Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
NGC3132 ©
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.

E = M

Energy is eternal delight.
William Blake

Impearls: 2004-01-04 Archive

Earthdate 2004-01-05

“Horsey” Vikings II — exploring origin of the “Rohirrim” in The Lord of the Rings

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

Stephen Bainbridge at Professor responded to Impearls' earlier piece on the Sarmatians (permalink) with a rebuttal, “Were the Rohirrim Sarmatians?  No.”

I'm a bit bemused by Prof. Bainbridge's reply, because as Impearls' earlier article tried to make clear, it was Peter Jackson's version of The Lord of the Rings (and the filmmakers' declared grafting together of the memorable Vikings from history with their need for a horse-oriented culture to populate the land of Rohan) to which it was responding.  (It's way too many years ago that I read Tolkien for me to feel comfortable replying thus to the original books.)  Bainbridge, on the contrary, explicitly talks about Tolkien's version of Middle Earth, from which obviously the Jacksonian films have somewhat diverged.  This makes the comparison a bit apples and oranges.

Impearls will rise to the occasion nonetheless!  See below for various parts of the discussion, including consideration of candidate peoples.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Goals & Requirements

The important point is that seeking to find an exact match between any ancient people and the folk of what is after all (I know I'll get lynched for this) a work of fantasy and fiction, is (you'll pardon me, I hope, Stephen) a fool's errand!  Nonetheless, without being so dogmatic, there's much in this area that's interesting (to say the least), educational, and fun!  Let's investigate the possibilities, after setting our goals and requirements.

As the earlier article tried to convey, what is being sought is a folk like or reminiscent of the Rohirrim, not some will-o'-the-wisp of who exactly, really was the Rohirrim (answer: nobody, really).  No, the real goal, here at Impearls anyway, is to illuminate a few little known (though fascinating and significant) peoples in history through the vivid example of the Rohirrim — whom they resemble — and vice versa: to cast a light on the Rohirrim through the spectacle of real peoples in history!

Keeping that in mind, let's consider Bainbridge's stated requirements:

  1. Language:  Old English
  2. Place of origin:  Somewhere to the north of present location
  3. Current location:  Occupying lands that had once been part of the domain of a neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed
  4. War panoply includes:  Mainly cavalry, saddles with stirrups, spears, swords (probably iron), and bows (long bows in the movie, although composite bows seem a more likely candidate for a cavalry army)
  5. Lifestyle:  Possibly semi-nomadic herding, but with a permanent residence for the king
  6. Fortifications:  A place of refuge (i.e., Helm's Deep; which in John Keegan's technical terminology seems to be a hybrid between a refuge and stronghold)

Now edit these requirements, according to the above criteria.  The first of these, language, deserves a section of its very own.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Did the Rohirrim speak Old English?  No

Among Bainbridge's requirements, the rest we'll consider in a moment, Stephen declares that the Rohirrim spoke Old English (!), pointing to a note by Tolkien which, Stephen asserts, verifies this point of view.  Now, we'll look at Tolkien's note shortly, but all one really has to do is glance at a map of Middle Earth to discern that it's nowhere near to possibly representing Britain, or Germany, or Europe, or anywhere else on (non-Middle) Earth; and thus nowhere where true speakers of Old English have ever lived in any numbers (that is, Britain or — stretching things a bit — the lower Elbe valley/Jutland peninsula region of Germany).  Ergo, the people of Middle Earth cannot “really” (love this sort of thing when talking about fiction!) have spoken Old English.

The notes that Bainbridge points to in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books further contradict the point he's trying to make.  Tolkien makes it quite clear in these notes that in his “translation,” as he puts it, he's mapping the archaic variants of his so-called “Westron Common Speech” such as the Rohirrim, men of Gondor, and some others in Middle Earth spoke, into what he calls “ancient English.”  As Tolken says: 1

In presenting the matter of the Red Book, as a history for people of today to read, the whole of the linguistic setting has been translated as far as possible into terms of our own times.  Only the languages alien to the Commmon Speech have been left in their original form; but these appear mainly in the names of persons and places.

The Common Speech, as the language of the Hobbits and their narratives, has inevitably been turned into modern English.  […]  The language of Rohan I have accordingly made to resemble ancient English, since it was related both (more distantly) to the Common Speech, and (very closely) to the former tongue of the northern Hobbits, and was in comparison with the Westron archaic.

