Chivalry in Armenia – 4th—6th Centuries

In our minds, the words “knight”, “chivalrous behavior”, “knightly honor” conjure up the image of a Western European warrior. However, “there is now an opportunity to view chivalry not as a phenomenon unique to the European region, but as one of the social consequences of the global process of feudal development”.

This thought is perfectly illustrated by the statement of Academician Iosif Abgarovich Orbeli: “Knight, chivalry, knightly valor, knightly loyalty – of course, these are all concepts that are firmly associated with the idea of feudal circles of certain Western European countries.

But what if valor adorned not only Europeans, but also the sons of the East, – if loyalty was considered the best decoration of a warrior not only in Europe, but also in the East, – if chivalry with all its romantically beautiful sides and all its heavy, shadowy underside formed among some peoples of the East long before it matured in Europe, – if knights, in the usual sense of the word, were known in the East and glorified in its chivalrous poetry long before the songs of minstrels and troubadours resounded?”.

In Armenia, feudal relations began to form in the 4th century, at the same time several categories of nobility were distinguished: the royal house; direct vassals of the king, major aristocrats – the nakharars; minor military-service nobility – azats (3), ostaniks, and so forth.

In the period under consideration, the Arshakid dynasty (Armenian form Arshakuni) ruled Armenia. The ancestors of the Arshakids ruled a small Parthian kingdom, founded around 250 BC by Arshak I.

One of Arshak’s successors, Mithridates I (170-139 BC), conquered Iran, where his descendants ruled until 226 AD. In the 1st century AD, the younger branch of this dynasty, which ruled until 428, was established on the throne of Armenia.

Subsequently, the descendants of the Arshakids are mentioned in service in Iran – Atormizd/Adur-Ormizd Arshakan (5th century) and Byzantium – Artaban, John, Vahan, Gregory, Arshak (5th century), Manuel, Valentin (6th century), and so forth.

The emperors of the so-called Macedonian dynasty (867-1056)(4), and some Byzantine aristocratic families attributed to themselves Arshakid descent. The list of such facts could continue. However, in Armenia itself, the descendants of the Arshakids did not play a serious role as early as the 7th-8th centuries.

The next rung of the class ladder was occupied by the most influential feudal lords – the nakharars.

Initially (in the Old Armenian translation of the Bible) the term “nakharar” only meant “ruler”, “provincial governor”; in parallel with the development of feudalism in Armenia, it acquired the meaning of “feudal”, “prince”.

The title loses its real meaning and gradually falls out of use by the 11th century. Simultaneously, representatives of the noble families held the titles of “ishkhan” and “ter”. “Ishkhan” – “owner”, “master”, “ruler”, “prince”.

The term “ishkhan” mainly designated individuals who held political power, ruling a feudal principality, region, or country. Hence “ishkhanutyun” – “principality”, “ishkanats ishkhan” – “prince of princes” and so on.

In the late medieval period, the title “ishkhan” in Eastern Armenia was replaced by the title “melik” (from Arabic “malik” – king).

“Ter” – literally “lord”, “master”, “head of the family”, “head of the country”. The term dates back to the clan period of Armenian history. Also, the prefix “ter” was used by clergy in the sense of “father”, “master”, “father”. For example, ter-Simon, ter-Grigor, etc. Thus, modern Armenian surnames like Ter-Petrosyan, Ter-Mkrtchyan, Ter-Saakyan originated.

The estate (patrimony) of a noble was practically an autonomous possession, headed by a family patriarch (tanuter, nahapet, azgapet). Supreme judicial and administrative power in the noble’s domain was concentrated in his hands. The title of tanuter was passed on through the direct male line by order of primogeniture.

Representatives of the younger branches of the family – sepuhis served their azgapets and did not participate in the inheritance of lands.

The unique insignia of a noble’s power were pativ, gakh, and bardz. Pativ (literally – respect, honor) – a headband, which nobles were entitled to wear. Gakh (literally – throne) – the place of a noble at the royal court during festive gatherings; bardz (cushion) – a seat at the royal table.

In the conditions of localism, the gakh determined the feudal lord’s position on the hierarchical ladder. The sequence of gakhs was fixed in a special charter – “Gakhnamene”, an official list of noble families “by seniority”. The names of the most prominent nobles occupied the top lines of the list, less noble families were recorded at the end of the charter.

