Section 19 – The Kingdom of Alanliao 阿蘭聊 (the Alans)
the Alans. It was recognised very early on that the Yancai 奄蔡
Alans of the Chinese accounts must refer to the Aorsi and the Alani of the
Classical authors. Not only are the names very similar, and they occupied the
same region between the Caspian and Black seas, but the timing of the appearance
of the name of the Alan / Alani people corresponds in both Chinese and Western
accounts. See, for example, Chavannes (1905), p. 558, n. 5.
These correspondences have been discussed at length by many authors and may be taken as certain, so I won’t bother repeating all the evidence here. Those who would like to read further on the subject should check the discussions in: Pulleyblank (1963), p. 220; CICA (1979), p. 129, n. 318; Zadneprovskiy (1994), pp. 467-468; and Leslie and Gardiner (1996), pp. 258-259.
There is extensive and convincing numismatic and archaeological evidence for the early use of a trade route linking the northern Black Sea with Central Asia, China and India dating back to at least the 2nd century BCE, and probably earlier. See, for example, the excellent summary of the evidence in Mielczarek (1997).
I thought that it would be of interest here to quote Strabo’s account of the Aorsi because it contains the earliest historical reference we have to the use of the northern route around the north of the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov by camel caravans from the East:
“The next peoples to which one comes between Lake Maeotis [the Sea of Azov] and the Caspian Sea are nomads, the Nabianai and the Panxini, and then next the tribes of the Siraces and the Aorsi. The Aorsi and the Siraces are thought to be fugitives from the upper tribes of those names and the Aorsi are more to the north than the Siraces. Now Abeacus, king of the Siraces, sent forth twenty thousand horsemen at the time when Phrarnaces [II – Anatolian king of Pontus and son of Mithradates VI Eupator] held the Bosporus [between 63 and 47 BCE]; and Spadines, king of the Aorsi, two hundred thousand; but the upper Aorsi sent a still larger number, for they held dominion over more land, and, one may almost say, ruled over most of the Caspian coast; and consequently they could import on camels the Indian and Babylonian merchandise, receiving it in their turn from the Armenians and the Medes, and also, owing to their wealth, could wear golden ornaments. Now the Aorsi live along the Tanaïs [the Don], but the Siraces live along the Achardeüs [the Kuban] which flows from the Caucasus and empties into Lake Maeotis.” Strabo (c. 23, XI. v. 8.
I will include here the roughly contemporaneous account of the Yancai 奄蔡 [Yen-ts’ai] from the Hanshu for comparison:
“It is said : “Some 2000 li [832 km] to the north-west from K’ang-chü is the state of Yen-ts’ai. The trained bowmen number 100000. It has the same way of life as K’ang-chü. It is situated on the Great Marsh, which has no [further] shore and which is presumably the Northern Sea.” CICA pp. 129-130.
Both the Shiji and the Hanshu place Yancai 奄蔡
literally: ‘Vast steppe,’ almost 2,000 li (832 km) to the northwest of
Kangju, near a great marsh. This is supported by the fact that it seems likely
that the Tashkent oasis was the centre of Kangju, and travelling 832 km to the
northwest of Tashkent brings one to the region of the lower Syr Darya (Yaxartes)
plain, just before the river empties into the Aral Sea. Zadnesprovskiy (1994),
p. 463, also places the Yancai in the region of the Aral Sea. It seems that by
the time of the Hou Hanshu they had moved, or extended, as far as the
lands to the north of the Black Sea.
Chavannes (1907), p. 195, n. 2, believes the text of the Hou Hanshu here is mistaken. The Weilue only includes the first two characters of 阿蘭聊, a and lan, in the name of this kingdom. He suggests that the last character here, 聊, liao, should be read as the similar-looking 柳 liu [‘willow’] which is listed as a separate kingdom in the Weilue:
is the kingdom of Liu, the kingdom of Yan (to the north of Yancai), and the
kingdom of Yancai (near the mouth of the Syr Darya), which is also called Alan.
They all have the same customs as those of Kangju (Tashkent plus the Chu, Talas,
and middle Jaxartes basins). To the west, they border Da Qin (Roman territory),
to the southeast they border Kangju.
These kingdoms have large numbers of famous sables. They raise cattle and move about in search of water and grass. They are close to a big marsh (to the northeast and north of the Aral Sea). Previously they were vassals of Kangju. Now they are no longer vassals.”
“... HHSCC Mem. 78.16b, remarks that the country was a dependency of K’ang-chü, that the dress and the customs of the people, who lived in towns, were identical with those of K’ang-chü, that the climate was mild, and that there were many fir-trees. The memoir adds, that Yen-ts’ai later adopted the name of A-lan-liao....” CICA, p. 129, n. 316.
