Arshak II – Resumption of the fight against Iran

Under the successor of Tiridates III — Khosrov II — Armenia once again becomes a battlefield. The forty-year peace treaty with the Persians expired in 338 AD. The ongoing Roman-Persian wars proceeded with varying success.

The establishment of Christianity as the state religion in Armenia brought the Arsacid dynasty closer to Rome, especially since, compared to the Persian threat, an alliance with Rome was no longer dangerous for Armenia. Facing the Persian threat and the ever-increasing de facto independence of the nakharars, the Armenian kings sought to expand the social support for their rule.

Continuing his father’s policy, Khosrov II waged a persistent struggle against the nakharars. However, a large part of the nakharars saw royal power as a rival to their authority and, betraying the interests of the country, sought an alliance with Shapur, hoping to ensure their absolute rule over the enslaved populace by submitting Armenia to Iran.

A year before the expiry of the Nisibis Agreement, when the Persians invaded Armenia, rebellious nakharars and the bishop of Altzni joined them.

However, with the help of Roman troops, the Persians were driven out of Armenia. But soon, the Persians invaded Armenia again and this time they were victorious; the son of Shapur was installed on the Armenian throne, though his rule was short-lived.

Their secondary takeover of the Armenian throne was also short-lived. The country erupted in a fierce war against the Persians and traitor nakharars, which ended with the defeat of the Persians and the affirmation of Arshak II, a representative of the Arsacid dynasty, on the Armenian throne.

The sharpest conflicts between the king and the nakharars occurred during the reign of Arshak II (60-70s of the 4th century AD). In his struggle with the nakharars, Arshak attempted to rely, to some extent, on the urban population.

With this aim in mind, he founded the city of Arshakavan (now Old Bayazet) at the southern foot of Ararat, at the crossroads of trade routes from Asia Minor to Iran and from Transcaucasia to Mesopotamia, on the site of the ancient fortress of Daroynk from the time of the Van Kingdom (Urartu).

It provided refuge for “servants”, i.e., slaves and serfs, as well as unpaid debtors fleeing from their masters. The urban population of Arshakavan was granted privileges. A mass escape from the surrounding lands began.

The nakharars, especially the Kamsarakan family, whose lands were nearby, as well as Archbishop Nerses I, were outraged. The Church also began to occasionally stand hand in hand with the nakharars against royal power.

Securing the support of Archbishop Nerses I, the nakharars, led by Nerses Kamsarakan, attacked Arshakavan, destroyed it to the ground, and slaughtered its inhabitants. For further struggle, Arshak had to seek allies from outside.

With the help of the king of Kartli (Iberia), Mirian, he began a war with the rebellious nakharars, which was only stopped by the intervention of Nerses I.

However, the struggle between the king and the nakharars soon resumed. This time, Arshak attacked the lands of the Kamsarakans, captured the fortress of Artagers, and wiped out their entire clan.

In response to this massacre, a general uprising of the nakharars began. Not only the supporters of Iran but also the supporters of Rome, who had previously supported the kings to some extent, rose against Arshak.

The nakharars were led by Archbishop Nerses I, who had renounced his position in protest, and Sparapet Vasak Mamikonian.

At this time, the Roman Emperor Jovian concluded peace with the Persians, ceding them Mesopotamia and promising not to interfere in Armenian affairs. Armenia was left alone in the face of the enemy.

Under the threat of a Persian invasion, the pro-Roman party and its leader, Vasak Mamikonian, reconciled with the king.

The Persians invaded Armenia, destroyed Tigranakert and several other major cities, occupied the western regions of the country, but were heavily defeated by Vasak Mamikonian in the battle on the Ayrarat plain. Subsequent raids were also unsuccessful; the Armenian cavalry always prevailed.

However, in 367, Shapur II, under the pretext of concluding peace, summoned Arshak II and Vasak Mamikonian to Ctesiphon and imprisoned them. Vasak was subsequently killed, and Arshak II died in the “castle of oblivion” in Khuzestan.

Armenia was seized by the Persians. Garrisons were stationed at strategically important points. Under the yoke of foreign rule, even many Iranophiles among the nakharars switched sides to the pro-Roman party.

A people’s war began. The garrison of Artagers was most stubborn in resisting the enemy; only after more than a year did the Persians manage to break into the fortress. The country suffered terrible devastation. The population of the cities was driven into Persia.

Those who resisted were beaten, children were thrown under the feet of war elephants. The destruction of cities led to the decline of crafts and trade.

In 369, at the height of the Persian devastation, Arshak II’s heir Pap arrived in Armenia with Roman troops, fleeing the Persians. After a stubborn fight, the Persians were driven out, Pap and Sparapet Mushegh Mamikonian triumphantly entered Artashat.

In the spring of 371, Shapur again marched on Armenia and Georgia, but with the help of a detachment sent by the Romans, he was defeated and recognized Pap as the king of Armenia. Persian aggression was temporarily suspended.

Source: “World History” Volume 1, edited by Y.P. Frantsev.

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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