Rise of Sarmatism in Poland

Sarmatism, an ethno-genetic legend of the national origins of the Polish gentry, rose during the early sixteenth century and helped form the Polish national identity.

Summary of Event

Sarmatism began as an ethno-genetic legend about the Polish gentry’s descent from the Sarmates, a warrior tribe originating in Asia, who migrated near Danube in the first century b.c.e. The term “Sarmatism” appeared in the linguistic circulation as late as the second half of eighteenth century and was propagated by prominent authors of the Enlightenment to disdain the “Sarmatian” culture of the Polish gentry. This culture, regarded as retrogressive and barbarian, was then decidedly after its heyday and did not go well with the reformist program of Stanisław II Augustus Poniatowski (r. 1764-1795), the last king of Poland. It can be said that Sarmatism may be considered a rich complex of phenomena concerning mentality, ideology, lifestyle, rhetoric, and art, and as such a complex it had previously existed, without being named. Temporal frames of this culture are defined between the late sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. While some of its reflections survived during later periods, its roots lie in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Sarmatism
Maciej of Miechōw
Bielski, Marcin
Maciej of Miechów
Sigismund I, the Old
Bielski, Marcin
Orzechowski, Stanisław

The term “Sarmatism” originated in the use of the word “Sarmatia,” an ancient Roman name for a region northeast of the Black Sea occupied by a people believed to be the ancestors of the Slavs and Poles. It first appeared in the chronicle of a late medieval Polish annalist, Jan Długosz, and was used increasingly after the beginning of the sixteenth century. The reason was certainly the renovatio antiquorum (the renaissance or revivification of matters of antiquity), which took ancient traditions, including the geographic nomenclature, very seriously. The term “Sarmatia” had also appeared in Ptolemy’s Geographike hyphegesis (second century; commonly known as the Geography; The Geography of Ptolemy…, 1732) and Pomponius Mela’s De chorographia (w. c. 43; The Worke of Pomponius Mela, 1585). The latter’s work was published and commented upon in the early sixteenth century by Joachim Vadianus (von Watt), who had been to Poland and felt obliged to address the new view of “Sarmatia” in his commentary. Thus, for example, he wrote that despite Mela’s information, there were several towns in Sarmatia.

The notion of Sarmatia became widespread owing to Maciej of Miechōw, the author of a well-known work, Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis, Asiana, et Europiana
Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis, Asiana, et Europiana (Maciej) (1517; the treatise on both Sarmatias, the European and the Asiatic). Soon the term “Sarmatia” became a synonym for the whole of Sigismund I, the Old’s state or simply for the Crown in general and hence for Poland. “Sarmatia” began to appear in maps and was also used in Western European works of cosmography (geography).

Although Maciej of Miechōw supposed that the Poles descended from the Vandals, many sixteenth century historians accepted the Sarmatian legend of Polish origins. For instance, Marcin Bielski, the author of Kronika wszytkiego ś;wiata
Kronika wszytkiego świata (Bielski) (1551; the chronicle of the whole world), popularized the Sarmatian legend, pointing to the military virtues of the Sarmates (or Sauromates), who, following a quasi-Greek etymology, would have been a people with “lizard eyes” (sauros + omma). Confirmed by a later generation of chroniclers and enriched with the connections to the Bible, antiquity, or simply confabulations, the Sarmatian myth became a synonym for national identity of the gentry of the “Commonwealth of Both Nations” (essentially Poland and Lithuania); it was in fact the first national consciousness of this society, a sort of “political nationhood.” In this aspect Sarmatism had mainly a political and social function, integrating Poles, Lithuanians, and other groups under one umbrella. Eventually the townspeople also aspired to the ideology and lifestyle connoted by Sarmatia.

The Sarmatian consciousness, then, initially formed on the basis of European traditions and then isolated itself as a special and genuine culture. It was initially conspicuous ideologically and rhetorically, and later expressed itself in garb, lifestyle, and art. The fundamental components of this ideology were religious and political, seeing Poland as the antemurale christianitatis (first rampart of Christian religion), the bulwark of Europe against Islam. Although in the sixteenth century the kings of Poland preferred to preserve peace with the Turks, there was much rhetorical evidence of anti-Turkish sentiment, such as Stanisław Orzechowski’s Latin speeches (1543-1544), which were immediately translated into Polish and then became very popular.

