There are currently two hypotheses regarding the origin of the Alans or Alani. The first states that the Alans already constituted a union of different Sarmatian populations, living on the steppes in eastern Russia towards the beginning of our era and thus before the appearance of a group of such a name in Roman literary sources. According to the second hypothesis, the Alans came to Europe from Central Asia, having subdued the indigenous Sarmatian tribes. Whichever is correct, all researchers agree that the Alans known in Roman times in the Ponto-Caucasian steppes encompassed several Iranian speaking peoples of indigenous or Eastern origin.


Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis IV, 25, 80) was the first Roman authorto locate the Alans to north of the Black Sea. However, by the time of Nero’s reign, Seneca (Thyste, Akt IV, Szene 1), was already mentioning them as opponents of the Empire on the Danube. Josephus (Titus Flavius Josephus, War of the Jews VII 7, 4)) speaks of the Alans invasion of 72 from Meothide, 1 on the Azov Sea towards the Transcaucasia to the Near East. Before the second half of the first century other reports are vague and unreliable.

The spread of rich Sarmatian tombs with zoomorphic objects of “gold turquoise” style is one of the most remarkable manifestations of the migration of this migration of nomads in the first century. The stylistic parentage between the Pontic and Asiatic objects allows one to suppose they came from the same workshops. Cultural elements with an Eastern origin appear in other objects from these tombs: arrows, buckle-plates, swords, Chinese mirrors. All of this shows there were close ties between the warrior elite of the Pontic-Caucasian steppes and those of Asian origin.
We might deduce that on in their history, the Alans constituted a social group of warriors rather than a “people”. This group might have been engaged to fight at the service of variety of Barbarian kings, from the Black Sea to Central Asia. The caste may well have had its own aristocratic culture, its fashions and styles, of which we find traces in the spread of prestigeious objects of Oriental origin. Later, the name “Alans” might have been adopted by the people in whose service they undertook their military activities. During the second and third centuries, the Alans progressivly became the one decisive force in the Pontic steppes, to the point that the names of other nomadic peoples of Eastern Europe disappeared from written sources.
The period of the third century is marked by troubles throughout the south of Eastern Europe, from the Caucasus to the Danube. Currently the distubances of the years 230-250 are attributed to either Germanic tribes (the Goths above all) or to the Alans and other Sarmatian tribes. It is logical to suppose that the Germanic and Iranian-speaking Barbarians were working together. It was probably the Alans and/or Sarmatians, who aggravated the military situation in the Pont-Caucasian steppes on the eastern frontier of the kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosphorus. Around 239, according to finds of coins, the Bosphorus town of Gorgippia and the fortified camp of Raevskoe, both on the Caucasian coast, were destroyed. Towards the middle of the third century, the large fortified settlements and rich necropolises of the population of Kuban (the famous “Golden Cemetery”)were abandoned . At the same time, the fortified settlements of the Scythians on the lower Dnieper were likewise abandoned and their inhabitants moved west, towards the steppes between the Dniester and the Danube.
In the second third of the third century and the first half of the fourth century, two invasions into Transcaucasia are highlighted in Georgian, although late, sources. It is difficult to evaluate the reliability of information from medieval Transcaucasian chronicals, as most were written well after the events to place. They certainly contain some details that are hard to verify. In any event, we can say that during the Roman era, the peoples of Transcaucasia had mititary and political contacts with the Iranian-speaking nomads of the northern Caucasus.
The Gothic Federation, which appeared during the late third century in what is today Ukraine and Romania, cut the Sarmatian world into two. The Alans of the Don, the Tanaïtis, formed a political entity, although any contacts they have had with the Goths are unknown. To the west, the “European” Alans of the steppes between the Dniester and the Danube were probably absorbed into the Gothic union.
During the second half of the fourth century, the Huns loomed on the eastern margins of Europe. The Alans of the Don, the Tanaïtis, were beaten and incorporated into the Federation of Hunnish peoples. During the Hunnish era, an important group of Alans remained in the steppes of the northern Caucasus, between Kuban and the Terek Rivers. The necropolis of Brut, in north Ossetia, represents a classic example of this. Two kurgans, or burial mounds, from this necropolis have yielded funeral chambers pillaged in antiquity. However, some hiding places near the dromos (entrance passage) were not noticed in by the thieves and they have yielded a considerable number of luxury objects. This rich tombs of the Central Caucasus highlight a new phenomenon: the formation of centers of power along the roads crossing the principal mountain chain of the Caucasus.
The Hunnish invasion also provoked the departure of certain groups of Alans towards the west. Thus it is that a group of Hunnish, Alan and Ostrogothic warriors, led by Alatheus and Saphrax (the latter being an Iranian name), joined the Visigoths in 376, during their exodus into the territory of the Roman Empire. During the Battle of Adrianopel it was the Alan, Ostrogothic and Hunnish cavalry, which played a key role in the defeat of the Roman army. In 378, the mounted troops of Alatheus and Saphrax installed themselves in Pannonia as federates of the Empire. It is not impossible that these troops took part in the famous migration of the Vandals, Suebi and Alans into the west. Indeed, isolated groups of Alans were reported as soldiers in the service of Rome during the last third of the fourth and fifth century. We should not overestimate their number or their role in the history of the Roman West, even though these elite troops did at time played an important or even decisive role in the interminable wars at the time of the great migrations. The most important episode of the Alans’ adventure in the West is the invasion of Gaul and Hispania by the Vandals, Suevi and Alans in the years 406 – 409. As is known, on 31 December 406, the Barbarians crossed the frozen Rhine near Mainz and left a trail of devastation for three years in Gaul. Towns such as Mainz, Strasbourg , Reims and Amiens were devastated, then the Barbarians towards the Loire, which they crossed close to Orleans, and moved on to lay waste to Aquitaine. The Alans who had arrived in Gaul divided into two groups: one was led by Goar and remained in Gaul, in the service of Rome, while the other, led by Respendial, remained bound with the Vandals and Suevi and left with them for Hispania in 409.
The Alans remaining in Gaul, played a major military role during the whole of the first half of the fifth century, although the material traces or place names left behind are insignifant or hard to interpret.

