Although the Greek and Roman military history has been well-documented and widely studied, the history of the ancient Armenian armies remains relatively lesser known. The Armenian military has a rich and storied past that is just as fascinating and significant as that of their Greek and Roman counterparts.
Located at the crossroads of major empires and cultures, ancient Armenia had a unique position in the region. The Armenian people had to adapt to various geopolitical challenges, forging a strong military tradition that was influenced by neighboring powers and shaped by the country’s distinctive characteristics.
The Armenian military of the past was known for its exceptional horse breeding and the development of a formidable cavalry, which played a crucial role in the army’s tactical prowess. In addition to the heavy cavalry, the ancient Armenian military also employed light cavalry units that excelled in reconnaissance and swift attacks. The combination of these two types of cavalry allowed the Armenian army to achieve impressive victories against powerful adversaries, such as the Romans and Persians.
The strategic significance of the Armenian military extended beyond its borders, with both Byzantine and Persian empires seeking to bring the Armenian cavalry to their side during various conflicts. The prowess of Armenian warriors was recognized in many foreign courts, leading to the recruitment of Armenian soldiers as bodyguards, palace guards, and high-ranking military officers.
Unfortunately, the history of the Armenian military has not been given the attention it deserves. Many historical records and accounts focus primarily on the Greek and Roman military achievements, often overlooking the significant contributions of the ancient Armenian armies.
In this article, we have tried to describe some of the studies based on the data that have come down to us from various sources.
Military units of the ancient Armenian army
The archers have been the oldest known Armenian combat unit, with their exceptional skills being acknowledged not only by Armenian historians but also by foreign chroniclers. This type of weaponry played a significant role in the battle of 2492 BCE when the Babylonian leader Bel was struck down by an accurately shot arrow from Hayk. In this battle, the first known combat formation was used – a wedge formation, with Hayk positioned at the tip.
As recorded by Khorenatsi, Armenian bows were wide (up to 2 meters) and the arrows were three-pointed and very long, ensuring both range and accuracy in shooting. Eventually, the design of the arrows was improved, with one of the wings being made intentionally fragile. When such an arrow struck an enemy, attempts to remove it from the wound would cause it to break and remain inside, leading to inflammation and ultimately death. These arrows were so long that if they remained intact after striking an enemy, they could be used as darts.
The remarkable skill of the Armenian archers and their innovative weaponry significantly contributed to the strength of the ancient Armenian military. As more historical records and accounts are examined, the exceptional contributions of these archers to the military history of Armenia become increasingly evident.
While archers have typically served as support troops in most armies, heavily armed soldiers have often played the main role. Ancient Armenia was no exception, with war chariots serving as the primary tactical unit of the Armenian army until the 1st millennium BCE.
Creating these chariots and producing high-quality weapons required advanced metalworking technology. The Armenian highlands can be considered the birthplace of global metallurgy. As early as the 2nd millennium BCE, our ancestors had mastered the process of extracting iron from ore. This is evidenced not only by archaeological findings, such as the Metsamor metallurgical complex but also by records in Hittite and Assyrian annals and archives.
The chariot fragments found in Lchashen, Karmir-Blur, Toprakh-Kale, and other locations provide insight into their design and principles of use. Chariots were protected from the front and sides by metal plates at least 50 centimeters high. Each chariot was equipped with a quiver of arrows, a spear, and other weapons. Chariots were positioned on the flanks or in front of the battle formation. Their rapid attacks caused panic and confusion among enemy ranks, allowing the infantry to easily defeat disorganized opponents.
The use of war chariots and advanced metallurgy in ancient Armenia played a significant role in the development of their military tactics and contributed to their success on the battlefield.
But, Chariots had a significant drawback, as they were virtually useless on rough terrain and could only be effectively used in open fields.
Similarly, the Greek phalanx, a formidable force in head-on collisions, faced issues with maneuverability and easily fell apart on uneven ground, making it an easy target for enemies.
The Romans addressed this problem by dividing their formation into autonomously controlled units called maniples. It’s interesting to note that the renowned Roman army achieved most of its victories primarily through infantry engagements. The flexible and adaptable nature of the maniples enabled the Roman military to effectively overcome the challenges posed by various terrains and battlefield conditions.
