While I am not going to attempt to make this blog Eurocentric, there is no denying that the Roman World (Europe, the Middle East and North Africa) heavily shaped events well into the future, which does make that a good time period for many subjects, and this blog will be no exception. So today’s blog is going to be based around the major players in the Roman World, from the Romans and Greeks to the Carthaginians. From the Gauls, Vandals and Arverni tribes to the North of Rome, to the Parthians, Huns and Sassanians to the East. Much of the history of Europe, North Africa and Middle East, including various religious histories, were heavily influenced by this time period. I’m not going to talk about enemies at any particular time period during the time of the Roman Republic/Roman Empire. Just from when Rome was the dominant force in the regions. Some of these enemies may overlap a bit (such as the Parthians and Sassanids). So let us begin.
The Parthians were early Persians, who started what would be the longest conflict in human history. The Roman-Parthian Wars were the start of what later became known as the Roman-Persian wars (which lasted around 719 years) spanning from the time when Rome was still a republic, until well after it became an empire. The Parthian Empire had land in what is modern day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. A big part of why the Parthians were so powerful, was that they controlled the only 2 trade routes (at the time) between the Western World (Europe, Middle East and North Africa) to the Eastern World (the various Chinese dynasties), the Silk Road and the Incense Route (via the Arabian peninsula). Militarily, they were powerful, having defeated most of their enemies until Rome (including winning their own freedom from the Seleucid Empire). While eventually the Parthian Empire fell, it was replaced quickly by the Sassannid Empire and the Kushan Empire (Kushan being on the far side of the Sassanid Empire, with territory in Afghanistan and India rather than the Middle East so was not really a player in the Roman World)
Sassanian Empire/The Sassanids
The Sassanids were also early Persians, and considered the last great Persian empire before the rise of Islam. The Sassanian Empire continued their predecessors (the Parthian Empire) conflict against the Romans (turning the Roman-Parthian Wars into the Roman-Persian Wars). At it’s peak, it controlled territory in modern day Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Qatar, Palestine, Lebenon, Egypt, Bahrain, Oman, Turkey, Armenia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Egypt. The Sassanids were very powerful, both militarily and culturally. Evidence of Sassanid culture and influence reached as far as Western Europe, Central Africa and China. Christian, Asian and Islamic medieval art were all influenced by Sassanid art styles as well. The military was a combination of native Sassanian forces as well as forces from their vassal states. Some of the most recognizable of the vassal state forces were Medes (as they were extremely skilled Heavy Infantry as well as incredibly accomplished Javelin throwers) and Daylamites (incredibly skilled light infantry and javelin throwers. So resourceful and effective that even the Romans were warned against them). While powerful, their downfall was in their constant military presence and action, especially against the vast Roman army. A military campaign in the Byzantine region from 602-628 which while successful early on, drained both the treasuries and the army reserves. It’s fall lead to the rise of roughly 6 countries of note, but none had a major impact in the Roman World.
Carthage has always been one of the big enemies of early Rome. Being one of the dominant powers in North Africa, at least until the Vandals came across. From early on, Carthage was at war with the Romans and the Greeks. It fought the Sicilian Wars and the Pyrrhic War with the various Greek City-States over control of Sicily. It was also known for it’s three major wars against Rome, known as the First, Second, and Third Punic Wars. In fact, one of the most devastating campaigns against Rome was from Carthaginian general Hannibal (who led a 15 year campaign that included control over chunks of Italy). Carthage included the modern day countries of Algeria, Spain, Tunisia, France, Gibraltar (British Territory), Italy, Libya, Malta, Morocco, and Portugal. One interesting part of Carthage was that it’s military might was not it’s own. It was heavily a merchant state, that relied heavily on mercenaries (especially in overseas combat). Their native military was heavily composed of Slingers and Cavalry (including the famed North African Elephant Cavalry). The mercenaries they used were often divided on ethnic/national grounds. Iberian (modern day Spain/Portugal) mercenaries were grouped together, the Celts were also heavily used and put into their own units. On the other hand, it’s navy was almost all Carthaginians, and was one of the largest and most dominant navies in the Mediterranean (they used early mass-production techniques in order to build and maintain a large number of ships for a moderate cost). In fact, it was their own technology being reverse-engineered by the Romans, combined with the massive numbers to draw upon (and the leadership of experienced Greek sailors) allowed the Romans to defeat Carthage soundly by the Third Punic War. Ultimately, Carthage fell, and was split up into multiple Roman provinces. “Africa”, “Hispaniola”, “Mauritania”, and “Sicilia”. Hispaniola itself ended up being further divided into multiple administrative regions by Rome.
