1. Foundation – Location
Phasis, the modern city of Poti, was a colony of Miletus on the estuary of the Phasis River (now Rioni), western Georgia. It was possibly founded in the 7th or 6th c. BC, while, according to sources, it was a key trading centre and an entrepot to the mainland. Phasis has not been traced yet and archaeologists suppose that maybe this is due to either geomorphologic changes or the wrongly prevailing view that the city retained the features of Greek colonies. In recent years, the cooperation between American and Georgian archaeologists intends to trace the city through a combination of surface, systematic and underwater archaeological research.
Neither Greek nor Roman writers report anything about the origin and the meaning of the name Phasis. It is most likely that it is not Greek, but was the local name used for the area before the Greek colony was founded. Linguists have concluded that the name Phasis is related to the Georgian name of the region (Pati / Poti). Furthermore, it is believed that the name of the city is a Hellenised version of a local word meaning water, due to the close connection of the region with both the sea and the river.1
3. Written Sources
Herodotus reports the name Phasis eight times, always referring to the river rather than the city.2Strabo later talks about the same city,3 but Stephen Byzantius reports that Aristophanes in his comedy Merchant Ships (Olkades) mentions the adjective Phasianos (a man from Phasis)4 already from the 5th c. BC, and repeats it in his comedy Acharnians.5 A number of subsequent written sources report the city, although most of them provide only scant information concerning its problematic location.6
Despite the seemingly numerous references to the city’s location in the sources, the exact spot has not been traced yet. It appears that Phasis was a coastal city, on the estuary of the Phasis River, the most important river of modern western Georgia, which flows into the Black Sea. Pseudo-Scymnus7 is the only historian to report that the city was on the left bank of the river. Both Strabo8 and the Byzantine writer Agathias9 report that the city was in the proximity of a lake.
4. Recent Research
Research on the city started with the references of the French traveler Jean Chardin, who visited Georgia towards the late 17th century providing accounts of both the area and its inhabitants. In the early 19th century, the Swiss Dubois de Montpereaux attempted the first systematic research on the city by studying the ancient sources and traveling to the wider region. In this way, he managed to give accounts of a variety of archaeological and architectural remains, which unfortunately have not survived. Since then, a number of scholars have tried to approach the city from a scientific point of view, while most of them tend to believe that the stronghold reported by Arrian10 is really identified with the ruins of a stronghold called Najikhuri by the locals. However, research carried out by O.D. Lordkipanidze did not finally trace the stronghold, while subsequent hydro-archaeological studies resulting from the collaboration of Georgian with American archaeologists brought to light 4th c. BC residential ruins, medieval pottery, ruins of 8th c. AD buildings and graves around the nearby Lake Paliastomi.
Nevertheless, neither research in the lake nor underwater areas could find any classical or earlier remains of the city. Therefore, archaeologists have concluded that the changes in the geomorphology of the area (mainly as regards the existence of a bay along the coastline and the gradual immersion of part of the land) since the city’s glory days, in the 6th and 5th c. BC, have prevented localization. Experts believe that the steadily deposited layers of alluvial mud and the sea level rise will further prevent research on the settlement.11
O.D. Lordkipanidze considered the possibility that Phasis is to the east of modern Poti and even that the methods followed for spotting the city so far have been unreliable. More specifically, Lordkipanidze believes that the city has not been traced yet probably because it was not built according to the Greek Hippodamian system. The reason why this theory seems to be reasonable lies on the fact that pottery items found in the area lack Greek features and, therefore, the possibility that they were manufactured in Greek workshops has been eliminated.
5. General Information
Phasis was a destination for Greek merchants from the Mediterranean during the Classical and Hellenistic years and also served as an entrepot until the late Roman and early Byzantine period. According to sources, the city had the typical features of a Greek colony: temples of Apollo and Artemis, a theatre as well as a mint and fortifications, though none of them have been discovered. The Greek settlers coexisted –peacefully according to evidence– with the natives, who were assimilated in the Hellenistic period. The city’s harbour was a trading centre for grains from Colchis as well as for metals and exotic goods, which were bartered with olives, wine and pottery from Greece.
Phasis was an entrepot for merchandise subsequently taken to the mainland through the rivers. It has been suggested that Phasis possibly looked like modern Venice with canals and ditches due to the fact that it was beside the river’s estuary and it was built at sea level.
Based on Arrian’s Periplus Maris Euxini, some researchers believe that the myth of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece took place in the specific river and the namesake city. Their claim is based on historian Arrian, who reports that the city had a “museum” where the original anchor of Argo, Jason’s ship, was exhibited.
If Phasis is ever found, it will offer valuable information about the life and activities of settlers in the Black Sea, but also about the intercultural transactions carried out through trade in and outside the wider Greek world.