Seeking the Sarmatians: A Trip to Brementennacum

A few months ago, at a restaurant in Central Edinburgh, I made the acquaintance of a family from ‘near Preston’. When I mentioned later in the conversation that I studied Classics they were more precise: Ribchester, a former Roman fort. Flash forward to last weekend and me and my long-suffering girlfriend are hopping on local buses across the North of England to visit this little town.

Ribchester Roman Museum

You might be asking why. Ribchester is not exactly the most famous Roman site in Britain. There are no mosaics, not many standing ruins, and the most impressive artefact ever discovered there (the admittedly outstanding helmet) has long since been moved to the British Museum and survives in Ribchester only as a replica. But for me there was something very special about Ribchester. For I knew I had to visit the place as soon as I heard about it. Ribchester, you see, or ancient Brementennacum, is one of the few British sites where we can definitively locate the Sarmatians.

Assorted Roman columns outside the museum.

Who they? Well, how long have you got: Sarmatian is an umbrella term for a group of Iranian-speaking people groups who controlled the Pontic steppe from around the 2nd century BC to the 3rd century AD. From Hungary to the Caucasus, these tribes lived alongside, traded with, and attacked the Roman Empire and the Greek cities of the northern Black Sea coast, not least of which was Olbia, the site of my PhD research. Indeed, one pair of Sarmatian rulers (Pharzoios and Inismeos) minted coins at Olbia in the mid to late 1st century AD, as I discuss here, while others were commemorated for their administrative roles in the city across the first centuries AD with honorary decrees.

The Sarmatians were one of Rome’s deadliest enemies, constantly threatening the provinces of Moesia (south of the Danube) and Pannonia (modern-day western Hungary and surrounding regions). Their fearsome reputation meant that victories against them were greatly celebrated: six different emperors, for example, took the title Sarmaticus after defeating them. The first of these was Marcus Aurelius, who beat the Sarmatians in the plains of Transylvania in the Marcomannic Wars (AD 166-172 and 177-180). In a peace treaty of AD 175, the Sarmatians were forced to contribute 8,000 cavalrymen to the Roman Army, of whom 5,500 were sent to the province of Britannia.

Roman cavalry units were distributed in forces of 500, an ala, and were then stationed at individual forts. Which brings us back to Ribchester. For an inscription from the site tells us that a Sarmatian unit was present here at the time of Gordian (AD 238-244). It could be that this unit had existed in Britain since the 180s, or originated from another peace treaty with similar terms conducted later (Sarmatian raids – and their resolution – were an ever present feature in Roman foreign policy until the Gothic migrations of the 3rd and 4th centuries devastated Sarmatian and Roman settlements alike). Regardless, we know that Ribchester, sat on the banks of the river Ribble, once housed Sarmatians, and we might have too a unique instance of a survival of Sarmatian culture.

RIB 583. The inscription is ancient, the chair less so.

Though it isn’t on display aside from as a photograph, Ribchester is the findspot of Britain’s only known (possible) tamga. A tamga is a very mysterious sign, which might have had religious, legal, magical, communitarian or artistic significance (or, of course, some combination of all of these at one and the same time). In the northern Black Sea, tamgas are found on all sorts of materials, from Archaic Greek sculptures, where the signs were scratched over many centuries, to metal horse bridles with the tamga engraved at the point of production. There are marble insciptions where the tamga is being crowned by Victories, and caves where tamgas are depicted nine foot above the ground (I mentioned tamgas briefly in relation to the caves at Wemyss in a previous blog). The Ribchester example is an exceptional piece: cast metal, it has few direct analogies in the corpus of tamgas from the Pontic steppe, which might lead us to doubt its identification. But it seems such a tantalising possibility, when considered alongside the epigraphic evidence of Sarmatian presence, that I can’t help but believe that we do have a genuine tamga here in Lancashire.

The author considering the tamga

It is fair to say that my partner was not as prepared as I was to debate the validity of the tamga identification and its possible ramifications for the survival of cultural traditions in the Roman Empire across great distances. For her, though, Ribchester had a well-preserved and open air Roman bathhouse to look around, and two Roman columns adorning the local pub (The White Bull). Ending our trip with a drink in there, we watched West Ham beat Everton on the telly, and I couldn’t help but feel a strange sense of nostalgia as I saw London Stadium and the claret and blue football shirts that nearly every one of my schoolmates wore on non-uniform days. Was our Sarmatian cavalryman, looking across the Ribble, so desperate for such a feeling, all those centuries ago, that he fashioned himself a tamga? Who is to say. But I will certainly cherish my visit to his adopted town of Brementennacum,

Ribchester Bathhouse. In need of some renovation before I take a dip

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