By Matt Schwoebel (an amateur historical Arthur scholar/enthusiast)

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Friday, July 16, 2004

2. Sarmatians

In the movie, all of the knights except Arthur are Sarmatians forced into service as mercenaries by Rome.  The idea that the companions of Arthur were Sarmatians is a small, marginal minority opinion among scholars and I doubt more than a handful would claim that all of his equites were Sarmatian (if any).  The Sarmatians were Iranian steppe nomads from the Pontic Steppes located in modern Ukraine and Russia to the north and east of the Black Sea (their ancestral homeland is accurately portrayed in the movie).  They would have had to travel across the entire Roman Empire, which was under considerable political and military turmoil, to reach Britain (see points 5 & 6 about time period).  I have a difficult time imagining a great Welsh, Cornish, and Breton tradition growing around a group of foreign mercenaries. 

By the time of Arthur, the Sarmatians in their homeland had become subservient to the Goths and the Huns.  One group, the Alans, invaded Spain with the Visigoths.  Many followed the Huns into Europe and settled in modern Hungary especially.  A few sided with the Romans and acted as mercenary cavalry.  Others remained home and were eventually absorbed by the Turkic peoples that followed the Huns onto the Pontic Steppes.  As far as I know, the Sarmatians were never conquered by Rome (as shown in the movie).  The only territory the Romans had in the region occupied by the Sarmatians was a dependency in the Crimea.  By the time of the movie this dependency would have been under the Eastern Roman Empire (medieval Byzantium) or overwhelmed by barbarians.  Certainly the Western Roman Empire did not have the power to force Sarmatian families living on the steppes a thousand miles away to turn their sons over as mercenaries when this same empire could not even keep its own borders secure. 

Why would anyone believe Sarmatians were in Britain?  They were.  A Roman named Artorius Castus led a contingent of Sarmatian cavalry in Britannia during the later 2nd century to early 3rd century A.D. (note the early date, this was shown in the movie).  Some reasonably believe this Roman soldier was the progenitor of Arthur’s Roman family name, Artorius (as an aside, the name Arthur may also be derived from the Celtic word for bear).  Others go so far as to claim an Artorius (more of a title than a name) was a leader of Sarmatians in Britain for the next three centuries and that Arthur is a fictitious collection of all their exploits.  The movie places Arthur in a fort near Hadrian’s Wall.  The Sarmatians in Britannia were actually based near Bremetenna located in the area of modern Liverpool and Manchester.  A few of Arthur’s equites may well have been descended from these original Sarmatians, but they would have been a small percentage and not the entire group of companions.  Interestingly, Tristan is the most accurate portrayal of a Sarmatian in the movie (hunting hawk, his cap, bow, and curved sword), yet has that wholly Celtic name of his. 

Some people believe the Arthurian myth is Iranian, due to some motifs seemingly of Iranian origin.  What they fail to grasp is that the Arthurian legend has added many general Indo-European mythological elements to it over the years.  The Celts and the Iranians are both Indo-European peoples and would share many common myths.  As a minor aside, there is some Roman or Greek work mentioning the Picts of northern Britain (Woads in the movie, see point 8) being descendants of Scythian tribes, which were the Iranian predecessors to the Sarmatians on the Pontic Steppes.  This is not historically accepted.

Go To 3. Arthur in the North


Blogger BethL said...

Actually, Tristan's curved sword isn't very accurate - it's Chinese, not Sarmatian.

April 23, 2006 at 3:26 PM  
Blogger Telemaque said...

The Iranian element in the Arthurian myths is the story of the rise of king Cyrus the Great. Herodotus tells the tale. He had a peasant upbringing before making a claim of noble birth and becoming king and conqueror, a claim validated by a sword-in-the-stone moment.

5th Century Britain had clergy. The clergy had to have known their Herodotos (not to mention the Bible, which mentions Cyrus in Ezra and Nehemiah). There was no need for Sarmatians for the Cyrus legend to be coopted into the Arthurian myths.

May 10, 2006 at 11:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was clear that the movie-makers simply wanted to add colour to the film by giving each knight his own unique armour, weaponry and fighting style. Tristan's sword is the chinese type "dao" sword. Bors uses Indian katars- claw-like weapons worn as gloves.
The only knight similar to the true Sarmatian- the cataphract, a heavily armoured horseman with a lance several feet long, indeed very similar to the knight- is Galahad.

June 18, 2006 at 9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although Tristans curved Dao blade isn't very accurate, there were blades similar to a dao blade in that land, so....

Also, his armor is most accurate and who cares? Tristan was amazing.

March 22, 2008 at 9:29 AM  
Blogger Gherman Alexandru said...

"there is some Roman or Greek work mentioning the Picts of northern Britain (Woads in the movie, see point 8) being descendants of Scythian tribes".
Sometimes the truth makes considerable damages to our prejudgements.
If somebody is interested to find any relationship between Picts and Scythians he should find some reading materials about Agathyrsi, "a people of Scythian or mixed Dacian-Scythian origin. They tattooed their bodies, degrees of rank being indicated by the manner in which this was done, and colored their hair dark blue."

February 11, 2016 at 3:54 AM  

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