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7-08-2015, 20:30


Many years earlier in his Annals (II.56; XIII.34) Tacitus had referred to the ambivalent role of Armenia and the Armenians between Rome and Parthia: ‘a people from the earliest times of equal ambiguity in character and geography . . . placed between two great empires, with which they differ frequently’.He described their dealings with both sides, and he knew that fundamentally the Armenians were closer to Iran than to Rome. In Sasanian times as well, the value of Armenia as a vassal state was recognised by the two sides: the East Roman empire and Sasanian Iran both sought to control Armenia, to engage its troops and to profit from its gold mines and other natural resources. After the division of the country and the abolition of the monarchy, attempted control became attempted integration – more successful in Roman Armenia than in the much larger eastern sector. The conversion of the Armenians to Christianity gradually changed their relationship with Iran, but slowly and painfully. The various strands of Christian practice from Jerusalem, Syria and AsiaMinorwere moulded into a national tradition. But their faith and practice kept the Armenians apart from the imperial church of Constantinople. Armenian scholars created a national literature that was overtly patterned on the Christian literatures in Syriac and Greek, reflecting also the influence of late antique culture which Armenians of the fourth and later centuries absorbed in the schools of the eastern Mediterranean. But the Iranian background was not easily shaken off, and Persian motifs reappeared throughout the centuries.Many Armenians found fame and fortune in the Byzantine empire,40 but Armenia as a whole was never integrated into the Greek-speaking empire. When Armenians later reflected on their individuality and the formation of their unique culture, they concentrated on a few specific episodes: the conversion of King Tiridates, the invention of the Armenian script and beginnings of a literature in the vernacular, and the heroic resistance to Sasanian attempts to impose Zoroastrianism. The interpreters of those events, no matter how far removed or tendentious, became the classic authors par excellence. And the images of those events as expressed in the classic histories gave meaning to succeeding generations who sought to understand the role and fate of Armenia in an unfriendly world. Armenia may have played a larger role in the politics of theMiddle East in the time of Tigran the Great, as Moses of Khoren rightly stated: ‘He extended the borders of our territory, and established them at their extreme limits in antiquity. He was envied by all who lived in his time, while he and his epoch were admired by posterity.’41 Yet Tigran and military success were not the typical models in terms of which Armenians thought of their present and future. Imagery of a ‘golden age’ described the harmony of King Tiridates and Gregory the Illuminator, while wishful prophecies foresaw the eradication of present woes by the restoration of the descendants of the one to the Arsacid throne and of the descendants of the other to the office of catholicos. More powerful than the memory of the heroic Tigran was the model of the Maccabees, whose defence of ancestral customs and an individual religious culture evoked a strong response in Armenian minds.42 So in the fifth and sixth centuries the image of an Armenian ‘classical’ age was created. Perhaps exaggerated in retrospect, it nonetheless depicted a people who could not be assimilated into either of the imperial powers.