The Kingdom of Iberia


By Alexander Mikaberidze and George Nikoladze

Maps: Andrew Andersen,









Iberia (Georgian — იბერია, Latin: Iberia or Iberi and Greek: βηρία) also known as Iveria (Georgian: ივერია) was a name given by the ancient Greeks and Romans to the ancient Georgian kingdom of Kartli (4th century BC-5th century AD) corresponding roughly to the eastern and southern parts of the present day Georgia.

The term “Caucasian Iberia” (or Eastern Iberia) is used to distinguish it from the Iberian Peninsula, where the present day states of Spain, Andorra and Portugal are located. The Caucasian Iberians provided a basis for later Georgian statehood and formed a core of the present day Georgian people (or Kartvelians).







The area was inhabited in earliest times by several related tribes, collectively called Iberians (the Eastern Iberians) by ancient authors. Locals called their country Kartli after a mythic chief, Kartlos.

The Moschi mentioned by various classic historians, and their possible descendants, the Saspers (who were mentioned by Herodotus), may have played a crucial role in the consolidation of the tribes inhabiting the area. The Moschi had moved slowly to the northeast forming settlements as they migrated. The chief town of these was Mtskheta, the future capital of the Iberian kingdom. The Mtskheta tribe was later ruled by a chief locally known as Mamasakhlisi (“the father of the household” in Georgian).

The medieval Georgian source Moktsevai Kartlisai (“Conversion of Kartli”) speak also about Azo and his people, who came from Arian-Kartli - the initial home of the proto-Iberians, which had been under Achaemenid rule until the fall of the Persian Empire - to settle on the site where Mtskheta was to be founded. Another Georgian chronicle Kartlis Tskhovreba (“History of Kartli”) claims Azo to be an officer of Alexander’s armies, who massacred a local ruling family and conquered the area, until being defeated at the end of the 4th century, BC, by Prince Pharnavaz, who was a local chief at that time.




Pharnavaz I and His Descendants

Pharnavaz, victorious in power struggle, became the first King of Iberia (ca. 302 - 237 BC). Driving back an invasion, he subjugated the neighbouring areas, including significant part of the western Georgian state of Colchis (locally known as Egrisi), and seems to have secured recognition of the newly founded state by the Seleucids of Syria. Pharnavaz then focused on social projects, including the construction of the citadel in the capital, the Armaztsikhe, and erection of an idol of a god named Armazi. He also reformed the Georgian written language, and created a new system of administration subdividing the country into several counties called saeristavos. His successors managed to gain control over the mountainous passes of the Caucasus Range with Daryal (also known as the Iberian Gates) being the most important of them.

The period following this time of prosperity was marked with incessant warfare though. Iberia was forced to defend itself against numerous invasions. As a result, the country lost some of its southern provinces to Armenia, and the Colchian lands seceded to form separate princedoms (sceptuchoi). At the end of the 2nd century BC, the Pharnavazid king Farnadjom was dethroned by his own subjects and the crown given to an Armenian prince Arshak who ascended the Iberian throne in 93 BC, establishing the Arshakid dynasty.











This close association with Armenia brought upon the country an invasion (65 BC) by the Roman general Pompey, who was then at war with both Mithradates VI of Pontus, and Tigran II of Armenia. However, Rome failed to establish its permanent power over Iberia. Nineteen years later, the Romans again marched into Iberia (36 BC) forcing King Pharnavaz II to join their campaign against Caucasian Albania.

While another Georgian kingdom of Colchis was turned into a Roman province, Iberia accepted Roman Imperial protection. A stone inscription discovered at Mtskheta speaks of the first-century ruler Mihdrat I (A.D. 58-106) as "the friend of the Caesars" and “the King of Roman-loving Iberians." It was at that period when Emperor Vespasian fortified the ancient Mtskheta site of Arzami for the Iberian kings in 75 A.D.















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The next two centuries saw a continuation of Roman influence over the area, but by the reign of King Pharsman II (116 – 132) Iberia had regained some of its former power. Relations between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and Pharsman II were strained, though Hadrian is said to have sought to appease Pharsman. However, it was only under Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius that relations improved to the extent that Pharsman was said to have even visited Rome, where Dio Cassius reported that a statue was erected in his honor and that rights to sacrifice were granted to him. The period brought a major change to the political status of Iberia with Rome recognizing the kingdom as an ally rather than subject state as its former status was. That political situation remained the same for quite a while, even during the period of the Empire's conflict with the Parthians.


















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Decisive for the future history of Iberia was the foundation of the Sassanian Empire in 224. By replacing the weak Parthian realm with a strong, centralized state, it changed the political orientation of Iberia drifting it away from Rome. During the reign of Shapur I (241-272) Iberia became a tributary of the Sassanian state. Relations between the two countries seem to have been friendly at first as Iberia cooperated in Persian campaigns against Rome, and the Iberian king Amazasp III (260-265) was listed as a high dignitary of the Sassanian realm, not a vassal who had been subdued by force of arms. But the aggressive tendencies of the Sassanians were evident in their propagation of Zoroastrianism, which was probably established in Iberia between the 260s and 290s. However, in accordance with the Peace Teaty of Nisibis (298) Rome was acknowledged the dominant power over the whole area, but recognized Mirian III, the first of the Chosroid dynasty, as the King of Iberia. Roman[1] dominance proved crucial, since King Mirian II and leading nobles converted to Christianity around 317. The event is related with the mission of a Cappadocian woman, Saint Nino, who in the year of 303, started preaching Christianity in Iberia.

