When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenment

The article When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenmentwas first published by The Strange Continent.com. A portion of that article has been printed below which has been edited. Commentaries have also been inserted for reference. Kindly note that the article printed below features a number of additional images and accompanying captions that do not appear in the original article in The Strange Continent.

Consistent with this topic, a lecture entitled Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe during the Classical Era will be offered by Kaveh Farrokh at the University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies (November 29, 2019, 6:30-8:30, Room 120, CK Choi Building) … for further details kindly click the image below …

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This week, the BBC announced the discovery of two “ethnically Chinese” skeletons at an ancient Roman burial site in England. Who were they? What drove them to the far end of the world? We don’t know, yet.

But for once, an article’s clickbait headline may not be exaggerating. If the genetic identity of these skeletons can be confirmed, it could indeed “rewrite Roman history” — or at least, a whole lot of long-held assumptions about who was in contact with whom in the days of the Roman Empire.

Oh, we’ve known for a long time the ancient Romans were aware of China’s existence — in fact, Chinese silk was such a drain on the Roman economy that the senate tried to outlaw it in the year 14 CE. And the Chinese emperors of the Han dynasty were certainly aware of Rome — they called it Da Qin and repeatedly tried to reach it with envoys and missionaries.

No one disputes the fact that these two cultures had centuries of indirect contact, via trade routes through India and Persia. Roman coins have been found as far east as Japan where Persians were teaching mathematics to the locals.

Sassanian influences upon Japanese arts: the case of the metalwork plate of Shapur II hunting lions (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg – Inv. S-253) and motif-parallels in Japanese textile arts (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

DNA evidence seems to suggest that Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE.

COMMENT BY Kavehfarrokh.com: The sentence “Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE”  is somewhat misleading. First, there are common Indo-European ancestors for the Europeans, Indians and Iranians. The peoples the writer is referring to may have been variously proto-Iranian or Tocharian – the dress found among their mummies in Urumchi for example bear striking resemblance to the later attire of the Medes, Achaemenids, Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthians and Sassanians. Second, these settlements in northwest China appear to have taken place earlier before the reign of the Medes and the succeeding Medo-Achaemenids.

What’s much less clear, though, is whether Chinese or Roman diplomats ever managed to achieve direct contact on each others’ native soil.

Until these Chinese skeletons were unearthed in England — at the far-western end of the Roman Empire, no less — no one had ever found any proof that a single Chinese envoy ever made it to Rome; or that a Roman envoy reached China. Which would mean…Romans were largely locked out of the civilized world. But wait… wasn’t Rome “the civilized world?”

That’s certainly what most of us (in the West, anyway) are taught in school. Back in my school days, I was taught a fair amount about Rome, a tiny bit about China, even less about Persia, and nothing at all about the Kushans, or the Axumites, or any of the other powerful empires that controlled large chunks of the globe — and often helped shape the cultures and fortunes of European nations. Maybe you can relate.

The truth is, though, that Rome’s Asian contemporaries completely dwarfed Rome in many respects: heritage, population density, cultural diversity, technology, architecture, medicine, philosophy, poetry… I could go on, but you get the idea. During the Roman period, the Asian continent was by far the wealthiest, most advanced, most culturally diverse place on earth. Imperial Rome was a dim backwater by comparison.

Ever since I’ve learned that fact, it’s always made me sad to think of the Romans being largely cut off from the main action on the world stage.

If researchers can verify the ancestry of these skeletons in England, maybe Rome wasn’t quite as cut off as we always believed. It’s an exciting thought. But it doesn’t change the fact that, on the whole, contact between Rome and the East — and thus, between Eastern and Western cultural legacies — was mostly indirect, mediated by third (and often fourth and fifth) parties.

Who were these vast empires of Asia? What was it like to live in them? Where did they come from, and what legacies did they leave?

I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a journey to the East.

Before we begin our tale, we first need to briefly set our stage, and make sure all our actors are on their marks.

In the 200s to 400s CE (the range of dates during which the owners of those Chinese skeletons made their way to Roman Britain) the map looked something like this:

A map of the Three Great Empires of Antiquity in c. 200 CE: Rome, Persia (Parthians followed by Sassanians) and China (Source: The Strange Continent).

I say “something like this” because a lot was going on during those centuries:

  • Rome’s legions were fighting fiercely for control of Gaul (modern France and Germany), Britain, Egypt, and various parts of the Balkans; while a succession of (often unfairly maligned) emperors scrambled to hold Rome together through an endless series of famines, wars with the East, coups d’état, refugee crises, and revolts.
  • The steppe horsemen known as the Parthians lost control of Persia, which entered a great classical age under the Sassanian dynasty.
  • The Han dynasty lost its grip on China, which split into three powerful warring kingdoms.
  • Vast tracts of southern Asia were changing hands among a dozen or more competing empires, each with its own rich culture.

Since we don’t know exactly when those Chinese travelers (whoever they were) left China and arrived in Roman Britain, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of “China” they left, what kind of “Rome” they arrived in, or what kind of “Persia” — or what other empires, exactly — they had to pass through.

With that in mind, let’s spend some time in a few of those Asian empires, and get to know their people a little better.

The Sassanians

The Sassanians could trace their cultural ancestry all the way back to the primordial mists of recorded history, to the dawn of civilization itself.

Ancient Persian traditional music as posted by The Strange Continent.

They had taken Persia from the Parthians, who’d taken it from the Seleucids — descendants of Alexander; an infamous villain in Persian eyes to this day — who’d ripped it from the hands of the glorious Achaemenid dynasty, who’d freed Mesopotamia from the brutal yoke of the Assyrian Empire, back when Rome was an unknown village.

