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7-08-2015, 21:05


Anyone wishing to unravel the history of the relationship between Byzantium and Armenia from late antiquity into the eleventh century has to confront a series of historical and historiographical challenges. The most immediate, and intractable, of these is one of definition: what does ‘Armenia’ mean? Although Armenia is used to express a territorial entity in contemporary texts, both Armenian and non-Armenian in origin, its precise meaning varies according to the date and the context in which it is used. Far from finding a single, stable definition of Armenia, one discovers multiple ‘Armenias’.1 Thus a seventh-century Armenian geographical compilation depicts ‘Great Armenia’ as comprising not only regions currently recognised as Armenian but also those with historic associations.2 Successive provinces of Armenia were imposed and superimposed by external powers, each with a particular scope. The kingdom of Armenia, re-established in 884, bore little relation to its Arsacid precursor and increasingly represented only the Bagratuni kingdom centred on Ani, excluding rival kingdoms in Vaspurakan, Siwnik‘ and elsewhere. Given the absence of stable territorial boundaries and in the light of significant Arab settlement in certain districts from the end of the eighth century, there have been attempts to construct Armenian identity in terms of a blend of confessional, linguistic and cultural features. Once again the evidence supports a plural and inclusive definition. Instead of a community of believers, united around a single confession and recognising the spiritual authority of a single leader, the Armenian church embodied a spectrum of doctrinal interpretations, revolving largely, but not exclusively, around the acceptance or rejection of the council of Chalcedon.3 This interpretation is at odds with the conventional outline of Armenian church history supplied by the majority of the Armenian sources, which advertise a pronounced anti-Chalcedonian, monophysite character after 600. Yet the faint impression of a pro-Chalcedonian, and arguably pro-Byzantine, party may still be traced and other schismatic traditions may have survived long after their suppression elsewhere.4 Nor is there good evidence for either linguistic or cultural uniformity. Whilst the written form of the Armenian language may once have possessed such a quality, it seems inherently unlikely that contemporary speech was ever uniform. An eighth-century cleric, Stephen of Siwnik‘, identified seven dialects, all associated with remote, mountainous districts.5 As for cultural uniformity, one has only to think of the selective histories, sponsored by princely houses to their own glory and the denigration of others, the multiple versions of the History of Agathangelos describing the conversion of Armenia or the different traditions surrounding the relics of Gregory the Illuminator, to appreciate that the past was essentially plastic, at the disposal of contemporary writers to develop and rework as they thought fit.6 When one considers the fragmented, isolating topography of the central Caucasus region, the individual districts of varying size, wealth and potential, the harsh continental climate, the dispersed settlement pattern focused upon the village, the frontier status of the region through the period, partitioned between Rome and Persia and then Byzantium and the caliphate, the lack of organic national political institutions, the long-standing doctrinal divisions within the Armenian church, the presence of different dialects and languages, even the potential for different interpretations of the past, one can only conclude that ‘Armenia’ and ‘Armenian identity’ are complex and elusive terms defying concrete definition and characterised by fluidity and plurality. Instead of maintaining the fiction of a united Armenia or a singular Armenian identity, Armenian diversity and incongruity deserve to be highlighted. A second challenge is the uneven treatment in the primary sources of the relationship between Armenia and Byzantium. At times, it receives significant coverage but more often it remains frustratingly obscure, the periods between 730 and 850, and between 925 and 980 being particularly opaque. This may reflect a genuine lack of engagement. But it is also possible that the outline of Armenian history presented by the majority of Armenian sources is intentionally partial. Arguably, Armenian authors anticipated a similar collective historical experience to that of the people of God in the Old Testament and therefore stressed those contexts which replicated the biblical paradigm, including valiant but ultimately unsuccessful resistance against an oppressive and impious empire, exile and return. A neighbouring Christian polity, particularly one which adhered to a rival confession of faith, did not sit comfortably with this model and its influence was therefore downplayed or ignored. Armenian histories are much more than simple vehicles for the preservation of factual information; rather they are complex compositions which need to be handled with care and exploited only after careful textual criticism. Silence on the subject of Byzantium and the imperial church should not be mistaken for lack of contact. Finally, insofar as the literary sources record the development of Byzantium’s relationship with Armenia, they tend to do so in terms of the principal Armenian political and ecclesiastical leaders. Aswe shall see, Byzantium cultivated multiple ties with several noble houses at the same time. In a society characterised by intense competition between and within princely families, in which those with ambition and ability attracted followers, acquired lands and amassed wealth at the expense of those who did not, it paid to develop links with as many potential clients as possible. Some of this evidence survives only through contemporary Armenian colophons and inscriptions, sources whose historical potential has not been fully exploited. By drawing on these materials, as well as the twin disciplines of numismatics and sigillography, a more complex, nuanced picture of their relationship begins to emerge.