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


8. The Sarmatians and the Yüeh-chih Migration

According to these, the formation of the Sarmatian tribal confederacy under "Royal" Sarmatian leadership and the appearance of the constituent tribes between the Don and Dnieper, may be put between 130 and 125 B. C. This relatively accurate definition helps in an attempt to find further connections with this event. Historical research, some time ago recognized that the Eastern European peoples' movements were in close connection with the shaping of Western Asiatic history. Accordingly, up to now several attempts have been made to clear the Eastern roots of Sarmatian movements. In this direction it was Vernadsky who went farthest by trying to take hold of the Eastern origin and relations of the Sarmatians by means of identifying the peoples' names occurring partly in Greek, Latin and partly in Chinese sources. [92] However, the identifications of such names, which form the basis of his experiment do not hold good, [93] so that we may safely dismiss the discussion of this theory.

Also Rostovtzeff dealt with this question and ventured on a hypothesis that the beginning of South-Russian Sarmatian expansion to the West was connected with the Eastern events of Alexander the Great's age, the appearance of the Iazyges, Roxolani,

Additional Notes

To p. 31. foll. On the Yüeh-chih migration cf. F. Altheim: Weltgeschichte Asiens im griechischen Zeitalter. I. Halle/Saale 1947. 51 foll., II. 1948. 88 foll., F. Altheim: Niedergang der Alten Welt. I. Frankfurt/Main. 37 foll.. F. Altheim: Geschichte der Hunnen. I. Berlin 1959. 61 foll., A. K. Narain: The Indo-Greeks. Oxford 1957. 128 foll., V. M. Masson — V. A. Romodin:  I. Moscow 1964. 128 foll., B. G. Gafurov — A. M. Belenitskiy:  I. Moscow 1964. 341 foll.

92. See Ancient Russia, pp. 82, 88.

93. See Harmatta, RHC V (1947), 232.


Aorsians, and Siracians with the Sako-Parthian movements while the appearance of the Alans hangs together with the Yüeh-chih migration. [94] This conjecture underwent modification by Altheim, inasmuch as he put the beginning of Sarmatian movements at the beginning of the second century B. C. and thus linked up the Western expansion of Sarmatian tribes in general with the birth of the Parthian empire and with the Tocharian-Saka migration. [95] It is, however, indubitable — as has been shown by Junge [96] — that the beginning of Sarmatian movements goes back to much earlier times and so cannot be directly connected with the Tocharian-Saka migration called forth by the birth of the Hsiung-nu power. In addition, the fact must be taken into account that the Western drive of Sarmatian tribes went forth in several waves, it was a rather complex process, the phases of which must be put to the test one by one from the point of view of motive forces. Thus Altheim's hypothesis cannot be accepted, Rostovtzeff's theory is likewise too vague and lax, let alone that the appearance of Iazyges and Roxolani in South Russia, in this case should have to be put practically one century earlier, which is grossly at variance with the given data of the sources.

So much, however, seems clear that the historical events which can be observed during the 2nd century B. C. in the life of the Pontic Sarmatians are somehow connected with the great movements called forth by the birth of the Hsiung-nu empire. This may now be more closely denned by the help of the more accurate chronology of Eastern and Western events. As was seen, the birth of the new Sarmatian power under "Royal" Sarmatian leadership was probably an accomplished fact by 125 B. C. When this process began cannot be ascertained with accuracy, yet it may not have begun much earlier, because prior to this Skiluros, still alive in 107/108, had money coined in Olbia. Nor may the dissolution of the Saian power be put at a date approximately two decades earlier, owing to the Amage story, so that the chronology of events may probably be established thus: about 145 or 140 B. C. the power of the Sarmatians known from the Protogenes inscription as Saii, declined and simultaneously the Crimean Scythians once more recovered their strength and extended their suzerainty as far as the Dnieper.

This situation suddenly changed after 130 B. C. when — in the Western part of the Pontus — the new Sarmatian tribes: the "Royal" Sarmatians, the Iazyges, Urgi, and Roxolani appeared or took shape through the coalescence of newly arrived Iranian elements with the Sarmatians who had been living there before they united and seized the territory between the Danube and the Don. From this it is evident that the event responsible for the formation of the new Sarmatian power, or the appearance of the new Sarmatian tribes, had to occur in the East round about 130 B. C. However, in addition to this another earlier agent asserting itself round about 150/145 must be taken into account as well.

These conclusions are in complete harmony with the chronology of Eastern events. As is known, the migration of the Yüeh-chih, to which the Hsiung-nu had given impetus, occurred in two phases. The first of the two may be put — according to the careful estimation of Haloun — round about 174—160 B. C., in fact a slightly

94. Skythien und der Bosporus. I 609; for general reference: Iranians and Greeks in South Russia, pp. 114.

95. WaG II (1936), 320; McGovern, The Early Empires of Central Asia. Chapel Hill, 1939. p. 424 n. 12 attributes the westward drive of the Sarmatians to the pressure of the Hsiung-nu, yet without expounding his conception in detail.

