COLCHIS, in ancient geography, a nearly triangular district of Asia Minor, at the eastern extremity of the Black Sea, bounded on the N. by the Caucasus, which separated it from Asiatic Sarmatia, E. by Iberia, S. by the Montes Moschici, Armenia and part of Pontus, and W. by the Euxine. The ancient district is represented roughly by the modern province of Kutais (formerly Mingrelia). The name of Colchis first appears in Aeschylus and Pindar. It was inhabited by a number of tribes whose settlements lay chiefly along the shore of the Black Sea. The chief of those were the Lazi, Moschi, Apsilae, Abasci, Sagadae, Suani and Coraxi. These tribes differed so completely in language and appearance from the surrounding nations, that the ancients originated various theories to account for the phenomenon. Herodotus, who states that they, with the Egyptians and the Ethiopians, were the first to practise circumcision, believed them to have sprung from the relics of the army of Sesostris (q.v.), and thus regarded them as Egyptians. Apollonius Rhodius (Argon, iv. 279) states that the Egyptians of Colchis preserved as heirlooms a number of wooden κύρβεις (tablets) showing seas and highways with considerable accuracy. Though this theory was not generally adopted by the ancients, it has been defended, but not with complete success, by some modern writers. It is quite possible that there was an ancient trade connexion between the Colchians and the Mediterranean peoples. We learn that women were buried, while the corpses of men were suspended on trees. The principal coast town was the Milesian colony of Dioscurias (Roman Sebastopolis; mod. Sukhum Kaleh), the ancient name being preserved in the modern C. Iskuria. The chief river was the Phasis (mod. Rion). From Colchis is derived the name of the plant Colchicum (q.v.).
Colchis was celebrated in Greek mythology as the destination of the Argonauts, the home of Medea and the special domain of sorcery. Several Greek colonies were founded there by Miletus. At a remote period it seems to have been incorporated with the Persian empire, though the inhabitants evidently enjoyed a considerable degree of independence; in this condition it was found by Alexander the Great, when he invaded Persia. From this time till the era of the Mithradatic wars nothing is known of its history. At the time of the Roman invasion it seems to have paid a nominal homage to Mithradates the Great and to have been ruled over by Machares, his second son. On the defeat of Mithradates by Pompey, it became a Roman province. After the death of Pompey, Pharnaces, the son of Mithradates, rose in rebellion against the Roman yoke, subdued Colchis and Armenia, and made head, though but for a short time, against the Roman arms. After this Colchis was incorporated with Pontus, and the Colchians are not again alluded to in ancient history till the 6th century, when, along with the Abasci or Abasgi, under their king Gobazes, whose mother was a Roman, they called in the aid of Chosroes I. of Persia (541). The importance of the district, then generally called Lazica from the Lazi (cf. mod. Lazistan) who led the revolt, was due to the fact that it was the only remaining bar which held the Persians, already masters of Iberia, from the Black Sea. It had therefore been specially garrisoned by Justinian under first Peter, a Persian slave, and subsequently Johannes Tzibos, who built Petra on the coast as the Roman Headquarters. Tzibos took advantage of the extreme poverty of the Lazi to create a Roman monopoly by which he became a middleman for all the trade both export and import. Chosroes at once accepted the invitation of Gobazes and succeeded in capturing Petra (A.D. 541). The missionary zeal of the Zoroastrian priests soon caused discontent among the Christian inhabitants of Colchis, and Gobazes, perceiving that Chosroes intended to Persianize the district, appealed to Rome, with the result that in 549 one Dagisthaeus was sent out with 7000 Romans and 1000 auxiliaries of the Tzani (Zani, Sanni). The “Lazic War” lasted till 556 with varying success. Petra was recaptured in 551 and Archaeopolis was held by the Romans against the Persian general Mermeroes. Gobazes was assassinated in 552, but the Persian general Nachoragan was heavily defeated at Phasis in 553.
By the peace of 562 the district was left in Roman possession, but during the next 150 years it is improbable that the Romans exercised much authority over it. In 697 we hear of a revolt against Rome led by Sergius the Patrician, who allied himself with the Arabs. Justinian II. in his second period of rule sent Leo the Isaurian, afterwards emperor, to induce the Alans to attack the Abasgi. The Alans, having gained knowledge of the district by a trick, invaded Lazica, and, probably in 712, a Roman and Armenian army laid siege to Archaeopolis. On the approach of a Saracen force they retired, but a small plundering detachment was cut off. Ultimately Leo joined this band and aided by the Apsilian chief Marinus escaped with them to the coast.
From the beginning of the 14th to the end of the 17th century the district under the name Mingrelia (q.v.) was governed by an independent dynasty, the Dadians, which was succeeded by a semi-independent dynasty, the Chikovans, who by 1838 had submitted to Russia, though they retained a nominal sovereignty. In 1866 the district was finally annexed by Russia.
For the kings see Stokvis, Manuel d’histoire, i. 83. (J. M. M.)