DACIANS AND SARMATIANS

dacians and sarmatians nav image.pngThe Dacians inhabited an area roughly corresponding to ancient Thrace (modern Yugoslavia) and like their predecessors had a reputation for ferocity and warlike behaviour that brought them into conflict with the might of the Roman Empire. Dacian raids across the River Danube became more than a nuisance during the 2nd century AD and resulted in huge resources being targeted against a relatively minor people.

In the late 4th century BC the wild steppe people collectively referred to as Sarmatians began raiding their more settled and prosperous neighbours, and they continued to do so for over 600 years until they were wiped out by the Huns. While there were many tribes, I will concentrate here on those which were allied with the Dacians and fought both for and against Imperial Rome.

Several comments survive concerning the character of the Sarmatians which, while subjective, provide something of the flavour of their armies. Apart from the quote at the head of this piece, we are told of one Sarmatian in Roman employ that ‘although a Sarmatian by birth, he is prudent and careful’. The Sarmatian way of war was very straightforward — literally!

Our Dacians and Sarmatians were sculpted by Michael and Alan Perry. Scroll down for historical information on building Dacian and Sarmatian Armies by Adrian Garbett.

dacian command
Dacian Command - DS001
£12.00
dacian warriors
Dacian Warriors - DS002
£12.00
dacian falxmen
Dacian Falxmen - DS003
£12.00
dacian archers
Dacian Archers - DS004
£12.00
dacian or sarmartian command
Dacian and Sarmatian Command - DS005
£12.00
Sarmatian Cataphracts
Sarmatian Cataphracts - DS006
£12.00
dacian sarmatian germanic cavalry
Dacian, Sarmatian or Germanic Cavalry - DS007
£12.00
Dacian Boltthrowers
Dacian Bolt Throwers - DS008
£12.00
dacian casualties
Dacian Casualties - DS009
£12.00
THE DACIANS
Text by Adrian Garbett
 

The Dacians inhabited an area roughly corresponding to ancient Thrace (modern Yugoslavia) and like their predecessors had a reputation for ferocity and warlike behaviour that brought them into conflict with the might of the Roman Empire. Dacian raids across the River Danube became more than a nuisance during the 2nd century AD and resulted in huge resources being targeted against a relatively minor people.

The Dacians were allied with other local peoples, namely the Bastarnae and later the Carpi, while also maintaining cordial and co-operative relations with the Sarmatians, one of the most restless, aggressive and impetuous folk that the ancient world produced. It may have been the fear of an overwhelming coalition led by the Dacian kings (the most famous of whom was Decebalus) that drove the Romans to campaign so vigorously in Dacia — not always successfully. These hard fought wars have left us with one of the ancient world’s greatest military records in the form of Trajan’s Column, which basically tells the story of a full blown Roman campaign in strip form, wrapped around a stone column and depicted in relief.

Dacian warriors would have appeared very like other middle and northern European peoples, with beards, hair trimmed to collar length, a short-sleeved tunic, loose trousers, and leather or bark shoes. As a mountain people who lived by farming they would be healthily tanned and/or weather-beaten according to the season. They seem to have been a prosperous and active people who saw the raiding of their neighbours as a sport but the defence of their own homeland as a deadly serious business.

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The Dacian army: This was composed of warrior-farmers. The commonest warrior by far would be a man in his everyday clothing armed with a number of javelins and a short sword or curved knife, his only defence a solid oval shield (often highly decorated) with an iron boss. Such men could quite easily make up over 75% of an army. The remainder would be men armed with bows who acted as scouts and skirmishers, plus a small number of men rich enough to ride around the battlefield but still dressed and equipped like the rest of the army.

Tactics and equipment: Fighting in loose swarms over difficult terrain, they could intimidate more heavily armed and armoured opponents, picking off and swamping unwary individuals or detachments but melting away if the going got too tough. The Dacians also had a couple of surprises waiting for an opponent who was able to catch them in the open field. The first was their allied Sarmatian cavalry, and the second was a terrible weapon called a falx.

