Ancient Armenia: An Unjustly Forgotten History

Author: Olga Ivanova, Naked Science
Translation: Vigen Avetisyan

The history of Armenia is deeply rooted in antiquity and is inextricably linked to the history of the entire ancient world.

However, often knowing in detail the history of Rome and Ancient Greece, we are much less informed about events that took place in Armenia during ancient times, which found itself at the crossroads of Western and Eastern civilizations.

Due to various reasons, it has not been adequately covered in textbooks and is unfamiliar to those who are interested in history. Let’s try to rectify this injustice at least a bit.

All Roads Go Through Armenia

The Armenian Highlands in northern Western Asia is one of the centers of the emergence of human civilization. From time immemorial, the first settlements appeared here, and from the end of the second millennium BCE, the process of forming the Armenian people began.

However, a territory without natural barriers on all sides was open not only to trade caravans but also to the armies of various conquerors from all over the world. Its military-strategic and commercial importance was one of the reasons for conflicts between the states of the Mediterranean and Western Asia.

From ancient times, Armenia has been an arena for numerous wars, and its people have been participants. Assyrians and Medes, Scythians and Cimmerians, Parthians, Greeks, and Romans all passed through Armenia’s rocky roads.

One of the first written mentions of Armenia is found in the works of the ancient Greek writer, historian, and commander of the 5th century BCE, Xenophon. His main work, “Anabasis,” or “The Retreat of the Ten Thousand,” had a profound influence on Greek and Latin literature.

The work describes the retreat of ten thousand Greek mercenary hoplites from Mesopotamia to the north, to the Black Sea, in 401-400 BCE, after their unsuccessful Battle of Cunaxa. The Greeks made their way to the sea through Armenia.

Xenophon mentions Armenia as a “vast and wealthy country” with an established society, clear social hierarchy, and self-governance. Local residents grew barley and grapes, from which they made wine and raisins.

The commander also noted that the country was famous for its horses, which were bred for the Persian army. He mentions its ruler, Yervand I (Orontes) – the founder of the Yervandid dynasty.

However, Xenophon traveled the roads of Armenia not as a conqueror, but by chance. Other commanders found themselves in these lands with different intentions.

Throughout its ancient history, the Armenian state was forced to engage in an ongoing struggle for independence—both against its closest neighbors and against the numerous empire-builders who came from the West and East.

The Armenian people were under attack from practically all known conquerors of the Ancient World and subsequent eras, yet they did not vanish, preserving their faith, language, and traditions. Former conquerors have been lost to history, but Armenia remains.

From the Beginning of Time

Archaeological finds speak even more than written sources. Traces of early cultures dated to the 6th millennium BCE have been discovered in the Armenian Highlands.

Data from archaeological excavations confirm that the inhabitants of the Armenian Highlands had mastered many crafts in deep antiquity. By the 5th-4th millennia BCE, they knew how to smelt copper, and by the 2nd millennium BCE, they were smelting iron.

According to one hypothesis, the technology for smelting iron was invented here, which is entirely possible since Armenia is rich in metal deposits that were widely used in ancient times: iron, copper, lead, and tin.

Not far from the settlement of Metsamor, located in the Ararat Valley, one of the largest ancient metallurgical complexes has been discovered, dated to the 3rd-1st millennia BCE. Here, tin and copper were smelted to produce bronze, which was then exported to Egypt and Babylon. Armenia was a profitable trading partner and military ally.

In the 16th-15th centuries BCE, these countries waged war against the Hittite Empire and sought to form an alliance with Armenia, which could supply them with bronze—a strategic metal of that time essential for weapon production.

In the royal tombs of Metsamor, unique and rare artifacts originating from Babylon and Egypt have been found, confirming extensive trade and cultural connections. In 1968, the Historical-Archaeological Museum was opened in Metsamor, where more than 22,000 ancient exhibits are collected and preserved.

During the excavations of the Areni cave in the Vayots Dzor region, in the south of modern-day Armenia, the oldest known footwear made of processed leather was discovered. Specialists from Oxford and the University of California, Irvine, determined its age to be 5,500 years using radiocarbon dating methods.

