In ancient geography, Colchis (sometimes spelled also as Kolchis) Georgian: Kolkheti; Greek: Kolxis, kol´kIs) was a nearly
triangular ancient Georgian region and kingdom in the Caucasus which played an important role in the ethnic and cultural
consolidation of the Georgian nation.
Now mostly the western part of Georgia, it was in Greek mythology the home of Aeëtes and Medea and the destination of the
Argonauts. The ancient area is represented roughly by the present day Georgian provinces of Mingrelia, Imereti, Guria, Ajaria,
Svaneti, Racha, Abkhazia and the modern Turkey’s Rize Province and parts of Trabzon and Artvin provinces.
Geography and toponyms
Ancient countries of Caucasus: Colchis Iberia and Albania
According to most classic authors, a district which was bounded on the southwest by Pontus, on the west by the Pontus
Euxinus as far as the river Corax (probably the present day Bzybi River, Abkhazia, Georgia), on the north by the chain
of the Greater Caucasus, which lay between it and Asiatic Sarmatia, on the east by Iberia and Montes Moschici (now the
Lesser Caucasus), and on the south by Armenia. There is some little difference in authors as to the extent of the country
westward: thus Strabo makes Colchis begin at Trapezus, while Ptolemy, on the other hand, extends Pontus to the river Phasis.
Pityus was the last town to the north in Colchis.
The name of Colchis first appears in Aeschylus and Pindar. The earlier writers only speak of it under the name of Aea
(Aia), the residence of the mythical king Aeetes. The main river was the Phasis (now Rioni), which was according to some
writers the south boundary of Colchis, but more probably flowed through the middle of that country from the Caucasus west
by south to the Euxine, and the Anticites or Atticitus (now Kuban). Arrian mentions many others by name, but they would
seem to have been little more than mountain torrents: the most important of them were Charieis, Chobus or Cobus, Singames,
Tarsuras, Hippus, Astelephus, Chrysorrhoas, several of which are also noticed by Ptolemy and Pliny. The chief towns were
Dioscurias or Dioscuris (under the Romans called Sebastopolis, now Sokhumi) on the sea-board of the Euxine, Sarapana (now
Shorapani), Phasis (now Poti), Pityus (now Bichvinta), Apsaros (now Gonio), Surium (now Surami), Archaeopolis (now Nokalakevi),
Macheiresis, and Cyta or Cutatisium (now Kutaisi), the traditional birthplace of Medea. Scylax mentions also Mala or Male,
which he, in contradiction to other writers, makes the birthplace of Medea.
The area was home to the well-developed bronze culture known as the Colchian culture, related to the neighbouring Koban
culture, that emerged towards the Middle Bronze Age. In at least some parts of Colchis the process of urbanization seems to
have been well advanced by the end of the second millennium BC, centuries before Greek settlement. Their Late Bronze Age (15th
to 8th Century BC) saw the development of an expertise in the smelting and casting of metals that began long before this skill
was mastered in Europe. Sophisticated farming implements were made and fertile, well-watered lowlands blessed with a mild climate
promoted the growth of progressive agricultural techniques.
Golden braceletes, c 5-4 centuries BC
Colchis was inhabited by a number of relative, but still pretty different tribes whose settlements lay chiefly along the shore
of the Black Sea. The chief of those were the Machelones, Heniochi, Zydretae, Lazi, Tibarenni, Mosinici, Macrones, Moschi,
Marres, Apsilae (probably modern-day Abkhaz-speakers), Abasci (possibly modern-day Abaza), Sanigae, Coraxi, Coli, Melanchlaeni,
Geloni and Soani (Suani). These tribes differed so completely in language and appearance from the surrounding nations that the
ancients originated various theories to account for the phenomenon. Herodotus, who states that they, with the Egyptians and the
Ethiopians, were the first to practice circumcision, believed them to have sprung from the relics of the army of Pharaoh Sesostris
III (1878-1841 BC), and thus regarded them as Egyptians. Apollonius Rhodius states that the Egyptians of Colchis preserved as
heirlooms a number of wooden tablets showing seas and highways with considerable accuracy. Though this theory was not generally
adopted by the ancients, it has been defended – but not with complete success, by some modern writers. There seems to have been
a Negroid component (which predates the Arab slave trade) along the Black Sea region, whose origins could very well be traced to
an Ancient Extra-African expedition, although this cannot be verified by archaelogical evidence.
Bronze axes typical to the Colchian culture
Modern theories suggest that the main Colchian tribes are direct ancestors of the Laz-Mingrelians, and played a significant
role in ethnogenesis of the Georgian and Abkhazian peoples.
Kingdom of Colchis during the rise of Pontus and Armenia in 189-63 BC
In the 13th century BC, the Kingdom of Colchis was formed as a result of the increasing consolidation of the tribes inhabiting
the region. This power celebrated in Greek mythology as the destination of the Argonauts, the home of Medea and the special
domain of sorcery, was known to Urartians as Qulha (aka Kolkha, or Kilkhi). Being in permanent wars with the neighbouring
nations, the Colchians managed to absorb part of Diaokhi in the 750s BC, but lost several provinces (including the “royal
city” of Ildemusa) to the Sarduris II of Urartu following the wars of 750-748 and 744-742 BC. Overrun by the Cimmerians and
Scythians in the 730s-720s BC, the kingdom disintegrated and came under the Achaemenid Persian Empire towards the mid-6th
century BC. The tribes living in the southern Colchis (Tibarenni, Mosinici, Macrones, Moschi, and Marres) were incorporated
in the 19th Satrapy of the Persia, while the northern tribes submitted “voluntarily” and had to send to the Persian court 100
girls and 100 boys in every 5 years. The influence exerted on Colchis by the vast Achaemenid Empire with its thriving commerce
and wide economic and commercial ties with other regions accelerated the socio-economic development of the Colchian land.
