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Chapter 34
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.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 36

 p311  Chapter XXXV
The Feudal System in Armenia


A Vital Force

Feudalism was a power­ful social and political organization in Armenia. Originating in remote antiquity, it survived the kingdom and the loss of independence. Its influence was both beneficial and baneful. It was one of the directing forces of its destiny, the other being the geographical determinism.

The conception of royalty in Armenia was opposed to the absolutism in the Persian, Byzantine and Arab empires, in which the autocracy was displayed in pomp and etiquette, the king remaining at a distance, as a divinized being — inaccessible, invisible, God's vicar. In Armenia the king was only the highest lord, "he who gives orders." King Trdat was described as "daring, magnanimous, vigorous, valiant and brave warrior." (Agathangelos). King Varazdat was "strong, robust," while his son Khosrov was physically insignificant, and known by the surname "kotak" — short of stature. Arshak II had a swarthy skin, excessively hairy.

The nakharars or princely lords of the country, constituted the most solid structure of Armenia. They were the real owners and masters. From the fourth and fifth centuries to the eighteenth the vestige of certain Armenian nakharars still lingered in some countries.º On top of the class were the four bdeshkhs or satraps of the frontier princedoms, Nor Shirakan; Assorestan; Aruastan and Masqets. These princes were the descendants of formerly independent rulers. The nakharars maintained armies of their own, of various numbers, — thousands or ten thousands. They were called "lords of legions and flags." The entire country was known as the "Seigniorage  p312 of the kingdom of the Armenian land." The strongest of the nakharars were those of the Mamikonian, Sewnie,​a Bagratuni, and Ardzruni houses. The chief of the tribe or house was called ter, tanuter or nahapet. His authority, extended over all the inhabitants of the domain, was called also Ishkhanoutune, dynasty or dominion. The successor of a nahapet was called sepouh, patrician or knight. He helped the chief in councils, and possessed a seal. Under the oldest dynasty, the Arshakuni, only the son of the king succeeded to the throne. Later on, under the Bagratids, the brother was entitled to the right. The second rank of the society consisted of the inferior nobles, known as the ostaniks or azats (the free). The nakharars and the azats formed the principal armed forces of the country. They were identical with the knights of the West. They were called the "army of the noble legions" (azatagound banak) or "noblemen's troops" (azatazorq). In connection with a battle waged against the Persians in 371, at the foot of Mount Npat, Phaustus of Byzantium says: "When the heroic Armenians of the nobility armed with spear, overthrew the Persian lances, they shouted — 'Let it go to King Arshak, the brave!' and for every decapitated enemy they said: 'be a victim for Arshak!' " This was in revenge of the tragic death of the Armenian king in the Persian fort of Oblivion.

Land owner­ship

Contingent hereditary possession of land, the fief, was called khostak. There were three kinds of land owner­ship: (1) Hereditary (haireniq); (2) Grants (pargevanq); (3) Acquired by purchase (gsakaginq). Freehold possessions, although hereditary, were subject to prestation — payment, and oath, for specific services of vassalage (dzarayoutune). A king might be dependent on, or a vassal of, another monarch for certain domains.

Classes of Service

Serfdom of a peasant to a nobleman existed in Armenia. The Armenian feudal organization had two kinds of service, — one, the service of nobles, of azats to the nakharar, and the service of nakharars to the king or to the satrap. Second, the peasant's service to his lord, by payment in cash or in kind. The land did not belong to the feudatory, who held by feudal tenure.

The vassal's bond in Armenia was similar to that in the West.

Acts and symbolic phrases and the taking possession of a princely  p313 domain, or of a high hereditary rank, were accompanied by royal investiture. The acknowledgement of fealty of a vassal to his lord or suzerain reminds us of the usage in Western Europe. The Mamikonian prince, Mushegh (Mushel) put his hand in the hand of the king, Pap, and took the oath.

The young Artavazd Mamikonian, the son of Vatché, the army commander, succeeded his father. He was called to the presence of the king, to be honored by the insignia borne by his dead father, and by promotion as the chief of the cavalry, because he was the representative of a famous lineage. All valiant men in his family had perished in the last battle. The command of the army was entrusted to Arshavir Kamsarakan, prince of Shirak and Arsharuniq, as well as to Andovk, prince of Sewniq, because both were married to Mamikonian princesses. The Katholikos Vrthanes, in concert with the king, charged Arshavir and Andovk with the duty of educating the young Artavazd, "so that he may be able to fill the place of his ancestors, and to accomplish great deeds for Christ, the Lord of all, as well as for his own Arshakuni lords." He had to protect the members of the House, and to follow their traditional sponsor­ship of widows and orphans.

