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Goths, Sarmatians, and Huns:

The Fictional Account of Darius' Barbarian Years Compared to Real History

by tirnanog
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Author's Statement

To avoid confusion, I would like to make it clear up front that this piece is actually about Darius (a fictional character) in Highlander (a television series), and its ONLY intended audience is someone who is a Highlander fan. This is NOT, nor ever was intended to be, a serious article on the history of the Goths or the peoples of the steppes. Granted, I have included some genuine historical information and in doing so, I have endeavored to be as accurate as possible, but if you are seeking real information about the Goths, Sarmatians, or Huns, you have come to the wrong place. I suggest instead that you read books by REAL historians, some of which you can find listed below (but not the Watcher Chronicles CD or the novel by Rebecca Neason, because they are not real history either :0)

Also, while imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, I ask that you please not copy this article (or parts of it) to put on another website without my express permission. It may be a frivolous bit of fluff, but I wrote it, and I do mind. If you have a Highlander-related website, you are welcome to make a link to this page if you wish, but if your website is strictly history-related and you want other people to take you seriously, I honestly wouldn't recommend it! 'Nuff said--enjoy!

Goths, Sarmatians, and Huns

by tirnanog

In the television series Highlander we are told that Darius, an almost-2000-year old Immortal priest, was once one of the great generals, and Grayson was his student and second-in-command. Having made a vow to march from the Ural Mountains to the sea, Darius led the Goths to Rome, and could have led his armies across Europe and ruled for a thousand years. But he killed a Holy Man at the gates of Paris and suddenly he changed. He spared the city, sent his armies away, and spent the rest of his life working for peace from Holy Ground. The Watcher Chronicles CD provides some additional information about Darius' early life: Born in 50 CE in a nomad tent east of the Urals, First Death in 95 CE, leading his tribe against the Germanic hordes, Race: Goth. The CD also states that Darius was one of the great Gothic Warlords.

The real Goths were a "Germanic horde" themselves, and in the first century of the Common Era, when Darius is said to have been born on the steppes, the Goths were living in what is now northern Poland, on the Baltic Sea and along the River Vistula. According to the Getica of Jordanes, a 6th-century Goth historian, the Goths originated on the "island" of Scandza, but it is generally agreed that he was referring to the peninsula where present-day Norway and Sweden are located. Jordanes tells us that the Goths crossed the Baltic under the leadership of their king, Berig, and formed a settlement on its southern shores which they named Gothiscandza. The Roman historian Tacitus, in his Germania, places them there in the first century CE. No archaeological evidence has been found to confirm that the Goths originated in Scandinavia, (although an island in the Baltic near Sweden bears the name of Gotland). But what evidence there is confirms that they were living in northern Poland at the time indicated by Tacitus.

Over the next two centuries, the Goths, along with other Germanic groups, gradually migrated southeast, roughly following the Amber Routes, seeking new land for settlement. Eventually, in about 200 CE, they reached the Ukraine (which Jordanes calls Scythia or Oium) and the steppes north of the Black Sea, where they soon became the dominant power. However, the Goths never lived anywhere close to the Urals. Their easternmost settlements were on the coast of the Sea of Azov, some 800 miles west of the Urals, and they did not even arrive in the Black Sea region until at least 150 years after Darius was born, and more than a century after he was said to have had his first death fighting the "Germanic hordes". (The Highlander novel Shadow of Obsession, which came out in May 1998, attempts to correct the problem of his birthplace by ignoring all the references in the TV series and CD to nomadic tribes and the Ural Mountains. In the novel, Darius is a Goth from the North).

But those who prefer the original version may want to know who was living on the steppes east of the Urals in the first century CE if not the Goths? Enter an Iranian-speaking nomadic people, the Sarmatians (aka Sauromatians or Sarmatae), who began moving into the southern Russian steppes in the 5th century BCE, and displaced or absorbed the Scythians, another Iranian-speaking nomadic people who had occupied these lands before them. Like the Scythians, the Sarmatians had come from the Central-Asian steppes and were herders, hunters and accomplished fighters on horseback. They lived in felt tents, carried their goods in wagons, and decorated their horses, wagons and bodies with gold animal-style ornaments. They fought with powerful compound reflex bows made of wood reinforced with pieces of bone or horn, long swords, lances, and axes. They carried shields, and wore scale armor made of overlapping metal plates sewn on leather. Sarmatian clothing included trousers, shirts, padded coats, round or pointed leather caps, and soft leather boots. Also like the Scythians, the Sarmatians usually buried their dead beneath earthen mounds called kurgans.