It is clear from the text that Yancai had recently allied itself to, or joined with, the Alan tribes who stretched west past the Caspian, and were in regular contact with Roman-controlled cities via the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
“Now there was the nation of the Alani, which we have formerly mentioned somewhere as being Scythians, and dwelling about the Tanais [River = the Don] and the Lake Maeotis [the Sea of Azov]. This nation about this time [73 CE] laid a design of falling upon Media and the parts beyond it, in order to plunder them ; with which intention they treated with the king of Hyrcania ; for he was master of that passage which king Alexander [the Great] shut up with iron gates. The king gave them leave to come through them : so they came in great multitudes, and fell upon the Medes unexpectedly, and plundered the country which they found full of people, and replenished with abundance of cattle, while nobody durst make any resistance against them ; for Pacorus, the king of the country, had fled away for fear, into places where they could not easily come at him, and had yielded up everything he had to them, and had only saved his wife and his concubines from them, and that with difficulty also, after they had been made captives, by giving them an hundred talents for their ransom. [The Alans then also defeated Armenia]. So the Alani, being still more provided by this fight, laid waste the country, and drove a great multitude of the men, and a great quantity of other prey they had gotten out of both kingdoms along with them, and then returned back to their own country.” Josephus (75-79 CE), p. 264: VII. 7, 4.
“The third major nomadic state, that of the
Yen-ts’ai, was situated in north-western Central Asia in the steppe around the
Aral Sea and the northern shores of the Caspian, where it was in contact with
the world of the Sarmatians. The nomadic population of this region belonged to
the Sarmatian group of tribes which replaced the Scythians around the turn of
the third century B.C. During the second century B.C., a new major grouping of
Sarmatian tribes, of which the chief were the Siraci and Aorsi, appeared on the
steppes between the Caspian and the Tanais (the River Don), as Strabo describes.
Abeacus, King of the Siraci, could mobilize 20,000 horsemen (at the time when
Pharnaces was lord of the Bosporus), while Spadinus, King of the Aorsi,
commanded as many as 200,000 and the Upper Aorsi even more. That explains their
camel caravan trade in Indian and Babylonian goods which they procured by barter
from the Armenians and the Medes (Strabo XI.5.8).
It is evident from this text that the Aorsi and their kinsmen, the Upper Aorsi, were tribes of Sarmatian origin and were masters of the lands lying along the coast of the Caspian Sea. The precise eastern boundaries of the Aorsi are unknown, but their influence probably extended to the Aral Sea. They were a great military power and for almost three centuries, until the arrival of the Alans, they played a major role in events of the northern Pontic region. King Eunonus of this tribe was an ally of Mithradates VII (who ruled the Bosporus from A.D. 40-44 and was considered a usurper by the Romans) in his struggle against Rome, and offered him asylum after his defeat.
Strabo refers to the established international trade links of the Aorsi with the states of the Caucasus. They also controlled trade routes leading from the Bosporus and other Black Sea states to Transoxiana and China. According to Chinese sources, one of the branches of the Silk Route – the Northern Route – passed through East Turkestan, Ta-yüan and K’ang-chü, ending in the country of the Yen-ts’ai. Chinese artefacts from archaeological excavations provide concrete evidence of the use of this route during the first few centuries A.D. Scholars generally identify the Aorsi mentioned by the classical writers with the Yen-ts’ai state of the Chinese sources.
The Shih-chi states that Yen-ts’ai lies almost 2,000 li north-west of K’ang-chü, and it is a nomadic country whose customs are like those of K’ang-chü. Its army numbers over 100,000. It lies on a large lake that does not have high banks – the Northern Sea.
This independent nomadic state played a role of some significance in the history of Transoxiana and the neighbouring localities along the international trade route. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Han Empire should have sent embassies there and fostered trade relations. Eventually, in the first century B.C., Yen-ts’ai lost its independence and became a dependency of K’ang-chü. According to the Hou Han-shu: ‘The domain of Yen-ts’ai was renamed A-lan-ya, over which K’ang-chü held sway.’ Another country to lose its independence was Yen, which paid tribute in furs. Many scholars seek to identify A-lan-ya (or A-lan-liao) with the Aorsi and Alans of the ancient sources. It should be noted that the appearance of the name A-lan-ya in the Hou Han-shu coincides with the emergence of the Alan tribes on the political stage.” Zadneprovskiy (1994), pp. 465-467. See also: Teggart (1939), pp. 197, 199, 203-205; Chapter 13 on the Alans, in Pelliot (1959), pp. 16-25; Pulleyblank (1962), pp. 99, 220; (1968), p. 252; (1999), p. 74.
2. Di 地 [Ti] may be a transcription of a local name but, as its meaning is ‘place,’ ‘locality,’ ‘earth,’ the term dicheng could just mean something like ‘walled place.’
3. Baicao = ‘White grass’ or ‘White herb’ = aconite, see note 5.3 above.