The number of nakharars originally had been 900 or 400,​1 but many of them were assimilated in stronger ones. A parchment discovered by the Katholikos Sahak in the archives of Ctesiphon, has seventy nakharars listed, according to their official place of honor. Each one had to supply fighting men in case of need, the figures varying from 50 to 20,000. The feudal chiefs were also invested with public functions, similar to the fief-offices of the West. The Bagratids enjoyed the honor (pativ) of crowning the king. Hence the exalted title, tagadir aspet, — "the knight who places the crown." The history Vardan tells us that the Byzantine emperor Basil I, the "Macedonian," sent an officer, Nicetas, to King Ashot Bagratuni, to remind him of his own Armenian origin, and to ask for a royal crown (876 A.D.).

Positions of Power

The head of the Mardpet family was the holder of another eminent position — Mardpetoutune, the administration of the royal household, the custody of the royal fortresses and the superintendence of  p314 the treasury. A mardpet, being in charge of King's household, was necessarily an eunuch. Under the Arsacids the Mardpet was called also "father of the king," hair-tagavori. He sat at the royal banquet above all the other nakharars.

The protection of the king's person and the command of his guard were the prerogatives of the Khorkhoruni princes, called the malkhaz, always equipped with lance and sword. The Gnuni family furnished the Hazarapet of Armenia, the minister of Financial and Rural Economy. Both the Khorkhoruni and the Gnuni houses were among the first to disappear from the scene.

The function of a hazarapet was higher in Persia than in Armenia. It was a sort of minister of the Interior, (not military); in fact, he was the Prime Minister or the Grand Vizier. The sparapet, in the Pehlevi spahpat, was a general, whose function, however, was hereditary, while the zoravar-general, was the factual commander in a given period.

The position of the Great Judge of Armenia was the appanage of the Katholikos, supreme head of the Church. He was also the authority of codifying the laws, while the nobles followed custom and tradition, and exercised their own rights over their vassals and the peasants.

Minor nakharars, the sepouhs and other azats were charged with duties of lesser importance, such as those of senekapet (chamberlain), vorsapet (master of the hounds), takarapet (cupbearer), zinakir (squire, swordsman), shahakhorapet (master of the horse), karapet (the herald or precursor).


The king was a nakharar himself, but more power­ful than the rest. Only a lord, endowed with the hereditary rights of leader­ship. Airarat, the domain of the Arshakunis, was the largest and richest principality of Armenia. The members of the royal family, the sepouhs, assisted byº those of the nakharars, the azats, formed a social class, and filled military, civil and judicialº positions. The azats were exempt from corporal punishments for a crime or offence, but subject to payment of amends and to imposition of penitence. The clergymen were classified as azats. Justice in Christian Armenia was administered under Canon laws enacted by Church councils, such as those of Shahapivan and of Douin. The priests received fiefs in heredity. The canon law deprived ignorant and incapable  p315 priests of the right of possession of land and water for irrigation. The Church was enriched by donations in addition to the incomes of the pagan period. Peasants were required to pay tithes in cash or in kind. Judicial functions added to their income. The advantages of the clergy attracted low classes to the holy orders, so, priests and monks increased their numbers, stirring the resentment of the king and the princes. King Pap, an enlightened leader, took measures to restrain the excessive power of the Church. This is the main reason for the imputation of numberless vices to Pap by religious historians. Many a nobleman put on clerical garb, in the beginning of the Middle Ages. The function of the Katholikos and bishops was enormous. Under the Arsacids only the descendants of Gregory the Illuminator and of Bishop Albianos were eligible to the patriarchal throne. Katholikos Zaven, of the latter stock (377‑381), "A wicked and envious" man, according to Phaustus, but "shining with virtues" according to other biographers (Sopherq by Alishan) wore the costume of higher nobility with short embroidered robes, and furs of ermine; and instructed the clergy to put on military vestments, instead of the monastic garb, long robes and skirt descending to the heels.