The Assyrians, of course, had been just the latest in a line of conquerors reaching back through the Babylonians, though many long centuries, to the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great — the first documented multi-ethnic empire in world history, which owed its own cultural legacy, in large part, to the Sumerians.

Sargon of Akkad, circa 2250 BCE  (The Strange Continent).

By the time they met Rome, the Sasanians could look back through no less than 3,000 years of literate, urban society. The oldest works of poetry and sculpture in their treasure-houses were as ancient, for them, as the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Old Testament, are for us today.

In fact, Babylon had long ago been ruled by yet another dynasty from the Persian region. The Elamite people, whose own literate culture was as ancient and venerable as that of the Sumerians, had conquered large swathes of Mesopotamia in the 1800s BCE, holding dominion until they were thrown out by an invading king called Hammurabi.

A bust of Sassanian Shahanshah Shapur II (The Strange Continent).

At its height, the Sassanian Empire spanned all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatif, Qatar, UAE, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Egypt, large parts of Turkey, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Yemen and Pakistan. It was geographically smaller than the peak-size Roman Empire— but it was more urban, and far more densely populated.

The Sassanian Empire at its greatest extent c. 620 CE, under Shahanshah Khosrau II (The Strange Continent).

The Sassanian Empire’s subjects hailed from uncounted hundreds of tribes and peoples. They practiced at least ten different major religions, including Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism; along with a late, decadent form of the religion of ancient Babylon.

The state religion, however, was Zoroastrianism — as it had been since the Achaemenid dynasty, five centuries before, and would remain until the coming of Islam (while many practicing Zoroastrians still live in the region, and around the world, today).

Though the empire’s people spoke dozens of languages, the tongues of the court were Greek and Aramaic, along with an ancestor of the Farsi language now spoken in Iran.

At the head of the Sassanian state sat the shah-en-shah — the King of Kings, a title borrowed from the Achaemenid Persian emperors like Darius and Xerxes.

Below the shah-en-shah, a meticulously organized pyramid of governors and viziers extended down to the powerful nobility of land-holding feudal aristocrats, who oversaw the middle castes of priests, warriors, commoners, and artisans.

Court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin – Smbat Bagratuini (Figure 4) was to replicate the spectacular successes of the Sassanian military against a renewed Turco-Hephthalite invasion of the Sassanian empire from the northeast in 618-619 CE (For more information on color plates and sources consult: Plate F, pp.53-54, 62, Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-).

The upper classes enjoyed the first recognizably “Persian” culture: brocaded silks, floral tapestries, ornate goblets, sumptuous carpets, intricate mosaics, and the styles of music, food and poetry that would so captivate their Islamic conquerors a few centuries hence — just as they would later captivate the Seljuks, the Mongols and the Ottomans; and that continue to lend their distinct influences to Turkish and Iranian culture, even today. Any time you savor a bite of baklava or sip a glass of dark tea, thank the Sassanians.

Sassanian influence remains strong in this painting of King Bahram V Gur, from the mid-16th-century Safavid era (The Strange Continent).

You can also thank the Sassanian aristocracy for much of (what would later become) the medieval European aesthetic. Look at this Sasanian rock engraving, for example, and you’re essentially looking at a medieval European king …

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Sassanian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing Roman emperor Valerian (standing) and Philip the Arab (kneeling), suing for peace, following the victory at Edessa (The Strange Continent).

…except that this engraving depicts the Sassanian shah-en-shah Shapur I, and dates from around 260 CE — a full thousand years before the European medieval period, when the height of Roman fashion was still togas and sandals. It’s like Shapur time-traveled to Rome from the future.

Regal Sassanian figures (middle and right) with the ray-headed Mithras holding a ceremonial sword or barsom at Taghe Bostan (The Strange Continent).

The Sassanian aristocracy, like their later medieval imitators, wore ankle-length robes and pointed slippers, tunics and trousers— more borrowings from the Achaemenids, Assyrians and Babylonians before them.

They rode into battle on famously enormous horses, outfitted in full suits of chain-mail armor, wielding broadswords and longbows, carrying jousting lances. For more see:

Ever wondered how Roman legions would fare against medieval knights? You don’t have to wonder — the Romans fought hundreds of battles against the Sassanians, and the Sassanians often beat the Roman legions to a bloody pulp; especially when fighting on the defensive.

When the Roman army started incorporating their own armored heavy cavalry, they got better at fighting back against the feudal knights of the Sassanian aristocracy — but the Romans never made any permanent incursions into Sassanian territory, or inflicted many serious defeats. The Sassanians never made it very far into Roman territory, either. For hundreds of years, the two armies held each other, in large part, at a stalemate.

Sassanian forces counterattack the invading Turco-Hephthalites in the Sassanian Empire’s northeast; the figures in the above plate (1-late Sassanian Savar-Framandar, 2-Kanarang, 3-Paygospan and 4-Turkic Gok warriors) are based on reconstructions from Sassanian archaeological data such as the grotto of the armored knight inside the vault or Iwan at Taghe Bostan, the (post-Sassanian) metalwork work plate of Pur-e Vahman as well as East Iranian sources (For more information consult: Plate C, pp.53-54, 60-61, Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-).

It wasn’t only in military matters that the  were centuries ahead of their time. Their scholars translated the works of Plato and Aristotle — preserving many books that were later lost to the West — and organized debates between sages and scholars of dozens of philosophies and religions, from all across Asia.

