(1000 - 1049)

     Text: Givi Koberidze
     Maps: Andrew Andersen







The Theme of Iberia (Greek: θέμα 'Ιβηρίας) was an administrative and military unit – theme – within the Byzantine Empire curved by the Byzantine Emperors out of several Georgian and Armenian lands in the eleventh century. It was formed as a result of Emperor Basil II’s annexation of a portion of the Georgian Bagratid domains (1000-1021) and later aggrandized at the expense of several Armenian kingdoms acquired by the Byzantines in a piecemeal fashion in the course of the eleventh century. The population of the theme was multiethnic with the Armenian and Georgian majority, including a sizable Armenian community of Chalcedonic rite to which the contemporary Byzantines expanded, as a denominational name, the ethnonym "Iberian", a Graeco-Roman designation of Georgians[1]. The theme ceased to exist in 1074 AD as a result of the Seljuk invasions.

Foundation of the Theme Enlargement

The theme was created by the emperor Basil II (976-1025) from the lands inherited from the Georgian prince David III of Tao. These areas – parts of the Armeno-Georgian marchlands centered on Thither Tao/Tayk as well as several northern districts of western Armenia including Theodosioupolis (Karin; now Erzurum, Turkey), Basean, Hark’, Apahunik’, Mardali (Mardaghi), Khaldoyarich, and Ch’ormayari – had been granted to David for his crucial assistance to Basil against the rebel commander Bardas Sclerus in 979. However, David’s rebuff of Basil in Bardas Phocas’ revolt of 987 evoked Constantinople’s distrust of the Caucasian rulers. After the failure of the revolt, David was forced to make Basil II the legatee of his extensive possessions.[2]

Basil gathered his inheritance upon David’s death in 1000, forcing the successor Georgian Bagratid ruler Bagrat III to recognize the new rearrangement in accordance with which Tao, Theodosiopolis (aka Karin, Karnukalaki; the present day Erzurum), Phasiane (Basiani) and the Lake Van region (Apahunik) with the city of Manzikert were annexed by the Byzantine Empire.

The following year, the Georgian prince Gurgen, natural father of Bagrat, marched to take David’s inheritance, but was thwarted by the Byzantine general Nikephoros Ouranos, dux of Antioch. Despite these setbacks, Bagrat was able to become the first king of the unified Georgian state in 1008. He died in 1014, and his son, George I, inherited a longstanding claim to David’s succession which was in Byzantine hands.


Georgian campaigns of Basil II and Enlargement of the Theme

While Basil was preoccupied with his Bulgarian campaigns, George gained momentum to invade Tao/Tayk and Basiani/Phassiane in 1014. Basil, involved in his campaign against the Bulgarians, sent an army to expel the Georgians. This army was decisively defeated, but a Byzantine naval force occupied the Khazar ports in the rear, that is, to the north-west, of George's dominions. Once, the annexation of Bulgaria was completed in 1018, preparations for a larger-scale campaign were set in train, beginning with the refortification of Theodosiopolis. In the autumn of 1021, Basil with a large army, reinforced by the Varangian Guards, attacked the Georgians and their Armenian allies recovering Phasiane and pushing on beyond the frontiers of Tao into inner Georgia. King George burned the city of Olthisi for not to fall in the enemy’s hands and retreated to Kola. A bloody battle was fought near the village Shirimni at the Lake Palakazio (now Çildir, Turkey) on September 11. The emperor won a costly victory, and forced George I to retreat northwards into his kingdom. Plundering the country on his way, Basil withdrew to winter at Trapezus (Trebizond, now Trabzon, Turkey). Several attempts to negotiate the conflict went in vain. In the meantime George received reinforcements from the Kakhetians, and allied himself with the Byzantine commanders Nicephorus Phocas and Nicephorus Xiphias in their abortive insurrection in the emperor’s rear. In December, George’s ally, the Armenian king Senekerim of Vaspurakan, being harassed by the Seljuk Turks, surrendered his kingdom to the emperor.

