Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.
E = M
Energy is eternal delight.
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A few chums and I went to see The Return of the King — third film in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy — last week, and a good time was had by all. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Tamara and I got to see material from the The Two Towers (the second film) enhanced-edition DVD, whereupon we learned that the memorable folk known as the Rohirrim, the people of the kingdom of Rohan in the series, were conceptually developed by the filmmakers from ideas of “horsey Vikings” — people conceived of as basically like the Vikings but with a prevalent horse-and-plains, rather than longship-and-sea, orientation.
Rohan and the Rohirrim were very well done in Jackson's LOTR, in my view, including the latest released film, but while musing over the concept it occurred to me there are perhaps less artificial models from history, even European history, that could have been used in building the people of Rohan, than simply grafting the sea-oriented Vikings onto horseback. No criticism of the approach the series actually took is intended (which I think is perfectly fine), but it is fascinating to take a look at some of the alternate historical analogues from whom the people of Rohan might have emerged. I'll discuss one such — the historic Sarmatians — here, and in the future perhaps go over one or two other potential historical sources for a folk like the Rohirrim.
Originally an Iranian people and speaking an Indo-European tongue, the folk known to history as “Sarmatians” (Sarmatae in Latin) were nomadic horse warriors related to the Scythians of ancient fame, originating to the east of the latter and ultimately displacing them. During the later Roman Republic and through most of the Empire period (and even later, in some regions), the Sarmatians occupied the area off the northeastern borderland of Empire known to the Romans, after them, as Sarmatia. The Sarmatians' domain during much of this epoch extended east of Germania, occupied by the Germans, from approximately the line of the Vistula River in present-day Poland (“Sarmatia” is sometimes used today as a literary term for Poland) to points east through the Ukraine and southwestern Russia into the Caspian and Aral Sea regions of Central Asia.
The “Alans” (Alani) whom one runs into occasionally in the history of late and post-Roman times were a Sarmatian people. Historian T. Peisker, writing in The Cambridge Medieval History, points out that for Scythians and Sarmatians, “both names covered the most medley conglomerations of nomads and peasants.” 1
The Sarmatians' nomad empire was eventually eclipsed in the 3rd century AD by the Gothic eruption from Scandinavia across the Baltic Sea and thence into eastern Europe, whence many Sarmatians enlisted as associates of the new Gothic confederation.
A portion of the Sarmatian people, who became known as “free Sarmatians” (Sarmatae Liberi), continued for some time in what is approximately modern Hungary, independent of the Goths to their east in the Romania/Ukraine region.
What remained of Sarmatia eventually succumbed, after about 370, to the Huns, though many Sarmatians escaped west to join other elements of the barbarian wanderings of late and post-Roman times, after which Sarmatians (and Alans) are no longer heard of.
It is the Sarmatians who must be credited with introduction of the armored horse warrior — i.e., the knight — to the medieval West! As Arnold Toynbee explains, in his book Mankind and Mother Earth: 2
Encyclopædia Britannica's article ”Sarmatian” describes Sarmatian religion, art, and culture: 3
(Emphasis added to an interesting point.) One correction to the foregoing: Attributing spurs and stirrups to the Sarmatians, as the Britannica article claims to, appears incorrect, best I can make out. Scholars seem to be basically in concurrence that the Sarmatians lacked the stirrup, and it was probably through the Avars — who we met in Impearls' article Crusades IV (permalink) — that this device was introduced somewhat later to the West. Spurs too appear to have been already known to Gauls and Romans. With that caution, we'll continue….
History is composed of real, not ideal, peoples, and many aspects of human cultures in history fail to meet modern-day egalitarian and human rights tests. As with other past societies, this was so for the Sarmatians. Horse nomads lived a pastoral (animal herding) existence, and as a result of their riding-the-whirlwind lifestyle, tended to be extraordinarily contemptuous of the farmer's settled way of life, seeing them basically as fit only for slaves. Nomads created their empires by lording it over legions of conquered serfs and slaves, who were usually treated as inherently inferior. During the Mongol conquest of northern China, as an extreme case, settled Chinese peasants were regarded by those nomad warriors as hardly worthy of life, and were massacred in large numbers; few nomads, however, were as senselessly destructive (by civilized standards) as the Mongols. The Vikings — used by the makers of the LOTR films as models for their Rohirrim — weren't nomads but farmers; nevertheless they captured, kept, and sold hosts of captives and slaves. Slavery, in fact, was pervasive in most societies, particularly commercially active ones, until quite recently.
This story from the remaining so-called “free Sarmatians,” decades after most of the rest of the extensive Sarmatian dominion had been overrun by the Goths, illuminates a moment in this age-old master-slave conflict (as related by historian Herwig Wolfram, in his History of the Goths): 4
Accompanying the Vandals, Sarmatians eventually made their way to north Africa, where they became an honored part of the kingdom they and the Vandals carved out of Roman Africa. The ex-slaves of the “free Sarmatians,” the Limigantes, a quarter-century following their liberation were exterminated by the Romans, when they treacherously attacked the Emperor after having been granted entry and the right to settle in the Empire. 5
History isn't a story book, and doesn't have to live up to our hopes and aspirations.
