“It may seem unfashionable to say so, but historians should seize the imagination as well as the intellect. History is, in a sense, a story, a narrative of adventure and of vision, of character and of incident. It is also a portrait of the great general drama of the human spirit” – Peter Ackroyd
Historians are fairly certain that no ancient Egyptian pharaoh penetrated a day’s journey beyond the Euphrates or into Asia Minor, or touched the continent of Europe, but don’t mention this to a Colchian. Them’s fighting words. Or they would be if the Kingdom of Colchis still existed. Don’t sweat the fact that you’ve probably never heard of Colchis. These days we call it the Black Sea coast of western Georgia, but from the 13th Century BC – 164 B.C. the Kingdom of Colchis was an international superpower, so much so that even the hard-to-impress ancient Greeks were unusually complimentary of them even after Milesian Greeks started colonizing the Colchian coast in the 5th Century B.C.
In the 5th Century B.C., to the Greeks, Colchis represented the easternmost civilized location in the known world and figured prominently in their mythology as the home of Aeëtes, Medea, the Golden Fleece, fire-breathing bulls called Khalkotauleroi, the possible original homeland of the Amazons, and the destination of Jason and the Argonauts. Prometheus was also supposedly chained to a mountain in Colchis where eagles pecked at his liver for stealing fire from the Gods. While the Greeks no doubt thought this was an ingenious punishment, this is the same way most of us would describe our average work day. Give them a break. It was the dawn of melodrama.
The Kingdom of Colchis formed in the 13th Century B.C. from the union of indigenous Kartvelian-speaking tribes in the Caucasus, ancestors of modern day Western Georgians. Colchis was bounded on the southwest by Pontus, on the west by the Black Sea on the north by the Greater Caucasus Mountains, on the east by the Lesser Caucasus, and on the south by Armenia. The southern border with the Pontus region was formed by the Phasis River (today called “the Rioni River”). Remember this river. It will be important later. There won’t be a quiz, but your friends may mock you at the next Trivia Night.
Now, at this point my obsession with details of Colchis might strike you as a tad unhealthy. I guarantee you, this is far from my worst vice, and in perspective, will probably be the healthiest neurosis I manifest today, but there is a method to my madness. Or at least a mythology to my musings. You see, there are some curious references to Colchis in history that suggest they may have fought a war with ancient Egypt in the 13th Century B.C., that is, a semi-legendary scuffle called the War of Vesosis and Tanausis.
The War of Vesosis and Tanausis is regarded by most historians as a combination of transcription errors and fantasy promulgated by a 6th-century Roman bureaucrat turned author named Jordanes in his Getica, the only extant ancient work dealing with the history of the Goths (the barbarians, not the emo post-punk mimes). Jordanes himself was of Gothic extraction, a notarius, or secretary, of a small client state on the Roman frontier in Scythia Minor (north-eastern Bulgaria). Nobody had previously written anything about the history of Goths except for Roman statesman Cassiodorus (485-585 A.D.), and for some strange reason Jordanes only had three days to review what Cassiodorus had written (a 12 volume history of the Goths that has been utterly lost). This of course highlights the fact that we base our “official” histories on those texts that survived the millennia. Jordanes nonetheless soldiered on and dashed off the Getica, which offered an odd take on an ancient war between the Goths and Egyptians, keeping in mind that I’ll explain later why it likely wasn’t necessarily the Goths per se, yet the presence of the Egyptians in Colchis seems a little more plausible given various clues dropped by other slightly less ancient historians. Let’s look at what Jordanes had to say.
