Kingdom of Armenia (antiquity)

Last updated

Մեծ Հայք
331 BC–428 AD
Map of the Armenian Empire of Tigranes (English).svg
Armenia at its greatest extent under Tigranes the Great, 69 BC (including vassals)
Status Satrapy, Kingdom, Empire, Province
Capital Armavir (331–210 BC)
Yervandashat (210–176 BC)
Artashat (176–77 BC; 69–120 AD)
Tigranocerta (77 BC–69 AD)
Vagharshapat (120–330)
Dvin (336–428)
Common languages Armenian (spoken native language) [1]
Aramaic [2]
Iranian languages (Parthian and Middle Persian)
Government Monarchy
King, King of Kings  
 331–317 BC
Orontes III
Artaxias IV
Historical era Antiquity, Middle Ages
  Satrapy of Armenia is formed
c. 533 BC
 Reign of Orontes III begins
331 BC
63 AD
301 AD
387 AD
 Last Arsacid king of Armenia deposed
428 AD
c.70 BC [4] 900,000 km2 (350,000 sq mi)
c.300 AD [5] 311,000 km2 (120,000 sq mi)
 c.70 BC [4]
 c.300 AD [5]
CurrencyTaghand[ citation needed ]
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Blank.png Satrapy of Armenia
Byzantine Armenia Blank.png
Persian Armenia Blank.png

Armenia, also the Kingdom of Greater Armenia, [6] or simply Greater Armenia or Armenia Major (Armenian : Մեծ ՀայքMets Hayk; [7] Latin : Armenia Maior) sometimes referred to as the Armenian Empire, was a kingdom in the Ancient Near East which existed from 331 BC to 428 AD. Its history is divided into the successive reigns of three royal dynasties: Orontid (331 BC–200 BC), [8] [9] Artaxiad (189 BC–12 AD) [10] [11] [12] and Arsacid (52–428). [13]


The root of the kingdom lies in one of the satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia called Armenia (Satrapy of Armenia), which was formed from the territory of the Kingdom of Ararat (860 BC–590 BC) after it was conquered by the Median Empire in 590 BC. The satrapy became a kingdom in 321 BC during the reign of the Orontid dynasty after the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, which was then incorporated as one of the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Seleucid Empire.

Under the Seleucid Empire (312–63 BC), the Armenian throne was divided in two—Greater Armenia (state) and Sophene—both of which passed to members of the Artaxiad dynasty in 189 BC. During the Roman Republic's eastern expansion, the Kingdom of Armenia, under Tigranes the Great, reached its peak, from 83 to 69 BC, after it reincorporated Sophene and conquered the remaining territories of the falling Seleucid Empire, effectively ending its existence and raising Armenia into an empire for a brief period, until it was itself conquered by Rome in 69 BC. The remaining Artaxiad kings ruled as clients of Rome until they were overthrown in 12 AD due to their possible allegiance to Rome's main rival in the region, Parthia.

During the Roman–Parthian Wars, the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia was founded when Tiridates I, a member of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty, was proclaimed King of Armenia in 52. Throughout most of its history during this period, Armenia was heavily contested between Rome and Parthia, and the Armenian nobility was divided among pro-Roman, pro-Parthian or neutral factions. From 114 to 118, Armenia briefly became a province of the Roman Empire under Emperor Trajan. The Kingdom of Armenia often served as a client state or vassal at the frontier of the two large empires and their successors, the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. In 301, Tiridates III proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of Armenia, making the Armenian kingdom the first state to embrace Christianity officially.

In 387, Armenia was partitioned into Byzantine Armenia and Persian Armenia. The last Arsacid king of Armenia was deposed in 428, ending independent Armenian statehood until the emergence of Bagratid Armenia in the 9th century.



Prior to the 9th century BC, the geographic region known as the Armenian Highlands was inhabited by Proto-Armenian and other tribes which did not yet constitute a unitary state or nation. The first state to rule over a significant part of the Armenian Highlands was the Kingdom of Urartu, also known as the Kingdom of Van or Ararat and called Biainili in the Urartian language used by its rulers. The kingdom competed with Assyria over supremacy in the highlands of Ararat and the Fertile Crescent.