From this and context of intervening pages, it's clear that the “actual” (!) Rohirrim and other languages of Middle Earth were nothing like Old English or any other real or historic Earth language except by analogy. 

It also must be propounded that the language a candidate people from history once spoke is nearly wholly orthogonal to the important issues of whether and how that folk resembles the Rohirrim.  Accordingly, language will not be regarded as a determining factor.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Stirrups

Stirrups might also be briefly discussed.  Bainbridge argues that the Sarmatians just can't be the Rohirrim because Impearls' article claims the Sarmatians didn't have stirrups — whereas, as Stephen points out, stirrups are mentioned in the books as used by the Rohirrim.

Bainbridge then goes on to dispute, however, whether Sarmatians really did lack the stirrup, providing a link to an opposing point of view.  It's true, there are scholars who maintain that the Sarmatians had the stirrup.  (I've heard they're mostly Hungarian, and therefore perhaps suspect of being biased in this regard; possibly I'm libeling them, and I admit I don't know.)  There are even authorities who argue that the Scythians — the Sarmatians' half-millennial predecessors on the European steppe — had the stirrup.  Fundamentally, however, the main reason, I think (as there seems to be no archeological proof), for concluding that the stirrup wasn't introduced until very late antiquity/early medieval times is it's hard to believe perceptive military observers like Romans and others wouldn't have picked up the trick from Goths/Sarmatians/Scythians if they'd had the concrete example staring them in the face earlier.  The Romans in particular had Sarmatian auxiliaries serving in the Roman army; if the Sarmatians possessed stirrups during this period, it's difficult to understand why Romans wouldn't then have started using them too.  (Moreover, I think Stephen's disputing whether Sarmatians lacked the stirrup detracts from his argument quite a bit!  But it reveals Bainbridge as an honest debater.)

Beyond that specific point, however, it appears (as with language above) that the presence or absence of a single item of gear such as stirrups ought not to be an overriding factor in evaluating whether and how closely a given folk resembles the Rohirrim.  Accordingly, stirrups will not be considered a determining characteristic.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Requirements reassessed

Continuing the reevaluation of Bainbridge's requirements:

  1. Language:  disposed of above as a requirement.
  2. Place of origin:  While a northerly origin can be kept in mind as what might be called a nice to have, “reminiscence” attribute for a people, this aspect is pretty much irrelevant to the question of, are they like the Rohirrim?  Remember: what's being sought are interesting folk that resemble the Rohirrim, not peoples some accidental element of whose history aligns with the fictional history of Middle Earth.
  3. Current location — i.e., “occupying lands that had once been part of the domain of a neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed,” as Bainbridge put it.  This aspect is also possibly worthy of consideration, though once again largely disconnected from the personality, characteristics and accoutrements that a “horsey” culture like the Rohirrim actually possessed.  Let's keep it in mind, however.
  4. War panoply:  Bainbridge's itemization is pretty good here, except perhaps for the necessity (as he sees it) to have stirrups, and another consideration that he doesn't see.  Stirrups shouldn't be a deciding factor in meeting the overall goal, but another arms requirement needs to be added: armor.  Cavalry and foot soldiers ought to wear at least some armor (as the Rohirrim weren't light cavalry), most probably helmet, chain mail, and shield, which the Rohirrim troops in the LOTR films prominently displayed.  Shields need not be round, nor is it very important if a particular “horsey” culture's cavalry used, say, bows rather than spears.  Contrary to Stephen's preference, there's no problem if some arms and armor are made of bronze rather than iron.
  5. Lifestyle:  As Bainbridge says, either nomadic or agricultural lifestyles are fine, but there should be some permanent residences, as the Rohirrim so obviously possessed in the films.  As Impearls' earlier piece pointed out, nomad empires in history “covered the most medley conglomerations of nomads and peasants,” so there normally were settled peoples and some agriculture performed within such states.  See below (e.g., under Scythians and Avars) for examples of the fortresses and permanent residences that these so-called “nomads” maintained.
  6. Fortifications, or place of refuge:  Yes, there should be such, but see the previous item above.
  7. A final consideration might be added to the list: allowing women to fight!  That would seem to be one of the expected characteristics for the Rohirrim, given the screen version of the LOTR at least.  It is, however, a “gotcha” requirement:  Given history as it has unfolded, few (no?) real cultures would be able to meet this requirement were it to be rigidly applied — except for the Sarmatians!