Vesosis waged a war disastrous to himself against the Scythians, whom ancient tradition asserts to have been the husbands of the Amazons. Concerning these female warriors Orosius speaks in convincing language. Thus we can clearly prove that Vesosis then fought with the Goths, since we know surely that he waged war with the husbands of the Amazons. They dwelt at that time along a bend of Lake Maeotis, from the river Borysthenes, which the natives call the Danaper, to the stream of the Tanais. By the Tanais I mean the river which ﬂows down from the Rhipaeian mountains and rushes with so swift a current that when the neighboring streams or Lake Maeotis and the Bosphorus are frozen fast, it is the only river that is kept warm by the rugged mountains and is never solidiﬁed by the Scythian cold. It is also famous as the boundary of Asia and Europe. For the other Tanais is the one which rises in the mountains of the Chrinni and ﬂows into the Caspian Sea. The Danaper begins in a great marsh and issues from it as from its mother. It is sweet and ﬁt to drink as far as half-way down its course. It also produces ﬁsh of a ﬁne ﬂavor and without bones, having only cartilage as the frame-work of their bodies. But as it approaches the Pontus it receives a little spring called Exampaeus, so very bitter that although the river is navigable for the length of a forty days’ voyage, it is so altered by the water of this scanty stream as to become tainted and unlike itself, and ﬂows thus tainted into the sea between the Greek towns of Callipidae and Hypanis. At its mouth there is an island named Achilles. Between these two rivers is a vast land ﬁlled with forests and treacherous swamps. This was the region where the Goths dwelt when Vesosis, king of the Egyptians, made war upon them. In a battle at the river Phasis (whence come the birds called pheasants, which are found in abundance at the banquets of the great all over the world) Tanausis, king of the Goths, met Vesosis, king of the Egyptians, and there inﬂicted a severe defeat upon him, pursuing him even to Egypt. Had he not been restrained by the waters of the impassable Nile and the fortiﬁcations which Vesosis had long ago ordered to be made against the raids of the Ethiopians, he would have slain him in his own land. But ﬁnding he had no power to injure him there, he returned and conquered almost all Asia and made it subject and tributary to Sornus, king of the Medes, who was then his dear friend. At that time some of his victorious army, seeing that the subdued provinces were rich and fruitful, deserted their companies and of their own accord remained in various parts of Asia. From their name or race Pompeius Trogus says the stock of the Parthians had its origin. Hence even today in the Scythian tongue they are called Parthi, that is, Deserters. And in consequence of their descent they are archers—almost alone among all the nations of Asia— and are very valiant warriors (Jordanes, 1908 translation, p13-14).
Lucy, we got a problem. Or a few problems: (1) Sober historians (who should really reconsider the merits of their sobriety) assure us that ancient Egyptians never got anywhere near the Black Sea; (2) Since the heyday of the Roman Empire, historians have been confusing the Goths with the Getae, mistranslating and substituting one for the other. Additionally, it is not entirely clear that the Getae weren’t the Goths. Confused? So are historians, despite the fact that they write learned dissertations upholding one viewpoint or another and make fun of other historians for their purported mistakes. Don’t worry, this all leads back to the Kingdom of Colchis and their scrape with the Egyptians.
Let’s start with the Goths. They like to rape and pillage and go to Sisters of Mercy concerts. Just kidding. The actual Goths (which included those Rome-sacking hooligans the Ostrogoths and Visigoths) may have originally migrated from Scandinavia to Poland and eastern Germany. Until the Huns came along in the 4th Century A.D. and beat everybody to a pulp, the Goths dominated a vast area possibly stretching from the Danube to the Don, and the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. So obviously there were Goths sunning themselves on the eastern Shore of the Black Sea, but whether they made it to the western shore is a matter of some debate. This is all relatively recent history in the grand scheme of things, since in the time period related to the War of Vesosis and Tanausis (circa 13th Century B.C.), those who would eventually emerge as the ancestors of the Goths was some vague Nordic Bronze Age Culture that had barely left Sweden for Pomerania. The first Greek references to the Goths referred to them as Scythians, since they first encountered them in the Eastern Black Sea region that the Greeks referred to as Scythia (although Scythians were a distinctly different ethnic group than the Goths). The point is, there seemed to be a group of folks that everybody eventually called “the Goths” loitering around the Black Sea going back into pre-history.
This brings us to the problem of the Getae. The Getae may or may not have just been the Goths by another name. The ancient Greeks identified them as a Thracian tribe that once inhabited the regions to either side of the Lower Danube, in what is today northern Bulgaria and southern Romania, which is suspiciously the same area thought to have been occupied by the Goths near the Black Sea. Jordanes certainly assumed they were the same people, as did many later Roman and Greek historians, a conviction that carried on into the Middle Ages.
So, what does this have to do with the Goths and the Egyptians? Remember that Jordannes suggested a legendary 13th Century B.C. King of the Goths named Tanausis did some stomping of the Egyptians in the vicinity of the river Phasis (in the Kingdom of Colchis) and drove them all the way back to the Nile. Classical Greek and Roman scholars closely associated Colchis with Egypt. Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) stated unequivocally “that there can be no doubt that the Colchians are an ancient Egyptian race” (Herodotus, Histories, Bk. 2:104) and goes on to describe the exploits of an Egyptian pharaoh named Sesostris (believed to be the same as Jordanes’ Vesosis).
