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The Alans or Alani (occasionally termed Alauni or Halani) were a group of Sarmatian tribes, nomadic pastoralists of the 1st millennium AD who spoke an Eastern Iranian language which derived from Scytho-Sarmatian and which in turn evolved into modern Ossetian.


The various forms of AlanGreek: Αλανοί, Αλαννοί; Chinese: 阿蘭聊 Alanliao (Pinyin) in the 2nd century , 阿蘭 Alan (Pinyin) in the 3rd century — and Iron (a self-designation of the Alans' modern Ossetian descendants, indicating early tribal self-designation) are Iranian dialectical forms of Aryan. These and other variants of Aryan (such as Iran), were common self-designations of the Indo-Iranians, the common ancestors of the Indo-Aryans and Iranian peoples to whom the Alans belonged.

The Alans were also known over the course of their history by another group of related names including the variations Asi, As, and Os (Hungarian Jász, Russian Jasy, Georgian Osi). It is this name that is the root of the modern Ossetian.


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   bar:Forecaucasus at:20 text:"Ancient Alan kingdoms"

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Early Alans

The first mentions of names that historians link with the "Alani" appear at almost the same time in Greco-Roman geography and in the Chinese dynastic chronicles.

The Geography (XXIII, 11) of Strabo (63/64 BC - ca. 24 AD), who was born in Pontus on the Black Seamarker, but was also working with Persianmarker sources, to judge from the forms he gives to tribal names, mentions Aorsi that he links with Siraces and claims that a Spadines, king of the Aorsi, could assemble two hundred thousand mounted archers in the mid-1st century BC. But the "upper Aorsi" from whom they had split as fugitives, could send many more, for they dominated the coastal region of the Caspian Seamarker: "and consequently they could import on camels the Indianmarker and Babylonian merchandise, receiving it in their turn from the Armeniansmarker and the Medes, and also, owing to their wealth, could wear golden ornaments. Now the Aorsi live along the Tanaïs, but the Siraces live along the Achardeüs, which flows from the Caucasus and empties into Lake Maeotismarker."

Chapter 123 of the Shiji (whose author, Sima Qian, died circa 90 BC) reports:

The mouth of the Syr Daryamarker or Jaxartes River, which emptied into the Aral Seamarker was approximately 850 km northwest of the oasis of Tashkentmarker which was an important centre of the Kangju confederacy. This provides remarkable confirmation of the account in the Shiji.

The Later Han Dynasty Chinese chronicle, the Hou Hanshu, 88 (covering the period 25-220 and completed in the 5th century), mentioned a report that the steppe land Yancai was now known as Alanliao (阿蘭聊):

The 3rd century Weilüe states:

By the beginning of the 1st century, the Alans had occupied lands in the northeast Azov Seamarker area, along the Don and by the 2nd century had amalgamated or joined with the Yancai of the early Chinese records to extend their control all the way along the trade routes from the Black Seamarker to the north of the Caspian and Aral seas. The written sources suggest that from the end of the 1st century to the second half of the 4th century the Alans had supremacy over the tribal union and created a powerful confederation of Sarmatian tribes.

From a Western point-of-view the Alans presented a serious problem for the Roman Empire, with incursions into both the Danubian and the Caucasian provinces in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Ammianus Marcellinus considered the Alans to be the former Massagetae: "the Alani, who were formerly called the Massagetae" and stated "Nearly all the Alani are men of great stature and beauty; their hair is somewhat yellow, their eyes are terribly fierce"..


Archaeological finds support the written sources. Late Sarmatian sites were first identified with the historical Alans by P.D. Rau (1927). Based on the archaeological material, they were one of the Iranian-speaking nomadic tribes that began to enter the Sarmatian area between the middle of the 1st and the 2nd century.

The Alani were first mentioned in Roman literature in the 1st century and were described later as a warlike people that specialized in horse breeding. They frequently raided the Parthian empire and the Caucasian provinces of the Roman Empire. In the Vologeses inscription one can read that Vologeses I, the Parthian king, in the 11th year of his reign, battled Kuluk, king of the Alani.

This inscription is supplemented by the contemporary Jewish historian, Josephus (37–100), who reports in the Jewish Wars (book 7, ch. 8.4) how Alans (whom he calls a "Scythian" tribe) living near the Sea of Azovmarker, crossed the Iron Gates for plunder and defeated the armies of Pacorus, king of Media, and Tiridates, King of Armenia, two brothers of Vologeses I (for whom the above-mentioned inscription was made):

Flavius Arrianus marched against the Alani in the 1st century and left a detailed report (Ektaxis kata Alanoon or 'War Against the Alans') that is a major source for studying Roman military tactics, but doesn't reveal much about his enemy. In the late 4th century, Vegetius conflates Alans and Huns in his military treatise — Hunnorum Alannorumque natio, the "nation of Huns and Alans" — and collocates Goths, Huns and Alans, exemplo Gothorum et Alannorum Hunnorumque.