The found shoe belongs to the period from 3627 to 3377 BCE. Thus, it was made 400 years earlier than Stonehenge was constructed, and almost a thousand years before the building of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

In the cave, remains of barley, wheat, and even apricots were also found. Additionally, the world’s oldest winemaking facilities for distilling and storing wine and numerous ceramic vessels were discovered. Large vessels, buried in the ground and situated in the back part of the cave, were intended for storing food supplies.

In the burial mounds near the village of Lchashen, on the shore of Lake Sevan, four- and two-wheeled wooden carts, as well as war chariots from the 3rd millennium BCE, have been discovered. Buried here were gold ornaments, numerous bronze artifacts (animal and bird figures, weapons, swords with scabbards, and battle axes), household items (silver bowls, mirrors, a copper cauldron), wooden items (spoons, bowls, tables), and much more. Scientists note that all these findings testify to the high level of development of the sedentary agricultural and pastoral inhabitants of the Sevan basin even before Urartian times.

Kingdom of Van (Urartu) – A Land of Stone Fortresses

In the 13th-12th centuries BCE, around Lake Van, the Kingdom of Van emerged, also known as the state of Urartu. Created to defend against regular Assyrian raids from the south, it assumed a dominant position among the states of the Near East in the first quarter of the 1st millennium BCE. In the first half of the 8th century BCE, it even overcame its perennial rival—Assyria, considered to be the first world empire in human history.

Although the army of the Kingdom of Van was usually defeated by the Assyrians in direct confrontations, the fortresses they built no longer allowed the Assyrian army to penetrate deep into the country.

The severe winter climate further complicated matters, as it was unfamiliar to the conquerors from the south. Offensive operations could only be carried out during the summer, but now the Assyrians were forced to carry heavy siege equipment, requiring more time for campaigns.

One of the fortresses built during that period was Erebuni, which gave rise to the modern capital of Armenia—Yerevan. The fortress was built by King Argishti I (786-764 BCE) in 782 BCE on the Arin-Berd hill near modern Yerevan. It became a stronghold for securing the country in the Ararat Valley.

The natural resources of the Armenian Highlands initially created economic prerequisites for the emergence of a state here, but the opportunity to establish such a state only appeared in the Iron Age.

To confront the Assyrian army, seasoned in numerous conquest wars, the local population could only succeed after the advent of iron smelting and processing technology. Iron tools made it easier to work with stone, from which numerous defensive fortresses were erected on the Armenian Highlands — a region without natural barriers, as previously mentioned.

During this period, the Kingdom of Van was in its heyday, and King Argishti I was concerned with expanding the state’s borders and strengthening its economic well-being. Engineers from the kingdom were experts in artificial irrigation techniques, and their application in the Ararat Valley created extremely favorable conditions for agriculture.

As a result, canals constructed under Argishti I provided the lands with the necessary irrigation. The fertile lands of the valley began to yield abundant harvests, and several large granaries were built in Erebuni to store them.

Founded 29 years before Rome, Erebuni consisted of a citadel located at the top of a hill with a triangular shape, and city quarters situated at its base. On the southwest side of the citadel, overlooking Mount Ararat, was the royal palace.

During Argishti I’s reign, the Kingdom of Van was at the zenith of its power and became the most powerful state in the Near East. It firmly seized the area around Lake Urmia and the territories of Transcaucasia.

Expanding its territory to the south, Kingdom of Van cut off trade routes from Asia Minor to Assyria, dealing an economic blow to its eternal rival and depriving it of strategic goods like horses and iron.

The Kingdom of Van had a strong cultural influence on the countries located in the northern part of the Near East and in Transcaucasia. Moreover, it acted as a mediator in relations between Eastern states and the population of the North Caucasus and the Black Sea region.

During his rule, Argishti I waged intense warfare against Assyria at its northern borders and ultimately emerged victorious.

However, by the end of the 7th century to the 6th century BCE, the balance of power in the Near East changed. Assyria and Kingdom of Van faced new enemies, who eventually destroyed both states. Scythians and Cimmerians from the north and Medes from the southeast opposed Kingdom of Van. The Medes successively destroyed most of the fortresses of Kingdom of Van and conquered vast lands. Following their arrival, a prolonged cultural decline set in on the Armenian Highlands. Cities of Kingdom of Van fell into decay, some even vanishing altogether.

