The Predecessors of European Knights

24 July 2012, 14:27

The Ukrainian Week continues its series about ancient peoples who once lived on Ukrainian territory and left their cultural heritage behind. This article tells about the ‘Alans’, the very first knights of Europe. Read more about Celts and Goths in issues No. 5(28) and 6(29) of The Ukrainian Week published in April 2012.  

In the heart of the Caucasus, in the eye-catching creeks running from the central mountain range and the adjacent plateaus below the mountains, a people known as Ossetians have lived since the mid-18th century.  They are the last surviving branch of the numerous ancient tribes from the territory of modern Ukraine mentioned as Scythians and Sarmatians in Herodotus’ and Ptolemy’s chronicles. These people call themselves Alouni. Medieval Western chronicles mention their ancestors as Alans, while in most Eastern writings they are referred to as Asi, As or Os. Alans are among the earliest points where the historical fates of Western Europe, North Caucasus and Ukraine came together.


Two millennia ago, Alans was the name for Iranian-speaking East Sarmatian nomad tribes. Tall and good-looking with fair hair and menacing looks, the Alans were more warlike than other ethnic groups related to them. Old sources also describe them as an “untamable and brave” people who lived in the lower reach of the Danube, Northern Black Sea region, Fore-Caucasus and Central Caucasus. The territory inhabited by Sarmatians or Savromatians gradually became known as Alania, while at the same time ancient historians stopped mentioning other Sarmatian tribes in their works.

The tribes that lived in arid steppes mostly bred sheep and horse and therefore lived a nomadic or partly nomadic life. The Alans had no temples or shrines. According to Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, they “stuck a bare sword into the ground following a barbarian ritual and worshipped it in awe like Mars, the protector of the countries they cross as nomads” similar to their ancestors, the Scythians. The Alan community had the ideology where the military elite was considered supreme and chosen by God. Noble people did not burden themselves with any physical labour.

Some warlike Alans joined the Huns in their western march. Jointly, they attacked the tribes of Goths in the Northern Black Sea region and, with the Goths now among them; they reached the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire in 376. This catalyzed the Migration Period, also known as the Barbarian Invasions, provoking a steep twist in the stable and quiet life of the Old World. An image of an Alan warrior on a horse was one of the brightest symbols of that heroic epoch. Starting off from the territory of modern Ukraine, the Alans and their satellites crossed the entirety of Europe and reached the Pyrenees, its south-western frontier, ending their grand march on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. 


The Alans joined Sarmatians, their closest related tribes, who had headed for the west in the late 2nd century, on the Danube. This allowed them to break their union with the Huns and act on their own. In 378, their joint army defeated the Roman army in the Battle of Adrianople, killing Emperor Valens. This battle is considered an important milestone in the western art of war. It opened the era of a thousand-year long rule of Barbarian knights.  

The Alans negotiated the status of federates, i.e. military-obliged allies, for Northern Italy and Gaul from Rome after they gained control over vast territories where they created their Southern and Northern Kingdoms in the areas of modern Toulouse and between the Loire and the Seine rivers with Orléans as the capital. Until 450, menacing king Goar ruled in Orléans, ordered by Roman commander Aetius to protect the city from Huns and Visigoths.  Sangiban was his successor. He led the Alans in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in summer 451 that ended with a decisive victory for the Romans over the Huns. The Alan cavalry was put in the centre of the empire’s army and defeated the dangerous army led by Attila, the Scourge of God.   


The Alans’ pursuit of war, a decent opponent and heroic death was legendary in old times. But how did these tribes end up with such a military role and political impact in the West, so far from their homeland and most often among enemies? Clearly, their number or strength was not the answer.

They conquered the West with their military culture and outstanding discipline. Their cavalry, clad in steel armour and arranged in tight rows, had the best skills of the time. German kings eagerly invited the Alans to serve in their armies, while their own subjects, mostly marching troops, learned horse riding and horse battle from them. The Alans impressed the arrogant Roman nobility so much that Emperor Gratian (359–383) invited them to his guard unit, reformed his cavalry based on their model and wore Alan clothes and armour himself.

Since the Alan society was mostly war-oriented, boys were taught horseback riding from early childhood. According to Marcellinus, Alan warriors considered it offensive for a man to walk. Isidore of Seville noted in the 6th century that they looked clumsy without their horses.

Horse breeding was the Alans’ favourite occupation. Sarmathian-Alan horses were a special breed, popular in the West for their outstanding endurance. They shared the military fame of their masters, similar to the furious Alan war dogs. The breed is now known as Alano Espanol in the Iberian Peninsula. 

However, new armour, horse riding skills, and special horse and dog breeds were not the only things the Alans introduced to the West. Their contribution to western culture was far more important than that, as they also brought the code of knight ethics and the ideology of a military class. Black Sea Sarmathians who reached the West in the late 2nd century, and the Alans who caught up with them in the 4th century, made a knight cavalry and changed obsolete ideas about the status of warriors and warfare.

THE EMPEROR`S GUARD: The figures of Sarmatian warriors on horses is on the Trajan`s Column in Rome

The Alan epoch in European history features the initial model of Western traditions in the way the knights pursued religion and the starting point of the royal protection of the church.

The Alans mixed with the local European nations wherever they went, yet the memory of them remained in myths, legends and geographic names. Their language is clearly different from Romance, Germanic, Slavic and other languages of Western and Central Europe, therefore Alan names are easy to find in modern European maps. France and Northern Italy alone have nearly 300 towns and villages of Alan origin. The English name Alan, and French Alain, are also part of the common legacy.


The Alans had a much deeper impact on the world’s view of the medieval West, including its mythology, epic stories and aristocratic military rituals. Legends about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and the incarnation of knight ideals in European culture, were based on the Alan culture. Similar legends can be found in Ossetian epos about Nart knights.

The image of King Arthur’s life and death have much in common with Batradz, the Nart hero regarded by Ossetians as the model of the key traces a knight should possess: courage in battle, modesty in eating and drinking and high respect for women. It has many other analogies, such as the well-known motive of a sword in a stone pulled out by Arthur, which was the central element in recognizing him as the king of Britain. This is the sword of the deity of war worshipped by the Scythians and Alans.


Ossetians often see traces similar to their own in the appearance of people in Central and Southern Ukraine. In fact, Sarmatian and Alan blood runs in many Ukrainians. The traces of Alan knight ethics and traditions are most visible in Zaporizhzhian Cossacks. Their lifestyle seemed to have come out of the pages of Marcellinus’ chronicles.

Cossacks, too, were reluctant to live a peaceful life and work in the fields, and they pursued danger and wars far out in the world. Dying in battle was as prestigious and honourable amongst Cossacks as it was to the Alans, while men who preferred to grow grain instead were mocked and ridiculed in Zaporizhzhian Sich. Killing an enemy was something to brag about both among Cossacks, and the Alans. The distinct Cossack way of arranging protection in battle by fighting from behind a circle of wagons placed tightly together also traces back to the Alans, the Goths and the Battle of Adrianople.

Also, Cossacks had the cult of cold weapons. Some sources suggest that the descendants of Cossacks in Katerynoslavshchyna, now Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, still prayed to old swords stuck in the ground in the early 20th century. This was a common Alan ritual of Ukrainians and the Caucasus Ossetians: their old men used to worship swords in their family shrines once a year, too.

All these, as well as many more ethnic, cultural and language similarities encourage us to believe that the contribution of the Sarmatians and Alans into the establishment of Ukrainians is far more significant than was ever assumed before. A lot of features of Ukrainian culture can be traced back to the Alans, the very first knights of Europe. 

This is Articte sidebar