On Friday, the world awoke to war in the Caucasus, a region not known for cultivating the neighborly arts. While reporters scramble to explain recent history, medievalists can offer deep background. The medieval pasts of Russia and Georgia are rich and complex in their own right, but look at where they’re fighting: Ossetia. History buffs will emit a happy “aha” when they learn who the Ossetes are: the descendants of those early medieval zeligs, the Alans.
Originally from Iran, the Alans were a nomadic confederation of elite mounted warriors who lived between the Black and Aral Seas. When the central Asian steppes began disgorging people, many Alans rode west, a cloud of lassos and spears just a few hoof-beats ahead of the Huns.
Recruited by Rome, Alans fought for emperors and claimants to the throne; in the late 2nd century, Maximinus the Thracian, whose mother was an Alan, became the first emperor with full barbarian roots, and other Alans rose through the ranks. Alans crossed the frozen Rhine with the Vandals in 406, they helped them lay siege to Hippo, and a 5th-century Alan mini-dynasty briefly ran Constantinople. Bernard S. Bachrach, author of A History of the Alans in the West, thinks the feigned retreat may have been the Alan contribution to Western military tactics. He also entertains a curious but unprovable notion: that if aspects of the Arthurian legend passed to Britain through Armorica, where Alans were known to have settled, then the sword-in-the-stone motif may be a distant echo of the Alan depiction of their war god, “a naked sword thrust into the bare earth.”
The Alans left no record of their language and little trace of their culture. We know they existed because others wrote about them, but you can find their old homes if you know where to look: in France, in place-names such as Alençon, Alaincourt, Alland’huy, and Allamont; Alagno, Alan d’Riano, Allegno, and Alano di Piave in northern Italy. Of course, the Alans who came west are no more, having long since been assimilated by other European peoples—but the Alans who stayed in the Caucasus are back in the news, partly because they rummaged through their medieval past.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, with North Ossetia as part of Russia and South Ossetia lumped in with Georgia, the Ossetians looked to historians, philologists, and archaeologists to tell them who they were. Was “Ossetia,” a Georgian term filtered through Russian, the name they should use? Shouldn’t they call themselves “Alans”? As Victor Shnirelman explains, speakers of the two Ossetian dialects, Digor and Iron, argued over whose speech was more pure; North Ossetia became North Ossetia-Alania; and the Alan name was slapped on everything from soccer teams to supermarkets. Never mind that “Alans” may have been a term used only by outsiders; or that the name “Ossetia” probably comes from *ās, which the Alans used to refer to themselves; or that the original Alans were famously inclined to assimilate and be assimilated. The Alanian nationalism of the 1990s soon took on moral and racial overtones, especially as neighboring enemies tried on the name for size. The Ossetes should have looked westward for precedent and warning: Once you buttress your national identity with medievalism, expect politicized folklore to beguile the public —and to take on a life of its own.
If you’ve paid attention to another conflict with medieval roots, then you saw this war coming. When Kosovo declared independence in February, the South Ossetia separatist leader insisted that his people had an even stronger case for autonomy, while Russia sent ominous signals that confirmed the earlier fears of EU foreign policy types. In the days to come, journalists will try to explain the matrix of grudges between Russia, Georgia, the two halves of Ossetia, and nearby Ingushetia and Chechnya. Chances are they’ll overlook this snippet from a 5th-century poem by Claudian about an Alan warlord
cui natura breves animis ingentibus artus
finxerat inmanique oculos infecerat ira;
vulneribus pars nulla vacat rescissaque contis
gloria foedati splendet iactantior oris.
whom nature had moulded with small limbs but great courage and dyed his eyes with a terrible anger. No part of his body was free of wounds and, torn by spears, the glory of his disfigured face shone more proudly.
Expect to see more anger, wounds, and disfigurement out of the Caucasus. And when you start to hear talk about glory and pride, don’t be surprised if it takes on a medieval tinge.