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Eth. ALA´NI (Ἀλανοί, Ἀλαῦνοι), a people, found both in Asia and in Europe, whose precise geographical positions and ethnographical relations are difficult to determine. They probably became first known to the Romans through the Mithridatic war, and the expedition of Pompey into the countries about the Caucasus; when they were found in the E. part of Caucasus, in the region which was called Albania by the Romans, but Alania by Greek writers, and where Alani are found down to a late period of the Greek empire. (J. AJ 18.4. s. 6; Lucan 10.454; Procop. Pers. 2.29, Goth. 4.4; Const. Porph. de Adm. Imp. 42.) Valerius Flaccus (Arg. 6.42) mentions them among the people of the Caucasus, near the Heniochi. Ammianus Marcellinus, who tells us more about the Alani than any other ancient writer, makes Julian encourage his soldiers by the example of Pompey, “who, breaking his way through the Albani and the Massagetae, whom we now call Alani, saw the waters of the Caspian” (23.5). In the latter half of the first century we hear of the Alani in two very remote positions. On the one hand, Josephus, who describes. them as Scythians dwelling about the river Tanaïs (Don) and the Lake Maeotis (Sea of Azov), relates how, in the time of Vespasian, being permitted by the king of Hyrcania to traverse “the pass which Alexander had closed with iron gates,” they ravaged Media and Armenia, and returned home again. On the other hand, they are mentioned by Seneca (Thyest. 629) as dwelling on the Ister (Danube); and Martial (Epigr. 7.30) expressly calls them Sarmatians; and Pliny (4.12. s. 25) mentions Alani and Roxalani (i. e. Russ-Alans) among the generic names applied at different times to the inhabitants of the European Scythia or Sarmatia. Thus there were Alani both in Asia, in the Caucasus, and in Europe, on the Maeotis and the Euxine; and also, according to Josephus, between these two positions, in the great plains N. of the Caucasus; so that they seem to have been spread over all the S. part of Russia in Europe. Under Hadrian and the Antonines we find the European Alani constantly troubling the frontier of the Danube (Ael. Spart. Had. 4. s. 6; Jul. Capit. Ant. Pi. 6. s. 8, Marc. 22, where they are mentioned with the Roxalani, Bastarnae, and Peucini); while the Alani of the E. again overran Media and Armenia, and threatened Cappadocia. (D. C. 69.15.) On this occasion the historian Arrian, who was governor of Cappadocia under Hadrian, composed a work on the Tactics to be observed against the Alani (῎εκταξις κατ᾽ Ἀλανῶν), which is mentioned by Photius (Cod. lviii. p. 15a., Bekker), and of which a considerable fragment is preserved (Arrian. ed. Dübner, in Didot's Script. Graec. Bibl. pp. 250--253). Their force consisted in cavalry, like that of the European Alani (the πολυΐππων φῦλον Ἀλανῶν of Dionysius Periegetes, 5.308); and they fought without armour for themselves or their horses. As another mark of resemblance, though Arrian speaks of them as Scythians, a name which was vaguely used in his time for all the barbarians of NW. Asia (cont. Alanos, 30), he speaks of them elsewhere (Tact. 4) in close connection with the Sauromatae (Sarmatians), as practising the same mode of fighting for which the Polish lancers, descendants of the Sarmatians, have been renowned. Ptolemy, who wrote under the Antonines, mentions the European Alani, by the name of Ἀλαῦνοι Σκύθαι, as one of the seven chief peoples of Sarmatia Europaea, namely, the Venedae, Peucini, Bastarnae, lazyges, Roxolani, Hamaxobii, and Alauni Scythae; of whom he places the Iazyges and Roxolani along the whole shore of tile Maeotis, and then the last two further inland (3.5.19). He also mentions (2.14.2) Alauni in the W. of Pannonia, no doubt a body who, in course of invasion, had established themselves on the Roman side of the Danube. Ptolemy speaks of a Mt. Alaunus (τὸ Ἀλαῦνον ὄρος) in Sarmatia, and Eustathius (ad Dion. Perieg. 305) says that the Alani probably derived their name from the Alanus, a mountain of Sarmatia. It is hard to find any range of mountains answering to Ptolemy's M. Alaunus near the position he assigns to the Alauni: some geographers suppose the term to describe no mountains, properly so called, but the elevated tract of land which forms the watershed between the Dniester and the Dnieper. The European Alani are found in the geographers who followed Ptolemy. Dionysius Periegetes (5.305) mentions them, first vaguely, among the peoples N. of the Palus Maeotis, with the Germans, Sarmatians, Getae, Bastarnae, and Dacians; and then, more specifically, he says (308) that their land extends N. of the Tauri, “where are the Melanchlaeni, and Geloni, and Hippemolgi, and Neuri, and Agathyrsi, where the Borysthenes mingles with the Euxine.” Some suppose the two passages to refer to different bodies of the Alani. (Bernhardy, ad loc.) They are likewise called Sarmatians by Marcian of Heracleia (τῶν Ἀλανῶν Σαρμάτων ἔθνος: Peripl. p. 100, ed. Miller; Hudson, Geog. Min. vol. i. p. 56). The Asiatic Alani (Ἀλανοὶ Σκύθαι) are placed by Ptolemy (6.14.9) in the extreme N. of Scythia [p. 1.84]within the Imaus, near the “Unknown Land ;” and here, too, we find mountains of the same name (τὰ Ἀλανά ὄρη, § § 3, 11), E. of the Hyperborei M.; he is generally supposed to mean the N. part of the Ural chain, to which he erroneously gives a direction W. and E.