The shah established a “Grand School” at the capital city of Ctesiphon (in modern Iraq), where more than 30,000 pupils studied astronomy, architecture, medicine and literature. In fact, a few centuries later, when the Roman emperor Justinian forcibly closed all the Greek schools, the Sassanians would welcome the fleeing Greek philosophers with open arms.

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans. For more see Ken R. Vincent: Zoroaster-the First Universalist 

Long after the Western Roman Empire fell beneath waves of attack from the Huns and Goths, the Sassanian emperors continued to hold their own against the Eastern Roman Empire, slowly growing weaker under relentless losses against the Byzantines, the Turks, the Khazars, and hordes of other enemies.

By the time the armies of Islam rode out of Arabia, the once-great Sassanian Empire was fragmented and exhausted. An army led by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattāb captured city after Sassanian city throughout the mid-600s; and by 651, the remains of the knightly and priestly aristocracy fled, in despair, into the vastness of the Central Asian steppe-land.

The remains of the Sassanian royal palace at Ctesiphon, in modern Iraq (The Strange Continent).

It’s often been said, though, that no one truly captures Persia. Instead, Persia captures her conquerors. There’s no doubt that she captured the Arabs. Much of what we think of as “Arabian culture” today — the distinctive styles of art, food, architecture and music; the tales of The 1,001 Nights; the wealth and opulence of Middle-Eastern monarchs— owes far more, in fact, to the Sassanian palace gardens than to the deserts of Arabia.

To read more on this topic, consult The Strange Continent …

Journal Article: Caucasian Albanian warriors in the armies of pre-Islamic Iran

The HISTORIA I ŚWIAT academic journal has published the following article by Kaveh Farrokh, Javier Sánchez-Gracia (HRM Ediciones, Zaragoza, Spain), and Katarzyna Maksymiuk (Siedlce University, Poland):

Farrokh, K., Sánchez-Gracia, J., & Maksymiuk, K. (2019). Caucasian Albanian warriors in the armies of pre-Islamic Iran. HISTORIA I ŚWIAT, 8, pp.21-46.

The article discusses the important role of ancient Albania, an ancient country in the Caucasus (in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, first labelled with this appellation in May 1918) in the history of Iran. Albanian cavalry was serving with the later Achaemenid armies of Darius III (r. 336–330 BCE) at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

An Albanian-Scythian cavalry commander from the late Achaemenid era (Source: Pinterest). Cavalry of this type from Albania fought for Darius III against Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

Albania was transformed into a Sassanian province by Šāpūr I (c. 253) with the Albanians (notably their cavalry) becoming increasingly integrated into the battle order of the Sassanian Spah (army).

Book cover of “The Siege of Amida” authored by Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia (2018) DC – click here to download in pdf from Academia.edu … The above image is a recreation by Ardashir Radpour of a Sassanian Savaran knight of the Hamharzan who were often supplied with the highest quality weaponry. Elite Albanian knights fighting alongside the Savaran would have resembled their comrade in arms with respect to attire, equipment and battle tactics. The above book was displayed at the 2018 ASMEA (Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa) Conference’s LSS (Library of Social Sciences) display in Washington DC.

All along the Caspian coast the Sassanians built powerful defense works, designed to bar the way to invaders from the north. The most celebrated of these fortifications are those of Darband in Caucasian Albania.

A view of the Darband Wall (known commonly as Derbent; cited as Krevar in local dialects) in Daghestan, Northern Caucasus (Courtesy of Associates of Eduard Enfiajyan).  The origins of the wall of Darband are generally attributed to Kavad I (r. 488-496, 498-530 CE) who after a two-year war (489-490 CE) ejected Khazar invaders rampaging Armenia and Caucasian Albania (modern Republic of Azerbaijan). Construction of the wall was continued by Khosrow I (r. 530-579 CE) and by the late 6th century CE, this had become a system of walls connecting a series of fortresses. Total length of the Darband wall is nearly 70 km, spanning the territory from the Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian Sea. The Wall of Darband or Derbent became a major military fortress shielding Iranian territories in the Caucasus and the historical Azarbaijan below the Araxes River from nomadic attackers along the northern Caucasus, most notably the Khazars.

Albania remained an integral part of the Sasanian army well into the empire’s final days as evidenced by the military exploits of Albanian regal prince Javanshir (Persian: Young Lion) and his cavalry who fought against the Arabo-Islamic invaders at the Battle of Qadissiya (637 CE) and after. Javanshir was a member of the Iranian Mehranid family related to the Parthian clans.

A copy of the 7th century CE statue of the Caucasian Albanian Prince Javanshir (Persian: Young Lion) discovered in Nakhchevan, southern Caucasus (the original statue is housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – the above copy of the original is in the Republic of Azerbaijan History Museum) (Source: Urek Meniashvili in Public Domain).

The 2,800 Year Embrace in the Hasanlu Tomb

One of the most remarkable finds from ancient Iran pertains to skeletons of a male and a female discovered in a tomb at Tappeh Hasanlu, located in Naqadeh, West Azerbaijan Province, northwest Iran. As noted in the Ancient Origins website:

“The human remains of the “Hasanlu Lovers” were found in a bin with no objects. The only feature found is a stone slab under the head of the skeleton on the left hand side. The discovery was made by a team of archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania led by Robert Dyson back in 1972.”

The “Lovers of Hasanlu” (Source: Ancient Origins website). As noted in the Ancient Origins website: “The two skeletons are close together facing each other, while the female skeleton on the left reaching out its right hand to touch the face of her lover on the right. They both have their arms around each other and have clear signs of severe injury and trauma on their bodies sustained around the time of their death. Experts believe that they died together by asphyxiation during the destruction of the Teppe Hasanlu citadel”.

