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Impearls: 2003-12-28 Archive

Earthdate 2003-12-28

Sarmatians:  “horsey” Vikings — exploring origin of the “Rohirrim” in The Lord of the Rings

Sarmatian pendants, with gem stones. Third century AD. From the Aktas I. burial in the Alma-Ata district, Kazakhstan. (University of Texas)

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.  Sarmatian diadem (University of Texas) 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

Mounted Norman Knight, armed with chainmail, helmet, shield, and lance; from the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman conquest of England in the year 1066

In the eleventh century the Roman military equipment which had been taken over by the West Roman Empire's barbarian conquerors was suddenly discarded in the West in favour of the more efficient Sarmatian equipment that the Alans had brought with them into Gaul in the fifth century.  The Norman knights depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry have their prototypes in paintings of Sarmatian-style cavalrymen in tombs of the first and second century A.D. in the Crimea and the Taman Peninsula, but the eleventh-century Westerners made one change (the first of many) in these borrowed accoutrements.  They replaced the small round Sarmatian shield with a kite-shaped shield that gave maximum cover with minimum surface-area and weight.  These eleventh-century ‘Knights’ (milites) were so conscious of their value that, about half way through the century, novices began to be inducted by older hands into a kind of secular fraternity.

Encyclopædia Britannica's article ”Sarmatian” describes Sarmatian religion, art, and culture: 3

When the Sarmatians penetrated into southeastern Europe, they were already accomplished horsemen.  They were nomadic, devoting themselves to hunting and to pastoral occupations.  Owing to their common nomadic and Central Asian heritage, Sarmatian society paralleled, at first, that of the Scythians, but there were many differences.  The Scythian gods were those of nature, while the Sarmatians venerated a god of fire to whom they offered horses in sacrifice.  In contrast to the reclusive, domestic role of Scythian women, unmarried Sarmatian females, especially in the society's early years, took arms alongside men.  Sarmatian female warriors may have inspired the Greek tales of the Amazons.

Sarmatian cultic stag (University of Texas)

An early matriarchal form of society was later replaced by a system of male chieftains and eventually by a male monarchy.  This transition may well have stemmed from the rapid development of horsemanship and a male cavalry corps, attributable to the invention of the metal stirrup and the spur.  These innovations contributed greatly to success in military campaigns and even influenced the Roman style of combat.

(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….

Evolving burial customs offer an insight into the progress of the Sarmatian social structure.  Early graves held only the remains of the deceased.  The somewhat later inclusion of personal objects with the body followed the emergence of class differences.  As society became more complex and affluent, more treasures were included with the corpse, until in the final period burial costumes and even jewelry were added to the ritual.  The Kuban region is the site of the most elaborate tombs, which in general resemble those of the Scythians, although they are less elaborate in form and decoration.  Horse trappings and weapons of the Sarmatians were also less elaborate than those of the Scythians, but they nonetheless evidenced great skill.  Sarmatian spears were longer, but knives and daggers were just as varied in style.  An outstanding specialty was the Sarmatian long sword, which featured a hilt of wood with gold lacing, topped with an agate or onyx knob.  Sarmatian art was strongly geometric, floral, and richly coloured.  Jewelry was a major craft, expressed in rings, bracelets, diadems, brooches, gold plaques, buckles, buttons, and mounts.  Exceptional metalwork was found in the tombs, including bronze bracelets, spears, swords, gold-handled knives, and gold jewelry and cups.

Coronet, bowl, jug and needle box from the burial of a Sarmatian queen at Novocherkassk. Gold, with animal style decoration. (University of Texas)

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

Shield-boss of Germanic-type from the burial of a Sarmatian prince at Herpály, Hungary. Silver. Third century, AD. (University of Texas)

The flight of the Sarmati Agaragantes, the “master” (domini) Sarmatians, to the Vandals-Victu(f)ali was the result of tribal conflicts that were to influence Gothic history nearly a quarter of a century later.  The Tisza Sarmatians could not long enjoy the victory they had gained [in AD 332] over the Goths with Roman help.  Threatened by the enemy, the ruling Sarmatae Agaragantes had armed the subject Limigantes.  Afterward the “master” Sarmatians were overwhelmed by their numerically superior slaves and defeated in a bloody civil war in the year 334.  Most of them were admittted into the empire by Constantine, while a minority sought refuge with the Vandals.

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.

5 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:  2003-12-30 00:30 UT.  Lynn Sislo at Reflections in d minor has posted a link to this piece.

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).

(Bleh!)  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:

It tickles me no end to know that I share geekdom with the august Eugene Volokh, as this post demonstrates.  (I am so much a geek that I can follow the entire course of the argument laid out in the links.  Oh… dear.)  An added bonus:  As you read through the links, this essay is everything Professor Bainbridge says it is.

From a 15 yr old (at the time of writing).  There is hope for civilization… even if it's in the hands of us geeks.  Heh.

Mitch H. at Blogfonte discusses another aspect of mock criticism of The Lord of the Rings, then turns to this, what he calls, “kerfluffle about who the Rohirrim are supposed to be,” writing:

I'd go with Goths-with-stirrups, myself.  They're early-Germanic nomads living on plains that had once been occupied by the Fallen Empire, but now exist in political independence-but-culturally-influenced.  Maybe the Avars?  I don't think they were Germanic, though…

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.  More on this elsewhere.

Finally, Steve at The Modulator in a piece called “Rohan Sources,” compares Impearls' article with Bainbridge's response:

Impearls notes that Jackson modeled the Rohan on “horsey Vikings” and then writes a long and interesting article on the Samartians and suggests that they also could have been viewed as a model for the Rohan.  Impearls also suggests that in the future he will look at other possible historical models for the Rohan.

Professor Bainbridge disagrees a bit:

…offers up a thoughtful argument criticizing Peter Jackson's decision to model the Rohirrim after “horsey vikings,” and suggesting that the Sarmatians would have made a better model

Now in my reading of Impearls he seemed to say that not only was he not criticizing Jackson's approach but, rather, was quite happy with it and that his intent is simply to look at the Samartians as another historical analogue that might have served as a model for the Rohan.

Read Impearls and decide whether the Samartians would make a good model for the Rohan.  Bainbridge thinks not and provides a number of reasons.

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.

UPDATE:  2004-01-09 14:00 UT.  Prof. Stephen Bainbridge has linked back to this series with a note titled “More on the Rohirrim,” calling it, in an e-mail, “Great stuff!”

UPDATE:  2004-01-16 14:15 UT.  Geitner Simmons in his Regions of Mind blog has enthusiastically linked to this ‘Rohirrim’ series of articles, commenting:

On another historical note, Michael McNeil of the blog Impearls has put together a terrific set of posts titled “‘Horsey’ Vikings — exploring origin of the ‘Rohirrim’ in The Lord of the Rings.”  The series looks at Saracens and other assorted horse-riding warriors.  I'm ill-equipped to debate points of arguments that Michael says have arisen over the Rohirrim.  The link, by the way, goes [to] a post that features exquisite graphics to complement Michael's text.


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