Iberians, Albanians and others of the Caucasus area: Strabo (early first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Iberians, Albanians and others of the Caucasus area: Strabo (early first century CE),' Last modified November 23, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10184.

Authors: Theophanes of Mytilene and others in Strabo, Geography 11.3-4 and 11.5.6-8 (link to Greek text and full translation)

Comments: Strabo of Amaseia continues to move southward between the Black Sea and the Caspian sea in this discussion of several different peoples just south of the Caucasus mountains, particularly focussing on Albanians and Iberians of the Caucasus plains (the former to be distinguished from modern Albania which lies elsewhere and the former to be distinguished from Iberians in Spain, who seem unrelated despite the shared name). These peoples are in what is now primarily Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Strabo’s description of Iberians and Albanians in the plains below the Caucasus mountains in some respects sounds more positive than his descriptions of the wild mountainous peoples, since these plains peoples are pictured as farmers and herders respectively. Nonetheless, it is in his description of the Albanians that, once again, Strabo resorts to the ever available slanderous stereotype of human sacrifice.

Strabo then moves further north again, briefly outlining a variety of peoples on the northern side of the Caucasus mountains (in what is now southern Russia). Although we need to be cautious in assuming accurate information as usual, the description of peoples of the Caucasus mountains forming what appears to be snow shoes and using toboggans sounds realistic to a Canadian, at least.

Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.


[For Strabo’s preceding discussion on Maiotians, Bosporians, Kaukasians, and other Pontic peoples, go to this link].

Book 11

[Kaukasian Iberians, between Kolchis and ancient Armenia]

3 (1) Furthermore, the majority of Iberia [east of the Black Sea, to be distinguished from Iberia in what is now Spain] is so well built up in respect to cities and farms that their roofs are tiled, and their houses as well as their market-places and other public buildings are constructed with architectural skill. (2) Parts of the country are surrounded by the Kaukasian mountains. For branches of these mountains, as I said before, project towards the south. They are fruitful, comprise the whole of Iberia, and border on both Armenia and Kolchis. In the middle is a plain intersected by rivers, the largest being the Cyrus [Kura / Mtkveni] river. This river has its beginning in Armenia, flows immediately into the plain mentioned already, receives both the Aragos [Aragvi], which flows from the Kaukasos, and other streams, and empties through a narrow valley into Albania. Between the valley and Armenia it flows in great volume through plains that have exceedingly good pasture, receives still more rivers, among which are the Alazonios, Sandobanes, Rhoitakes, and Chanes, all navigable, and empties into the Kaspian [Caspian] sea [now in Azerbaijan]. It was formerly called Koros.

(3) Now the plain of the Iberians is inhabited by people who are rather inclined to farming and to peace, and they dress after both the Armenian and the Median fashion. But the major or warlike portion of this people occupy the mountainous territory, living like the Scythians and the Sarmatians, of whom they are both neighbours and kin. However, they engage also in farming. And they assemble many tens of thousands, both from their own people and from the Scythians and Sarmatians, whenever anything alarming occurs.

(4) There are four passes leading into their country. One through Sarapana, a Kolchian stronghold, and through the narrow defiles there. Through these defiles the Phasis, which has been made passable by one hundred and twenty bridges because of the windings of its course, flows down into Kolchis with rough and violent stream, the region being cut into ravines by many torrents at the time of the heavy rains. The Phasis rises in the mountains that lie above it, where it is supplied by many springs. In the plains it receives still other rivers, among which are the Glaukos and the Hippos. Thus filled and having by now become navigable, it issues forth into the Pontos [Black Sea]. And it has on its banks a city bearing the same name, and near it is a lake. Such, then, is the pass that leads from Kolchis into Iberia, being shut in by rocks, by strongholds, and by rivers that run through ravines.

(5) From the country of the nomads on the north there is a difficult ascent into Iberia requiring three days’ travel. And after this ascent comes a narrow valley on the Aragos river, with a single-file road requiring a four days’ journey. The end of the road is guarded by a fortress which is hard to capture. The pass leading from Albania into Iberia is at first hewn through rock, and then leads through a marsh formed by the river Alazonios [Alazani through Georgia and Azerbaijan], which descends from the Kaukasus. The passes from Armenia into Iberia are the defiles on the Cyrus and those on the Aragos. For, before the two rivers meet, they have on their banks fortified cities that are situated upon rocks, these being about sixteen stadia distant from each other — I mean Harmozike on the Cyrus and Seusamora [near Tsitsamuri village in Georgia] on the other river. These passes were used first by Pompey when he set out from the country of the Armenians, and afterwards by Canidius [Roman general, died ca. 30 BCE].

(6) There are also four classes among the inhabitants of Iberia. One, and the first of all, is that from which they appoint their kings, the appointee being both the nearest of kin to his predecessor and the eldest, whereas the second in line administers justice and commands the army. The second class is that of the priests, who among other things attend to all matters of controversy with the neighbouring peoples. The third is that of the soldiers and the farmers. And the fourth is that of the common people, who are slaves of the king and perform all the services that pertain to human livelihood. Their possessions are held in common by them according to families, although the eldest is ruler and steward of each estate. Such are the Iberians and their country.