The artisans, as well as the shinakans (peasants) belonged to the class of anazats (non-free) or ramiks (plebeians).º


Serfdom existed in Armenia. It was hereditary. According to an inscription at Sanahin, a certain nobleman donated to the monastery thirty peasants of Alashen Village, and one holy banner in white color. The serfs were attached to the soil. Their life was hard and toilsome, but they could be released on certain conditions. They were transferred by sale or gift or some contributions, in work or in koravar (field labor) for the chief.

The ramiks were subject to corporal punishment for crime or any misdemeanor. "The shinakan shall receive more strokes." He was sent, as a penalty, to serve in leper hospitals. On the other hand, the shinakan enjoyed certain rights and economic advantages. He paid as tax much less than the inferior nobleman, in contrast to the peasant of Russia and Georgia in the 14th century whose condition was much more painful. There the superior class paid four to ten times more than the serf. The peasants became well‑to‑do, even relatively rich. Under the Church laws, adopted by the council  p316 of Douin the priests could purchase land with no bond of heritage. Uninherited land and personal property were transferred, as donation or for payment, to the "Brotherhood of the Church," but not to shinakans.

The shinakan enjoyed certain personal liberties; he could not be forced to contract marriage against his wish. He took part in the deliberations of national interest. When King Tiran was blinded by the Persians (350), a General Assembly was convoked for the adoption of certain resolutions. The meeting was attended by great satraps, ancients, governors, dynasts, nobles, generals, judges, chiefs, princes, except commanders (zoravars) and even by shinakan ramik (plebeian) peoples (351 A.D.). "Come," they said, "let us console each other, and defend ourselves and our country, and revenge our king." Thereafter, almost everybody in the land consulted with each other to find aid and assistance. Lazar says: "Vassak, the perfidious prince, never ceased writing to princes, to shinakans and to priests of Armenia." The chiefs of the class of the peasantry together with nakharars, came to Katholikos Nerses, complaining of the interminable wars waged by their king Arshak against the Persians.

In France and Western Germany of the Middle Ages, the feudal lord was satisfied merely by collecting the contribution of the peasants, in cash or in kind. In Eastern Germany and Poland the peasant was required to furnish his feudal lord with gratuitous man-power, too.


Peasantry defended by Church

The system in Armenia was in accord with the first of these types, and yet, Church leaders in Armenia sought more alleviation of the economic life of the peasants. The Council of the village of Ashtishat (Taron), in 351 A.D., presided over by Nerses Katholikos directed all those in power not to over-burden (their men) with unlawful demands, and not to oppress them. The feudal chiefs were reminded that the laborers too had a lord in heaven. The Katholikos, likewise advised the servants to remain in proper obedience to their masters.

Armenia possessed a transit commerce, and some domestic barter business. However, under the Arsacids and the Arabs trade  p317 was mainly in the hands of foreigners. The captives carried away from Armenia by King Shapuh II of Persia in 368 A.D. were mostly Jews and partly Greeks and Syrians.​2 Many trade words used in the Armenian are of Syrian origin, such as: shouka (market), khanout (shop), caghout (colony). More than four centuries earlier (77 B.C.), 300,000 persons had been transplanted from Caesarea and vicinity into Armenia by Tigran the Great.



The need for metallic currency or coin was felt during the Arab conquest when the population suffered economic depression, due to the fiscal disturbances. "The infernal and insatiable avarice of the enemy was not satisfied by devouring the flesh of the Christians, the flower of the land, nor by drinking their blood. . . . All Armenia is suffering horribly because of the absolute lack of cash." (Ghevond). For that reason a class of citizens engaged in business, and consisting of both Armenians and strangers, came into being. The moral concepts and the interests of this new class were not in accordance with the spirit of feudal Armenia. "A money lover," says Thomas Ardzruni, "would rather have his neck wrung than give away one dang (mite, obol).º If he sees the sun radiating its rays, by God's order, for the good of the world, he would say in his face, 'why don't you shed gold for me instead of light?' If he came upon a clear spring water he would say: 'I am not thirsty, and will not drink of your water, make silver flow for me.' " The same author believes that the city of Douin was destroyed by the earthquake because of "the stone heart of its population." Other contemporaries declared that business centers  p318 were all swelled and saturated by all sorts of impurities. The Katholikos Nerses, writing to the Bishops, rebuked "the hateful barbarous Nestorians who came to live in our country for commercial profits, and now, through their wicked, dirty and cursed profession, they are affecting our souls." The Katholikos pointed particularly to the ecclesiastics who had become dishonest merchants and usurers, instead of serving the church they seek gain." Hovhannes Mandakuni, the Katholikos of Ani, pronounced a malediction upon priests who were engaged in selling and purchasing.

