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Perseus Project

Colchis, Kolchis, Colchians, Colchian

Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities


   A country of Asia, having Iberia on the east, the Euxine on the west, Caucasus on the north, and Armenia on the south. It is famous in poetic legends as having been the land to which the Argonautic expedition was directed in quest of the golden fleece. It corresponds at the present day to what is called Mingrelia. The linen manufactured here was in high repute, and was made, according to Herodotus, after the manner of Egypt. This species of manufacture, together with the dark complexion and crisped locks of the natives, were so many arguments with the ancients to prove them of Egyptian origin, independently of other proofs drawn, according to Herodotus, from their language and mode of life.

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Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)


  Colchis (he Kolchis: Eth. Kolchos: Adj. Kolchikos), a district of western Asia bounded on the SW. by the province of Pontus, from which it was separated by the river Phasis, on the W. by the Pontus Euxinus as far as the river Corax, on the N. by the chain of the Caucasus, which lay between it and Asiatic Sarmatia, on the E. by Iberia and Mts. Moschici, and on the S. by Armenia. There is some little difference in authors as to the extent of the country westward: thus Strabo (xii. p. 498) makes Colchis begin at Trapezus, while Ptolemy, on the other hand, extends Pontus to the river Phasis. It may be gathered from Strab. xi. p 497; Plin. vi. 5. s. 5; Theodor. Hist. Eccl. v. 34; Procop. B. G. iv. 4; Zosim. i. 32, that Pityus was the last town to the S. in Colchis, and from Strabo, l. c., Arrian Peripl. p. 11. (ed. Huds.); Mela, i. 19; Ammian. xxii. 15; Ptol. v. 10; that the position of Dioscurias (which, according to Arrian and some other writers, was subsequently called Sebastopolis) was in the northern part of Colchis, and distant from Pityus, according to Strabo 366, and according to Arrian 350 stadia. The order of the tribes on this eastern coast of the Euxine was according to Strabo, and commencing from the N., the Zygi, Heniochi, Cercetae, Moschi and Colchi; it would, however, appear that the whole district popularly known as Colchis occupied the greater part of the territory on which these smaller tribes or subdivisions of people were settled; and may, therefore, as stated, be considered roughly to extend from Trapezus to Dioscurias. The district comprehends the modern provinces of Mingrelia and part of Abbasia, south and west of Mt. Elburz. Aeschylus and Pindar appear to be the earliest authors who have given to this land its historical name of Colchis. The earlier writers only speak of it under the name of Aea, the residence of the mythical king Aeetes. The inhabitants, called Colchi, were according to the opinion of Herodotus (ii. 104, 105) and Diodorus (i. 28) the remains of the army of Sesostris, and therefore of Egyptian origin. Herodotus argues that the people of Colchis were the relics of this army, because of the many customs which were similar to them and to the Egyptians, and not in use originally in other nations, as the rite of circumcision, and the working of linen (which the Greeks called Sardonic, or, as Larcher thinks, Sardian, from Sardes), and also from their language, from the natural complexion of their skin, which was of a dusky colour, like that of the ancient inhabitants of the valley of the Nile, and from their having curly hair. Strabo alludes to, but seems hardly to credit, this story. Yet many modern scholars have held that there is some truth in it, and have attempted variously to account for the connection, between the two people. (Comp. Heeren, Ideen, vol. i. pt. 1 p. 405; Michaelis, Laws of Moses, vol. iv. p. 185, &c.) Herodotus is so far a good authority, that he does not speak from hearsay, but from personal observation. Pindar (Pyth. 4.378). too, calls the Colchians dark-complexioned. Ammianus (xxii. 8) probably merely copies the words of Herodotus. Dionysius Perieg. (v. 689) confirms the general tradition of the Egyptian descent of the Colchians.
