Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sarmation Surprise

When I was young and went to school, there were certain teachers who ... taught me about Rome.

I learned about the wild German barbarians of Europe, who eventually muscled their way into the Empire. Later, I learned that Rome had other enemies -- the Parthians to their east, ruling over what we today call the Middle East.

Plunging into Cambridge Ancient History this month, Ive learned even more. Rome had another enemy, a people called the Sarmatians. Nomads who rode small, fast horses and built no cities, these people ranged from Siberia to Ukraine -- and menaced Rome and Parthia alike.

Among them was a tribe called the Moetians, almost unique in ancient history for the level of equality between the Women and men among them. Had they had great literary apologists such as did the democrats of Athens, perhaps that innovation would have become more widely known, for the betterment of the world.

Another Sarmatian tribe were the Alans -- so wide ranging as to even be recorded in the Chinese annals. The Alans gradually pushed west into Europe as Rome weakened, in time reaching Spain and then crossing into Africa. Imagine a grizzled Alan elder, trying to explain to his young kin born under the African sun, the stories of his grandparents about life in the frozen hell of Siberia.

Not all the Alans went west, my boy. A chunk of them lingered in the Caucasus region, where their headquarters became known as Ossetia. Ossetia -- where had I heard that before?

Remember last summer, when Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia went to war? Turns out that Russia claims a piece of that turf wherein Ossetians still dwell and Georgia claims another piece where southern Ossetians dwell. The latter group want independence, Russia for her own ends supports it, and therefore, blood was shed.

Russia being a huge and nuclear-armed country, the travails of these restless, modern-day Alans could easily have led to a cataclysmic war.

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