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Georgia, Persia and Rome

Friday, May 21
The foundation of Persia's Sassanian Empire in A.D. 224 was decisive for the future history of Iberia as it diverted the political orientation of Iberia away from Rome by replacing the weak Parthian realm with a strong, centralised state.

Iberia became a tributary of the Sassanian state during the reign of Shapur I (241-272). Relations between the two countries seem to have been friendly at first, as Iberia cooperated in Persian campaigns against Rome and the Iberian king Amazasp III (260-265) was listed as a high dignitary of the Sassanian realm, not a vassal who had been subdued by force of arms. But the aggressive tendencies of the Sassanians were evident in their propagation of Zoroastrianism, which was probably established in Iberia between the 260s and 290s.

However in the Peace of Nisibis (298), in which Roman (Byzantine) suzerainity over the area was acknowledged, Mirian III, the first of the Chosroid dynasty, was recognised as King of Iberia. Byzantine dominance proved crucial, since King Mirian III and the leading nobles converted to Christianity in AD 337. This is related to the mission of a Cappadocian, Saint Nino, who preached Christianity in the Georgian kingdom of Iberia (Eastern Georgia).

Christianity was declared the state religion of Georgia in AD 337 and proved a great stimulus to the unification of the country. Young Nino performed miracles of healing, one of which converted the Georgian Queen, Nana.

Subsequently the legend goes: the pagan King Mirian III of Iberia, lost in darkness and blinded on a hunting trip, found his way only after he prayed to “Nino’s God”. Mirian declared Christianity the official religion and Nino continued her missionary activities among Georgians until her death. Her tomb can still be seen at the Bodbe Monastery in Kakheti, eastern Georgia. St. Nino has become one of the most respected saints of the Georgian Orthodox Church and her grapevine cross has become a symbol of the Georgian Faith.

The common religion would become a strong tie between Georgia and the Roman (later Byzantium) Empire and have a big impact on the state's culture and society. However after the Emperor Julian was slain during his failed campaign in Persia in 363 Rome ceded control of Iberia to Persia, and King Varaz-Bakur I (Asphagur) (363-365) became a Persian vassal, an outcome confirmed by the Peace of Acilisene in 387. A later ruler of Kartli, Pharsman IV (406-409), insisted on his country's autonomy and ceased to pay tribute to Persia, but Persia prevailed, and Sassanian kings began to appoint a viceroy (pitiaxae/bidaxae) to keep watch over their vassal, eventually making the office hereditary to the ruling house of Lower Kartli, thus inaugurating the Kartli pitiaxate, which brought an extensive territory under its control.

Although it remained a part of the kingdom of Kartli, the viceroys turned their domain into a centre of Persian influence. Sassanian rulers put the Christianity of Georgians to a severe test. They promoted the teachings of Zoroaster, and by the middle of the 5th century Zoroastrianism had become a second official religion in eastern Georgia alongside Christianity. However, efforts to convert the common Georgian people were generally unsuccessful.