The Caucasus is often noted as a place of cultural refuge, its steep slopes and hidden valleys preserving traditions and languages that were swept away in the less rugged landscapes to the north and south. Such a depiction generally seems fitting for the Ossetians, the apparent descendents of a nomadic group called the Sarmatians that dominated the grasslands of western Eurasia from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE.
The Sarmatians were probably not a single ethnic group, let alone a unified nation, but rather a collection of related tribes that spoke closely related Iranian languages and followed similar pastoral ways of life. Discussed at length by ancient Greek and Roman geographers, the Sarmatians were depicted as a proud and warlike people, noted by some for sending young women into battle. (Recent archeological investigations seem to bear this out, as many Sarmatian graves contain skeletons of women dressed for war.)
Long after they seemingly disappeared from history, the Sarmatians retained significance in the European imagination. In the seventeenth century, most members of the Polish nobility convinced themselves that they had descended not from the Slavic tribes that had given rise to their nation’s peasantry, but rather from the Sarmatians; as a result, they widely adopted modes of dress and manners that they associated with this ancient group. The resulting style, called “Sarmatism,” remained influential until the 1800s and has not completely disappeared. In its modern guise, however, the movement has been widened, with various central and eastern European nationalists claiming Sarmatian ancestry for their entire societies. Neo-Nazis also look back to the group; a “Sarmatians” image-search on the internet yields numerous links to the infamous Stormfront website.
The Sarmatian hold on their grassland home was apparently lost to others in the fourth century. It was around this time that certain Sarmatian groups became known to history as the Alans. From the west, the Germanic Ostrogoths moved into the steppes and took up a largely equestrian way of life, while the Huns invaded from the east, threatening Sarmatians and Ostrogoths alike. Pastoral polities of the time, however, were often quite fluid, allowing peoples of different language groups to join together, whether in semi-institutionalized confederacies or mere armed aggregations of coercion or convenience. A few Alan groups evidently joined the Huns, but most fled west into Europe to avoid domination. They moved not as a single people, however, but in numerous contingents, many of which attached themselves to the Germanic tribes that were also fleeing the Huns into the dying Western Roman Empire. Some Alans allied with the (Germanic) Burgundians to establish a strong presence in Gaul. Others moved into the Iberian Peninsula, ruling over a short-lived Alanic kingdom in the early 400s. Many more joined forces with the Vandals, accompanying them in their invasion of Roman North Africa in 429 CE.
The various Alan groups that moved into the Roman world in the late 300s and early 400s did not maintain their language or identity for long. In most cases, they merged with the more tightly unified Germanic peoples and were eventually subsumed into the general populations of the areas in which they settled. They did leave marks, however, as suggested by numerous place names along the lines of “Alainville.” They also seem to have figured prominently in the development of the medieval ideals of chivalry.
If C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor are to be believed, the cultural legacy of the Alans in Europe was profound. In a fascinating and controversial book entitled From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes), Littleton and Malcor argue that most of the Arthurian corpus derives from the stories and myths of the Alans. Although criticized for downplaying the Celtic aspects of the legends, Littleton and Malcor present abundant evidence leading back to the Alans. Guinevere, they allow, was a Celtic figure, but Lancelot and many others seem to have a Sarmatian origin. As they show, the north Caucasus’s own epic writings, the Nart Sagas, bear a curious resemblance to the Arthurian stories, abounding in magical swords and supernatural chalices.
Although most of the Alans swept into Western Europe and North Africa in late antiquity, others evidently sought refuge in the deep valleys of the Greater Caucasus range, where they intermarried with the indigenous peoples of the region. In time their descendants were able to establish a state of their own. By the 700s, the Kingdom of Alania linked the central Caucasus Mountains with a broad swath of the steppe zone of the north. Alania was soon embroiled in a complex geopolitical contest for the larger region, involving the Arab Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire, and the Khazar Khanate (an empire based in the northern Caspian Sea region whose ruling elite adopted Judaism). Alliance with the Khazars evidently resulted in numerous conversions to Judaism among the Alans, but Christianity triumphed in the higher circles of Alania, based on strong connections with both the Greeks and the Georgians, although pre-Christian beliefs and practices did not vanish entirely. Medieval Alania was already well integrated into the diplomatic circles of the Orthodox Christian realm. Several Alan princesses married into royal houses in Russia, Georgia, and the Byzantine Empire.
Alania was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the early 1200s and essentially destroyed by the incursions of Tamerlane in the late 1300s. As had happened in the fourth century, some Alans fled the invading armies; others sought refuge in the remote Caucasian valleys; still others became incorporated into the conquering society. Joining forces with the Mongols, more than a few ended up in China, where “30,000 Alans formed the royal guard (Asud) of the Yuan court in Dadu (Beijing).” Another sizable group received refuge in Hungary; their descendants, the Jassic people or Jász, are still viewed as a distinct ethnic group, numbering some 85,000.
The Alans who retreated into the Caucasus after the Mongol assaults were unable to reconstitute their kingdom. Instead they split into petty polities and came under the partial domination of their Kabardian neighbors. They eventually divided into two distinct ethnic groups, the Iron and the Digor, marked by differences in dialect and territory. Ossetian religion came to be marked by a strongly syncretic bent, with the names of Christian saints commonly identified with pre-Christian gods. After the Russian conquest in the late 1700s, Orthodox Christianity experienced a revival, especially among the Iron. Islam also spread into Ossetia, passing from the Kabardians to the Digor especially. Syncretic beliefs and practices, however, persist among both groups, alongside mainstream Islam and Christianity. Such syncretism has historically been common through much of the North Caucasus, although more orthodox forms of faith have been spreading rapidly over the past few decades.
In the late Soviet period, Ossetian intellectuals began to reclaim their Alanian heritage, and in 1994 North Ossetia was officially renamed “North Ossetia-Alania.” This move may have been meant to help fuse the Digor and Iron into a single nationality, as the two groups remain divided by dialect and to a certain extent by religion as well. Loyalty to the Iron people rather than to the Ossetians as a whole is evident in a disarming hip-hop video found here. Although labeled “Ossetian Rap” in the English-language YouTube service, its actual title, in Cyrillic script, is “Iron Rap” (ИРОН РЭП).
(Many thanks to David Erschler for his corrections to the original post.)