Our fullest information respecting the Alani is derived from Ammianus Marcellinus, who flourished during the latter half of the fourth century (about 350--400). He first mentions them with the Roxolani, the Iazyges, the Maeotae, and the Iaxamatae, as dwelling on the shores of the Palus Maeotis (22.8.30); and presently, where the Riphaei M. subside towards the Maeotis, he places the Arimphaei, and near them the Massagetae, Alani, and Sargetae, with many other peoples little known (obscuri, quorum nec vocabula nobis sunt nota, nec mores). Again ( § 48) on the NW. of the Euxine, about the river Tyras (Dniester), he places “the European Alani and the Costobocae, and innumerable tribes of Scythians, which extend to lands beyond human knowledge;” a small portion of whom live by agriculture; the rest wander through vast solitudes and get their food like wild beasts; their habitations and scanty furniture are placed on waggons made of the bark of trees; and they migrate at pleasure, waggons and all. His more detailed account of the people is given when he comes to relate that greater westward movement of the Huns which, in the reign of Valens, precipitated the Goths upon the Roman empire, A. D. 376. After describing the Huns (31.2), he says that they advanced as far as “the Alani, the ancient Massagetae,” of whom he undertakes to give a better account than had as yet been published. From the Ister to the Tanais dwell the Sauromatae; and on the Asiatic side of the Tanaïs the Alani inhabit the vast solitudes of Scythia; having their name from that of their mountains (ex montium appellatione cognominati, which some understand to mean that Alani comes from ala, a word signifying a mountain). By their conquests they extended their name, as well as their power, over the neighbouring nations; just as the Persian name was spread. He then describes these neighbouring nations; the Neuri, inland, near lofty mountains; the Budini and Geloni; the Agathyrsi; the Melanchlaeni and Anthropophagi; from whom a tract of uninhabited land extended E.-wards to the Sinae. At another part the Alani bordered on the Amazons, towards the E. (the Amazons being placed by him on the Tanaïs and the Caspian), whence they were scattered over many peoples throughout Asia, as far as the Ganges. Through these immense regions, but often far apart from one another, the various tribes of the Alani lived a nomade life: and it was only in process of time that they came to be called by the same name. He then describes their manners. They neither have houses nor till the land; they feed on flesh and milk, and dwell on waggons. When they come to a pasture they make a camp, by placing their waggons in a circle; and they move on again when the forage is exhausted. Their flocks and herds go with them, and their chief care is for their horses. They are never reduced to want, for the country through which they wander consists of grassy fields, with fruit-trees interspersed, and watered by many rivers. The weak, from age or sex, stay by the waggons and perform the lighter offices; while the young men are trained together from their first boyhood to the practice of horsemanship and a sound knowledge of the art of war. They despise going on foot. In person they are nearly all tall and handsome; their hair is slightly yellow; they are terrible for the tempered sternness of their eyes. The lightness of their armour aids their natural swiftness; a circumstance mentioned also, as we have seen, by Arrian, and by Josephus (B. J. 7.7.4), from whom we find that they used the lasso in battle: Lucian, too, describes them as like the Scythians in their arms and their speech, but with shorter hair (Toxaris, 51, vol. ii. p, 557). In general, proceeds Ammianus, they resemble the Huns, but are less savage in form and manners. Their plundering and hunting excursions had brought them to the Maeotis and the Cimmerian Bosporus, and even into Armenia and Media; and it is to their life in those parts that the description of Ammianus evidently refers. Danger and war was their delight; death in battle bliss; the loss of life through decay or chance stamped disgrace on a man's memory. Their greatest glory was to kill a foe in battle, and the scalps of their slain enemies were hung to their horses for trappings. They frequented neither temple nor shrine; but, fixing a naked sword in the ground, with barbaric rites, they worshipped, in this symbol, the god of war and of their country for the time being. They practised divination by bundles of rods, which they released with secret incantations, and (it would seem) from the way the sticks fell they presaged the future. Slavery was unknown to them: all were of noble birth. Even their judges were selected for their long-tried pre-eminence in war. Several of these particulars are confirmed by Jornandes (de Rebus Geticis, 24). Claudian also mentions the Alani as dwelling on the Maeotis, and connects them closely with the Massagetae (In Rufin. 1.312):