Artisans in Metal

From the historian Ghazar of Parb we gather that a certain amount of business was carried on in mining products — such as gold, copper, iron, and precious stones. Artists and artisans of Armenia were famous for superb works of ornaments made of metals, inlaid articles, vestments embroidered in gold, tiaras. Smelting of gold and silver and mining of copper and iron were well-known in certain districts. The companions of St. Hripsimeh and St. Gayaneh coming from the West into Armenia, being all destitute, had no means of livelihood. One among them was efficient in the art of making glass trinkets, and small glassware, and collar-chains of glass. Through the sale of such articles the whole group's daily subsistence became assured. Professor N. Marr believes that the artisans of the country, constituting the majority of the urban population, had professional Brotherhoods or Unions.


There was also a class of slaves in Armenia, that of strouks, the lowest social element, according to Anania Shirakatsi. This class consisted of war prisoners. The nakharars, as well as the monasteries, owned slaves, some of them purchased as chattels, others condemned as bankrupts. The status of the class was recognized by Church councils. The strouks were employed in agricultural labor or domestic service.


Usury, the practice of lending money at exorbitant interest, was introduced into Armenia by strangers. The Katholikos Mandakuni says; "While the farmer prays God for rain to fertilize the seed and assure prosperity, those who thrive on usury wish for the people to suffer  p319 misery, famine and taxation. At the time of lending money the face of the rogue is joyful, but when the day comes to collect interest he has no sympathy for the debtor, the poor, dismayed debtor, he is not moved by his oaths and supplications, but remains implacable, unyielding, fiendish. The debtor is a slave in the eye of the creditor."

It should be noted that the urban population of Armenia was numerically much less than the rural. There were few large cities. The term qaghaq (qalag) originally meant a fort or rampart, around which rural communities grew up, The system of feudalism under the rule of lords or nakharars was anterior to that of monarchy. It was due to the decomposition of the older system of clans or tribes.

The terminology of the ancient language was adapted to the new social forms. The word azg now meaning nation or people, primarily designated a consanguineous group, houses or families of nakharars or the population of their domains. The word toun (doun), meaning house, designated a territorial unit — from the habitation of a clan, and later a state, — the Arshakuni toun or state — the state of the Armenian Arsacids. The original tanouter, chief of clan, became nahapet, the chief of a line, a ruler, a king.

The influence of the semi-feudal monarchy of Parthia was so great in Armenia as to create some confusion between the two peoples. Many terms of Armenian feudality are of Parthian origin, such nakharar, nahapet, sepouh, azat.

Three principal ethnic sources which participated in the formation of the Armenian seignioral class were attached to the Urarteans, Armeno-Phrygians and Parthians. The Armeno-Phrygians had a power­ful aristocratic organization, according to A. Meillet.


But the first fruits of the Parthian feudality could not prevail in Iranian surroundings, which were more favorable to the autocratic absolutism of the Sassanids than to the aristocratic regime of the Arsacids. On the contrary, they found unparalleled conditions for prospering, in Armenia, a country naturally adapted to partition. The Armenian society became a power­ful hierarchic organization, which is revealed to have been the oldest and the firmest feudality of history. This is how the nakharars asserted their exalted blood or nobility even before the kings. Manuel Mamikonian wrote to the King Varazdat, of a collateral branch of Arsacids: "We are your  p320 equals, of an extraction even nobler than yours." (Phaustos) Mushegh Mamikonian did not put away his sword before entering the tent of the Persian King. "Since my boyhood," he said, "I was brought up among kings, just like my ancestors and forefathers." (Sebeos). Another young nakharar, Shavasp Ardzruni said to Shapuh, the son of the Persian king: "I am of royal blood." Kings of Persia married the daughters of nakharars and gave them their daughters in marriage. Parantzem, the daughter of Andovk, nakharar of Sewniq, became the wife of King Arshak. King Tiran gave his daughter, Eranyak, in marriage to the Bagratid prince Trdat, the son of Sembatuhi, daughter of the Great Sembat. Trdat was brave and bold but short of stature and of pitiable appearance. This proved an unhappy marriage. Eranyak hated her husband, "she treated him with contempt and always bewailed that she, a beauty and of higher birth, was forced to co-habit with a man of disagreeable countenance and inglorious descent. One day, Trdat, growing angry, gave her a violent beating, cut off her blond hair, tore out the ringlets, and ordered her dragged away from the apartment. He then rebelled and passed to the strong parts of the land of the Medes. Arriving in Sewniq he heard of the death of (King) Tiran and remained there upon receiving that news." (Khorenatsi II.63).