Sarmatia was more of a loose confederation of tribes, of East European (Russian) descent, but were also closely related to the Iranian tribes as well. Unlike their closest “cousins” the Scythians, they were known for a veneration of a fire god rather than a nature god, and also had women in a prominent role militarily (being the most likely origin of the “Amazonian Warrior Women” myth. Sarmatia would be found in the modern countries of Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Poland, Romania, Latvia, Moldova, and Hungary. By the first century AD, Sarmatia had made alliances with multiple Germanic tribes and had come close to entering German territory. By the 4th century, they were found settled in Western Rome. Now, a little known fact about Sarmatia was that not only were they the most likely basis for the Amazonian Warrior myth of Greece and Rome, but they were factually (and confirmed) the source of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table myth. This was because, Sarmatian soldiers serving Rome were stationed in Bremetennacum (modern day Lancashire), and brought their myth of a King commanding one of his knights to throw his sword into a lake. But one of the other basis of the King Arthur myth, Roman soldier Lucius Artorius Castus, who led a group of roughly 5,500 Sarmatian soldiers along Hadrians Wall. Forces in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire did not use Rome’s usual Eagle Banners, and Artorius used his personal banner, of a red dragon (similar to that found on the current Welsh flag), and had one of his fortresses upon becoming the governor of Britannia in what would be modern Wales (near modern-day Newport).
Scythia was the name given to all the lands north-east of Europe, and on the northern coast of the Black Sea, by the Greeks. Though known as the Scythians by modern society, they had a different name for themselves, the Scoloti. The range of the Scythian lands includes modern day Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Romania, Bulgaria, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Genetic evidence also lends itself to them having a significant presence as far east as the Lake Baikal region (Siberian Russia and Northern Mongolia), the Xinjiang region of China, and further west than Germany. Scythia was a huge and dominant power in the Near East well before the Roman Republic was even a power. But the Scythians did dominate the region for nearly 900 years. Though they didn’t have a lot of direct contact with the Romans, they did have a lot of contact with the Greeks, and they often shared some enemies. When the Goths started invading Europe, Scythia was one of the first to fall. But one of the final nails in the coffin for Scythia was the rise of the Sarmatians, as well as conquest of its Crimean regions by the Bosporan Kingdom (a Greek state subservient to Rome).
The Seleucid Empire was one of the states carved out when Alexander The Great of Macedon died without an heir. Much like the other former Macedonian controlled regions, there was a massive influx of war to expand, political maneuvering with other former generals of the Macedonian army (as it was the generals who split the former empire up amongst themselves), and inevitably, conflict with Rome. Despite primarily being in the Near and Middle East (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel) it was still heavily a Hellenic/Greek state. The first 3 kings of the Seleucids actually lost a lot of land in the east, but by the time King Antiochus III the Great came to power, they were retaking land and becoming a major power again. Antiochus III actually had met with the former Carthaginian general Hannibal and was actually encouraged to go to war with Rome, with which he was hugely unsuccessful. This actually cost them territory in Turkey as well as a huge debt to the Roman Republic, which he tried to repay by invading India for gold. Part of the fall of the Seleucid was because of the losses to Rome, as they were never able to repay their debt and took a huge hit economically and militarily. This encouraged rebels throughout large portions of the empire to rise up, including the Parthians and the people of Judea. The death of the Seleucid Empire was slow, and painful. There was so much political instability there that no major powers, including Parthia, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Rome wanted nothing to do with the region. Combined that with the fact that their limited area of control made for a useful buffer between aggressors from India and the powers of the Near East, North Africa and Europe. Eventually Rome figured the instability was only caused by the Seleucid ruling family, had them all executed and turned them into the Roman province of Syria.
