These were the first group of the Mongolian peoples contact the Romans.
Continuing The Huns Move West,
our selection from Res Gestae by Marcellinus published in 390. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Huns Move West
None of them plough, or even touch a plough handle; for they have no settled abode, but are homeless and lawless, perpetually wandering with their wagons, which they make their homes; in fact, they seem to be people always in flight. Their wives live in these wagons, and there weave their miserable garments; and here, too, they sleep with their husbands, and bring up their children till they reach the age of puberty; nor, if asked, can any one of them tell you where he was born, as he was conceived in one place, born in another at a great distance, and brought up in another still more remote.
In truces they are treacherous and inconstant, being liable to change their minds at every breeze of every fresh hope which presents itself, giving themselves up wholly to the impulse and inclination of the moment; and, like brute beasts, they are utterly ignorant of the distinction between right and wrong. They express themselves with great ambiguity and obscurity; have no respect for any religion or superstition whatever; are immoderately covetous of gold; and are so fickle and irascible that they very often, on the same day that they quarrel with their companions without any provocation, again become reconciled to them without any mediator.
This active and indomitable race, being excited by an unrestrainable desire of plundering the possessions of others, went on ravaging and slaughtering all the nations in their neighborhood till they reached the Alani, who were formerly called the Massagetae; and from what country these Alani came, or what territories they inhabit — since my subject has led me so far — it is expedient now to explain, after showing the confusion existing in the accounts of the geographers, who, at last, have found out the truth.
The Danube, which, is greatly increased by other rivers falling into it, passes through the territory of the Sauromatae [Scythians], which extends as far as the river Don, the boundary between Asia and Europe. On the other side of this river the Alani inhabit the enormous deserts of Scythia, deriving their own name from the mountains around; and they, like the Persians, having gradually subdued all the bordering nations by repeated victories, have united them to themselves and comprehended them under their own name. Of these other tribes the Neuri inhabit the inland districts, being near the highest mountain chains, which are both precipitous and covered with the everlasting frost of the north. Next to them are the Budini, and the Geloni, a race of exceeding ferocity, who flay the enemies they have slain in battle, and make of their skins clothes for themselves and trappings for their horses. Next to the Geloni are the Agathyrsi, who dye both their bodies and their hair of a blue color, the lower classes using spots few in number and small; the nobles broad spots, close and thick, and of a deeper hue.
Next to those are the Melanchlaenae and the Anthropophagi, who roam about upon different tracts of land and live on human flesh. And these men are so avoided on account of their horrid food that all the tribes which were their neighbors have removed to a distance from them. And in this way the whole of that region to the northeast, till you come to the Chinese, is uninhabited.
On the other side the Alani again extend to the east, near the territories of the Amazons, and are scattered among many populous and wealthy nations, stretching to the parts of Asia which, as I am told, extend up to the Ganges, a river which passes through the country of the Indians, and falls into the Southern Ocean.
Then the Alani, being thus divided among the two quarters of the globe — the various tribes which make up the whole nation it is not worthwhile to enumerate — although widely separated, wander, like the nomads, over enormous districts. But in the progress of time all these tribes came to be united under one generic appellation, and are called Alani.
They have no cottages, and never use the plough, but live solely on meat and plenty of milk, mounted on their wagons which they cover with a curved awning made of the bark of trees, and then drive them through their boundless deserts. And when they come to any pasture land, they pitch their wagons in a circle, and live like a herd of beasts, eating up all the forage — carrying, as it were, their cities with them in their wagons. In them the husbands sleep with their wives — in them their children are born and brought up; these wagons, in short, are their perpetual habitation, and, wherever they fix them, that place they look upon as their home.
They drive before them their flocks and herds to their pasturage; and about all other cattle, they are especially careful of their horses. The fields in that country are always green, and are interspersed with patches of fruit-trees, so that, wherever they go, there is no dearth either of food for themselves or fodder for their cattle. And this is caused by the moisture of the soil and the number of the rivers which flow through these districts.
All their old people, and especially all the weaker sex, keep close to the wagons and occupy themselves in the lighter employments. But the young men, who from their earliest childhood are trained to the use of the horses, think it beneath them to walk. They are also all trained by careful discipline of various sorts to become skillful warriors. And this is the reason why the Persians, who are originally of Scythian extraction, are very skillful in war.
Nearly all the Alani are men of great stature and beauty. Their hair is somewhat yellow, their eyes are terribly fierce; the lightness of their armor renders them rapid in their movements, and they are in every respect equal to the Huns, only more civilized in their food and their manner of life. They plunder and hunt as far as the Sea of Azov and the Cimmerian Bosporus, ravaging also Armenia and Media.
And as ease is a delightful thing to men of a quiet and placid disposition, so danger and war are a pleasure to the Alani, and among them that man is called happy who has lost his life in battle; for those who grow old, or who go out of the world from accidental sicknesses, they pursue with bitter reproaches as degenerate and cowardly. Nor is there anything of which they boast with more pride than of having killed a man; and the most glorious spoils they esteem the scalps which they have torn from the heads of those whom they have slain, which they put as trappings and ornaments on their war horses.
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