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


9. The Sarmatian Phalerae and their Eastern Relations

It can also be ascertained from the available sporadic sources that the Western Sarmatian tribes had not always lived in loose formations and in chaotic disorder side by side, but brought about round 125 B. C. — after invading the territory between the Don and the Danube owing to the pressure of the Yüeh-chih expansion from the East —, a strong empire under the central leadership of a "royal" tribe which empire played for almost three quarters of a century an important historical role. Recognition of this fact permits the definition of the archaeological remains of the Western Sarmatians from this period. The Sarmatian finds from the Hellenistic epoch have a characteristic group with which Rostovtzeff dealt in several works. [106] The main characteristic of this group of finds is represented by golden or gilt silver horse trappings (phalerae) partly with representations of religious subjects, partly with plant ornamentation. Rostovtzeff included in this group the finds of Akhtanizovskaya Stanitsa, Severskaya Stanitsa, Yanchokrak, Starobel'sk, Taganrog, Uspenskaya Stanitsa, Novouzensk, Istetskaya Yurta and Galiche, as well as a phalera

106. Iranians and Creeks in South Russia, pp. 136. Sarmatskiya i indoskifskiya drevnosti. Recueil-Kondakov. Praga, 1926, pp. 239. Skythien und der Bosporus. I, 542, pp. 548, pp. 552, pp. 554, 583. See further A. Spicyn, Falarï yužnoy Rossiy: IIAK. XXIX (1909) and N. Fettich: Die Metallktinst der landnehmenden Ungarn. AH XXI. Budapest, 1937. pp. 142.


from an unknown place of origin and two specimens of Pontic origin in the Cabinet des Medailles. Moreover he proved that the styles and manners of representation of these phalerae are in close connection with Graeco-Indian art.

According to Rostovtzeff the bearers of the phalerae were Sarmatian tribes that had been living in the past somewhere in the farther East in the vicinty of Indo-Scythians whence they had brought this style to South Russia. Here this art had no immediate precedent, the finds of Alexandropol and Fedulovo which alone might be taken into account from this point of view, belong to the beginning of the third century B. C, which means they are from a much earlier period than the above mentioned ones. However, the latter two also have links in common with Eastern and Graeco-Indian art, so that Rostovtzeff is inclined to attribute them to an earlier Sarmatian wave.

Two clues exist as to the chronological position of the mentioned group of finds. One is the find of Severskaya Stanitsa, which, in view of the coins of the last Pairisades found in it, must be placed in the last decade of the second century B. C. The other clue is offered by one of the plaques in the Cabinet des Medailles. Provided the inscription on it is no forgery, this may be regarded as originating from the period of Mithridates Eupator. As the finds belonging to the group are closely linked up by stylistic and topical concurrences, it is very probable that their place is between the time boundaries represented by the phalerae of the Cabinet des Medailles, and of the find of Severskaya Stanitsa, i. e. roughly between 110 and 60 B. C. The remaining question now is how this group of finds can be valued from the historical and ethnical points of view. As was seen, the group of finds spread over a territory extending from the Tobol to Bulgaria. This circumstance renders the solution extremely difficult. On this territory this time neither political, nor ethnical unity can be reckoned with, although this would be the most natural explanation of such a closely coherent find group within such a comparatively short interval. Thus it is no wonder that Rostovtzeff was also vague about this problem, in fact he eventually risked several conjectures partly at variance with one another.

As was mentioned, Rostovtzeff arrived at that undoubtedly correct result, according to which on the strength of the examination of the Sarmatian archaeological legacy, the immigration of the Sarmatians into South Russia happened in several waves. Hereby he obtained a historical frame into which he could place the group of the phalerae finds. A clue to this was the close connection of the phalerae with Graeco-Indian art, which could most easily be explained with the origin of the bearers of the phalerae in the vicinity of the Indo-Scythians. However, the piecing together of this seemingly concordant theory ultimately came up against various difficulties. As Rostovtzeff himself states, the main territory of the occurrence of the group of phalerae finds is after all confined to the Western part of South Russia and since a new art which may be called Irano-Celtic came about under its influence on the Celts, it can only be brought into connection with those Sarmatian tribes, who, according to him, first came into contact with Western peoples. [107] On this point it was extremely unfavourable that Rostovtzeff had no clear picture of Sarmatian migration. He did not reckon with the possibility that Sarmatian waves did not necessarily settle down one after the other from West to East in the order of their appearance, but that they could very well stratify one above the other and the later ones might have absorbed the earlier ones. Since he did not think of this, for him the order of geographical location of the Sarmatian tribes was tantamount to the sequence of their historical