War cavalry, Ayrudzi
Cavalry in the ancient world was limited in size and did not play a decisive role in most battles. Alexander the Great was an exception, as he effectively utilized cavalry in combination with the phalanx, which proved to be highly successful.
However, the number of his cavalry units remained relatively small. Some historians suggest that the limited use of cavalry during this period was due to the absence of a simple yet essential tool – the stirrup.
Without stirrups, it was difficult to gallop on a horse while wearing armor and wielding weapons or to effectively strike with a sword. Jumping over obstacles or maintaining balance when thrusting with a spear was also challenging.
It is true that the introduction and widespread adoption of stirrups later on dramatically increased the effectiveness and strategic importance of cavalry units in warfare. This innovation allowed for better balance, control, and power in combat, which in turn led to a greater emphasis on cavalry in military tactics and strategies.
During the 1st millennium BC, the Armenian army stood out in that its cavalry was already the primary striking force. One possible explanation for the limited use of cavalry in Greek and Roman armies is the simple yet significant factor of requiring a large number of horses.
To maintain a substantial cavalry force, tens of thousands of horses of a specialized breed were needed, and their numbers had to be constantly replenished. Unlike other parts of the ancient world, Armenia was known for its highly developed horse breeding practices.
Horse breeding in Armenia held exceptional strategic importance and was under the protection of the state. As a result, Armenia had a steady supply of suitable horses for their cavalry, allowing them to maintain a formidable and effective force that distinguished them from other ancient armies.
From the time of Urartu (also known as the Kingdom of Ararat), Armenia was known for its complexes complete with stables, hippodromes, arenas, and baths for horses. Interestingly, when Armenia became a satrapy of Achaemenid Persia, it provided tribute in the form of numerous high-quality horses and mules, in addition to silver and gold.
As mentioned in the inscriptions on the Behistun rock, Armenia was the only country that paid tribute to Persia with horses. These animals were highly valued, on par with precious metals, and served as a form of currency.
Starting from the 1st millennium BC, chariots in the Armenian army gradually gave way to a more flexible and mobile tactical unit – the cavalry. In ancient Armenia, this unit was known as ayrudzi (“air u dzi” – literally “man and horse”). Ayrudzi brought fame to the Armenian armies of the past and held a special status. Even after the loss of Armenian statehood, the ayrudzi continued to play a significant strategic role in the region.
Its basis was the heavy cavalry. Both riders and horses were fully armored. The main weapons were a spear and a heavy sword. Heavy cavalry was the striking force of the army, attacking in close formation, often wedge-shaped.
The rapid attack of many thousands of close ranks had a crushing effect not only on the infantry but also on the enemy cavalry. The armored mass simply crushed the enemy – scattered his battle formation and trampled, so that the rest of the military branches had to finish off the enemy.
The light cavalry was another tactical component of the ayrudzi, which was unarmored to ensure maximum mobility. Horses for the light cavalry were specifically chosen for their breed – they were small, fast, and lightweight.
The primary weapons used by the light cavalry were bows with arrows and swords. These mounted troops were responsible for maintaining the battle order of the entire army, performing reconnaissance tasks, assisting in the deployment of the main forces, and pursuing and destroying enemies to prevent them from regrouping.
Light cavalry typically attacked in a dispersed formation, focusing on maneuverability and avoiding confrontations. Interestingly, this tactic would be successfully employed by the Mongols many centuries later. The full complement of ayrudzi was made up exclusively of nobles, for whom horsemanship was an essential part of their upbringing and education.
During large-scale wars, reinforcements were also drawn from the lower social classes, creating the “ramik” ayrudzi. The cavalry was consistently under the watchful eye of the kings, who often personally oversaw reviews and exercises. In general, the army was at the heart of the state, serving as its primary foundation.
From the History of the Army of Ancient Armenia
Airudzi truly lived up to its reputation as an unbeatable fighting force. For instance, in the Battle of Gaugamela on October 1, 331 BC, the left flank of Alexander the Great’s army, led by Parmenion, was routed by the Armenian cavalry, which eventually reached the rear of the Macedonian forces.
Had the Persians on the opposite flank not faltered and succumbed to panic, history might have marked the end of Alexander the Great’s conquests on that day.
In 68 BC, during the battle near the Aratsani River, Tigran the Great defeated the Roman legions of Lucullus using only cavalry in combat – a unique occurrence in the history of warfare. The heavy cavalry disrupted the Roman formation, and the light cavalry finished the rout.
