BMCR 1995.04.05

Georgia in antiquity: a history of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia, 550 BC-AD 562

, Georgia in antiquity: a history of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia, 550 BC-AD 562. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. xvii, 359 pages : illustrations. ISBN 9780198144731. $49.95.

1 Responses

Authors can often be prophets—even unwittingly. In a recent review the author of this work concludes: “However, this is not a book for the uninformed or the unwary, since too much of its details and its general thinking requires substantial revision” ( International History Review 16 [1994] 778). This sentiment could be applied to his own book. Braund (hereafter “B.”) procedes from the erroneous assumption that scholars west of the Crimea are totally ignorant of ancient Georgia. Hence B.’s epiphany as an illuminator. His introduction, which can scarcely be called modest (esp. p.1), boasts of this book as a “new beginning,” through which ancient Georgia can be understood for the first time and the study of Georgia integrated into general ancient history—a discipline that B. feels is still dominated by the political history of Athens and Rome. With a few exceptions, B. overlooks Western scholarship in Caucasiology, the availability of Soviet and even Georgian scholarly publications in the West (many with generous summaries in Western languages), the life-long labors of Otar Lordkipanidze in familiarizing Western scholars with Georgian archaeology, and not least the long tradition of debates among Western ancient historians, particularly on problems of Roman and Byzantine involvement with the Caucasian peoples. In brief, B. misrepresents the state of scholarship.

The absence of even a single reference to articles in RE epitomizes B.’s scholarly method, which gravitates between two poles—Georgian archaeology and British (chiefly Cambridge) socio-economic historiography. Thus readers should be prepared for “models,” “elites,” “center vs periphery,” the now hackneyed peoples-of-the-hills vs peoples-of-the-plains scenario, and that Liebling transhumance.

This book is not a comprehensive treatment of Transcaucasia: Albania (Azerbaijan), Armenia, and tribes north of the Caucasus are omitted. Nor do we receive any hint about the scholarly tradition of ethnological studies of the multi-ethnic and polyglot Caucasian peoples, whom for B. are indigenous except for some interaction with peoples from the north—a topic not cogently pursued. B. focuses primarily on Colchis (western Georgia); Iberia (eastern Georgia) is slighted. Similarly, as a work of archaeology the book is curious: Stone-Age and Bronze-Age Colchis are treated perfunctorily and Iberia before the third century B.C. is by-passed. Technical terms like “Colchian-Koban culture” (pp.106-108) are not defined, nor is Georgian archaeology contextualized by detailed comparison with material culture in Anatolia, the northern Near East, and the steppe north of the Caucasus. Rather, B. surveys Greek and Roman involvement in Georgia from the dawn of Greek colonization to the Byzantine-Persian treaty of 562 without a unifying thesis, the comprehensive coverage promised (p.vii), and a proper conclusion to 314 pages of text.

The work is divided into nine chapters, which combine updates on Georgian archaeology with various hypotheses. Ch. 1 on myth is ahistorical. B. assembles RE -style catalogues of references (e.g., Colchis, Argonauts, Medea) to prove extensive connections between Colchis and the Graeco-Roman world, but B. fails to distinguish fascination with the Argonaut saga from contacts with the real Colchis, and only later (p.74) does he realize that many of these “connections” were local inventions. Ch. 2 (“Geography and Economy”) offers a good introduction for beginners in Caucasian studies. Advanced students will find the economic theses less satisfying. An emphasis on the Colchian slave trade is predictable, given B.’s Cambridge training, and B. essentially follows W. W. Tarn in denying Indian trade through Transcaucasia. A geographical thesis seeks to overthrow the idea of the Caucasus as a barrier against northern invaders—a view stressed in the sources. For B. the Caucasus is permeable, but his case is weak and a full refutation must be pursued elsewhere.

