For two hundred years after the fall of the Arshakuni dynasty of Armeniaº in 428, the country was governed by Marzbans (Governors-general of the boundaries), nominated by the Persian King. Of the thirty-five Marzbans who ruled in succession, six were Armenians. Western or Byzantine Armenia was at that time ruled by Curopalatesº (Governors), almost all Armenians by race, but with limited prerogatives.
The Marzban was invested with supreme power, even to the imposing of death sentences; but he could not interfere with the age-long privileges of the Armenian nakharars. The country as a whole, enjoyed a considerable autonomy. The office of Hazarapet, corresponding to that of a Minister of the Interior and Public Works, was entrusted to an Armenian, as was also the post of military Commander-in‑chief. Each nakharar had his own army, according to the extent of his domain. The "National cavalry" or "Royal force" was under the Commander-in‑chief. The tax collectors were all Armenians. The courts of justice and the schools were directed by the Armenian clergy.
Three times during the Marzbanic period, Persian kings launched persecutions against Christianity in Armenia. The Persians had tolerated the invention of the Armenian alphabet and the founding of schools, thinking those would promote the spiritual severance of Armenia from the Byzantine Greeks; but on the contrary, the new cultural movement among the Armenians actually proved to be conducive to a closer relation with the Greeks.
The internal policy of Sassanid Persia had now taken on an intolerant attitude in the matter of religion. All the races living within the Iranian Empire henceforth must, in conformity with Mazdeian tenets, worship the sun and fire. King Yazdegert II (438‑457), was a mixture of contrasting emotions. In the words of Yeghisheh, "One day a ferocious bull" or "an enraged lion" or "a furious tempest," on another day a man of "sweet disposition . . . who would humble himself from a haughty arrogance." He considered himself the first servant of Ormuzd (Ahura-Mazda), through whose grace he would crush the Graeco-Roman power, revive the empire of Cyrus and place all Asia under the influence of Iran. Repudiating the Hundred Years' Treaty of 420, Yazdegert invaded the Byzantine territories of Mesopotamia, destroyed cities, burned churches and seized captives. The Emperor Theodosius II, unable to take the field, concluded a humiliating peace in 441, which, among other terms, stipulated that those Persian Christians who had taken refuge in the Byzantine domain must be surrendered.
The triumphant Iranian then turned his attention to Central Asia, marching against the Kushans or Hephtalites, a hardy people of Medean origin, ruled by Arshakid princes, descendants of Darius the Great. Their country embraced modern Bukhara and Pahl, and they had fought successfully against Persia. After seven years of hostilities (442‑448), Yazdegert, at the head of a formidable army, inflicted a severe defeat on the Kushans, at Marvroud, near the River Murghab, where the Armenian cavalry became noted for its valor.
The reconstruction of the Derbend Gates had already been accomplished before the Kushan War. The road is between the Caucasian Mountains and the Caspian Sea, in flat country, which offered an easy way for incursions into northern Persia by the Mazkouts or Black Huns, a nomadic tribe ruled by princes and claimedº Arshakid descent. Acting under the suspicion that the Armenians might, in an attempt to revolt against him, get assistance from the Mazkouts, Yazdegert rebuilt a great wall called the Jora Bahag or Gate of Jor-Derbend by the Armenians.
He then unleashed a religious persecution. In his opinion, a model king, who adhered to the true faith and laws of Zradasht (Zoroaster), must devote his life to the glory of Mazdeism, by abolishing false creeds and bringing their followers into the true path of God. Speaking to the Armenian nakharars, whom he had summoned to Ctesiphon, he said, "I look upon you as herds of animals scattered through a wilderness. It gives me deep grief to think that God may be angered at me and be revengeful on your account." He of course did not admit that he was prompted also by political considerations. His vast empire was inhabited by many peoples with different religions and languages. Some of them were of Aryan stock, others non-Aryan or Touranian. Several of these peoples, such as the Armenians and Caucasians, were looking to the Emperor of Byzantium for aid at the opportune time for revolt.
