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7-08-2015, 20:28

Christian armenia between persia and byzantium

The ruler of theRoman sector (Inner Armenia) King Arshak III, died in 390. His subjects were immediately placed under direct imperial rule through a comes Armeniae; on the other hand, the traditional rights of the Armenian princes in that area were not abrogated.5 They enjoyed immunity from taxation, and no military garrisons were imposed. Procopius claims that it was this military weakness that later led Justinian to tighten his control. He observed that ‘Armenia was always in a state of disorder, and for this reason an easy prey for the barbarians.’6 He might have added that social, religious and cultural ties with their kinsmen across the border could not enhance security. Not until the sixth century did Justinian do away with the traditional rights of the Armenian princes in a series of moves between 528 and 535. Armenian lands west of the border with Iran were then fully integrated into the empire as the four provinces of Armenia (see below pp. 167–8). It was in eastern Armenia – the sector under Persian suzerainty, which composed about four-fifths of the earlier kingdom – that the major cultural and religious developments of this period had their origin. Yet the border between the two sectors was no solid wall. Although Armenian writers rarely refer explicitly to the border, through the communities in the west contacts between the imperial capital and Persian Armenia were promoted and sustained. In eastern Armenia the centrifugal tendencies of the leading princely families rapidly overcame theweakened monarchy. The rights and privileges of the noble families, jealously guarded over generations and considered more fundamental than royal authority, had been recognised by the Arsacids and legitimised. The office of chief military officer (sparapet), for example, was the perquisite of theMamikonean family, which played the leading role in politics during the fifth and sixth centuries. Their principal rivals, the Bagratuni – who did not attain the leading role until the eighth century – held the hereditary right to crown Armenian rulers (see below, p. 348). In Arsacid Armenia there were some fifty noble families of varied size and power, each with its own military forces.7 Cities played little political or cultural role, despite their economic significance.8 The focus of noble life was the family holdings. The Mamikonean territories were in Tao, Bagrevand and Taron – i.e. much of north-central Armenia. The Bagratuni homeland was in Sper, but they gradually acquired territories to the southwest. A branch of this family was established in eastern Georgia (‘Iberia’ to the Greeks, ‘K’art’li’ to the Georgians). To the south-east of Lake Van another family, the Artsruni, were settled. They acquired land between Lake Van and the Araxes, and were later to become the principal rivals of the Bagratuni. After the demise of the royal line, these families pursued their own interests with regard to Rome or Persia, conducting, as it were, an individual foreign policy. Eastern Armenia was thus not a stable unity. This traditional pattern of society was reinforced by the growth of an organised Armenian church. Armenian historians of the fifth and sixth century often stress the ‘national’ role of the church and the leadership of the catholicos. But they do not explain that the bishoprics were established within the princely families, reinforcing the authority of the princes. This Armenian pattern, reflecting Armenian society of the time, was very different from that in the empire, which was based on the relative importance of the cities where the bishops resided. Furthermore, the Armenian office of catholicos until the death of Sahak in 439 was itself regarded as a hereditary perquisite of the Pahlavuni family, just as were other offices of state in other families.9 Unhappy with any diminution of their privileges, the magnates of eastern Armenia quarrelled with their king Khusro IV (who had been installed in 387 when Arshak III moved to western Armenia) and succeeded in having him deposed in favour of his son Vramshapur (389–417). The weaker the monarchy – from their point of view – the better, and soon the princes came to regard the Persian shah himself as their immediate sovereign. On Vramshapur’s death his father was briefly reinstated; then Shah Yazdgard I (399–420) appointed his own son, Shapur. On Yazdgard’s death Shapur failed to win the succession to the Sasanian throne. ShahBahramV(420–38) permitted Vramshapur’s son Ardashir to reign, but he too was unpopular. In 428 Bahram agreed to accept the direct submission of the Armenian princes. The monarchy was abolished, and a Persian governor, the marzban, installed at Dvin.10 The marzban was responsible for collecting taxes; the princes provided military service to the shah in person with their private armies. In their own lands they were autonomous. In this way, the shah took advantage of age-long Armenian practices to increase Persian control of Armenia. Recognising the importance of the church in that valuable province, he attempted to strengthen his hand even more by deposing the catholicos Sahak (c. 390–438), who represented continuity with the past through his descent from Gregory the Illuminator and whose outlook allied him to Greek cultural interests. Sahak was replaced by an insignificant appointee, to be succeeded by two Syrians.11 Bahram’s policy with regard to the political administration of Armenia was moderate and successful. But his interference in ecclesiastical affairs was less well received. And his successor’s harsher measures, aimed at integrating Armenia more closely into the Sasanian empire, eventually sparked outright rebellion. The passion of those who resisted – and resistance was by no means unanimous – reflects the increased Armenian allegiance to the church and to Christianity as their birthright. The terms ‘patrimonial’ or ‘ancestral way of life’ originally used for the secular realm – where they applied to personal estates or the monarchy – were adapted by early Armenian historians to the religious sphere, where they now defined Christianity and the church within an Armenian context. Yet Christianity was hardly ‘an ancestral way of life’ in fifth-century Armenia. The anonymous historian known as Agathangelos, who gives the standard account of the conversion of the country, claims that Gregory visited the whole Caucasus, baptised millions of Armenians and established hundreds of bishoprics.12 Agathangelos was too optimistic. The process of conversion took many generations, and