The Hasanlu region in Iran’s northwest region was already settled by Iranian speaking peoples at the time and that these are most likely of the Avestan culture of which one of its manifestations was the Zoroastrian religion.The photo of the Hasanlu tomb containing the skeletons of a male and female in embrace were discussed by Kaveh Farrokh in his lecture “Women in Ancient Iran” during a conference on Iranian Women at Portland State University (April 20, 2013).

The main set of Zoroastrian texts composed in Avestan promote ideas of gender parity, which was a reflection of the nature of early Iranian society (Schwartz, 2007, pp. 4). As noted by Hintze this feature provides “a modern appearance on this ancient [Zoroastrian] religion” (2003, pp.  403). The egalitarianism of Women and Men is emphasized in Zoroastrianism , especially with respect to the honored status of women who are recognized as: “…men’s partners in the common struggle against evil” (Boyce, 1972, pp. 308, footnote 83).

 

A reconstruction by Cernenko and Gorelik of the north-Iranian Saka or Scythians in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). The ancient Avestan Iranians (those in ancient Persia and the ones in ancient Eastern Europe) often had women warriors and chieftains, a practice not unlike those of the contemporary ancient Celts in ancient Central and Western Europe. What is also notable is the costume of the Iranian female warrior – this type of dress continues to appear in parts of Luristan in Western Iran. 

The equality message of Zoroastrianism is declared by use of very specific and inclusive terminology. Four times in Yasna Haptaŋhāiti:

  1. Nar (man) and nāirī– “woman” are deliberately arranged together:
  2. Twice as part of fixed expression nāirī “a man or a woman” (Yasna Haptaŋhāiti: 35.6, 41.2)
  3. Twice as narąmcā nāirinąmcā “of men and women” (Yasna Haptaŋhāiti: 37.3, 39.2).
  4. iθānarō aθā jə̄naiiō (thus … men, so also women) (in Yasna Haptaŋhāiti, 53.6).

A diagram of Hasanlu Tepe, which is situated to the south of Lake Urmia iin Iran’s northwest (Source: Penn Museum).

Women are described as having moral and religious equality with men. For example, one of the Zoroastrian prayers beseech Aryaman to Nərəbiiascā Nāiribiiascā Zaraθuštrahe (come to the aid of the men and women of Zarathustra). As noted in the Holy Gathas (Aiwisruthrem Gah 9):

“We venerate the righteous woman who is good in thoughts, words, and deeds, who is well-educated, is an authority on religious affairs, is progressively serene, and is like the women who belong to the Wise God.”

In the Younger Avestan both sexes are warned:

“Nōit̰  cahmi zazuua yō nōit̰ urune zazuua. Nōit̰ cahmi zazuši yā nōit̰ urune zazuši” (He has not won anything who has not won [anything] for his soul. She has not won anything who has not won [anything] for her soul) (fragment FrD.3; Hoffmann, 1968, pp. 288).

As noted by Nigosian, in the Zoroastrian faith:

no distinction is made between the gendersboth occupy the same place of honor…on the same level in…power (1993, pp.81).

Arthurian Legend and the Sarmatians (Part I)

The article “Arthurian Legend and the Sarmatians (Part I)” was originally written by Periklis Deligiannis. Regarding the Iranian origin of the Sarmatians see: Oric Basirov: Origin of pre-Imperial Iranian Peoples For more on North Iranian peoples see … Scythian and Sarmatian History … For more on the links between ancient Greater Iran or Persia (Eire-An) and Europa, consult the following: Eire-An and Europa … Part II of the below article will be posted in September 2020.

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In  AD  175 ,  the  Roman  emperor  Marcus  Aurelius  settled  thousands  of  Sarmatian  cavalry  mercenaries  in  Britain.  Two  centuries  later,  the  Western  Roman  Empire  withdrew  her  troops  from  the  island.  It  seems  that  the  independent
”British  kingdom”  preserved  its  unity  and  coherence  but  soon  after  it  was  struck  by  the  ruthless  Anglo-Saxon  invasion.  The  Sarmatians  were  now  merged  with  the  Celtic  and  Romano-Briton  population,  taking  the  lead  in  checking  the  barbarians.  This  Sarmatian  presence  in  Britain  consists  probably  the  historical  background  of  the  legend  of  king  Arthur  and  his  Knights  of  the  Round  Table.

The  Romans  conquered  modern  England  and  Wales  during  the  1st  century  A.D.  The  tribes  of  Caledonia  (Caledonii,  Cornavii/Cornovii,  Venicones  etc.)  which  corresponds  to  the  modern  Scottish  Highlands,  remained  independent.  By  the  4th  century,  her  peoples  had  been  incorporated  into  the  tribal  union  of  the  Picts  (Picti,  Pictae).  Their  name  meant  the  “painted  ones”  in  Latin  because  of  the  ancient  Celtic  custom  of   tattooing  which  they  maintained.  In  fact,  they  called  themselves  Cruthni.  The  Romans  held  Britannia  for  more  than  three  centuries,  but  the  Christianization  and  Latinization  of  its  population  were  confined  only  to  the  cities  and  in  a  few  Southeastern  rural  regions.  The  great  majority  of  the  population  remained  Celtic  in  language  and  in  cults.  Especially  the  rural  populations  were  greatly  influenced  by  the  Christian  heresy  of  Pelagianism.  In  the  late  4th  century  AD,  the  original  Roman  province  of  Britannia  was  split  into  four  provinces:  Caesaresia  Magna,  Caesaresia  Flavia,  Britannia  I  and  Britannia  II.  The  tribes  of  Caledonia  and  Ireland  were  raiding  the  Romano-British  territory  for  centuries.