Sarmatian cavalry were renowned for the ferocity of their charge, which could easily burst through all but the steadiest line of infantry or cavalry, and in an open field could be unstoppable. Armed with a 10–12 ft (3.0–3.7 m) heavy spear called a contus (literally ‘bargepole’!), wearing helmets and mail, scale or lamellar armour, and riding horses that could also have armour to protect them from missiles, they were formidable opponents even for the Roman Legions. However, they had one great flaw: their tactics were limited to the all-out charge, and a sophisticated enemy such as the Romans could defeat them with careful battlefield preparations designed to disrupt their formations before they came into contact. Although their numbers were small in Dacian armies they would be the focus of much concern to an enemy. (For more detail on the Sarmatians see the separate entry.)

The falx was a weapon peculiar to the area. Basically a curved, scythe-like blade on a wooden haft, it has been identified with the rhomphia of the earlier Thracians. There are several accounts of its shape which vary from a weapon of almost dagger size up to a large curved blade on a curved haft (apparently resulting in an ‘S’ shape). What is certain is that its effects were horrific, easily cutting through a limb or helmet. The Romans tried to counter its effectiveness by equipping chosen legionaries with heavier armour for their sword arms and lower legs and reinforcing existing helmets. (See the Early Imperial Roman section for details.)

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Roman campaigns: Those launched against raiding tribes usually ended with the raiders losing crops, farms and any battle they dared to offer. However, this was not the case with the Dacians. Expeditions sent to punish the Dacians in 85, 87 and 88 AD were all beaten, the first two soundly, though the last could not have been too bad a defeat since the Romans claimed it as a victory even though they ended up making all the concessions, paying tribute, and sending hostages! Things were to change with the accession of Emperor Trajan. It was he who led two huge campaigns against the Dacians in 101 and 105 AD. The forces involved have been conservatively estimated at 12 Legions, 16 cavalry alae, 60 auxiliary cohortes and numerous guard and barbarian support units — a minimum of 80,000 troops. In 106 AD Dacia was finally incorporated into the Roman Empire, but the related Carpi tribes continued the tradition of raiding right up until the end of the 4th century.

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Collecting Dacians: A Dacian army is more rewarding than most ‘barbarian’ hosts, as you can collect a purely native army and then add Bastarnae and/or Sarmatian allies to give it more punch. The commander of an army could be the king himself, who might wear captured Roman or imported Sarmatian armour and ride to battle, or might show his disdain for the enemy by wearing no armour at all, only rich clothing. His subordinates could be similarly dressed or armoured. The Dacian upper classes had a penchant for hats, which were a symbol of high status. Their flags were similar to Roman vexilla and they also carried the draco, basically a highly coloured windsock shaped like a dragon or other mythical beast. Foot (DS001) and mounted (DS005) command figures are readily available.

A purely Dacian army will be based around the fierce warrior class (DS002), who constituted the majority of any force, with the other troop types being proportional to their number. For example, falx-men (DS003) would provide between 5% and 15% of the total, archers (DS004) 10–20%, javelin skirmishers (from DS002) up to 10%, and cavalry (DS007) at most a mere 5%. The Dacians were also a technically advanced people who made use of artillery in small numbers, so you could include a couple of bolt hrowers (DS008) in your army. Shields are depicted on Trajan’s Column as being oval and highly decorated with abstract floral and geometric patterns in bright colours, so this is not a dull army. Clothing would have been good quality and embroidered, or possibly chequered or striped. Falx wielders are commonly shown bare chested, and tattoos may be evident.

An alternative army is that of the later Carpi (also called the Carpodacae), who carried on the Dacians’ good work of raiding the Empire and joining in any passing invasions (e.g. that of the Visigoths). They would probably have few falx-men and probably had neither Bastarnae nor Sarmatian allies, but they remained as fierce as ever.

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Allies: These could constitute up to a third of a Dacian army, with the Bastarnae providing up to 20% of its warriors. Their composition differed from that of the Dacians in that they relied almost entirely on the falx, with only a few mounted nobles but supported by having foot javelinmen mixed within their formations. Sarmatians especially enjoyed raiding alongside the Dacians and could number from a few individuals to a whole tribe, so potentially up to 25% of your army could consist of Sarmatian horsemen. (See the separate section on the Sarmatians).