In his desire to achieve his political purposes, Yazdegert called in Mihr-Nerseh, an elderly retired official, a military, diplomatic and administrative genius. He advised peaceful means rather than force in the effort to absorb Armenia. "You know," said he to his King, "how extensive and valuable Armenia is. But that country is also a neighbor of the Roman Caesar, whose tenets and worship she has adopted. If we succeed in bringing her people to our own laws, then they will love you and the Aryan world. And when the Armenians come nearer to us, we shall certainly win the Georgians and the Aghouans (Caspio-Albanians), too."
The rapprochementº policy seems to have found a supreme Armenian advocate in the person of Vassak, the Marzban, the powerful nakharar of Sewniq, the mountainous province bordering on the Persian frontier. While a youth of fifteen, he had been sent, in accordance with the Oriental custom, to the Persian capital as a hostage. After his coming of age and returning home to inherit his father's realm, he evinced brilliant qualities. The bishop-historian Koriun speaks of him as "the brave Sissakan, sagacious, ingenious and foresighted through God-given grace." This worthy grandson of the fearless nakharar Andok had effectively sponsored Mesrop's p142 educational efforts. But his later conduct marred his early reputation. Upon the downfall of the Arshakuni dynasty, Vassak developed a burning aspiration for royal distinction, through the restoration of the kingdom. In the early stages of the politico-religious crisis, he artfully worked in harmony with the nationalist group; but when the hour of final test arrived, he became the head of the pro-Persian party, in opposition to the pro-Roman element. This party included chiefs of prominent aristocratic families, such as the Mamikonian brothers — Vardan, Hmayak and Hamazasp; Arshavir Kamsarakan, the Lord of the Arsharuni and Shirak districts; Ardak the great Ishkhan (prince) of the province of Moks, Vahan Amatuni; Nershapuh Ardzruni; Tatoul Vanandatsi; Arsen Endzayetsi. Among the motives of the chiefs in league with Vassak — "the renegades," as they are called by the historians, Parbets and Yeghisheh — was their grudge against the clergy who had been preaching the gospel of human brotherhood and the protection of the peasant and laborer against exploitation by the feudal masters of the land.
Den-Shapuh, the Persian High Commissioner, concealed the iron hand in the velvet glove. His lavish entertainment of the aristocratic families and cultivation of social relations between them and the Persian residents, with a view to implanting in the country such alluring customs and ways of life as were prohibited by the Christian church, contrast sharply with his political and economic repression of the people. After completing a census and land registry of the country, he imposed oppressive taxes on property and persons. He then replaced Vahan Amatuni, the "nation's father" and Hazarapet, with a Persian, and conferred upon a Mazdeian magian (priest) the post and dignity of chief justice.
These measures did not bring results quickly enough, so Mihr-Narseh, "Grand Vizier and Commander-in‑Chief of Eran and An-Eran," promulgated an edict, enjoining upon the Armenians the advisability of "giving up the erroneous and foolish ways of the Romans, thus depriving themselves of the benefits of the Persian perfect religion." He exhorted the Armenians to remain no longer astray, deaf and blind, but to study and adopt the doctrines of Zardusht.
A general assembly was held in Artashat in 449, to discuss this edict and ponder an answer. The meeting was presided over by the Katholikos Hovsep, and attended by seventeen bishops, eighteen major nakharars of both parties, many noblemen, chor-episcoposes (suffragans), monks of high rank and noblemen priests, whose spokesman was Ghevond Yeretz (Priest).
The answer of the Council to the Vizier, though respectful in tone, was a categorical refusal. The lengthy missive, as quoted by Yeghisheh, may not be a verbatim copy, but it throws much light on the sentiment and temper of the leaders of the nation at that critical moment. The following lines epitomize their carefully reasoned decision:
"From this belief no one can move us, neither angels nor men; neither fire nor sword, nor water, nor any other horrid tortures. All our goods and our possessions, are in your hands, our bodies are before you; dispose of them as you will.
"If you leave us to our belief, we will here, on earth choose no other lord in your place, and in heaven choose no other God in place of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God but him. But should you require anything beyond this great testimony, here we are; our bodies are in your hands, do with them as you please. Tortures from you, submission from us; the sword is yours, and here are our necks.
"We are no better than our forefathers, who, for the sake of this faith surrendered their goods, their possessions and their bodies. Were we even immortal, it would become us to die for the love of Christ. . . . We should die as mortals, that He may accept our death as that of immortals."