1 T. Peisker (Ph.D., Privatdocent and Librarian, Graz), Chapter XII: “The Asiatic Background,” Volume I: The Christian Roman Empire and the Foundation of the Teutonic Kingdoms, edited by H. M. Gwatkin and J. P. Whitney, The Cambridge Medieval History, planned by J. B. Bury, 1911, Cambridge at the University Press; p. 349.
2 Arnold Toynbee, Mankind and Mother Earth: A Narrative History of the World, 1976, Oxford University Press, New York and London; p. 441.
3 “Sarmatian,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
4 Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, Second Edition, 1988, University of California Press, Berkeley; p. 63.
Norman H. Baynes (M.A., Oxon., Barrister-at-Law), Chapter III: “Constantine's successors to Jovian: and the struggle with Persia,” Volume I: The Christian Roman Empire and the Foundation of the Teutonic Kingdoms, Op. cit.; p. 71.
UPDATE: 2003-12-29 18:00 UT. Thanks to the University of Texas for its beautiful Sarmatian art images, linked to at this U.T. site (since it appears not to be fully operational, also check out this location). Note that this page indicates the Sarmatians didn't advance into southeastern Europe until the 3rd century AD, which as far as I know is incorrect (correct date is 2nd century BC).
UPDATE: 2003-12-31 21:00 UT. Prof. Eugene Volokh at The Volokh Conspiracy has linked to the article, producing The Conspiracy's version of “instalanche.” Thereafter, Prof. Stephen Bainbridge picked up the thread in a rebuttal called “Were the Rohirrim Sarmatians? No.” (More on that later [see Update below].)
Meanwhile, I've been taking a beating from e-mail (I got one) informing me that it's “Rohan” the nation (which I knew) but not “Rohan” the people: rather, in Tolkien's books, according to my correspondent, the people are called Rohirrim. What can I say? It was quite a few years ago that I read Tolkien! (Actually, I was thinking the Rohirrim was the name of Rohan's cavalry corps, but then maybe I just wasn't thinking.)
Now, I'm about to surrender on this point (and I've modified the article accordingly), but I'll make a brief defense of not (necessarily) calling people by their own name! We speak English; the “Rohirrim” spoke another language. Professor Bainbridge maintains that, according to a note of Tolkien's, the “Rohirrim” spoke Old English! Now, I disagree about that, which I'll explain elsewhere, but even if granted, Old English isn't (Modern) English. Old English can't be understood by a modern English speaker (Middle English is hard enough to try to comprehend), and therefore they are different languages. Different languages very often (usually!) use different terms to refer to the same things, including nations and peoples. In English, for example, we refer to the Italian city of “Florence”; in Italian it's called Firenze. It's not ”Ugly Americanism” to do this, it's what all languages do. Spanish speakers call the United States “Estados Unidos” — are Americans to be offended by that? Not at all. Similarly, it's perfectly acceptable to call a people — who might call themselves, say, Rohirrim — in English something like “Rohanese” (by analogy with Japanese).
On second thought, let's just call them Rohirrim!
Fortunately for us, English is beautifully tolerant.
UPDATE: 2004-01-02 21:30 UT. Several additional blogs have linked to this article or to those who've pointed to it. “De Doc” at “De Doc's Doings” has linked to Eugene Volokh's post with a reply called “Sarmations, Norsemen, and Rohirrim, oh MY!,” commenting:
Both Goths and Avars are excellent candidates, in my estimation, in addition to the Sarmatians already noted.
Goths though as well as Sarmatians seem to precede the era when stirrups (which I regard as largely irrelevant to this contest) were known — Avars, however, definitely do not antedate stirrups, and are likely the origin of them.
Whether the candidate folk is Germanic in language or origin or not is also basically irrelevant, in my view.
As a result, Avars, as well as the Goths, must be rated highly as historical peoples rather like the Rohirrim.
I appreciate Steve's comments, and certainly agree with his interpretation. As he notes, I plan to post more on other societal models for the Rohirrim shortly.
I can't close here, however, without gently pointing to Modulator's misspelling of Sarmatian (as “Samartian”), which I think is hilarious.
Now I hate spelling flames, and I'm not flaming; I'm sure it's just a typo, which everyone does (once I misspelt the name “Pelagius” the same way throughout an entire article devoted to same, and I've had to catch myself in this one to avoid spelling them as “Samaritans”!).
But it's funny thinking of the “Samartians” as horse warriors originating on the war-god planet Mars — perhaps from John Carter's Barsoom!
UPDATE: 2004-01-07 17:30 UT. A follow-up piece, known as Horsey Vikings II (permalink) has been posted, responding to Professor Bainbridge's rebuttal called “Were the Rohirrim Sarmatians? No.” The new article discusses half a dozen likely models among “horsey” historic peoples for the Rohirrim.
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