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In ancient geography, Colchis (sometimes spelled also as Kolchis) (Greek: Κολχίς, kŏl´kĬs; Georgian: კოლხეთი, Kolkheti) was a nearly triangular district in Caucasus. Now the western part of Georgia, it was in Greek mythology the home of Aeetes 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 and Racha, and also Abkhazia and the modern Turkey’s Rize Province and parts of Trabzon and Artvin Province.

Ancient countries of Caucasus: Armenia, Iberia, Colchis and Albania

Geography and toponyms

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 Bziphi, Abkhazia), 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 Colchis of Antiquity, based on Greek literary sources, in a map printed in London, ca 1770

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.


Earliest times

Golden braceletes, c 5-4 centuries BC

The area was home to the well-developed bronze culture known as the Colchian culture, related to the neighbouring Kuban 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.

Bronze axes typical to the Colchian culture

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.

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.

Qulha (Kolkha)

Colchian coins

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 yoke, and to have formed an independent state.

Greek colonization

Statuette of goddess Nike found in Vani, Georgia

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. Then they seem to be completely assimilated. 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.

Under Pontus

Golden statuette found at Gonio, Ajaria

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 Bosporus. 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 earrings from ColchisDespite 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.

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).


Stater issued by King Akes, 4th c BCLittle is known of the rulers of Colchis;

  • 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.

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.

  • Aristarchus (65-47 BC), a dynast under the authority of Pompey

Colchis in Greek mythology


Jack Gwillim as King Aeëtes

in Jason and the Argonauts, 1963

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.

Further reading

  • Braund, David. 1994. Georgia in Antiquity: A History of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia 550 BC-AD 562. Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0198144733
  • Gocha R. Tsetskhladze. Pichvnari and Its Environs, 6th c BC-4th c AD. Annales Littéraires de l'Université de Franche-Comté, 659, Editeurs: M. Clavel-Lévêque, E. Geny, P. Lévêque. Paris: Presses Universitaires Franc-Comtoises, 1999. ISBN 2-913322-42-5
  • Otar Lordkipanidze. Phasis: The River and City of Colchis. Geographica Historica 15, Franz Steiner 2000. ISBN 3515072713
  • Alexander Melamid. Colchis today. (northeastern Turkey): An article from: The Geographical Review. American Geographical Society, 1993. ISBN B000925IWE
  • Akaki Urushadze. The Country of the Enchantress Media, Tbilisi, 1984 (in Russian and English)

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