Both kingdoms fell to Iranian invaders from the east (the Medes, followed by the Achaemenid Persians) in the 6th century BC. Its territory was reorganized into a satrapy called Armenia. The Orontid dynasty ruled as satraps of the Achaemenid Empire for three centuries until the empire was defeated by Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. After Alexander's death in 323 BC, a Macedonian general named Neoptolemus obtained Armenia until he died in 321 BC and the Orontids returned, not as satraps, but as kings.

Orontid dynasty

Orontes III and the ruler of Lesser Armenia, Mithridates, recognized themselves independent, thus elevating the former Armenian satrapy into a kingdom, giving birth to the kingdoms of Armenia and Lesser Armenia. Orontes III also defeated the Thessalian commander Menon, who wanted to capture Sper's gold mines.

Weakened by the Seleucid Empire which succeeded the Macedonian Empire, the last Orontid king, Orontes IV, was overthrown in 201/200 BC and the kingdom was taken over by a commander of the Seleucid Empire, Artaxias (Artashes) I, who is presumed to have been related to the Orontid dynasty himself.

Artaxiad dynasty

Tigran II's Great Armenia Artaxiad Armenia 80BC-fr.svg
Tigran II's Great Armenia
Map of Armenia and the Roman client states in eastern Asia Minor, ca. 50 AD, before the Roman-Parthian War and the annexation of the client kingdoms into the Empire Roman East 50-en.svg
Map of Armenia and the Roman client states in eastern Asia Minor, ca. 50 AD, before the Roman–Parthian War and the annexation of the client kingdoms into the Empire

The Seleucid Empire's influence over Armenia had weakened after it was defeated by the Romans in the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC. A Hellenistic Armenian state was thus founded in the same year by Artaxias I alongside the Armenian kingdom of Sophene led by Zariadres. Artaxias seized Yervandashat, united the Armenian Highlands at the expense of neighboring tribes and founded the new royal capital of Artaxata near the Araxes River. [14] According to Strabo and Plutarch, Hannibal received hospitality at the Armenian court of Artaxias I. The authors add an apocryphal story of how Hannibal planned and supervised the building of Artaxata. [15] The new city was laid on a strategic position at the juncture of trade routes that connected the Ancient Greek world with Bactria, India and the Black Sea which permitted the Armenians to prosper. [14] Tigranes the Great saw an opportunity for expansion in the constant civil strife to the south. In 83 BC, at the invitation of one of the factions in the interminable civil wars, he entered Syria, and soon established himself as ruler of Syria—putting the Seleucid Empire virtually at an end—and ruled peacefully for 17 years. During the zenith of his rule, Tigranes the Great extended Armenia's territory outside of the Armenian Highland over parts of the Caucasus and the area that is now south-eastern Turkey, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, becoming one of the most powerful states in the Roman East.

Roman rule

Roman coin of 141 AD, showing emperor Antoninus Pius holding a crown on the Armenia King's head Antoninus Pius AE Sestertius 84001035.jpg
Roman coin of 141 AD, showing emperor Antoninus Pius holding a crown on the Armenia King's head

Armenia became a Roman client kingdom in 66 BC, after the final defeat of Armenia's ally, Mithridates VI of Pontus by Pompey at the Battle of the Lycus. [16]

Mark Antony invaded and defeated the kingdom in 34 BC, but the Romans lost hegemony during the Final War of the Roman Republic in 32–30 BC. In 20 BC, Augustus negotiated a truce with the Parthians, making Armenia a buffer zone between the two major powers.

Augustus installed Tigranes V as king of Armenia in AD 6, but ruled with Erato of Armenia. The Romans then installed Mithridates of Armenia as client king. Mithridates was arrested by Caligula, but later restored by Claudius. Subsequently, Armenia was often a focus of contention between Rome and Parthia, with both major powers supporting opposing sovereigns and usurpers. The Parthians forced Armenia into submission in AD 37, but in AD 47 the Romans retook control of the kingdom. In AD 51 Armenia fell to an Iberian invasion sponsored by Parthia, led by Rhadamistus. Tigranes VI of Armenia ruled from AD 58, again installed by Roman support. The period of turmoil ends in AD 66, when Tiridates I of Armenia was crowned king of Armenia by Nero. For the remaining duration of the Armenian kingdom, Rome still considered it a client kingdom de jure, but the ruling dynasty was of Parthian extraction, and contemporary Roman writers thought that Nero had de facto yielded Armenia to the Parthians. [17]

Arsacid dynasty

Under Nero, the Romans fought a campaign (55–63) against the Parthian Empire, which had invaded the Kingdom of Armenia, allied with the Romans. After gaining Armenia in 60, then losing it in 62, the Romans sent the Legio XV Apollinaris from Pannonia to Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, legatus of Syria. In 63, strengthened further by the legions III Gallica, V Macedonica, X Fretensis and XXII, General Corbulo entered into the territories of Vologases I of Parthia, who then returned the Armenian kingdom to Tiridates, king Vologases I's brother. An agreement was reached at the Treaty of Rhandeia in 63, according to which members of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty would rule Armenia as client kings of Rome.

