Lessons in Strategy from Tigran II the Great

The figure of Tigran the Great still excites the imagination not only of scholars, cultural figures, military leaders, politicians, but also of virtually any Armenian. Tigran the Great has become a national pride of the Armenian people, a symbol of victory and belief in their own strength.

Tigran II not only proved the possibility of transforming Armenia into a great power in military-political, economic and cultural-educational aspects, but also implemented this in practice.

Great Armenia of the era of Tigran the Great left a deep mark not only in the history of the Armenian people, but also in world history, although this mark has been trying to erase consistently for more than two thousand years now, and, credit where it’s due, this policy is bearing its negative fruits.

For example, the idea is being implanted in Armenian consciousness that, supposedly, the empire of Tigran was a secondary power, not playing in the history of mankind the role that, for example, such great powers of that time as Rome or Parthia (modern Iran) did.

Of course, this not only does not correspond to reality, but also fundamentally distorts this reality. It is understandable, since the Armenian people indeed have a tremendous internal potential, and many forces have been systematically and quite painstakingly trying to destroy this potential over the centuries.

Tigran the Great was one of those few who was able to consolidate this potential and direct it in a certain direction.

Specifically, insufficient consolidation of this colossal and predominantly latent potential, especially on the ethnic homeland, in a mono-national environment and for a sufficiently long time, appears to be the main obstacle on the path to the real revival of the former greatness of the Armenian nation.

Tigran managed to consolidate the potential of the Armenian nation, and that alone was enough to do everything to discredit him and to cast doubt on his legacy and contribution to Armenian statehood.

To get a more complete picture of the legacy of Tigran the Great, it is necessary to consider the main stages of his biography and the key geopolitical achievements of his reign.

Tigran the Great was born in 140 BC. He was the great-grandson of King Artashes the Great, who restored Armenia’s independence from the Seleucid Empire and founded a new dynasty of Artashesids. In 112/111 BC,

Tigran, being the crown prince, was taken as a hostage to Parthia so that the latter could exert even stronger influence on Armenia. However, in 95 BC, the Armenian throne became vacant due to the death of Tigran the Great’s father, King Tigran I.

The time for the reign of Tigran II had come.

However, the Parthian court was not in a hurry to let Tigran II go to Armenia. Prior to this, the aging Parthian king had been trying hard to marry Tigran to one of his daughters and keep him in Parthia, but these efforts were in vain.

The fact that the Parthians were striving by all available means to keep Tigran in their country shows that this man possessed extraordinary qualities, which the Parthians were seriously afraid of, especially since Tigran was already not a young man.

He ascended to the throne when he was already 45 years old, and indeed went through fire, water, and copper pipes, so to speak, with honor, and this is what caused fear and apprehension among the Parthians.

After all, not just any person, to use modern language, a statesman through and through, completely devoted to national, not personal interests, ascended the Armenian throne. But also a statesman who was well aware of the internal political situation in the then dominating power of the region – the Parthian Empire.

If a person with life values directly opposite to those of Tigran II had ascended the Armenian throne, it would have been only to the benefit of Parthia and other states interested in weakening and ultimately destroying Armenian statehood.

And such people would receive all kinds of support from these countries. But Tigran II was not such a man, and the Parthians had to do everything possible to create a situation in which Tigran would be forced to submit to Parthia, willingly or not.

They could not eliminate him physically. This would have caused too negative a reaction both in Armenia and in other states, and would have undermined trust in Parthia. Moreover, at that time, nobody in Parthia even suspected what Tigran II was capable of and what he would do.

But to be more confident, the Parthians carried out a very treacherous and truly Jesuitical move, politically justified from the point of view of their national interests.

It consisted in the following: as a condition for Tigran’s unimpeded return to Armenia as king, the Parthians demanded from the Armenian ruler the transfer of a number of territories known in history as the ’70 valleys’.

This territory fully included the largest lake of the Armenian Highlands – Kaputan/Urmia (now territory of Iran), the province of Paytakaran with access to the Caspian Sea, part of Vaspurakan.

This move simultaneously solved two strategically important tasks: • Firstly, the transition of these territories under the control of Parthia was a strong blow to the defense capability and economy of Armenia.

This opened a direct path to the heart of Armenia – the Ararat Valley, where the largest cities and the capital of the country were located. Armenia was also deprived of Lake Kaputan and the territories adjacent to it, where strategically important salt was mined and exported to countries of the region.

Armenia also lost access to the Caspian Sea and the rich pastures of Paytakaran. Having received these territories, Parthia, of course, gained a very effective lever of influence on Armenia, which became less protected.

• Secondly, by achieving the annexation of these territories from Tigran, the Parthians dealt a severe blow to the image of the still unascended new king, who in the eyes of his compatriots became a man ready to do anything for power and the throne.

