Sunday 28 January 2024

The Grail and the Alans

“In the summer of 376, a large force of Goths came to the river Danube, the north-eastern boundary of the Roman Empire, and asked for asylum. Two Gothic kings had just died, and another been deposed, as they tried — and failed — to hold in check the expansion of Hunnic tribes into their territories on the northern shores of the Black Sea. Within two years, the Goths had precipitated, in turn, a crisis for the Roman state. On 9 August 378, just outside the city of Hadrianople (modern Edirne in European Turkey), they defeated and killed the Emperor Valens, ruler of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, along with two-thirds of his army.”1

The victory of Fritigern’s Goths at Hadrianopolis (Adrianople), on 9th August AD 378, resulting in the death of the emperor of the east and annihilation of two thirds of his army, unleashed a chain of events which changed the course of European history that many see as the beginning of the end of the Roman empire in the west; just one hundred years following the Goths’ crossing of the Danube saw the fall of the last western Emperor in 476.

Several reasons have been put forward for the failure of the Romans at Adrianople, described as their worst defeat since Cannae in 216 BC, among them that Valens engaged the enemy without waiting for co-emperor Gratian’s forces from the west owing to his jealousy of his young nephew’s recent success against the Alemanni and wanted the victory for himself; Roman intelligence massively misjudged the numbers of the Gothic army; ill-discipline in the Roman ranks led to an outbreak of fighting before the command was given.

All of these may have played a part in the devastation of the Roman war machine at Adrianople; however, a decisive factor seems to be the role of the Gothic cavalry that hit the Roman army in a lightning blitz attack. The Gothic cavalry contained a large contingent of Alans which had not been spotted by Valens scouts, or had been deliberately hidden by Fritigern, and came from nowhere to hit the Roman flank.

Who Were the Alans?
The Alans who fought alongside the Goths at the battle of Adrianople never limited their allegiance to one particular people; they were first recorded as fighting with the Huns against the Goths, on other occasions against the Huns, and throughout their travels into western Europe often employed by the Romans, sometimes fighting for the Empire, sometimes against. Alanic horsemen were highly valued by the emperor Gratian and were part of his entourage.2 Resentment of Gratian’s favouritism shown to his Alan auxiliaries seems to have contributed to his downfall in 383.

Around eighty years after being driven from their Black Sea homelands by the Huns, the Alans fought alongside Romans and Goths in the major defeat of the Huns at the The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in Gaul (AD 451), the last great Imperial victory in the west. 

The history of the Alans is a complex story; they are the only non-Germanic tribe to permanently settle in Western Europe during the migration period.3

The Asiatic Alans (Latin: Alani or Halani) were Iranian nomadic pastoral people of the North Caucasus, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, their warriors were mainly cavalry units of mounted archers who disliked fighting on foot.4 As nomads the Alans resided in wooden wagons that were the hub of family life. The wagons had canopies constructed from bark and were drawn by cattle. As they travelled from place to place they drove herds of horses and cattle and flocks of sheep with them.

The Alans, like other tribes of the Asiatic steppe, bound the heads of some of their infants, creating deformation of the skull. These distinctive, elongated skulls have been found at a number of sites claimed to have been settled by Alans that have been excavated in modern-day France.5 

However, it would be wrong to assume all elongated skulls found at places with ‘Alan’ place names in Gaul were all Alanic as this practice was typical of many tribes from the central Asiatic steppe. Binding the heads of infants before the skull bones fused to form the characteristic elongated shape was a common practice of the Huns and some of their European neighbours adopted this practice for a brief period at the height of Hunnic power in the mid-5th  century.6

In the 370s the Alans living on the plains between the Don and Volga Rivers, the area north of the Black Sea, were attacked by another Asiatic tribe known as the Huns. Some Alans submitted and joined the Huns, while others fled to the west across the river Don. After being devastated by the Huns the Alans never again managed to come together as one cohesive group, but splintered into several tribal groups that seem to have had no common interests. Of all barbarian peoples the Alans were the most fragmented; as Wolfram says, they appeared ‘everywhere and nowhere’.7