The King of Kings, when informed of this rejection, flew into a rage and sent an order for the chief dignitaries to appear before him in Ctesiphon. They came, fifteen in number, headed by Vassak Sewny and Vardan Mamikonian. Their arrival was not heralded with military honors, as was the usual custom. Before receiving them in audience, Yazdegert had sworn "by the great Sun God, that if tomorrow morning, at the rise of the magnificent one (the sun), the p144 nakharars would not kneel before it with him, and acknowledge it as god, they would be imprisoned and chained, their wives and children exiled into distant lands, and the imperial troops and herds of elephants would be sent to Armenia to demolish their churches and shrines."
The nakharars, after their dismissal from the awesome presence of the great monarch, spent the whole night in discussing their dilemma, and finally agreed among themselves to make a pretence of yielding, for the sake of their homes and families. So on the next day, escorting the King of Kings, they went to the "House of Ashes"1 and knelt as in adoration of the rising sun, in accordance with the Mazdean rites. Yazdegert, in great joy, heaped honors and gifts upon them and called them "his beloved ones and friends."
In pompous array, the nakharars were sent off to Armenia accompanied by 700 Magi, who, within twelve months from the Armenian New Year's Day in Navassard (August) were to convert the entire country to Mazdeism. They were required, so Yeghisheh, to lock and seal the doors of the holy churches; to deliver to the imperial treasury all the sacred symbols, vessels and ornaments; to prohibit teaching by Christian priests; to educate in public the wives of nakharars and the sons and daughters of noblemen and people in accordance with the Magian doctrine; to force the monks and nuns to wear lay costume; to suppress marriage laws and establish polygamy, to let daughters marry their fathers, sisters their brothers, grandchildren their grandparents; to have edible animals slaughtered after being sacrificed to the gods; to keep rubbish and cow-dung away from fire; to forbid the killing of certain animals but to destroy reptiles and vermin; to wash their hands with cow's urine, so that water might not be defiled.
Fantastic laws and indecent practices such as these above were to be forced upon a people which had inherited and developed a civilization of its own, and for 150 years or more had officially p145 adopted Christianity. But the Persian experiment proved unworkable. Scarcely had the strange cavalcade crossed the frontier at the village of Anghel (Anggh), 120 parasangsa east of Douin, in July, 449, when a horde of peasants, armed with clubs and slings and led by a fiery priest, Ghevond, assailed and put the trespassers to feeling — an ominous rumble of a coming storm.
The great nakharars, most of them ashamed of their sham apostasy, avoided appearance in public, and stole away to their respective homes. The few among them who, for selfish considerations or in honest conviction, were still in favor of compromise with Persia feared to speak out. Even Vassak was in perplexity. Despite his being the wealthiest man and holding the highest position in Armenia, he was suffering from intense mental agony. His two sons were hostages at the court of Ctesiphon; his son-in‑law, Varazvaghan, an open renegade, ever busy in intrigues against his father-in‑law, had fled to the Persian capital. Moreover, Vassak realized that his promises to the King of Kings were doomed to failure. He had been warned by the chief Magi himselfº that "Though our gods themselves were to come to our assistance, it would still be impossible for Magian doctrines to gain a footing in Armenia. Who can withstand men like these, who are neither afraid of chains, nor frightened by tortures, nor allured by wealth?"
This pronouncement of a foreign functionary of deep learning and eminent position was truth, indeed. The Bible and the works of the Church Fathers, translated into Armenian between 422 and 432, followed by the teachings and preachings of two groups of young men, one hundred strong, almost all graduates from foreign seats of learning, had permeated the soul of the nation with a fervent zeal for Christianity. Men and even women, "armed and helmeted, sword in belt and shield in hand," were ready to accept the challenge, to fight and die for freedom of faith and conscience. They had implicit confidence in Vardan, too, who was destined to be their leader. He was the son of Sparapet (General) Hamazasp Mamikonian, and of Sahakanoush, the daughter of the Katholikos Sahak Partev, a descendant of Gregory the Illuminator. It was the tradition of the House of Mamikonian "to serve the Godly Homeland and to p146 die for it." Theodosius II, the Byzantine Emperor, and Vram, the Persian King, had conferred the rank of General upon Vardan. He had visited Constantinople on diplomatic missions. As a soldier, with a record of service in forty engagements, he had led the Armenian contingents of the Iranian army and won laurels in campaign of Khorassan (modern Turkestan).