Meanwhile, Armenia was divided into several parts at that time: Greater Armenia, Lesser Armenia, and Tsopk (Sophene), and a number of historical Armenian lands were occupied by other states.

Against this background, the additional surrender of more significant territories by area made Tigran, even before his coronation, a traitor and an agent in the eyes of his own people. But despite all this, Tigran had to agree to the conditions of the Parthians. As you can see, the new king, even before ascending to the throne, found himself in an extremely difficult internal political situation.

The external political situation in the region was no less complex. To the south and southwest, Parthia, which was then striving for global hegemony and never hid its expansionism towards Armenia, bordered Armenia.

To the southeast of Armenia, there bordered the Seleucid Empire, a former global hegemon and successor to the empire of Alexander the Great, which, despite major territorial losses, was still a strong state. The Armenian kingdom of Tsopk fell within its sphere of influence, and it constantly sought to expand its territory, primarily at the expense of Armenia.

From the north, the Pontic Kingdom was strengthening, which also pursued an expansionist policy and managed to incorporate a number of Armenian lands into its sphere of influence, including Little Armenia and Cappadocia (now in the central part of modern Turkey), a significant part of whose population and political leadership were Armenians.

On the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, a rising hegemon – Rome – had already begun attempts to establish control, which also did not hide its desire to subdue all territories in Asia Minor and the Middle East, Egypt and other countries. Tigran II began his reign in such a geopolitical situation.

However, the new Armenian king turned out to be not only a wonderful connoisseur of the reality within Parthia, but also the greatest geopolitician of his time. It is for this reason that he agreed to the harsh conditions proposed by Parthia, clearly understanding that with the right policy, which Tigran, apparently, developed while still being a hostage of the Parthians, it would be possible to not only return the lands transferred to Parthia in the near future, but also to start uniting Armenian lands and creating a strong Armenian state.

In Parthia itself, there were a number of factors that gave Tigran an excellent opportunity to successfully fight against it. The fact is that a fierce internal power struggle had begun in Parthia, and the state itself had been leading a series of bloody wars over the last 50 years, the most devastating of which was the war with the tribes of the Sakas, who lived in the territory of modern Central Asia and Afghanistan.

However, in order to implement his plans and ideas, it was first necessary to consolidate the people in Greater Armenia itself. For this, it was necessary to gain the trust of the people.

Therefore, in parallel with the strengthening and reformation of the army, Tigran had to develop and implement a military campaign, which not only had to have military-strategic significance, but also the most important psychological significance for the Armenian people as a whole. By the way, Tigran reformed the army in a remarkably short time – almost within a year. Such a campaign could only be the annexation of Tsopk.

In 94/93 BC, i.e. just a year after his ascension to the throne, Tigran reunites Tsopk with Greater Armenia. This was truly a national-scale event. The reunification of Tsopk completely dispelled any suspicions and distrust of the people towards their king.

It became clear that the new king is not a foreign appointee, but the leader the nation had long awaited. The reunification of Tsopk not only had psychological significance and revived the Armenian people’s faith in their own strength, but also had the most important economic significance.

Tsopk had rich deposits of metals and housed the best Armenian craftsmen. Thus, by annexing Tsopk, Tigran also strengthened, in modern language, the country’s military industry.

The reunification of Tsopk caused a negative reaction from the Seleucid state, as this was a direct blow to the positions of this state, under the influence of which Tsopk was.

But Parthia and the Pontic Kingdom reacted to this calmly. Both benefited from the undermining of the Seleucid state’s positions. Moreover, the deterioration of relations between the Seleucid state and Armenia provided both Parthia and the Pontic Kingdom the opportunity to strengthen their positions in one or the other state by concluding corresponding agreements.

In 93 BC, Armenia concluded a treaty with the Pontic Kingdom. This treaty laid the foundation for long-term strategic cooperation between the two states. Moreover, alongside the treaty, the strategic alliance between Pontus and Armenia was also reinforced by the marriage of Tigran to the daughter of the Pontic king.

This strategic alliance allowed the Pontic King Mithridates VII Eupator, by securing his rear, to begin preparations for the expansion of his possessions in Asia Minor and become a barrier to Roman expansion.

Armenia, in turn, also secured its rear from the north and northwest and gained the opportunity to regain lost territories. Interestingly, Tigran agreed to let Little Armenia become part of the Pontic Kingdom.

If Mithridates, by giving his daughter to the Armenian king, tried to influence the Armenian court in this way, then by giving his consent for Little Armenia to be incorporated into the Pontic Kingdom, a territory equal to the territory of Pontus proper, Tigran gained a powerful factor to influence the policy of his ally.