“Horsey” Vikings II — Peoples

Given the foregoing list of considerations and requirements, who are some of the peoples in history who could serve, hauntingly, reminiscently, as models for the Rohirrim, and vice versa?  Here's a list of (major) candidate horse cultures (no doubt there are others — in China, India, Africa, elsewhere — that I know too little of to include), listed roughly in chronological order:

  1. Cimmerians
  2. Scythians
  3. Parthians
  4. Sarmatians
  5. Goths
  6. Avars
  7. Khazars
  8. Bulgars
  9. Magyars
  10. Normans
  11. Viking/Nomad/Serf combinations of various sorts

“Light” (relatively or entirely unarmored) horse warriors such as the Huns, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and Mongols have been omitted from the list, as insufficiently like the Rohirrim — i.e., the Rohirrim wore helmets and mail armor and were certainly not light cavalry.  We'll not consider all of these peoples today, but review the eldest of them, and leave the remainder (italicized above) for another day.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Cimmerians

The Cimmerians were the first known nomad horse warriors in history, residing by about 1200 BC on the grassy steppe north of the Caucasus, Black Sea, and in central Europe.  Indo-European speakers and with an Iranian ruling class, the Cimmerians assaulted several kingdoms in the Caucasus and Asia Minor towards the end of the 8th and during the 7th centuries BC, seemingly as a consequence of being ousted from their homes by the invading Scythians, who subsequently replaced them as masters of the steppe.

Historian William H. McNeill describes the situation, writing in Encyclopædia Britannica: 2

The first sign that steppe nomads had learned to fight well from horseback was a great raid into Asia Minor launched from the Ukraine about 690 BC by a people whom the Greeks called Cimmerians.  Some, though perhaps not all, of the raiders were mounted.  Not long thereafter, tribes speaking an Iranian language, whom the Greeks called Scythians, conquered the Cimmerians and in turn became lords of the Ukraine.

After invading Lydia and subsequently being expelled from that country, the Cimmerian refugees apparently settled in Cappadocia (whose name in Armenian is “Gamir”), and also survived on the Hungarian plain until about 500 BC.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Scythians

Scythian: Death mask of Scythian queen, prob. 3rd c. A.D. Glinische, near Kerch, a refuge for Scythians from the steppe (Leningrad: Hermitage). (University of Alabama Birmingham)

The Scythians, as previously noted, displaced the Cimmerians from the European steppe during the 8th and 7th centuries BC, and over the next half millennium dominated the northern borderlands of Persia, Asia Minor, and Greece.  Eneyclopædia Britannica's article “Scythian” describes them: 3

The Scythians were feared and admired for their prowess in war and, in particular, for their horsemanship.  They were among the earliest people to master the art of riding, and their mobility astonished their neighbours.  The migration of the Scythians from Asia eventually brought them into the territory of the Cimmerians, who had traditionally controlled the Caucasus and the plains north of the Black Sea.  In a war that lasted 30 years, the Scythians destroyed the Cimmerians and set themselves up as rulers of an empire stretching from west Persia through Syria and Judaea to the borders of Egypt.  The Medes, who ruled Persia, attacked them and drove them out of Anatolia, leaving them finally in control of lands which stretched from the Persian border north through the Kuban and into southern Russia.

The Scythians were remarkable not only for their fighting ability but also for the civilization they produced.  They developed a class of wealthy aristocrats who left elaborate graves filled with richly worked articles of gold and other precious materials.  This class of chieftains, the Royal Scyths, finally established themselves as rulers of the southern Russian and Crimean territories.  It is there that the richest and most numerous relics of Scythian civilization have been found.  Their power was sufficient to repel an invasion by the Persian king Darius I in about 513 BC.

Historian William H. McNeill indicates the Scythians' impact on the history of world civilization: 4

Scythian: Felt hanging from kurgan 5 at Pazyryk, Altai region. A horseman approaches the throne of a divine ruler, probably the Near Eastern Magna Mater, but her representation seems derived from the Far East (Leningrad: Hermitage). (University of Alabama Birmingham)

[T]he Scythians had erected a loose confederacy that spanned all of the Western Steppe.  The high king of the tribe heading this confederacy presumably had only limited control over the far reaches of the Western Steppe.  But on special occasions the Scythians could assemble large numbers of horsemen for long-distance raids, such as the one that helped to bring the Assyrian Empire to an end.  After sacking the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BC, the booty-laden Scyths returned to the Ukrainian steppe, leaving Medes, Babylonians, and Egyptians to dispute the Assyrian heritage.  But the threat of renewed raids from the north remained and constituted a standing problem for rulers of the Middle East thereafter.