The nakharars were jealous of their personal dignity and official rank in state functions. Besides blood relation­ship and old ancestry, they took pride in their personal valor and courage. The historian Matthew of Edessa, after recounting Gagik's fearlessness, adds: "that his men longed for nothing else but combats." Vardan Mamikonian said to his troops: "Nobody will believe that we have fled for fear of iron, that any member of our race has ever dreaded, that this family of ours, always devoted to the good of its neighbors more than for itself will forsake you; all this you know well, either through histories or by tradition of princes." (Ghazar). Shapuh, the Ardzruni general, after assuring his soldiers that he would put the Byzantines to flight, "fixed several cuirasses one on top of the other and striking all with his sword, shivered them into pieces." (Matthew of Edessa). Hovhannes Katholikos quotes the following lines from a letter sent to the Byzantines by Mushegh Mamikonian, "You wished to assassinate me treacherously. I tell you, do not awaken the sleeping lion, or the fox, forgetting his instincts. Otherwise, he who defeated 80,000 men, can also exterminate 70,000 of them. . . . Victory does not depend on the number of the soldiers;  p321 it is in the hands of God." There are many cases in which a few Armenians defeated the nation's enemy. Some of the military epics are obviously exaggerated, but whatever the real facts may have been, nakharars on many occasions have repulsed invading armies of much greater force than theirs. This superiority was due to several factors. Above all, the equipments of the noblemen's troops were better and could be used more effectively. They fought covered with shields — men and horses. A certain nobleman and his chestnut colored horse were so clothed in iron that the people took him and his mount for a metallic statue, whose eyes only remained open. The fighting apparel of Babik, prince of Sewniq, is described as follows: "Having taken his armament and decked his superb stature with a shining royal breastplate adorned with pearls, he put on a helmet topped by a tiger's head, and girded his waist with the sword. Then throwing a golden shield upon his left shoulder, and a strong lance in his right hand, he sprang upon his black steed and dashed on the enemy." (Stepanos Orbelian).


The Armenian warrior of the early fourth century is pictured by Phaustos as the man of the elite class "accustomed to the fatigue of combats, armed in all places, — lances, swords and hatchets. . . , expert archers whose strokes were sure. Men full of courage, never turning their back to the foe, iron-plated cavaliers, heads protected by a helmet, with flags and standards, and the sound of trumpets ringing." The attack of such heavy cavalry­men is said to have been irresistible. "Ashot the Great spread terror," declares Ardzruni, "his blow was so impetuous that he overthrew in death more horsemen together with their mounts, than those whom he slaughtered by sword. No enemy, not one, was capable of resisting him." Here is a description by Thomas, of a furious combat: "The sparkling of lances, and armours, the blazing of swords and the whiz of arrows resembled a conflagration, a thundering flame bolting out of the clouds; the mountain seemed to be all on fire . . . , the strangers (Arabs) suffered a terrific disaster."

Heavy armament required exceptional physical fitness, which, in fact, was possessed by the nakharars and azats. Of Prince Gourgen, Thomas says: "I ask myself in profound amazement, how could he sustain the burden of toil without sinking, while fervently rushing  p322 forward, to keep up the superabundant physical force required in endless combats."

There are many other testimonials to the same effect. This natural gift was further developed by training from an early age. "The Mamikonian princes particularly educated in the art, could use with the same dexterity, both the right hand and the left. They cleave the adversary in two by one stroke of the sword, hammering with such a force that in one instance the mace buried itself in an iron gate, and it has been impossible to pull it out until now." (Ghazar).