Subsequently the Colchis people appear to have thrown off the Persian Authority, and to have formed an independent state.
The advanced economy and favorable geographic and natural conditions of the area attracted the Milesian Greeks who colonized
the Colchian coast establishing here their trading posts at Phasis, Gyenos, and Dioscurias in the 6th-5th centuries BC. It was
considered "the farthest voyage" according to an ancient Greek proverbial expression, the easternmost location in that society's
known world, where the sun rose. It was situated just outside the lands conquered by Alexander the Great. Phasis and Dioscurias
were the splendid Greek cities dominated by the mercantile oligarchies, sometimes being troubled by the Colchians from hinterland
before seemingly assimilating totally. After the fall of the Persian Empire, significant part of Colchis locally known as Egrisi
was annexed to the recently created Kingdom of Iberia (Kartli) in ca. 302 BC. However, soon Colchis seceded and broke up into
several small princedoms ruled by sceptuchi. They retained a degree of independence until conquered (circa 101 BC) by Mithradates
VI of Pontus.
Statuette of goddess Nike found in Vani, Georgia
Mithradates VI quelled an uprising in the region in 83 BC and gave Colchis to his son Mithradates Chrestus, who was soon
executed being suspected in having plotted against his father. During the Third Mithridatic War, Mithridates VI made another
his son Machares king of Colchis, who held his power but for a short period. On the defeat of Mithradates in 65 BC, Colchis
was occupied by Pompey, who captured one of the local chiefs (sceptuchus) Olthaces, and installed Aristarchus as a dynast
(65-47 BC). On the fall of Pompey, Pharnaces II, son of Mithridates, took advantage of Julius Caesar being occupied in Egypt,
and reduced Colchis, Armenia, and some part of Cappadocia, defeating Domitius Calvinus, whom Caesar subsequently sent against
him. His triumph was, however, short-lived. Under Polemon I, the son and successor of Pharnaces II, Colchis was part of the
Pontus and the Bosporan Kingdom. After the death of Polemon (after 2 BC), his second wife Pythodoris retained possession of
Colchis as well as of Pontus itself, though the kingdom of Bosporus was wrested from her power. Her son and successor
Polemon II was induced by Emperor Nero to abdicate the throne, and both Pontus and Colchis were incorporated in the
Province of Galatia (63) and later in Cappadocia (81).
Under the Roman rule
Golden statuette found at Gonio, Ajaria
Despite the fact that all major fortresses along the seacoast were occupied by the Romans, their rule was pretty loose. In 69, the people of Pontus and Colchis under Anicetus staged a major uprising against the Romans which ended unsuccessfully. The lowlands and coastal area were frequently raided by the fierce mountainous tribes with the Soanes and Heniochi being the most powerful of them. Paying a nominal homage to Rome, they created their own kingdoms and enjoyed significant independence. Christianity began to spread in the early 1st century. Traditional accounts relate the event with St. Andrew, St. Simon the Canaanite, and St. Matata. However, the Hellenistic, local pagan and Mithraic religious beliefs would be widespread until the 4th century.
Golden earrings from Colchis
By the 130s, the kingdoms of Machelons, Heniochi, Lazica, Apsilia, Abasgia, and Sanigia had occupied the district form south to north. Goths, dwelling in the Crimea and looking for their new homes, raided Colchis in 253, but they were repulsed with the help of the Roman garrison of Pityus. By the 3rd-4th centuries, most of the local kingdoms and principalities had been subjugated by the Lazic kings, and thereafter the country was generally referred to as Lazica (Egrisi).
Golden statuette found at Gonio, Ajaria
Little is known of the rulers of Colchis;
Note: During his reign, the local chiefs, sceptuchi, continued to exercise some power. One of them, Olthaces, is
mentioned by the Roman sources as a captive of Pompey in 65 BC.
- Aeetes celebrated in Greek legends as a powerful king of Colchis is thought by some historians to be a historic person,
though there is no evidence to support the idea.
- Kuji, a presiding prince (eristavi) of Egrisi under the authority of Pharnavaz I of Iberia (ca302-237 BC) (according to
the medieval Georgian annals).
- Akes (Basileus Aku) (end of the 4th century BC), king of Colchis; his name is found on a coin issued by him.
- Saulaces, "king" in the 2nd century BC (according to some ancient sources).
- Mithradates Chrestus (fl 83 BC), under the authority of Pontus.
- Machares (fl 65 BC), under the authority of Pontus.
- Aristarchus (65-47 BC), a dynast under the authority of Pompey
Colchis in Greek mythology
According to the Greek mythology, Colchis was a fabulously wealthy land situated on the mysterious periphery of the
heroic world. Here in the sacred grove of the war god Ares, King Aeetes hung the Golden Fleece until it was seized by
Jason and the Argonauts. Colchis was also the land where the mythological Prometheus was punished by being chained to a
mountain while an eagle ate at his liver for revealing to humanity the secret of fire. Amazons also were said to be of
Scythian origin from Colchis.
The main mythical characters from Colchis are Aeetes, Medea, Apsyrtus, Chalciope, Circe, Eidyia, Pasiphaë.