The  Irish  were  crossing  the  Irish  Sea  with  their  light  vessels,  the  Celtic  curraghs.  The  Caledonians-Picts  were  attacking  the  Romano-British  population  by  land  and  sea,  using  the  same  type  of  ships.  Caledonia  and  Britannia  were  separated  by  a  “neutral  zone” (buffer  zone  in  fact)  between  Antoninus’  and  Hadrian’s  Walls,  which  is  almost  equivalent  to  the  modern  Scottish  Lowlands. The  limits  of  Caledonia  (latter  Pictland)  followed  roughly  the  modern  ‘unofficial’  boundaries  between  the  Highlands  and  the  Lowlands  of  Scotland.  The  tribes  of  this  buffer  zone  between  Britannia  and  Caledonia  (the  Damnonii,  the  Selgovae  et. al.)  had  lived  for  two  decades  of  the  2nd  century  AD  under  direct  Roman  control  that  had  reached  Antoninus’  Wall (Vallum  Antonini).  When  they  revolted,  the  Romans  evacuated  this  region  and  restored  the  line  of  their  defense  in  Hadrian’s  Wall (Vallum  Adriani).  Eventually  the  Romans  made  allied  vassals  (foederati)  the  tribes  of   Lowland  Scotland,  using  them  as  a  buffer  zone  against  the  Caledonians/Picts.  However,  their  fidelity  was  always  questionable  and  the  gradual  weakening  of  the  Empire  led  them  to  raiding  the  Romano-British  territory.

Scales  of  Sarmatian  armor  found  near  Hadrians wall (Source: Periklis  Deligiannis).  They  probably  belonged  to  Iazygae  or  Alan  mercenaries  of  the  Roman  army.

In  the  4th  century,  the  Roman  weakening  brought  about  the  increase  of  the  barbarian  attacks  and  the  emergence  of  a  new  invader:  the  Anglo-Saxons.  The  term  ‘Anglo-Saxons’  (or  usually  simply  ‘Saxons’)  is  a  modern  conventional  name  for  of  group  of  Germanic  and  a  few  Slavic  invaders  in  Britain,  originating  from  modern  northern  Germany,  Netherlands,  Belgium  and  Jutland  (Denmark).  This  tribal  group/union  included  the  Saxons  (the  more  numerous  of  the  group),  Engles  (in  Germanic:  Engeln,  modern  English),  Frisians,  Jutes (Geats, a  Gothic  tribal  offshoot),  Proto-Norwegians  (Northwestern  Scandinavians),  Danes,  Angrivarians,  Brukteri  (Boruktuari),  Westphalians,  Ostphalians,  Franks,  Thuringians,  Wangrians  and  a  few  Slavs.  The  Anglo-Saxons  were  crossing  the  North  Sea  with  long  boats  (predecessors  of  the  Viking  ships)  and  were  attacking  Britannia,  looting  and  capturing  its  inhabitants.

The  Roman  armies  and  garrisons  of  Britain  who  faced  the  Irish,  Picts  and  Saxons  included  in  the  4th  century  AD:    I. the  force  of  the  Duke  of  Britannia (Dux  Britanniarum)  which  was  based  in  Eboracum  (capital  of  the  Parisii  tribe)  protecting  Northern  Britain  and  Hadrian’s  Wall.     II. the  force  of   the  Comes  Litoris  Saxonici (Saxon  Shore)  which  protected  the  southeastern  British  coasts  against  the  Anglo-Saxons.    III.  The  fast-moving  force   of  the  Comes  Britanniarum (mainly  cavalry), a  reserve  in  order  to  repel  any  sudden  barbaric  raid  on  any  British  coast.

In  the  early  5th  century,  the  Western  Roman  Empire  was  undergoing  collapse.  The  Romans  had  begun  to  withdraw  their  troops  from  Britain  since  the  4th  century,  in  order  to  check  the  barbarian  pressure  on  the  continental  border  of  the  Rhine.  In  AD  383,  the  Hispano-Roman  general  Maximus,  governor  of  Britannia  who  coveted  the  throne  of  Ravenna,  landed  in  Gaul  with  many  troops.  The  legionaries  that  he withdrew  were  not  replaced  with  new  ones.  The  protection  of  Roman  Britain  was  now  uneconomic  for  the  crumbling  Empire.  The  departure  of  the  Roman  soldiers  continued,  and  together  with  them  departed  a  great  part  of  the  noble  and  wealthy  castes,  whose  members  had  already  understood  that  very  soon  Britannia  would  not  be  a  safe  place  to  live.  Urban  life  had  already  been  reduced  significantly  and  the  economy  had  been  shrunk.  In  407  AD,  the  Empire  withdrew  its  last  regular  troops  from  the  island,  probably  along  with  most  imperial  administrators  and  employees.  The  soldiers  who  remained  were  essentially  some  Romans  and  foreign  mercenaries  who  had  families  with  native  women  or  other  footholds  on  the  island,  and  the  few  British  auxiliaries  who  supported  the  legions.  The  same  applies  to  the  remaining  imperial  officers  and  employees.