Sarmatian women were formidable warriors in their own right, and rode into battle like the men. Ctesias, an ancient Greek historian, says that the women of the Saka or Sacian tribes were also warriors. Tombs of some of these warrior women have been found, which contain weapons, armor, and the bones of horses, just like those of male warriors. It is believed that these women are the real Amazons described by ancient historians, and one legend documented by Herodotus says that the Sarmatian race itself descended from Scythian men who mated with these Amazons. Some of them were priestesses as well as warriors, judging from the altars and other ritual objects found in their burial places.

As a group, the Sarmatians were not a unified people, but a number of separate tribes which shared common customs and a pastoral way of life. The territory they covered was vast, stretching from the Danube in the west back into Central Asia, and they were also related to the eastern tribes collectively known as the Saka or Sacians, who once lived east of the Caspian near the Aral Sea on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Driven out of these lands by the Yueh Chih around 250 BCE, some of the Saka entered northern India and others, known as the Parni, migrated southwest and established the Parthian kingdom in northern Iran. The Parthians, who developed an armored cavalry, served as a buffer between the Persians and other steppe nomads.

The last Sarmatian tribe to arrive on the steppes east of the Urals were the Alans (aka Alani or Halani). They would have been in the right place at the right time to have been Darius' tribe. Interestingly enough, on the way to the Urals the Alans had first tried to enter the Parthian lands of northern Iran. According to the Watcher CD, an Immortal named Ahasuerus the Parthian was Darius' first teacher. We are given no information about him apart from the name, and we do not know how or when he met Darius. However, Ahasuerus also happens to have been the Biblical name of the Persian king who made Esther the Israelite his Queen, aka Xerxes I. Xerxes ruled from 486-465 BCE, and was the son of Darius the Great. Xerxes and his son, also named Darius, were assassinated by Artabanus, commander of the palace guard. If we suppose Xerxes was an Immortal, it is likely that he might have had to leave the Persian court after this "death", and ended up among the Parthian tribes. It is also possible that he gave our Darius his name, after his father and murdered son.

The Sarmatians, including the Alans, were in control of the southern Russian steppes when the Goths came out of the northwest in the 3rd century CE. The Goths conquered the Sarmatians, but were heavily influenced by their nomadic lifestyle and culture, and intermarried with them. The Goths became skilled horsemen and horsebreeders themselves, and adopted Sarmatian-style clothing and ornament to such a degree that outsiders had trouble telling the Goths and Sarmatians apart. Some Roman historians thought that the two groups resembled each other physically, although you have to keep in mind that the Romans tended to generalize quite a bit about the peoples they thought of as "barbarians". Nevertheless, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described the Alans as "tall and handsome, their hair inclines to blond; by the ferocity of their gaze they inspire dread. They delight in danger and warfare." This same description could also be applied to some of the Germanic warriors the Romans encountered. So it is possible to imagine that the nomad Darius might have joined one of the Goth tribes during this period, and if his Watcher was an outsider, he might not have realized that Darius was not originally a Goth. Ammianus also says of the Alans that they worshipped a War God who was represented by a sword stuck into the earth, which certainly puts one in mind of Highlander.

The Romans along the borders of the Roman Empire soon became aware of their new neighbors to the northeast, as the Goths frequently joined other tribes raiding across the frontier in Dacia (Romania). They also seized ships and raided the Black Sea coast, Asia Minor, parts of Greece, and Cyprus. The Romans responded to the new threat with military force, and repulsed the attacks, but gradually they were forced to abandon part of Dacia north of the Danube to the Goths in 271. (The CD tells that the Immortal Grayson (aka Claudianus), had his first death in Dacia, trampled beneath the hooves of Goth horsemen during a raid in 365, after which he was found by Darius and became his student and second-in-command.)

The relationship between the Romans and the Goths was not completely adversarial, however. Trade and cultural exchange went on between them, and some of the individual Gothic tribes agreed to serve as foederati, auxilliary troops in the Roman army, for which the tribes received payment in gold and grain. This was a common practice for the Romans, who frequently used one group of barbarians to help them control or subdue another. To the Romans, every non-Roman was a barbarian, and therefore inferior, but even barbarians had their uses, and many barbarians attained high rank and position in the Roman army.

