views updated


Between the sixth and fourth centuries b.c.e., the Sarmatians settled in what is today southern Russia, eventually replacing the Scythians as the dominant tribe in this region. They vanished from the historical record after their land was overrun by the Huns in the late fourth century c.e., and little is known about them.

They rose again, however, in the realm of mythology. According to a legend which gained popularity in Poland in the fifteenth century, the ancient Sarmatians rode into the Polish lands and gave order and stability to the primitive local population. This myth helped justify serfdom, allowing the nobles to imagine that they were of a superior racial lineage. The Sarmatian story became enormously popular, leading some to call Copernicus the Sarmatian Ptolemy.

Sarmatianism did not have any specific religious content at first, but during the Counter-Reformation, as Catholics worked to stamp out religious diversity in the Polish Republic and as the state fought against non-Catholic foes outside the country, the legend mutated to include the idea that the Sarmatians had a mission from God to spread and defend the True Faith.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Sarmatianism had developed a xenophobic character, as many Polish nobles turned away from all "foreign" influences to glory in their indigenous Sarmatian heritage. This myth even influenced the style of clothing, art, and architecture of Poland during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the nobles came to fancy pseudo-oriental designs that they felt evoked their racial heritage.

The intellectuals of the Polish Enlightenment blamed Sarmatianism for the crises of the eighteenth century and for Poland's eventual destruction and partition. Although some of the stylistic features lived on a bit longer, the broader ideology of Sarmatianism faded away in the nineteenth century or lived on as a trace element within new ideological formations.

See also: huns; poland; scythians


Bogucka, Maria. (1996). The Lost World of the "Sarmatians": Custom as the Regulator of Polish Social Life in Early Modern Times. Warsaw: Polish Academy of Sciences.

Grabowska, Bozena. (1993). "Portraits after Life: The Baroque Legacy of Poland's Nobles." History Today 43:18.

Brian Porter