Despite an impression one might get that these great nomad confederacies/empires lacked settlements of any kind, fortified and otherwise, historian Gavin R.G. Hambly points out the contrary, writing in the article “Central Asia” in Encyclopædia Britannica: 5

From the second half of the 8th century BC, the Cimmerians were replaced by the Scythians, who used iron implements.  The Scythians created the first known typical Central Asian empire.  […]  [T]he Greek historian Herodotus […] provided the first and perhaps the most penetrating description of a great nomad empire.  In more than one respect the Scythians appear as the historical prototype of the mounted warrior of the steppe; yet in their case, as in others, it would be mistaken to see in them aimlessly roaming tribes.  The Scythians, like most nomad empires, had permanent settlements of various sizes, representing various degrees of civilization.  The vast fortified settlement of Kamenka on the Dnieper River, settled since the end of the 5th century BC, became the centre of the Scythian kingdom ruled by Ateas, who lost his life in a battle against Philip II of Macedon in 339 BC.

What kind of soldier and army did the Scythians field?  Britannica's article “Scythian” describes them:

The Scythian army was made up of freemen who received no wage other than food and clothing, but who could share in booty on presentation of the head of a slain enemy.  Many warriors wore Greek-style bronze helmets and chain-mail jerkins.  Their principal weapon was a double-curved bow and trefoil-shaped arrows; their swords were of the Persian type.  Every Scythian had at least one personal mount, but the wealthy owned large herds of horses, chiefly Mongolian ponies.  Burial customs were elaborate and called for the sacrifice of members of the dead man's household, including wife, servants, and a number of horses.

Assessment:  We see that the Scythians possessed large fortified settlements (as did many another horse-nomad empire), and in personal arms resembled the mailed horse warriors of the Rohirrim.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Parthians

Parthian: Dura Europos fresco. Sacrifice of Conon. Temple of the Palmyrene gods. 1st. c. A.D. Graeco-Iranian style. (University of Alabama Birmingham)

The Scythian folk known as the Parni during the 4th century BC was one of three tribes in the Dahae confederacy living east of the Caspian Sea.  Following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC), the tribe moved south into the area of what is now northeastern Iran.  There they adopted the speech and lifestyle of the settled inhabitants, and around the middle of the 3rd century began a struggle against Alexander's successor state in Asia, the Seleucid Empire.

About 238 BC the Parthians defeated and killed the independent-minded governor of the area, detaching the province from the Seleucid state.  Based on its own resources, Parthia had been one of the poorer regions of the Seleucid realm, but it happened to incorporate a considerable stretch of the rich “Silk Road” caravan route, and lucrative tolls from the caravans passing through allowed the new kingdom to prosper.

The ruling Arsacid dynasty encouraged the idea that the Parthian domain was the inheritor of the earlier Achaemenid Persian Empire (that we in the West remember through its contests with the classical Greeks).  This sentiment was not shared by the Persians themselves (inhabitants of the region of Persis in southern Iran), however, who regarded the Parthians as foreigners and barbarians, and fought alongside the Seleucids and against the Parthians.  (Ultimately, half a millennium later, the Persians would take back “their” empire, when around 224 AD the Parthians were overthrown and the Sasanian Empire installed.)

During the 2nd century BC the Parthians progressively annexed almost all the Seleucid dominion except a remnant of Syria west of the Euphrates (which ultimately went to Rome), producing a realm about equal to modern Iran and Iraq put together.  In the four and a half centuries it endured, Parthia remained a largely decentralized and feudal domain (the Seleucid state had also been quite decentralized with large amounts of local self-government).  Despite hearkening back to the days of the Achaemenids, the Parthians' ruling Arsacids did not despise (until after about the turn of the millennium anyway) the Greek Hellenistic heritage inherited from Alexander.  Whole prosperous Greek cities, autonomous in their governance — such as Seleucia on the Tigris, right across the river from the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon (forming, in fact, a kind of dual capital spanning the Tigris) — flourished within the Parthian domain, while Greek remained one of the official languages of the empire.  An illuminating glimpse of the Parthians' “phil-Hellenism” may be seen in the story from the Greek writer Plutarch that the excised head of invading Roman general Crassus was brought before the Parthian king while he was entertaining a performance of Euripides' play The Bacchae. 6