Rome was a rather large influence on this region for several hundred years. But their origins were rather humble. A small city state initially, it took several military campaigns to expand them into even a regional power, let alone the superpower they became. Early military campaigns would not lead to annexation, but it would actually force them to accept Romanization. Rather than get a military hegemony, they enforced a cultural hegemony. Outside of a few gains militarily (such as Sicily after the First Punic Wars), they mostly expanded military might through alliances and confederation with other city states. Of course, the more they expanded their alliances, the closer they came to conflict with major powers. It didn’t turn into something more like an Empire until after the Second Punic War, where Romans started asserting control over cities and provinces. Though under the Republic they still relied heavily on alliances for expansion of control, and that most of the people they allied with still maintained domestic and some foreign control. It wasn’t until Julius Caesar and the conversion of Rome to an Empire that they asserted complete economic and military, domestic and foreign control over all city states and kingdoms within it’s alliance. Near the end of the Republic days, it wasn’t uncommon for slave revolts and uprisings, mostly because it wasn’t uncommon for slaves to vastly outnumber Roman citizens on plantations. At it’s height, the Empire under Emperor Trajan, it covered 5 million square kilometers (which makes it larger than the entirety of the modern European Union), and held more than 70 million people (roughly 21% of the worlds population at the time). The military of Rome during the Empire days was much more professional, where those who volunteered served 25 years (20 years regular service, and 5 years in the reserves). Of course the Roman Empire eventually fell as well, leaving a whole slew of empires and other nations rising to fill the power vacuum. Countries that would have made up the Roman Empire at it’s peak include Wales, England, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Gibraltar, Belgium, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Greece, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Albania, Hungary, Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq.
The Huns didn’t come to power in Europe until the 4th century AD, but they did play an incredibly large role in shaping Eurasia during the rise. Their most infamous leader was Atilla the Hun (who conquered and pillaged his way through Europe and Central Asia). While only being a power for 300 years, they were a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire (specifically the Western Roman Empire), via the “Great Migration” (where there was a large amount of movement among the non-Roman “barbarian” tribes that shifted the balance of power). One unique trait about the Huns is their mysterious origins. While we know they were tribes from the steppes, it is unsure if they are of early Iranian/Scythian/Sarmatian origins, or if they were of Mongolian origins (both have been hinted at and linked to, but there is little genetic evidence left, and linguistically they’re language died out in roughly the 8th century AD). As far as study of their language, there is little to go off of. They have 3 words that were written that survived, and only 33 full names. While full study of these has lead to some speculation, the roots are somewhere between Turkish and Mongolian, but the language still has some ties to modern Chuvash and Bulgarian (based on ethnic names). They were well known for their cavalry, especially their horse archers. Their empire spread over what would have been modern day Hungary, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Belarus, Serbia, Austria, Croatia, Lithuania and Bulgaria.
The Franks were a German tribe that eventually conquered most of Western Europe. Modern countries that were found in the Frankish Kingdom would be France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, and Austria. Frankish tribes were often split, many remained outside of Roman control, and often raided Roman territory. Others aligned themselves fully within Rome, often faithfully serving the army in the further provinces of the Empire. The most notable Frankish chieftan was known as Carolus Magnus in Rome. Charles Magnus, Charles the Great, or most commonly, Charlemagne. When the Western Roman Empire fell, the Sarlian Franks (ones who were formerly loyal to the Romans) started extending their influence. The Frankish tribes were eventually united by the Merovingians, who used a national/ethnic unity combined with a belief in Roman Catholocism as the unifying roots. Though initially united, the Kingdom was eventually divided as 3 brothers waged civil war over who controlled what. The Kingdom was split into 3, the Holy Roman Empire (compromising the Eastern part of the Frankish Kingdom), West Francia (eventually the kingdom of France), and the Middle Frankia. Middle Frankia consistently broke down into smaller kingdoms and city states, of which were constantly fought over by the later generations of the Frankish rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and France.