The spiritual atmosphere of the Middle Ages also has played a part in the moulding of the character of the Armenian military noblemen. They had formulated some kind of martial ethics in which generous and chivalrous principles, Christian faith, asperity (roughness of temper) and pride in their force were blended. Honorable death was achieved only in combat, in their estimation. Manuel Mamikonian, in his sick bed, displayed to a group of visitors, headed by the king (Arshak III) and the queen (Vardandoukht), the innumerable scars or wounds on his body. "No spot, even as large as a silver coin was left without the mark of injury. Then he said: 'Ever since my youth I spent my life in battles, all these wounds have I received in fighting, why would I not have been given to fall on the battlefield, instead of thus dying like an animal! I would prefer rather to die in combat in defense of my country, of the churches and of the servants of God. How happy I would have been facing death in defending my country for the safety of the churches and of the ministers of God. Also for the Arshakunis — the proper masters of our land, and for our women and children, for the devout people, for brothers, companions and intimate friends. My lot is now an ignoble death in bed.' " (Phaustos V.44).​b

Almost in similar words are depicted the fine accomplishments of the sparapet Mushegh Mamikonian, who had spent, a few years earlier, all his life in defense of his country, of the Christian Church, and his own lords and masters. He had not suffered even one furrow (kori) of Armenian territory to be seized by an enemy (Ibid. V.20).

The historian Aristakes of Lastivert, narrating the battle of Manazkert waged between the Byzantines and Seljuk Turks, in 1070, remarks: "The Armenian soldiers of the Emperor Diogenes Romanos, although inwardly detached from the party of the emperor,  p323 nevertheless, preferred death, so that they may leave the precious remembrance of loyalty and courage."


Certain gallant behavior on the part of the Armenian warriors must have impressed their enemies. Mushegh Mamikonian, at the head of 40,000 men, inflicted a crushing defeat (370 A.D.) on the Persian King of Kings, Shapuh, who was saved by flight on horseback. Among the captives were the Persian Queen of Queens, together with many other women of high standing. Mushegh was relentless toward the warrior chiefs, because his father, Vassak, had been mercilessly flayed alive by them. As to the captured women, "he warned his men against any kind of annoyance to them." Provided with palanquins they traveled comfortably, escorted by Persian guards, who were charged by Mushegh with the duty of delivering them to their king, safely and respect­fully. Shapuh never forgot his opponent's chivalrous conduct. Mushegh, at that time had a white steed, The King of Kings made a habit, in the course of official banquets, to lift up the wine cup and say: "May the man of the white horse also drink wine!" He caused the portrait of Mushegh, mounted on a white charger, to be designed on a cup to have before him during entertainments, and always uttered the same words: "May the man of the white horse also drink wine." "Jermaktzin gini arptsé" — in the Armenian version (Phaustos V.2). A century later, the Armenian troops sent against the Persians, found them still unprepared on the battlefield. The Armenians did not attack; they granted one day's truce.

Despite the chivalrous deeds as cited above, retaliation of excessive acts was a traditional duty and honorable requirement. Unfortunately, the notion about revenge, as a social duty, was the cause of irreparable harm. Thus for instance, the houses of Manavazianq and Orduniq were annihilated. The peace-making efforts of King Arshak II and of the Katholikos Vrtanes were of no avail; both parties massacred each other. The survivors were exterminated by royal order. Soon after that tragedy Mushegh had to suppress fourteen nakharars in revolt against the king Arshak, who in his turn was trapped in Persia later, owing to the defection of the nakharars. The sparapet Vassak Mamikonian, and Prince Andovk of Sewniq were the only ones supporting Arshak. While fervently loyal to the throne, the Mamikonians, as the commanders of the army, became  p324 the resolute defenders of the feudal privileges, according to Marquart. On several occasions they stood up against their king. Positions were changed by other families too, by the Bagratunis, Ardzrunis, and the Sewnis, as well as by the bdeshkhs (satraps) of Aghtsniq and Gougarq, etc., the nakharars, when embroiled with their king, appealed to a foreign power for protection — the Byzantines on the one side, and the Persians or Arabs on the other. King Khosrov III of Armenia (337‑342), irritated by the treasonable acts of certain nakharars, promulgated an edict under which the great ones were to remain with the king, and their regiments to fight under the command of the generalissimo, not under their own nakharars. The spirit of insubordination,º so often prevalent in the country, has been lamented by national historians — Ghazar of Parb, Hovhannes Katholikos, Sebeos, Ghevond. Even the clergy contended with the royal power, as a rival in authority and possessions. The city of Arshakavan was constructed partly as a refuge for those who escaped from feudal exactions, not for fugitives from justice, as the clerical historians have maintained. Arshak was not always an innocent ruler, but he was determined to build a strong monarchy, independent of foreign influence, and that is why he waged the thirty years' war against the Persian empire. It is true that there existed in Armenia the idea of national unity, allusions to "All provinces," "all the regions," "all the places," "all lands of the Armenian speech," "all those under royal power," but that kind of unity did not imply a national sentiment or the notion of a fatherland vaster than the ancestral domain. The lack of that spiritual bond, of the modern concept of patriotism, was not confined to the Armenian society. Mad rivalries among the barons, and treason against the throne, or against the interests of the national homeland were in conformity with the ethics of certain periods of the past. Many a time have historians indicated the analogy of attitudes between the Armenian nakharars and the French feudal seigneuries. They show the injurious effects in France of the gradual parceling out of the royal domain in favor of new cadets,º leading eventually to the disintegration of the State. The satrapal regime of Armenia contained in its very essence the germ of both itsº weakness and its strength. Fully adapted to the mountains of Armenia, having known how to attain the highest degrees of warlike skills and methods, this feudal organization, through three centuries resisted incomparably superior inimical forces. By its divisions and rivalries it sterilized  p325 its victories and finally disappeared, more through exhaustion than by enemy blows.