Upon his return from Ctesiphon, the disunity among his countrymen threw him into such deep despair that he set out with the members of his family for Byzantine Armenia, where he hoped to live unmolested by the missionaries of Mazdeism. The Nationalist party, however, hurriedly sent a delegation to entreat him to reconsider his resolve. Even his political opponents, including Vassak, joined in the appeal, and the pressure became so strong that he yielded and returned. At the General Assembly which thereupon convened, he exhorted the leaders to cease dissimulation and stand bravely for Church and Country. All present came under the spell of his personality.
Vassak, who was in friendly contact with Persian headquarters, was now surrounded by a Nationalist force and declared himself on oath as a defender of the Faith. Posthaste, messengers soliciting aid had been dispatched to the great satraps of the border provinces, to the Byzantine Governor-General, and to the new Emperor.
Alarmed by news of these appeals and preparations, the Persian high command had rushed an army to Trans-Caucasia. The Armenian army was thereupon divided into three parts. The first one, under Nershapuh, was sent to oppose the invaders from the North; the second, under Vassak, was stationed in Sewniq for flanking movements, while the third, under Vardan, undertook the defense of Caucasian Albania. The campaign was crowned with brilliant success. After scattering the forces of the common enemy, Vardan hurled his cavalry still farther north and razed Yazdegert's boasted barrier, the Gate of Jor. An alliance between the Armenians and the larger Caucasian tribes was then concluded.
But this bright course of victory did not continue long. The Armenian p147 delegation to the Byzantine Court met bitter disappointment in its hope of aid. Attila, King of the Huns, one of the barbaric tribes who overthrew ancient civilizations in the early centuries A.D., then ruled over a conquered territory stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Rhine, and even threatened Constantinople, where the Emperor drained his meager treasury to purchase peace of the barbarian. Not until Attila's sudden death in 453 was the pressure relieved. But as long as "the Scourge of God" menaced the very gates of his Capital, no Byzantine Emperor dared irritate that other great enemy, the King of Persia.
Nor was there any effective aid in sight for Armenia from other quarters. Finding the situation precarious and taking advantage of the absence of two Nationalist armies, Vassak and his followers threw off their pretense of patriotism, and openly stood against the uprising. A state of civil war ensued, in which Vassak seized key positions in the Ararat province and committed many acts of vengeance, including the destruction of churches, imprisonment of priests and arrest of boys from the Mamikonian and Kamsarakanº nobility, to be sent to the Persian capital as hostages.
In the autumn of 450 Vardan hurried home, traveling more than 400 miles in thirty days, an almost incredible speed in that era. The renegade armed forces had fled into the well-nigh inaccessible heights of the Sewniq Mountains, which Vardan soon blockaded. Hoping to avoid further bloodshed, however, he sent a last appeal to the Persian King, assuring him of Armenian loyalty, if only religious freedom remained untouched. Yazdegert, who had just returned from a disastrous expedition against the Kushans, responded favorably, declaring a general amnesty for political offenders, and religious freedom for his Armenian subjects. The renegade party was loud in its expressions of joy and gratitude to the King, but the Nationalists still doubted the sincerity of the Crown, the Marzban and his Persian advisers. Hostilities inevitably broke out soon; in the spring of 451 the enemy forces under the Grand Vizier Mihr-Nerseh crossed the Arax River, and pushing northward to the Caucasus defiles, held the gates through which the tribal allies of the Armenians were expected to hasten in aid.
Isolated, deprived of any assistance from outside, even divided among themselves, the Armenians now faced the greatest crisis they had yet encountered. The Persian King had been assured of the absolute neutrality of the Byzantine government, while Vassak was not only acting as an adviser to the Persian commander, but was in correspondence with the allied nations of the Caucasus and the powerful princes of border provinces, subtly trying to discredit the Nationalist movement. Vardan and his colleagues fully realized the gravity of the situation; but with the very existence of the Armenian nation at stake, they accepted the challenge for a cause which they held as sacred.