B.’s treatment of Greek colonization marches in step with the current revisionist party line (aimed at the works of A.J. Graham and what the ancient sources say): colonization as “process” rather than “events”; dispatch of an oikist becomes a late rather than a first step. Likewise, B. follows a current trend in emphasizing cooperation rather than conflict with the natives—a trend also now prominent in Roman frontier studies. In these issues, as with the problem of a native Colchian kingdom, B. marshals the evidence to support his hypotheses. Definitive answers still lie far in the future.

From at least the fifth century B.C. on, Georgia was in contact with various empires. B. adds little of historical importance on Achaemenid Persia and Colchis, although his conjecture that Colchis belonged to the Athenian Empire is adventurous and his stance on Seleucid control of Colchis and Iberia dubious. The rich sites of Vani and the more recently excavated and less well-known Sairkhe, both prominent since at least the sixth century B.C., highlight the Hellenistic period in Colchis. B.’s extensive criticisms of Lordkipanidze’s interpretations of Vani, however, range from captious to legitimate. The rise of an Iberian kingdom, which deserved more attention, receives little.

Discussion of Roman involvement in Georgia, beginning with the Third Mithridatic War, remains consistent with B.’s neglect of Western scholarship. In fact, B.’s account lacks originality. Pompey’s Caucasian campaigns, for example, are seen as adventurism. The view dates at least to 1949 (Matthias Gelzer’s Pompeius), but Gelzer is not cited. Iberia has yielded numerous Greek and Aramaic inscriptions, on which B. refers only to Georgian scholarship, apparently unaware of Western discussions of the Greek inscriptions and many of the Aramaic. Pertinent references to standard epigraphical corpora are not given (e.g., pp.213-15; cf. SEG XVI 781-83, XX 113) and SEG XV 838 is not mentioned. For the ties between Iberia and Iranians north of the Caucasus, the supposed confusion of the Caspian and Caucasian Gates in the sources, the significance of Iberia in Roman policy towards Armenia and Parthia, Arrian’s governorship—indeed the whole history of Roman relations with Georgia between the Third Mithridatic War and the mid-second century—B. chooses to ignore a 1977 Duke University dissertation, known to him since 1989 (E.L. Wheeler, Flavius Arrianus: A Political and Military Biography, pp.54-283). B. agrees with many of this author’s views (e.g., pp.196-97, 210-12, 216, 218, 234) and even defends Wheeler’s stance on Nero’s Caucasian campaign against Benjamin Isaac (p.226 n.121), who (unlike B.) cited this work and named its author. B.’s differences with this author must be discussed elsewhere.

For the third and fourth centuries B.’s survey becomes spotty, superficial, and often unconvincing (e.g., pp.241-42 on Machelonia in the Res Gestae of Sapor I). Substance returns with the final chapter on the Byzantine-Sassanid struggle for Lazica (Colchis) in the fifth and sixth centuries. B. rehearses and expands an earlier article on Procopius’ alleged misconceptions, although B.’s polemic resorts to a fallacious historical determinism—only what did happen could have happened (pp.297-98).

Misprints occur, including jumbled numbers in references (e.g., 13 n.18: read Diod. 17.77.3 for 77.17.3). B. dates the Historia Augusta to the third century (p.275 n.26) and does not distinguish Aristotle from Heraclides Lembus or the pseudo-Aristotelian Mir.Ausc. (pp.16, 26, 96). Space precludes cataloguing factual errors. More irritating, however, is the inadequacy of the maps (nos. 1-3, 5-6): numerous sites in the text are omitted. B.’s constant vacillation between modern and ancient toponyms will confuse and frustrate many readers. Further, the bibliography, featuring numerous Georgian publications given in transliteration without accompanying translations of the titles, defeats any scholarly purpose and becomes a pedantic display.

In sum, this introduction to ancient Georgia could have been a much better book. A division of the material into sections of “Evidence” and “Studies” would have clarified much for the uninitiated and protected unwary readers. Nevertheless, Western scholars should thank B. for this update on Georgian archaeology and bemoan a lost opportunity.