In the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays a man lost in his time. His heart longs to have been born in 1920’s Paris, which he idealizes as an age grander, more magnificent than his own. His chief antagonist in the film dismisses this longing as “Golden Age Syndrome,” or the irrational, nostalgic belief that another time was better than one’s own.
Many of us look to the past to escape the present. We sometimes think we were born 50, 60 or even 150 years too late. Our minds reach back into the murky waters of history, hoping to retrieve some sunken treasure that has been lost to the ages. What we often don’t realize, and what Midnight in Paris, makes clear, is that if we were miraculously able to travel back to our idealized past, we would find some people looking back to an even earlier time as an antidote to the poisons of the present.
Poland underwent a collective, nationwide “Golden Age Syndrome” between roughly the 16th and 18th centuries called Sarmatism. Today, many of us who have studied Polish history may romanticize the age of the Polish Schlachta, or nobility, as an exciting time of winged hussars on horseback, grandiose noble estates and lavish Baroque-era parties and dances. But those very nobles were looking back and trying to model a group of people who had been extinct for more than 1,000 years—the Sarmatians.
Ancient Ancestors of the Poles?
The Sarmatians were an Iranian people from Central Asia who migrated to parts of Eastern Europe between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. This was long before Poles, Russians or any modern Slavic people roamed that part of the continent. The Sarmatians’ origins are not agreed upon, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus believed they were descended from the legendary Amazons of Greek mythology (a tale which may have been based off real women living in a land called Scythia).
Hippocrates believed that Sarmatians were really part of the Scythian tribe, writing that their “women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies.”[i] It’s difficult to ascertain how much of this is true, but the ancient historians seemed to believe the Sarmatians to be a fierce, war-like group of people.
Over time, it’s conjectured that the Sarmatian tribes filtered across eastern Europe, especially during the Germanic invasions of the early centuries AD. Because of this, some have speculated that this warrior race is connected to Poland.
The Schlachta of the 16th-18th centuries sure thought so. In fact, they believed that what united them as nobles was their common Sarmatian lineage. The narrative went something like this: Centuries earlier, ancient Sarmatians had reached modern day Poland, conquered the local people and established themselves as the ruling class. Over time, they assumed the local Slavic language and culture, but the fierce Sarmatian blood continued to run in their veins.
It was the perfect origin story for the Polish nobility, which prided itself on its military excellence. It also helped legitimize the nobility’s superiority to the peasants, who, according to this narrative, did not descend from the Sarmatians.
Polish nobles took it one step further than merely thinking themselves as being descended from Sarmatians. They consciously sought to live and act like the ancient people to distinguish themselves from, not only non-nobles in Poland, but everyone else in Europe.
In fact, if you traveled to Poland during this time period, you would think that the noblemen looked and acted oriental instead of western. They wore, long, ornate robes called kontusze with decorative buttons and a wide sash. A similar robe, called a Żupan, was often worn underneath the kontusz, or by itself. Loose pants, often associated with Turkic people, called Szarawary, were worn, along with knee-high boots. On the head was worn a kołpak with feathers. Nobles often grew out long, distinctive mustaches, which one can notice on many portraits from the era.
Polish noblemen replicated oriental styles in their military lives as well. The cavalry adopted weapons and armor used by the Ottoman Empire, such as command batons. This was also the age of the famous winged hussars. Warriors wore tall, wooden frames covered in eagle, ostrich or goose feathers to resemble wings, which would terrify the enemy from afar.
Socially, the Polish nobility behaved sumptuously and without much restraint. As discussed, the noble dress itself was very elaborate, meant to make a special impression on visiting foreigners. Noble mansions and palaces contained exotic items and animals from around the world. Gold and silver literally lined the walls, The degree to which the Polish nobility flaunted its wealth was unsurpassed anywhere on the continent. Of course, the lack of restraint applied to drinking alcohol as well. Vast quantities of beverages were consumed, and crazy parties were held on a regular basis.
When looking back at how the Polish nobility acted and dressed during these three centuries. It’s clear that, even if they were descended from the ancient Sarmatians, they weren’t truly copying them as much as they were copying Turkish, Arab and near-Eastern culture of their own day. Historical Sarmatians would have been a nomadic, tribal people, without the level of flaunted wealth as the Polish Schlachta. Furthermore, although the Polish nobility was a major military force for a time, social and political decay, which some historians attribute to the nobility’s loose lifestyle, eventually led to Poland’s decline and subjugation in the 18th century. So much for military excellence.
So do the Poles descend from the ancient Sarmatians? The evidence isn’t concrete, but it’s possible that the Sarmatians had some sort of influence on Slavic people in general during the early centuries AD, which would have included the earliest ancestors of modern Poles.
As far as the Schlachta were concerned, it was a true case of “Golden Age Syndrome.” As many of us do when romanticizing the past, the Polish nobles used the Sarmatians as a starting point for their idealized way of life. They created an elaborate origin story and imposed their own vision of what the glorious past was like, perhaps leaving out the historical facts that did not fit that narrative.
It’s an eye-opening lesson for those of us who long to live in the past. Are we truly longing for the past as it was, or as we want it to have been?