107. Iranians and Creeks in South Russia. 139.


appearance, so that he held the Iazyges, who penetrated farthest West, to have been the first Sarmatian wave. This led to the result that he was compelled to consider the phalerae finds as the legacy of the westernmost Iazyges and Roxolani, who again in his opinion were the first Sarmatian wave in South Russia. [108]

Needless to say, this theory was in sharp contradiction to the result he had reached, namely that the phalerae were bound to have been brought by a Sarmatian wave from the vicinity of the Indo-Scythians. The beginnings of the phalerae find group can only have been at the end of the second century B. C.; their bearers (thus those who brought them from the East) evidently cannot be identical with the earliest Sarmatian wave. Rostovtzeff himself may have felt this contradiction and tried to obviate it somehow. As he saw that the identification of Iazyges representing the first Sarmatian wave with the bearers of the phalerae, met with difficulties, he gave up this idea and merely stressed that the phalerae had to be brought by a newer Sarmatian wave from the East; but he refrained from giving a closer definition of the latter. [109]

It goes without saying that this was not a reassuring solution, therefore Rostovtzeff came to the conclusion that the phalerae had been brought to South Russia by the Siracians and it is from them that they spread along the Northern Euxine coastline. [110] This apparently puzzling change of opinion, after all is easy enough to explain: if the Iazyges who appeared earliest could not have brought the phalerae from the East, another tribe had to be found of which this could be more readily surmised, a tribe which arrived later and had a more eastern situation. Rostovtzeff found the Siracians the most suitable. However, these lived east of the Don on the steppes extending above the Caucasus, and not in the Western part of South Russia, whence the larger part of the phalerae finds originate and whence the influence of this group of find reached the Celts. Thus he was obliged to surmize that the Western Sarmatians had taken over the phalerae from the Siracians. This conception, however, partly contradicts that conjecture of his, according to which the Siracians had lived from as early as the end of the fourth century B. C. in their homeland north of the Caucasus, and he partly deprives his own theory on the origin of the phalerae of its foundation. It is obvious that, if the appearance of phalerae finds among the Western Sarmatians on whose territory their larger part had been found, are interpreted as having been borrowed from a Sarmatian tribe living farther east which handed them over, it is not necessary to consider the group of phalerae finds as a whole, as the legacy of a new Sarmatian tribe arriving from the immediate vicinity of the Indo-Scythians. Therefore all the efforts of Rostovtzeff levelled at the historical evaluation and the ethnic determination of the phalerae finds must be regarded as unacceptable owing to internal contradictions. [111]

If we seek the causes which called forth the error of this eminent expert of Scythian and Sarmatian archaeological material, the following may be concluded: Rostovtzeff had no clear picture of that epoch of Pontic Sarmatian history to which the phalerae may be assigned and therefore he could not determine the historical framework of the material of finds, nor state its ethnic location. In addition to this, he unnecessarily linked up the problem of ethnic determination and the origin of the phalerae. First he asserted that the phalerae are linked by numerous common traits

108. Op. cit. 145.

109. Sarmatskiya i indoskifskiya drevnosti 256, 258, Skythien und der Bosporus I, 604.

110. CAH XI, 102.

111. The main cause of Rostovtzeff's statements being partly at variance with each other, is evidently that he could not work out his results in detail and cast them in a final form after his emigration.


to Graeco-Indian art and from this he immediately concluded that the phalerae were bound to have been brought from the vicinity of the Indo-Scythians by Sarmatian tribes migrating westwards from there. The correct procedure, on the other hand, is first to clarify the ethnic determination, or at least not to make this dependent upon the eastern relations of the representations and style of the phalerae, since these may not solely be explained by contiguity.