The significance and role of the Armenian cavalry on the international stage were so immense that during the Roman-Parthian, and later the Persian-Byzantine conflicts, the warring states sought to secure its allegiance. Interestingly, Roman historians attributed the failure of the eastern campaigns of Crassus and Antony to the lack of this powerful support.
Interestingly, following the fall of the Arsacid dynasty in the 5th century, both the Persian and Byzantine royal houses continued to employ the services of ayrudzi, generously compensating them for their military efforts. For their own security reasons, the Persian court reduced the number of Armenian cavalry to 30,000, and later, during the Arab rule, this number was further reduced to 15,000.
What were the numbers before these reductions? It is known that during the reign of Pap (4th century AD), the Armenian cavalry had up to 90,000 horsemen. The neighboring empires certainly had reason to be wary! It should be noted that since the inception of the Byzantine Empire, all of its monarchs exclusively recruited their bodyguards and palace guards from among the Armenians.
This practice intensified when members of Armenian families began to ascend to the throne. Armenian units, particularly the cavalry, were warmly welcomed, with their commanders being granted high ranks and positions, and the soldiers receiving various rewards. Byzantine emperors stationed large Armenian formations not only in the capital but also in the East – in regions such as Syria, Cilicia, and Cappadocia, among others.
Armenian military settlements have been documented in Italy and Sicily. Under Justinian I, several armies comprised entirely of Armenians liberated Italy from the Goths, and their commander Nerses became the ruler of this western province. Armenian warriors were highly respected in both Bulgaria and North Africa.
Legends about the fearlessness of Armenian formations circulated widely. Throughout the Byzantine period, more than a hundred Armenian military leaders made history as great generals, commanders of armies, and admirals.
However, no force can exist indefinitely without a homeland or its state. After the Byzantines’ defeat at Manzikert in 1071, the Armenian cavalry, which also included Russian detachments, fought alongside Byzantium and then moved eastward.
The Egyptian Fatimid caliphs, who sought to halt Turkish expansion, invited Armenian troops to help restore power and order in their country. The Armenians captured Cairo and Alexandria and suppressed the uprisings of the Bedouins in Upper Egypt. Moreover, their leader, relying on this powerful force, assumed the position of vizier of the caliphate and successfully governed the country for many years.
The Armenian cavalry saw its last significant deployment during the time of the Cilician kingdom. After the kingdom’s fall, the Armenian cavalry disappeared from the historical stage, although it occasionally participated in the armies of various states. Notably, it took part in the famous Battle of Grunwald in 1410, fighting alongside the combined Russian-Polish-Lithuanian army against the Germans, displaying remarkable endurance and bravery.
Following this, the Armenian cavalry was revived under Peter I, who formed the “Armenian squadron” in 1722 in Astrakhan, primarily consisting of Artsakh warriors. The squadron participated in all the battles in the Caucasus and the Caspian basin during the Russian-Turkish and Russian-Swedish wars.
The bravery of the Armenian horsemen was highly valued even after the squadron’s disbandment in 1764 – those who did not continue serving in other cavalry regiments received not just a lifelong pension, but a full military salary, by a special decree. Today, only historical records remind us of the feats of the Armenian soldiers of the past.
The ancient Armenian army and its weaponry are not prominently featured in European illustrated catalogs. However, there has been and continues to be a connection between generations. Observing the modern Armenian army, one cannot help but think: these are their descendants. And, without a doubt, they are worthy successors.
Zoranamak (literally, “military letter”) was an official document that determined the size of military forces in Ancient Armenia and established their organization. The letter was compiled as a four-sided table, representing the four provinces of Greater Armenia: Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western gates.
Each province consisted of 21 or 22 districts, with the size of their military forces indicated. According to the only surviving Zoranamak, in the early Middle Ages under the Arshakid dynasty, the Armenian army comprised 124,000 soldiers, of which 84,000 were Nakharar troops, and 40,000 were royal regiments (vostanik) and internal guards (mardpetakan).
In the face of external threats, the Nakharars assembled their armies and deployed them according to the military group specified in the Zoranamak. If needed, by the order of the king or sparapet (supreme commander), they assisted other groups within the Armenian army. Zoranamak was utilized in Armenia until the fall of the Arshakuni royal dynasty.