After first storming and subduing the Alans the Huns then displaced the Gothic tribe known as the Greuthungi who inhabited the lands between the Don and Dnieper Rivers, and then the Tervengi Goths who lived between the Dnieper and the Danube Rivers. The pressure from the Huns resulted in displaced Goths, Alans and Taifali massing on the north bank of the Danube. Valens permitted Fritigern’s Tervengi to cross the Danube and enter the Empire, but the emperor refused to allow the Greuthungi across.

By 377 some Alans and Greuthungi had joined the Tervengi south of the Danube. After being poorly treated by the Romans the Gothic federation rebelled, culminating in the Battle of Adrianople the following year, where as we have seen, the Alanic cavalry played a significant role in the Emperor’s downfall. The number of Alans at Adrianople was probably no more than 3,000, it is likely that a number of these Alans remained with Fritigern’s Goths.

A group of Alans was later settled in the province of Valeria, in Pannonia, attaching themselves to the Hasding Vandals. Despite very different ethnic origins the Alans found much in common with these Vandals. These barbarian groups would move westward and eventually settle within the western Empire. The Alans entered Gaul through two main groups; the main group, in alliance with Vandals and Suevi, crossed the Rhine in 406–407 and spent the next three years journeying through Gaul.

Other units of Alans broke away from this main group and took service with the Romans, first in the Rhineland and then in central Gaul. Alans are recorded as besieging Bazas around 414 and another Alan group is mentioned thirty years later as settled near Valence. The main group stayed with the Vandals and eventually settled in Spain. The Vandals crossed to Africa in 429 and captured Carthage ten years later.

Another contingent of Alans, some remnants of Radagasius’s army that attacked Italy in 405-6, some descendants from the Alans who fought at Adrianople that had remained with the Goths, entered southern Gaul in the Gothic federation of Athaulf following the sack of Rome in AD 410 by Alaric. Some of these Alans were settled with this group, now known as Visigoths, in southern Gaul, the region traditionally associated with the Grail legends

The Sarmatian-Alanic Connection
In 'From Scythia to Camelot' the authors, C Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor argue that the core of the Arthurian and Holy Grail traditions derived not from Celtic mythology, but rather from the folklore of the peoples of ancient Scythia (what are now the South Russian and Ukrainian steppes).8

It is argued by the authors that this fusion of folklore came about through a detachment of Sarmatians posted to Britain in the 2nd century AD, coming into contact with a Roman officer named Artorius, the Latin origin of the name Arthur, and thus the Arthurian legend was born. 

However, THIS Artorius, serving as the camp prefect for Legio VI Victrix at York, made such an insignificant impact during his time in Britain that he was totally forgotten, until modern scholars told us he was the origin of the Arthurian legend. [see: Artorius: A Nation with Amnesia ]

Later, so the story goes, in the 12th century when the Arthurian legend was taken to the Continent it collided with the folklore of the Alans, the Iranian nomadic people and neighbours of the Sarmatians on the Black Sea in antiquity, and the Arthurian Cycle and the Story of the Grail was created. 

Is it possible that the folklore of the Alans could have survived the 9,000 km journey, and several generations later, from their Black Sea homelands to their settlements in the western Empire in the 5th century to re-emerge as the stories of the Grail in the 12th -13th centuries?

Notes & References
1. Peter Heather, The Goths, Blackwell, 1996, p.1.
2. Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, University of California Press, 1988, p.239.
3. Torsten Jacobsen, A History of the Vandals, Westholme Publishing, 2012, p.49.
4. Bernard Bachrach – A History of the Alans in the West, 1973, p.89.
5. Bachrach, p.68.
6. Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.586.
7. Wolfram, p.238
8.  C Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Garland, 2000.

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