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


5. Mithridates VI and the Sarmatians

Thus it can easily be ascertained even from the incomplete material extant, that in the last decades of the second century B. C. from the Don to the Danube a strong Sarmatian tribal confederacy must be reckoned with. Its suzerainty extended even over the Crimean and Dobrudjan Scythians, moreover, it aimed at the complete occupation of the Greek cities in the Pontus partly by itself and partly by its vassals. In consequence the Greek cities' situation was extremely critical and eventually they had no other choice but to apply for help to the greatest potentate of the Pontic region of the time, to Mithridates. Mithridates succeeded, thanks to his military superiority, in liberating the Greek cities from Scythian and Sarmatian pressure, however, this by no means meant the full smashing up of Sarmatian strength. Despite this the appearance of Mithridates meant an important turning point both from the point of view of the Greek cities and of the Scythians, or the Sarmatians. This self-confident and ambitious personality recognized clearly that the possession of the Greek cities in the Pontus would only then mean a considerable source of strength for him if he could restore their economic life and trade. This had one pre-condition, namely to establish adequate political and commercial ties with the Scythians and Sarmatians under whose control the economic and commercial sphere of interest of the Greek cities had been.

That is why a great change must be observed in the policy of Mithridates towards the Scythians and Sarmatians after the immediate danger threatening the Greek settlements had been averted. As soon as his power in the Crimean peninsula was consolidated, he endeavoured to establish friendly relations with them, instead of the hostile attitude prevailing until then. His person and personality were both very suitable for that. On his father's side he could trace his ancestry right back to Cyrus and Darius, while on his mother's side he could boast of Alexander the Great as his ancestor, a ruler who stood in the highest esteem with the Iranian peoples. In addition, his regal appearance, his admirable horsemanship and huntsmanship were all important assets in the eyes of equestrian peoples. It suffices to recall that Darius also boasts in the Naqš-i-Rustam inscription: "as a rider I am a good one" (DNb 41 — 2: asabāra uvāsabāra amiy) and even later the Parthians drove away one of their kings, Vonones because he neglected hunting and did not care for horses (Tacitus, Annales II 2: raro venatu, segni equorum cura). Mithridates, in addition to all these, had an almost demoniacal will power and a most impressive personality and thanks to his great linguistic talent he could speak to all his subjects and allies in their mother tongue. [67] In short, the figure of Mithridates to the barbarian peoples of the Pontus suggested and called to life the memory of the almost legendary Persian "great king" and of the "world conquering Alaksandar" and thus it is no wonder that they stood by him up to the end, also at the time when the Greeks of the Pontus had turned from him. Naturally besides his personal charm he also used other means of winning the barbarians of the Pontus. He married his daughters to barbarian chiefs and gave them splendid presents to assure their loyalty. In consequence of this far-sighted and

67. See Mommsen's characterization, pat in many regards, Römische Geschichte II, pp. 265.


conscious policy, every people of the Pontic region was represented in his army, so that he had at his disposal inexhaustible manpower at the time of the war waged against the Romans. That he succeeded in winning the Sarmatians for himself is proved clearly by a report of Appianos (Mithr. 19), according to which he used Sarmatian cavalry as his vanguard as early as in the first war against the Romans.

Apart from this our sources also mention continually the Sarmatians as his allies. [68] This shows that he could after the initial hostilities establish lasting good relations with them which might have been inspired in addition to his personal charm and clever diplomacy also by common economic and political interest. Undoubtedly the Sarmatians were in sore need of the industrial goods made or distributed in the Greek cities of the Black Sea. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that after the Getae had devastated their town, the Olbians returned to its site as a result of the persuasion of the "Scythians" (= Sarmatians) and founded Olbia again. [69] Accordingly, it was in the interest of the Sarmatians to be on good terms with the king ot the Pontus who held the Greek cities in his power. As to political aims, it may have been Mithridates' old plan to attack the Romans by land, from the North, i. e. from the Pontus as well. To this effect, along with the other Pontic peoples, the strong Sarmatian tribal confederacy could be used appropriately, therefore it is probable that Mithridates approved, and possibly encouraged, the spreading of the Sarmatians to the West. For the Sarmatians, on the other hand, this was the only possibility of expansion after the occupation of the Greek cities of the Pontus by Mithridates, besides, the possession of the Roumanian plain and the Dobrudja was always highly desirable to the peoples of the steppes.

Keeping in view the concurrence of the political and economic interests of Mithridates and the Sarmatians, one of Strabo's data gains particular moment, that the Sarmatians used to put their quarters also along the banks of the Danube and often stayed on both her banks. This information is usually so interpreted that single roving or fleeing Sarmatian swarms avoiding the Bastarnae reached the southern banks of the Danube as early as in the course of the first century B. C. [70] This view, however, is not correct, because Strabo's report as was seen above, refers to conditions in the last decade of the second century B. C. In addition, also the manner of expression of Strabo gives no clue to this hypothesis, because his remark  does not stress any groups, but refers to the Sarmatians who had been mentioned in the text before. Besides, the verb  indicates systematic, protracted sojourn and not roving.