So much can, in any case, be stated that the chronological position of the phalerae finds fully tallies with the time of existence of the Western Sarmatian empire which stood out from our above results. The latter may be put round about 125 and 61 B. C. while the phalerae finds may be placed between 110 and 60 B. C. This concurrence no doubt proves that the phalerae finds are bound to be historically related te the Western Sarmatian tribal confederacy under "Royal" Sarmatian leadership. The total ethnical identification of the phalerae finds with the Western Sarmatian tribal confederacy is obviously contradicted by the fact that the area of occurrence of the phalerae finds extends from Bulgaria to Siberia, whereas the Western Sarmatian tribal confederacy held only the territory between the Danube and the Don in its sway. From this would follow that the phalerae finds have no ethnic determinative value, because the phalerae in a certain period were used by most Sarmatian and in fact by non-Sarmatian peoples (cf. the Noin-Ula phalerae).

Thus, if we hold that the appearance of phalerae in themselves do not constitute adequate ground for separating one Sarmatian tribe or tribal group from the other, we may, notwithstanding, not deny the possibility that within a phalerae find group here might occur such differences which might be utilized also for ethnic differentiation. Considering this we must stress the fact emphasized also by Rostovtzeff, that the major part of the phalerae finds originates from the western part of South Russia, that is, from the territory of the Western Sarmatian tribal confederacy. From this territory, in the south-easternmost corner of the Carpathian basin, in the department of Háromszék near Szörcse, a more recent phalerae find came to light, which underlines the Western character of the phalerae find group even more. Investigating the Szörcse find (consisting of two phalerae) Dr. N. Fettich arrived in this connection at the important result that the phalerae of Szörcse, Galiche, and in addition the Taganrog, Yanchokrak and Starobel'sk finds are linked up by so many close congruences as far as subject, style and technique, that it is highly probable that they came from the same workshops. [112] This statement is important because in this way one group clearly stands apart from the others, namely the one whose area of occurrence is precisely the same as the one over which the empire under "Royal" Sarmatian domination extended. This means that we have succeeded in getting hold of the archaeological legacy of a Western Sarmatian tribal confederacy from the reign of Mithradates Eupator. It is surely no coincidence that only the works of one workshop or metal work centre spread just in this territory, but we might conclude that this territory at that time formed an economic and political unity. Apart from this such a largescale production of phalerae implies a certain economic boom, which again was possible only after the understanding reached by the Western Sarmatian power with Mithradates, when commercial relations could be established with the Pontic Greek cities.

Thus we may ascertain that the Western Sarmatian tribal confederacy under "Royal" Sarmatian leadership between 125 and 61 B. C., was a historical factor playing an important role in South Russia, which also made its influence clearly felt

Additional Notes

To p. 37. N. Fettich, Acta Arch. Hung. 3 (1953) 170 foll, looks for the workshop of the discussed group of phalerae in Olbia and dates it to the time about the middle of the 1st century B. C. Taking into consideration, however, the situation of Olbia about the middle of the 1st century B. C., we have surely to regard this assumption as unacceptable. We can rather think of Panticapaeum. Nor can the dating to the middle of the 1st century B. C. of this group of phalerae be adopted.

112. See Folia Ethnographica I/2 (1949) 135.


in the archaeological records. This is all the more obvious if we consider that certain finds, e.g. the Galiche one, can be evaluated historically even more accurately within comparatively narrow limits. Near Galiche a large Sarmatian find of 14 phalerae came to light. This locality, however, is south of the Danube, in Bulgaria, in the district of Orekhovo, where the cropping up of a Sarmatian find is conspicuous anyway, because this area had never been inhabited by Sarmatians. However, we have pointed out above that the Western Sarmatian power during the Mithridatic Wars intruded on the territory south of the Danube as well, and, in fact, according to the definite evidence of our sources, — just upon Triballian territory. Galiche lies roughly in the centre of what used to be Triballian territory, not too far from the Danube, so that there can hardly be any doubt that the phalerae find, which has come to light nearby, is a palpable record of the short-lived Sarmatian occupation of Triballian territory.