There were about eighty noble families in total. Particularly powerful were the “senior by gakh” families, the heads of which held the title of bdeshkha. Bdeshkhas were the rulers of borderlands, possessing greater autonomy and fielding the largest military units.

Throughout the history of Armenia, no more than ten families are mentioned with this title. These include the bdeshkhas of Aldznik, Gugark, Anjel (a branch of the Bagratuni), Korduk, Noshirakan, and others.

Each noble served some kind of service (gordzakalutyun) at the court. Under the Arshakids, these positions and the titles associated with them usually became hereditary within a certain family.

The most important positions were held by the most influential families. For example, the position of sparapet – the supreme commander of the Armenian forces – was hereditarily held by the Mamikonians.

The royal bodyguards – malxazams – were members of the Khorhkruni clan, “descendants of Khora Haykazyan, select and brave men, spear-bearers and sword-bearers…” The Gnuni were royal cup-bearers, the Khavruni were falconers and falcon hunters.

And so on, up to the position of the Dzjunakan clan (“dzjun” – Arm. “snow”), “guardians of summer residences and suppliers of snow” (presumably, ice for food storage).

It is worth dwelling in more detail on the position of the Bagratuni clan, as there are inaccuracies in some modern works when describing this issue. The head of the Bagratuni clan held two titles – aspet and tagadir.

Tagadir (Arm. “tag” – crown) – literally crown placer; during the coronation of the king, the crown on his head was supposed to be placed by the tanuter of Bagratuni. The title “tagadir” first appears in the Aramaic inscription of King Artashes I (189-160 BC) It is more difficult to determine the real meaning and origin of the position of aspet.

Various hypotheses have been put forward in science. According to S. Petrosyan, who dedicated a special study to this issue(12), the original meaning of this title is the overseer of the periphery, a governor.

The author suggests an etymology of the term: aspet – a compressed form of the ancient (unattested) “arspet”: arspet (“are” – “side”, “edge” + “pet” – “head”, “master”, “leader”).

The title has Indo-European origins. Already in the period of the last Arshakids, aspet is an honorary title of Bagratuni, without clearly defined functions.

In the chronicle of Movses Khorenatsi, there is an interesting episode related to the question about this title. Smbat Bagratuni during the battle captures the traitor Merujan Artsruni. “It occurs to him (Smbat – A. R.) that maybe Nerses the Great (Catholicos of Armenia – A. R.) would have freed Merujan, so he does not take him to the camp, but right there on the spot he finds everything necessary to destroy the sinner: some people in a tent, who have lit a fire, and an iron spit for roasting meat.

Heating up the spit, he bends it into a double hoop like a crown, and heating it to white heat, he says: “I crown you, Merujan, for you coveted the Armenian crown; and I, as an aspet, am obliged to put a crown on you, according to the custom and right of my fathers.”

And he puts it, still glowing as fire, on Merujan’s head. Thus the villain was charred. After this, the country, submitting to the authority of Papa (the king of Armenia – A.R.), calmed down”. In a number of sources, Bagratunis are mentioned as the Aspetov, Aspetuni, Aspetian family.

The genealogy of the noble families is still insufficiently studied. Many noble houses linked their origin to the legendary dynasty of Haykazyan. According to the Armenian chronicle tradition, Hayk, a descendant of Japheth son of Noah, returned to his homeland, to Armenia, with his family.

Having multiplied, his descendants populate the country. From the name Hayk comes the self-name of Armenians – Hay, the name of Armenia – Hayastan. Movses Khorenatsi, who devoted a significant part of the first and second books of his history to the question of the origin of the noble families, calls about thirty dynasties descendants of Hayk.

Families that did not “prove” their origin from the “native family” ascribed to themselves noble foreign ancestors.

Similar to the legendary “outings” of the ancestors of Russian nobles, most of the legends about the noble Jewish, Persian, Alan, or Assyrian origins of the noble houses are refuted by primary source data.

Indeed, the ancestors of Bagratuni and Artsruni can be traced back to the Urartian era, the surname Amatuni has Indo-European roots, etc.

Speaking of the descendants of the noble families among modern nobility is difficult. However, we can mention the Bagrationi, descendants of Bagratuni.

