39. See Rostovtzeff, Skythien und der Bosporus I, 93.

40. RE VII, SpBd. 1196.

41. See K. Müllenhoff, Deutsche Altertumskunde III. pp. 40. Berlin, 1892.

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