For the next several centuries, most of the population of the Armenian Highlands was primarily engaged in agriculture. A regression to a more communal-tribal way of life took place. However, the hydraulic structures built during the time of Kingdom of Van were maintained in working condition, necessary for agricultural activities.

From Media to Alexander the Great

In the 6th century BCE, the Armenian Highlands and the former lands of Kingdom of Van were absorbed by Media—a state inhabited by Iranian-speaking tribes. Along with the Babylonians, the Medes divided the lands of the Assyrian Empire. Now Media found itself at the pinnacle of power in the region, controlling not just the Armenian Highlands, but all of present-day Iran, Northern Mesopotamia, and the eastern part of Asia Minor.

However, around 550 BCE, Media was conquered by its relatives, the Persians, led by King Cyrus II of the Achaemenid dynasty. Thus, Armenia became part of the Persian Empire, which united most of the countries of the Near and Middle East.

After the Persian conquest, the population of the Armenian Highlands came under the strong influence of Iranian culture. During this period, Zoroastrianism began to spread among the Armenians, lasting until the adoption of Christianity.

By the end of the 4th century BCE, the borders of the Achaemenid Empire extended from the Indus River in the east to the Aegean Sea in the west, from the first cataract of the Nile in the south to Transcaucasia in the north.

The population of the empire was estimated to be between 25 to 50 million people, accounting for half of the Earth’s population in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Governing such a state presented numerous challenges. Time and again, various subjugated peoples attempted to break free from Persian rule.

Darius I, who ascended to the Persian throne shortly after the death of Cyrus II and represented the junior branch of the Achaemenids, began his rule by restoring all the privileges of the Persian nobility that had been abolished by his predecessor. This provoked unrest among the peoples subjugated by the Persians. The first to revolt were the Elamites and Babylonians. The flames of rebellion spread throughout the country and soon reached Armenia.

The reign of Darius I marks the first mention of Armenia by its own name that has reached us. On the territory of Media, which had been conquered by the Persians, a bas-relief was carved into a rock 105 meters above a road that connected humanity’s first megacity—Babylon—with the Median city of Ecbatana. This was done by royal decree, and the relief measured about seven meters in height and 22 meters in width.

One of the largest epigraphic monuments of antiquity, the inscription featured trilingual cuneiform text in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian languages (spoken by the Babylonians and Assyrians). The text informed travelers about events from 523 to 521 BCE: Darius’s accession to the throne and the suppression of rebellious nations. Darius refers to Armenia as Armina, and in the Babylonian version of the Behistun inscription, it is mentioned under the name Urartu—indicating that they refer to the same country.

The inscription on the Behistun rock has survived to this day. Over two and a half thousand years ago, ancient sculptors, after finishing their work, descended and destroyed the stone steps behind them to prevent any possibility of climbing back up to the monument.

Armenia remained under Persian rule for more than two centuries (550-330 BCE). The last Achaemenid kings paid little attention to Armenian internal affairs. Armenia experienced a respite that led to a flourishing of trade and agriculture: people were engaged in farming and animal husbandry, cultivated gardens and vineyards, and used iron agricultural tools.

Armenians were particularly advanced in animal and horse breeding. Part of their tribute to the Achaemenids was paid in horses. Xenophon, who passed through Armenia on his way to the Black Sea from Mesopotamia, encountered it in this state.

Armenia was one of the satrapies within the Achaemenid Empire. During this period, the country was led by the Orontid dynasty, founded by Orontes I. Armenian cavalry and infantry were a constant part of the Persian army.

During Alexander the Great’s Persian campaign (334-331 BCE), Armenian troops led by Orontes II put up strong resistance against the Macedonian forces, facilitating the retreat of the Persian King Darius III after the Battle of Issus and thus delaying the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. Despite declaring himself an independent king upon returning to Armenia, Orontes remained loyal to Darius until the end. Two years later, he commanded the Armenian contingent of the Persian army during the Battle of Gaugamela in October 331 BCE, where he was killed.