On Easter Day, April 13th, 451, the Persian army arrived in Her and Zarevand (modern Khoy and Salmasd, Persia), and laid out a camp, defended with bastions, moats and towers. After a review of his army in the plain of Ararat, Vardan sent out a detachment of 2,000 cavalrymen to reconnoiter the enemy's position and forces. These scouts fell into a brush with the Persian rear guard, annihilated it and returned exultant to their own camp. Resolved to meet the foe on the frontier, so that the fertile fields and valleys of the country might be saved from devastation, Vardan near the end of April rushed his army 120 miles in five days, to the vicinity of Artaz.
The Armenian forces were camped in a vast plain between Artaz and the districts of Her and Zaravand, known also as Shavarshakan plain (the modern Maku, Persia), near the village of Avarair. The rivulet Deghmoud, a tributary of the Arax, separated the two opposing hosts. The Armenian army, comprising 66,000 cavalry and infantry, recruited from among the standing forces of the nakharars, plus civilian volunteers, was accompanied by a considerable number of the clergy, who conducted services and encouraged the soldiers. The army was divided into four wings. The first, the right, was entrusted to Khoren, Prince of the Khorkhuruni clan, aided by Arsen Endzayetsi and Nerseh Qatchberuni. The center was given to the command of Nershapuh Ardzruni, aided by Mirhshapuh the Mardpet and by Prince Artak of Moks; the left wing was under the Generalissimo himself, aided by his brother-in‑law, Arshavir Kamsarakan, Papak Araveghian, Tatoul Vanandatsi and Tajat Gnduni. p149 A fourth division, the reserves, was under the command of Hamazaspian, brother of Vardan. The army included archers, spearmen and swordsmen, all on foot, but its main strength was in its light and heavy cavalry, all armor-clad. Vardan, who had organized and drilled them, also supplied equipment to all who needed it.
The Persian army numbered 300,000 men, 40,000 of whom were Armenians — the regiments of Vassak and his followers. In addition to the Persian elements, the enemy force included contingents from various Caucasian, Caspian and central Asian territories. The center was held by the division of the Madyan or "Immortals" — 10,000 horsemen under Mushkan Nusalavurd, the Commander-in‑chief. A herd of trained elephants, each carrying an iron tower full of bowmen, was another menace. The rear guard was reinforced by a column of elephants, on one of which, in a barbed tower, the Commandant sat, viewing the entire battlefield and directing movements.
On May 26th,2 451, the Aryan division of Mushkan Nusalavurd and the Armenians of Vardan Mamikonian faced each other in battle array. The Eve of the Feast of Pentecost, according to Yeghisheh, assumed the aspect of the religious rally. On one side of the battle line the Persian Commander-in‑chief reminded the apostate Armenian princes of the precious marks of honor to be given by the King of Kings to all those who would bravely face the errant Armenians, "whose valor they knew." On the other side, Vardan, who from childhood had been well versed in the Holy Scriptures, now read aloud the deeds of the Maccabees, who successfully fought against Antiochus in defense of their faith. Then Ghevond, the priest, delivered a discourse, after which all the catechumens in the army were baptized and received the Holy Eucharist. The whole army rejoiced, crying out, "May God look down in mercy upon our voluntary self-offering, and may he not deliver the church into the hands of the heathens!"
To quote Yeghisheh,
"Both sides being thus prepared and seized with a mighty rage and burnt with a wild fury, rushed against each p150 other. The loud cry on both sides sounded like the clash of clouds, and the thundering sound of the noises rocked the caverns of the mountains.
"The countless helmets and the shining armor of the warriors glowed like the rays of the sun. The flashing thousands of swords and the swaying of innumerable spears seemed like an awful fire being poured down from heaven.
"But who can describe the tremendous tumult caused by these frightful noises — the clangor of the shields and the snapping of the bow strings — which deafened everyone alike?
