The Land of the Golden Fleece

Ancient map

The two early Georgian Kingdoms of late antiquity were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Iberia (Georgian: იბერია) in East Georgia and Colchis (Georgian: კოლხეთი) in West Georgia.  In Greek Mythology, Colchis was home to the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts in Apollonius Rhodius's epic tale Argonautica. The incorporation of the Golden Fleece into the myth likely derived from the local practice of using fleeces to sift gold dust from rivers.  The fleece became flecked with specks of gold giving it a rich, glamorous appearance.

Medea with Golden Fleece, Batumi, Georgia

Jason and the Argonauts quested for the mythical Golden Fleece from 340 to 330 B.C.E.  Jason arrived in Colchis (along the Black Sea coast of modern Georgia) to claim the fleece. King Aeetes of Colchis promised to give Jason fleece only if he could perform three tasks. Presented with the impossible tasks, Jason became discouraged and fell into a deep depression.  Luckily for Jason, the Gods conspired to make Aeetes's daughter Medea fall in love with Jason.  Lovestruck, Medea helped Jason in his tasks.  Jason’s first task was to yoke the Khalkotauroi, a breed of fire-breathing oxen, and plow an entire field with them.  Medea, adept at magic, witchcraft, and chemistry, provided an ointment that protected him from the oxen's flames. Then, Jason sowed the field with the teeth of a dragon. The teeth sprouted into an army of warriors. Medea had warned Jason told him how to defeat these foes. Before they attacked him, he threw a rock into the crowd. Unable to determine who threw the rock, the soldiers attacked and defeated one another. Jason’s final task was to overcome the Sleepless Dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece. Jason sprayed the dragon with an herbal potion that Medea had crafted for him. The dragon fell asleep and Jason was able to seize the Golden Fleece. As he sailed triumphantly into the distance with Medea at his side, King Aeetes pursued the Argo.  In order to distract Medea’s vengeful father, the new couple killed Medea’s brother Apsyrtus and threw pieces of his body into the sea.  Aeetes had to stop and collect his son’s pieces, slowing him down.  In another version, Medea lured Apsyrtus into a trap where Jason killed him, chopped off his fingers and toes, and buried the corpse.  Jason and Medea escaped back to Greece, Fleece in hand.

In the last centuries of the pre-Christian era, the Kingdom of Kartli-Iberia was strongly influenced by Greece to the west and Persia to the east.  Following the Roman conquest of the Caucasus region in 66 B.C.E., the Kingdom became a Roman client state and ally for nearly 400 years. In 330 C.E., King Marian III converted to Christianity, strengthening the cultural ties to the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire.  

Locally known as Egrisi or Lazica, Colchis served as the frequent battlefield and buffer zone between the rival Persian and Byzantine Empires, with the control of the region shifting hands back and forth several times.  From the 4th to the 6th centuries, the Georgian people fought against Persian and Byzantine conquerors to preserve independence: Egrisi fought the Byzantines and Kartli (Iberia) struggled against the Persians. In the mid-5th century Vakhtang I Gorgasali became the King of Kartli (Iberia) and paved the way for transferring the capital of Georgia from Mtskheta to Tbilisi. Tbilisi and its surrounding territory had been continually inhabited since the Neolithic Period, more than 3,000 years prior.  By the middle of the 5th century the population of Tbilisi had grown considerably. The transfer of the capital from Mtskheta to Tbilisi was accomplished by King Dachi, Vakhtang I's son and successor.  Vakhtang Gorgasali had managed to create a Caucasus-wide coalition against Persia by forming an alliance with the Kingdoms of the Armenians and the Albanians.  Unfortunately for the alliance, the King of Kartli (Iberia) fell in battle early in the 6th century and after his death, the Persians began to attack with renewed zealotry and ferocity.  In 523, having subdued Kartli (Iberia), they moved into Western Georgia.  The Persian intention to seize Egrisi became a casus belli between Persia and Byzantium sparking a war that lasted for 20 years and was fought mostly on the territory of Egrisi, laying it to waste. The early Georgian Kingdoms had disintegrated into various feudal regions by the early Middle Ages which made it easy for Arabs to conquer Georgia in the 7th century.

Thanks to the machinations of King David Kuropalates and Joané Marushisdze, an active political figure, Bagrat Bagrationi rose to the throne of both Kartli (Iberia) (in 975) and Abkhazia (in 978), thereby uniting Eastern and Western Georgia into a single feudal state. The 10th and 11th centuries were a time of reformation and consolidation of the newly-united Georgia.

Georgian writing was first seen in the 5th century. The first examples include inscriptions in the Georgian Monastery of the Holy Cross in Palestine, in the Bethlehem desert at Bir-ell-Katt, and in the Sioni Church of Bolnisi, south of Tbilisi. The origins of Georgian script are a contentious problem. Some scholars believe that it appeared long before the Christianization of Georgia, while others link its appearance to the establishment of the Church in the region.  Though none deny the possible existence of pre-Christian writings, the oldest books translated into Georgian at that time were the Gospels and the Old Testament.  The Passion of St. Shushanik was written in the 5th century and another such work of anonymous authorship, The Martyrdom of Evstate Mtskheteli dates to the 6th century.  By the 8th century, diffusion of Georgian language and literature through Western Georgia greatly strengthened political ties between the minor principalities by serving as the official language of the state and the Church throughout the region.

The arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the 1060s and 1070s ushered in a new era of Georgian history: The Great Turkish Conquests.  The Seljuks, a nomadic tribe given to raiding and pasteurizing sedentary societies, had already subdued Persia and began driving westward in the 1060s.  They captured Armenia, raided the Georgian province of Javakheti, destroying the town of Akhalkalaki, and devastated Kartli in 1068.  Seljuk advances struck at the heart of feudal society, agriculture and landed nobility, and jeopardized the very existence of Georgia. Only a small part of West Georgia escaped the constant invasions and devastation. King Giorgi II (1072- 1089) was forced to pay annual tribute to the Seljuk Sultan.  Though the Georgian people had suffered severe losses, they did manage to preserve the continuity of their state organization.