Domestic Life

The lower classes in Armenia, peasants and certain artisans too, though untrained and badly equipped, took part in defensive wars. Sometimes they had to fight only by flinging stones. On few occasions we see them forming cavalry regiments. Domestic life in the country was very often disturbed by foreign incursions, or by wars between rival great powers. And yet, return to normalcy and progress toward prosperity were amazingly rapid. Through the increase of population and wealth "the farms were transformed into boroughs, and the boroughs into cities, to such an extent that even shepherds and ox-keepers wore silken tunics," says Stepanos Assoghik.

Luxurious Living

On the other hand, this same historian bemoans the moral effects of prosperity. "When we became fat and bulky, rich and refractory, forgetting God the creator of peace and donor of all blessings — the priests and the congregation, the great and the small, became guilty of excessive pleasures and of indulgence in wine, as the prophet has pointed out." In fact, the nakharars and azats, in marked contrast to the shinakans, displayed all the signs of luxury. The splendor of the great nakharars has been an object of general admiration. Here is the description of Vassak Sewny, the marzpan, by Yeghisheh Vardapet, in a reception by the Persian king at Ctesiphon. "On a day of great festival he (Hazkert) gave orders to invite to a banquet all the distinguished persons in the capital. The apostate (Vassak) was also invited. In observance of the customary court ceremonial he put on the vestments of honor which he had received from the king. He wore his turban, put on his golden tiara, girded on the solid gold belt incrusted with pearls and precious stones; with earrings on his ears, a necklace around his neck, the ermine fur over his shoulders. Thus arrayed with all his insignia, he repaired to the royal court, appearing as the most gorgeous and conspicuous among the guests." (Chap. VII). The princes of Sewniq were entitled "to  p326 sit upon a silver throne, to wear a pearl necklace and red shoes, to carry a gold staff with the name of their lineage inscribed on it. They had also the privilege of using a wild-boar seal to stamp documents. (Stepanos Orpelian) The Persian king Shapuh III (383 A.D.) sent to the Queen of Armenia (Zarmandukht, the wife of Pap) a crown, a mantle and a royal standard; and to Manuel Sparapet, a royal mantle; an ornament in gold and silver to attach to the eagle of the helmet; a headband to encircle his forehead; a breast brooch usually worn by royalty; a scarlet tent with an eagle insignia atop; a large tapestry with azure canopies and a golden table-service for his banquet hall." The mighty nakharar of the Mouratzan house, the minister of Artashes I, had the privilege of wearing the crown in pearl, two earrings, the purple buskin for one foot only, also the right of using a golden spoon and fork, and to drink from a golden goblet, accompanied by music.

The following footnote by Langlois is of considerable interest: "Procopius likewise speaks​c of the costume worn by the satraps​3 at the time of Justinian who reconstituted the administration of the country. . . . This costume was composed of a mantle of wool, not of sheep but of some sea-shells called pinna in Greek, and of a vestment in purple, with gold embroidery. The mantle was clasped by a golden ornament carrying a precious stone, to which were attached small golden chains with three sapphires; a silken tunic adorned with gold laces; finally purple boots reaching the knees, a special privilege of the Roman emperors and Persian kings."

Heroism Under Privations

The living standard of the nobility in normal times may be deduced from the narrative about the condition of the wives of the exiled nakharars after the battle of 451, as recited by Yeghisheh.