A  number  of  Latin-speaking  Germanic  soldiers  called  gentiles,  descendants  of  old  mercenaries  of  Rome,  remained  especially  in  Eastern  Britain.  They  initially  fought  their  Anglo-Saxon  brethren,  however  it  is  possible  that  later  many  of  them  joined  the  invaders  on  the  basis  of  their  common  Germanic  ancestry.  The  well-known Gewisse  are  most  likely  such  a  case.  Finally,  many  of  the  Sarmatian  mercenaries  (to  whom  we  shall  refer  in  detail  below)  remained  in  the  island  as  well.  After  407,  Britain  South  of  Hadrian’s  Wall  although  was  accounted  for  as  part  of  the  Roman  world,  became  virtually  independent.  The  rise  of  the  barbarian  raids  and  invasions  after  the  Roman  withdrawal,  embarrassed  the  British  leadership.  Its  members  sent  a  message  to  the  Roman  emperor,  with  a  request  for  military  aid  against  the  raiders  (Gemitus Britannorum, “Groans of the Britons”, 410  AD).  The  emperor  could  do  nothing,  advising  them  to  organize  their own defense.

Despite  the  departure  of  the  imperial  army  and  administration  from  Britain,  the  Roman-style  organized  life  went  on.  The  shrunken  Roman  cities  continued  to  exist,  but  the  way  of  life,  language,  cults  and  other  Roman/Latin  elements  were  steadily  giving  ground  to  the  regenerated  Celtic  ones.  The  remaining  Romanized  aristocracy  of  South-Eastern  Britain  undertook  the  organizing  of  the  defense  of  this  region  against  the  Saxons.  The  stably  Celtic  in  civilization  nobility  of  the  mountainous  and  hilly  Western  Britain  undertook  the  repulse  mainly  of  the  Irish  raiders.  The  remaining  former  commanders  of  the  Roman  guards  of  Hadrian’s  Wall  and  the  local  nobles  became  the  hereditary  ruling  class  of  the  Northern  Briton  territories,  mainly  undertaking  the  repulse  of  the  Picts.

Reenactment  of a Saxon warlord by the Historical association Wulfheodenas (Source: Periklis  Deligiannis).  Until  the  9th  century  AD,  the  marching  Anglo-Saxons  gradually  conquered  the  greatest  part  of  the  former  Roman  territories  in  Britain. 

Considering  the  ethno-cultural  conditions,  the  Northern  British  rulers  were  in  an  intermediate  situation  between  the  ‘authentic  Celts’  of  the  Western  region  and  the  Romano-Britons  of  the  South-Eastern  part  of  the  island .  It  is  probable  that  the  three  mentioned  groups  were  in  rivalry  during  the  Roman  period.  However,  the  common  external  threat  of  the  barbarians  joined  them.

The  former  Roman  Britain  was  gradually  divided  into  small  autonomous  Celtic  or  Romano-Celtic  states,  led  by  military  leaders  who  tried  to  maintain  unified  the  “British  kingdom”  as  they  perceived  their  common  territory.  An  action  of  their  unifying  policy  was  the  election  of  a  warlord  (Duke)  as  their  supreme  political  and  military  leader,  who  led  the  war  efforts  against  the  invaders  and  prevented  internal  conflicts.  In  the  medieval  chronicles,  the  supreme  leader  is  referred  as  the  ‘Supreme  Ruler’  of  the  island,  but  his  original  title  or  his  military  one  was  the  Dux  Bellorum.  Probably  this  office  was  the  continuity  of  the  Roman  office  of  the  Dux  Britanniarum.

The  Britons  resisted  the  barbaric  invasions,  led  by  a  series  of  inspirational  supreme  leaders  like  Voteporix,  Vortigern  and  especially  the  legendary  Arthur.  Under  their  leadership,  they  crashed  the  Picts  and  the  Irish  overthrowing  the  Irish  colonies  in  Wales  and  Lowland  Scotland,  and  managed  to  check  the  Anglo-Saxons.  In  429,  the  Romano-Britons  crashed  a  horde  of  Saxon  and  Pict  invaders.

Map of Britain in c. 540 CE (Source: Periklis  Deligiannis), contemporary to the Sassanians

The  British  defense  was  successful  until  442,  when  it  was  shaken  by  two  fatal  “scourges”  (Gildas’  Chronicle).  Vortigern,  probably  one  of  the  leader  of  the  Ordovices  tribe  of  Wales, was  at  that  time  the  Duke  of  Britannia (Supreme  Ruler).  His  name  is  possibly  not  a  personal  name  because  it  can  be  analyzed  in  Brythonic  Celtic  as  the  “Great  King”,  being  probably  a  popularized  rendering  of  the  title  Supreme  Ruler.  Vortigern  had  hired  Jute  mercenaries  in  order  to  repel  the  Anglo-Saxon  invasions.  Their  rebellion  (around  442  AD)  against  him  was  Gildas’  first  “scourge”.  The  Jutes  began  to  raid  Eastern  Britain,  capturing  or  killing  the  inhabitants.  The  second  “scourge”  was  a  plague  that  occurred  on  the  island  (around  446)  and  mainly  affected  the  urban  centers,  decimating  the  remaining  Romanized  population  who  lived  primarily  on  them.  It  was  a  severe  blow  for  the  Romano-British  administration  and  military  organization,  because  they  were  staffed  mainly  by  the  Latinized  population.  In  446,  the  Romano-Britons  asked  for  the  military  aid  of  the  Roman  general  Aetius.  The  great  Aetius  (who  was  meant  to  repel  Attila  in  451  AD  at  the  battle  of  Campus  Mauriacus  or  Catalaunian  Plains)  was  in  Gaul.  The  Briton  request  was  rejected  again.

