Were Sarmatians ever posted by the Romans in Britain? Did they contribute to the Arthurian legend?


I would like to fact-check the Sarmatian connection with Arthurian legend. Quite a few websites state that Sarmatians were posted in Roman Britain, hence Sarmatian contribution to the Arthurian legend. I look forward to your feedback.

“In regarding the Sarmatians, it’s important to note their potential contributions to the lore and mythos of western civilization. Their foundation and relationship to the Amazons has already been alluded to, but their transfer to Britain has helped feed speculation on the origin of King Arthur. Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman cavalry officer serving in the 2nd century AD has often been associated with one possible source of the true historical Arthur. Whether true or not, the Sarmatian contribution to the story is certainly one major piece of the huge Arthurian puzzle. The service of Sarmatian cavalry, from the 2nd century until the 5th century and the Roman withdrawal from Britain, along with the deeds and exploits of Artorius, may have allowed his legend to grow and foster with each successive generation of Sarmatian ‘colonists’. They also provided an invaluable contribution in post-Roman Britain, fending off Saxon invasions, which certainly helped foster the growing Arthur mythology.”

This website disputes it.

“2. While it is true that the Romans enlisted soldiers and units from border tribes like the Sarmatians, they were never posted at the other end of the empire. This would have made no sense, since the whole point of the foederati was to create a buffer between the empire and the northern and eastern barbarians. The Sarmatian soldiers were typically posted in Sarmatia.”

This page has a few criticisms of the theory:

Going by this, the theory isn’t blatantly idiotic, but it’s on shaky ground, because the evidence for it is ambiguous.

Wikipedia mentions stronger criticisms:

So if the critics alluded to in the final sentence are correct, and the supposed Sarmatian influence is all subsequent to Geoffrey of Monmouth (that’s what “post-Galfridian” in the text above means), it obviously can’t be the historical basis for King Arthur. This is where the final citation link points to.

Frankly, I’m not very familiar with judging evidence in the softer sciences, so I’ll leave the final determination to others. However, it doesn’t look good so far.

I didn’t think the presence of Sarmatians in Britain was particularly controversial. I seem to remember, and the interwebz back me up, that it is attested in the Notitia Dignitatum, a document from the fifth century detailing the units of the Western and Eastern Roman armies.

(BTW, if you hadn’t heard of the Notitia Dignitatum before, be prepared for it to pop up all the time in your local environment from now on. It seems to be something of a poster child for the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or at least it was for me. But anyway…)

The second quote in the OP seems a bit confused. The Sarmatian cavalry in Britain (and Italy and Gaul) wouldn’t be *foederati *as such, in the sense of whole foreign tribes or nations on the borders given benefits in exchange for military assistance (a common practice in the late Empire). They would be serving with the regular army, basically as auxiliaries, although the distinction between legions and auxiliaries weren’t a thing anymore by the time of the Notitia.

The Romans had been farming out cavalry work to troops from far-flung places since basically forever (or at least since the beginning of the auxiliary system), and they often served in provinces far away from where they were recruited. In the Principate era, non-citizen auxilia provided all the Roman cavalry, as well as specialized troops like archers and slingers (the Romans and Italians proper were always lacking in those areas, despite of course having world-beating heavy infantry).

As for the connection to the Arthur legend, I’ll leave that to the experts.

They would have made TERRIBLE Roman conquerors!

Always binding the wounds of their stricken foes, and bringing them to a local inn to recuperate. I can’t imagine the emperor putting up with such a waste of resources.

I see what you did there. :wink:

Just for the record: The *Sarmatians *are the ones on horses, poking big holes in you with giant lances. The *Samaritans *are the other ones. Make sure to not get them confused when you’re passed out in a ditch on the way home from the pub.

I’d heard that posting Sarmatians in faraway Britain was a dleiberate policy of Romne – it makes it much less likley these draftees will desert to go home.

The Arturian legends seem to have developed from a mishmash of unrelated events, legends and fictions. Objections like the following miss that point:

The hypothesis connecting the names “Arthur” and “Lucius Artorius Castus” is AFAIK unrelated to the hypothesis connect Arthur’s Knights to Sarmatian lore. (The connection was made, with distorted chronology, in the 2004 film King Arthur.)

