From Academic Kids

The Alans or Alani were an Iranian nomadic group among the Sarmatian people, warlike nomadic pastoralists of mixed backgrounds, who spoke an Iranian language and shared, in a broad sense, a common culture.


Early Alans

The first mentions of names that historians link with "Alani" appear almost at the same time in Greco-Roman geography and somewhat later Chinese dynastic chronicles of the 1st century BCE. The Geography (book 23, ch.XI.v) of Strabo, who was born in Pontus on the Black Sea, but was also working with Persian 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 BCE. But the "upper Aorsi" from whom they had split as fugitives, could send many more, for they dominated the coastal region of the Caspian Sea

"and consequently they could import on camels the Indian and Babylonian merchandise, receiving it in their turn from the Armenians and the Medes, and also, owing to their wealth, could wear golden ornaments. Now the Aorsi live along the Tanas, but the Siraces live along the Achardes, which flows from the Caucasus and empties into Lake Maeotis."

Secure identifications of names and places in the ancient Chinese chronicles are even more speculative, but some centuries later, the Later Han Dynasty Chinese chronicle, the Hou Han Shu (covering the period from 25 - 220), mentioned a report that the steppe land Yen-ts’ai was now known as Alan-liao. (阿蘭聊):

"The Kingdom of Yancai (Yen-ts'ai, "Vast Steppe") has changed its name to the kingdom of Alanliao. Its capital is the town of Di. It is a dependency of Kangju (centered on Tashkent). The climate is mild. Wax trees, pines, and ‘white grass’ (aconite) are plentiful. Their way of life and dress are the same as those of Kangju."

In another section the Hou Han Shu reported :

“It is said : “Some 2000 li (832 km) to the north-west from K’ang-ch is the state of Yen-ts’ai. The trained bowmen number 100,000. It has the same way of life as K’ang-ch. It is situated on the Great Marsh, which has no [further] shore [and which is presumably the Northern Sea].”

The "Great Marsh" may be the wetlands at the delta of the Danube, which were a formidable obstacle that slowed the westward drift of many nomads or even more impressive marshes of present day Belarus and north Ukraine. Thus at the beginning of the 1st century, the Alans had occupied lands in the northeast Azov Sea area, along the Don. The written sources suggest that from the second half of the 1st to 4th century the Alans had supremacy over the tribal union and created a powerful confederation of Sarmatian tribes. The Alans made trouble for the Roman Empire, with incursions into both the Danubian and the Caucasian provinces in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Archaeological finds support the written sources. Late Sarmatian sites were first identified with the historical Alans by P.D. Rau. 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, 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 Azov, crossed the Iron Gates for plunder and defeated the armies of Pacorus, king of Media, and Tiridates, King of Armenia, two brothers of the Vologeses I for whom the inscription was made:

"4.Now there was a nation of the Alans, which we have formerly mentioned somewhere as being Scythians, and inhabiting at the Lake Meotis. This nation about this time laid a design of falling upon Media, and the parts beyond it, in order to plunder them; with which intention they treated with the king of Hyrcania; for he was master of that passage which king Alexander shut up with iron gates. This king gave them leave to come through them; so they came in great multitudes, and fell upon the Medes unexpectedly, and plundered their country, which they found full of people, and replenished with abundance of cattle, while nobody durst make any resistance against them; for Pacorus, the king of the country, had fled away for fear into places where they could not easily come at him, and had yielded up everything he had to them, and had only saved his wife and his concubines from them, and that with difficulty also, after they had been made captives, by giving them a hundred talents for their ransom. These Alans therefore plundered the country without opposition, and with great ease, and proceeded as far as Armenia, laying all waste before them. Now Tiridates was king of that country, who met them, and fought them, but had like to have been taken alive in the battle; for a certain man threw a net over him from a great distance, and had soon drawn him to him, unless he had immediately cut the cord with his sword, and ran away, and prevented it. So the Alans, being still more provoked by this sight, laid waste the country, and drove a great multitude of the men, and a great quantity of the other prey they had gotten out of both kingdoms, along with them, and then retreated back to their own country."

Flavius Arrianus ('Arrian') 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 the Alans.