Assessment:  So how do the Parthians stack up compared with the Rohirrim?  The Parthians used heavy cavalry — their armor was probably heavier than the Rohirrim's, in fact, though I don't have exact details on this.  They certainly occupied territory once “part of the domain of a neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed.”  Place of origin was to the north: check.  They had extensive fortifications and permanent settlements.  Yes, the Parthians clearly rank highly as possible Rohirrim.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Sarmatians, contd.

The Sarmatians were featured in Impearls' earlier article Horsey Vikings I (permalink).  Why emphasize them in particular?

Sarmatian: Gold plaque. Two warriers with a slain (?) companion rest under the Tree of Life. Symmetry here in tension with asymetry. The centrality of the tree of life (Hauma, Hom) in a belief system typified Sakas specific to the Steppe. (University of Alabama Birmingham)

  1. They're an interesting folk, little known to most people today.
  2. Sarmatians occupied an important borderland of the Roman Empire during most of its history, and participated in major historic events involving that Empire.
  3. Sarmatians are the conduit which led to the medieval knight: that's a big one.  As Impearls' earlier piece pointed out, Norman knights shown in the Bayeux Tapestry are equipped strikingly similarly to the Sarmatians' warrior kit — which makes sense since that's from whence it was derived!  Notice that the Rohirrim cavalry displayed in Jackson's Lord of the Rings films are also nearly exact replicas of the Norman knights of Bayeau Tapestry — except that the Rohirrim used a round shield, just like the Sarmatians!
  4. It may even be that Sarmatians were the inspiration for King Arthur's knights.  It is known that Sarmatian auxiliaries serving as part of the Roman army — equipped, as Sarmatians were, as armored horse warriors — were stationed in Roman Britain.  It has been suggested that, to the extent that legends of King Arthur's knights correspond to reality, these Sarmatian warriors may have inspired (and perhaps served as the nucleus for) a troop of armored knights during the post-Roman period in Britain when Arthur is supposed to have lived.
  5. While talking about exact matches, what other people in history has ever allowed their womenfolk to fight as warriors!  (I'm tempted to say Q.E.D. to the Bainbridge debate in this regard, but I shan't be so cruel!)

Assessment:  The Sarmatians are no precise match for Rohan's Rohirrim — but then no one else is (or can be) either.  They do come about as close as anyone can to that ideal, especially given the last item above.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Goths

Gothic: Visigothic polychrome votive crown of Recceswinth, King of Toledo. Found in a votive crown hoard of c. 670 at Fuente de Guarrazar, near Toledo (Madrid: Mus. Argu). 7.8″ Typical of Visigothic taste. (University of Alabama Birmingham)

The Goths occupy a unique place in this story, the only native agriculturists (except, arguably, the Parthians, after they adopted a settled lifestyle) among hordes of nomads.  During the Gothic dominance of the east European plain (2nd through 4th centuries AD), that was the only moment in post-Cimmerian history up to the modern era when the steppe was not in thrall to nomadic empires.  The Goths also spoke a Germanic tongue, which is significant for those who think language is an important criterion in this regard.

The Goths — or at least a ruling elite — originated according to Gothic legend in what is now Sweden.  Certain place names, such as the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, appear to recall the Gothic presence.  Encyclopædia Britannica describes those days: 7

According to their own legend, reported by the mid-6th-century Gothic historian Jordanes, the Goths originated in southern Scandinavia and crossed in three ships under their king Berig to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, where they settled after defeating the Vandals and other Germanic peoples in that area.  Tacitus states that the Goths at this time were distinguished by their round shields, their short swords, and their obedience toward their kings.  Jordanes goes on to report that they migrated southward from the Vistula region under Filimer, the fifth king after Berig and, after various adventures, arrived at the Black Sea.

