Eunapius of Sardis’ Subarmachios, and the Importance of His Identification for the Reconstruction of the History of the Late Antique Kingdom of Iberia/Kartli

  • Nikoloz Nikolozishvili Independent Researcher


The prosopography of the Roman Empire of late antiquity and the early Christian period speaks of one very interesting and extraordinary Georgian historical figure named Subarmachius / Σουβαρμάχιος. The only record about him that has survived to this day belongs to a 4th-5th century pagan historian and sophist, Eunapius of Sardis. Eunapius’ work, Ἱστορικ πομνήματα (“Historical Records”), consisting of fourteen books and discussing the period of the years 270-404 – did not survive, but fragments of it can be found in the works of different writers. The fragment that mentions Subarmachius survived in the Suda Lexicon and reads as follows:

Σουβαρμάχιος∙ οὗτος τῶν δορυφόρων ἦν ἡγεμών, πιστότατος τῷ εὐνούχῳ Εὐτροπίῳ, εἴπερ τις ἄλλος. ἔπινε δὲ πλείονα οἶνον ἢ ὅσον ἠδύνατο χωρεῖν∙ ἀλλ' ὅμως τὰ περὶ γαστέρα διὰ συνήθειαν οὕτω καὶ γυμνασίαν ἰσχυρὰν καὶ νεανικὴν πάντα φέρειν ἐπὶ τὴν φυσικὴν τῶν ὑγρῶν ἔκκρισιν. ἀεὶ γοῦν ἦν, πεπωκώς τε καὶ οὐ πεπωκώς, μεθύων. τὴν δὲ μέθην παρεκάλυπτε σφαλερὸν διαβαίνων τοῖς ποσί, καὶ πρὸς τὴν πτῶσιν πολεμῶν ὑφ' ἡλικίας διὰ νεότητα καὶ συνιστάμενος. ἦν δὲ βασιλικοῦ μὲν γένους, Κόλχος ἀκριβὴς τῶν ὑπὲρ Φᾶσιν καὶ Θερμώδοντα, τοξότης ἄριστος, εἴγε μὴ κατετόξευεν αὐτὸν τὸ περιττὸν τῆς τρυφῆς.

"Subarmachius. This man was leader of the bodyguards, [sc. and was] most trusted by the eunuch Eutropius, above all. He used to drink more wine than he was able to hold, but still to pass it all through his belly, by regular hard and vigorous exercise, with the natural secretion of fluids. Indeed, he was always, whether having imbibed or not, drunk. But he used to disguise his drunkenness by walking stumblingly with his feet, and battling against falling by using his prime of life, [i.e.] relying on his youth, to brace himself. He was of royal stock, a pure-bred Colchian from those beyond Phasis and [sc. the river] Thermodon, [and] a supreme archer, if the excessiveness of his indulgence had not shot him down."

From this fragment of Eunapius, it is clear that Subarmachius served as a Roman soldier during the rule of Emperor Arcadius (395-404). More specifically, this fragment refers to the years 395-399, when eunuch Eutropius (Subarmachius’ patron) reached the peak of his political career.

For the identification of Subarmachius and the historical reconstruction of events happening around him, one has to take into consideration the contemporary circumstances of that period according to the information given in primary sources. We have to find out when and how Subarmachius started his Roman career, and how it concluded. We could speculate that he died soon after Eutropius. One thing is clear: when Eunapius finished his Historical Records in 404 AD, Subarmachius is mentioned in the past tense.

According to D. Woods, in 395-399, Subarmachius was likely a tribune of schola scutariorum sagittariorum, just like Bacurius the Iberian and Pharasmanes. Further, regardless of Eunapius referring to him as a “pure-bred Colchian”, Woods notes that “His description as a pure Colchian from beyond Phasis raises the possibility that he was an Iberian,” although without any particular evidence.

Until now, this was all our knowledge about Subarmachius. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on his personality, as well as on certain events that happened in the Kingdom of Kartli (Iberia) and in the Roman Empire in the late 4th century AD.