Vortigern’s   preference  to  Germanic  mercenaries  was  his  great  blunder.  He  probably  did  not  trust  the  native  officials  and  warriors,  aiming  on  the  consolidation  of  his  power  through  the  formation  of  his  own  “Praetorian  guard”  composed  of  Germans.  He “fixed”  his  mistake  of  the  recruitment  of  the  Jutes  with  a  bigger  mistake:  he  settled  a  group  of  Saxon  mercenaries  under  their  warlords  Horsa (‘the  horse’)  and  Hengist (‘the  stallion’),  in  the  land  of  the  Kantii (modern Kent) (about  450  AD).  Their  duty  was  to  suppress  the  rebellion  of  the  Jutes.  The  Saxons  managed  to  defeat  them  but  thereafter  they  also  turned  against  Vortigern  conducting  atrocities  and  looting  on  the  Britons,  from  their  base  at  Kent.  At  the  same  time  they  called  their  brethren  to  come  from  their  cradle  in  Northern  Germany.

These  newcomers  landed  on  the  shores  of  Britain  and  in  a  few  decades  they  conquered  the  Southeastern  part.  But  the  Anglo-Saxon  march  was  limited  because  of  the  efforts  of  the  new  Briton  Duke  (Supreme Ruler)  Ambrosius  Aurelianus  and  then  it  was  stopped  by  the  legendary  great  Duke  Arthur.  It  has  not  been  established  yet  whether  Arthur  was  a  mythological  hero  or  a  real  historical  personality,  but  the  archaeological  discoveries  of  the  last  decades  and  a  review  of  the  chronicles  support  his  historicity.  The  literary,  historical,  archaeological  and  other  relevant  evidence  suggests  strongly  that  a  powerful  warlord  did  live  during  the  verge  of  the  5th-6th  centuries,  uniting  most  of  the  Celtic  and  Romano-Briton  tribes  and  states,  and  fending  the  invaders.  He  could  not  be  other  than  Arthur  of  the  Celto-British  oral  tradition  and  of  the  “History  of  the  Kings  of  Britain”  of  Geoffrey  of  Monmouth  (AD  1133).

Arthur  as  a  military  leader,  was  not  depending  on  foreign  mercenaries  as  Vortigern  did,  but  in  a  “national”  army  comprised  of  Briton  Celts,  Romano-Britons,  Romano-Germans  and  Romano-Sarmatians.  He  inflicted  heavy  losses  to  the  Anglo-Saxons,  forcing  some  of  them  to  return  disappointed  in  Germany  as  it  is  proved  by  archaeology.
The  Roman  army  in  Britain  comprised  many  Sarmatian  mercenaries,  most  of  whom  probably  remained  on  the  island  after  407.  The  Sarmatians  were  a  large  group  of  nomadic  tribes  of  Northern  Iranian (Saka/Scythian)  stock.  Their  cradle  was  in  Central  Asia, possibly  in  modern  Northern  Kazakhstan.  Since  the  3rd  century  B.C.,  some  of  their  tribes  started  a  migration  to  China,  while  the  bulk  of  the  people  invaded  gradually  the  modern  Ukrainian  steppes  destroying  the  Scythian  state  in  Europe.  The  various Sarmatian tribes  were  independent  and very  often  were  fighting  each  other.  The  most  important  were  the  Sauromatae,  the  Roxolani,  the  Iazygae,  the  Siraces,  the  ‘Royal  Sarmatians’,  the  Aorsi/Alans, the  Aspourgians  etc.

The  Sarmatians  fought  primarily  as  armored  cavalry  using  a  long  and  strong  spear  (the  kontos)  as  their  main  weapon.  The  Romans  of  the  Later  Empire  evaluated  their  martial  spirit  and  recruited  them  massively  as  mercenaries.  They  ultimately  adopted  themselves  the  Sarmatian  mounted  warfare.  The  Goths,  the  Huns  and  other  peoples  did  the  same, and  they  also  included  in  their  ranks  many  Sarmatian  allies.  The  formidable  Sarmatians  were  dispersed  and  settled  in  many  European  regions,  where  they  finally  were  assimilated  by  the  local  populations.

Emperor Julian is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 CE (Picture source: Farrokh, Plate D, Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005). Above is a recreation of Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion. As noted by Periklis  Deligiannis,  the  Sarmatian  cataphracts belonged  to a very similar type of cavalry as the Savaran. Sarmatian cataphracts were using  armour  made  of  large  scales  or  mail  armor  like  the  Savaran in the above battle against Roman forces invading Sassanian Persia. Like the Sassanians, the Sarmatians also used  helmets  that were  mainly  of  the  spangenhelm  type – see following article: Farrokh, K., Karamian, Gh., Kubic, A., & Oshterinani, M.T. (2017). An Examination of Parthian and Sasanian Military Helmets. In “Crowns, hats, turbans and helmets: Headgear in Iranian history volume I” (K. Maksymiuk & Gh. Karamian, Eds.), Siedlce University & Tehran Azad University, pp.121-163.

The  Iazygae,  a  tribe  of  the  Sarmatian  vanguard,  settled  for  some  time  in  Pannonia  (modern  Hungarian  and  Croatian  plain)  and  from  there  they  were  raiding  the  neighboring  Roman  territories.  In  AD  175,  the  Roman  emperor  Marcus  Aurelius  defeated  them  and  exiled  8,000  Iazygian  horsemen  (most  of  the  surviving  warriors  of  the  tribe)  in  Gaul  and  Britain,  where  they  were  obliged  to  serve  as  mercenaries  of  the  Roman  army.  5,500  of  them  were  settled  in  Britannia.  The  most  important  part  of  their  story  is  that  according  to  a  honorific  Roman  tombstone,  the commander  of  the  Legio  VI  Victrix  in  which  they  enrolled,  was  an  officer  called  Lucius  Artorius  Castus,  who  had  served  in  Dalmatia (a  region  adjacent  to  Pannonia)  and  perhaps  was  of  Dalmatian  (Illyrian)  origin.  The  enrollment  of  the  Iazygian  mercenaries  in  the  Sixth  Legion  was  not  accidental.  The  Sarmatians  undoubtedly  welcomed  a  commander  familiar to  their  homeland,  possibly  familiar  with  their  customs  and  language  as  well.  When  their  twenty-year  term  of  office  ended,  the  Romans  forbade  them  to  return  to  Pannonia  resettling  them  in  Bremetennacum (modern  Ribchester,  near  Lancaster)  and  in  two  other  sites  in  Britain.  Later,  these  three  Sarmatian  settlements-sites  were  identified  with  three  of  the  twelve  sites  of  victories  achieved  by  Arthur  (Nennius: History  of  the  Britons,  late  8th  century).