The lineage of the princes Tumanov, the nobles of Yenikolopov, and some other families trace back to the Mamikonyans. The melik houses of Artsakh-Karabakh-Hasan-Jalalyans, Melik-Beglaryans, and others are descendants of the princes of Khachen “of the Sisak line, descendant of Hayk.”

In early medieval Armenia, representatives of some non-noble families also had a significant influence. These were so-called “priestly” families, descendants of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Bishop Albiana, and others.

One of the most important functions of the nobles was to perform military service. In Arshakid Armenia, the mainstay of the army was heavily armed cavalry, drawn from the azats (azatagund) – minor military-service nobility.

Each noble house maintained a detachment of azats, the number of which depended on the power of the principality and was stipulated in the “Zoranamak”. “Zoranamak” (lit. Military Charter) – a document very similar to the “Gaknamak” mentioned above. The difference was that in the “Zoranamak” all families are divided into four groups (Eastern, Western, Northern and Southern) and opposite each surname, the number of soldiers that it is obliged to maintain and put out in case of war is indicated. (The Russian translation of “Zoranamak” was published by Nikolay Adonts.)

For their service, the azats received a salary (rochik, toshak) and land allotments. In addition to the noble detachments, there were regiments recruited from azats, whose lands were part of the royal domain – ostanikov. The united Armenian army was traditionally commanded by hereditary sparapets from the Mamikonyan clan.

The azats’ armament consisted of heavy armor that covered the rider’s body; a conical helmet, often with decorations; spear, sword, sometimes axe or mace; bow with arrows. Often the horses also had armor.

Several types of swords were distinguished: suser – a long heavy sword attached to a special baldric; tur – short, attached to the thigh in a sheath. In addition to this, there were combat and richly decorated “palace” swords.

Apparently, the latter were not used in battles. An important part of the warrior’s equipment was a dagger (nran), which was attached to the thigh in a special way. However, the main weapon of the Armenian rider was a spear.

For the Iranian world, with which medieval Armenia was very closely connected, a particular attitude to this type of weapon is characteristic, in which it becomes a special symbol of social rank and dignity.

Without specifically addressing the issue of the development of military affairs in feudal Armenia, let’s note that Armenian commanders used various tactical maneuvers in battles.

They practiced sudden attacks, feigned retreats, forced marches, used fortified camps (lakish) and siege engines, there were special reconnaissance detachments, complex notification systems, etc.

As an example, we will cite the description of the Battle of Avarayr, which took place on May 26, 451, compiled by the eyewitness historian Yeghishe.

This battle was the culmination of the anti-Iranian uprising of 450-451, caused by the demand of the Persian authorities to renounce Christianity.

After Avarayr and in the conditions of the guerrilla war that began, the Persian shahanshah Yazdegerd II (438-457) was forced to make concessions and no longer encroached on Christianity in Armenia.

“And the brave Vardan stepped forward, interrogating his magnates, and in accordance with the common opinion thus appointed the commanders:

The first regiment was handed over to the power of Prince Artsruni and his comrade in arms [determined] the great prince of Moksk. And all the other nobility [appointed] hamharz of both of them and a multitude of the army located on the wings, on one side and the other.

And the second regiment he entrusted to Horen Khokhoruni and his comrades in arms [gave] Yntsayin and Nerseh Kadjberuni. And the third regiment entrusted Tatup Vanandatsi and commanded his comrade to be Tachat Gnuni, and many brave men [placed] on the wings, on this and on the other side.

He took the fourth regiment upon himself and his comrades in arms [took] the brave Arshavir and his own brother Hamazaspyan. He arranged and prepared the front, turning it to all sides of the field, exactly against the regiment of Arieus, on the bank of the river Timut.

And when they were thus prepared, both sides ignited and, full of determination and great fury, threw themselves at each other with beastly strength, and the noise of the cries of both sides created a thunder, such as [is born] between colliding clouds, and the sound of voices shook the cliffs of the mountains.

From the multitude of helmets and from those dressed in shining armor, there were as if solar glares, and from the great shine of swords and from the clinking of a multitude of spears, they ignited, [falling] from the heavens, as if huge flashes of flame. Who can describe the great confusion from the terrible sounds, when the shields of the shield-bearers clanged and the howling of the bowstrings deafened everyone around!