As Sarmatism developed, its association with the Roman Catholic Church strengthened, connected with a decrease in religious toleration and specific, spectacular forms of piety expressed in weddings, funerals, and celebrations of the anniversaries of battles. The “Polonization” of many saints followed and prepared the background for the Sarmatian messianic tradition.

Poland’s “national dress,” which took its form during the second half of the sixteenth century, was also an important component of the Sarmatian lifestyle. Persian and Turkish models, mostly by means of the Hungarian ones, were imitated. The zupan (a sort of gown), the kontusz (an upper garment), and the saber suspended on the belt were part of this costume and illustrated the growing Asian influence. Army uniforms and weapons, which were often imported from Turkey and Persia, also reflected this influence. This eastern influence was not contradicted by the rising Polish xenophobia, which was addressed mainly against Western European fashion. Sarmatism, with its ethno-genetic legends, therefore allowed the appropriation of Asian culture.

Sarmatism imposed several personal models as well: the ethos of the knight and citizen, and the ideal of the gentry as landowners (originally the equestrian class, the gentry became an agrarian society during the sixteenth century). Formed for the gentry, Sarmatism emphasized the role of its “golden liberty”; it separated the culture of the gentry from the that of the magnates, establishing a twofold ideological division within the society: that of the “genuine” Sarmatians, the gentry, and that of the “foreign” magnates.


The sixteenth century Sarmatian consciousness of the gentry formed the background for the heyday of Sarmatism during the seventeenth century. By then, its most characteristic components had crystallized: the emphasis on the “golden liberty,” the defense of Catholicism, ceremonial and spectacular forms of cult and piety, xenophobia, and Asian modes of dress, lifestyle, architecture, and art. Many contradictions appeared soon in this cultural and political formation of the gentry. This class, having commenced with democratic ideals, gradually plunged into anarchy and was easily manipulated by magnate oligarchy.

In Enlightenment thought, the term “Sarmatism” became a synonym for the barbarian and backward mentality of the Polish gentry. By 1791, however, a personal model of the illuminatus Sarmata appeared. This attitude propagated respect for genuine tradition and patriotism. In the nineteenth century, the Romantic authors often idealized the Sarmatian lifestyle, regarding Sarmatism as the equivalent of old Polish culture. Because during the nineteenth century the state of Poland practically did not exist in the political sense, Sarmatism kept the image of Poland alive. Even today several Sarmatian ideas are respected among some circles of Polish society, and a Sarmatian nostalgia may be felt among the older generations of Polish emigrants.

Further Reading

  • Długosz, Jan. The Annals. Translated and abridged by Maurice Michael, with commentary by Paul Smith. Charlton, West Sussex, England: MI, 1997. Reprints material from the best-known late medieval chronicle of Poland (1480), translated from its Latin original. Introduces readers to several basic historical and geographical notions at the dawn of Humanism in Poland and to several ideas of culture and ideology of Polish gentry.
  • Pasek, Jan Chryzostom. Memoirs. Translated by M. Swiecicka-Ziemianek. New York: Kosciuzko Foundation, 1979. The memoirs of Pasek, a seventeenth century Polish noble, are regarded as the best example of the Sarmatian mentality.
  • Tazbir, Janusz. Poland: A Rampart of Christian Europe. Warsaw: Interpress, 1987. Addresses an important element of Sarmatian ideology, the idea of the antemurale Christianitatis.
  • Wasko, Andrzej. “Sarmatism or the Enlightenment: The Dilemma of Polish Culture.” Sarmatian Review 17, no. 2 (April, 1997). Examines the phenomenon of Sarmatism from a broader temporal, cultural, and political perspective and helps reveal which features of this ideology may be regarded as still valid in contemporary Polish culture.

Oct. 19, 1466: Second Peace of Thorn

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

1557-1582: Livonian War

Nov., 1575: Stephen Báthory Becomes King of Poland