In Greek Attire

According to the ancient Greek historian and author of “Universal History,” Polybius, it was Xenophon’s aforementioned “Anabasis” that inspired Alexander the Great to conquer Asia.

Having won a decisive victory at Gaugamela, Alexander defeated King Darius III and incorporated Persia into his empire. Notably, Alexander did not pass through Armenia: the country remained untouched by his military campaigns and was not conquered by him or his successors. Although the Macedonians nominally annexed Armenia, only the rulers of its southern regions formally acknowledged Alexander’s authority.

After the death of the Macedonian king in 323 BCE, his vast empire disintegrated, and from then on, Armenia became completely free from even nominal Macedonian control.

During the division of Alexander’s empire among his military commanders, Armenia is not mentioned among the satrapies that were divided among them. Over the next two decades, Armenian lands became independent for the first time since the fall of Kingdom of Van.

From the end of the 4th century BCE, independent or semi-independent states began to emerge in Armenia. The western part of the land, in the upper reaches of the rivers Lykus, Galis, and Euphrates, was occupied by Lesser Armenia.

Under Alexander, and for some time after his death, Lesser Armenia was formally under Macedonian rule. However, by 322-321 BCE, an independent kingdom emerged there. The abundance of forests and good pastures favored the development of sheep farming and horse breeding.

Metalworking also advanced as a craft. In the north, Lesser Armenia bordered Pontus, in the south Syria, in the west Cappadocia, and in the east, along the Euphrates River, it bordered Greater Armenia.

To the east of the upper reaches of the Euphrates, along the upper course of the Tigris and on the extensive lands around Lake Van, lay Greater (Large) Armenia. It occupied the main territory of ancient Kingdom of Van, the central part of the Armenian Highlands. Northeast of Greater Armenia, in the valley of the Araks River, was the Kingdom of Ararat with its capital in the city of Armavir, located on the site of Argishtikhinili.

To the southwest, separated by the middle course of the Euphrates and the fertile plain of Melitene, lay Sophene and Commagene. Sophene was located near important trade routes and was known for its fertile lands, offering good conditions for the development of viticulture.

Before other Armenian lands, Sophene introduced coinage and began minting local currency. Sophene and Commagene often acted as buffer states between Parthia and Armenia on one side, and Syria and Rome on the other.

Starting from the 4th century BCE, after the campaigns of Alexander the Great and the disintegration of his empire, a new era began in the history of Ancient Armenia—the era of Hellenism. Between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE, Armenian culture underwent a pivotal moment.

While in the previous historical period Armenia, being politically dependent on the Achaemenids, fell under the influence of Persian culture, with the spread of Hellenism it came under the influence of Western, Greek culture.

Even in the era of Hellenism, as throughout its history, Armenia preserved its uniqueness and traditions. External factors only helped it to keep pace with the times and make a cultural contribution to the history of humanity as a whole. Remaining true to itself, the Armenian kingdoms seemed to don beautiful Greek attire, allowing them to appear as their own in the Hellenistic world and play a significant role, facilitating interactions between the West and the East.

The Armenian Carthage

However, the reluctance to unite led to the gradual subjugation of Armenian states by the Seleucid empire—a fragment of Alexander the Great’s empire. As a result of agreements with other generals, the king’s bodyguard and general Seleucus I received the Persian satrapy of Babylon. Later, after a series of wars, he subjugated most of the Near Eastern territories of Alexander the Great’s empire.

But soon a new empire emerged, whose heavy march of legions was felt even in Western Asia. In 190 BCE, in the Battle of Magnesia (Asia Minor), the Romans defeated the army of King Antiochus III, thereby breaking the power of the Seleucid state. Taking advantage of the weakened Seleucids, the rulers of Greater Armenia and Sophene declared themselves kings, thus restoring Armenia’s independence.

King Artashes I of Greater Armenia (189-160 BCE) did not limit himself to merely restoring the independence of these lands; he conducted numerous campaigns and united under his rule nearly all the Armenian-inhabited territories, except for Sophene and Lesser Armenia.

Artashes I carried out an administrative-land reform, delineating private and communal land holdings and setting boundary stones with inscriptions. He encouraged the development of crafts and agriculture, patronized trade, built roads, and founded cities.

