Fading Legions:
Armenia, Pawn of Empires

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2016

Nestled in the high mountains of eastern Anatolia, the Kingdom of Armenia is an ancient one. Armenian speakers began to settle in the region around 1200 BC after apparently migrating from the Balkans. A satrapy of the Persian Empire, based on the very ancient kingdom of Ararat, Armenia became quasi-independent in 321 BC in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia.

The Greek Seleucid Empire, founded by one of Alexander’s generals, maintained dominance over Armenia. But the Armenian dynasty continued to crown its own kings and frequently inter-married with the Seleucid Greek dynasty. Following the Roman defeat of the Seleucid King Antiochus the Great in 190 BC, Armenia asserted its full independence and over the following decades Armenian kings forged an empire that stretched from the Black and Caspian Seas to the Mediterranean.

That couldn’t last, and in 66 BC Roman general Pompey the Great defeated the Armenians and reduced their kingdom to its earlier borders. Armenia became a Roman client kingdom, providing troops and supplies for Roman campaigns in the East and paying annual tribute, but otherwise managing its own affairs. That “client” status remained fairly loose – when Crassus campaigned against the Parthians in 53 BC, the Romans demanded no troops from Armenia and Crassus refused an Armenian offer of guides and passage through Armenian territory. After the destruction of Crassus’s Roman army at Carrhae, Armenia shifted into the Parthian orbit.

Control shifted over the next centuries, with Rome continuing to claim legal authority over Armenia despite the family ties between mountain kingdom’s ruling dynasty and Parthia’s Arsacid kings. When the Parthian branch of the Arsacids fell to the Persian Sassanids, the Sassanid King of Kings Shapur I attempted to subdue Armenia. He initially could not assert full control but after he defeated the Roman Emperor Gordian III, Gordian’s successor Philip the Arab agreed to peace terms that placed Armenia within the Persian sphere of influence. Without fear of Roman interference, Shapur invaded Armenia in 252 and the Armenian King Tiridates II fled the country and died soon afterwards. A Persian agent then murdered his son Khosrov II; loyalist supporters spirited Khosrov’s young son Tiridates III to Roman territory. Shapur installed a Sassanid client king, who ruled Armenia as a Persian satrapy.

When the Roman Emperor Diocletian went to war with the Sassanids in 286, he brought along Tiridates III and a contingent of Armenian warriors. Tiridates drove out the Sassanid regime and installed himself as king, now firmly allied with Rome. Seeing the Zoroastrian religion imported by the Sassanids as an element of Persian subversion, he ordered Christianity adopted as the state religion in 301, marking Armenia as the world’s first Christian state.

Armenia during the Fouth Century.

Rough and mountainous, Armenia held a strategic position and also a relatively large population with a sizeable class of lesser nobles. These provided the highly respected heavy cavalry known as Azatavrear or sometimes just Azats. Armed, armored and trained very similarly to the Persian Savaran – heavily-armored cavalry, with mail protecting both horse and rider - the Azatavrear fought alongside both Romans and Persians depending on how the winds of politics blew at the moment.

Armenian kings had limited power, especially compared to the absolute rule enjoyed by the Persian King of Kings and the Roman Emperor. Armenia followed an early form of feudalism, in which the high nobles considered themselves the king’s equals. Over 100 of these nakharars exerted near-total authority in their own hereditary authority, demanding constant attention from the king and eagerly making their own side deals with the Romans or the Persians if they felt their own needs unmet. The leading nakharars had to be granted the leading military and civil posts, with considerations of their prestige (and likelihood of rebellion if unsatisfied) taking precedence over the kingdom’s best interests. The Azatavrear owed their loyalty (and their lands) to their nakharar ahead of their king, and if the nakharar was not happy, his Azatavrear were not happy.

Over the five decades following the conversion to Christianity, Armenia sometimes fought alongside Rome in the seemingly-endless series of wars between Rome and Persia. And sometimes Armenia fought alongside Persia. Overall the wars and the fluid loyalties they exposed had little effect on Armenia until 350, when the Sassanids overran the kingdom, captured King Tiran and blinded him. His son and successor, Arshak II, continued the balancing act. In 358 Rome’s Emperor Constantius II offered a marriage alliance to Olympias, daughter of the former Senator and Consul Flavius Ablabius (who had been executed in 338 for trying to usurp the throne). When the Persians attacked Rome a year later they did not move into Armenia; Arshak apparently stood ready to join Constantius’ counter-offensive but the Emperor died before setting out on the expedition.

Shapur II offered peace to Constanius’ successor, Julian, but Julian had determined to launch a war of conquest against the Persians. He had specific plans for Arshak and his unruly but hard-fighting Armenians, detaching a reserve of about 18,000 men under his cousin Procopius to operate along with Arshak and an expected 25,000 Armenians. Together, they would form the northern arm of a pincer movement, but never made contact with the Persian army before Julian called a general retreat.