"One should have seen the turmoil of the great crisis and the immeasurable confusion on both sides, as they clashed with each other in reckless fury. The dull-minded became frenzied; the cowards deserted the field; the brave dashed forward courageously, and the valiant roared. In a solid mass the great multitude held the river; and the Persian troops sensing the danger, became restless in their places; but the Armenian cavalry crossed the river and fell upon them with a mighty force. They attacked each other fiercely and many on both sides fell wounded on the field, rolling in agony.
"Amid this great confusion the brave Vardan looked around to observe that a group of courageous and select Persian warriors had forced the left wing of the Armenian division to retreat. He immediately attacked with great vehemence, battered the right wing of the Persian army, and pushed the enemy back towards their beasts. Then he surrounded and slaughtered them. Thus he created such a great disorder that the troops of the Madyan Corps were dislodged from their prepared position and were put to flight without actually being defeated."
"The Persian general Mushkan," continues Yeghisheh, "observing some scattered Armenians who had remained behind in the mountain vales, shouted encouragement to the soldiers of the Aryan army around him, who were holding a position against Vardan's troops. There on the battlefield consciousness of defeat came to both sides, because the piles of the fallen bodies were so thick that they looked like craggy masses of stone.
"Mushkan, seeing this, ordered Ardashir, who was seated on the wild beasts as if atop a lofty watch-tower or in a fortified city, to incite his troops with the loud sound of huge trumpets and he himself p151 surrounded him (Vardan), with his vanguard. But the valiant Vardan with his brave warriors played no lesser havoc in that place, where he himself was found worthy of martyrdom.
"As the battle continued, the day drew to its close and the fighting ceased towards evening; many were in death's agony; and the bodies of the slain were so thickly heaped together that they looked like fallen trees in the forest. Broken spears and shattered bows were strewn all over and because of that the sacredº bodies of the blessed could not be fully identified; and there was a terrible panic and confusion over those who had fallen on both sides. The survivors were scattered over the hilltops and in more protected valleys; and whenever foe met foe they slew each other. The work of destruction continued without pause until sunset.
"And because the great Sparapet (General) of the Armenians had fallen in the battle there was no longer any chief around whom the remainder of the troops could rally. They became dispersed and threw themselves into strongholds of the country and occupied by force many regions and fortresses which no one could capture.
"And these are the names of the heroes who perished on that battlefield; the brave Vardan, the valiant Khoren Khorkhoruni; the daring Artak Baluni; the amazing Tajat Gntuni; the wise Hmayak Dimaksian; the wonderful Nerseh Qatchberuni; the youthful Vahan Gnuni; the just Arsen Endzayetsi; the progressive Garegin Servantsian.
"These 287 heroes and the nine distinguished nakharars perished there. Besides these 287 warriors, 740 others of the royal house, the house of Ardzruni and other nakharars inscribed their names in Book of Life on the day of that great battle. They numbered 1,036 altogether."
On the side of the Persians, 3544 died, among whom were nine very distinguished men, by whose loss Mushkan was greatly disturbed. While he was thus sadly meditating, Vassak, who had hidden among the elephants, came to him and showed him stratagems whereby he might take the fortified castles. On the order of the King and on his own testimony and on that of the priests who were with him, Mushkan swore an oath, and sent forth messengers who announced that with the ceasing of the insurrection, the King had granted permission for the building of churches and for p152 establishing all things as they were formerly. But though the King's order was in this instance truly followed, yet the people's confidence was not immediately restored, as the forces of both parties were broken, and the Armenians, through many former deceptions, had long been familiar with the treacherous nature of Vassak.
1 So called in secret satire by the Armenians.
2 The date accepted by the Patriarch Ormanian, an authority on the Church calendar.
a 120 parasangs: normally, you'd just find the conversion to kilometers of this Persian unit lurking under a little bullet, but this one is a bit more complicated. Herodotus and Xenophon give the parasang as being thirty stadia, which has to be understood as approximate. The stadion, in turn, is usually stated to run 8 to a Roman mile, but that too was an ancient approximation, and the real figure lies in the range between 7⅓ to 8. The Roman mile, on the other hand, we know exactly how long it was: 1480 meters, give or take no more than a meter or two.
Put all this together, and the parasang was no less than about 3½, and no more than about 4½ Roman miles, or 5180 to 6660 meters; our distance here, of 120 parasangs, is thus around 650‑750 km.
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