In  the  end  of  the  3rd  century, a  military  unit  of  500  Sarmatian  cavalrymen  is  reported  to  be  based  in  Bremetennacum, and  they  are  considered  to  be  the  descendants  of  the  Iazygian  captives-mercenaries.  The  personal  name  Arthur  comes  possibly  from  a  Celtic  corruption  of   the  Latin  Artorius  and  it  has  been  suggested  that  the  legendary  Arthur,  Duke  of  Britain  of  the  5th-6th  century,  was  a  descendant  of  the  Roman  Artorius  of  the  2nd  century.  Another  modern  theory  suggests  that  the  Latin  personal  name   Artorius   became  the  Celtic  title  Arthur  (like  the  Roman  name  Caesar  was  converted  to  the  German  title  Kaiser  and  the  Russian  title  Tsar).  However,  Arthur  was  undoubtedly  a  Celt,  even  if  he  was  a  distant  descendant  of  the  Roman  Artorius.

The  number  of  the  Sarmatians  in  Britain  was  not  inconsiderable.  The  Romans  settled  on  the  island  5,500  Iazygian  warriors.  The  Sarmatians  used  to  move  with  their  families  who  lived  in  the  typical  heavy  carriages  of  the  nomads,  thereby  it  is  certain  that  many  of  the  Iazygae  settlers  had  their  women  and  children  with  them.  On  the  other  hand,  many  would  be  young  unmarried  men  who  got  married  with  Briton  women.  The  usual  ratio  of  combatants  to  non-combatants,  used  to  calculate  ancient  populations,  is  1:3 .  Therefore,  a  ratio  of  1:2  is  acceptable  for  the  Iazygae  mercenaries  in  Britain  and  so  we  can  assume  a  total  figure  of  16-17,000  with  the  women  and  children.  If  we  add  to  them  the  rest  of  the  Sarmatian  mercenaries  who  settled  in  Britain,  mainly  Alans,  the  total  Sarmatian  population  would  number  a  few  tens  of  thousands (possibly  20-30,000).  The  number  of  the  Germanic  gentiles  in  the  island  was  higher.  The  total  population  of  Britannia  was  around  1,000,000-1,500,000.  It seems that the  total  figure of  the  Germanics  and  Sarmatians (men,  women  and  children)  did  not  exceed  5 %  of  the total population.

According  to  some  modern  scholars,  the  history  of  these  Sarmatian  mercenaries  in  Britain  is  the  background  of  the  Arthurian  Legend, as  we  shall  see  in  PART  II (to be posted by Kavehfarrokh.com in September 2020).

Fall 2019 Iranian Studies Initiative Lectures at the University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia’s Persian and Iranian Studies Initiative of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia will be providing a series of lectures by prominent Iranian Studies scholars in the Fall of 2019. All of these lectures will be Free and open to the general public. As seen further below, the lecturers shall be Mahsa Rad, Dominic P. Brookshaw, Shahzad Bashir, Farzan Kermani, Morteza Asadi and Kaveh Farrokh.

The planned lectures and specific dates for these are as follows:

Mahsa Rad, Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology, Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran; Visiting International Research Student at UBC: Loneliness and  Struggle: Self-Narratives of Iranian Trans People’s Livesروایت  زندگی ترنس های ایرانی (in Persian)[13 Sept. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Dominic P. Brookshaw, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Persian Literature at The Oriental Institute, Oxford Semi-Annual Lecture in Persian/Iranian Studies: One Poet Among Many: Hafez and the Transregional Literary Networks of 14th-Century Iran (in English) – [Sept. 27, 2019, lecture hall to be announced]

Shahzad Bashir, Ph.D., Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University: Imagining Time in India: Persian Chroniclers and their Interpreters (in English) – [11 Oct. 2019, 6-7:30 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Farzan Kermani, Ph.D. in Design, IIT Bombay: Iranian Art After Islam: With a Look at Some Renowned Iranian Calligraphersهنر ایران پس از اسلام: با نگاهی به سرگذشت چند خوشنویس بلندآوازه – (in Persian) – [25 Oct. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Morteza Asadi, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC; former Assistant Professor of Economy at Kharazmi University, Tehran: Political Economy of Oil Curse: The Case of Post-Revolutionary Iran (in English) – [8 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Kaveh Farrokh, Ph.D., Professor of History & Academic Advisor for Analytica Iranica, Methodolgica Governance University, Paris, France: Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europa during the Classical Era (in English) – [29 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Readers further interested in Kaveh Farrokh’s upcoming lecture are encouraged to download two of his peer-reviewed articles as well as the Dissertation of Sheda Vasseqhi below:

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

PhD Dissertation by Sheda Vasseqhi (University of New England; academic supervision team Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh): Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In  the Origins Of Western Civilization.

See also:

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans.