Armenia and Georgia

by Cyril Toumanoff

Chapter XIV

The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. IV
The Byzantine Empire part I
(Cambridge, 1966)
pp. 593-637

The chapter is accompanied by footnotes on the bottom of each page, an extensive Bibliography (pp. 983-1009), and three maps: Caucasia in the 5-8th Centuries, facing page 598; Caucasia in the 8-11th Centuries, facing page 608; and Caucasia in the 12-15th Centuries, facing page 624.

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IV. Predominance of Georgia

[621] The Georgian Bagratids were more successful than their Armenian cousins in building a united national monarchy. Both, indeed, had to face feudal insubordination, division and Saracen enclaves at home; but in Georgia's case, geography rendered foreign aggression less deadly. With the decline and dismemberment of Iberia after 786, Tao and Cholarzene—the 'Hereditary' Lands of the Bagratids, soon to be free from the Caliph's control, yet still buttressed by imperial suzerainty—became the cultural and economic centre of Georgia. Thence the Bagratids embarked upon the unification of all the Georgian lands, supported by the Church, the lesser nobility and the burgesses. But they met with the resistance of the high nobility, aprehensive of a strong pan-Georgian Crown, and of the Kings of Abasgia, anxious to secure that crown for themselves. It has been seen how the political acumen of David of Tao exploited the initial Abasgian successes for the Bagratids.

Bagrat III of Georgia (Abasgia and Iberia) was followed by a line of capable rulers, successful in overcoming imperial, Seljuq and feudal hostility. Bagrat kept on good terms with the Empire, but his son George I (1014-27) quarrelled with Basil II over the Tao succession. In two devastating wars, of 1021 and 1022, George was defeated and constrained to cede to Basil important Iberian fortresses and his own son Bagrat as a hostage. Dying early, he was followed by the boy Bagrat IV, whose early years were guided by his mother Mary, daughter of Sennacherib-John of Vaspurakan. It was a troubled reign. From the start, the Empire sought, by invasion, by bribery, and by producing claimants to Cholarzene, to wreck the new power in Caucasia. Georgia was saved by the loyalty of its most powerful dynast, Liparit IV, duke of T'rialet'i and subsequently High Constable of the realm; and also by the death of Constantine VIII (1028). The new Emperor, Romans III Argyrus, was alive to the changing times: the military prowess of the Empire had passed with Basil II; it was wiser to resort to diplomacy. In 1031/2, after the Katholikos of Iberia, Melchisedech, and the Queen-Mother had journeyed to Constantinople, peace was concluded, and Bagrat received the dignity of Curopalate (denied to his father) and the hand of the Emperor's niece Helena (1). Yet the entente ended with her untimely death. In 1033 Bagrat's ambitious younger brother Demetrius fled to the Empire, ceding to it the fortress of Anakop'ia, another apple of discord between the two states.

The Georgian lands still outside Bagrat IV's realm were the [622] kingdom of Khakhetia and the amirate of Tiflis. In the former, the principate having become hereditary, Kvirike III (1010-29) proclaimed himself king. His daughter was married to David I of Lor'i and their younger son Gagik succeeded in 1029 to Kvirike's throne. The kings of Georgia tried repeatedly to reunite Kakhetia with Iberia; and they, no less than the Kakhetian rulers, made atttempts to conquer Tiflis. Bagrat thrice took the city (1046, 1049, 1062), only to lose it again, for his strength was sapped. In 1038, moreover, he rashly fell foul of Liparit, and with that the latent tension between the Crown and the dynastic nobility passed into an armed conflict. With the Emperor's backing, Liparit twice induced Prince Demetrius to try for the crown; he openly fought Bagrat; and he finally wrested from him the south-western moiety of the realm (c. 1045/7). In this struggle Constantine IX acted as mediator: the despoiler of Armenia evidently had similar designs on Georgia. Liparit was indeed the chief Caucasian ally of the Empire; he was a Magister and in 1048 commanded imperial armies against the Seljuqs in Armeniia (captured in battle, he was soon released by Alp Arslan). In 1054 Bagrat himself went to see the Emperor, who created him a Nobilissimus, yet detained him for three years at Constantinople. During this time, Liparit proclaimed Bagrat's son George king and himself regent of Georgia. Finally, in 1059, the princes in Liparit's following grew tired of his sway and, seizing him, delivered him to the king. Liparit was forced into a monastery and the Crown was saved.

Next, Alp Arslan's Seljuqs invaded Georgia in 1064 and 1068, devastating the south-western provinces, reducing Kakhetia, and installing the amir of Ganja at Tiflis. Before this common menace, a rapprochement was effected between the Empire and the only great Christian state east of it: in 1065, Bagrat IV, a Sebastus now, sent his daughter Martha to be the wife of Constantine X's son and co-Emperor Michael Ducas (1). Before his death on 14 November 1072, Bagrat expelled the Shaddadid from Tiflis, but relinquished it to another Muslim ruler.

His son George II, who received the dignity of Caesar from his (second) brother-in-law, Nicephorus III (c. 1081), was the least fortunate of the kings of the period. He was confronted by the revolt led by the Liparitids and pacified them only at the price of new concessions. And, although he acquired at that time from the harassed Empire all its possessions in Georgia, he was attacked by the Turks of Malikshah and forced to accept the Sultan's suzerainty. [623] In 1089 he was reduced to the position of a co-king by his son David, and died in 1112.

In the 'Golden Age' of David III the Builder (1089-1125) (1), his son Demetrius I (1125-55), the latter's son George III (1156-84), and his daughter Thamar the Great (1184-1212), Georgia was transformed into a powerful military pan-Caucasian empire, stretching from sea to sea, commanding vassal kingdoms, and enjoying the zenith of culture and prosperity. This success was grounded in the redominance of the Crown over the dynasts weakened by further feudalisation. It was now that Georgian feudalism reached its highest development, showing all the complexity observable in the West: fiefs and sub-fiefs; dominium directum and dominium utile; allods, benefices, office-fiefs; vassalage, investiture, homage; feudal service and immunity. David III was fortunate in subduing the recalcitrance of the Liparitids or, as they were now called, Orbelis (Orbelianis); he combated the nobles' monopoly of high positions in the Church; and he made himself less dependent on the feudal levy by introducing mercenary troops, recruited from the trans-Caucasian Kipchak tribes. Nevertheless, complications in the royal house twice evoked feudal revolt. The successor of Demetrius I, who entered a monastery, was his elder son David IV, who reigned for six months in 1155. He was followed, during the minority of his son Demetrius, by his younger brother George III. In 1174-7 the young Demetrius, aided by two great houses, the Orbelians—he married an Orbelid princess—and the T'orelis, attempted to reach the throne. George III's repression was ruthless; Demetrius was mutilated and thrown into prison, and the principal Orbelid line was in part extterminated and in part forced out of Georgia. In opposing the aristocracy, George raised men of lesser or of no birth to high offices, previously a monopoly of the great families. For a time the nobles were cowed; then came another opportunity for asserting themselves. George, in default of sons, was succeeded by his daughter Thamar (2). In 1185, despite reluctance, the Queen was prevailed upon to marry the vicious and brutal George of Russia, son of the Grand Duke Andrew of Vladimir. But in 1187/9 this childless marriage was dissolved and in 1189 Thamar married her Bagratid cousin, David Soslan, a descendant of Bagrat IV's brother Demetrius. The expelled George of Russia made three attempts to seize the kingdom, and the nobility, especially of West Georgia, rose in great numbers on his behalf. Upon the whole, [624] however, the tension between the Crown and the aristocracy resolved itself into an equipoise in the reign of Thamar. She was obliged to remove upstarts by the Armenian Mkhargrdzelis (Zakarids); at the same time, the Crown had to accept limitations imposed upon it by the Council of State composed of lords temporal and spiritual—an embryonic parliament.

The strength of the Crown at home made expansion possible; it was enhanced by the break-up, after Malikshah, of the Seljuq realm and by the Seljuq struggle with the Fatimids and the crusaders. David III, in fact, launched a 'Georgian crusade' which, together with those of the Franks, place the Seljuq succession states within Christian pincers. In 1105 David annexed Kakhetia, a vassal state of the Turks. In 1110 he began clearing Georgia of Turkish raiders and 'pockets'; in the course of this, the former kingdom of Lor'i was acquired in 1118. From 1117 Georgian ascendancy was established over the Muslim kingdom of Shirvan, and c. 1119, over Alania-Ossetia. The Islamic counter-offensive, captained by the Ortukid al-Ghazi and the Seljuq Tughril of Arran, was utterly routed by David in August 1121. In 1122 Tiflis, the last Muslim enclave, was captured, and replaced Kutais in Abasgia as the seat of court and government. Finally, in 1223/4 David wrested Ani from the Seljuqs' Shaddadid vassals, as well as territories in northern Armenia and the Acampsis valley, including Syspiritis, once a Bagratid princedom. The crusade was continued by George III who led victorious campaigns against the Shah-Arman, the Shaddadids, the Atabeg of Azerbaijan, and other Muslim princes. Thamar, assisted by her High Constable Zacharias I Mkhargrdzeli and his brother John, in 1199 recovered Ani, which the Shaddadids had several times retaken and which, in 1201, she bestowed upon the Mkhargrdzelis; in 1203 she annexed Arran, with Shamk'or and Ganja, and Dvin in Armenia; in 1209 she captured Kars; and she carried her victories into Azerbaijan, as far as Ardabil and Tabriz. In 1204 the Queen aided her Comnenian relatives Alexius and David, grandsons of her aunt, the first wife of Andronicus I, to found the Empire of Trebizond, which at first was a tributary of Georgia—as were various amirs of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia's theoretical dependence on the Eastern Empire had meantime been terminated: David III was the last sovereign to bear a Byzantine title (Panhypersebastus).

Possessed of great commercial and industrial centres—Tiflis, Artanuji, Dmanisi, Samshvilde, Ani, Kars, Dvin, Ganja—Georgia succeeded to Armenia's prosperity. The tribute of her client states and war booty alone brought to the Crown the yearly revenue of 75 [625] million dirhams. The wealth and luxury of the period gave rise to the saying that 'the peasants were like nobles, the nobles like princes, and the princes like kings'. The artistic aspect of Georgian civilisation has been mentioned above. In the Golden Age, letters flourished. Arising soon after the conversion, Georgian literature further developed a purely secular aspect, especially poetry, lyric and epic, and achieved a moment of splendour with Shot'a of Rust'avi (Rustaveli)'s epic The Man in the Panther's Skin. As in the West, chivalric ideals flourished, being inherent in a Christian feudal society; but, under sufic-gnostic influences, they became adulterated with those of courtly and troubadour love, leaving a considerable imprint on secular literature. Still, as in Armenia, intellectual life was centered chiefly in the monasteries (some of which were abroad, in the Holy Land, or on Mt. Athos). Further developing the pattern of earlier schools, abbeys like Gelat'i and Iqalt'o set up academies on the Byzantine model. Philosophy flourished in the academies of Georgia; the Aristotelian school was headed by Arsenius of Iqalt'o (d. c. 1130) and the neoplatonist by John Petritsi (d. c. 1125), a disciple of Psellus and Italus whose original works included commentaries on Proclus and Nemesius of Emesa, in addition to his numerous translations. Astronomy was cultivated at Tiflis where an observatory had been built by the Arabs. Throughout the Georgian crusade, cultural contacts with the Islamic world were maintained, no less than with the Byzantine, and the relations between the Christian and Muslim lords in Caucasia bore a distinctly chivalrous stamp.

This grand siècle was abruptly terminated by another barbarian invasion, that of the Mongols. Appearing in Georgia in 1220, they defeated Thamar's son George IV the Resplendent (1212-23) and his 90,000 horse; but they did not follow up the victory and, in 1222, passed beyond the Caucasus. George died in 1223, leaving the throne, during the minority of his son David, to his sister Rusudan (1223-45). While the Queen was considering the papal proposal to undertake a crusade—the break with Rome seems to have become definitive only during that century—her realm was invaded in 1225 by Jalal-ad-Din of Khwarizm, recently mauled by the Mongols. All of Iberia fell to [626] the Turkomans, and their ferocity made the next Mongol wave in 1236 appear almost as a deliverance. The feudal army of the Bagratids was no match for the war machine of the invaders, when they came; all the princes of East Georgia accepted their suzerainty, and in 1243 Rusudan, who had taken refuge in Abasgia, was obliged to do the same.

