Sarmatians and others: Pliny the Elder on peoples of northwestern Asia (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Sarmatians and others: Pliny the Elder on peoples of northwestern Asia (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified July 10, 2023,

Ancient author: Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6.19-22 (link).

Comments: In this passage, Pliny the Elder is transitioning between what he (and many other earlier Greek authors) considered the boundary between Europe and Asia, namely the Tanais (Don) river and lake Maiotis (Sea of Azov). His survey of “Asian” peoples to the east of the Tanais begins with Sarmatians and Sauromatians (who are also placed further west as well by Pliny [link]) before going on to another long list demonstrating Pliny’s comprehensive enumeration of peoples’ names.

Unfortunately, again, there is very little detail about what Pliny thinks about the peoples’ customs. But as one of the few such extensive lists of eastern Pontic peoples (including those in the area of what is now the Caucasus mountains), this remains worthwhile. Pliny never mentions any sources by name, but vaguely talks about others’ lists of peoples, from which he is drawing.

Source of the translation: H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well), adapted by Harland.


[Transition from Europe to Asia at Sea of Azov]

(6.19-22) Then comes the lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov], which is considered part of Europe [i.e. the Tanais river and the lake are the boundary between Europe and Asia]. After passing Kimmerikon [near modern Kerch, Ukraine], there are living nearby the Maiotians, Halians, Semians, Serreians, Skizians and Gnissians.

[Sarmatians / Sauromatians]

Next come the two mouths of the river Tanais [Don], where the inhabitants are the Sarmatians. They are said to be descended from the Medes and are themselves divided into a number of sections. The first of these are the matriarchal Sauromatians, the husbands of the Amazons. Then there are the Naivazians, Koitians, Kizikians, Messenianians, Kotobacchians, Ketians, Zigians, Tindarians, Thussegetians, and Tyrkians.

[Peoples near lake Tanais]

This brings us to uninhabited deserts intersected by wooded glens, beyond which are the Arimphaians, who reach to the Ripaian mountains. The Tanais [Don] river itself is called the “Sinos” by the natives, and lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov] is called the Temarunda, which means in their language “the mother of the sea.” There is also a town at the mouth of the Tanais. The neighbouring districts were first occupied by the Carians [i.e. from southwestern Asia Minor / Turkey], then by the Klazomenians and Maionians [i.e. from western Asia Minor / Turkey], and afterwards by the Pantikapaians.

[Peoples around lake Maiotis towards the east, according to other authors]

Some authors give the following list of peoples (gentes) around lake Maiotis near the Keraunian mountains: starting from the coast are the Naprians and higher up are the Essedonians, joining on to the Kolchians on the tops of the mountains [i.e. approaching the Kaukasos / modern Caucasus mountains]. Then the Kamakians, Oranians, Autakians, Mazamakians, Kantiokaptians, Agamathians, Pikians, Itymosolians and Akaskomarkians. Near the Caucasus range the Ikatalians, Imadochians, Ramians, Andacians, Tydians, Karastaseans and Authiandians. Here there is the river Lagous flowing down from the Kathean mountains, with its tributary being the Opharos. This is where the Kauthadian and Opharitian peoples are. There are the rivers Menotharos and Imityes flowing from the Kissian mountains. Below these mountains are the Agdaians, Karnians, Oskardeans, Akkisians, Gabrians and Gegarians. Around the source of the Imityes river are the Imityians and Apartaeians.

Other writers say that the Scythian Auchetians, Atherneians and Asampatians have spread into this country, and have completely destroyed the Tanaitians and Inapaeians. Some state that the river Ocharios runs through the Kantikians and Sapeans, but that the Tanais river [Don] has passed through the Hertichean tribe of Satharcheans, the Spondolikians, Synhietians, Anasians, Issians, Kataietians, Tagorians, Karonians, Neripians, Agandeans, Meandaraeians and Spalaean Satharcheans. . . [omitted material on the peoples of Anatolia / Turkey, also in Asia for Pliny].

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