Creating a favorable geopolitical configuration for himself, in 93 BC, Tigran annexed parts of Cappadocia to Armenia. Between 91 and 87 BC, Virk (Georgia) and Agvank (Caucasian Albania) became part of Greater Armenia. Implementing all these measures, Tigran created the necessary prerequisites for a confrontation with the main competitor – the Parthian Empire.

In 87 BC, the Armenian-Parthian war began, which ended in 85 BC with a complete defeat of Parthia. Parthia lost not only vast territories, but its monarch also yielded the title of “King of Kings” to the Armenian king. Only Alexander the Great and Tigran the Great managed to achieve this in the history of Iran.

Parthia became a state dependent on Armenia. Moreover, tribes previously subjugated to Parthia in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf became allies of Armenia.

One might ask: why didn’t Tigran incorporate the entire territory of Parthia into Armenia, especially since the Parthians suffered a crushing defeat and Armenian troops stood at the walls of the capital of the Parthian Empire – Ctesiphon (the ruins of this city are now located near Baghdad).

The fact is that if Tigran had conquered all of Parthia, maintaining the submission of all tribes subordinate to the Parthians, especially in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and India, would have been too burdensome and would have dissipated the power of the state.

A vassal dependency of Parthia on Armenia and maintaining stability among the warlike tribes by Parthia itself was much more expedient.

After subjugating Parthia, in 83 BC, Tigran began a campaign against another empire – the Seleucid state. The same year, the Seleucid state ceased to exist.

Historical textbooks indicate that the end of the Seleucid state was marked by the Romans, but this is not accurate, as nearly two decades before the entrance of Roman troops into the territory of this state, it was already conquered by Tigran the Great.

In 83/82 BC, the Nabatean kingdom on the shores of the Red Sea also became part of Tigran’s empire. Thus, by the end of the 80s BC, the Armenian Empire became the hegemon in the entire Middle East.

To appreciate the size of this state, it is enough to simply state that it included: about 35-40% of the territory of modern Iran, all of Transcaucasia, almost half of Iraq, all of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the northern part of Saudi Arabia adjoining the Red Sea, not to mention the historical territory of Greater Armenia, most of which is currently under the control of Turkey.

Tigran took control of all the most important trade routes from India and China to Europe. The fact that he conquered the Nabatean kingdom, which, as noted, was located on the shores of the Red Sea within the territories of modern Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, i.e. in the desert, suggests that Tigran apparently had plans to incorporate Egypt into Armenia as well.

The capital of the country became the new city – Tigranakert, which was located in the province of Aghdznik of Greater Armenia. In addition, three other Tigranakerts were built, two of which are within the plains of Artsakh (currently occupied by Azerbaijan).

Unlike other conquerors, Tigran the Great did not destroy the peoples and cities subordinate to him. On the contrary, all large cities and even the capitals of rival countries of Armenia became trade, financial, and major political centers. The capital of the Seleucid state – Antioch – deserves special mention here.

However, in the empire of Tigran the Great, especially as the “king of kings” aged, the contours of very dangerous internal political processes gradually appeared. Interestingly, all of Tigran’s sons from the daughter of the Pontic king turned out to be, in essence, traitors both to their father and to Armenia.

The eldest of these sons, Zareh, minted a coin with the inscription “king of kings Zareh” at a time when Tigran was far from the capital. He led a rebellion, but was defeated and beheaded by Tigran the Great.

Another son donned the royal crown when the father fainted during a hunt. He paid for it with his head.

The third son played perhaps the most negative role, raising a rebellion against his father on the side of Rome.

The clash of two great powers – Rome and Armenia – became inevitable at the end of the 70s-early 60s BC. The Pontic kingdom, which for many years had prevented the penetration of Rome into Asia Minor, after three wars, known in history as the Mithridatic Wars, was virtually occupied by the Romans in 71 BC, and King Mithridates VI found refuge with Tigran. Armenia responded with a refusal to the demands to extradite the Pontic king.

In 69 BC, the Roman commander Lucullus, distinguished in the war with the Pontic kingdom, invaded Armenia. In the same year, Lucullus managed to take the capital of Tigran’s empire – Tigranakert, but in the following year 68 BC, the Roman army suffered a crushing defeat from the forces of Tigran the Great in the battle on the Aratsani river. Armenia restored its power over all previously controlled territories. However, the war between the two empires did not end there.

In 66 BC, another very famous Roman commander – Gnaeus Pompey or Pompey the Great – invaded Armenia. Almost at the same time, Parthian troops invaded Armenia from the south.

Tigran the Great did not fight the Romans and signed a treaty, according to which he ceded Armenia’s Asian possessions to Rome. The Parthian army Tigran the Great defeated in 66 BC at the walls of Artashat. Thus, the Armenian Empire surrendered its hegemony to Rome.