Alanische Funde in Gallien

Archäologische Hinweise auf Alanen in Gallien

Bachrach interpreted in his treatise on the history of Alans in the West (Bernard S. Bachrach, The History of the Alans in the West, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1973) several former and still existing French place names as originally alan: ‘Alan’ south of Toulouse ; ‘Alos’, ‘Algans’, ‘Alaigne’, ‘Moulin de Lange’, ‘Lanet’, ‘Lansac’ between Toulouse and Narbonne; ‘Alancianus’ and ‘Alenya’ south of Narbonne on the Mediterranean coast. The Alans should probably back up the troops to protect important Roman roads connecting northern Italy and Spain and the routes from the coast to the Gallic outback. After crossing the Rhine, some Alans settled as peacekeepers in northeastern Gaul between Paris, Tournai, Trier and Langres and protected the major routes from the Rhine into Gaul. Just southwest of the Seine between Paris and Orleans and northern Italy as protection for the Alpine passes. Many place names refer by Bachrach on Alans branches : ‘Aillianville’, ‘Alain Court’ (up to 3 times), ‘Alain’, ‘Halaigncourt’, ‘Alain Court-la-Coté’, ‘Allamont’, ‘Allancourt’, ‘Alland’huy , ‘Allaines’ (2x), ‘Allain’, ‘Allainville -en-Drouais’, ‘Allainville-aux-Bois’, ‘Allainville-en-Beuce’. In Italy: Mt. Rosa Alagna, Alagna, Alagna Lomelina, Allegno, Alano di Piave.
Many proven earlier medieval names of the aforementioned locations give more explicit instructions (see supra). Other place names point to an even earlier settlement by in Gaul and northern Italy (presumably by the Alans displaced) immigrated Sarmatians: Sarmato and Sarma rate in northern Italy; Sermaise, Sermoise, Sermiers and Sermaize-les- Bains in Gaul.
In 411, Goar’s troops supported the proclamation of the usurper, Jovinus, at Mainz, in 414, the Alans were again mentioned during the wars between Romans Visigoths in southern Gaul. In the 440s, two groups of Alans installed themselves close to Valence according to some, or near Orleans, according to others, under the protection of Aetius, the military governor of Gaul. We do not know what extent these Alans were linked to those involved in the wars of the years 406 – 414. In any case, they form part of the defense system of Gaul and served to crush the revolts of the Gallic- Roman population, notably in Armorica, as well as to defend the country against foreign enemies.

Schlacht auf den Katalaunischen Feldern

Schlacht auf den Katalaunischen Feldern

The Alans, under the leadership of Sangiban, fought alongside the Romans in the battle of the Catalaunian fields against Attila, although their allegiance was somewhat in doubt. Around 460, the Alans participated in the wars in Gaul and then, led by king Beorgor, left for Italy. In the peninsula, the presence of Alan soldiers in the ranks of the Roman army is well documented in the fifth century. In Gaul, on the other hand, after 461, the Alans disappear from written sources.
Those who arrived in Hispania, originally led by Respendial , now replaced by ADDAC , team up in the year 429 by the Vandals and Suevi . They played a dominant role in this alliance. The barbarians divided the conquered country with the result that the Alans took the middle part with the provinces of Lusitania and Charthageniensis in possession. Beaten by the Visigoths , from Aquitaine in the years 416 – 418 but arrived , they were forced to place themselves under the protection of the Vandals , whose king was now called, from now on rex Vandalorum et Alanorum . In 429 the Alans finally left Spain followed the Vandals in their further conquests in North Africa . Henceforth they are no longer to be distinguished from the Vandals . The Africa – Alans are no longer present as a separate unit in written records and other evidence that could identify them , have not yet been found.

1 Todays Mariupol, Ukraine.

Literature: Exhibition-catalogue: “Rome and the Barbarians. The Birth of a New World”, Palazzo Grassi Venice 2008.”
Bachrach, Bernard S.: A History of the Alans in the West. From Their First Appearance in the Sources of Classical Antiquity through the Early Middle Ages, Minneapolis 1973.