By The messenger Staff
Monday, February 28, 2022
The first reign of the Iberian king Vakhtang Gorgasali (447-502) saw the relative revival of the kingdom. Although officially a vassal of the Persians, he secured Georgia’s northern borders by subduing the mountain peoples of the Caucasus and brought the adjacent lands of western and southern Georgia under his control.
Life of Vakhtang Gorgasali states that the king was given the Iranian name Varazkhosrovtang at birth, rendered in Georgian as Vakhtang. Gorgasali is an Iranian nickname meaning “wolf’s head”, which must have been given to him because of the shape of the helmet he wore. He led his people, in an ill-fated alliance with the Eastern Roman Empire, in a long struggle against Sasanian Iranian hegemony that ended in his defeat and the weakening of the Kingdom of Iberia. In 482 he led a general uprising against Persia and began a desperate war for independence which lasted twenty years but could not gain Byzantine support and was finally killed in battle in 502. However, the tradition credits him with the reorganization of the Georgian Church and the founding of Tbilisi, the modern capital of Georgia.
Vakhtang is the subject of the 8th or 11th century vita attributed to Juansher which blends history and legend into an epic narrative, hyperbolizing Vakhtang’s personality and biography. This literary work was the primary source for portraying Vakhtang as a warrior king and exemplary statesman, an image that has endured in popular memory to this day. He had already become one of the most popular figures in Georgian history during the Middle Ages and was canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Other medieval Georgian sources mention the Vakhtang only briefly, but with a respect rarely given to pre-Bagratid Georgian monarchs. Vakhtang is said to have succeeded his father, King Mihrdat V, when he was 7 years old. His mother, a Christianized Persian called Sagdukht, assumed the regency in the Vakhtang minority. The author then describes the serious situation in which Iberia found itself at that time, troubled by the Zoroastrianization efforts of the Sassanids and a devastating raid by the “Ossetians” from the north, which could be a reference to the invasion of the Huns (whose the army might have included Alans) through the Caspian gates mentioned by Priscus. At the age of 16, Vakhtang is said to have waged a victorious retaliatory war against the “Ossetians”, defeating the giant enemy in single combat and freeing his sister Mirandukht from captivity.
At the age of 19, Vakhtang married Balendukht, “daughter” of the great king Hormizd (apparently Hormizd III, r. 457-459). Soon, at the request of the Great King, Vakhtang took part in a campaign in “India” and was probably involved in the abortive expedition of Peroz against the Hephthalites in the 460s and also against the Roman Empire in 472, in which Vakhtang would have taken control. of Egrisi (Lazica) and Abkhazia (Abasgia).
Back in Iberia, Vakhtang took a series of measures aimed at strengthening royal authority. Resenting Iranian encroachments on his independence, Vakhtang reversed his political orientation and effected a rapprochement with the Roman government. He married Helena, “daughter” (possibly related) of Emperor Zeno, and received permission from Constantinople to elevate the head of the Church of Iberia, the Bishop of Mtskheta, to the rank of Catholicos, qu he sent, with 12 newly appointed bishops, to be consecrated in Antioch.
By espousing pro-Roman politics, Vakhtang further alienated his nobles, who sought Iranian support against the king’s encroachments on their autonomy. In 482 Vakhtang put to death his most influential vassal, Varsken, Vitaxa of Gogaren, a convert to Zoroastrianism and champion of Iran’s influence in the Caucasus, who had executed his Christian wife, Shushanik, daughter of the Armenian prince Mamikonid Vardan II and the hero of the oldest piece of Georgian literature. With this act, Vakhtang placed himself in open confrontation with his Iranian overlord. Vakhtang called on Armenian princes and Huns to help him. After some hesitation, the Armenians under Vardan’s nephew Vahan joined forces with Vakhtang. The allies were routed and the Iberian Peninsula was ravaged by punitive Iranian expeditions in 483 and 484, forcing Vakhtang to flee to Roman-controlled Lazica (modern western Georgia). After Peroz died in the war with the Hephthalites in 484, his successor Balash restored peace to the Caucasus. Vakhtang was able to resume his rule in Iberia, but did not betray his pro-Roman lineage.
Once the hundred-year peace between Iran and Rome collapsed, Kavadh I of the Sassanids summoned Vakhtang as a vassal to join a new campaign against Rome. Vakhtang refused, prompting an Iranian invasion of his kingdom. Then in his sixties, he was forced to spend the last years of his life in war and exile, appealing in vain for Roman help. The chronology of this period is confused, but in 518 an Iranian viceroy had been installed in the Iberian city of (Tbilisi) Tiflis, founded – according to Georgian tradition – by Vakhtang and designated as the future capital of the country. Vakhtang died fighting an invading Iranian army at the hands of his renegade slave, who injured him through an armpit flaw in his armor. The wounded king was transported to his castle of Ujarma where he died and was buried in the cathedral of Mtskheta. Vakhtang is said to have ended his reign in 522 by taking refuge in Lazica, where he may have died around the same time. Members of Gurgenes’ family – Peranius, Pacurius and Phazas – had careers in the Roman military.
Vakhtang was survived by three sons. Dachi, Vakhtang’s eldest son from his first marriage to the Iranian princess Balendukht (who died in childbirth), succeeded him as king of Iberia and was forced to swear allegiance to Iran. Two younger sons, from Vakhtang’s second marriage to the Roman Helena, Leon and Mihrdat, were given the southwestern Iberian provinces of Klarjeti and Javakheti in which Leon’s offspring – the Guaramids – traditionally followed a pro- Roman. These two lineages survived in the Iberian Peninsula until the 8th century, succeeding their energetic cousins in the Bagratid family. Toumanoff deduced that Samanazus, the name of the Iberian “king” found in John Malala’s list of rulers contemporary with Justinian and reported by Theophanes the Confessor and Georgios Kedrenos as having visited Constantinople in 535, might be a corruption meaning “brother of Dachi ” and therefore possibly refers to Mihrdat.
Vakhtang had already entered the pantheon of Georgian historical heroes in the Middle Ages. One of the royal standards of the Georgian Bagratids was known as “Gorgasliani”, that is, “of Gorgasali”. This is sometimes believed to be the first design of the current Georgian national flag. In popular memory, the image of Vakhtang has acquired a legendary and romantic facade.
(TimeOuTbilisi, June 2010)