I shall speak of the king who reigned next, whose name was Sesostris. He, the priests said, first of all proceeded in a fleet of ships of war from the Arabian gulf along the shores of the Erythraean Sea, subduing the nations as he went, until he finally reached a sea which could not be navigated by reason of the shoals. Hence he returned to Egypt, where, they told me, he collected a vast armament, and made a progress by land across the continent, conquering every people which fell in his way. In the countries where the natives withstood his attack, and fought gallantly for their liberties, he erected pillars, on which he inscribed his own name and country, and how that he had here reduced the inhabitants to subjection by the might of his arms: where, on the contrary, they submitted readily and without a struggle, he inscribed on the pillars, in addition to these particulars, an emblem to mark that they were a nation of women, that is, unwarlike and effeminate. In this way he traversed the whole continent of Asia, whence he passed on into Europe, and made himself master of Scythia and of Thrace, beyond which countries I do not think that his army extended its march. For thus far the pillars which he erected are still visible; but in the remoter regions they are no longer found. Returning to Egypt from Thrace, he came, on his way, to the banks of the river Phasis. Here I cannot say with any certainty what took place. Either he of his own accord detached a body of troops from his main army and left them to colonise the country, or else a certain number of his soldiers, wearied with their long wanderings, deserted, and established themselves on the banks of this stream (Herodotus, Histories, Bk. 2:102-103).
Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) mentions Sesostris, but adds the story of his defeat at the hands of the gold-rich Kingdom of Colchis.
Before this time too, Saulaces, the descendant of Æétes, had reigned in Colchis, who, on finding a tract of virgin earth, in the country of the Suani, extracted from it a large amount of gold and silver, it is said, and whose kingdom besides, had been famed for the possession of the Golden Fleece. The golden arches, too, of his palace, we find spoken of, the silver supports and columns, and pilasters, all of which he had come into possession of on the conquest of Sesostris, king of Egypt; a monarch so haughty, that every year, it is said, it was his practice to select one of his vassal kings by lot, and yoking him to his car, celebrate his triumph afresh (Pliny, Natural History, Bk. XXXIII, Ch. 15).
So, among our many questions, a primary concern is who might have Sesostris (our Vesosis) actually have been? Everyone seems to be in agreement that he was an Egyptian pharaoh, but which one? Modern researchers generally assume Sesostris is actually an amalgam of memories of 12th Dynasty (1991-1778 B.C.) Pharaoh Senusret III and 19th Dynasty (1292 -1187 B.C.) Pharaohs Seti I and Ramesses II. These 19th Dynasty pharaohs were the big bads of world conquering (such as the extents of the world were understood) Egyptians. The dates of the 19th Dynasty also conveniently match up with our understanding (from Jordanes) of when the Gothic King Tanausis was kicking Egyptian butt and taking hieroglyphic names down Colchis way, if of course he ever existed at all. Yet, because enlightened modern historians maintain that Egyptian understanding of how far their conquering pharaohs extended their reach was exaggerated, the identification of who ancient, Classical, and Medieval ethnographers were talking about when they mentioned “Goths” is problematic, and Jordanes is considered unreliable (but mostly because we’ve actually lost any writings about the history of the Goths prior to him), we must conclude that the suggestion that Goths fought the Egyptians in an epic 13th Century B.C. battle on the southern shores of the Black Sea and pursued retreating Egyptian armies all the way to the Nile where they were stopped at dug-in Egyptian defenses and forced to turn their attention back to Asia Minor, are ultimately the inventions of overactive imaginations.
Oddly, the sagacious observations of our learned modern historians aside, it appears that ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Goths all seem to agree that a nasty little dust-up went down in the Kingdom of Colchis between the Goths and Egyptians. Our evidence is fairly thin either way. This is because humans are exceedingly efficient at losing stuff, destroying stuff, and rewriting history. What always puzzles me is the self-assuredness of the historian, given the fragmentary remnants we have indicating what the world was like a millennia or more ago, that “accepted” history is considered any less “legendary” than mythical history and that one could just as easily write an impressive dissertation maintaining that the War of Vesosis and Tanausis never happened as one could produce an equally compelling argument that it did, for as Erich Auerbach said, “To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend”.
Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. [Olympic ed.] New York: The Tandy-Thomas Company, 1909.
Jordanes, active 6th century. The Origin And Deeds of the Goths: In English Version. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1908.
Pliny, the Elder. The Natural History of Pliny. London: G. Bell, 1890.