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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 17
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 19

 p113  Chapter XVIII
Trdat III and St. Grigor (Gregory)

Rise of Christianity

While Ahura-Mazda was recovering power in Iran, the creed of Jesus Christ was making great progress throughout the Roman Empire. To the opposing political interests of the two rival Empires there was to be added within a few years the most implacable of all hostilities, that engendered by religious convictions.

For centuries before the restoration of Mazdeism, the Iranians, Armenians and Romans gave little thought to any religious differences among themselves. The gods of the Parthians, as well as those of Armavir, Artashat and Ani (Kamakh) were tolerated under the prevailing Roman lenity. Moreover, the Eastern relations, tinged with Hellenism, had many common links with those of the West, and the ingenious assimilation of the Romans averted the danger of religious conflicts among the various peoples paying tribute to the Empire. This wise tolerance, carefully maintained during the course of three centuries, was fated soon to crumble. In the era now opening, the national cult would dominate the political scene, even as Assyria had once dominated Asia in the name of the god Assour. The religion of Christ must struggle, at first against Mazdeism, later against Islam.

Legend of Abgar

Shortly after the death of Christ, his creed made its appearance in Armenia. With the growth of the Church, legends began to accumulate. One had it that King Abgar V of Edessa, known as Oushama, suffering from a chronic disease, invited Jesus to come to his capital and heal him, and even to reside there. Moses  p114 Khorenatsi gives an alleged copy of the letter.​a Christ was unable to go to Edessa, so the story goes, but the Apostle Thaddeus visited Abgar later, cured him and baptized him.1

First Missionaries

The Armenians had not then acquired the art of writing, hence no contemporary documents of the first three centuries after Christ have come down to us, and we have only traditions regarding the earlier years of that period. The belief persisted that the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew — and sometimes also another is named — first preached the Gospel in the land of Ararat; but when? We do not know whether these men were of Christ's own Twelve or of the Seventy sent out later. Some authors assert that 'Thaddeus" was really one Adda, or Adde, a court official who became Bishop of Edessa, and was one of the martyrs of 166 A.D. The legend continues, however, that Thaddeus from Edessa passed over to Artaz in Armenia, established a church there and converted many persons, including the Princess Sandoukht, daughter of King Sanatruk, who then ruled over Adiabene and a part of Armenia, and that the King condemned his own daughter to death for her apostasy. As for Bartholomew, another source reports his evangelizing in Elam, Persia and India, his return to Armenia late in Sanatruk's reign and his martyrdom at Van. Thus the Armenian Church Fathers claim apostolic origin for their Church, and the Armenian Patriarchate as a direct successor of the first bishops consecrated by the two apostles.

National chroniclers testify to the existence in the third century of two Christian Churches in Armenia, the one at Artaz and another in the province of Sewniq. Denis of Alexandria mentions one Merouzhan as Bishop of Armenia in that century. But Christianity battled its way upward only against strong opposition from Persia and later from the Emperor Diocletian (284‑305).

Mazdean infiltration

No archaeological monument of the Sassanid period has yet been discovered in Armenia; but some rare coins minted by the Princes of Iberia (Georgia) prove that Persian influence extended as far as  p115 the foot of the great chain of the Caucasus Mountains, and therefore over a part of Armenia. Attempts of the Court of Ctesiphon to bring Armenia into the Persian orbit by conversion to Mazdeism were continued for centuries under the Sassanid dynasty. Wherever military or governmental units went, they were accompanied by Mazdian priests; churches were demolished, ceremonies other than Mazdean were forbidden, all sacred vessels and ornaments were seized, and customs abhorrent to the Armenians were decreed.

Legends of Prince Trdat

The infant Prince Trdat, who had been smuggled out of Armenia at the time of the murder of his father, grew up in Roman territory of Asia Minor, thoroughly imbued with its language, literature, customs and religion. Of imposing stature and handsome features, his athletic dexterity and personal prowess made him a popular hero both in the circus and on the battlefield. Fantastic stories were told of his Herculean strength. "His breathing," says Agathangelos, "crumbled the banks of the rivers and stopped the eddies of the rivers." In a chariot race — where he usually excelled — he once stopped a rival's chariot just by seizing the spokes of the wheel in his hands. When rebellious Roman soldiers in force attacked the palace of his friend, Caius Flavius Licinius, with intent to slay him, Trdat is said to have stood alone at the gate and beat them off. Agathangelos asserts that he was highly gifted intellectually, well read in Greek literature and the philosophical sciences of his time.