According to the ancient Greek historian and geographer Strabo, under Artashes, there was not an inch of uncultivated land left in Armenia. The country continues to play a noticeable role in international relations and maintains ties with many countries.

After fleeing from Carthage, one of the greatest ancient military commanders, Hannibal, entered the service of Antiochus III. However, after the previously mentioned defeat, he quickly took refuge in Armenia, which had just proclaimed its independence from the Seleucid Empire. As long as Roman forces were in Asia Minor, Hannibal remained in Armenia, out of the sphere of Roman influence.

Here, he participated in the preparation of the Armenian army and the construction of a new country capital in the Ararat Valley—Artashat. The former capital, Armavir, no longer met the needs of the growing and strengthening state.

Founded in 166 BCE on the banks of the Araxes River, at the foot of Mount Ararat, at the intersection of the most important trade routes of its time, including the Great Silk Road from China to Europe, Artashat was meant to become the center of a new empire, captivating in its beauty and luxury.

As Plutarch writes, Hannibal noticed an area that was extraordinarily well-located and beautiful but lay in disrepair. After making preliminary sketches of the future city, he showed this area to Artashes and persuaded him to build it up. The king was pleased and asked Hannibal to personally oversee the construction.

Situated on the main route to the ports of the Black Sea, Artashat became both a political and a crucial trade and craft center. Due to Hannibal’s involvement, ancient authors referred to Artashat as the “Armenian Carthage.”

In the spring of 146 BCE, Hannibal’s homeland, the African city of Carthage, would be completely destroyed by the Romans after their victory in the Third Punic War. Soon after, Roman legions would also approach the Armenian Carthage.

Empire from Egypt to the Caucasus

The peak of Ancient Armenia’s power came during the reign of Artashes I’s grandson, Tigranes the Great (140-55 BCE), the fourth king of the Artaxiad dynasty. He is remembered as an active ruler, a talented military commander, and a diplomat. Tigranes the Great’s first aim was to complete the unification of Armenian lands, initiated by his grandfather.

In 94 BCE, Tigranes II annexed Sophene to Greater Armenia. Another Armenian kingdom, Lesser Armenia, was under the rule of the Pontic King Mithridates VI Eupator. However, he proposed an alliance with Tigranes against neighboring states, which the Armenian king accepted.

The alliance was sealed with the marriage of Tigranes II and Mithridates’ daughter, Cleopatra, making the future unification of the two states possible. Thus, Lesser Armenia remained under Mithridates’ rule, but in return, the Pontic king helped Tigranes conquer Roman territories along the Mediterranean coast. This alliance would later play a fateful role in the history of Greater Armenia.

Under Tigranes the Great, Armenia reached its greatest territorial extent in history—from Judea and Syria to Georgia and Caucasian Albania (modern-day territories of Azerbaijan). The vast empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east, from the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the south to the foothills of the Greater Caucasus in the north. In the 1st century BCE, Tigranes the Great’s realm even approached the borders of Egypt. Roman historian Sallust mentions a large Armenian diaspora living along the banks of the Nile.

In 77 BCE, near Lake Van, Tigranes II founded a new state capital—Tigranakert. Ancient historians of the time describe the city’s majestic walls, 25 meters high, within which were stables, luxurious palaces, and public buildings, as well as a city theater and a royal suburban park.

The new capital was intended to become one of the main cultural centers of the East, a hub for science, literature, and art. Tigran relocated residents from other Hellenistic cities of Asia Minor and Syria to his capital.

Thus, by the late 80s BCE, under the rule of King Tigran II the Great, the Armenian Empire became one of the world powers and the hegemon throughout the Near East. Armenia controlled major trade routes from India and China to Europe. Under Tigran II, both domestic and foreign trade flourished. To expand and support it, the ruler minted his own coins.

At the same time, Tigran had to be particularly considerate of neighboring states in his policies, as his ambitions for territorial expansion inevitably clashed with their interests. First and foremost were Rome and the Parthian Kingdom—the former satrapy that had strengthened and expanded after the decline of the Seleucid state. Parthia extended from Babylon through Iran to the Indus Valley.