According to the author, Σουβαρμάχιος is a Greek version of the Latin Sauromaces, mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus, which in turn is a Latinized version of the name საურმაგ (Saurmag), known from Georgian historiography. In the article, previous etymologies (Justi, Abaev) are rejected, according to which “Saurmag” is associated with the ethnonym Sauromates / Σαυρομάται, and a new one is offered. This name would have originated from the ancient Iranian * Sō-arm > Sogd. swʼrm (= strong arm) form by adding the suffix -ag < -ak(a). The Latinized form would have developed from Saurmag in the following way: საურმაგ / Saurmag > SAVRMAG > SAVR[O]MAG > SAVROMAC > SAVROMAC-ES, while the Greek Σουβαρμάχιος would have developed from the Latin one as follows: Sauromac-es > Σαουβρομάχ+ιος > Σουβαρ(ο)μάχ+ιος > Σουβαρμάχιος.

Based on these facts, the author identifies Sauromaces mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus with Σουβαρμάχιος mentioned by Eunapius of Sardis. Ammianus mentions Sauromaces when discussing a military conflict between the Roman Empire and Iran in the 360-70s AD. He was a member of a local royal family installed as Governor of Iberia / Kartli by the Romans, without royal insignia. In 367 AD, Shabur II of the Persians banished Sauromaces from Iberia and replaced him with his cousin Aspagur, and even crowned him.

In the spring or summer of 370 AD, Sauromaces returned to his homeland with the help of Roman legions and Commander Terentius. When Sauromaces approached the River Mtkvari (Kiros), Aspagur, the King of Kartli, started to negotiate with him. He suggested that Sauromaces divide the Kingdom of Kartli into two “so that the River Kiros would be in the middle, Sauromaces would get territories bordering Armenia and the Laz country, and Aspagur would retain territories bordering Albania and Persia.” To avoid further tensions, the Emperor agreed to the division of Iberia. Shapur was not content with the fact. After several unsuccessful diplomatic negotiations, both parties started to prepare for war in the winter of 377 AD. The Persians recaptured Armenia and did not let the Roman armies enter the territory governed by Sauromaces. In the meantime, Thrace was invaded by the Goths. The Emperor was forced to send Victor, a cavalry commander, to form an agreement with Shapur concerning Armenia, and himself, at the end of 377 or the beginning of 378, to move from Antioch to Constantinople to fight the Goths.

Ammianus’ Aspagur is identified with Varaz-Bakur / Varaz-Baqar from the kings’ list of the 4th century given in Georgian historiographical sources, but Sauromaces / Saurmag is not mentioned in them. The author believes that this is because Sauromaces ruled Kartli with the help of the Romans and without royal insignia. For the Romans, this was a diplomatic precaution in order not to give Persia any formal reason for aggression.

In Qartlis Tskhovreba (“The Life of Kartli”), we read, concerning the rule of Varaz-Baqar, that: “the people of Klarjeti separated themselves from Varaz-Baqar and united with the Greeks, and the Greeks occupied Thukharisi and all of Klarjeti from the sea to Arsiani.” The author believes that this territory – the left side of the spring of the Mtkvari – to be the one that Sauromaces, according to Ammianus Marcellinus, received after the division of the Iberian Kingdom into two. We should suppose that Savromaces left this territory, which he had been governing with the help of Rome, to join the Romans, going to serve as a Roman military officer. During the reign of Arcadius, more specifically in the years 395-399, he served as a tribune of schola scutariorum sagittariorum (D. Woods). He was likely around fifty years of age and full of vigour at this time.