Another campaign was led by Emperor Lucius Verus in 162–165, after Vologases IV of Parthia had invaded Armenia and installed his chief general on its throne. To counter the Parthian threat, Verus set out for the east. His army won significant victories and retook the capital. Sohaemus, a Roman citizen of Armenian heritage, was installed as the new client king. But during an epidemic within the Roman forces, Parthians retook most of their lost territory in 166. Sohaemus retreated to Syria, and the Arsacid dynasty was restored to power in Armenia.

After the fall of the Arsacid dynasty in Persia, the succeeding Sassanid Empire aspired to reestablish Persian control. The Sassanid Persians occupied Armenia in 252. However, in 287, Tiridates III the Great was brought to power by the Roman armies. After Gregory the Illuminator's spreading of Christianity in Armenia, Tiridates accepted Christianity and made it his kingdom's official religion. The date of Armenia's conversion to Christianity is traditionally held to be 301, preceding the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great's conversion and the Edict of Milan by a dozen years.

In 387, the Kingdom of Armenia was split between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid Empire. Western Armenia first became a province of the Roman Empire under the name of Armenia Minor, and later Byzantine Armenia; Eastern Armenia remained a kingdom within Persia until, in 428, the local nobility overthrew the king, and the Sassanids installed a marzban (governor) in his place, beginning the Marzpanate period over Persian Armenia. Those parts of historical Armenia remained firmly under Persian control until the Muslim conquest of Persia, while the Byzantine parts remained until being conquered, also by invading Arabic armies, in the 7th century. In 885, after years of Roman, Persian, and Arab rule, Armenia regained its independence under the Bagratuni dynasty.


Under Tigranes the Great

The army of the Kingdom of Armenia reached its peak under the reign of Tigranes the Great. According to the author of Judith , his army included chariots and 12,000 cavalrymen, most likely heavy cavalry or cataphracts, a unit also commonly used by Seleucids and Parthians. His army consisted mainly of 120,000 infantrymen and 12,000 mounted archers, also an important feature of the Parthian army. Like the Seleucids, the bulk of Tigranes' army were foot soldiers. The Jewish historian Josephus talks of 500,000 men in total, including camp followers. These followers consisted of camels, donkeys, and mules used for baggage, sheep, cattle, and goats for food, said to be stocked in abundance for each man, and hoards of gold and silver. As a result, the marching Armenian army was listed as "a huge, irregular force, too many to count, like locusts or the dust of the earth", not unlike many other enormous Eastern armies of the time. The smaller Cappadocian, Graeco-Phoenician, and Nabataean armies were generally no match for the sheer number of soldiers, with the organized Roman army with its legions eventually posing a much greater challenge to the Armenians. [18]

Note that the numbers given by Israelite historians of the time were probably exaggerated, considering the fact that the Hasmonean Jews lost the war against Tigranes.

Plutarch wrote that the Armenian archers could kill from 200 meters with their deadly-accurate arrows. The Romans admired and respected the bravery and the warrior spirit of the Armenian Cavalry – the core of Tigran's Army. The Roman historian Sallustius Crispus wrote that the Armenian [Ayrudzi – lit. horsemen] Cavalry was "remarkable by the beauty of their horses and armor". Horses in Armenia, since ancient times were considered as the most important part and pride of the warrior. [19]


Since antiquity, Kingdom of Armenia had a cavalary called "Azatavrear", which consisted mainly of elite Armenians. "Azatavrear" cavalry made up the main part of the king's court. In medieval times, the cavalry were collected from nobles (usually the youngest sons of Armenian lords), and were known as Ayrudzi, or "horsemen." During times of peace, Armenian cavalry were divided into small groups which took the roles of guarding the King and other Armenian lords, as well as their families. Some part of the Armenian cavalry force was always patrolling Armenian borders, under the command of an Armenian general (sparapet). The group of Armenian cavalry whose main mission was the protection of the Armenian king and his family consisted of 6000 heavily armored horsemen in the ancient period, and 3000 horsemen in the medieval period. During times of war, the number of Armenian cavalry would rise, with estimates ranging from 10,000 to at least 20,000 horsemen. Besides heavy cavalry, there was also light cavalry, which primarily consisted of mounted archers.[ citation needed ]