Accession of Trdat III

It was by this eminent Roman Licinius — later Emperor — that Trdat was brought to the attention of Diocletian, who had ascended the throne in 285.​2 Two years later he authorized Trdat to assume the Armenian crown, and sent him under heavy escort to his kingdom. Upon his arrival at the frontier, Trdat III, then twenty years of age, was recognized as the heir to the Pahlevid dynasty and welcomed to the throne. But the tranquillity seemingly guaranteed by his Roman backing did not continue long. Narseh, the successor of Shahpur, attacked the country in 294 and forced Trdat to take refuge in Roman territory. Narseh then proceeded to overrun the Roman possessions in Mesopotamia and Syria.

 p116  Roman-Persian War

Diocletian ordered the Army of Syria, under Galerius, into action. But this commander handled his legions badly on the dangerous plains of Mesopotamia, where he suffered a disastrous defeat. Trdat, who was fighting with his archers and cataphracti or mailed men, in the Roman ranks, barely escaped capture by swimming across the Euphrates, though encumbered with his armor. Fortunately for the Armenians, Galerius, following the strategy set by Diocletian, was able to reverse the tide. With Trdat reconnoitring, he led a new army through Armenia, while Diocletian himself held the passage of the Euphrates. On this occasion, the story was different; Narseh was wounded and he and his army put to flight, leaving his tent and family at the mercy of the conquerors.

Peace and prosperity

Under the terms of a treaty signed immediately afterward, Narseh was obliged to yield the five provinces of Armenia which Shahpur had seized, namely, Arzanene, Moxuene, Zabdiene, Rhimmene and Gordiene (297 A.D.). Trdat was now firmly established in his kingdom, and a period of peace was assured, lasting until the reign of Constantine. Diocletian's guarantee of the autonomy of Armenia kept Trdat free from Sassanid plotting, and the incursions of Caucasian tribes ceased when he married the Princess Ashkhen, daughter of Ashkatar, King of the Alans.

Trdat in the early years of his reign held the views of his Roman mentors towards the Christians, who were looked upon as disturbers of the social order. Wedded to paganism, the King was very hostile to the new religion, and was particularlyº vexed by a preacher named Grigor (Gregory), who was winning many converts. He ordered Gregory seized and confined in a dungeon of the citadel of Artashat, where he was treated with great cruelty.​b

Grigor the Illuminator​c

Here we meet the great evangelist of Armenian history, whom some chroniclers also call Grigor Partev. "Gregory the Parthian" was born about 257, of royal Arshakid stock. His father, Prince Anak, coming to Armenia ostensibly as a fugitive from Sassanid tyranny, had assassinated Trdat III's father during a hunt at the instigation of the King of Persia, to whom the power of this sovereign, as an ally of the Romans, seemed a menace. The fatally wounded  p117 King, on his death-bed, ordered the extermination of Anak and all his family, which sentence was carried out with one exception. One small boy, Gregory, was saved and taken to Caesarea in Cappadocia, where the brother of his foster-mother, a Christian, sheltered him and reared him in the evangelical faith.

Some other ancient writers have represented Gregory as a native of Cappadocia and a scion of the noble family of Souren of Bactria, but the version given here is the one most commonly accepted. As he neared manhood, his whereabouts were evidently not kept secret, for on coming of age he married a daughter of an Armenian Prince who was a Christian. Of this union two children were born; then the couple separated from each other, in order that Gregory might take up a monastic life. He went to Armenia in the hope of atoning for the crime of his father by evangelizing his homeland.

Diocletian persecutes Christians

Here again we must quote tradition. Diocletian in 303 ordered a general persecution of Christians throughout the Empire, and thirty-eight women who had been converted in Rome, notably two heroines named Hripsimeh and Gayaneh, who had assisted Gregory in his missionary work, had escaped from Roman territory into Armenia and secluded themselves near the city of Vagharshapat. King Trdat, according to legend, heard of their presence and of Hripsimeh's exquisite beauty, and had her brought to his palace. He proposed marriage to her; she refused him, however, escaped somehow, but was captured, and with all her women companions, suffered death by the executioner's sword.

Trdat is forced to summon Gregory

In punishment for this crime, Trdat was stricken by a loathsome disease, which forced him to retire from appearance in public.​3 In this extremity, a vision came to the monarch's sister, the Princess Khosrovidukhd, hinting of the power that might lie in the prayers of the holy man languishing in the castle dungeon. One detail, which might very well be true, is to the effect that the King was aware that Gregory was the son of his father's assassin. He was  p118 therefore reluctant to yield to his sister's entreaties; but he had tried all the most reputable physicians of his time and appealed to all his ancestral divinities for relief, in vain. So at last he yielded, had the emaciated Gregory brought forth from his cell and besought his help. The apostle readily offered his prayers, and the King was speedily healed. Touched by gratitude and the unshakable faith of the preacher, and awed by the power of his prayers, the King accepted Christianity, as did all his court.