The main obstacle in identifying Eunapius’ Σουβαρμάχιος with Ammianus’ Sauromaces is that Eunapius calls him a “pure-bred Colchian”, and Ammianus shows him as a governor of Iberia. But we should take into consideration that the idea that ancient Iberia / Kartli covered eastern Georgia, and Colchis covered western Georgia, was just as widespread at the times of Eunapius of Sardis as it is now. Writers, and even scholars, often use this labelling due to its simplicity; yet, in fact, the southern part of historical western Georgia was most probably, even in Hellenistic times, a part of Iberia / Kartli. This is the reality according to Georgian historiographical sources which is not infrequently confirmed by both Classical and Byzantine sources (Arianus, Strabo, Plutarch, Plinius the elder, Procopius of Caesarea, and Constantine Porphyrogenitus). The political and geographic center of the south-western part of the Iberian Kingdom was Klarjeti, but in different times it also included a large territory around Klarjeti: Speri, Shavsheti, Tao, Adjara-Guria, and Meskheti. Regardless of their political affiliation with Iberia, these territories could have been regarded as legendary Colchis by an educated Greek. This is even more understandable if the Greek writer addresses mythological categories instead of his contemporary political reality.

On top of this, one has to take into consideration the writing style of Eunapius of Sardis. He, as well as other writers trained in classical rhetoric, liked to play with words and to use different literary tools. When talking about historical figures, he would call Λέων an unruly lion, and Ἱέραξ a gluttonous hawk, while Ἁρβαζάκιος would become Ἁρπαζάκιος (predator, from ἁρπάζω). The author believes that in the case of Σουβαρμάχιος, Eunapius again used wordplay – so called paronomasia. Namely, because of the love of eating and drinking, he associated Sauromaces / Σουβαρμάχιος with Συβαρίζω = luxury. This word comes from the name of an Achaean colonial city of the Hellenistic period in southern Italy, on the Ionian seashore, called Σύβαρις. Its citizens, the Συβαρίτες, were known for their overly luxurious way of life. But what is the connection between Colchis and southern-Italian Sybaris, which had ceased to exist long before Eunapius’ time? As Diodorus of Sicily (1st century BC) writes in his “Bibliotheca” when he talks about the myth of the Argonauts: “It is said that Medea took the Argonauts to the field of Ares, which lay seventy leagues away from the city; this city was called Sybaris and it was the capital city of the Colchians.” This is the only time in classical literature that the legendary capital of Colchis is called not Aia, but Σύβαρις / Sybaris, just like the southern-Italian luxury-loving city. Diodorus, or his source, used this name intentionally, based on various references about Colchis as being a legendarily rich country, and this way the name acquired the meaning of luxury and pleasure.

Therefore, there are two reasons for Eunapius to call Subarmachios a Colchian. First is the geographic location of historical south-western Georgia and its association with the legendary Colchis; second is Eunapius’ writing style and his desire to show Subarmachios’ bohemian way of life by associating his abnormal love of eating and feasting, drunkenness and excessive luxury with the verb Συβαρίζω and the legendary capital of Colchis – Σύβαρις.

Below is a reconstruction of Saurmag’s / Sauromaces’ / Subarmachios’ life, and historical events related to him:

  • In 367 AD, the Romans make Saurmag a governor of Iberia without royal insignia;
  • In the same year, Shapur II banishes Saurmag and installs his cousin Varaz-Bakur as king;
  • In the spring or summer of 370 AD, Saurmag returns to his homeland with the help of Roman legions and Commander Terentius. Varaz-Bakur and Saurmag divide the kingdom in two;
  • In 377-378, lacking military support, Saurmag is forced to hand his part of Iberian territory to the Romans and to enter the Roman military service himself;
  • In 395-399, he becomes a tribune of schola scutariorum sagittariorum (D. Woods) and a devotee of Eutropius, the de facto ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire;
  • In 400 AD, he become actively involved in the fight against the Goth Gaiana in Constantinople (D. Woods);
  • Around 404 AD, Eunapius mentions him in the past tense, which means that he would not have been alive at the time. How Saurmag died is unknown.

The western part of the Iberian kingdom that had been handed over to the Romans – Klarjeti up to the sea, Arsiani, and the mountains of Meskheti – was returned to the Kingdom of Kartli only a century later, during the reign of Vakhtang Gorgasali.                                               

How to Cite
Nikolozishvili, N. (2021). Eunapius of Sardis’ Subarmachios, and the Importance of His Identification for the Reconstruction of the History of the Late Antique Kingdom of Iberia/Kartli. KADMOS, (11), 162-208. Retrieved from