[Albanians of the Kaukasos (not to be confused with modern Albania)]

4 (1) The Albanians (Albanoi) are more inclined to the shepherd’s life than the Iberians and closer akin to the nomadic descent group (genos), except that they are not wild (agrioi). And for this reason they are only moderately war-like. They live between the Iberians and the Kaspian (Caspian) sea [in what is modern Azerbaijan], their country bordering on the sea towards the east and on the country of the Iberians towards the west. Of the remaining sides, the northern is protected by the Kaukasian (Caucasian) mountains, because these mountains lie above the plains, though their parts next to the sea are generally called Keraunian. Whereas the southern side is formed by Armenia, which stretches alongside it. Much of Armenia also consists of plains, though much of it is mountainous, like Kambysene, where the Armenians border on both the Iberians and the Albanians.

(2) The Cyrus [Kura] river, which flows through Albania, and the other rivers by which it is supplied, contribute to the excellent qualities of the land. Yet they push back the sea because that the silt which is carried forward in great quantities fills the channel. Consequently even the adjacent islands are joined to the mainland and form shoals that are uneven and difficult to avoid. Their unevenness is made worse by the back-wash of the flood-tides. Moreover, they say that the outlet of the river is divided into twelve mouths, of which some are choked with silt, while the others are altogether shallow and leave not even a mooring-place. Anways, they [Strabo’s sources, perhaps Theophanes of Mytilene] add, although the shore is washed on all sides by the sea and the rivers for a distance of more than sixty stadia, every part of it is inaccessible. The silt extends even as far as five hundred stadia, making the shore sandy. Near by is also the mouth of the Araxes [Aras], a turbulent stream that flows down from Armenia. But the silt which this river pushes forward, thus making the channel passable for its stream, is compensated for by the Cyrus river.

(3) Now perhaps a people of this kind have no need of a sea. Indeed, they do not make appropriate use of their land either. The land produces not only every kind of fruit (even the most highly cultivated kind) but also every plant. It even grows even evergreen trees. It receives not even slight attention, yet the good things all “spring up for them without sowing and ploughing” [Homer, Odyssey 9.109], according to those who have made expeditions there, who describe the mode of life there as “Kyklopeian” [probably referring to Theophanes of Mytilene, as in 11.2.2 and 11.5.1]. In many places, at any rate, they say, the land when sown only once produces two crops or even three, the first a crop of even fifty-fold, and that too without being ploughed between crops. And even when it is ploughed, it is not ploughed with an iron share, but with a wooden plough shaped by nature.

[Superior climate compared to Babylonia and Egypt]

The plain as a whole is better watered by its rivers and other waters than the Babylonian and the Egyptian plains. Consequently it always keeps a grassy appearance, and therefore is also good for pasturage. In addition to this, the climate here [in Kaukasian Albania] is better than there [Babylonia and Egypt]. The people never dig around the vines, although they prune them every fifth year. The new vines begin to produce fruit the second year, and when mature they yield so much that the people leave a large part of the fruit on the branches. Also the cattle in their country thrive, both the tame and the wild.

[Character of the people]

(4) The inhabitants of this country are unusually handsome and large. And they are honest in their dealings and not cheaters because, in general, they do not use coined money. Nor do they know any number greater than one hundred, but carry on business by means of bartering and otherwise live an easy-going life. They are also unacquainted with accurate measures and weights, and they do not plan for war or communal organization or farming. But still they fight both on foot and on horseback, both in light armour and in full armour, like the Armenians.

[Military activity]

(5) They send forth a greater army than that of the [Kaukasian] Iberians. For they equip sixty thousand infantry and twenty‑two thousand horsemen. They risked this number of men in their all-out battle against Pompey. When it comes to outsiders, the nomads join with the Albanians in war, just as they do with the Iberians and for the same reasons. Besides, they often attack the people and consequently prevent them from farming. The Albanians use javelins and bows, and they wear breastplates, large oblong shields, and helmets made of the skins of wild animals, similar to those worn by the Iberians. To the country of the Albanians belongs also the territory called Kaspiane (or: Caspiane), which was named after the Kaspian people, as was also the sea. But this people has now disappeared. The pass from Iberia into Albania leads through Kambysene, a waterless and rugged country, to the Alazonios [Alazani] river. Both the people and their dogs are extremely fond of hunting, engaging in it not so much because of their skill in it as because they love it so much.

[Multiple peoples and languages]

(6) Their kings are also excellent. At the present, in fact, one king rules everyone. Yet formerly they were ruled by kings separately based on their several different languages [i.e. even “Albanians” is a broader Greek outsider category for a variety of different peoples]. They have twenty‑six languages because they just have no easy means of interacting with one another. The country also produces certain of the deadly reptiles, scorpions, and arachnids (phalangia / harvestmen). Some of the arachnids cause people to die laughing, while others cause people to die weeping over the loss of their deceased kindred.

