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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 16
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 18

 p105  Chapter XVII
The Arsacids (Arshakunis) of Armenia

Parthian Attempts on Armenia

Since the middle of the first century A.D., the Parthians had been endeavoring by every means to attach the Armenian Crown to their dynasty; and the accession of Trdat I marked the culmination of the efforts of Ardaban III and Valarsh I.​1 But the Romans had so far frustrated all these attempts. The Emperor Hadrian had permitted the accession of a new Arsacid, and Antoninus Pius, Hadrian's successor, foiled the Parthian designs by naming a Syrian prince to the throne. However, an occasion soon came to weaken Armenia's Roman protection. The Parthian Valarsh or Ardaban IV, profiting by the civil war raging among four contenders for the Roman throne, found himself in a position to follow the line of his predecessors. He took the side of the locally dominant pretender Niger against Septimius Severus, and this enabled him to send his nephew Valarsh to Armenia in 193. His partisans later assassinated Sanatruk, the Roman protégé.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a coin of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius.]
Coin of Emperor Antoninus Pius
showing him crowning the King of Armenia

As a representative of the royal house of the Arsacids, the young Valarsh was given a hearty welcome by the Armenian nation. His family, which had ruled several Touranian peoples in the Central East, was known under the name of Pahlavi, which means Parthian. It reigned in Bahl Zariaspa after the fall of the Greek kingdom of Bactriana in 126 B.C. The Kingdom of the Pahlavi continued to exist at Bahl until the middle of the sixth century, when it was overthrown by Khosrov I, the Sassanid. The Pahlavi Arsacids were considered by the Orientals as having more rigid morals and beliefs than the earlier Arsacids, who were accused of practicing Occidental customs.

 p106  Since the fall of the dynasty of Artashes, the throne of Armenia had been occupied by monarchs, none of whom could leave the succession to his descendants. They were for the most part elected. The descendants of Valarsh were maintained upon the throne until the first quarter of the fifth century because it suited the Romans better to protect these Arsacids, as political enemies of the Sassanids. These kings called themselves Arshak, which means monarch; hence their dynasty is known under the generic designation of Arshakuni-Arsacid.2

Activities of Valarsh

Valarsh adhered to the policy which best served Armenian interests, that of cultivating the friendship of Rome. When the Emperor Septimius Severus was marching on Ctesiphon in 197, Valarsh went to meet him and promised to aid him with auxiliary troops. For the third time within the space of a century, the Romans entered the royal city of Parthia.3

After the death of Septimius Severus, his son Caracalla renewed the campaign at a moment when the Parthians were weakened by internal dissension. The city of Edessa, the capital of the kingdom  p107 of Osrhoene, was the center of defense of upper Mesopotamia. To enable him to announce a victory, Caracalla suppressed this tributary state, threw Abgar, its King, into prison, and reduced the capital city to the status of a Roman colony.

Caracalla's inept policy

Since 197 Armenia had maintained a scrupulously correct attitude towards Rome. Now Caracalla, greedy and sadistic, invited Valarsh and his sons, then in rebellion against their father, to appear before him, pretending that he would arbitrate the quarrel. But upon their arrival at his headquarters, they all suffered the same treatment as had the King of Osrhoene. This odious trick brought about a revolt of the Armenians. Caracalla hurled a formidable force against them, but the infuriated Armenians repelled it.

Valarsh dies in prison

Valarsh, once a sincere ally of Rome, despite his blood relation­ship with the Parthians, died in prison in 216. In times of peace he had done much towards the improvement and enrichment of his country. The portion of Hazarapet, or superintendent of the fields and products of the soil, was one of his creations. He also introduced the use of the solar year of the Persians, together with the Feast of Navasard or New Year, which became one of the great solemnities of paganism, and which was celebrated in pomp at Bagavan, a metropolis of pagan worship. Valarsh had conferred upon the noblemen of Armenia commissions at the royal court. He constructed many towns and buildings, among them the castle of Valarshakert, on the upper Arzanias River, the eastern branch of the Euphrates, and the city of Valarshapat,​4 which became the capital of the Arsacids. His many acts promoting the welfare of his country place Valarsh in a high rank among the Kings of Armenia.