The Vandals were an East Germanic Tribe (originally from Scandinavia, but settled southern Poland around the second century BC) who were nomadic in nature. While nomadic themselves, their reach was rather larger than likely ever intended. This was because other tribes, such as the Goths and the Huns coming through and forcing them from their settled lands. So they went westward and southward, establishing kingdoms in both Spain and North Africa. In fact, the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa (including the former Roman Province of Africa) was infamous for the sacking Rome in 455 AD. Later historians called the Vandals “barbaric and destructive” leading to the modern term of “Vandalism”. Though modern scholars believe that the Vandals more than likely actually spread Roman culture rather than destroyed it. The Vandal Kingdom held territory in what is now modern day Spain, France, Italy, Algeria, Tunisia, and Malta.
The Saxons were another Germanic tribe, but this one stayed on the northern edge of the continent. While having been in conflict with the Romans, they didn’t rise to power until the fall of the Western Roman Empire. They frequently raided the British Isles while it was still Roman controlled, leading to the “Saxon Shore” (a string of coastal forts along the most common raiding spots of the Saxons, most notably modern day Kent and Norfolk). They were a frequent foe of the Frankish tribes, often allying with other Germanic tribes until many of the Saxons left continental Europe to eventually settle in Britain. While some may claim that they invaded (and while there was violence in many areas between Saxons and the other British tribes), there was also a lot of peaceful coexistence and assimilation. Eventually they founded the four main kingdoms of England, Wessex, Sussex, Middlesex, and Essex (West Saxony, South Saxony, Middle Saxony and East Saxony) which one day united and formed the basis of modern England. Those who remained in continental Europe were often settled in what is modern Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, and France. Among their rivals and allies were the Angles, another German tribe who left continental Europe for England (giving us the more modern “Anglo-Saxon” heritage of most England).
The Goths (Ostrogoth and Visigoth)
The Goths were another East Germanic tribe that played a huge role in the shaping of modern Europe. During the days of the Roman Empire they were savage raiders, but they were also the first of the Germanic tribes to convert to Christianity. While there were many Gothic tribes, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths were the most notable of them. During the Hunnic invasion of Europe, these two major groups took opposite sides. The Visigoths became vassals and collaborators with the Roman Empire, while the Ostrogoths (as well as some other Germanic tribes) joined the Huns in their invasions. The Visigoths first king, Alaric I, who himself sacked Rome once (in 410 AD). Their second king, Theodoric, defeated Attila the Hun and founded the kingdom of Aquitaine. They were pushed out of Aquitaine (in modern France) to Spain by the Franks, before being defeated by the North African Moors. Eventually those of Visigothic heritage eventually headed the later “Reconquista” or re-conquest of Spain and Portugal from the Islamic Moors. By the end of the centuries long war to reclaim Spain and Portugal, the Visigoths became almost completely embedded in the Hispanic culture, keeping only their Germanic names. The Ostrogoths, while early allies of the Huns, eventually revolted and formed their own kingdom in the Italian peninsula. The Ostrogothic Kingdom was weakened as it had waged wars against both the Byzantine Empire, and the Kingdom of the Lombards (another Germanic tribe) with whom they eventually assimilated into. The names “Visigoth” and “Ostrogoth” essentially means “Western Goths” and “Eastern Goths” (where the two Gothic tribes often lived relative to each other, with the Visigoths in the West and Ostrogoths in the East).
While there are other tribal powers who may have had some influence (the Gauls, the Celts, the Lombards, the Picts, and others), these were some of the biggest groups involved in shaping the Roman world, as well as the history of medieval Europe, Eurasia, North Africa, and the Middle East. From place names, cities, art, forts, mythology, language, and actual names, all are a part of the legacy of this era and these peoples.