In addition to turning the barbarian "problem" into part of the solution by incorporating them into the army, the Romans also encouraged them to convert to Christianity. To that end, Ulfila (aka Wulfila, "Little Wolf"), son of a Cappadocian slavewoman and a Goth father, was consecrated as a bishop in Constantinople in 341 CE, and sent to bring The Word to his people. At that time and place, The Word happened to be Arian Christianity, a 3rd-century doctrine conceived by one Arius of Alexandria, which taught that Jesus was not of the same essence as God the Father, but was a lesser, created being. (It has nothing to do with the term "Aryan" which is another word for the early race of Indo-Europeans from which many diverse groups including the Goths, the steppe nomads, and the Persians were descended. The doctrine of Arius was later considered a heresy.) Ulfila was an educated man who invented a Gothic alphabet (based on Greek, but containing some Latin and runic elements) and used it to translate the Bible into the Gothic vernacular. However the Goths did not appreciate his efforts on behalf of their souls, and sent Ulfila packing in 383 CE. Most of the Goths did finally convert to Arianism after they had been settled in the Balkans inside the borders of the Empire.

The story of Darius as told in Highlander makes it sound as if he and the Goths swept into Europe bent on conquering all the lands between the Urals and the Atlantic, but the truth was that the Goths came into the Empire as fugitives trying to escape the Huns. The Huns were a fierce nomadic people from Asia, and they had been making their way slowly across the Central Asian steppes for several centuries, having been driven out of their own lands by yet another nomadic horde. A few had already reached the Pontic steppes, but not enough to be considered a threat. In 375, a large army of Huns attacked and defeated the Alans, the Sarmatian tribe who lived northeast of the Goths. Some of the Goths made an effort defend themselves, but soon realized they were fighting a losing battle, so in 376 many of them loaded up the wagons, headed for the Danube, and petitioned the Romans for admittance to the Empire.

According to Jordanes, long before the Huns arrived, the Goths were already divided into two peoples, the Ostrogoths (East Goths) and Visigoths (West Goths) each ruled by a royal family, the Amal and the Balthi respectively, and for many years, historians took his statement at face value. But now historians believe that at the time the Huns attacked in 375, there were actually six or more Gothic tribes, each with its own leaders, and that the arrival of the Huns was what created the division of the Goths into two peoples. The Goths who fled from the Huns and entered the Roman Empire became the Visigoths and those who remained behind and became subjects of the Huns were designated the Ostrogoths.

But even among these two groups tribal divisions remained. The Goths who showed up at the Danube in 376 were composed of people from two tribes, the Tervingi and the Greuthungi, under separate leaders. The Romans, who did not want to risk letting such a large number of barbarians in at once, ferried the Tervingi across, but left the Greuthungi on the north bank. The refugee Goths were not particularly welcome or well-treated by the Romans, and Ammianus says that they were starved and cheated by their hosts. They soon revolted, and while the Romans were busy dealing with the Tervingi, the Greuthungi forced their way across the Danube almost unopposed and later joined the Tervingi. The war went on for six years, during which the Goths, with the help of some of the Alans, managed to win a decisive victory over the Romans in 378 at Adrianople, where they massacred the Emperor Valens and two-thirds of his army. The cavalry of the Alans played a decisive part in the victory. The new Emperor Theodosius took up the fight, and the war went on until 382. Unable to completely subdue the Goths, the Romans made a treaty with them which granted them land for settlement and allowed them to live under their own laws in exhange for military service when required.

Theodosius used his Gothic foederati in 387 and in 392/93 against the usurpers Maximus and Eugenius. The Goths suffered heavy losses in both campaigns, and felt the Romans were deliberately trying to weaken them by attrition. They revolted again in 395, led by Alaric I (who is most probably the real historic figure on whom Darius was originally based). Alaric was a Goth noble, one of the Balthi family, and in his youth he had received military training from the Romans. Later he commanded Gothic troops under Flavius Stilicho, commander-in-chief of the Roman armies in the West, and it is possible that the two were friends, but Alaric remained loyal to his own people. (He and Stilicho would face each other numerous times on the battlefield as enemies.) Alaric became one the most powerful leaders among the Gothic tribes, and with the help of his brother-in-law Athaulf, he eventually won out over several rivals to become the leader of all the Gothic tribes which had been settled within the Empire under the treaty of 382. Thus Alaric created a Visigothic alliance which would last beyond his lifetime, and which eventually would form the basis of the Visigothic Kingdom in Gaul and Spain.