This movement took place in the second half of the 2nd century AD, and it may have been pressure from the Goths that drove other Germanic peoples to exert heavy pressure on the Danubian frontier of the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  Throughout the 3rd century Gothic raids on the Roman provinces in Asia Minor and the Balkan peninsula were numerous, and in the reign of Aurelian (270-275) they obliged the Romans to evacuate the trans-Danubian province of Dacia.  Those Goths living between the Danube and the Dniester rivers became known as Visigoths, and those in what is now the Ukraine as Ostrogoths.

Historian William H. McNeill points out that Goths in their new home in what is now the Ukraine “swiftly adopted the habits and accoutrements of steppe nomads.” 8  Goths thus became the only mounted warriors among Germans for centuries to come — which Rome learned to her sorrow.

Continuing with the story of the Ostrogothic kingdom in the Ukraine, Britannica notes that: 9

Invading southward from the Baltic Sea, the Ostrogoths built up a huge empire stretching from the Don to the Dniester rivers (in present-day Ukraine) and from the Black Sea to the Pripet Marshes (southern Belarus).  The kingdom reached its highest point under King Ermanaric, who is said to have committed suicide at an advanced age when the Huns attacked his people and subjugated them about 370.  Although many Ostrogothic graves have been excavated south and southeast of Kiev, little is known about the empire.  The Ostrogoths were probably literate in the 3rd century, and their trade with the Romans was highly developed.

During the late 4th century the fierce Huns struck from the east, and after a period of successful defense, both Visi- and Ostrogoths were overwhelmed and obliged to accept either Hunish dominance, or escape to the west and south.  Groups of both Visigoths and Ostrogoths eventually made their way into the Roman Empire — more or less with Roman permission — and had various adventures therein.

Visigoths.  In 378 AD the Visigothic cavalry overwhelmed the Roman army near Adrianople, inflicting one of the worst defeats in Roman history.  Under Alaric, in 410 they sacked the city of Rome.  In 418 the Visigoths accepted Roman “federate” status and were settled as nominal allies in the Aquitaine region of southern Gaul, and though they remained officially bound to Rome for many years, over the rest of the century from this nucleus they built a mighty kingdom incorporating much of what is now France and most of modern Spain and Portugal.

As a result of the battle of Vouillé (507), the Visigoths were expelled from Gaul (except for the small Mediterranean coastal strip of Septimania) by the Franks under Clovis.  Excepting Septimania, the Visigoths withdrew behind the Pyrenees mountains into their Spanish dominions, and remained there, their kingdom slowly percolating along, not very prosperously, until they were overwhelmed by the Arab Muslim irruption across the strait at Gibraltar in 711.  The Goths of Septimania, at first passing with the rest of the Visigothic realm to the Muslims of Spain, eventually transferred their allegiance to the Franks, and the region was afterward known for centuries in France as “Gothia.”

From refuges in the northern mountains of Spain, under frequent attack from the Muslim Caliphate centered in Cordova to the south, over more than a half millennium of time the Visigothic kingdom's heirs slowly returned, in the Spanish-Portuguese Reconquista (see Impearls' article Crusades I [permalink]).

Ostrogoths.  The Ostrogothic story was different.  The Ostrogoths, after first being settled by the East Roman Empire in what used to be called Yugoslavia, towards the end of the 5th century were induced by the East Roman Emperor to invade Italy, ruled by the barbarian king Odoacer, who had lately put an end to the remains of the Roman Empire in the West.  The Ostrogoths, under their king Theodoric the Great, defeated Odoacer, and in 493 Theodoric became king of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy.  For most of the next half century Ostrogothic Italy remained relatively prosperous and enlightened amid the darkness taking hold elsewhere.  Roman civilization had not yet winked out in Italy; literary works continued to be written in Latin, and Theodoric maintained a benevolent rule over both Italians and Ostrogoths.

This state of affairs, after the death of Theodoric, was brought to an end by the Eastern Emperor Justinian, who in 535 launched an invasion of Ostrogothic Italy in order to retrieve it for the Roman Empire, commanded by the brilliant general Belisarius, who had just lately reconquered Vandal Africa for the Byzantine domain.  Justinian, however, was paranoid and suspicious of Belisarius, and failed to provide him with enough troops, whereupon the war dragged on literally for decades, devastating most of Italy and doing much to propel it into the Dark Ages.  Belisarius was recalled, his successors proved incompetent; Belisarius was sent back, but still not given adequate backing; finally, another general, the eunuch Narses, was installed in command, with a massive army properly supported this time, and the war, finally in 554, was won.  Devastated Italy — Rome itself — were indeed recovered for the Roman Empire; that is, until the far more barbaric Lombards invaded a few years later, completing the demolition job on classical Italy.  The Ostrogoths of Italy were not heard of again.