"They were all dressed in the same manner. Everybody slept on the floor . . . the straw mats had the same brownish color and the pillows were of the same black. There were no cooks to prepare particularly choice dishes for them, nor especial bakers to provide them in the manner to which the nobility had become accustomed, but everything was common to all. . . . No one poured water on the hands of another, nor did the young offer towels to their elders. No soap​d ever  p327 came into the hands of the refined ladies and no (fragrant) oil was offered. . . . No spotless platters were set before them, no cup-holders were offered for their enjoyments; no herald stood at their doors. . . . The curtains of the nuptial chambers of the newly-weds became covered with dust and smoke, spider-webs were woven in their sleeping quarters. . . . The lofty seats of their residences were destroyed. . . . Their mansions toppled and fell, and their fortified shelters were demolished. Their exquisite flower-gardens were dried up and withered, and the fertile vines uprooted. . . . Their treasures were confiscated and nothing was left of the jewelry which once adorned their faces.

"The delicately brought up ladies of the land of Hayastan, used to soft cushions and litters, went always on foot, and bare-footed to houses of prayer. Those who had been fed on calves' brains and the tender meat of game since childhood, now lived on herbs like animals. The skin of their bodies darkened, because in daytime they were burnt by the sun, and all through the night they lay on the ground."

Many other texts confirm the richness of the nakharars' mansions. When Dame Sophia Ardzruni, daughter of King Ashot I, heard of the assassination of her husband, Derenik, she ordered her household to go into deep mourning. "The golden tissues of door-curtains forming the brightly colored arched entrance to the chambers were taken away, and replaced by black and inferior material. . . . All windows exposed to light were closed in her wonder­ful apartments" (Thomas Ardzruni).

Armenian architecture is another test of the human taste of Armenian nobility. Noteworthy is its interest in public edifices, in churches, monasteries, shrines, and palaces. Aghtamar, the chief island in the lake of Van, was the site of several monuments, of a "supremely surprising architecture." The Prince Gagik Ardzruni embellished the burgh of Ostan on the coast of the same lake, by building palaces, churches and beauti­ful passages, adorned with statues. The mural decorations of the church of Aghtamar were remarkable indeed.

In the realm of literature we know Artavazd, the son of Tigran the Great, was the author of tragedies in the Greek language.​e Grigor Magistros was the most eminent among the nakharars, a grand seignior, diplomat, soldier-poet, a man of universal knowledge in the 11th century. But, in general, the Armenian kings and princes spent  p328 their time, when not engaged in war, in hunting and feasting. Hunting was done in many ways — "traps and nets to snare the galloping animal, by dexterous shooting with the bow, or by attacking with daggers in the manner of the gladiators, after chasing herds of enormous boars." (Ghazar of Parb).

Zeno, the son of Polemon, king of Pontus, aspiring to the throne of Armenia, in order to win the favor of the nobles of the country, had adopted their customs and usages — their huntings and entertainments. (Tacitus).​f

The Author's Notes:

1 According to N. Adontz the number should be put at around 50.

2 The history of Phaustos, invaluable in many respects, gives inordinately high figures, due probably to some later copyist's caprice. Here is a list of Armenian and Jewish families deported by Shapuh from the various Armenian cities into Persia.

9,000 Jewish
40,000 Armenian
º Jewish
19,000 Armenian
30,000 Jewish
20,000 Armenian
8,000 Jewish
5,000 Armenian
14,000 Jewish
10,000 Armenian
18,000 Jewish
5,000 Armenian
16,000 Jewish
2,000 Armenian

3 Satrap, from the Zend khshatrapa, meaning ruler of a province. A governor of a province under the Persian monarchy.

Thayer's Notes:

a Often spelled Syuni; the Sewniq region prominent in this chapter tends now to be spelled Syunik.

b Kurkjian has bowdlerized the text here (see Robert Bedrosian's translation).

c Buildings, III.1.17‑23.

d It may be noted that in 5c Armenia, soap was common in the households of the well‑to‑do, if not among the poor; while, although not completely unheard‑of among the Greeks and Romans in the first centuries after Christ (see my note to the article Fullo of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities), soap was not in use in the West.

e Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 33.2.

f (AnnalsII.56). The passage reads:

". . . but the country's preference leaned towards Zeno, the son of Polemon the Pontic king, because from his earliest childhood he had adopted the lifestyle of the Armenians — hunting, banquets, and the other activities the barbarians engage in — and had thus won over the power­ful as well as the people."

(my translation)

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