In this great confusion, the brave Vardan looked up and saw the selected brave knights of the Persian army, as they pushed back the left wing of the Armenian regiment.

With great power, he rushed there and, breaking through the right wing of the Persian regiment, struck at the beasts and, surrounding them in a ring, beat them right there on the spot.

And caused such confusion that the regiment of Matean(26), having been broken through, lost its strongest formation and the warriors even turned to hasty flight.

Then vigilant Mushkan Nisalavurt(27) raised his eyes and saw that some of the Armenian regiment had separated and lagged behind in the mountain gorges. Then, raising a loud cry, he encouraged the Arieus army around him, which, having secured itself, stood before Vardan’s regiment. Here both sides admitted their defeat: due to the huge accumulation of corpses, they seemed like shapeless piles of stones.

When Mushkan Nisalavurt saw this, he began to wait for the beasts of Artashir, who sat on [one of] them in a high tower, like in a fortified city, and with a loud sound of twisted trumpets, he hurried his regiments and surrounded him (Mushkan Nisalavurt) with advanced detachments.

The valiant Vardan and his brave comrades wreaked considerable havoc there, in that place, where he himself was honored to accept holy martyrdom.

The battle dragged on, the day was coming to an end and approaching evening; many of the seriously wounded met their death, especially due to the pile-up of corpses, tightly piled up, like felled trees in a forest.

There you could see the breaking of spears and the crushing of bows. As a result, they couldn’t confidently identify the holy bodies of the dead, and there was great confusion and panic [among] the defeated on both sides.

And those who survived, bewildered, scattered across the mountain plain [between] the impregnable gorges: and when they met each other, they again struck each other. And this bitter business continued uninterrupted until sunset.

And since it was springtime, the flowering fields were flooded with abundant streams of blood.

And if anyone examined the pile-up of fallen corpses, the heart was torn and the innards turned over at the groans of the wounded and the screams of the mutilated, [at the sight of how] the wounded were writhing, crawling, and moving, [at the sight of] the flight of the faint-hearted, the hiding of the desperate, the fainting of the unmanly men, [at] the howling of hyenas, the weeping of close friends, the groaning of relatives: “Alas!” and “Woe!”

For there was no side that won, and the side that was defeated, the valiant went against the valiant, and both sides were defeated.

Here are the names of those valiant knights who fell in death there on the spot:

From the Mamikonian clan, the brave Vardan with one hundred and thirty-three men;

There you could see great confusion and despair from the unavoidable confusion of both sides, when in swift attacks [opponents] pounced on each other. For the sober went mad, and the timid fell into despair, the brave practiced bravery, the heroes cried out.

And when all the multitude of fighters huddled together, they squeezed the river, and the Persian regiment, frightened by the turbulent flow of the river, began to stamp on the spot, and the Armenian regiment, having caught up, crossed [the river] and, rearing up horses, attacked them with great force. From the terrible collision of them among themselves, many wounded from both sides fell to the ground, trembling in agony.

From the Khorkhoruni clan, the brave Khoren with nineteen men;
From the Paluni clan, the brave Artak with fifty-seven men;
From the Gntuni clan, the amazing Tachat with nineteen men;
From the Dimaksyan clan, the wise Khmayeak with twenty-two men;
From the Gnuni clan, the young Vahan with three men;
From the Ytsayin clan, the righteous Arsen with seven men;
From the Sruandzta clan, the swift Garegin with two brothers and eighteen men.

These two hundred and eighty-seven knights with nine great nakharars died right there.

And from the royal house and the house of Artsruni and from each nakharar house, besides these two hundred and eighty-seven, [fell] seven hundred and forty men, and that day in this great battle, everyone inscribed his name in the book of life. And all together there will be one thousand thirty-six. And on the side of the renegades and pagans, three thousand five hundred and forty-four men fell that day”.

With the development of feudalism, access to the Azat class for people without the appropriate origin became practically closed. This led to the fact that in their midst, a caste psychology and symbolism inherent to them are being developed. Unwritten rules of behavior of the Azat – a warrior, an aristocrat, a Christian are being formed.

The richest material on the nakharar culture has come down to us thanks to the works of modern Armenian authors Agafangel, Koryun, Favstos Buzand, Movses Khorenatsi, Yeghishe, Lazar Parpetsi.