The 'western' Alans and Vandals

About 370 the Alans were overwhelmed by the Huns. They were divided into two groups. One group fled westward. These 'western' Alani joined the Germanic nations in their invasion of Roman Gaul. Gregory of Tours mentions that their king Respendial saved the day for the Vandals in an armed encounter with the Franks at the crossing of the Rhine (c. 407). Although some of the Alani settled in Iberia, most went to North Africa with the Vandals.

Following the fortunes of the Vandals into Spain, the separate ethnic identity of the western Alans dissolved. In 426, the western Alan king, Attaces, was killed in battle against the Visigoths, and this branch of the Alans subsequently appealed to the Vandal king Gunderic to accept the Alan crown. Later Vandal kings in North Africa styled themselves Rex Wandalorum et Alanorum (King of the Vandals and Alans).

Along with the Vandals and Suevi, these Alans eventually reached the shores of Gibraltar.

In Iberia, the Alans were famous for their massive hunting and fighting dogs, which they introduced to Europe. A giant breed of dog still called Alano survives in the Basque region of northeastern Spain. The dogs, which are traditionally used in boar hunting and cattle herding, are associated with the massive dogs that Alans and Vandals brought into Spain.

Alans and Slavs

Alan tribes living north of the Black Sea may have moved northwest into what is now Poland, merging with Slavic peoples there to become the precursors of historic Slav nations (notably Serbs and Croats). Third-century inscriptions from Tanais, a town on the Don River in modern Ukraine, 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 third century.

Accounts of these names reappear in the fifth century, with the Serboi, or Serbs, established east of the river Elbe in what is now western Poland, and the Croats in what is now Polish Galicia. The Alan tribes likely moved northeast and settled among the Slavs, dominating and mobilizing the Slavic tribes they encountered and later assimilating into the Slav population. In 620 the Croats and Serbs were invited into the Balkans by Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius to drive away the Turkic Avars, and settled there among earlier Slavic migrants to become ancestors of the modern Serbs and Croats. Some Serbs remained 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.

The 'eastern' Alans and Huns

Some of the other Alani, who remained under the rule of the Huns, were among the federates at the Battle of the Halys River, in Anatolia, 430. These 'eastern' Alans are said to be ancestors of the modern Ossetians of the Caucasus.

Those of the eastern division, though dispersed about the steppes until late medieval times, were forced by fresh invading hordes into the Caucasus, where they remain as the Ossetians. Their most famous leader was Aspar, the magister militum of the Byzantine Empire during the 460s, whereas an Alan lady of renowned beauty, Maria of Alania, became Empress by marrying Nicephorus III Botaniates in the late 11th century. They formed a network of tribal alliancess between the ninth and twelfth centuries. In the thirteenth 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. Digor in the west came under Kabard and Islamic influence. Tuallag in the southernmost region became part of what is now Georgia, and Iron, the northernmost group, came under Russian rule after 1767, which strengthened Orthodox Christianity considerably. Most of these Ossetes today are Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The remaining Alans speak a unique language where they remain as the Ossetians, divided between Russia and Georgia. There is an Ossetian minority in Chechnya too. Jacob Reinegg, in Description of the Caucasus, may have been the first to make this connection. He noted that the Tatars called them Edeki-Alan. Their language, Ossetic, belongs to the North Iranian language group; it is the survivor of the northeastern branch of Iranian languages known as Scythian, which once included languages of the Russian steppes and Central Asia: Scythians, Sarmatians, Massagetae, Alans. Modern Ossetic has two distinct major dialects: Digor, spoken in the western part of North Ossetia; and Iron, spoken in the rest of Ossetia. The literary language, based on the Iron dialect was fixed by the national poet, Kosta Xetagurov (1859-1906).

In the 4th-5th centuries they were at least partially Christianized by Byzantine missionaries of the Arian church. Islam was introduced in the 17th century through the Kabardians (an East Circassian tribe). Energetic re-Christianization was begun with increasing Russian influence after the Ossetians acknowledged Russian overlordship in 1802.

(Greek Αλανοι, Αλαννοι; Chinese O-lan-na; since the 9th century they have been called As, Russ. Jasy, Georgian Ossi),

As surnames

As surnames were adopted in the 19th century, Alani was popular among Turkic peoples in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran; in Greece and southern Italy Alani is also known as a surname. No direct connection with the Alans can be assumed.


  • 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 Minnesota Press, 1973 ISBN 0816606781

External links

de:Alanen fr:Alains pt:Alanos uk:Алани


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