With the spring of 1022, Basil launched a final offensive winning a crushing victory over the Georgians at Svindax Defeated and menaced both by land and sea, King George had to relinquish Tao, Phasiane, Kola, Artaani and Javakheti – to the Byzantine Crown, and left his infant son Bagrat a hostage in Basil's hands[3]. The conquered provinces were re-organized by Basil II into the Theme of Iberia with the capital at Theodosiopolis. As a result, the political center of the Georgian state moved north, as did a significant part of the Georgian nobility[4], while the empire gained a critical foothold for further expansion into the territories of Armenia and Georgia.

Basil next claimed the principal Armenian Bagratid kingdom of Ani, currently straddling the division between Gagik I’s sons, John-Smbat and Ashot I. In 1022, John-Smbat, as penalty for having supported Georgia, yielded his appanage to the Byzantine Empire. By the mid-1040s, Emperor Constantine IX (1042-55) had broken the resistance of the survived Bagratids of Ani and forced the catholicos Peter into surrendering Ani in 1045.[5] The kingdom was merged with the theme of Iberia and the capital was transferred from Theodosioupolis to Ani. Henceforth, the theme of Iberia was administered jointly with Greater Armenia and the enlarged theme was frequently referred to as the "theme of Iberia and Armenia".[6]

In 1064 the last independent Armenian kingdom, that of Wanand with its center in Kars, was absorbed into imperial territory when Gagik II of Kars was bullied into abdication in favor of Emperor Constantine X (1059-67) to prevent his state from being conquered by the Seljuk Turks. The royal family moved to Cappadocia, probably accompanied by their nobility who were inveigled by the Byzantine administration into ceding their estates in return for lands further west[7]. The event was preceded by the Seljuk capture of Ani and the theme’s center was shifted back to Theodosioupolis[8].







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The Byzantine Empire and the Civil wars in Georgia

On the death of his father, Bagrat returned home to become King Bagrat IV of Georgia in 1025. However, a powerful party of Georgian nobles refused to recognize his suzerainty, and invited a Byzantine army in 1028. The Byzantines overran the Georgian borderlands and invested Kldekari, a key fortress in Trialeti province, but failed to take it and marched back on the region Shavsheti. The local bishop Saba of Tbeti organized a successful defense of the area forcing the Byzantines to change their tactics. The emperor Constantine VIII then sent Demetrius, an exiled Georgian prince, who was considered by many as a legitimate pretender to the throne, to take a Georgian crown by force. This incited a new tide of the rebellion against Bagrat and his regent, queen dowager Mariam of Vaspurakan. In the end of 1028, Constantine died, and the new emperor Romanus III recalled his army from Georgia. Queen Mariam visited Constantinople in 1029/30 and negotiated a peace treaty between the two countries.

Early in the 1040s, a feudal opposition staged another revolt against Bagrat IV of Georgia. The rebels led this time by Liparit IV, Duke of Kldekari, requested a Byzantine aid and attempted to put Prince Demetrius on the throne. Yet, despite their efforts to take a key fortress Ateni went in vain, Liparit and the Byzantines won a major victory at the Battle of Sasireti in 1042 forcing Bagrat to take refuge in the western Georgian highlands. Soon Bagrat headed for Constantinople and, after the three years of negotiations achieved his recognition by the Byzantine court. Back to Georgia in 1051, he was able to force Liparit into exile. Actually, this was the end of the Byzantine-Georgian conflicts

Government of the Theme of Iberia

The exact chronology of the theme of Iberia and of its governors is not completely clear. Unfortunately, the few Greek seals from the theme or from the ambiguous "Interior Iberia" can seldom be dated precisely.[9] Although many scholars maintain that the theme was probably created immediately after the annexation of David of Tao’s princedom, it is difficult to ascertain whether Byzantine rule extended into Tao/Tayk permanently in 1000 or only after Georgia’s defeat in 1022. It is also impossible to identify any commander in Iberia before the appointment, in 1025/6, of the eunuch Niketas of Pisidia as the Doux or Catapan of Iberia. Some scholars believe, however, that the first doux of Iberia was either Romanos Dalassenos or his brother Theophylactos appointed between 1022 and 1027 in the aftermath of Basil’s Georgian campaigns.[10]

The Iberian governor was aided by tax officials, judges, and by co administrators who shared in the exercise of the military and civil duties. Among these officials were the domesticos of the East, the administrators of the districts of which the theme was composed, and the occasional extraordinary legates sent there by the emperor. Apart from the regular Byzantine garrisons, an indigenous army of peasant soldiers guarded the area and received in turn an allotment of tax-free government land. This changed, however, when Constantine IX (1042-1055) dismantled the army of the theme of Iberia, perhaps 5,000 men, converting its obligations from military service to the payment of tax. Constantine dispatched a certain Serblias to conduct an inventory and to exact taxes that had never been demanded previously.