Yeah, it was. That basically applies to the Roman use of auxiliaries and foreign troops in general. You want your military in a given area to not be too closely connected to the locals.

Although it’s also simply a matter of the jobs that need doing. We need some good cavalry and archers in the province of Bumfuck. Got any? Well, who are the good cav? Sarmatians. Who are the good archers? Syrians. Great, ship some over. We have roads. It’s fine.

I was just watching an episode of Time Team (thank you, YouTube) where they were trying to find traces of a unit of Mesopotamian boatmen who were supposedly posted in Britain. Now, at first blush it seems bonkers to think that a unit of Iraqis would even be in Britain in ancient times. These are places that in our day seem far apart and not really connected. But one thing you’ll notice about the Romans is how small and connected they sometimes make their world seem. The Romans are marching all over the place. Troops fighting on the Rhine frontier at one time could find themselves on the Tigris later on, if that was where the action had moved to. Britain? Upper Mesopotamia? It’s all in the Empire. Ship 'em over. You know the recruiting slogan “join the army, see the world”? That would certainly have applied in Roman times.

Actually, this is a point I was sort of looking for an excuse to get on my soapbox and make, so I’ll guess I’ll grab this one. Look at Caesar, and his wars. One moment he’s in Gaul, crossing the Rhine into Germany, and going to Britain. Then he’s fighting civil wars in Greece, Africa and Spain. Other times he’s hanging out in Egypt, or going all “veni, vidi, vici” in what is today’s Turkey, and then dies with plans to invade the Middle East sitting on his desk. He’s all over the place, and he doesn’t seem to think of that as strange.

And it’s not just the Romans themselves, or their armies. For instance, the Apostle Paul travels to Rome to plead his case. It’s the sort of thing he could do. (Actually, the city of Rome at the height of Empire would be the most multinational melting pot you can imagine.) When the Germans cross the Rhine in the Migration Period, they don’t stop in Gaul. They end up running Spain and North Africa.

People (and goods, and ideas) could and did move around in the Roman world. Soldiers most certainly did. And yeah, I know: This was in a time where nothing moved faster than a horse, and there was no internet, but there you go. It’s a world that won’t look as small and connected again until modern times, and in many ways it still doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t feel anything like that in the Middle Ages, or least it doesn’t seem like it when you read about it.

Sarmatians (BTW, map for anyone who just tuned and is wondering where Sarmatia is anyway) and Iraqis in Britain may sound a bit weird… to us. To a Roman commander? Not really that weird.

Were Sarmatians ever posted by the Romans in Britain?



Did they contribute to the Arthurian legend?

Maybe. There are some intriguing similarities between certain Arthurian tales and certain tales from the region inhabited by the Sarmatians:

(same source as above)

What does this have to do with Lucius Artorius Castus?

Probably nothing, as the idea that this Roman officer commanded Sarmatians seems to be pure speculation.

I think it’s important, when discussing the origins of the Arthurian legends, to separate the question of where the tales came from and the question of where the name Arthur came from. There need not be any relationship between the answers to these two questions.

That would be Arbeia. Fascinating place, well worth visiting. Spent a fascinating day there back in '09.

Recent scholarship has suggested that the line between auxiliaries and legions began to blur by the late second and early third century and became historic and traditional after that (like the way so many modern day units have “cavalry” in their name, even though they have not had horses for decades).

Several units and formations existed for centuries, and although only citizens could join the legions, citizenship would be conferred upon retiring auxiliaries and their families.

The blurring of the lines occurred due to this, many men wanted to join their father’s old outfit and units with a distinguished battle record would often attract many recruits. So much so, that in some case the unit no longer had the ethnic composition of its name.

(The Romans did use local levies as well).

I read a similar question on Reddit AskHistorians subreddit (which generally get high quality answers) where it was pointed out that, yes, a unit of Sarmatians was once recruited and posted to Britain, it’s extremely unlikely that any actual Sarmatians would still serve in it after hundreds of years, as Sarmatians soldiers would be replaced with new recruits coming from elsewhere.

Such a unit would still be called “Sarmatian” but it would just be a legacy name. Not that different from modern armed forces that still maintain “Cavalry” units (with no actual mounted soldiers serving in them).

Psst… the post right above yours.