In Cathay and the Way Thither, 1866, Henry Yule writes:
The Alans were known to the Chinese by that name, in the ages immediately preceding and following the Christian era, as dwelling near the Aral, in which original position they are believed to have been closely akin to, if not identical with, the famous Massagetæ.
Hereabouts also Ptolemy (vi, 14) appears to place the Alani-Scythæ, and Alanæan Mountains.
From about 40 B.C. the emigrations of the Alans seem to have been directed westward to the Lower Don; here they are placed in the first century by Josephus and by the Armenian writers; and hence they are found issuing in the third century to ravage the rich provinces of Asia Minor.
In 376 the deluge of the Huns on its westward course came upon the Alans and overwhelmed them.
Great numbers of Alans are found to have joined the conquerors on their further progress, and large bodies of Alans afterwards swelled the waves of Goths, Vandals, and Sueves, that rolled across the Western Empire.
A portion of the Alans, however, after the Hun invasion retired into the plains adjoining Caucasus, and into the lower valleys of that region, where they maintained the name and nationality which the others speedily lost.
Little is heard of these Caucasian Alans for many centuries, except occasionally as mercenary soldiers of the Byzantine emperors or the [p.
316] Persian kings.
In the thirteenth century they made a stout resistance to the Mongol conquerors, and though driven into the mountains they long continued their forays on the tracts subjected to the Tartar dynasty that settled on the Wolga, so that the Mongols had to maintain posts with strong garrisons to keep them in check.
They were long redoutable both as warriors and as armourers, but by the end of the fourteenth century they seem to have come thoroughly under the Tartar rule; for they fought on the side of Toctamish Khan of Sarai against the great Timur.

Migration to Gaul

Alan migrations in the 4th–5th centuries.
Red: migrations; Orange: military expeditions; Yellow: settlement areas.

Around 370, the Alans were overwhelmed by the Huns. They were divided into several groups, some of whom fled westward. A portion of these western Alans joined the Vandals and the Sueves in their invasion of Roman Gaul. Gregory of Tours mentions in his Liber historiae Francorum ("Book of Frankish History") that the Alan king Respendial saved the day for the Vandals in an armed encounter with the Franks at the crossing of the Rhine on December 31, 406). According to Gregory, another group of Alans, led by Goar, crossed the Rhine at the same time, but immediately joined the Romans and settled in Gaul.

In Gaul, the Alans originally led by Goar were settled by Aetius in several areas, notably around Orléansmarker and Valentiamarker. Under Goar, they allied with the Burgundians led by Gundaharius, with whom they installed the usurping Emperor Jovinus. Under Goar's successor Sangiban, the Alans of Orléans played a critical role in repelling the invasion of Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons. After the 5th century, however, the Alans of Gaul were subsumed in the territorial struggles between the Franks and the Visigoths, and ceased to have an independent existence. Flavius Aëtius settled large numbers of Alans in and around Armorica in order to quell unrest. The Breton language name Alan (rather than the French Alain) and several towns with names related to 'Alan', such as Allainvillemarker, Yvelinesmarker, Alainville-en Beauce, Loiretmarker, Allainesmarker and Allainvillemarker, Eure-et-Loirmarker, and Les Allains, Euremarker, are taken as evidence that a contingent settled in Armorica, Brittany, which retained a reputation for outstanding horsemanship with Gregory of Tours and into the Middle Ages, preferring to remain mounted to fight in contrast with all their neighbors, who dismounted in battle.

Hispania and Africa

Following the fortunes of the Vandals and Suevi into the Iberian peninsulamarker (Hispania, comprising modern Portugalmarker and Spainmarker) in 409, the Alans led by Respendial settled in the provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginiensis: "Alani Lusitaniam et Carthaginiensem provincias, et Wandali cognomine Silingi Baeticam sortiuntur" (Hydatius). The Siling Vandals settled in Baetica, the Suevi in coastal Gallaecia, and the Asding Vandals in the rest of Gallaecia.

In 418 (or 426 according to some authors, cf. e.g. Castritius, 2007), the Alan king, Attaces, was killed in battle against the Visigoths, and this branch of the Alans subsequently appealed to the Asding Vandal king Gunderic to accept the Alan crown. The separate ethnic identity of Respendial's Alans dissolved. Although some of these Alans are thought to have remained in Iberiamarker, most went to North Africa with the Vandals in 429. Later Vandal kings in North Africa styled themselves Rex Wandalorum et Alanorum ("King of the Vandals and Alans").

There are some vestiges of the Alans in Portugal, namely in Alenquermarker (whose name may be Germanic for the Temple of the Alans, from "Alen Ker", and whose castle may have been established by them; the Alaunt is still represented in that city's coat of arms), in the construction of the castles of Torres Vedrasmarker and Almourolmarker, and in the city walls of Lisbonmarker, where vestigies of their presence may be found under the foundations of the Church of Santa Luzia.

