Alani or Alans, occasionally termed Alauni or Halani, were a group of Sarmatian tribes, nomadic pastoralists of the 1st millennium AD who spoke an Eastern Iranian language which derived from Scytho-Sarmatian and which in turn evolved into modern Ossetian.
The Alans were also known over the course of their history by another group of related names including the variations Asi, As, and Os (Romanian Iasi, Bulgarian Uzi, Hungarian Jász, Russian Jasy, Georgian Osi). It is this name that is the root of the modern Ossetian.
Alania was a medieval kingdom of the Alans that flourished in the Northern Caucasus, roughly in the location of latter-day Circassia and modern North Ossetia–Alania, from the 8th or 9th century until its destruction by the Mongol invasion in 1238-39. Its capital was Maghas, and it controlled a vital trade route through the Darial Pass.
The first mentions of names that historians link with the "Alani" appear at almost the same time in Greco-Roman geography and in the Chinese dynastic chronicles.
The Geography (XXIII, 11) of Strabo (64/63 BC–ca. 24 AD), 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 BC. 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 Tanaïs, but the Siraces live along the Achardeüs, which flows from the Caucasus and empties into Lake Maeotis."
Chapter 123 of the Shiji (whose author, Sima Qian, died c. 90 BC) reports:
- Yancai lies some 2,000 li [832 km] northwest of Kangju. The people are nomads and their customs are generally similar to those of the people of Kangju. The country has over 100,000 archer warriors, and borders on a great shoreless lake.
The mouth of the Syr Darya or Jaxartes River, which emptied into the Aral Sea was approximately 850 km northwest of the oasis of Tashkent which was an important centre of the Kangju confederacy. This provides remarkable confirmation of the account in the Shiji.
The kingdom of Yancai [literally "Vast Steppe"] has changed its name to the kingdom of Alanliao. They occupy the country and the towns. It is a dependency of Kangju (the Chu, Talas, and middle Jaxartes basins). 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.
The 3rd century Weilüe states:
Then there is the kingdom of Liu, the kingdom of Yan [to the north of Yancai], and the kingdom of Yancai [between the Black and Caspian Seas], which is also called Alan. They all have the same way of life as those of Kangju. To the west, they border Da Qin [Roman territory], to the southeast they border Kangju [the Chu, Talas, and middle Jaxartes basins]. These kingdoms have large numbers of their famous sables. They raise cattle and move about in search of water and fodder. They are close to a large shoreless lake. Previously they were vassals of Kangju [the Chu, Talas, and middle Jaxartes basins]. Now they are no longer vassals.
By the beginning of the 1st century, the Alans had occupied lands in the northeast Azov Sea area, along the Don and by the 2nd century had amalgamated or joined with the Yancai of the early Chinese records to extend their control all the way along the trade routes from the Black Sea to the north of the Caspian and Aral seas. The written sources suggest that from the end of the 1st century to the second half of the 4th century the Alans had supremacy over the tribal union and created a powerful confederation of Sarmatian tribes.
From a Western point-of-view the Alans presented a serious problem for the Roman Empire, with incursions into both the Danubian and the Caucasian provinces in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Ammianus Marcellinus considered the Alans to be the former Massagetae: "the Alani, who were formerly called the Massagetae" and stated "Nearly all the Alani are men of great stature and beauty; their hair is somewhat yellow, their eyes are terribly fierce".
Excerts from Ammianus Marcellinus
Here we reproduce some content from A Fourth-Century Description of the Huns (Excerpted from Ammianus Marcellinus, History of Rome from Constantine to Valens, C. D. Yonge, tr. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1885), pp. (http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/AmmHuns.html)
From the third century on, the Roman Empire felt pressure from the migration of the Germans and other peoples across the borders of the Roman Empire. An impetus for this expansion was the growth of Steppe empire led by a Turkic people known as the Huns. The growth of similar steppe empires in East Asia (Hsiung-Nu) and Central Asia (Efthalite Huns) caused the breakup of the Han Dynasty in China and the Gupta Empire in India.
