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


6. The Sarmatians on the Lower Danube

The fact that the Sarmatians set foot on both banks of the Danube had a double importance for Mithridates. In the first place a certain amount of pressure was brought to bear upon the peoples of the Northern Balkans, who in their turn rushed down upon Macedonia and the Roman provinces which they harassed all the time with raids and plundering and penetrated in this way as far south as Greece, right to Delphi. On the other hand being in possession of Danubian fords and bases on the southern hank, the Sarmatians themsehes could easily penetrate into the Balkans and march against the Romans. From a strategic point of view this was of utmost importance to Mithridates. The Romans, on the other hand, faced with the lack of an adequate fleet, could not for a long time acquire naval superiority and since their main supply and reserve lines to Asia Minor went across the Balkans, Mithridates could easily endanger these by the help of the Sarmatians and the other Northern Balkan peoples.

Thus we cannot wonder at this territory having become a sort of sideshow theatre of war during the Ist Mithridatic War. Already Sulla had been obliged on the occasion of his march on Asia Minor, to check the Northern Balkan tribes, yet he could not obtain lasting results, because the Macedonian governors in the subsequent years too had to lead one campaign after the other against these martial barbaric peoples. After Sulla, L. Cornelius Scipio., then Ap. Claudius Pulcher, C. Scribonius Curio, and finally M. Terentius Varro Lucullus continued them from 85 B. C. (Sulla) to 71 B. C. (Lucullus), yet without achieving lasting results, albeit, Lucullus succeeded in occupying the Greek cities Apollonia, Kallatis. Tomi and Istros, which had been military bases of Mithridates. [77] That these fights in reality belong to the scope of the Mithridatic War, was clear all along, yet one date deserves special attention: Ap. Claudius Pulcher in course of his operations penetrated as far as the Sarmatians. [78] This proves that the Romans in an attempt to ward off the pressure weighing on them from the Northern Balkans found themselves in course of the campaign up against the Sarmatians, who were the last dynamic force. At the time, however, there was no possibility as yet to break Sarmatian strength and that is just why Roman efforts were ineffective against the other barbarian tribes; Sarmatian expansion forced these again and again either as their foe or their ally against the Romans.

Thus it seems probable that the Sarmatian tribal confederacy under "Royal" Sarmatian leadership played an important role — even if only indirectly — during Mithridates' campaings in the development of Balkan events. This naturally was possible only if they held the Danube line, also the right bank in their hands. That this was so the case is clearly proved by the above mentioned report of Strabo, the question only is to what extent Sarmatian power expanded and to which territory on the right bank of the Danube. Inscriptions revealing the hard pressed position of Istros and Tomi afford certain clues to this effect. On the strength of these we might consider it probable that the Sarmatians held at least the right bank of the Danube in the Dobrudja. It should, however, not be overlooked that with the conquests of Mithridates in the Pontus, here too, it may be assumed that the situation had changed.

From the information of Florus that Lucullus in his Thracian campaign which comes under the Mithridatic Wars occupied Istros, Tomi, Kallatis and Apollonia, it is clear that the Thracian coastal region and its Greek cities were under Mithrida-

77. See Niese—Hohl, Grundriß der römischen Geschichte, pp. 203. ff., 214 ff.

78. Florus, Epitomae I 214, 39,6.


tes' sway. Recently, however, an inscription from Apollonia came to light which fully bears out this conjecture. [79] From this it is clear that Mithridates also sent military formations to assist the city, thus it is beyond doubt that Apollonia and along with it evidently also Istros, Kallatis and Tomi had belonged to his empire. Therefore it is only justified to assume that Mithridates exonerated the Greek cities in the Dobrudja also from Sarmatian pressure and in consequence more peaceful relations developed between Greeks and Sarmatians. If in this way Mithridates stemmed Sarmatian expansion in the Dobrudja, it all the more concurred with his interests that they should southwards expand from a farther western position. Considering all this, the possibility must be taken into account that Strabo's report, according to which the Sarmatians had occupied both banks of the Danube, does not refer to the Dobrudjan Danube course alone, but also to other parts of the Thracian banks of the Danube.