Enemies: The Dacians’ enemies were limited to Early Imperial Romans and Sarmatians, while the Carpi fought both of these and Middle and Later Imperial Romans too. Potentially the Carpi may have clashed with migrating German tribes and Alan nomads up until 380 AD, when they disappear from history.

 imperial romans sarmatians.png

 

THE SARMATIANS
‘A nation most accomplished at brigandage’
Text by Adrian Garbett
 

In the late 4th century BC the wild steppe people collectively referred to as Sarmatians began raiding their more settled and prosperous neighbours, and they continued to do so for over 600 years until they were wiped out by the Huns. While there were many tribes, I will concentrate here on those which were allied with the Dacians and fought both for and against Imperial Rome.

Several comments survive concerning the character of the Sarmatians which, while subjective, provide something of the flavour of their armies. Apart from the quote at the head of this piece, we are told of one Sarmatian in Roman employ that ‘although a Sarmatian by birth, he is prudent and careful’. The Sarmatian way of war was very straightforward — literally!

Their warrior-class was entirely mounted. In fact we are told that ‘their cavalry is their sole useful force’ and that ‘no people is so cowardly when it comes to fighting on foot, yet when they attack on horseback, few formations can resist them’. Armour could consist of a spangenhelm helmet and a mail or scale corselet, but metal body armour was only affordable to the upper classes and most warriors substituted leather and horn scales. The leather was dyed, so could be brown, black, red, green or blue, but would not be particularly bright. Horn scales were manufactured by splitting horse hooves into small plates, which were shaped and bored with holes for laces and then sewn to a backing like any other scale armour. Painting horn armour has always presented problems to wargamers and collectors, as most cannot agree on the colour (bluish-green is suggested by some ancient commentators). I would recommend a very light beige/brown/white in this scale and the judicious use of drybrushing. Other equipment and clothing would be solid colours, with an added layer of grime toning it down even more.

DS007.png

Sarmatian horses were armoured in a similar way to their riders, with horn and leather predominating and metal even rarer. Use fully armoured cataphract types for the front ranks and leaders, and a mixture of these and unarmoured types for the rear ranks and the bulk of other warriors.

Horse armour was adopted to combat the horse archery of the steppe nomads who constituted the Sarmatians’ main enemies. The Sarmatians themselves also carried bows but seldom seem to have used them in pitched battles, preferring an all-out charge made even more deadly by their use of the kontos (‘bargepole’), a heavy 10–12 ft (3.0–3.6 m) lance with a long heavy head. The kontos would be wielded in two hands, braced against the horse and rider for extra effect’ The fact that the Sarmatians did not use stirrups means that their skill and horsemanship must have been exceptional to enable them to remain seated after impact. The kontos also bears a resemblance to the Japanese yari spear, which was used as a slicing and stabbing as well as thrusting weapon (there is a record of a Gothic kontos cutting an opponent’s head off), so their straightforward charge may not have been the only fighting style available to the Sarmatians.

For a Sarmatian army based on the Iazyges tribe which allied itself to the Dacians you will need lancers — a lot of them! The Dacian mounted command pack [DS005] provides a leader brandishing his sword and the Sarmatian cavalry pack [DS006] gives you the bulk of your warriors. The Sarmatians used the draco type of standard, and one of these can be obtained from the Late Roman or Dacian range; one of the lancers holding his lance upright will make an acceptable bearer. For added variety I would incorporate small numbers of Late Roman cataphracts [LR021] and Clibanarii [LR022]. Consider head swaps as well.

LR021.png

While Sarmatian armies were commonly composed entirely of cavalry lancers they could occasionally be accompanied by small numbers of adolescent scouts [convert ALRCav25X horse-archers], subject infantry archers [AD&S4] and javelinmen [use AD&S2 Dacian warriors without the falx].

Allies: These were limited to Alans, Ostrogoths, Quadi and Limigantes during the 680 years of Sarmatian independence. Enemies, however, are almost too numerous to list. These included Scythians, Thracians, Parthians, Pontics, Early Imperial Roman, Dacians, various Goths, Huns, and Late Imperial Romans, not to mention each other at any opportunity.

Finally, the Bosporan kingdom of the Crimea deserves a quick mention. This comprised a cosmopolitan mix of Hellenised Scythians and Sarmatians, Greeks, Sindi and Maiotian tribesmen, with occasional Thracian, Alan and Roman troops thrown in for good measure, plus a nice line in field artillery! An unusual army that could be interesting to use and strange to oppose.

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