Below is a description of the "western" Huns by the Roman Historian Ammianus Marcellinus.
This active and indomitable race, being excited by an unrestrainable desire of plundering the possessions of others, went on ravaging and slaughtering all the nations in their neighborhood till they reached the Alani, who were formerly called the Massagetae; and from what country these Alani came, or what territories they inhabit - since my subject has led me so far - it is expedient now to explain, after showing the confusion existing in the accounts of the geographers, who, at last, have found out the truth.
The Danube, which is greatly increased by other rivers falling into it, passes through the territory of the Sauromatae Scythians, which extends as far as the river Don, the boundary between Asia and Europe. On the other side of this river the Alani inhabit the enormous deserts of Scythia, deriving their own name from the mountains around; and they, like the Persians, having gradually subdued all the bordering nations by repeated victories, have united them to themselves and comprehended them under their own name. Of these other tribes the
- Neuri inhabit the inland districts, being near the highest mountain chains, which are both precipitous and covered with the everlasting frost of the north. Next to them are the
- Budini, and the
- Geloni, a race of exceeding ferocity, who flay the enemies they have slain in battle, and make of their skins clothes for themselves and trappings for their horses. Next to the Geloni are the
- Agathyrsi, who dye both their bodies and their hair of a blue color, the lower classes using spots few in number and small; the nobles broad spots; close and thick, and of a deeper hue.
Next to those are the Melanchlaenae and the Anthropophagi, who roam about upon different tracts of land and live on human flesh. And these men are so avoided on account of their horrid food that all the tribes which were their neighbors have removed to a distance from them. And in this way the whole of that region to the northeast, till you come to the Chinese, is uninhabited.
On the other side the Alani again extend to the east, near the territories of the Amazons, and are scattered among many populous and wealthy nations, stretching to the parts of Asia which, as I am told, extend up to the Ganges, a river which passes through the country of the Indians, and falls into the Southern Ocean.
Then the Alani, being thus divided among the two quarters of the globe - the various tribes which make up the whole nation it is not worth while to enumerate - although widely separated, wander, like the nomads, over enormous districts. But in the progress of time all these tribes came to be united under one generic appellation, and are called Alani.
They have no cottages, and never use the plough, but live solely on meat and plenty of milk, mounted on their wagons which they cover with a curved awning made of the bark of trees, and then drive them through their boundless deserts. And when they come to any pasture land, they pitch their wagons in a circle, and live like a herd of beasts, eating up all the forage - carrying, as it were, their cities with them in their wagons. In them the husbands sleep with their wives - in them their children are born and brought up; these wagons, in short, are their perpetual habitation, and, wherever they fix them, that place they look upon as their home.
They drive before them their flocks and herds to their pasturage; and about all other cattle, they are especially careful of their horses. The fields in that country are always green, and are interspersed with patches of fruit-trees, so that, wherever they go, there is no dearth either of food for themselves or fodder for their cattle. And this is caused by the moisture of the soil and the number of the rivers which flow through these districts.
All their old people, and especially all the weaker sex, keep close to the wagons and occupy themselves in the lighter employments. But the young men, who from their earliest childhood are trained to the use of the horses, think it beneath them to walk. They are also all trained by careful discipline of various sorts to become skillful warriors. And this is the reason why the Persians, who are originally of Scythian extraction, are very skillful in war.
Nearly all the Alani are men of great stature and beauty. Their hair is somewhat yellow, their eyes are terribly fierce; the lightness of their armor renders them rapid in their movements, and they are in every respect equal to the Huns, only more civilized in their food and their manner of life. They plunder and hunt as far as the Sea of Azov and the Cimmerian Bosporus, ravaging also Armenia and Media.
- Alemany pp. 5–7
- Agustí Alemany, Sources on the Alans Handbook of Oriental Studies, sect. 8, vol 5) (Leiden:Brill) 2000.
- Ammianus Marcellinus, XXXI.2.12