  The Colchi were subdivided into numerous tribes, chiefly settled, as we have stated, along the coast of the Euxine: as the Machelones, Heniochi, Zydretae, Lazi, to the S. of the river Phasis: the Apsidae, Abasci, Samigae, Coraxi, to the N. of it; the Coli, Melanchlaeni, Geloni, and Suani, along the mountain range of the Caucasus to the N.and W.,and the Moschi to the SE., among the Moschici Montes, an outlying spur of the same great chain. It may be remarked here, that of these tribes, the Lazi gave their name to the Regio Lazica, a title whereby the whole country was known at a late period of history (Procop. B. P. ii. 15, Goth. iv. 1; Ptol. v. 10. § 5, as compared with Arrian, Periplus, p. 11), and that the Abasci have no doubt perpetuated their name in the modern Abbasia (Rennell's Map) or Abkhasia (Ritter). It may also be noticed that the names Coli, and Colias, are found in connection with the Indian Colchis; not impossibly through the carelessness of transcribers or editors. The only river of any importance was the Phasis (now Faz or Rioni), which was according to some writers the S. boundary of Colchis, but more probably flowed through the middle of that country from the Caucasus W. by S. to the Euxine, and the Anticites or Atticitus (now Kuban). Arrian (Periplus, p. 10) 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) on the sea-board of the Euxine, Sarapana (now Scharapani), Surium, Archaeopolis, Macheiresis, and Cyta or Cutatisium (now Kchitais), the traditional birth-place of Medea.
  The country itself was celebrated, as we have seen, from the earliest times for its cultivation of the trade in linen (Her. ii. 105; Strab. xi. p. 498). During the time of the Romans, and still later under Constantine, many castles and factories occupied its coasts, so as to maintain the general trade of the district (Procop. B. G. iv. 2, B. P. ii. 28; Zosim. ii. 33); which produced, besides linen, timber for ship-building, hemp, flax, wax, pitch, and gold dust. (Strab. xi. p. 498; Appian. Mithr. c. 103.) Among many of the poets of antiquity, and especially among those of the later and Roman times, Colchis, as the scene of the parentage of Medea, and of the subsequent voyage of the Argonauts and the capture of the Golden Fleece, was the an native seat of all sorceries and witchcrafts. (Horat. Carm. ii. 13. 8, Epod. v. 21, xvi. 57; Juv. vi. 643; Propert. ii. l. 53; Martial. x. 4. 35.) The existence and growth in the country of the Iris plant (Dioscor. in Proem. lib. vi.; Plin. xxviii. 9), from the bulbous root of which the medicine we call Colchicum is extracted, may have led to some of the tales of sorcery attributed to Medea. (Ovid. A. Am. ii. 89; Lucan vi.441.)
  We have occasional notices of the history of Colchis incidentally recorded in various passages of the classical writers, from which we may gather:
  1. That during the time of Herodotus it was the northern limit of the Persian empire (Her. iii. 97); though subsequently the people appear to have thrown off this yoke, and to have formed an independent state (Xen. Anab. iv. 8. 9, vii. 8. § 2.5). Still later, in the time of Alexander the Great, the Colchians were not included in the sway of the Persians. (Arrian, Anab. iv. 15. § 4.)
  2. During the period of the contests between Mithridates and the Romans, Colchis was considered to be one of the territories which the king of Pontus had annexed to his paternal territory (Appian, Mithr. 15), though its allegiance was even then uncertain and doubtful (Ibid. 64). During the Second Mithridatic War, Mithridates made his son Machares king of Colchis (Ibid. 67), who appears to have held his power but for a short period. Finally, on the overthrow and death of Mithridates, Pompey made Aristarchus the governor of this district. (Ibid. 114; comp. Dion Cass. xxxvi. 33, xxxvii. 3.) On the fall of Pompey, Pharnaces, son of Mithridates, took advantage of Caesar being occupied in Egypt, and reduced Colchis, Armenia, and some part of Cappadocia, defeating Cn. Domitius Calvinus, whom Caesar subsequently sent against him. His triumph was, however, short-lived. (Dion Cass. xlii. 45.)
  3. Under Polemon, the son and successor of Pharnaces, Colchis was part of the kingdom of Pontus and the Bosporus. (Strab. xi. pp. 493-499.)
  Lastly, from Theoph. Byzant. (Fragm. 4), it appears that in the eighth year of Justin, A.D. 572, the Colchians and Abasgi joined the king of Armenia as the allies of Chosroes in his war against Marcian. At this period the district itself, as already remarked, was generally known as Terra Lazica. (Menand. Prot. Fragm. 3 of his Continuation of the History of Agathias.)

This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited August 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks

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