Cavalry, The Foundation of the Armenian Army Since Ancient Times

Cavalry, The Foundation of the Armenian

The illustration (14th century) above is from the Armenian translation of “Stories of Alexander the Great.” Most likely, the artist depicted Armenian cavalrymen.

After the heroic resistance of the Armenian army in the Battle of Gaugamela and the defeat of the Macedonian army led by commander Memnon in Armenia, Alexander the Great ceased to attempt to invade Armenia.

Greek historian Arrian (2nd century AD) who used the diaries written during the campaigns and records of the campaigns’ participants Ptolemy and Aristobulus does not name Armenia among the countries and territories conquered by Alexander the Great.

Roman historian Pompeius Trogus (1st century BC – 1st century AD) writes: “Neither Alexander, who conquered all of Asia, nor his followers or descendants could interfere in the affairs of Greater Armenia and Lesser Armenia” (Trogus’ “Historiae Philippicae”, mentioned in 3rd-century Roman historian Marcus Justinus’ “History of the Ancient World”).

It is known that Yervand and Mikhrvakhisht, having correctly organized the retreat of the Armenian army to their homeland, proclaimed Armenia an independent kingdom. Yervand was proclaimed king of Greater Armenia (Yervand III, 330-300 BC).

Of the Armenian territories, only Lesser Armenia became part of Alexander’s Macedonia. After the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) and the collapse of the empire, Lesser Armenia became an independent kingdom. Mikhrvakhisht (Mitraustes) was proclaimed King in Lesser Armenia.

During Tigran II, the Armenian cavalry consisted of about 100,000 horsemen. Subsequently, it was limited to 30,000. In the 4th century, King Pap Arshakuni (354-374) increased the strength of the Armenian cavalry. For this, financial resources were necessary, and Pap resorted to extreme measures.

At that time, the Church had enormous wealth, enjoyed state privileges, and even received great financial incentives from the state. The Church also possessed vast territories in the country. King Pap stripped the church of all privileges.

This caused great dissatisfaction among the clergy, but as a result of his policy, King Pap managed to create a 90,000-strong cavalry. With it, he attempted to take back from the Persians a number of historical Armenian border provinces – Gardman-Utik, Artsakh, the northern part of Gugark, and other captured areas.

Sparapet Mushegh Mamikonyan successfully implemented this plan. In 371, in the Battle of Dzirav, the Armenian cavalry led by Mushegh Mamikonyan defeated the Persian army commanded by Shapur II and returned the provinces taken from Armenia. However, the success of Pap bothered Rome. And eventually, Rome set up the assassination of Pap.

The fact that the cavalry is the basis of the Armenian army is evidenced by the name of the commander-in-chief of the Armenian army “sparapet”, which literally means “head of the cavalry.” The position of Sparapet was hereditary and belonged to the Mamikonyan family in the Arshakid period.

Undoubtedly, endowed with moral and high military qualities, the already well-known image of the Armenian warrior was the cause for the Romans’ famous statement: “Araks does not tolerate bridges.” This meant that it was not possible to suppress the Armenians.

This expression complements another statement which also excellently describes the Armenians and the Armenians’ relentless spirit. Here is how Emperor Octavian Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD) spoke about Armenia: “I could make Greater Armenia a province after the murder of its king Artashes, but I decided that it would be more proper to follow the example of our ancestors and to grant it to Tigran, the son of Artavazd and the grandson of King Tigran.”

We note, however, that it’s not the example of ancestors that allowed Armenia to retain its independence. Rather, Armenia with its unruly spirit and militant sons made Emperor Augustus accept its independence. Otherwise, the Romans would have faced a long and pointless war in Asia Minor.

King Pap with Armenian cavalry, painter Vagan Gharibyan.
Right – King Pap, sparapet and commander-in-chief Mushegh Mamikonyan, and the Armenian cavalry after the victorious Battle of Dzirav in 371. 16th-century miniature. Left – King Pap with Armenian cavalry, painter Vagan Garibyan.
From left to right –Armenian infantryman, Armenian spear-bearer, Armenian horseman-archer, and Armenian warrior-horseman-saber-bearer. 7th-8th-century miniatures.
The Armenian Vardanank cavalry. 5th-century Armenian miniature.
Armenian soldiers of the period of the kingdom of Artashes, 3rd-2nd centuries BC.
Caption: “These details from a 10th-century ivory casket depict Armenian infantry in Byzantine army. Most of the Empire’s military aristocracy were of Armenian ancestry, and in the 9th and 10th centuries, Armenians formed about twenty-five percent of the Empire’s armed forces or possibly even more.




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