So what qualities should an Armenian Azat knight have? The most important quality of a feudal lord was loyalty to the suzerain, duty, word, religion. “I will live and die for you, as my ancestors for your ancestors, as my father for your father Arshak. I will do the same for you, just don’t listen to slanderous people,” says the sparapet Musheg Mamikonyan, suspected of treason, to King Pap.

Sparapet Vasak Mamikonyan, while on a mission in Persia and hearing how one of the Persian nobles (ahorapet) insulted the Armenian king Arshak, “became terribly angry and furious, he drew the sword hanging on his side and struck him and cut off the head of the chief stableman of the Persian king right there on the spot, in the stable, because he could not bear the insult to his king; he considered it much better to accept death than to hear any insult and dishonor to his sovereign. Being in a Persian country, on foreign land, among foreigners, he was able to do such a thing suddenly, without any fear.

And the Persian king, hearing about this, showed great mercy to the commander Vasak, admiring his courage and great fearlessness. He gave him many rewards and honors, praising his bravery and his love for his sovereign.”

The same was done by Gnel Andzevatsi. Seeing how the Romans killed King Pap during the feast, he attacked the legionnaires with a sword and died.

However, if the king acted unjustly towards the nakharar clan, this could, as in the case with Manvel Mamikonyan, lead to a real feudal war. Since this excerpt from the chronicle is of interest for the topic under consideration, let’s present it in full and comment on it.

King Varazdat Arshakuni executes sparapet Musheg Mamikonyan, and the family position of the hereditary military leader of the Armenian troops is transferred to his mentor Bat of the Saharuni clan. At this time, brothers Manvel and Kome Mamikonyans return from Persian captivity.

Being the elder in the clan, Manvel receives the title of tanuter (head of the clan) and “takes over the power of the sparapet”. Then Manvel writes a message to King Varazdat: “We, as a whole clan, have served you, the Arshakuni, faithfully since ancient times, sacrificed our lives for you, lived and died for you; all our ancestors died first in wars for you;…

And now, instead of rewarding us for our merits, you, the Arshakunis, have killed those who did not die from enemies and remained alive. Here is a brave man, my brother Musheg, who dedicated his life to you from childhood, defeated your enemies, and drove others away, whom the enemies could not kill, you grabbed him and strangled him while he was sitting at the table. But you are not an Arshakuni, but born of adultery, therefore you did not recognize the parentage of Arshakuni.

And King Varazdat sent a messenger with an answer and said: “If I am not Arshakuni, then how did I put on the crown of my ancestors Arshakuni and took over the country of my predecessors, and avenged my uncle Papa to your brother, the villain Musheg?

After the messengers had come and gone many times and their speeches became more offensive with each exchange, they (Varazdat and Manvel) then set a time for a meeting in battle. At the appointed hour, they converged and entered into battle with each other…

King Varazdat and sparapet Manvel, with spears in hand, came out as rivals against each other. When King Varazdat, coming out, lifted his eyes, looked at sparapet Manvel and saw the greatness of his height, the beauty of his figure, his sturdy physique, his iron strongly forged invincible armor, from foot to head, his strong horse and indestructible horse armor, he compared him in his mind to a high impregnable mountain.

But, seeing death before his eyes, he attacked, for he had no other hope of salvation. But as King Varazdat was young and not very experienced in battle, seeing him (Manvel) in such a state, he thought that the spear could not pierce the armor of his (armor), so he hit the commander Manvel in the mouth with all the force in his hand, and Manvel grabbed the spear by the shaft; having torn off the tip, he pulled it out through the cheek and knocked out many of his teeth, and he himself pulled the spear out of the hands of the king.

And King Varazdat fled before the commander Manvel, and Manvel, overtaking him, holding the tip in his hand, struck the skull of King Varazdat with the shaft of the spear and thus drove him for four aspares. At that moment, Manvel’s sons, Hamayak and Artashes, rode up with spears in their hands, intending to kill the king.

But Manvel shouted after his sons: “Oh, do not be regicides!” They, hearing the voice of their father, immediately hastily retreated from the king. That day, the royal detachment suffered a defeat from Manvel’s detachment.”