Gothic continued to be spoken for centuries, however, by peasants in the Danube valley, while a small enclave of Ostrogoths, separated from the main movements of their people, retained its identity in the Crimea (modern Ukraine) throughout the medieval period.

Assessment:  The Goths, Ostro- and Visi-, one would have to say, are among the strongest candidates for a close resemblance to the Rohirrim.  Agriculturalists, and Germanic speakers, these are additional factors in their favor for those who value such things.  After picking up numerous nomads, Sarmatians among them, into their confederacy, they became fine horse warriors, dominating the east European steppe for a couple of hundred years.  Furthermore, the Goths came from “the north,” and after conquering Roman Dacia (modern Romania), they certainly occupied “lands that had once been part of the domain of a neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed.”  Ater occupying much of formerly-Roman Gaul, Spain, and Italy, this was even more true.  Goths, one must conclude, are fine candidate folk to be the Rohirrim.

“Horsey” Vikings II — Avars

The Avars were a nomadic folk, as Encyclopædia Britannica notes, “of undetermined origin and language,” who in the 6th century AD built a vast empire in central Europe stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Baltic, and from the Elbe River to the Dnieper.  Avars made their entrance onto the stage of history when, according to Britannica: 10

Inhabiting an area in the Caucasus region in 558, they intervened in Germanic tribal wars, allied with the Lombards to overthrow the Gepidae (allies of Byzantium), and between 550 and 575 established themselves in the Hungarian plain between the Danube and Tisza rivers.  This area became the centre of their empire, which reached its peak at the end of the 6th century.

This movement of the Avars which ended up in the central European plain was originally instigated, however, by Byzantine diplomacy, as historians John L. Teall and Donald MacGillivray Nicol, in their article “The History of the Byzantine Empire” in Britannica, point out: 11

As long as the financial resources remained adequate, diplomacy proved the most satisfactory weapon in an age when military manpower was a scarce and precious commodity.  Justinian's subordinates were to perfect it in their relationships with Balkan and south Russian peoples.  For, if the Central Asian lands constituted a great reservoir of people, whence a new menace constantly emerged, the very proliferation of enemies meant that one might be used against another through skillful combination of bribery, treaty, and perfidy.  East Roman relations in the late 6th century with the Avars, a Mongol people seeking refuge from the Turks, provide an excellent example of this “defensive imperialism.”  The Avar ambassadors reached Constantinople in 557, and, although they did not receive the lands they demanded, they were loaded with precious gifts and allied by treaty with the empire.  The Avars moved westward from south Russia, subjugating Utigurs, Kutrigurs, and Slavic peoples to the profit of the empire.  At the end of Justinian's reign, they stood on the Danube, a nomadic people hungry for lands and additional subsidies and by no means unskilled themselves in a sort of perfidious diplomacy that would help them pursue their objectives.

We encountered the Avars in Impearls' earlier article Crusades IV (permalink), when acting in concert with the invading Sasanian Persians (who had overrun Byzantium's Asiatic provinces), they besieged Constantinople, the “New Rome” and capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The Persians were prevented from joining up across the Bosporus with the Avars, and both were thrown back (626), whereupon Avar influence was diminished to an extent that new powers, such as the Bulgarians, emerged on their flanks, while hosts of their slaves and serfs threw off their yoke (a fascinating story in its own right) — but Avar power did not disappear.  Despite narrow escapes at the hands of the Romans, the core of the Avar realm remained intact, centered on the Hungarian plain, for most of the next two hundred years.

Historian Gerhard Seeliger describes, in The Cambridge Medieval History, the Avars' permanent facilities: 12

In the plain between the Danube and the Theiss were situated the “Rings” — the strong circular walls round extensive dwelling-places.  According to the assertion of a Frankish warrior — quoted by the Monk of St Gall — the Rings extended as far “as from Zurich to Constance” (therefore about 60 kilometres or nearly 38 miles) and embraced several districts.  In these Rings, of which, according to the Monk of St Gall, there were nine, the Avars had heaped their plunder of two centuries.