It wasn’t there when I started writing, also I had to login in to write the post and since then the board has slowed to a crawl for me so it takes me ages to to post anything.

To the last couple of posts: Hmm? Guys, you two guys’s posts coexist just fine as far as thread-flow goes, at least as far as I can tell from here. Relax. :wink: Anyway…

Yeah, good point. The cavalrymen originally recruited by Marcus certainly weren’t immortal, and there’s really no particular reason for ethnic Sarmatians to keep being recruited to that unit, when I think about it. And the same thing goes for other “ethnic” units.

I shall readjust my brain to this position.

Yeah, the legion/auxiliary distinction does disappear. For one thing, all free men in the Empire get citizenship in 212, so there goes the citizen/non-citizen distinction. For another, actual Italians apparently aren’t really serving in the armies much after a while. For these and a bunch of other reasons, there really isn’t such a thing as the legions of old anymore at all when we get to Late Antiquity. There’s still the Roman army, obviously, but it’s a different sort of beast than it used to be.

Hey, how about I pick apart some of the other stuff I said earlier, too? The idea of posting foreign troops to the provinces, loyal only to the army and not the locals, also goes out the window (if it was ever a consistent thing in practice to begin with). As, really, does the whole concept of an army that can be marched around the Empire as needed.

For instance, in 360, there’s an army rebellion in Gaul. The troops refuse to follow orders from the Emperor Constantius II, and proclaim his cousin Julian as Emperor instead. Why? They had been ordered to go fight a war against the Sassanids in Mesopotamia, but they didn’t want to leave their homes and families in Gaul. Julian had promised them that they wouldn’t have to.

Yeah. How did the Romans get *that * kind of problem? The Sassanids had invaded, so it wasn’t like the troops weren’t needed over there. Constantius must have been tearing his hair out. In the good old days, soldiers weren’t even allowed to marry while they were in the army, and when they were told to go march to the other end of the Empire, they bloody well did. But the times, apparently, were a-changing.

Of course, the story is called the Good Samaritan because it was taken as a given, at least in the context of the story, that the typical Samaritan was one of the least likely people you would expect such help from. So passed out in a ditch you’re probably out of luck either way.

Oye, its a fine post from you, just a bit of teasing.:wink:

Yes, if it ever existed as more then a recruiting ploy; a lot of the idea about distinction comes from Trajen’s column from the Dacian Wars.
The rest of what you say is correct as well, with the addendum that by the time, lots of political power was in the hands of non Italians… it was a N African origin Emperor who issued the decree as it is.

Again true, although they did move troops, to the end, it was even in earlier times difficult. It was expensive and they might not be some use in a different terrain and climate. If you have a unit posted at Hadrian’s Wall, they are not going to be much use on the Arabian Frontier (basically Jordan and NW Saudi Arabia), since they have no idea about desert fighting.

Well would modern soldiers be very happy about being sent to Iraq? :stuck_out_tongue:

Mesopotamia was a frontier where there were heavy and bloody fights against an equal adversary, not the Rhine or Hadrian’s Wall. Pretty much everybody had to serve there. I have read one source which states that they would rotate units in and out, you would serve a set time there and then be sent elsewhere.

Yes. Of course now a slave was something different. It was property. So what if the legionary had one who was female, who cooked, cleaned and shared his bed and bore his children. And whom he freed and married when he left the Army. (As an example, this inscription raised by a former soldier from Syria, for his British concubine and later wife). Point being, they always laid down roots. Well, if their Commander permitted, from what I have read, on Hadrian’s Wall, Limes Arabicus and Egypt, they were cool with having “slaves” who seemed to do everything a wife did, no so on the Euphrates.

Right. I didn’t think of that.

Moral of this thread: Try not to pass out in ditches.

Yeah, fair enough, it has been the same story over there since Roman times (btw, eventually Julian is the one who ends up going, and - spoiler alert - it ends Very Badly for him). But if Obama tells them to go, and they plain refuse and declare Malia president, you might want to look into how your army is being run. :wink:

I should add:

I mean, not that the Roman army didn’t dump one Emperor for another claimant all the freaking time. Obviously, they did. It’s just the particular reason in this case that worries me a bit.

Thank you all. Very helpful.

That’s racist!