Armenia becomes Christian

Gregory, still a plain monk, then went to Caesarea, where the Exarchus Leontius gave him the double sacerdotal and episcopal consecration. His two sons, Vardan and Aristaces, their names Grecianized into Vrthanes and Aristakes, had studied in Caesarea, and become Christian clergymen. On his way back into Armenia, Gregory overthrew the Temple of Ashtishat; then proceeding to Bagavan, he was welcomed by the King and his retinue, as well as a group of clergy from Cappadocia and northern Syria. He baptized a great number of converts, among whom was the King, and then began the official evangelization of his country. This was in the year 303 — though some chroniclers give it as 301. In either case, it was some time before the Emperor Constantine the Great allegedly saw the flaming Cross in the sky with the words In hoc signo vinces — "In this sign shalt thou conquer" — on the morning of a battle, and thereupon decreed that the Roman Empire should be Christian. Armenia, therefore, claims to have been the first among the nations to adopt Christianity.4

Pagan priests resist Christianization

The conversion of the nation was not accomplished without great difficulty; the pagan priests, possessors of vast fortunes, were politically and economically power­ful. They had since the earliest times wrung profit from the people by every possible act and circumstance. Gregory, backed by Trdat, found little trouble in converting some districts whose inhabitants yielded peacefully to the change. But in others which were more recalcitrant, the bishop, accompanied  p119 by the principal nakharars and their soldier-serfs, used force, destroying idols, demolishing the pagan temples and slaying priests who opposed the mission with arms. According to the ancient historian, Zenob of Glak, the resistance was violent in the district of Taron and the territory of Palouniq. In the great burgh of Kissaneh, a real battle took place between the army of the pagan priests and that of the State. Gregory "gave order to pull down the idol of Kissaneh, which was of copper and twelve arms'-lengths in height." The pagan priests fought fanatically, crying, "Let us die before the great Kissaneh be destroyed." "This spot," says Zenob, "was the gate of demons, whose number was as large at Kissaneh as in the depths of hell," and who cried out, "Even if you should drive us away from here, there shall never be rest for those who wish to domicile here."

Nakharars gather pagan treasure

But while Gregory was aiming at the conversion of the people and the annihilation of paganism, the nakharars were thinking of the riches accumulated in the temples. "The following day" (after the fight at the temple of Kissaneh), says Zenob, "a pagan priest was brought to the Prince of Sewniq" (one of Gregory's noble escorts). "He was pressed to reveal the place where the treasures were hidden; he refused and died on the gibbet in torture. It has been impossible to discover the treasures since."

As to the lands belonging to the pagan sanctuaries, each of the new churches received a share of them. "After having laid the foundation of the church," says Zenob, "and deposited therein the relics, St. Gregory erected the wooden sign of the Cross of the Lord at the very gate, on the site of the idol Kissaneh, and left Anthony and Gronites to manage the church. He appointed Epiphanes as the superior of the monastery, giving him forty-three monks and assigning him twelve villages for the support of the establishment."

In all, the villages assigned to the new clergy contained 12,298 houses and could muster an army of 5,470 cavalry and 3,807 infantry. All these villages had long been appropriated to the service of the idols. Armenian chroniclers, themselves zealous champions of the new religion, attribute to Trdat and Gregory many acts of violence during the establishment of Christianity, and maltreatment of the pagan priests and their adherents, deepening the bitterness of feeling between the two factions.

 p120  Christianization completed

The official conversion of the Armenian State to Christianity was completed in 305, soon after the abdication of Diocletian and his co-Emperor Maximian. In that year Gregory was duly elected as the supreme head of the new Church, and went in great pomp to Caesarea, to receive the investiture from Leontius, the metropolitan of that city. Caesarea was famous at that time as the greatest center of Christian faith in the East, and the jurisdiction of its bishop extended over a major part of Asia Minor. From that date, Grigor (Gregory) Loussavoritch became the Katholikos, the great Bishop of Armenia.

Greek church claims authority

The ordination of Gregory and three of his successors by the Metropolitan of Caesarea has been the ground for the Greek Church's claim for authority over that of Armenia. A similar claim has been made by the See of Byzantium, overshadowing that of Caesarea; also by the See of Antioch, which pretended to hold a pre-eminent jurisdiction over all the churches of Asia, from the Mediterranean Sea to India. All these claims have been confuted by factual proofs found in history. Furthermore, no credence is given by modern European scholars to an alleged pact, said to have been entered into by Trdat and Gregory during a visit to Rome to greet the Emperor Constantine after his conversion, and, it is said, to render an act of submission to the incumbent Bishop of Rome, Sylvester I (314‑335), whose office, later known as Pope, was claiming headship over all Christianity.

Only a short time before this, even in Constantine's early years, some of the most violent objections to the religious revolution, for such it really was, had been coming from the Roman Caesars. An expedition under Maximinus Daia, then Governor of Syria and Egypt, was launched in 310 with the object of reinstating paganism in Armenia, but met, as Eusebius tells us, with strong military resistance and was not success­ful. The conversion of Constantine changed all that.