Legio I Armeniaca-Armenian First Legion

"Legio Armeniaca" translates from Latin as "Armenian Legion" and "prima" as "first". The Armenian First Legion was one of the later-period Roman imperial legions. This Legion was mentioned in the late-antique text known as Notitia Dignitatum. It is most likely that the Armenian First Legion was formed in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, in the western part of the Kingdom, with the mission to protect the lands of Armenia from intrusion. It might first have been the garrison of Armenian lands which had been under the control of the Roman Empire. The Armenian First Legion took part in the ill-fated Persian campaign of the emperor Julianus Apostata in 363.

Legio II Armeniaca-Armenian Second Legion

"Legio Armeniaca" translates from Latin as "Armenian Legion" and "Secunda" as "Second". Like the First legion, the Armenian Second Legion was one of the later-period Roman imperial legions. This legion is also mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum. The Armenian Second Legion was thought to have been created around the end of the 3rd century or in the beginning of the 4th century. The Armenian Second Legion had a permanent camp in one of the Northern provinces of the Orient, and built a camp in Satala. The Armenian Second legion is mentioned in the year 360 AD as a part of the garrison of Bezabda (anciently called Phoencia) in upper Tigris. In Bezabde the Armenian Second Legion served together with the Legions Parthica and II Flavia. In 390 AD Bezabde was taken by the Persian army, and a terrible bloodbath ensued against the inhabitants and garrison. The legion seemed to have survived this battle, because it appears in Notitia Dignitatum, which was written in the 5th century.

Later on, the Armenian Second legion became a part of the Byzantine army.

Mythology and pre-Christian religion

The pre-Christian Armenian pantheon included:

During the 1st century AD, Christianity spread through Armenia due to (according to legend) the efforts of the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus. After persecutions by kings Sanatruk, Axidares, Khosrov I, and Tiridates III, Christianity was adopted as the state religion by Tiridates III after he was converted by Gregory the Illuminator. Armenia's adoption of Christianity as the state religion (the first country to do so) distinguished it from Parthian and Mazdaen influence. [20]


Until the late Parthian period, Armenia was a predominantly Zoroastrian-adhering land. [21] With the advent of Christianity, both paganism and Zoroastrianism gradually started to diminish. The founder of the Arsacid branch in Armenia, Tiridates I, was a Zoroastrian priest or magus. [22] [21] A noted episode which illustrates the observance by the Armenian Arsacids is the famous journey of Tiridates I to Rome in A.D. 65–66. [23] With the adoption of Christianity in the early 4th century, Zoroastrianism's influence in the kingdom gradually started to decline.


Little is known about pre-Christian Armenian literature. Many literature pieces known to us were saved and then presented to us by Moses of Chorene. This is a pagan Armenian song, telling about the birth of Vahagn:

Armenian version

Երկնէր երկին, երկնէր երկիր,
Երկնէր եւ ծովն ծիրանի,
Երկն ի ծովուն ունէր և զկարմրիկն եղեգնիկ։

Ընդ եղեգան փող ծուխ ելանէր,
Ընդ եղեգան փող բոց ելանէր,
Եւ ի բոցոյն վազէր խարտեաշ պատանեկիկ։

Նա հուր հեր ունէր,
Բոց ունէր մօրուս,
Եւ աչքունքն էին արեգակունք։


In travail were heaven and earth,
In travail, too, the purple sea,
The travail held in the sea the small red reed.

Through the hollow of the stalk came forth smoke,
Through the hollow of the stalk came forth flame,
And out of the flame a youth ran․

Fiery hair had he,
Ay, too, he had flaming beard,
And his eyes, they were as suns.


Before the Armenian alphabet was created, Armenians used the Aramaic and Greek alphabets, the last of which had a great influence on the Armenian alphabet. The Armenian alphabet was created by Saint Mesrop Mashtots and Isaac of Armenia (Sahak Partev) in AD 405, primarily for a Bible translation into the Armenian language. Traditionally, the following phrase translated from Solomon's Book of Proverbs is said to be the first sentence to be written down in Armenian by Mashtots:

Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of Armenian Alphabet, by Francesco Maggiotto (1750-1805) Mesrop Mashtots by Francesco Majotto.jpg
Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of Armenian Alphabet, by Francesco Maggiotto (1750–1805)

Ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ:
Čanačʿel zimastutʿiun yev zxrat, imanal zbans hančaroy.
To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding.