The religion became a strong tie between Iberia (since them also known as Kartli) and Rome / Byzantine Empire and had a large-scale impact on the state's culture and society. However, after the emperor Julian was slain during his failed campaign in Persia in 363, Rome ceded control of Iberia (Kartli) to Persia, and King Varaz-Bakur I (Asphagur) (363-365) became a Persian vassal, an outcome confirmed by the Peace of Acilisene in 387. Although a later ruler of Iberia/Kartli, Pharsman IV (406-409), preserved his country's autonomy and ceased to pay tribute to Persia, Persian influence still prevailed in the region, and Sassanian kings  soon began to appoint their Viceroys (pitiaxae/bidaxae) to keep watch on Iberia/Kartli. The Persians eventually made Viceroyal office hereditary in the ruling house of Lower Kartli, thus inaugurating the Kartli pitiaxate bringing under their control quite an extensive territory. Although it remained a part of the kingdom of Kartli, its viceroys turned their domain into a center of Persian influence. Sassanian rulers put the Christianity of the Georgians to a severe test. They promoted the teachings of Zoroaster, and by the middle of the 5th century, Zoroastrianism became a second official religion in eastern Georgia alongside Christianity. However, efforts to convert the common Georgian people were generally unsuccessful.

The early reign of the Iberian king Vakhtang I also known as Gorgasali (447-502) was marked by relative revival of the kingdom. Formally vassal of the Persians, he secured the northern borders by subjugating the Caucasian mountaineers, and brought the adjacent western and southern Georgian lands under his control. He established an Autocephalic Patriarchate at Mtskheta, and made Tbilisi his capital. In 482, Vakhtang Gorgasali led a general uprising against Sassanian Persia. A desperate war for independence lasted for twenty years, but the kingdom failed to gain active Byzantine support and was finally defeated in 502 when King Vakhtang was slain in battle.








The continuing rivalry between Byzantium and Persia for supremacy in the Caucasus, and an abortive insurrection of the Iberians under Gurgen that followed (523), had tragic consequences for the country. Thereafter, the kings of Iberia had nominal power only while the country was effectively ruled by the Persians. In 580, Hormizd IV (578-590) abolished the monarchy after the death of King Bakur III, and Iberia became a Persian province ruled by a marzpan (governor). In the late 6th century, Iberian nobles urged Byzantine Emperor Maurice to recreate the Kingdom of Iberia, and the independence was temporarily restored in 582. However in 591, Byzantium and Persia agreed to partition Iberia with Tbilisi being assigned to Persian while  Mtskheta remainoing under Byzantine control.

At the beginning of the 7th century, the truce between Byzantium and Persia collapsed. The Iberian Prince Stephanoz I (ca. 590-627), decided in 607 to join forces with Persia in order to reunite all the provincess of Iberia under one crown, a goal he seemed to have accomplished. But the of offensive Emperor Heraclius' armies in 627 and 628, resulted in the defeat of both Iberians and Persians and secured Byzantine dominance in the South Caucasus until the beginning of the Arab invasion















The Arab armies reached Iberia about 645 and forced its Crown Prince Stephanoz II ca 637-650), to abandon his allegiance to Byzantium and recognize the Caliph as his suzerain. Iberia thus became a tributary state and an Arab Emir was appointed to Tbilisi around the year of 653.



At the beginning of the 9th century, Ashot I (813-830) of the new Bagrationi dynasty, took advantage of the weakening of the Arab rule in the area and expanded  his domain in the southwestern province of Speri to establish himself as hereditary ruler (Curopalates) of the whole of Iberia. His successor, Adarnase II of Tao, formally vassal of Byzantium, was crowned as the “king of Iberians” in 888. His descendant Bagrat III (975-1014), brought several smaller states together under one crown to form the first united Georgian state.







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The similarity of the name with the old inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula, the 'Western' Iberians, has led to an idea of ethno-genetic kinship between them and the people of Caucasian Iberia (called the 'Eastern' Iberians).

It has been advocated by various ancient and medieval authors although they differed in approach to the problem of the initial place of their origin. The theory seems to have been popular in medieval Georgia. The prominent Georgian religious writer Giorgi Mthatzmindeli (George of Mt Athos) (1009-1065)[1] writes about the wish of certain Georgian nobles to travel to the Iberian peninsula and visit the local “Georgians of the West”, as he called them.




Корона принца крови


Click on the crown for the list of rulers










Allen, David, A History of the Georgian people, London / 1932.


Braund, David, Georgia in Antiquity: A History of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia 550 BC-AD 562, Oxford / 1996.

Burney, Charles and Lang, David Marshal.  The Peoples of the Hills: Ancient Ararat and Caucasus, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 93, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1973), pp. 578-579

Lang, David Marshal, The Georgians, New York / 1965


Thompson, R.W., Rewriting Caucasian History,  Oxford / 1996


Van de Mieroop, Marc, A History of the Ancient near East, C. 3000–323 BC, Oxford / 2006

Wardrop, Oliver, The Kingdom Of Georgia: Travel In A Land Of Women, Wine And Song, London / 1888










[1] Since the early 4th Century and the split of Rome into Western and Eastern Roman Empires, the latter (Byzantine Empire) became the dominant power in the area.