96. J. Junge, Saka-Studien. Der ferne Nordosten im Weltbild tier Antike. Klio. Beiträge zur alten Geschichte. XLI. Beiheft. Leipzig, 1939. p. 94, n. 5.


later date does not seem to be out of question either. [97] In the course of this process the Yüeh-Chih drove the Sacae away from their old territory, [98] and these in their turn, according to Junge's thorough arguments, occupied Kashmir by 155 B. C. at the latest. [99] Although Chinese sources known only of this large-scale southward Saka migration, it is highly probable that this event led to such an extensive dispersion of Saka tribes, that it was felt also in the West. One Chinese report, in fact, mentions (Han-shu, 96. c., s. v. Chi-pin) that Saka tribes spread out and founded small states in several places, yet as may be expected this report refers only to the Sacae who remained within the orbit of the Chinese. On the whole it is difficult even to engage in guesswork as to why and how far this blow affecting the Eastern Sacae concerned the Saka tribes living on the steppes of Western Turkestan, though one datum of Ptolemaios affords a certain clue. He mentions when describing Asiatic Sarmatia (V 8, 13) a people in the Caucasus whom he calls , by which no doubt a Saka fraction drifted to the far West must be understood. [100]

It is thus probable that simultaneously with the migration of the bulk of the Eastern Sacae there were also certain shifts to the West, the effects of which reached also the Pontic Sarmatians and resulted in the weakening and eventual disintegration of the power of the tribes mentioned in the Protogenes inscription. It we consider that this could only have been a rather slow process, and that 10—15 years must have elapsed before effects could be felt far in the West, we arrive at the above conjectured date concerning the earlier agent asserting itself in the history of the Western Sarmatians. Haloun [101] puts the second phase of the migration of the Yüeh-chih between 133 and 129 B. C., however, if Junge's assumption that we must see Tochari (Yüeh-chih) in the "Scythians" called by Phraates II. to his assistance in 130/129 B. C., [102] is correct, only the upper limit of the interval can be taken into account. That is when the Yüeh-chih occupy Bactria and this event was bound to make its effect felt on the Western Turkestan steppes. It is probable that this powerful thrust of the Yüeh-chih forced also other Iranian tribes to move westward.

This process is to a certain extent easy to grasp on the grounds of our sources. We know from Chinese sources (Han-shu 96/I, Shih-chi 123) that at the time when the Yüeh-chih migration was concluded, a people named Yen-ts'ai lived in the region of Lake Aral; Hirth and Gutschmid also recognized that behind this name are hidden the Aorsians, well known from both Greek and Latin sources. [103] They and the Siracians according to Strabo, who reported on them first lived on the steppes east of the Don (XI 5, 9 ), yet it was not here they had their original seats, they had fled from the Aorsians living farther up in the North. These Aorsians, "living farther up in the North" duly considering Strabo's geographical picture, should not be sought in the North, but in the Aral region, [104] thus just where Chinese sources place the Yen-ts'ai. From this it is clear that the Aorsians and Siracians had moved to South

97. G. Haloun, ZDMG XCI (1937), pp. 246.

98. Haloun, ZDMG XCI (1937), 246, and note 2, p. 251 and note 6; see also e. g. Herzfeld, AMI IV (1932), pp. 14 ff.

99. Saka Studien pp. 98.

100. The Greek form renders the Middle Persian plural sakān ~ sagān of the name Saka- (cf. e. g. Sagānšāh 'King of the Sacae'), or his form with the suffix -na-, sakān < sakāna- (cf. e. g. Ossetian iron 'Ost-Ossete, ost-ossetisch' side by side with ir 'Ost-Ossete').

101. ZDMG XCI (1937), pp. 249.

102. Saka-Studien 101.

103. Fr. Hirth, China ami the Roman Orient. Shanghai—Leipzig, 1885. p. 139, n. 1 and A. v. Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans. Tübingen, 1888. p. 69.

104. See Junge, Saka-Studien pp. 54, 77 ff.


Russia from the Aral region. That their original abode was here is palpably proved by Ptolemaios, who following older tracks in his description of the peoples of Scythia intra Imaum (VI 14, 10), places the Aorsians, near to the Iaxartes—Syr-Darya. The intrusion of the Aorsians and of the Siracians into Eastern Europe was evidently the event which caused the "Royal" Sarmatians and the other Western Sarmatian tribes under the leadership of the former, to occupy the territory between the Danube and the Don and to consolidate their power there.

As we have seen this event was roughly between 130 and 125 B. C, in which time also the settling of the Aorsians and Siracians in Eastern Europe had to occur. Since the movement of the Sarmatian tribes extending from Lake Aral to the Danube, coincides in time with the Yüeh-chih inroad into Bactria, a close interrelation between the two events suggests itself. Thus it is highly probable that the formation of the great Sarmatian power between the Danube and the Don round about 125 B. C., may be brought into direct connection with the westward drive of the peoples' masses, due to the expansion of the Hsiung-nu empire. When the first Yüeh-chih move compelled large Eastern Saka masses to migrate, this event caused certain shifts also in the line of the Iaxartes—Syr-Darya, Lake Aral and the Caspian Sea, and in consequence of the pressure from the East gradually asserting itself, the power of the Sarmatians i. e. Saii holding the Dnieper region in their sway round about 145 B. C., weakened considerably. The decisive turn, however, occurred through the second Yüeh-chih move. Then one part of the Yen-ts'ai-Aorsians evidently strongly affected by the Yüeh-chih migration, together with other Iranian tribes, press westwards as far as the Don. The Sarmatian tribes, on the other hand, that had held this territory previously, took possession of the Dnieper region absorbing the Saii and formed with the other Iranian elements found there under "Royal" Sarmatian leadership an empire extending from the Danube to the Don. [105]

105. Hereby an old surmise of Müllenhof's won credit. See Deutsche Altertumskunde. III. Berlin, 1892, p. 41.

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