Having established his hegemony over the Near East, Tigran became a dangerous enemy for the Romans. Although he apparently tried to avoid conflict with Rome, his father-in-law—King Mithridates VI of Pontus—managed to embroil Armenia in a confrontation with Rome. After suffering defeat at the hands of the Romans in 70 BCE, he fled to Armenia—to his son-in-law, Tigran the Great. When envoys from the Roman general Lucullus arrived to request his extradition, Tigran refused and threatened to retaliate with arms.

With great difficulty, Tigran managed to force Lucullus to leave Armenia. However, Rome subsequently sent four more generals to Armenia: Fannius, Fabius, Sornatius, and Triarius. All four were decisively defeated. The Roman Senate then dispatched one of its outstanding military commanders and political figures of its time—Pompey.

Pompey conquered the Pontic Kingdom, entered into an alliance with Parthia against Armenia, and invaded Armenia. He approached Artashat in 66 BCE. Caught between two enemies, Tigran chose the lesser of two evils. He and Pompey concluded a peace treaty under which Armenia relinquished its territorial gains in favor of Rome and paid a huge tribute. In return, the king retained his throne in Armenia proper (in his hereditary domains). The country was declared a “friend and ally of the Roman people.” The Artashat Treaty of 66 BCE marked the beginning of the process of Armenia’s involvement in Rome’s sphere of influence.

Between Rome and Parthia

During the reign of Artavazd II (55-34 BCE) – the son and successor of Tigran the Great – Armenia still maintained its role as a powerful state. However, its position between two ambitious and powerful neighbors – Rome and Parthia – proved to be challenging. Artavazd II, who generally pursued a neutral policy, did not miss the opportunity to expand Armenia’s borders to the west at the expense of Roman territories after the Romans were defeated in the Battle of Carrhae against the Parthians in 53 BCE.

Two decades later, in 36-34 BCE, the Roman general Mark Antony initiated a new war against Parthia and Armenia, relying on the support of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Using cunning tactics, Antony lured Artavazd into his camp under the guise of negotiations and took him prisoner. Artashat was captured and looted. Artavazd himself, shackled in golden chains, was taken with his entire family to Egypt and presented as a gift to Cleopatra.

The Armenian king was paraded in the triumphal procession of the Roman general and then, three years later, was executed in Alexandria at the behest of Cleopatra—allegedly for the cruel treatment of one of her relatives by Tigran the Great.

To commemorate his victory over Armenia, Mark Antony ordered the minting of gold and silver coins bearing his image on one side and, in front of it, the crown of Armenia. The inscription around it read: “Antony. Conquered Armenia.” On the other side of the coin were the words: “Queen of Queens – Cleopatra.”

In 30 BCE, with the help of allied Parthia, Artavazd’s son Artashes II (30-20 BCE) became the king of Armenia. He avenged his father’s execution by defeating Roman garrisons left by Antony in Armenia. During his brief reign, Artashes strengthened the state by pursuing a skillful internal and external policy. However, as a result of a conspiracy, he was assassinated. This marked the beginning of the decline of the ancient Armenian state of the Artaxiad dynasty.

Subsequently, a more than half-century-long period of rivalry between Rome and Parthia for dominance in Armenia began. Both empires sought to install their own candidates on the Armenian throne.

Nero’s Military Campaign

Under Emperor Octavian Augustus, Armenia was unequivocally within the sphere of Roman influence. The Romanization of Armenia sharply accelerated, accompanied by a succession of Roman puppets on the Armenian throne, endless conspiracies, and invasions by foreign troops. However, in 52-53 AD, the Parthians managed to install their candidate, Tiridates I, on the throne.

Around this time, Nero ascended to the Roman imperial throne. The young emperor decided to punish his audacious rival. The new Roman-Parthian War became Nero’s only major foreign campaign during his reign. It began with the swift success of Roman forces led by the talented general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.

Corbulo managed to defeat forces loyal to Tiridates, capture both Armenian capitals—Tigranocerta and Artashat (the latter was destroyed by them)—and install a Roman puppet on the Armenian throne, after which he left the country. However, after a few years, the Parthians, who had been busy suppressing revolts in Parthia itself, turned their attention back to lost Armenia. After several unsuccessful campaigns, they were able to inflict a heavy defeat on the Romans in the Battle of Rhandeia.

