Albania in the Caucasus?!?

Place names are complicated in the Caucasus. The best modern example of this is the nation of “Georgia.” The name “Georgia” is an exonym– a term used by outsiders to refer to a place. The local name (autonym) for Georgia is საქართველო (sak’art’velo), which translates to “the place where the k’art’veli live,” with k’art’veli being a ethnonym for people from central Georgia. But complicated story of how the rest of the world came to call this land Georgia is just the latest chapter in a long-running history of name confusion.

Here, I want to talk about a much older part of the story, about the exonyms used for the region in the Hellenistic and Roman periods– Iberia and Albania. Iberia, often called Caucasian Iberia for the sake of clarity (Кавказская Иберия in the Russian scholarship), corresponds to the heartland of ancient central Georgia, while Caucasian Albania (Кавказская Албания) lies to the east of this, centered roughly in what is today northern Azerbaijan.

Peutinger table detail of Iberia and Albania, from
Peutinger table detail of (H)Iberia and Albania, from

If you’re scratching your head and thinking that the ancient world had another perfectly good Iberia (the Iberian peninsula) as well as a far-distant Mount Alban in Italy, you’d be right. Really, we have no idea how the names “Iberia” and “Albania” came to be attached to the polities of the South Caucasus– or why they were preferred over autonyms. We know, for example, that the term kartli was already in use to refer to the polity of Iberia, although we sadly do not know what the autonym for Albania was.

Nevertheless, “Iberia” and “Albania” are know from the very earliest mentions of the region in Greek and Latin literature. See, for example, Arrian’s Anabasis 3.8.4, where the Ἀλβανοὶ (Albanoi) are among the groups controlled by Atropates of Media against Alexander III. By the time Pompey was marching through the region in 65/64 BCE, the Iberians and Albanians were recognized as the primary peoples in the region:

…Pompey himself proceeded against Mithridates, and of necessity passed through the peoples dwelling about the Caucasus mountains. The greatest of these peoples are the Albanians and the Iberians, of whom the Iberians extend to the Moschian mountains and the Euxine Sea, while the Albanians lie to the eastward as far as the Caspian Sea. (Trans. Perrin)

…αὐτὸς ἐβάδιζε διὰ τῶν περιοικούντων τὸν Καύκασον ἐθνῶν ἀναγκαίως ἐπὶ Μιθριδάτην. μέγιστα δὲ αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἔθνη1 Ἀλβανοὶ καὶ Ἴβηρες, Ἴβηρες μὲν ἐπὶ τὰ Μοσχικὰ ὄρη καὶ τὸν Πόντον καθήκοντες, Ἀλβανοὶ δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν ἕω καὶ τὴν Κασπίαν κεκλιμένοι θάλασσαν. (Plutarch, Pompey 34.1)

Getting back to the main question, we are by no means the first people to wonder how these places came to be known by such particular names, or to dream up explanations. One of my favorite Latin references to Caucasian Albania comes from a Late Imperial epitome, Justin’s abbridgment of Pompeius Trogus’ Philippic Histories.

Cn. Pompeius Magnus. Marble bust of Pompeius, ca. 50 B.C. Copenhagen.
Cn. Pompeius Magnus.
Marble bust of Pompeius,
ca. 50 B.C. Copenhagen.

The Caucasus feature briefly, when Justin/Trogus describes the exploits of Pompey in his Caucasian campaign. Justin/Trogus frames the march of Pompey in terms of an earlier (indeed mythic) journey of Jason (of the Argonauts) through the Caucasus. Jason, prefiguring Pompey, subdued the local populations and appointed kings to some of the Caucasus tribes, but did not appoint one to the Albanians. Instead, he made an alliance with them. Why? Unlike their neighbors, the Albanians were his blood brothers. As Justin/Trogus tells us, the Albanians were the descendants of Italians who had been led out of their home territory, near Mt. Alban, by Hercules!

And, according to Justin/Trogus, this sense of brotherhood was not forgotten in the time of Pompey- indeed he says that the Albanians,

mindful of their Italian origins, saluted the solders of Pompey as brothers, during the Mithridatic War

quique memores Italicae originis exercitum Cn. Pompei bello Mithridatico fratres salutauere) (Justin/Trogus 42.3.4)

Lee Patterson has suggested that this episode demonstrates that the Romans were using kinship diplomacy in the region, trying to entwine local dynasts with their own power structure. As such, this episode reflects not any local truth, but rather the priorities of the Roman government. And surely, the image of local citizens gratefully embracing their would-be conquerer seems unlikely.

What really draws me to this story, though, is the detail about Mt. Alban. It reflects this same sense desire that we all still feel today to understand how these wonderfully odd twists of history happen– to explain “the Albanians.” The real answer to this mystery is, of course, lost to time.

But at least we know that we’re not alone in wondering about it.

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