the church met with opposition on many fronts. The Buzandaran paints a vivid picture of the pro-Iranian tendencies of many noble families, whose allegiance to the shah was strengthened by acceptance of Zoroastrianism. For many the Christian message, which reached Armenia from Syria in the south and from Asia Minor to the west, was a foreign faith.13 The fact that no written medium for the Armenian language existed in the fourth century added to the difficulty of strengthening the church’s position and overcoming resistance to this alien innovation. So the invention by Mashtots‘ of a script for the native tongue c. 400 marked a very significant stage in the conversion of Armenia to Christianity, though it was not in itself the last step in that process (see fig. 6 below). Mashtots‘ had received a Greek education and rose to a prominent position in the royal chancellery, but withdrew in order to lead a hermit’s life. In due course he attracted disciples and, with support from Catholicos Sahak and King Vramshapur, formed a script based on the Greek model – i.e. a fully alphabetical script with separate characters for each consonant and vowel. With only minor modifications, it has remained in continuous use down to the present day. His disciples were sent to Syria and Asia Minor to learn Syriac and Greek and to make translations of books needed for the church. Rapidly a corpus of biblical, liturgical, theological and historical texts was made available. The circle aroundMashtots‘ began to create original works as well, and their interests soon extended to secular studies as pursued in the contemporary schools and universities of the easternMediterranean – they produced works of philosophy, grammar and rhetoric, and of scientific enquiry.14 The development of a specifically Armenian literature – in the broadest sense of the term – brought several consequences: an increasing sense of solidarity among Armenians on either side of the Byzantine–Iranian border, a stronger voice in national affairs for church authorities as a body that spoke for interests broader than those of individual families, and greater involvement in the ecclesiastical questions that were shaking the East Roman empire. Armenia’s liturgical practice was greatly influenced by Jerusalem. Many from Armenia and Georgia made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, some staying on as monks. The theological exegesis of Syria made a great impact, and the Greek fathers of the fourth century were well-known. As the Armenians forged their own traditions in matters of practice, their attitudes with regard to matters of faith were sharpened by involvement in the burning issues of the day. This heightened sense of commitment to a faith associated with the empire could only be regarded with concern by the rulers of the Sasanian world in which most of Armenia lay. The attempt of Yazdgard II (438–57) to impose a form of Zoroastrianism by force in 450 prompted immediate resistance by the church authorities; popular resentment coalesced around the prince of theMamikonean family, Vardan.He was related by marriage to Catholicos Sahak, whose daughter his father had married, and his family played the leading role in contemporary Armenian politics. Like many other Armenian princes, Vardan had earlier temporised by submitting toZoroastrianism when summoned to court.But he agreed to lead the revolt, and one of his brothers went with a delegation to seek aid from Theodosius II. The latter died in July, andMarcian refused to become involved in Armenia, having many distractions closer to home in the Balkans.15 For that first year the Armenians held off the Persian forces. But faced with dissension in their own ranks, they could not resist a large Persian army sent to Armenia in 451. In June, Vardan and many nobles met their deaths on the field of Avarayr in eastern central Armenia; other leaders, both clerical and lay, were taken in captivity to the region of Nishapur. Resistance in a military sense was thus ended. But Armenia was a valuable asset to the Sasanian empire, and calmer views prevailed. Forced conversion to Zoroastrianism was dropped, and an uneasy peace marked the next generation. During the reign of Peroz (459–84) the imprisoned leaders of the rebellion were released. The close ties between Armenia andGeorgiawere the indirect cause of the next attempt to loosen Iranian control. A daughter ofVardanMamikonean, Shushanik, had married Vazgen, governor of the neighbouring province of Gugark‘. But he accepted Zoroastrianism, in return for which he was given a royal princess to wife. His first wife, Shushanik, died of subsequent illtreatment, and was to become a martyred saint revered on both sides of the Armenian–Georgian border.16 Her Life is the first original composition in Georgian. The Georgian king, Vakhtang-Gorgasal, eventually put Vazgen to death in 482, thereby incurring the immediate wrath of his lord, Shah Peroz. In this emergency Vakhtang sought aid from Huns beyond the Caucasus and from his Christian neighbours to the south.Vardan’s nephew, Vahan Mamikonean, now the leading prince of that family, thus found himself at the head of the Armenian forces engaged in another rebellion, thirty-one years after his uncle’s death. Military success was no more possible now than it had been earlier. Armenian–Georgian co-operation was marred by mutual antagonisms, brought out clearly by the historian Lazar, who describes this period in detail – Vahan being the patron and hero of his History. The Armenian troops were forced to withdraw to the mountains of north-western Armenia. They were rent by internal dissensions, the Persians always finding supporters among the Armenian nobility. On the other hand, the Persian forces were not at full strength, since Peroz had taken a large army to attack the Hephthalites (see above, p. 134). His unexpected defeat and death on the battlefield in 484 changed the situation entirely. Anxious to placate their fractious subjects, whose Christian ties to the empire were a potential source of danger, the Persians removed their governor. In his place, the prince of the most prominent local noble family was appointed marzban. Thus Vahan Mamikonean gained the measure of internal autonomy for which his uncle Vardan had died in 451. The attention of Armenian historiansmoves rapidly fromVahan’s success to the involvement of Armenia in the Byzantine–Persian wars of the late sixth and early seventh centuries. In doing so, they ignore the growing estrangement of the Armenian from the imperial church – a rift with cultural and political consequences of the first magnitude.