This is not the first set of Sarmatians made in this scale, although the others were very small and with few poses. This seems strange as they were one of the major opponents of the Roman Republic and later Empire, and from their eventual homeland around the Crimea etc. they managed to avoid becoming part of that imperial domain. Records of their existence in that region begin around the 5th century BCE, and last until they were effectively obliterated by first the Goths and then the Huns around the 4th century CE. They fought the Romans many times, and like so many ‘barbarians’ they would latterly sometimes find themselves fighting within Roman armies too, but given the other Imperial Roman sets so far made by this company it seems likely that the important connection here is their link with their neighbours the Dacians, who suffered a number of Roman invasions around the later years of the first century CE. Indeed they provided the only heavy cavalry that the Dacians could field in battle, so it is for this period that we will consider these models.
Cavalry – by far the most important part of Sarmatian armies – was basically divided into two groups. The majority were archers, as you would expect of a Steppe people, and their skill with the bow while mounted was widely known and admired. The second, much smaller element, was the group of men who went into battle with the contus, the long lance, which they gripped with both hands. Naturally neither of these weapons were ideal for close-quarter combat, so when needed swords and ropes might be used, and perhaps also axes and other weapons. We were therefore quite surprised to find just three archers in this set, along with one further pose with a bow still in its case. Two of the archers are using their bows, while the third is holding it out to his side in a quite strange stance. In the absence of archers we would expect to find heavily armoured lancers, but there are none at all here. Instead we find two spearmen (last two figures in the middle row), neither of which are good poses. The first holds his by his hip with both hands – a ridiculous pose for a spear. This would make sense if he were holding the long contus, but as we will discuss below he does not. The second holds his spear directly over his head, resting on his helmet, which again is poor. All the rest are holding swords, which is fine, javelins or axes, which do not seem to feature as major weapons. Many of these poses, particularly the man with the javelin, are very flat, so overall we were not pleased with the mix of poses here.
If the mix of weaponry is not a particularly good representation of the real thing, then the accuracy of each individual warrior is probably better. Most of these figures wear some form of armour, which is likely to be a higher proportion than would normally be the case, but each armour looks plausible. Sadly these are poorly documented people, and evidence for their appearance is based largely on some highly unrealistic depictions on Trajan’s column and archaeology of graves, which are inevitably mainly of more wealthy individuals. It is believed that armour by the first century CE was mainly scale, made of metal, hardened leather, horn or even slices of horse’s hooves! Several different styles of helmet are being worn, including a number which are of the spangenhelm variety, which is fine.
We have said that we were disappointed by the mix of weapons, and in particular the proliferation of axes, which seem to get almost no coverage in the sources which would justify so many here. The ordinary spear was in common usage prior to the imperial Roman period, but one of the most important weapons by the time of the Dacian Wars was the contus, and there are none here. The two spears that are present are 29mm and 34 mm in length, which means even the longer of the two, scaling up to almost 2.5 metres, is well short of the contus which is thought to be between three and four metres in length or even longer. At least some of the swords should have had ring pommels, although to be fair this is a small detail probably beyond such relatively unsophisticated sculpting. The archers have the gorytos on their left hip, which was a combined bow case and quiver. This is fine, although we would have liked to have seen some of the later cylindrical quivers that were in use by the Dacian Wars. Most of the men carry shields which vary enormously in shape. Generally made of wickerwork, leather and wood, such shields have not survived to the modern era so almost nothing is known about them today. We found the dazzling variety of shapes hard to understand, but no one can be sure what is right or wrong now. Most have a ribbed surface, perhaps implying wickerwork or cane construction.
Strelets have never really got to grips with horse poses, and all those in this set follow the usual pattern, so some are wildly far from any pose a horse would or could make. The details of saddles and bridles are hard to verify due to lack of evidence, but we could find no evidence to support the horse that has not been provided with any saddle, although clearly such good horsemen may well have been capable of riding bareback. Half the horses wear some form of armour, which is fine for the first century CE when some of the cavalry were heavy – unfortunately there are no such men in this set! One horse has his mane plaited in extravagant form, which is an interesting showy touch.
Strelets have been remarkably consistent in the style and quality of their sculpting over the years, and this set is no different. This leaves us facing the challenge of saying essentially the same thing we have said about most previous Strelets sets, yet trying not to repeat ourselves. There are however only so many words that are suitable, and while chunky, basic, coarse and unrefined have all been used they still do the job admirably here too. Limbs and extremities are thick and have a stubby appearance, while many smaller details are too large since fine detail is clearly not achievable. Strelets have long since mastered the art of producing figures with virtually no flash, and by making some very flat poses they avoid excess plastic. The men fit their horses well enough, and the only separate item – the spear – requires little coaxing to slide into the ring hand.
With no contus the set has an appearance of the Sarmatians in the centuries before the first Augustus, which is perfectly reasonable. However the proliferation of armour, particularly on the horses, suggests a later date – perhaps the end of the first century CE, when it would match the sets of Dacians already produced by this company. If so however then the lack of a real contus is a serious failing as this weapon had become the most important by the time of the Dacian Wars, despite the bow still being the most common. The heavy lancers were the only heavy cavalry the Dacians could call upon during their wars with Rome, yet there are none here. Anyone looking for suitable cavalry to match their Dacian infantry will find little of value here, so this set seems to struggle to know exactly what it is depicting, and even if you put a proper contus in the hands of the single figure that could take it, the set would still be a very poor representation of a major element in the Dacian armies that faced Trajan and his troops.