Etchmiadzin, Holy City of Armenia

The King aided Gregory in building the city of Etchmiadzin on the site of ancient Vagarshapat;º it became the holy city, as well as  p121 the intellectual center of the Armenian nation.​5 Gregory continued his evangelism for a number of years, always a target for attack by his enemies, and finally retired to the mountains of Akilisene, in Upper Armenia, to end his days as an ascetic. He entrusted the administration of church affairs to his son Aristakes, who had been his suffragan since 318. As such, Aristakes attended the famous Council of Nicaea, called by the Emperor Constantine in 325 to settle doctrinal troubles, and in particular to condemn the heresy known as Arianism, which doubted the divinity of Christ. There bishops from all over the Empire shaped a creed which is accepted as ecumenical by the Eastern and Roman communions.

Death of St. Gregory

St. Gregory died in his cave on Mount Sepouh in 325, one of the highest among the Armenian saints. He is also a saint in the Roman Catholic calendar. The adherents of the national Church founded by him are often designated by Loussavortchakan,​6 to differentiate them from the Armenian Catholics or Protestants. Aristakes succeeded his father in the patriarchal See, and was eventually assassinated in Sophene by Archelaus, a Roman functionary. A great-great‑grandson of Gregory, Nerses, later served as patriarch.

But little less glorious than Gregory's was the part played in the progressive movement by King Trdat III, the most illustrious figure in his dynasty. It must be admitted that the conversion of the country was as much a political as a religious move. By giving Armenia a national religion, Trdat set her free from alien influences. Rome then and for several years afterward had remained pagan, while Persia had restored its Zoroastrian cult. "Changing the state religion was therefore to assert the Armenian nationality, to give to the Haikian people an additional personal character, capable of contributing  p122 to the preservation of the race, and hence, to its independence."7

Persia plots assassination

However, the conversion of Trdat and his people, presently followed by that of the Roman Empire, filled the Persians with fears for the future; they saw visions of an alliance of Christ-worshipping princes against Mazdeian Iran. In an effort to forestall this danger, they won over, through secret agents, a number of Armenian princes and dignitaries, concocting a plot to restore paganism in the land of Ararat. Even the King's own chamberlain became a traitor. Relying on assurances of safety given by this man and other feudal lords, Trdat visited the province of Alkilissene (modern Erzinjan). There the plotters followed him and wounded him during a hunting party. The chamberlain completed the crime by poisoning him.

National mourning

Far from furthering the cause of Zoroastrianism, the murder of Trdat had the opposite effect. He was regarded as a martyr, and placed in the calendar of Armenian saints.

The Author's Notes:

1 This story was known to Eusebius in 313. The historian Weber believes that Abgar IX (179‑217) was in fact converted, but not Abgar the Black, a contemporary of Christ.

2 The city of Nicomedia, modern Ismit, near Constantinople, was then the imperial residence.

3 One variation of the legend has him turned into the semblance of a wild boar.

4 This assertion of the Armenian historians has been corroborated by Eusebius of Caesarea (260‑340), "the Father of Ecclesiastical History." He has the reputation of being second only to Origen in learning among the Church Fathers.

5 Etchmiadzin, whose name means "the place where the only begotten Son descended," counts a succession of 161 Katholikoses or patriarchs, extending from Gregory (305‑325) to Vazken I (1955‑ ). In Christendom this high office is comparable to the Papacy. The Katholikos of Etchmiadzin has on many occasions been compelled by circumstances to play the role of sovereign in relation to the Armenian people. The See has not always remained in Etchmiadzin; at one time and another, it has been found necessary to remove it to Douin, Ani, Aghthamar, Sis and other places; but in each and every location, it maintained the same spiritual role.

Thayer's Note: Catholicos Vazken died in 1995, and there have since been two more, bringing the number of them to 163. The current Catholicos (2017) is His Holiness Karekin II.

6 Pertaining to Loussavoritch (Illuminator).

7 Jacques de Morgan, "Histoire du Peuple Arménien," 1928.

Thayer's Notes:

a letter of Abgar: The earliest extant mention of the letter, and of Jesus's reply, is in Eusebius; several semi-independent texts of the actual purported letters exist in various ancient languages. For comprehensive details, see the article The Legend of Abgar in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

b a dungeon of the citadel of Artashat: The citadel and, as far as can be made out, the actual dungeon in which Gregory was imprisoned, is still standing, now part of the monastic complex of Khor Virap near the village of Lusarvat: see this excellent page with good photos (at Cilicia.com).

c St. Gregory the Illuminator: For a thorough account of his life, although in the Western, Catholic tradition, see the article Gregory the Illuminator in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

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