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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 13
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 15

 p84  Chapter XIV
Artavazd — The Last Tigrans

Roman rule supreme in Western Asia

The struggle with Rome had been long and exhausting. It began with the first skirmishes of Mithridates against the Romans, and extended over many years; but Pompey triumphed at last, and assured the Roman domination of the Asiatic continent. Since Mithridates and Tigran were thoroughly beaten, there remained no other obstacle from the Pontus-Euxine to Egypt and the banks of the Tigris. Armenia had fallen and counted only as a sort of barrier against the Parthians. Pontus, Cilicia and Syria were reduced to the status of Roman provinces, and Antioch, the capital of the Seleucidae, became the Roman metropolis of western Asia. Cappadocia's kings had long since become loyal subjects of Rome. In Mesopotamia the Abgars had also acknowledged allegiance to Rome, as had Antiochus, the Seleucid king, who had fallen to the rank of a simple governor of Commagene. The face of the Eastern world had been completely changed since the arrival of Pompey; the states which Alexander's conquests had brought to life had, by 64 B.C., all disappeared.

Artavazd threatened by Crassus

[image ALT: An engraving of the head of a young man with an oval face and a strong nose, and a gentle but also rather weak look to him. He is wearing an elaborate squat slightly conical headdress with a pair of lappets extending down over the nape and several more flaps, apparently designed as fasteners, winding around it. It is an interpretation of a portrait of Artavazd II, King of Armenia, a detail from a contemporary coin.]
Artavazd II (from a coin)

The only remaining people in western Asia unconquered by the Romans were now the Parthians; and the Roman military chiefs vied with each other for the honor of making war on these Easterners, each general hoping to win renown like that of Caesar and Pompey. Crassus, member of the famous Triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey, won the coveted command and hastened to Syria. It was the misfortune of Armenia to serve often as a battleground for the antagonists;º  p85 while in the interior, the great ones, some favoring Rome, others Parthia, fomented civil war by calling to the throne no less than ten kings in fifty years. Old Tigran was still living, but since the year 54 he had associated his son Artavazd with him in the government. A prince of irresolute nature, though of cultivated mind,​1 Artavazd could not escape the misfortunes which were destined eventually to bring him to a tragic end. In fear of both Romans and Parthians, he sought to evade the dangers by taking the side of whichever antagonist seemed to prevail at the moment — a fatal vacillation.

Defeat and death of Crassus

Crassus hastened to cross the Euphrates, dispersing a number of opposing forces, and rushing his conquest in order that he might  p86 proclaim himself Imperator. When he resumed campaign in the following year, 53, Artavazd presented himself as a Roman ally, offering to put 6,000 cavalry­men at the disposal of Crassus and to give him passage through Armenia, where the Roman army would find provisions, a favorable terrain and the assistance of 30,000 horse soldiers. The Imperator refused these propositions, preferring to take the route through Mesopotamia. This proved to be a fatal error. His army was soon surrounded by the Parthian cavalry under Surena, and the Roman rout became a disaster. Cherished Roman eagle standards were captured, Crassus himself was slain, and only a few remnants of his army succeeded in reaching the Euphrates. Artavazd, who had been charged with the duty of blocking the Parthians, promptly abandoned the Roman cause. He made advances to Orodes, the Parthian king and sought his alliance, which was accepted and consecrated by the marriage of Artavazd's sister with Pecoras, the son of Orodes.

Since the Roman army had been crushed, it was now easy for the Parthians to invade Syria, and in 51 they besieged Antioch. Rome, then torn by civil wars, could give no thought to the deliverance of Syria, which was thereupon occupied by the Parthians and Armenians for fifteen years.

It was not until the power­ful duumvirate of Octavius and Mark Antony arose in Rome that the Romans recovered Syria, Antony being given the government of the East as his portion. His lieutenants everywhere repulsed the Parthian-Armenian allies. Syria was evacuated by them by the time of Antony's arrival in Asia. Artavazd now executed another volte-face by pla­cing auxiliary troops at the disposal of the Romans. Antony accepted the offer, and in accordance with the Armenian king's advice, avoided the arid plains of Mesopotamia, so fatal to Crassus, and took the route via Armenia to  p87 march on Ecbatana and Ctesiphon, with the intention of striking at the heart of the Parthian Empire.

Antony's disaster and revenge

But again a colossal disaster befell the Romans (36 B.C.), and Antony, in battle and retreat, lost 80,000 men before reaching the borders of Armenia. This the duumvir believed to be due to the treachery of Artavazd, and he began planning revenge. Two years later he paid a visit to Armenia, where, by way of cozening Artavazd, he solicited the hand of one of the King's daughters for a son of Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. Soon after this, Antony arrived in Nicopolis, in Armenia Minor, and invited the king to meet him there for a consultation. Artavazd feared treachery, but reluctantly accepted the invitation. He walked directly into a trap. He was seized, together with his wife and children, bound with golden chains, and taken to Alexandria, where he was offered to Cleopatra, to be exhibited in a triumphal parade.