Late in the 8th century the Avars attempted to break the growing power of the Frankish Empire of Charles the Great (known to us as Charlemagne), by allying with the Frankish realm's most important enemies — Saxons and Saracens.  In the year 788 the Avars attacked the Empire, but were totally defeated.  Charles resolved to extirpate the Avar threat; he was delayed for several years — however, Dr. Seeliger describes the Avars' downfall:

In the year 795 the Margrave Erich of Friuli, supported by the Slav prince Woinimir, advanced over the Danube and took the principal Ring.  Large treasures of gold made their way to the Franks, and even if the opinion is scarcely tenable that great changes in prices in the Frankish Empire were the result, still his success was great.  In the following year Charles' son Pepin completed the work of conquest.  He destroyed the Ring, subdued the Avars, and opened large districts to the preaching of Christianity.  In later years small risings had still to be put down, and Frankish blood still flowed in battle against the barbarians.  In 811 a Frankish army was sent against Pannonia.  But these were only echoes of the past.  The Avars themselves are mentioned for the last time in 822.

Assessment:  Purely from a combination of attributes, the Avars must rank among the highest in overall resemblance to the Rohirrim.  Their military equipment kit was largely the same as the Sarmatians — which is to say, very close to the Rohirrim — plus the stirrup was indubitably known by the Avars' time, so this aspect of their gear matches as well.  Avars occupied “lands that had once been part of the domain of a neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed,” — i.e., lands formerly belonging to the Roman Empire.  They certainly possessed permanent residences and very substantial fortifications.  (Thus the Avars really were, in their own special sense, “Lord of the Rings.”)

If the Avar — or, say, the Gothic — realm equals Rohan, what then is Gondor, that “neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed”?  Obviously Gondor must be the (diminished) Roman Empire!  Which means that Minas Tirith is… Constantinople.  Actually, this makes a lot of sense (smile).  Though Constantinople doesn't ring a mountain, its walls do encircle (7) hills, and were indeed the most formidable city-wall fortifications — the only double wall — in history.  Associating with fabulous Constantinople ought not dishonor Minas Tirith's name one whit!

(Perhaps someday Impearls will review Constantinople's amazing walls and defenses.  In the meantime see Impearls' article Crusades II [permalink] for an appreciation of the Byzantine Empire.)

“Horsey” Vikings II — Acknowledgment, References, and Updates

Thanks to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for their fine Images from History collection.


1 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings, 1965, Second Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston; pp. 411-414.

2 William H. McNeill (Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History, University of Chicago; author of The Rise of the West and others), “The History of the Eurasian Steppe: … Scythian successes,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

3 “Scythian,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

4 William H. McNeill (Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History, University of Chicago; author of The Rise of the West and others), “The History of the Eurasian Steppe: … Scythian successes,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

5 Gavin R.G. Hambly (Professor of History, University of Texas at Dallas; coauthor and editor of Central Asia), “Central Asia: … History: … Early western peoples,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

6 Roman Ghirshman (died 1979; Archaeologist. Director General, French Archaeological Delegation to Iran, 1946-67), “Iran: History: … The “phil-Hellenistic” period (c. 171 BC-AD 10): Wars with Rome,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

7 “Goth,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

8 William H. McNeill (Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History, University of Chicago; author of The Rise of the West and others), “The History of the Eurasian Steppe: … Geography of adjacent regions,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

9 “Ostrogoth,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

10 “Avar,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

11 John L. Teall (died 1979; Professor of History, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1968-79; coauthor of Atlas of World History) and Donald MacGillivray Nicol (Koraës Professor Emeritus of Byzantine and Modern Greek History, Language, and Literature, King's College, University of London; Director, Gennadius Library, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1989-92; author of The Last Centuries of Byzantium and others), “The History of the Byzantine Empire: … The last years of Justinian I,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

12 Dr. Gerhard Seeliger (Professor of Law in the University of Leipsic), Chapter XIX: “Conquests and Imperial Coronation of Charles the Great,” Volume II: The Rise of the Saracens and the Foundation of the Western Empire, edited by H. M. Gwatkin and J. P. Whitney, The Cambridge Medieval History, planned by J. B. Bury, 1913, Cambridge at the University Press; p. 609.

UPDATE:  2004-01-09 14:00 UT.  Prof. Stephen Bainbridge has linked back to this piece 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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