If this conjecture is examined more closely, we may safely state that the Sarmatian expansion to the South of the Danube was a well observed phenomenon and so it could not have been a fact the significance of which was minimized at the beginning of the first century B. C. Regarding this, there is another passage of Strabo (VII 3, 2):

This report originates without doubt from Poseidonios (87 F 104) and the adverb "now too" is of special importance. This cannot be Strabo's expression, because in his time the situation such as it appears in the report, is unimaginable. Thus we can only assume that it also comes from the original text of Poseidonios and from it we may gain one more valuable proof of the Sarmatian south-of-Danube drive having occurred in Poseidonios' time, that is to say the period of the Mithridatic Wars.

Besides, from the reference to the Scythians and Bastarnae it may be concluded that this date too can only refer to the Dobrudja. There is, however, in Strabo's report on the soutward drive of the Sarmatians another detail also, from which it can be inferred that this is not necessarily to be concluded. Strabo here mentions the Sauromatians = Sarmatians likewise with the Scythians and Bastarnae, in addition to which also the scene of the events can be determined more accurately from the report: VII 3, 13

That this report can also only refer to the period of the Mithridatic Wars, or shortly before it admits of no doubt in view of the above arguments.

Thus according to this report, the Sarmatian drive south of the Danube (together with the Sarmatians also the Scythians and Bastarnae are mentioned) at the beginning of the first century B. C. also affected the Triballians. Thus from the Triballians one more clue may be gained to the Sarmatian expansion. Though it is rather difficult to give a precise description of the territory occupied by the Triballians, it is, however, beyond doubt that it included roughly the area between the Morava and the Oescus. [80] This geographical framework may be even further restricted from our point of view, because Triballian territory extended on the Danube line towards the West probably only as far as Ratiaria. since the settling down of the "Little" Scordiscians west of the Morava. [81] Hence, we may localize the south-of-Danube drive of the

79. See T. V. Borozdina, VDI 1946, 317 pp. 197.

80. See E. Polaschek, RE II. VI 2396.

81. Strabo VII 5, 12. Polaschek RE II. VI, 2396, 2400.


Sarmatians, on the strength of this report, roughly in the territory between Vidin and the Isker. This naturally does not rule out the seizure of other Danuhian right-bank territories, though it is possible that the occupation of the southern bank of the Danube section between Vidin and the Isker was carried out to strict schedule from the outset. This area yielded excellent vantage ground for filing up through the Nestos valley into the heart of the Balkans, from which the Triballians had often profited. [82] It may thus be assumed that the Sarmatians too were led when occupying this Danubian section by the desire to establish a convenient bridgehead for possible Balkan adventures.

In this way the Sarmatian penetration of Triballian territory, may have been in line with the broad, large-scale political objectives of Mithridates against Rome. Strabo, however, mentions along with the Sarmatians also the Scythians and Bastarnae and so emerges the question of what connection there may have been between the penetration of these two peoples into Triballian territory with Sarmatian penetration. Considering that the Sarmatians at that time formed a strong tribal confederacy under central leadership, under the power of which the whole territory between the Don and the Danube fell, therefore it seems improbable that the Bastarnae and Scythians should have been equivalent in strength and hence independent political factors of the Sarmatians. As to the Scythians, it was successfully attempted above to prove to a certain extent that they had been the vassals of the Sarmatians and thus we may assume that the Bastarnae too at the time were obliged to recognize the suzerainty of the Sarmatians, even if they preserved to a certain degree their independence. That the Bastarnae belonged to the Sarmatian sphere of power is borne out by the fact that they had taken over several important, cultural elements from these, [83] and by the evidence given by Tacitus (Germania 46) that their nobles intermarried with the Sarmatians. It may therefore by assumed that the Bastarnian and Scythian intrusion into Triballian territory either was due to Sarmatian orders, or was effected in alliance with them, in any case it was in close cooperation with them.