Thus it seems beyond doubt that one clearly isolated group of phalerae finds is to be regarded as the legacy of Sarmatian tribes belonging to the Western Sarmatian empire between 125 B. C. and 61 B. C. However, the question arises how the links of the phalerae with Graeco-Indian art as emphasized by Rostovtzeff, may be explained. As was seen above, only the eastern origin of the Aorsians in the course of the Yüeh-chih migrations is clearly traceable. The Sarmatian tribes between 130 and 125 B. C. occupying the territory between the Danube and the Don, had probably been living in Eastern Europe at that time, — namely in the decades immediately preceding this, — and were only driven from here by Aorsian pressure further west. So there is little likelihood from the historical point of view of the Sarmatian tribes bringing the phalerae directly from the vicinity of the Indo-Scythians. Against this stands the fact that we do not find the precedent of the phalerae find group confined to the territory of the Western Sarmatian empire farther east. It is true, on the other hand, that there are phalerae finds further east, as well, yet there is no clue whatever to these being older, moreover, they are so far removed from the Western group as regards style and technical characteristics that they cannot be derived from those. Thus, there is no other possibility than to consider this phalerae find group on the whole, as having originated in the West, and to link it up with the economic boom which was the consequence of the friendly relations established by Mithridates in the Pontic region with the Sarmatians.

By this we wish by no means to refute the eastern links of the phalerae so strongly stressed by Rostovtzeff. The fact that South Russia had very strong ties with India at this epoch should not be disregarded. This is proved not only by the phalerae in question but also by other archaeological finds. Thus, e. g. in Taxila the exact counterpart of the dagger of the Sarmatian find of Prokhorovka was unearthed. [113] This lively trade linked India with South Russia across the Caucasus and Persia, which is recorded by the sources. Strabo mentions in his description of the Aorsians (XI 5, 8) that the latter conveyed on camels Indian and Babylonian merchandise which they took over from the Armenians and Medes. This report is important also because it states clearly that from India the trade crossing the Parthian empire did not only reach the Pontic empire but indirectly also the Sarmatians. Albeit Junge would like to interpret this report of Strabo as a Central Asiatic caravan route in a north easterly direction, [114] but this forced explanation has no serious foundation. That Indian goods should have found their way to the Sarmatians on a trade route by passing the Caspian Sea from the north, in itself is feasible enough, but Strabo is explicit about the merchandise having been also Babylonian, moreover about the role of Armenians

113. See W. Ginters, Das Schwert der Skythen und Sarmaten in Südrußland. Berlin, 1928. p. 82.

114. Saka Studien 78.


and Medes as middlemen, so that there can be no question of misunderstanding.

Apart from this, Transcaucasian trade is clearly visible also from other sources. We know from another report of Strabo's (XI 2, 16) that in Transcaucasia on the Euxine coast the most important centre was Dioscurias. Strabo also mentioned that 70 neighbouring peoples came there to transact their business, among whom the Sarmatians are represented in the largest numbers. From this it can be clearly asserted that Sarmatian trade reached right down to Transcaucasia, where the merchandise from India could be taken over directly. In this connection the discovery of a burial ground near the Transcaucasian Bori (dept. of Kutais) on a territory belonging to the commercial sphere of Dioscurias, is of decisive significance. In this burial ground ornaments and precious metal objects came to light which show a close connection with the Taxila finds. [115] In the same place also Roman, Parthian and Indo-Scythian coins were found which shows clearly that Indian trade must have crossed through this area. Taking all this into account we may further assume that the links of the Sarmatian phalerae with Indo-Scythian art may also have come about in this way, cither by applying some Indo-Scythian motifs to Sarmatian phalerae, or by phalerae having found their way through trade from Indo-Scythia to Pontus where they were imitated. Such imported phalera or one which had been made at the influence of an imported one, might be the specimen in the Cabinet des Médailles from an unknown place, yet originating from the Pontic region; in the middle of it we find, an elephant represented. [116]

115. See Rostovtzeff’s arrangement: Sarmatskaya i indoskifskaya drevnosti 251. Concerning the Bori finds see E. Pridik, MAR XXXIV (1914), pp. 94.

116. See Rostovtzeff, Iranians and Greeks in South Russia XXVII, 2.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]