The Mongols left Georgia autonomous, but exacted tribute and military aid. The new taxation, in addition to the old feudal dues, and the participation in long and distant Mongol wars proved ruinous to the peasantry. Their only escape—flight—was combated by legislative measures. The decline of the rural economy that ensued was followed by that of the towns, as industry and commerce dwindled. Further weakening came from dynastic complications. In 1234 Rusudan co-opted David (V), her son by her Seljuq Prince-Consort (1), and put aside the lawful heir, George IV's son David. In 1250, however, the Great Khan recognised both the Seljuq David V and the Bagratid David VI as joint kings of Georgia. But in 1258 growing regional separatism enabled the former to secede in Abasgia, thenceforth called Imeretia (Imereti). Georgia was again divided, and the reduced Crown became a plaything of the great houses, the immediate vassals of the Mongols (2).

David VI (1250-69) was succeeded in Iberia by his son Demetrius II the Devoted (1269-89), who, embroiled in the intrigues of the Il-Khan's court, gave himself up to be executed by the Mongols in order to save his people from invasion. The adoption, after him, of the Byzantine system of collegial sovereignty led to the confusion of simultaneous kings: Vakhtang II, David V's son set up by the Mongols (1289-92); Demetrius' sons David VII (1292-1301; co-king, 1291-2, 1301-10), George (VI, co-king, 1299-1314), and Vakhtang III (1301-7); and David VII's son George V the Little (1307-c. 1314) (3). [627] About 1314 George VI the Illustrious became the sole ruler. At first he kept on excellent terms with the declining Ilkhans: the Mongol tribute was decreased and Georgian control over Armenian territories recognised. Georgia enjoyed a great prestige in the world of Islam of the period (1). Then in 1327 the fall of George's friend the regent Chupan ended the Georgian-Muslim co-operation. George VI transferred his residence to Kutais and confined his activities to West Georgia, where he reduced the Seljuq kings to vassal dukes and enforced obedience on other princes. Georgia's international orientation also changed, as its relations with Trebizond and the West, especially the Papacy, were intensified. Economically, this seems to have been a moment of recovery, and commercial contacts with Iran, the Golden Horde, Anatolia, and the Italian republics flourished. George's son David VIII (1346-60) and grandson Bagrat V (1360-95) continued the policy of recovery, interrupted by the Black Death (1346-8) and the struggle over East Georgia between the Ilkhans' successors the Jalairids and the Golden Horde. But in the late 1350's Mongol control had become tenuous; the court returned to Tiflis; and, even though the pan-Caucasian empire had been lost, it enjoyed a certain ascendancy over Shirvan, Arran, and Trebizond.

Another barbarian wave ended this momentary consolidation. In 1386 Tiflis was sacked and Bagrat V and his queen Anna Comnena of Trebizond were led captive by Tamerlane. The Imeretian rulers regained independence, while the incursions of Tamerlane, his successors, and, later the Aq-Qoyunlu Turks left Georgia utterly devastated. Bagrat V's sons, George VII (1395-1405) and Constantine I (1405-12) (2), fell fighting the invaders. The latter's son Alexander I the Great (1412-42) attempted with some success to stem the decline. He re-established political unity and undertook a series of measures to restore prosperity. His son and third successor, George VIII (1446-65), felt strong enough to attempt joining the defence of Christendom against the tide of Islam. In 1451 his daughter was betrothed to Constantine XI Palaeologus; and in 1458-60 he strove, together with the Emperor of Trebizond and other princes, to realise Pius II's abortive crusade. These new efforts at consolidation were wrecked, however, and from within. It would still have been possible to prepare for the coming Islamic onslaught of the Ottomans and the [628] Safavids. But the dynasty which had made the country great now fatally weakened it. The system of collegial sovereignty reappeared among the descendants of Bagrat V's Comnenian queen, and, in conjunction with feudalism and regional separatism, enhanced by an economy now broken into local autarkies, this extraneous constitutional development brought about, in 1454-91, the partition of the realm between three lines of the royal house into three kingdoms: of Georgia proper (Iberia), Imeretia and Kakhetia. In the course of the struggles accompanying the partition, five western ducal houses, the Jaqelis of Meschia, Dadian-Gurielis of Guria, Dadianis of Mingrelia, Sharvashidzes of Abkhazia, and the Gelovanis of Suania, seceded from Georgia forming five independent principalities. Except Meschia, all these states survived until the Russian annexations of the nineteenth century.

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