End of the Theme

Constantine’s reforms caused great discontent in the theme and exposed it to hostile attack aided by the removal of regular troops from the region, first to crush the Macedonian revolt of Leo Tornicius, himself the former catapan of Iberia (1047)[11], and later to halt the Pecheneg advance.

In 1048-9, the Seljuk Turks under Ibrahim Inal made their first incursion in this region and destroyed a combined Byzantine-Armenian and Georgian army of 50,000 at the Battle of Kapetrou on September 10, 1048. Tens of thousands of Christians are said to have been massacred and several areas were reduced to piles of ashes. In 1051/52, Eustathius Boilas, a Byzantine magnate who moved from Cappadocia to the theme of Iberia, found the land "foul and unmanageable... inhabited by snakes, scorpions, and wild beasts."[12]
The theme of Iberia did not long survive the Byzantine disaster at the hands of the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan at Manzikert, north of Lake Van, on August 26, 1071. Still, it may have lasted as late as 1074 when Gregory Pakourianos, a Byzantine governor of Armeno-Georgian background, formally ceded a portion of the theme including Tao/Tayk and Kars to King George II of Georgia. This did not help, however, to stem the Turkish advance and the area became a battleground of the Georgian-Seljuk wars[13].


Despite the territorial losses to Basil II and the Seljuk Turks, the Georgian kings succeeded in retaining their independence and in uniting most of the Georgian lands into a single state. Many of the ceded territories were then re-taken after the 1080s by the Georgian King David IV.

Relations between the two Christian monarchies were then generally peaceful except for the episode of 1204, when Queen Tamar of Georgia took advantage of the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and invaded the Black Sea provinces of the empire to help the Comnenus Princes to found the Empire of Trebizond.


Recommended Reading



Toumanoff, Cyril, Studies in Christian Caucasian History (Washington, 1967)

Arutyunova-Fidanyan, Viada A., Some Aspects of the Military-Administrative Districts and Byzantine Administration in Armenia During the 11th Century, (Moscow, 1986-87), pp. 309-20.

Kalistrat, Salia, History of the Georgian Nation, (Paris, 1983)

Garsoian, Nina, The Byzantine Annexation of the Armenian Kingdoms in the Eleventh Century,  In: The Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, vol. 1, edited by Richard G. Hovannisian, (New York, 1977).

Hewsen, Robert., Armenia. A Historical Atlas. (Chicago, 2001)







[1] Rapp, Stephen H. , Studies In Medieval Georgian Historiography: Early Texts And Eurasian Contexts, (Salzburg, 2003), p. 414

   Арутюновa – Фиданян, В. А., Типик Григория Пакуриана. Введение, перевод и комментарий. (Ереван, 1978), с. 249. 


[2] Rapp, Stephen H. , Studies In Medieval Georgian Historiography: Early Texts And Eurasian Contexts, (Salzburg, 2003), p. 414


[3] Lang, David Marshall (1966), The Georgians, (New York, 1966), pp. 109-110. Praeger Publishers


[4] Edwards, Robert W., The Vale of Kola: A Final Preliminary Report on the Marchlands of Northeast Turkey, (Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 42, 1988), p. 126.


[5] Redgate, Anne Elizabeth, The Armenians, (Toronto,1998), pp. 226-7


[6] Edwards, pp. 138-140


[7] Redgate, Anne Elizabeth, The Armenians, (Toronto,1998), pp. 226-7


[8] "Karin" in: Strayer, Joseph Reese, Dictionary of the Middle Ages, (New York, 1983), p. 215


[9] Edwards, pp. 138-140


[10] Holmes, Catherine, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025), (Oxford, 2005), pp. 362-3.


[11] This Leo Tornicius should not be confused with Leo Tornikios Kontoleon, Catapan of Italy, in 1017


[12] Edwards, pp. 138-140


[13] Edwards, pp. 138-140