Trdat II (Khosrov I) 185‑216

The Emperor Macrinus, who reigned in 217‑218, concluded a peace with the Parthians which involved the payment by them of a huge indemnity. He won the Armenians by recognizing Trdat II, the son of Valarsh, and setting at liberty the Queen Mother, whom Caracalla had imprisoned. He also restored the lands owned by the  p108 Armenian Kings in Cappadocia. Trdat was thus enabled to rule in tranquillity for the time being. During his reign many illustrious families of Bactriana in Central Asia, the cradle of the Armenian Arsacid dynasty, emigrated to Armenia. Among these were the Kamsarakans and the Mamikonians, the first-named related to the royal house and the second composed of bold warriors. Trdat received them hospitably and gave them freeholds. Unfortunately, a strange uncertainty overhangs the story of Trdat II and his brother Khosrov, who succeeded him. The earlier Armenian historians completely ignore Trdat and attribute the events of his reign to that of his brother Khosrov I. Hence the dates of their reigns are in dispute.

Rise of Artashir

The truth was that the great Parthian Empire was nearing its end. The Arsacids had not been able to establish a homogeneous administration or a permanent army, nor had they a regular law of heredity. After the death of a king, the nobility simply made a selection from among the claimants or pretenders to the throne, member­ship in the Arsacid family being a prerequisite. The Great King could act only with the consent of a council composed of his leading vassals. The greatest hereditary officer, next to the King, was the commander of the army. Compelled to depend upon such an organization, Artaban V could not put down the insurrection stirred up  p109 by Artashir the Sassanid, son of Papak, a great Persian feudatory. Artashir won the Parthian army to his support, killed Artaban in battle in 224 and assumed the title of "King of Kings." He seized the whole of Persia, Media and a part of Iran. He strengthened Mazdeism, the Zoroastrian orthodoxy, restored the Magians to their former power, and thus brought about a renewed persecution of Christians.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a coin of Artaban V, king of Persia.]
Coin of Artavan V, the last of the Arsacid Kings of Persia

The accession of the Sassanids is a major fact, a milestone in the history of Armenia as well as Persia. The friendship long existing between Parthians and Armenians, because of the relation­ship between the ruling families and the similarities of customs and religious ideas, was now broken and replaced by an implacable and enduring enmity.

The Sassanid dynasty was no mere tribe of nomads; it was highly civilized. Artashir, in order to insure unity in the teaching of the national religion, chose a mobed of noted sanctity who was given an opiate, under the influence of which he slept for seven days, and upon awakening, dictated the entire creed of Ahura-Mazda or Ormuzd. Under the Sassanid dynasty — which endured for more than four centuries — ecclesiastical interest was very power­ful. Holding the natural elements as sacred, they charged that Christians defiled the earth by their burials, defiled water by washing in it and ignored the sacredness of fire.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a coin of Artashir I, king of Persia.]
Drachma of Artashir I, founder of the Sassanid Dynasty of Persia

Artashir moves against Armenia

The Armenians, embittered not only by the Sassanid overthrow of the Armenian Pahlavid dynasty but by their insistence upon imposing their religion upon their old allies, gave sanctuary to the children of the deposed King Artaban. Artashir, greeted in 227 as the restorer of the ancient religion and language of the Persians and given the title of The Mazdeian, Issue of the Blood of Gods, King of Kings of Iran and Aniran (such was the legend on his coins), moved against Armenia in 229. Trdat (Khosrov II) resisted, and aided by the Medes and some Caucasian tribes,​5 repulsed the assailants. But this defeat did not balk the hopes of Artashir, who now raised anew the claims of the Achaemenids to all Asia, and demanded that the Roman Empire surrender to him the ancient territories of  p110 Darius. He invaded those areas, laid siege to Nissibin in 231, and sent scouts even into Cappadocia.

Alexander Severus saves Armenia

Rome was thus forced to reopen a struggle destined to drag through four centuries. The young Emperor Alexander Severus (222‑235), taking the field in 232, sent a great army to the East, which was joined by the Armenians and some of the northern tribes. The center of this invading host marched on Mesopotamia, the right towards Chaldea and the left through Armenia towards Atropatene. But the center was stopped by an overpowering mass of the Persian army, commanded by the King himself; the left wing, including Trdat's Armenians and the northern tribesmen, though it obtained considerable booty, was pressed back from Media to Armenia. The right wing also met stiff resistance, but withstood it, though Artashir might have won a victory had he been able to hold his discontented troops together. It was a stalemate. Alexander celebrated a somewhat illusory triumph in Rome, but the fact remained that he had saved Armenia. In exchange for this protection, Armenianº auxiliaries were sent to Maximinus — who succeeded Severus in 235 — to serve in the war against the German tribes.