In this construction it is of special importance that this was not the first intrusion of the Bastarnae in this direction towards the territory south of the Danube. Much earlier, in 179 B. C., in alliance with Philip, king of Macedonia, strong Bastarnian forces had crossed the Danube. Philip wanted the Bastarnae first to occupy the territory of the Dardani in order that they should then intrude with the Scordiscians into Northern Italy. Although his death foiled this plan, one Bastarnian fraction, notwithstanding set foot on Dardanian territory and only three years later was it possible for the Dardani to drive them out. [84] These antecedents of this Sarmato-Bastarnian-Scythian expansion during the Ist Mithridatic War, are all the more interesting as they show Mithridates' plans to have been very similar to Philip's designs of attacking Italy on land from the Balkans. Thus it is easily possible that the intrusion of these peoples on Triballian territory happened at his instigation. That this territory had strategic importance is clearly shown by the fact that the Bastarnae much later, after Boirebistas' death, again penetrating into this South-Danubian territory and setting foot on the land of the Dentheletians, south of what is to-day Sofia, marched across Triballian territory. [85]

The occupation of the southern or Triballian bank of the Danube carried out in cooperation with the Sarmatians in the course of the Ist Mithridatic War, fits orga-

82. E. g. the assault on Abdera, see Polaschek, RE II. VI, 2393.

83. See Fr. Altheim, Die Krise der Alten Welt. I. Berlin—Dahlem, 1943. p. 88.

84. See L. Schmidt, Geschichte der Ostgermanen. Berlin, 1910. p. 460.

85. Cassius Dio LI 23, 3; see in this connection Polaschek RE II. VI, 2393.


nically into the gap between the two Bastarnian southward thrusts, although the appearance of the Scythians so far in the West is somewhat unusual. Though the Dobrudjan Scythians may have been at that time the vassals of the Sarmatians, so that cooperation with them is feasible enough, however, there is little likelihood of their return to the area north of the Danube and to their subsequent moving back to the Triballians across of the Danube. What might be conjectured, however, is that some Scythian fractions pressed westward by the Sarmatians had reached the territory of Little Roumania earlier while their bulk occupied Dobrudja. The rhyton of Poroina may be regarded as an archaeological trace of this Scythian group which had got as far as the Iron Gates. It originated most probably from the beginning of the second century B. C. [86] This western Scythian fraction may also have come under Sarmatian rule at the beginning of the first century B. C. and may have invaded Triballian territory together with them.

The gist of this historical event is probably contained in an enumeration by Pliny, in which the Sarmatians and Scythians also appear south of the Danube in Thrace: aversa eius [sc. Haemi] et in Histrum devexa Moesi, Getae, Aedi, Scaugdae, Clariaeque et sub us Arraei Sarmatae, quos Areatas vocant, Scythaeque ... optinent (Nat. hist. IV 41). We cannot take into account the Sarmatians between the Haemus and the Danube, prior to the first half of the 1st c. so that the Arraei Sarmatae of Pliny, can be identical only with the Sarmatians who invaded Triballian territory as mentioned by Strabo. That Strabo does not enumerate any Sarmatian tribe of this name, does not signify much, because the name of Arraei [87] probably only meant they were "Aryans", [88] thus it may not have been a tribal connotation. So the name of Arraei is no obstacle to identifying Pliny's Sarmatians with those mentioned by Strabo, it may at the most mean that Pliny's report comes from another source. Hence Pliny preserved an independent historical tradition for us. It is important that in Pliny's enumeration the Scythians come after the Sarmatians. The Dobrudjan Scythians he mentions later separately (IV 44), thus we find also in Pliny a Scythian group apart from the above. All this shows that the circumstances given by him essentially agree with Strabo's and that they originate from a source which probably gave a geographical picture of the period of the Mithridatic Wars.

86. See Rostovtzeff, Iranians and Greeks in South Russia. 105. Skythien und der Busporus. I, 490.

87. We may conjecture that the names "Arraei" and "Areatae" are linguistically connected. In this case the form "Arraei" must be a corruption of the original "Arei", "Arii" or perhaps "Ariae", which indeed might derive from arya-. The form of Areutae, on the other hand, might be a variant of the same word with the plural ending -t, - known from Ossetian, Sogdian or Yaghnobian, namely from those languages with which Sarmatian is most closely connected. Thus the signification of both names is probably "Aryan", "Aryans", which was evidently the general denomination used by these Sarmatians of themselves. A good parallel to this is the name ir, iron, the Eastern Ossetians gave themselves which equally derives from the word arya or ārya.

88. See Vasmer, Die Iranier in Südrußland. 33.

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