It must be noted that Alaric was at no time the leader of all the Goths, or even half of the Goths. Besides the Ostrogoths, who were still under Hunnic domination, and would eventually carve out their own kingdom in Italy, there were numerous independent groups of Goths, such as the Goths of Radagaisus, who invaded Italy in 405-6 CE. (Stilicho defeated and captured Radagaisus, and stuck his head on a pole. Some of his surviving troops would later join Alaric after their families were massacred by the Romans.) The Visigothic army is estimated to have had around 25,000-30,000 fighting men, (the Goths of Radagaisus and other angry barbarian soldiers swelled the ranks to around 40,000 by the time Alaric attacked Rome in 410), but not all the men in the army were Visigoths. Some were Alans and there were even some Huns and other peoples in their ranks. Even including women and children, the entire Visigothic population is estimated to have been around 100,000 people. But Alaric's achievement in uniting even some of the Gothic tribes under his leadership and holding them together was remarkable nevertheless. Alaric was indeed a great Gothic Warlord.

Alaric ruled his alliance of Visigoths for fifteen years, first raiding Greece and Macedonia, and then invading Italy several times. He sacked Rome on August 24, 410, looting the city for three days, and taking as a hostage the half-sister of the Roman Emperor. The Visigoths burned some buildings but spared the churches, and actually committed far less mayhem than they could have under the circumstances. In Pharoah's Daughter, the Roman Immortal Marcus Constantine credits Darius as being the man who brought the Goths to Rome, and Alaric is not mentioned in the television series at all, which gives the impression that we are meant to see Darius as the real historic figure Alaric. However, the 1998 novel Shadow of Obsession ignores the series on this point and treats Darius and Alaric as two different people. In the novel, Darius is an ally of Alaric, and the leader of an independent warband who has ambitions of forming a kingdom of his own. As the novel correctly points out, Alaric's ambitions did not quite extend to overrunning the Empire all the way to the Atlantic and ruling for a thousand years, as Darius planned to do. Although it is said Alaric's brother-in-law Athaulf spoke of turning "Romania" (the Roman Empire) into "Gothia", the reality was that even at their greatest strength, they did not have a sufficient military force to achieve such a goal. And throughout his campaigns against the Romans, even after his victory at the Eternal City, Alaric's actual demands were fairly modest. He wanted an annual payment in gold for himself and his followers, land for settlement, and a generalship the Roman army for himself. Far from wishing to destroy the Empire, Alaric seemed to want to become a mover and shaker within it, like his former commander, the powerful Stilicho, who was half-Roman, half-Vandal by birth.

Alaric never got what he wanted, apart from a regional appointment as general in Illyricum, some bribes from the Romans, and the booty from his raids. He was still waiting for a big settlement from the Romans when he died of illness at age 40 in Cosentia (Cosenza, Italy) not long after taking Rome. Athaulf then assumed leadership of the Visigoths. He is said to have buried Alaric in the riverbed of the Basentus (those who performed the burial were killed afterwards to protect the secret of the grave's location). Originally Alaric had planned to lead the Visigoths to North Africa after taking Rome, but a lack of ships prevented Athaulf from carrying out the plan. Instead, Athaulf went north, crossing into Gaul in 412 and taking Narbonne, Toulouse and Bordeaux by 413. Athaulf was assassinated in Spain in 415, but in 418, one of his successors, Theoderic, made a treaty with the Romans which granted them the Garonne Valley in southern Gaul in return for a military alliance with the Romans. Under the alliance, the Visigoths helped subdue the Vandals, Sueves and Alans who had gone there after crossing the Rhine and raiding across northern Europe in 406-408. Some of the Visigoths settled in Spain, and they also expanded their holdings in southern Gaul. In 451, they helped Aetius defeat Attila the Hun at The Battle of Chalons on the Catalaunian Plains. The Visigothic Kingdom in southern Gaul lasted until the early 6th century, when their holdings were seized by the Franks. In 711, the invasion of the Moors ended the Visigothic Kingdom in Spain.

While the Visigoths won a place for themselves within the Roman Empire, and formed a kingdom that lasted almost 300 years, they never came close to ruling Europe. Nor did they attack Paris, as Darius is said to have done in the series. They remained in southern Gaul and Spain, while the Franks ruled the northern half of the province and made Paris their capital.

