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- "The people are swarthy, short, and fat, of a relaxed and phlegmatic temperament; the women are not fruitful, but their slaves being lean give birth to many children."
- —Hippocrates, Greek physician and historian
Among the different branches of the human race, the Sarmatians formed a very remarkable shade as they seemed to unite the manners of the Asiatic barbarians with the figure and complexion of the ancient inhabitants of Europe. According to the various accidents of peace and war, of alliance or conquest, the Sarmatians were sometimes confined to the banks of the Tanais; and they sometimes spread themselves over the immense plains which lie between the Vistula and the Volga.
Terror on the SteppesEditRussian archaeologists have identified the early Sarmatians with the Prokhorovo Itkul and Gorohovo cultures throughout Western Russia and the southern Urals, but unfortunately little else is known of the Sarmatians, for they themselves left no written records, and so it is to those great scholars of the Hellenistic Era and Late Antiquity, the Greeks and the Romans, that we must turn to for anything of edifying import.
The Greeks were struck with their small and lively eyes, and compared them to those of lizards; hence the incorrect etymology of their name, which was corrupted into Sauromates. The Romans however had better opportunities to observe these equestrian nomads, noted for having "shaggy beards, uncombed locks [and wearing] furs", and rejected the Greek derivation, for the names of several Sarmatian tribes, as the Thisomatss, laxomalx, and others, are distinguished by the same final syllables. This has been thought to suggest that the Sarmatians spoke a language similar to that of the Iranic peoples as "matss" or "malx" are suggestively reminiscent of "Madai", "Medes" but this is a point which anthropologists do not all fully agree upon at this point in time.
Those who live by the sword....Edit
According to the famed racconteur Herodotus, the first Sarmatians mentioned in history were borne by "young Scythians and Amazons, or warlike women." Fabulous or not, the father of history considered the Sarmatians Scythian colonists based on the east of the Tanais, perhaps between the lower Volga and Caucasus, who spoke a Scythian dialect, corrupted by the language of their mothers, and retained several remarkable customs, among others, that of being accompanied in battle by women armed with two-edged axes.
It was said that the moveable camps or cities of the Sarmatians, the ordinary residence of their wives and children, consisted only of large wagons, drawn by oxen, and covered in the form of tents. The military strength of the nation was composed of cavalry and the custom of their warriors to bear one or two spare horses enabled the Sarmatians to advance and to retreat with a rapid diligence which surprised enemies and eluded pursuit by the same. This proved to be very useful in the Sarmatians' most notorious enterprise — slave raiding and tribute extortion. The terrified peoples of Eastern Europe and the Hyperborean steppes were fair game for Sarmatian slavers, who sold their grisly wares through the Black Sea Greek ports where they eventually found their way into the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Despite the lack of proper ironworks, the Sarmatians were highly resilient and resourceful, and the most famous component of a Sarmatian's panoply was a scalemail cuirass which was capable of resisting a sword or javelin, though it was formed only of horses hoofs, cut into thin and polished slices which were then sewn into a leather or fabric backing. The offensive arms of the Sarmatians were short daggers, long lances, javelins,and powerful bows. Lack of iron meant duller edges for weapons, but Greek authors recount that the Sarmatians poisoned the edges of their missiles, so that the weapon could do damage despite only scratching skin.
The Great RideEdit
These weapons were soon to make a mark on the world and win the Sarmatians a place in history. From the moment of their arrival from Central Asia, the Sarmatians would make forays into present-day southern Russia, a great portion of the Ukraine, Gallicia, and Moldavia, and dominated these countries for nearly three centuries. The natives were not expelled, but were subjugated and/or assimilated.
By the first century BCE, the Sarmatians and the Pontic Greeks began to draw together in a military alliance, a most ambitious enterprise brokered by the Pontic king Mithridates VI. This alliance soon resulted in a clash with the Romans, as Sarmatians raiders were soon brought in to bear upon the Greek lands and the Balkans. Although punitive expeditions by Pompey and Caesar soon gutted the Pontic kingdom, the Sarmatians would continue to be a threat to Rome for another several centuries. The activities of the Han dynasts in distant China soon laid on more westward external pressures upon the Sarmatians who were soon forced to migrate south into the Caucasus (the Ossetians claim descent from them) and west into the Balkans. On the other hand, some tribes like the Siraces gave up their nomadic pastoral ways and became Hellenicised vassals of Rome, through association of which they became immensely wealthy through trade.
Another more notable tribe, the Iazyges, however retained their nomadic pastoralist lifestyle and settled along the Danube, between Dacia and Pannonia, soon to be in direct conflict with Rome, who initially cautiously welcomed them as allies against the Dacians, but eventually they would become turncoats. The Roxolani, another Sarmatian tribe, had also joined their cousins against Rome and together they survived the downfall of the Dacians at the hands of Trajan in the Dacian Wars. Eventually, as the Roman Empire began to buckle under the weight of barbarian migrations from the north, the Romans pulled out of Dacia and left the Sarmatians to eventually colonise the region. Short of men and funds, the Romans even tried to recruit the Sarmatians are mercenaries, in an attempt to outsource the cavalry role in which the late Roman armies were highly deficient.
(....Die by the Sword) Riding into the NightlandEdit
It would've seemed that the Sarmatians had triumphed but their suzerainty was short-lived. With the arrival of the Asiatic Huns and the German Goths, the Sarmatians soon found themselves at their mercy. As political chaos in Europe and climate change intensified the bloodletting, the Sarmatians soon found themselves beleagured, outnumbered and were eventually destroyed. By the reign of Valentinian, the devastation was complete. Finally conquered by the Roman general Theodosius, they were forced to implore the clemency of the emperor Valentinian. It was said that when the ambassadors were presented before him, Valentinian asked indignantly why better looking men had not been sent. The ambassadors answered that they were selected from the chosen men of their nation. "O unfortunate Rome," exclaimed Valentinian, "when such abortions dare invade it!" At the same time, he struck his hands, groaned loudly, and fell lifeless from a paroxysm of rage."
Despite their fall and fading from living memory, the Sarmatians still continue to haunt the pages of European history. In the Early Modern Period, the Polish-Lithuanian élite believed themselves to have been the descendents of the Sarmatians who once roamed the land, and even adopted a new culture centred around the glorification of their supposed ancestors.Scholarly research has since debunked this link, but there are others who have stronger links to the Sarmatians: the Ossetians of the Caucasus and the Magyars who founded what is now known as Hungary are thought to be descendents of the Alans, one of the few Sarmatian tribes to have survived the turbulent 3rd and 4th centuries.