The conflict over Armenia had reached a sort of stalemate, and both sides had to come to a compromise. According to the peace treaty, Roman and Parthian troops were to leave Armenia, Roman fortifications on the Euphrates River were to be destroyed, and the borders of the Armenian state were to be fully restored.

Rome recognized Tiridates as the king of Armenia, but as a vassal of Rome. Tiridates went to Rome, where he was ceremonially crowned by Emperor Nero in 66 AD. Nero, considering it his duty to rebuild Artashat, transferred a significant sum of money to Tiridates and sent craftsmen for the city’s restoration. The rebuilt Artashat was thereafter called Neroneia.

From this moment, Armenia becomes a buffer state between Rome and Parthia, under the administration of the Armenian branch of the Arsacid dynasty. The revival of Iranian customs and beliefs under Tiridates, a zealous follower of Zoroastrianism, undermined the trend of Romanization clearly noticeable in Armenia during the previous century.

Salvation in Christianity

By the mid-3rd century AD, Armenia faced devastating invasions from a new enemy—the Sassanian Kingdom of Persia. Formed on the territories of modern Iraq and Iran as a result of the fall of the Parthian empire, Sassanian Persia inherited all its ambitions. Armenia once again found itself caught between two fires—Rome and Persia.

However, in 298 AD, in the city of Nusaybin (Mesopotamia), Rome and Persia signed a peace treaty. The Romans wrested control of Armenia, as well as Mesopotamia and several lands in the Upper Tigris basin, from the Persians.

The Romans installed their puppet Tiridates III on the Armenian throne. Thus, if from the second half of the 3rd century Armenia was de facto politically dependent on Rome, after the signing of the Nisibis peace treaty, it was officially, de jure, classified within the sphere of influence of the Roman Empire.

At the same time, the country was ravaged by war. Its nobility was divided: some leaned towards the Romans, others towards the Persians. Each side had its own arguments for or against a pro-Roman or pro-Persian course. It became clear that Armenia couldn’t continue in such a state indefinitely. Sooner or later, it would be absorbed by one of its neighbors—either Rome or Sassanian Persia. The former adhered to Greco-Roman classical paganism, while the latter followed Zoroastrianism, the most widespread and influential religion in the region.

Subordination to Rome initially risked only the loss of statehood. However, subordination to the Persians threatened the Armenian people with rapid and irreversible assimilation—and, consequently, with inevitable disappearance. Armenian beliefs, while not exactly mirroring Persian Zoroastrianism, shared many common features with it.

By this time, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Christianity had already widely spread in regions neighboring Armenia. The country had cultural and trade ties with ancient centers of Christianity—Antioch and Edessa. By the end of the 3rd century, Christian communities already existed throughout the country, although the first Christians appeared in Armenia as early as the 1st century AD. By now, their numbers were large enough, and the new religion was finding supporters across all layers of Armenian society. Even the king’s sister, if not a Christian herself, was a patron to them.

Under such circumstances, Tiridates III decided to change the state religion. In 301 AD, he declared Christianity as the state religion—making Armenia the world’s first Christian state. This put an end to the process of Iranization of Armenian culture and staved off the threat of assimilation by Zoroastrian Persia.

However, by the end of the century, Armenia faced a new setback. In 387 AD, neighbors—Roman Empire and Persia—divided the country. Western Armenia fell under Roman rule, and Eastern Armenia under Persian rule; each part was given a vassal king. Once again, the Armenian people faced the threat of assimilation and disappearance from the historical stage.

The next crucial step for preserving national unity and faith was the creation of the modern Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots, an Armenian monk and scholar, in 406 AD. Historians debate whether he created it anew or reconstituted it using ancient Armenian scripts that have not survived to the present day. Mashtots opened schools throughout Armenia, translated the Bible, and preached Christianity.

In the context of weakening Armenian statehood and its subsequent complete loss, these steps enabled the Armenian people to continue their history dating from ancient times, and to endure the struggle for existence in subsequent historical periods—the Middle Ages and modern times—where even more challenging times and new trials awaited the Armenians.

Author: Olga Ivanova, Naked Science
Translation: Vigen Avetisyan

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