It is noteworthy that Manvel does not kill Varazdat, just as Mushik Mamikonyan does, who won the battle but spared the life of Urnayr, the king of Agvanka. In response to King Pap’s reproaches, Mushik answers: “I have killed all my comrades, and those who wear the crown are not my comrades, but yours. Go, as I killed my comrades, so you kill yours, but I never have, do not, and will not raise my hand against a king, a man wearing a crown.”

Considering that the defense of the country was the main function of the azats, it becomes clear why such qualities as courage, bravery, ability to handle weapons, were revered among the nakharars. Great importance was attached to discipline.

Young Artavazd, the son of Vache Mamikonyan, was saved from death penalty in battle despite the prohibition of the commander, solely by his extraordinary courage and skill.

On the battlefield, the nakharars had to observe a certain etiquette even towards their enemies and demonstrate examples of noble behavior. The aforementioned Urnayr, king of Agvanka, writes letters of gratitude to Mushik Mamikonyan and warns him of danger.

The same Armenian commander, during one of his raids on Atropatene, captures the harem of the king of Persia, “…but the Armenian commander Mushik did not allow anyone to insult the wives of the Persian king Shapuk, but ordered to prepare palanquins for them and released all of them to their husband…

The Persian king marveled at the virtue, bravery, and nobility of Mushik, who had not insulted him in relation to women. At that time Mushik had a white horse… And on one cup he (king Shapuk – A.R.) ordered to paint an image of Mushik riding a white horse, and during merriment he put this cup before him and constantly repeated the same thing: “The fibrous one should drink wine”.

Numerous examples of noble-knightly attitude towards the enemy can be found in the pages of the Armenian national epic “David of Sasun”.

In the nakharar environment, the system of relations between the members of the clan (tuna) can serve as an example of the remnants of ancient tribal traditions. Relatives were obliged to protect and support each other. Returning from Persian captivity, Kome Mamikonyan carried his wounded brother Manvel on his shoulders46.

Rejoicing over the victory over Mehrudjan Artsruni, the Mamikonyans regret his death: “Still, he was our brother” (Mehrudjan’s mother was the daughter of Artavazd Mamikonyan) and so on. The most terrible crime in the eyes of Armenian chroniclers was the murder of a relative. All the misfortunes of King Arshak are the punishment for the execution of his nephew Gnel Arshakuni. There was a custom of blood feud;

Shavasp Artsruni kills Khayra Mardlet, because of whose intrigues the Artsruni clan fell into disgrace and extermination(48); Samvel Mamikonyan, who killed his Zoroastrian parents, did not return to Armenia, fearing revenge from his mother’s brothers from the Artsruni clan; finally, one of the main reasons for the aforementioned war between the Mamikonyans and King Varazdat was revenge for the execution of sparapet Mushik. The feud between nakharar clans could last for centuries (the traditional struggle between the Bagratunis and Mamikonyans), and in the case of the Manavazyans and Orduni it even led to the extinction of both families.

In addition to being skilled in warfare, the azat had to observe special etiquette at court, during feasts, hunting, and various games and amusements.

To complete our incomplete moral and ethical portrait of the Armenian nakharar, let us quote the words of the famous commander Manvel Mamikonyan to his son: “He called his son Artashir, transferred to him his power of tanuter and his position of commander-sparapet.

He ordered him to be obedient and submissive to King Arshak, to be faithful, to strive and work, to fight for the Armenian country. Joyfully accept death for the country, like your brave ancestors. For, – he said, – this is a just and God-pleasing act, and if you act so, God will not forsake you. Leave the seed of the brave on earth, and dedicate your righteousness to heaven.

Fear death not at all, but trust in the One who created everything and established it. Stay far away from deceit, vice, and evil, and serve the Lord God with a pure heart and fidelity. Courageously die for a pious country, for this is death for God, for His churches and for believers, for the native sovereigns of this country – for Arshakuni”.

To conclude our essay, we would like to underline once again that it does not in any way claim to cover the material on the topic exhaustively, a whole range of important questions are insufficiently covered. This article should rather be treated as a certain experience or basis for further, deeper and professional research. Rafael Abramyan.

Armenian Knighthood (IV—VI centuries). “Armenian Herald”, № 1-2, 1999. Material collected and provided by Alexander Bakulin.

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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