Julian died during the withdrawal, leaving the Armenians in a difficult situation. His successor, Jovian, quickly hammered out a peace deal with Shapur II to extract the Roman army from Persian territory, handing over a number of key fortresses and forbidding Rome from intervening in Armenia. Jovian then died in turn, leaving the new Eastern Emperor Valens to handle the mess. Whether the agreement allowed Persia a free hand there soon became a point of contention, with Valens taking the position that Rome still had its ancient right to crown Armenia’s kings. Valens and his army had set out to confront Shapur in 365 when Procopius launched his rebellion against Valens.

Valens spent the next five years in the Constantinople area and in the Balkans, first dealing with Procopius and then launching a war of revenge against the Goths who had aided Procopius. That gave Shapur a chance to act against Armenia, and the King of Kings steadily suborned Arshak’s nakharars by way of bribery and intimidation. In 367, with Valens well beyond the Danube in pursuit of the Goths, Shapur feinted at an invasion of eastern Armenia and when Arshak raised the Azatavrear to stop him, quickly assaulted the other end of the kingdom, burning fortresses and farms.

That raid humiliated Arshak in the eyes of the nakharars, many of whom now openly sided with Shapur and the Persians. In 368 or 369 Arshak agreed to go over to the Persian side as well; when he arrived for a banquet hosted by Shapur to celebrate the new alliance, the Armenian king was hustled out the back door, blinded, and subsequently beheaded.

Both Arshak’s queen and his son, Papak (over there on the right; his name is sometimes rendered as Pap) escaped, and in 370 returned to assume the throne with Roman support. Shapur dispatched an army into Armenia to overthrow him, and Valens in turn sent an army of his own led by the Roman general Terentius, a thoroughly miserable individual, and Vadomarius, a former king of the Alamanni once imprisoned by Julian and now serving as a Roman general officer. According to the Armenian chronical known as the Epic Histories, Shapur sent five million men into Armenia, while the two Roman generals brought six million of their own.

The two forces that met at Bagrevand in 371 were much smaller than that, though still large for the actual armies of the day. The Romans had been joined by a large number of Armenian infantry and Azatavrear led by the sparapet (hereditary supreme commander) Mushegh Mamikonian and cavalry commander Smbat Bagratuni, and these troops did most of the fighting. Other Armenians, mostly from Caucasian Albania and led by the nakharar Merujan, fought on the Persian side. The Romans held back, clustered around Papak with orders not to engage the Persians unless attacked first (complying with the letter of the 363 treaty, at least according to the Roman interpretation). At some point they entered the fighting, apparently with decisive effect, and the Persians broke. Bagratuni’s armored horsemen undertook a lengthy pursuit, inflicting severe casualties.

That battlefield victory temporarily consolidated Papak’s hold on the throne, and Armenian-Roman forces re-occupied Armenian territories including some ceded by Jovian to Shapur in 363. But Papak soon became embroiled in religious controversy (like many rulers of the period) and murdered the head of the Armenian Christian church, a close ally of Valens, in 373. Further angering Valens, Papak refused to have the new church leader consecrated by a Roman bishop. When Papak demanded the cession of Roman territory, Valens decided to have him killed. Papak’s Roman-raised nephew Varazdat (apparently the last bare-knuckled boxing champion of the ancient Olympics; his portrait on the right certainly makes him look very punchable) became king, with the solidly pro-Roman Mamikonian as his regent.

Valens withdrew Roman troops from Armenia in 377 to fight the Goths rampaging through Thrace. Freed of supervision, Varazdat promptly murdered Mushegh Mamikonian and assumed direct personal rule. Mushegh’s brother Manuel led the Azatavrear in revolt, setting up Papak’s son Arshak III as his puppet. Varazdat fled to Valens who sent him into exile in Roman Britain, as far as possible from Armenia. Shapur sent troops into Armenia in support of Manuel, who eventually turned on the Persians and restored Armenia’s precarious independence.

Valens died fighting the Goths in 378, while Shapur II died of natural causes a year later. The Persian ambassadors sent to announce the coronation of his successor, Ardashir II, also carried a proposal to partition Armenia and thereby remove a potential cause of future conflict. Rome’s Eastern Emperor Theodosius was engaged in stopping the Gothic rampage that followed the Battle of Adrianople, and Ardashir died in 383 without a settlement having been reached. But the next King of Kings, Shapur III, renewed the offer and this time Theodosius accepted. Each empire installed their own client king in their half of Armenia, bringing in a brief era of peace between the great powers. By the sixth century Byzantine Rome and Sassanid Persia would find new reasons for conflict.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold is known to the Greeks as Barkimedes.