But in 238 Artashir reopened the struggle and captured Nissibin. Shahpur I, son and successor of Artashir, continued the warfare; the Persians advanced as far as Antioch and compelled the Emperor Gordianus to embark upon another expedition to the East. Timisthe, the Emperor's father-in‑law, repulsed Shahpur and was advancing towards Seleucia, northeast of Babylon, when the Roman Soldier Philippicus assassinated Gordianus, seized the Imperial throne, and concluded a peace with Shahpur, surrendering to him Armenia and a part of Mesopotamia.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a coin of Shahpur I, king of Persia.]
Drachma of the Sassanid King Shahpur I

 p111  Fall of Artashat

Hostilities were resumed in 252, and the Persians laid waste the Roman territories of Mesopotamia and Syria. The Armenian King had troubles of his own at home, especially with turbulent and rebellious vassals, among them Selkuni, lord of the district of Taronitide (the modern Mush), whom Shahpur had won to his cause. In 253 the Persians captured Artashat, the Armenian capital, together with the family of its King, he having taken refuge in Roman territory. The Armenian throne was then bestowed by Shahpur upon Artavazd, with an order to introduce fire-worship into the country.

Shahpur I defeated by Palmyra

The woes of the Armenians under this domination were made heavier when the Roman Emperor Valerianus was taken prisoner in 260 by the Persians, who then invaded Syria and Asia Minor. But the fortunes of war took a sharp turn in the following year when the army of Shahpur suffered a staggering defeat at the hands of Odenathus, King of Palmyra, whose subjugation had been sought by the King of Kings. Odenathus advanced as far as the gates of Ctesiphon, after capturing the treasures and wives of Shahpur, but he did not demand the release of the captive Roman Emperor. Thus reduced almost to impotence, Shahpur's hold on Armenia was weakened, and the partisans of Rome in Armenia began trying to shake off the Persian yoke. Even Artavazd, the Armenian King, advised Shahpur, his sponsor, to set the old Roman Emperor at liberty; and when this was not done, he quitted his throne in 261.

Uncertain period

The turmoil of almost constantly recurring wars, with their destruction of cities and memorials, the absence of written records and the inevitable partisan­ship of such reports as we have, have left the Armenian history of this period fragmentary and vague. The King who succeeded to the Armenian throne in 261 is by several writers called Khosrov, though he could scarcely have been the one who was the younger brother of Trdat II. But his reign was broken into, at the time when Persia — and once, so some reports say, Palmyra — took over his country briefly. For one short period there seems even to have been a state of anarchy.

With the whole Orient in agitation, it was impossible for the  p112 Armenian King to enjoy a stable authority. But he clung to his throne with a tenacity which induced the Persians to plot his assassination. This was finally accomplished by an emissary named Anak, sent by Shahpur. The monarch left an infant son named Trdat who, according to tradition, was spirited into Roman territory.

Romans destroy Palmyra

In addition to this major objective, the Persians sought to take advantage of the internal conflicts then raging in Rome. But their situation became precarious in 273 when the power­ful Emperor Aurelius, suppressing the civil strife, marched upon Palmyra with intent to subdue its Queen, Zenobia, widow of Odenathus. She claimed the Persians and the Armenians as her allies; but Persia, disturbed by domestic dissensions, made no move to aid her, while the Armenians preferred the friendship of Rome. Aurelian overthrew Palmyra, and the unfortunate Queen was compelled to walk in his triumphal procession through the Roman streets.

Persians crippled

The Emperor Carus, at the head of a formidable army, entered Ctesiphon in 283. The Persians were only partly relieved by his sudden death in the field — reputedly by lightning. They had to withdraw from Armenian affairs and cease all aggression against Rome for a decade. But the restoration of a national monarchy in Persia was a fact of the highest importance in Oriental politics. The Sassanid sovereigns never sincerely abandoned their claims to the possessions once comprised within the Achaemenid frontiers; and the new dynasty, founding its claim on a religious basis, reestablished the political affairs of the Persians, which had fallen into grave disorders under the latter Arsacid kings.

The Author's Notes:

1 Valarshak-Vagharshak, alias Volagases.

Thayer's Note: even more often spelled Vologaeses.

2 Armenian historians, such as Phaustus, Agathangelos and Khorenatsi, extend the designation of Arshakuni to anterior Armenian kings, such as Sanatrouk and Tigran the Great. Arshak is the generic title of the Parthian kings, as was Pharaoh in Egypt and Shah in Persia. The ending uni or ouni has been borrowed from the idiom of the Urartean inscriptions, and is still used by the Armenians in the same sense as the actual termination ian.

3 This great city, (Tisbon) of which only majestic ruins remain, was on the east bank of the Tigris, opposite Seleucia, about 20 miles below Baghdad.

4 apat and kert are Persian endings, meaning "built" or "founded."

5 Agathangelos lists these tribes as the Aghouans (of Caucasian Albania), Georgians, Huns, Lepins, Jeghbs, Casps, etc.

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Page updated: 5 Feb 05