[Customs relating to the gods, including supposed human sacrifice]

(7) As for gods, they honour Helios (Sun), Zeus (Sky), and Selene (Moon), but especially Selene. Her temple is near Iberia. The office of priest is held by the man who, after the king, is held in highest honour. He is in charge of the sacred land, which is extensive and well-populated, and also of the temple slaves, many of whom are subject to possession by the deity and utter prophecies. Any one of those who, becoming violently possessed, wanders alone in the forests, is arrested by the priest, bound with sacred fetters, and sumptuously maintained during that year. Then that person is led out for the sacrifice that is performed in honour of the goddess. After being anointed, that person is sacrificed along with other victims.

The sacrifice is performed as follows: Some experienced person holding a sacred lance which is customarily used to sacrifice human victims comes forward out of the crowd and strikes the victim through the side into the heart. When the victim falls, they read oracular signs from his fall and declare them before the public. And when the body is carried to a certain place, they all trample upon it, thus using it as a means of purification.

[Other customs, and the legends of Jason and the Argonauts]

(8) The Albanians are extremely respectful of elders, not merely to their parents but all other older people. When people die it is impious to be concerned about them or even to mention them. Indeed, they bury their money with them, and therefore live in poverty, having no inheritance.

So much for the Albanians. It is said that Jason, together with Armenos the Thessalian, on his voyage to the country of the Kolchians, pressed on from there as far as the Kaspian sea. They  visited not only [Kaukasian] Iberia and Albania, but also many parts of Armenia and Media, as both the shrines for Jason (Iasonia) and several other memorials attest. It is also said that Armenos was a native of Armenion, one of the cities on lake Boibeis between Pherai and Larisa, and that he and his followers took up their abode in Akilisene and Syspiritis, occupying the country as far as Kalachane and Adiabene. In fact, they say that he left Armenia named after himself. . .


[For the preceding discussion of Amazons, go to this link].

[Mountainous peoples in the Caucasus mountains and to the north between the Don river and the Caspian Sea]

5 [omitted material on Amazons]. . . (6) Now the highest parts of the real Kaukasos  (Caucasus) are the most southerly, namely those next to Albania, Iberia, the Kolchians, and the Heniochians. They are inhabited by the peoples who, as I have said, assemble at Dioskourias [link]. They assemble there mostly in order to get salt. Of these, some occupy the ridges of the mountains while the others have their abodes in glens and live mostly on the flesh of wild animals, on wild fruits, and on milk. The summits of the mountains are impassable in winter, but the people ascend them in summer by fastening to their feet broad shoes made of raw ox‑hide, like drums, and furnished with spikes, on account of the snow and the ice. They descend with their loads by sliding down seated upon skins, as is the custom in Atropatian Media and on Mount Masius in Armenia. There, however, the people also fasten wooden discs furnished with spikes to the soles of their shoes. Such, then, are the heights of the Kaukasos mountains.

[Other peoples]

(7) As one descends into the foothills, the country inclines more towards the north, but its climate is milder, for there it borders on the plains of the Sirakians (Sirakoi). There are also some Troglodytes (Cave-dwellers) here who, on account of the cold, live in caves. But even in their country there is plenty of barley. After the Troglodytes one comes to certain Chamaikoitians (Chamaikoitai; i.e. Heavy-eaters) and Polyphagians (Polyphagoi; i.e. Eaters of everything), as they are called, and then to the villages of the Eisadikians (Eisadikoi; i.e. People who sleep on the ground), who are able to farm because they are not altogether exposed to the north.

[Aorsians and Sirakians]

(8) The next peoples to which one comes between lake Maiotis and the Kaspian sea are nomads, the Nabianians and the Panxanians. Then next one comes to the tribes (phylai) of the Sirakians and the Aorsians. The Aorsians and the Sirakians are thought to be fugitives from the upper tribes of those names and the Aorsians are more to the north than the Sirakians.

Now Abeakos king of the Sirakians sent out twenty thousand horsemen at the time when Pharnakes [II, reigning in the Bosporan kingdom ca. 63-47 BCE] held the Bosporos. And Spadines, king of the Aorsians, sent out two hundred thousand. But the upper Aorsians sent a still larger number, for they held dominion over more land. One may almost say the Aorsians ruled over most of the Kaspian coast. Consequently, they could import on camels the Indian and Babylonian merchandise, receiving it in their turn from the Armenians and the Medes. Furthermore, because of their wealth, the Aorsians could wear golden ornaments. Now the Aorsians live along the Tanais, but the Sirakians live along the Achardeos, which flows from the Kaukasos and empties into lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov].

[For Strabo’s following discussion on peoples on the Caspian Sea, go to this link].

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