In the Iberian peninsula the Alans settled in Lusitania (cf. Alentejo) and the Cartaginense provinces. They became known in retrospect for their massive hunting and fighting dog of Molosser type, the Alaunt, which they apparently introduced to Europe. The breed is extinct, but its name is carried by a giant breed of dog still called Alano that survives in the Basque Countrymarker. The dogs are traditionally used in boar hunting and cattle herding.

Alans and Slavs

At the time of Attila the Hun a portion of Alans living in the "Sarmatia of the Cimmerian Bosporusmarker" moved northwest into the land of Venedes (according to M.A. Sabellico, J.A. de Thou and some others historians), possibly merging with Western Balts there to become the precursors of historic Slav nations.

Third-century inscriptions from the Greek colony of Tanais at the mouth of the Don River mention a nearby Alan tribe called the Choroatos or Chorouatos. The historian Ptolemy identifies the Serboi as a Sarmatian tribe who lived north of the Caucasus, and other sources identify the Serboi as an Alan tribe in the Volga-Don steppe in the 3rd century. In the 7th century the Serboi and Choroatos migrated into the western Balkans, supposedly at the invitation of the Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius, and settled there among earlier Slavic migrants to become ancestors of the modern Serbs and Croats. Some Serboi settled on the Elbe, and their descendants are the modern Sorbs. Tenth-century Byzantine and Arab accounts describe a people called the Belochrobati (White Croats) living on the upper Vistula, an area later called Chrobatia.

It's believed, that some Alans resettled to the North (Barsils), merging with Volga Bulgars and Burtas, eventually transforming to Volga Tatars

Medieval Alania

Map showing the location of Alans, c.

Some of the other Alans remained under the rule of the Huns. Those of the eastern division, though dispersed about the steppes until late medieval times, were forced by the Mongols into the Caucasus, where they remain as the Ossetians. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, they formed a network of tribal alliances that gradually evolved into the Christian kingdom of Alania. Most Alans submitted to the Mongol Empire in 1239-1277. They participated in Mongol invasions of Europe and the Song Dynasty in Southern China, and the Battle of Kulikovomarker under Mamai of the Golden Horde.

In 1253, the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck reported numerous Europeans in Central Asia. It is also known that 30,000 Alans formed the royal guard (Asud) of the Yuanmarker court in Dadu (Beijing). Marco Polo later reported their role in the Yuan Dynasty in his book Il Milione. It's said that those Alans contributed to a modern Mongol clan, Asud. John of Montecorvino, archbishop of Dadu (Khanbaliq), reportedly converted many Alans to Roman Catholic Christianity.

Religion, language, and later history

In the 4th–5th centuries the Alans were at least partially Christianized by Byzantine missionaries of the Arian church. In the 13th century, fresh invading Mongol hordes pushed the eastern Alans further south into the Caucasus, where they mixed with native Caucasian groups and successively formed three territorial entities each with different developments. Around 1395 Timur's army invaded Northern Caucasus and massacred much of the Alanian population.

As the time went by, Digor in the west came under Kabard and islamic influence. It was through the Kabardians (an East Circassian tribe) that Islam was introduced into the region in the 17th century. After 1767, all of Alania came under Russianmarker rule, which strengthened Orthodox Christianity in that region considerably. Most of today's Ossetians are Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The linguistic descendants of the Alans, who live in the autonomous republics of Russia and Georgia, speak the Ossetic language which belongs to the Northeastern Iranian language group and is the only remnant of the Scytho-Sarmatian dialect continuum and which once stretched over much of the Pontic steppe and Central Asia. Modern Ossetic has two major dialects: Digor, spoken in the western part of North Ossetia; and Iron, spoken in the rest of Ossetia. A third branch of Ossetic, Jassic (Jász), was formerly spoken in Hungarymarker. The literary language, based on the Iron dialect, was fixed by the national poet, Kosta Xetagurov (1859–1906).


See also


  • Agustí Alemany, Sources on the Alans: A Critical Compilation. Brill Academic Publishers, 2000 ISBN 90-04-11442-4
  • Bernard S. Bachrach, A History of the Alans in the West, from their first appearance in the sources of classical antiquity through the early Middle Ages, University of Minnesotamarker Press, 1973 ISBN 0-8166-0678-1
  • Bachrach, Bernard S. "The Origin of Armorican Chivalry." Technology and Culture, Vol. 10, No. 2. (Apr., 1969), pp. 166–171.
  • Castritius, H. 2007. Die Vandalen. Kohlhammer Urban.
  • Golb, Norman and Omeljan Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982.
  • Hill, John E. 2003. "Annotated Translation of the Chapter on the Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu." 2nd Draft Edition. [7364]
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilüe 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. [7365]
  • Yu, Taishan. 2004. A History of the Relationships between the Western and Eastern Han, Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties and the Western Regions. Sino-Platonic Papers No. 131 March 2004. Dept. of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania.

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