The Huns were actually a far more terrifying lot than the Visigoths whom they had run off the Black Sea steppes in 376. At that time, the Huns were without centralized leadership, but by 432 CE they had gathered a huge army which included troops from the numerous peoples they had previously conquered, including the Ostrogoths and Alans, and were united under a single leader named Rua or Rugila. As they had done with the Visigoths and other barbarian groups, the Romans hired Hunnic warriors as auxilliary troops and paid them a yearly tribute, partly for services rendered and partly as a bribe to keep them from raiding the provinces. When Rua died in 434, his nephews Attila and Bleda took over. After the death of Bleda in 445 (some say by murder), Attila assumed sole leadership of the Huns. For a number of years, Attila was content extorting money from the Eastern Roman Emperor, who had been paying the Huns a yearly tribute since the 420's to refrain from raiding its provinces, but in 450, the new emperor Marcian came into power and refused to pay the protection money. Attila decided to try his luck in the Western Empire. In 451, at the head of a great army, (the size of the Hunnic army has been variously estimated at between 300,000 and 700,000) he crossed the Rhine and swept across Europe looting, pillaging, and burning.

The Roman army under General Aetius met him in Gaul, and with the help of an alliance of Visigoths, Alans, Burgundians, and even some Huns, Aetius defeated Attila at Chalons (believed to be located north of Troyes). This did not quite put a stop to Attila, who next invaded Italy and threatened Rome, but his invasion had lost much of its momentum. Famine and pestilence also beset the Hunnic army and took its toll. After Attila died in his sleep after his wedding night in 453, his children fought over the leadership of the Huns and the Hunnic army gradually fell to pieces.

Although it would seem that the legend of Darius is loosely based on, or at least linked to, the history of Alaric and the Visigoths, I also believe that Attila and the Huns may also have served as an inspiration to the writers of Highlander. Darius was specifically identified as a Goth, but the description of his sweep across Europe into Gaul in the series and CD sounds a good deal more like the Hunnic invasion of 451 (even though the Huns never attacked Paris either. Legend says that they were turned away by the prayers of St. Genevieve). After all, the Huns chased all the other barbarians, including the Visigoths, yelling and screaming across the borders of the Empire. Also, the rapid dissolution of the Hunnic army after the loss of its leader sounds like what happened after Darius gave up war and sent his armies away. Grayson was not able to hold Darius' armies together on his own. (By contrast, the Visigoth armies remained intact after the death of Alaric).

As for the description of Darius as a great general and a military genius, both Alaric and Attila were charismatic and powerful figures who demonstrated considerable ability as commanders. I also believe Darius' military prowess could also have been partly based on that of the great Roman generals of the 4th century, Aetius and Stilicho. Both were brilliant strategists and wielded a lot of political clout in the Western Empire. Both were of barbarian ancestry (Stilicho was part Vandal and Aetius was of Scythian descent), and Aetius spent his youth among the Visigoths and Huns as a royal hostage, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn what he could of their military tactics and customs, just as Alaric had done among the Romans.

The portrait of Darius the great Gothic Warlord as drawn by the writers of Highlander is largely imaginary, to be sure, but it does incorporate elements of the real history of the barbarian peoples who invaded the Roman Empire and eventually brought it down. Although Darius was not a real person, an Immortal such as he could easily have existed during this period. He would have fit right in with the likes of Alaric and Attila. There are some discrepancies when the story of Darius is compared to real history, and the "official" sources--the series, CD, and novel, do not always agree on the details of his early life. As Duncan says to Richie in Band of Brothers, "It's only a legend."


Bury, John Bagnell. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967.

Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell Publications, Ltd., 1996.
----------------Goths and Romans, 332-489. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Jordanes, 6th Century. The Gothic History of Jordanes. In English with an introduction and commentary by Charles Christopher Mierow. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1915.

Lettow, Donna, and De Longhis, Anthony. The New Watcher Chronicles CD. Los Angeles: Davis-Panzer Productions, 1998.

Musset, Lucien. The Germanic Invasions: The Makers of Europe AD 400-600. London: Paul Elek, 1975.

Neason, Rebecca. Shadow of Obsession. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Edited by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Vladimir A. Bashilov, and Leonid Yablonsky. Berkeley: Zinat Press, 1995.

Phillips, E. D. The Royal Hordes: Nomad Peoples of the Steppes. London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.

Sulimirsky, Tadeusz. The Sarmatians. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Todd, Malcolm. The Northern Barbarians, 100 BC-AD 300. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas J. Dunlap. New and completely revised from the 2nd German edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

This article is Copyright ©1997 by tirnanog and may not be reproduced without permission.

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