Alani Gain Power

The Alani, adept at assimilation and integration, never developed a kingdom but became federated with other groups and spearheaded the movement of peoples westward into the Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

The Alani were a loose alliance of various nomadic Indo-Iranian tribes originally from north of the Caspian Sea. They did not live in contiguous areas but were spread out in the region. They developed an identity from a mixture of different peoples joined together by virtue of their similar lifestyles, weapons, and appearance. An opportunistic rabble, they collected peoples they overcame and formed a single fearsome unit when threatened or attacking other peoples.

They were related to the Sarmatians and were described by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-395 c.e.) as nomads, formerly called the Massagetae, who moved about in wagons that were their permanent homes, driving their cattle before them and augmenting their diet with wild fruit. They also hunted extensively, aided by their expert hunting dogs, Canis alani, and used the skins of their prey as clothing and the bones and teeth as tools and ornaments.

When they camped, they put their wagons in a circle and worshiped a sword driven into the ground, which served as the image of the god of war. They divined the future by throwing down straight twigs while reciting secret incantations and examining the twigs’ relative positions—something like the Chinese divination practices described in the Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986). They did not have slaves and chose as their leaders warriors of the greatest experience and success. They were expert horsemen and wore light armor, which allowed them quick movement. Described as equal to the Huns in fierceness and fighting ability but somewhat more civilized, they were tall and almost always had yellow or blond hair.

They gained influence and power in the first century c.e. by attacking the Parthians. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (c. 37-c. 100 c.e.) reports that they conducted border raids on Roman territory but without much success. The Alani did not make much of a distinction between enemies but always could ally themselves as friends with former enemies if their situation changed.

They are mentioned by Roman writers as early as Seneca the Younger (c. 4 b.c.e.-65 c.e.), but the Romans did not seem to have serious military contact with them until the Roman general Arrian (c. 85-c. 155 c.e.) fought them after they had invaded Cappadocia in 135 c.e. He noted that the Alani would move back in the face of an attack to draw in the enemy’s infantry; then Alani horsemen would swiftly attack the flank, a tactic known as a “feigned retreat.” They gained a reputation as great fighters and horsemen from these encounters, and Arrian was so impressed that he wrote about them, although unfortunately his work survives only in fragments.

At the end of the third century, when the Huns started to move against their neighbors, the Alani were defeated but made a treaty with the Huns (some of the Alani even joined the Huns). Divided and dispersed, some groups settled with the Goths in Pannonia (now western Hungary and eastern Austria), and later others joined with the Vandals and crossed into Noricum (now central Austria and southern Bavaria). Another group sought refuge in the Caucasus region and remained there.

In the late fourth century, the Alani were an important part of the army of the Roman emperor Gratian (359-383 c.e.). He showed them such favor that the other troops rebelled and elevated Magnus Maximus (r. 383-388 c.e.) as emperor. Alani were also a component of the army of Valentinian II (371-392 c.e.), further indicating their ability to collaborate when it suited them.

In 406, one of the western groups invaded Gaul with the Vandals and Suevi, crossing the Rhine and defeating the Franks. Others joined with the Romans, but the main group stayed with the Vandals and Suevi, plundering their way through Gaul; in 408, they pushed into Spain and settled in Lusitania (now Portugal). In 418, these Alani were defeated by the Visigoths, and the survivors joined again with the Vandals, where they became such an integral part of that tribe that their kings were titled rex Vandalorum et Alanorum (king of the Vandals and the Alanis). This group eventually moved into northern Africa, where they remained until conquered by the armies of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (483-565) in the sixth century.

During the fifth century, the Alani who had remained in Gaul had been assimilated by the Visigoths and the local populations. Evidence of their presence survives in some modern French place-names, such as Alaincourt. The Alani who had gone west and joined with the Goths and Vandals adopted the customs and ways of their allies and lost much of their own culture, which underwent considerable change in the new environments of Gaul, Spain, and Africa. In the east, Alani troops were an important military force in the armies of the eastern empire, where they were used to fight against their former allies the Huns.


Because the Alani were able to integrate themselves into the armies of stronger forces, they not only increased the power of those forces but also influenced the outcomes of many battles raging across Europe from the first to the fifth century c.e., which eventually contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 c.e. After the fifth century they are mentioned briefly by some Byzantine authors, such as Procopius (fl. early sixth century) and Menander Protector (fl. sixth century), and are considered to be the ancestors of the Ossetians who live east of the Black Sea.

Further Reading

  • Alemany, Agustí. Sources on the Alans: A Critical Compilation. Boston: E. J. Brill, 2000. A valuable collection of primary documents and extant records on the Alani from their first appearance through the fifteenth century c.e.
  • Ammianus Marcellinus. The Later Roman Empire, a.d. 354-378. Translated by Walter Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. The basic primary source for the history of the Alani in the west.
  • Bachrach, Bernard S. A History of the Alans in the West. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973. The best secondary source for the study of the Alani, with an extensive bibliography.
  • Matthews, John. The Roman Empire of Ammianus. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. A wonderful study on the historian Ammianus and his great work on the later empire.
  • Procopius of Caesarea. History of the Wars. Translated by H. B. Dewing. 7 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1924. The primary source for research on the reign of Justinian and his wars against the barbarians.
  • Sulimirski, T. The Sarmatians. New York: Praeger, 1970. A good secondary source on the Sarmatians, who were closely related to the Alani.

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Flavius Josephus; Seneca the Younger. Alani