Thus it is a much more probable assumption that the Sarmatians at certain fixed intervals camped regularly by the Danube. There can be no doubt as to the Sarmatians — in true nomadic shepherdlike fashion —, having constantly changed their pastures. In fact Strabo remarks about them that they are largely nomads, furthermore, when characterizing the nomad ways of life he even reports the observation made by his source, namely that they "follow the pastures, always seeking the places which yield grass" (VII 3, 17). Nor has it escaped the attention of ancient observers that the seasons had a decisive importance in the choice of pastures. Strabo reports, as a continuation of the quoted passage, the fact about the Sarmatians living near to the Maeotis, namely that they spend the winters among the swamps of the Maeotis, whereas the summers are spent on the plains. That the nomads had the

Additional Notes

To p. 24—29. L. Havas, Ant. Tan. 12 (1965) 242 foll, similarly made an attempt to prove the real possibility of the military expedition on land from the Balkans planned by Mithridates VI against the Romans. Curiously, my argumentation published 15 years earlier in the 1st edition, escaped his attention.

68. Appianos, Mithr. 15, 69; Iustinus XXXVIII 3, 6.

69. Dio Chrys., Log. Borysth. p. 49. Ed. Dindorf.

70. See A. Alföldi, Budapest története [History of Budapest]. I, 180.


habit of putting their winter quarters round rivers and lakes, can be ascertained from many sources. However, it may suffice to remind of Ibn Rusta's report on the Magyars "their abodes are between these two rivers (Don and Danube). When winter comes, those (tribes) who are near to one of these two rivers, draw up to it and spend the winter on its banks". [71] Considering that the Sarmatian tribal confederacy described by Strabo, like the Magyars, occupied the territory between the Don and Danube, they may have changed about their winter and summer quarters similarly.

Thus it seems very probable that Strabo's report must be so interpreted that the Sarmatian winter quarters were by the Danube and often both banks were occupied. It would be difficult to understand the latter part of the report if it were the question of roving Sarmatian swarms settling down or intruding south of the Danube. Why should Strabo in this case emphasize that the Sarmatians very often stayed on "both" banks? It is a feature easy to observe with Southern Russian and Asiatic nomads that certain tribal systems, or often single tribes, settle on both banks of rivers, or reaches of rivers, evidently in order to secure the water supply of their live-stock. [72] Such bilateral settlements can be found also at the settling of Magyar tribes occupying Hungary. [73] Thus we may assume that the Sarmatians also endeavoured to settle down on both banks of the Danube and one part of their quarters was on the southern bank.

It is possible that the same situation is reflected in Ovid, who repeatedly mentions the Sarmatian carts crossing the frozen Danube. [74] The interpretation of Ovid's data is contested — Patsch had in mind the goods traffic going across the icebound river, [75] while Alföldi thought of predatory raids [76] — we can nevertheless state that the picture of Sarmatian ox-carts traversing the frozen Danube is nowhere in direct connection with the plunderings of the Sarmatians, which by the way are frequently mentioned, whereas Ovid never even as much as mentions goods traffic. Apart from this too, it is difficult to imagine nimble mobile nomadic troops to have encumbered themselves with heavy ox-carts. It is far more probable to surmize here too that the Sarmatians for a while, even after the annexation of the Dobrudja by the Romans (probably until the Iazyges moved to Hungary) in the winter drew as for down to the Southern bank of the Danube and spent the winter months there. This would, at the same time explain why Ovid mentions the Sarmatians alongside with the Getae as the inhabitants of the environs of Tomi (Tristia V 7, 11) and on the whole, only the frequent and protracted presence of the Sarmatians, renders it feasible that they constantly occur together with the Getae and that he learnt the language of both the Getae and the Sarmatians (Tristia V 12, 58) even if this is only a poetic figure of speech. It is natural that the frequent appearance of nomadic Sarmatians may easily have gone hand in hand not only with bartering but also with robbing. It may thus be probable that the Sarmatian objective was focused — at the time of Ovid's stay at Tomi, — on a bilateral position at the Danube and in this connection on the occupation of the territories on the right bank of the Danube.

71. See K. Czegledy, A magyarság őstörténete [Prehistory of the Magyars], ed. L. Ligeti, Budapest, 1943, pp. 106.

72. See A. Alföldi, A kettős királyság a nomádoknál [Double Kingship with Nomads]. Károlyi-Emlékkönyv. Budapest, 1933. p. 29.

73. See Recently E. Moór, A honfoglaló magyarság megtelepülése és a székelyek eredete [Settling Down of the Magyars in Hungary and the Origin of the Széklers]. Szeged. 1944. pp. 8, 11.

74. Tristia III 10, 34; 12, 30; Epist. ex Ponto IV 7, 9—10.

75. Beiträge zur Völkerkunde von Südosteuropa, VI, 118.

76. A. Alföldi, Budapest története [History of Budapest]. I, 178.

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