Massagetes, caesamque bibens Maeotida Alanus.

Being vanquished by the Huns, who attacked them in the plains E. of the Tanaïs, the great body of the Alani joined their conquerors in their invasion of the Gothic kingdom of Hermanric (A.D. 375), of which the chief part of the European Alani were already the subjects. In the war which soon broke out between the Goths and Romans in Maesia, so many of the Huns and Alani joined the Goths, that they are distinctly mentioned among the invaders who were defeated by Theodosius, A.D. 379--382. Henceforth we find, in the W., the Alani constantly associated with the Goths and with the Vandals, so much so that Procopius calls them a tribe of the Goths Γ̔οτθικὸν ἔθνος: Vand. 1.3). But their movements are more closely connected with those of the Vandals, in conjunction with whom they are said to have settled in Pannonia; and, retiring thence through fear of the Goths, the two peoples invaded Gaul in 406, and Spain in 409. (Procop. l.c.; Jornandes, de Reb. Get. 31; Clinton, F. R. s. a.; comp. Gibbon, 100.30, 31.)

In 411 the Alani are found in Gaul, acting with the Burgundians, Alamanni, and Franks. (Clinton, s. a.) As the Goths advanced into Spain, 414, the Alani and Vandals, with the Silingi, retreated before them into Lusitania and Baetica. (Clinton, s. a. 416.) In the ensuing campaigns, in which the Gothic king Wallia conquered Spain (418), the Alans lost their king Ataces, and were so reduced in numbers that they gave up their separate nationality, and transferred their allegiance to Gunderic, the king of the Vandals. (Clinton, s. a. 418.) After Gunderic's death, in 428, the allied barbarians [p. 1.85]partitioned Spain, the Suevi obtaining Gallaecia, the Alani Lusitania and the province of New Carthage, and the Vandals Baetica. (Clinton, s. a.) Most of them accompanied Geiseric in his invasion of Africa in the following year (429: AFRICA, VANDALI), and among other indications of their continued consequence in Africa, we find an edict of Huneric addressed, in 483, to the bishops of the Vandals and Alans (Clinton, s. a.); while in Spain we hear no more of them or of the Vandals, but the place of both is occupied by the Suevi. Meanwhile, returning to Europe, at the time of Attila's invasion of the Roman empire, we find in his camp the descendants of those Alans who had at first joined the Huns; and the personal influence of Aëtius with Attila obtained the services of a body of Alani, who were settled in Gaul, about Valence and Orleans. (Gibbon, 100.35.) When Attila invaded Gaul, 451, he seems to have depended partly on the sympathy of these Alani (Gibbon speaks of a promise from their king Sangiban to betray Orleans); and the great victory of Chalons, where they served under Theodoric against the Huns, was nearly lost by their defection (451). Among the acts recorded of Torismond, in the single year of his reign (451--452), is the conquest of the Alani, who may be supposed to have rebelled. (Clinton, s. a.) In the last years of the W. empire the Alans are mentioned with other barbarians as overrunning Gaul and advancing even into Liguria, and as resisted by the prowess of Majorian (Clinton, s. a. 461; Gibbon, 100.36); but thenceforth their name disappears, swallowed up in the great kingdom of the Visigoths. So much for the Alani of the West.