[image ALT: An engraving of the obverse and reverse of a coin depicting respectively the heads in profile of a man and of a woman, the latter wearing a thin fillet and an earring. It is a denarius of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in commemoration of their apparent conquest of Armenia.]
Denarius of Mark Antony and Cleopatra
"Armenia Devicta"

Artavazd's tragic end

The dethroned monarch became a nuisance, indeed, a menace to Cleopatra, whose desire it was to bestow the throne of Armenia upon her son Alexander. She finally rid herself of Artavazd by having him beheaded after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. This son of Tigran the Great, who lacked the strength of character to maintain a real neutrality, paid for the mistakes of his life in a manner of which even the so‑called barbarians disapproved.

Upon his death, the Armenian nobles placed upon the throne Artashes II (Artaxias), the eldest son of Artavazd, who had found refuge among the Parthians. The young Alexander, whom Antony and Cleopatra had intended to be king of Armenia, could not take over the throne because of Parthian opposition. Antony, then in the final months of his struggle with his former partner, Octavius, was unable to aid his son. But Artashes's accession to the throne was repugnant to the ideas of Rome. When Octavius (now rechristened Augustus) came to the East in 29 B.C., the Roman partisans gained sufficient strength to drive out Artashes. Once more Armenia fell under Roman influence; but Augustus found it advisable to endow the country with an autonomous government under its native King. He gave his great general, Tiberius, the task of putting the affairs of Armenia in order and enthroning Tigran III (brother of Artashes),  p88 who had been transferred from Alexandria to Rome. Tiberius accomplished this program more easily because Artashes had died before the general arrived in the East. He insured Roman predominance in Armenia, and the princes who succeeded one another on the throne rendered homage to Rome for the next quarter of a century. These princes, issue of the family of Tigran the Great, still claimed the title of "King of Kings."2

The reign of Tigran III did not last long, nor did that of his son, Tigran IV and of his daughter, Erato, the two latter married to each other in accordance with Oriental custom. (They were only half-brother and sister, having different mothers.)

Tigran IV was dispossessed by Augustus because of suspected treachery, and Tiberius came again to Armenia to replace him with Artavazd, a cousin of Tigran's. This arbitrary act led to discontent and finally to civil war, partly instigated by Tigran, whom Phraates, King of Parthia, was secretly backing. Matters having reached the stage of rebellion against Roman authority, Augustus sent his godson,º Caius Caesar, to bring about an appeasement,​a but before his arrival, Tigran IV was killed in a riot, while his associate, Erato, took to flight. As the Parthian King had renounced his activities to avoid provoking Rome, Caius Caesar suppressed the revolt, and in the year 1 A.D., the Armenian throne was bestowed upon Ariobarzan, a Mede by origin, who was accepted because of his eminent qualities.

End of Artasheshian dynasty

But Ariobarzan very shortly was killed by accident, and Augustus nominated Artavazd, his son, as his successor. This Median dynasty, however, could not be maintained. The national opposition to foreign rule soon found expression in the assassination of the King. Augustus thereupon abandoned his ill-conceived policy and sent Tigran V, a descendant of the national dynasty, to occupy the throne. But the nation's tranquility, apparently restored by this concession, was soon disturbed. The nobles recalled Queen Erato, but her reign was short, and her overthrow marked the end of the dynasty of Artashes and Tigran. The Armenians were unable to agree on the choice of a King until 16 A.D., after which they had to  p89 accept any prince imposed upon them by the Parthians or the Romans.3

Owing to the lack of historical documents, we are not sufficiently informed as to all the causes of the fall of this national dynasty, though it may in general be attributed to the incessant strife of the aristocratic families with the royal authority.4

The Author's Notes:

1 We owe this information to Plutarch. Khorenatsi is in error in representing Artavazd as an ignorant King, devoted to hunting and gluttony.

2 Armenian coins in silver and bronze, from that epoch, with the effigy of the sovereign and the inscription, "King of Kings," still exist.

3 Moses Khorenatsi, supported by Syriac traditions and Eusebius, creates a successor of Tigran the Great and Artavazd, one Arsham, making him a nephew of Tigran and the father of Abgar of Osrhoene. According to this tissue of fables, Tigran's first successor ruled in Edessa and in Nissibin until the accession of Artashes. The national historians have copied him, lacking any knowledge of the events which took place in Armenia before her conversion to Christianity. Carrière, the French scholar, was the first to demonstrate that the name Arsham or Arschama, borrowed from Laboubna (Lerupnia), is a nickname (Oukhama) given to Abgar, meaning "the Black," "the negro" and not "the father of Abgar."

4 This view has been questioned by certain modern Armenian scholars, chiefly by N. Adontz.

Thayer's Note:

a Gaius Caesar — Augustus' adopted son rather than an anachronistic Christian "godson" — paid with his life for his Armenian involvement. The account is confused and fragmentary: see Florus, IV.XII.42 (II.32 in Rossbach's numbering).

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Page updated: 27 Oct 08