This treaty of Tigran is perceived quite unambiguously in history, including, paradoxically, in Armenian history. It is generally believed that Tigran was simply unable to withstand Pompey’s army.

However, this statement is not only untrue but is also a result of Roman propaganda. The fact is that Tigran the Great carried out a brilliant and strategically impeccable diplomatic maneuver regarding Rome. This maneuver, without exaggeration, influenced all subsequent history of Rome and, one might say, the world.

Regrettably, this maneuver has still not been studied by Armenian historical science. Tigran, of course, could have easily defeated Pompey’s army, especially since two years earlier Armenian troops had crushed Lucullus’ army.

But signing a treaty with Pompey was a much stronger blow to Rome than a military victory over Pompey. The fact is that at that time Rome was entering a completely new period of its development.

The republican period of its history was coming to an end and the imperial period was gradually coming. And here the first roles were taken by three great commanders and statesmen: Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaeus Pompey.

Tigran, among other things controlling trade routes from Asia to Europe, and at that time traders were the most informed and educated people, could not but know that these three figures would struggle for power, moreover, for absolute power, and they would fight each other.

Therefore, by signing a treaty with Pompey, he added the “laurels” of a victor over Tigran to him and sent him to Rome and against Rome. Otherwise, had he defeated Pompey, Caesar or Crassus would have invaded Armenia. Even if he had defeated one of them, it would have been much easier for the other to take power in Rome, and then start a campaign against Armenia.

Tigran was already 74 years old, and this age, if Tigran had not carried out that maneuver, could have played a cruel joke on the entire Armenian people. Meanwhile, the more contenders there would have been for power in Rome, the better for Armenia, because the Romans would have been occupied with their internal problems and would not have cared about Armenia.

In 64 BC, Tigran signed a treaty with Parthia and thus laid the foundation for the future strategic alliance of the two states against Rome. By the way, already in 60 BC, Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey formed the so-called first triumvirate, which ruled Rome for several years. But soon a strong struggle for power broke out among them.

To eliminate Crassus, in 55 BC, the year of the death of Tigran the Great, he was sent as a governor of Syria, from where Crassus went on a campaign against the Parthians. But in the battle of Carrhae, the Parthians managed to defeat his troops, and the severed head of the Roman commander was sent to the Parthian king, who was then a guest at the son of Tigran the Great – the king of kings Artavazd II in Artashat. The head was brought to them when the kings watched a play staged by Artavazd in the Artashat theatre.

Then in 49 BC, a civil war began in Rome between Pompey and Caesar. It was in this year that the Armenian-Parthian troops took control of the territories of almost all of Asia Minor, expelling the Romans from there.

In 48 BC, Pompey dies, but the civil war does not end with this. Pompey’s sons continue to fight until the death of Caesar himself in 44 BC. And after that, the struggle for power in Rome does not stop. It ends only in 31 BC, i.e., in total, the tense internal political situation in Rome lasts for more than 33 years.

And this is a direct merit of Tigran the Great. The Romans understood the strategic intent of Tigran the Great and could not forgive him for this. This can explain why all the works that give an objective picture of the activities and personality of Tigran the Great were deliberately destroyed by the Romans.

The works of such authors as Metrodor of Scepsis, Heraclides, Teucer of Apollonia, Diaphantus, written in Greek and Syriac, were completely destroyed.

As a result of such a policy of destroying documents of Armenian, Greek, Syriac, and Pontic historiography, the primary sources about Tigran became the biased works written by Roman statesmen such as Sulla, Lucullus, and Pompey.

Nevertheless, the figure of Tigran interested many non-Armenian historians, writers, and cultural figures. For example, European composers dedicated 24 operas to Tigran, including Vivaldi himself.

The activity and legacy of Tigran the Great are directly related to Artsakh. One of the four Tigranakerts and the only one under Armenian control is located near the city of Agdam. It is not accidental that the remains of the legendary city were liberated during the Artsakh war.

These seemingly secondary factors actually have a deeper and still unexplained significance for the fate of the Armenian people. It is no secret that the revival of the Armenian people and Armenian statehood began with Artsakh.

At the moment, the three most important attributes that are capable of reviving the former greatness of the Armenian people are located precisely in Artsakh: Gandzasar, where the head of John the Baptist is buried, symbolizing faith in God; the ruins of Tigranakert, symbolizing faith in one’s own strength; and Amaras, where Mesrop Mashtots founded the first school, symbolizing Armenian civilization.

And we must always remember that the loss, in both the literal and figurative sense, of any one of these attributes will have unpredictable consequences for the entire Armenian people!

Author – David Babayan, Candidate of Historical Sciences.

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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