All this time, and later, they are still found in their ancient settlements in the E., between the Don and Volga, and in the Caucasus. They are mentioned under Justinian; and, at the breaking out of the war between Justin II. and Chosroës, king of Persia, they are found among the allies of the Armenians, under their king Saroes, 572--3. (Theo. phylact. ap. Phot. Cod. lxv. p. 26b. 37, ed. Bekker.) The Alani of the Caucasus are constantly mentioned, both by Byzantine and Arabian writers, in the middle ages, and many geographers suppose the Ossetes of Daghestan to be their descendants. The medieval writers, both Greek and Arab, call the country about the E. end of Caucasus Alania.

Amidst these materials, conjecture has naturally been busy. From the Affghans to the Poles, there is scarcely a race of warlike horsemen which has not been identified with the Alani; and, in fact, the name might be applied, consistently with the ancient accounts, to almost any of the nomade peoples, confounded by the ancients under the vague name of Scythians, except the Mongols. They were evidently a branch of that great nomade race which is found, in the beginning of recorded history, in the NW. of Asia and the SE. of Europe; and perhaps we should not be far wrong in placing their original seats in the country of the Kirghiz Tartars, round the head of the Caspian, whence we may suppose them to have spread W.-ward round the Euxine, and especially to have occupied the great plains N. of the Caucasus between the Don and Volga, whence they issued forth into W. Asia by the passes of the Caucasus. Their permanent settlement also in Sarmatia (in S. Russia) is clearly established, and a comparison of the description of them by Ammianus Marcellinus with the fourth book of Herodotus can leave little doubt that they were a kindred race to the Scythians of the latter, that is, the people of European Sarmatia. Of their language, one solitary relic has been preserved. In the Periplus of the Euxine (p. 5, Hudson, p. 213, Gail) we are told that the city of Theodosia was called in the Alan or Tauric dialect Ἀρδάβδα or Ἀρδαύδα, that is, the city of the Seven gods. (Klaproth, Tableaux de l'Asie; Ritter, Erdkunde, vol. ii. pp. 845--850; Stritter, Mem. Pop. vol. iv. pp. 232, 395; De Guignes, Hist. des Huns, vol. ii. p. 279; Ukert, vol. iii. pt. 2. pp. 550--555; Georgii, vol. i. p. 152, vol. ii. p. 312.)


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  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.4.6
    • Lucan, Civil War, 10.454
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 4.12
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