Book of Proverbs , 1:2.

By the 2nd century BC, according to Strabo, the inhabitants of Greater Armenia spoke the Armenian language, implying that modern Armenians descended from that population. [24] [25] [26] [27]


Political geography

The Kingdom of Armenia was bordered by Caucasian Albania in the east, Iberia in the north, the Roman Empire in the west, and Parthia, later succeeded by Sassanian Empire, in the south. The border between Iberia and the Kingdom of Armenia was the Kur River, which was also the border between Caucasian Albania and Kingdom of Armenia.

After 331 BC, Armenia was divided into Lesser Armenia (a region of the Kingdom of Pontus), the Kingdom of Armenia (corresponding to Armenia Major) and the Kingdom of Sophene. In 189 BC when Artashes I's reign began, many neighboring countries (Media, Caucasian Iberia, Seleucid Empire) exploiting the weakened state of the kingdom, conquered its remote regions. Strabo says that Artaxias I campaigned in the east and reunited Caspiane and Paytakaran, then campaigned in the north, defeated the Iberians, reuniting Gugark (Strabo also notes that Iberia recognized themselves as vassals of the Kingdom of Armenia at this time), to the west, reuniting Karin, Ekeghik and Derjan and to the south, where, after many battles with the Seleucid Empire, he reunited Tmorik. Artaxias I was not able to reunite Lesser Armenia, Corduene, and Sophene, something completed by his grandson Tigranes the Great. At its peak, under Tigranes the Great, it incorporated, besides Armenia Major, Iberia, Albania, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Armenian Mesopotamia, Osroene, Adiabene, Syria, Assyria, Commagene, Sophene, Judea and Atropatene. Parthia and also some Arab tribes were vassals of Tigranes the Great.


Regions of Greater Armenia (Arsacid Armenia). Historical regions of Greater Armenia.png
Regions of Greater Armenia (Arsacid Armenia).
Historical provinces of Greater Armenia Ayrarat.jpg
Historical provinces of Greater Armenia

Traditionally, Greater Armenia was divided into 15 provinces. These provinces all existed at some point, but they never existed all at the same time. In reality, Greater Armenia comprised nearly 200 districts of varying sizes and types. The 15 provinces were as follows: [29]

Other Armenian regions:


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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kingdom of Sophene</span>

The Kingdom of Sophene, was a Hellenistic-era political entity situated between ancient Armenia and Syria. Ruled by the Orontid dynasty, the kingdom was culturally mixed with Greek, Armenian, Iranian, Syrian, Anatolian and Roman influences. Founded around the 3rd century BCE, the kingdom maintained independence until c. 95 BCE when the Artaxiad king Tigranes the Great conquered the territories as part of his empire. Sophene laid near medieval Kharput, which is present day Elazığ.

Ancient Armenia refers to the history of Armenia during Antiquity. It follows Prehistoric Armenia and covers a period of approximately one thousand years, beginning at the end of the Iron Age with the events that led to the dissolution of the Kingdom of Urartu, and the emergence of the first geopolitical entity called Armenia in the 6th century BC. Highlights of this period include the rise of ancient Armenia as an important state in Western Asia in the 4th century BC; a briefly held empire under Julius Caesar's contemporary the Great King Tigranes II ; the kingdom's official conversion to Christianity in 301; and the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the year 405. It concludes with the demise of the Armenian kingdom and the country's partition later in the 5th century, marking the beginning of Medieval Armenia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Artaxata</span> Capital of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia

Artashat, Hellenized as Artaxata and Artaxiasata (Ἀρταξιάσατα), was a major city and commercial center of ancient Armenia which served as the capital of the Kingdom of Armenia from its founding in 176 BC to 120 AD, with some interruptions. It was founded during reign of King Artaxias I (Artashes), the founder of the Artaxiad dynasty. Its ruins are located in the Ararat Province of modern-day Armenia, on the left bank of the Araks River, at the site of the monastery of Khor Virap. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times from the 1st to the 5th centuries AD, before finally being abandoned.



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Further reading