Armenia and Georgia

by Cyril Toumanoff

Chapter XIV

The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. IV
The Byzantine Empire part I
(Cambridge, 1966)
pp. 593-637*

*This work is presented solely for non-commercial educational/research purposes.

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The chapter is accompanied by footnotes on the bottom of each page, an extensive Bibliography (pp. 983-1009), and three maps: Caucasia in the 5-8th Centuries, facing page 598; Caucasia in the 8-11th Centuries, facing page 608; and Caucasia in the 12-15th Centuries, facing page 624.

I. The Abolition of the Caucasian Monarchies

[593] Cis-Caucasia, where the Armenian and Georgian states flourished, is the north-easternmost region of the Mediterranean world. Protected to the north by the Caucasian range and washed to the east and west by the Caspian and Black Sea, it opens out in a semi-circle towards the south, linking up with Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia and Iran. In the late Roman epoch it contained four polities. The chief of these was Armenia; the others, bordering it in the north from sea to sea, were the two Georgian lands of Egrisi, on the Euxine, and of K'art'li, east and south of it, as well as Caspian Albania (Aghuank'). To the classical world, K'art'li was always Iberia (Hiberia), while Egrisi was at first known as Colchis and then as Lazica. Iberia was the nucleus of Georgia, wherein the historical continuity of the nation and its historical memory were preserved, in contrast to Egrisi whose early history is obscured by foreign domination. Of Albania, too, little is known at this early period; it stands in the same relation to Armenia as West Georgia to Iberia: for the history of either we have to rely on the occasional light shed by the historical tradition of its more articulate neighbour and by the scattered data of foreign sources (1).

Belonging to the Mediterranean world and bordering on Iran, the (cis-)Caucasian states were subjected to powerful influences from both; they became involved in the struggle of two imperial expansions, Roman and Iranian; and they owed the survival of their cultural and political individuality to the equipoise of the two rivals. The civilisation of Caucasia (Armenia and Georgia) reached back, uninterruptedly, to Hittite and Assyrian times; it has formed a part of the patterns of civilised existence that succeeded and influenced one another in the Mediterranean world: Aegean-Anatolian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, Hellenistic, Romano-Byzantine. The Caucasian social structure, as will be seen, bears a striking resemblance to that of the West: both arose from the blending of tribal conditions and more advanced, especially Romano-Hellenistic, political forms. The [594] chief art of Caucasia, architecture, is in style akin to Romanesque and contains seeds of Gothic, the relationship between them being, as Focillon puts it, that of two different experiments conducted with the same media (1). Last but not least, Caucasia became a part of Christendom, whence the similarity of its literatures—another important achievement—with those of the rest of the Christian world. But religious separation and barbarian invasions (which afflicted Caucasia much later than the West) prevented its sharing in the subsequent cultural development of Christendom: after the middle ages, its history is largely one of arrested growth.

It was in the clash of empires that the monarcies of Armenia, Iberia and Albania fell into abeyance. Both Rome and Iran claimed the overlordship of Caucasia: the latter from the days of the Achaemenids (2); the former after its victory over Mithridates' Caucasian allies when Roman suzerainty was imposed upon Armenia, Iberia, Albania and Colchis (3). Neither power could acquiesce in the other's hegemony in Caucasia, which was of supreme strategic importance to both: it controlled the frontier between them as well as the passes protecting the civilised world from hyperborean barbarians beyond the mountains; thence the heart of Iran could be struck at, and the Roman lake reached through the Euxine.

After intermittent wars, a compromise was reached as far as the most important Caucasian state was concerned, in the treaty of Rhandeia of 63. An Iranian Arsacid was placed on the Armenian throne as a vassal of Rome. How this settlement affected the other Caucasian kingdoms can only be surmised. The establishment of an Arsacid branch on the throne of Albania, within that century, and of another on that of Iberia, in the second century, may indicate similar arrangements with regard to these countries. Colchis had meantime passed to the kings of Bosporus, clients of Rome, and then was anexed in 64 to the Roman Empire.

The settlement of Rhandeia continued in force, in theory at least, until the political and religious events of the third and fourth centuries. The Hellenised Arsacids of Iran were overthrown by the nationalist Sassanids, and the new rulers of a renovated Iran could no longer accept a settlement that, in their eyes, infringed upon their imperial rights. At the same time, the dynastic condominium of the Arsacids—Iranian, Armenian, Iberian, Albanian—which, in guaranteeing the family ascendancy of the Great King over the Caucasian [595] kings, had compensated him for the admission of Roman influence into Caucasia, came to an end. Instead, a family feud separated these kings from the usurping Sassanids. The latter, it is true, soon after, secured the throne of Iberia for a branch of the Mihranids, one of the 'seven great houses' of Iran, but the religious develoopments of the time frustrated this diplomatic move. These were the establishment of militant Zoroastrianism as the state creed of the Sassanid 'New Iran', and the conversion in the following century of both the Roman Empire and the Caucasian kingdoms to Christianity (1). The conversion of Caucasia was not only of a great spiritual, but also of a profound political significance. The easy mingling of cultural and religious forms that had in part made Rhandeia possible existed no more than the Arsacid condominium. The convergence of religious and dynastic reasons enhanced, on the one hand, the suzerainty exercised in fact or in theory by the Roman Empire in Caucasia and, on the other, created a chasm between it and Iran.

Thus the strife between the empires was intensified. In 363 the defeat of Julian forced his successor to cede to Sapor II the overlordship of Armenia, Iberia and Albania: Iran regained what had been lost by the treaty of Nisibis (2). Within that decade, however, Valens re-established Roman supremacy in Armenia. But he was able to recover only a half of Iberia: the country was split into two kingdoms, one, ephemeral, under Roman, the other under Iranian suzerainty. It had become obvious by the fourth century that two mutually exclusive political and religious influences could not exist within the same polity. Division appeared to be the only solution. It was tried in Iberia; then, at the end of the century, it was used as a basis for a renewed modus vivendi between Rome and Iran in Armenia.

The success of these imperial policies was guaranteed by internal complications resulting from the nature of Caucasian society (3). Like [596] Caucasian civilisation, the social structure of Caucasia had its beginnings in Hittite and Assyrian times: in the Urartian phase of its history. The salient feature of that society was the survival of a whole class, a caste in fact, of dynastic princes, which had evolved from the tribal aristocracy of Urartian days. They were older than kingship, which derived from them. Their principalities were self-sufficient and self-determined, being territorialised tribes and clans of old. And their rights over these states were fully sovereign, including executive, judiciary, legislative and fiscal independence, control of their own armed forces, and, from the princes' point of view at least, the right to negotiate with foreign powers. On the international scale, they received the treatment accorded to minor kings. Armenia and Iberia were therefore largely federations of princely states presided over by the king. However, the Crown had from the start sought to increase its ascendancy over each federation. In this way, to the purely political dependence of one sovereign upon another, there were added certain feudal features. What the Crown could not reduce by force, it attempted to control by sanction; it admitted the princely rights, but tended to regard them as of its own delegation. All the Armenian dynastic princes were at the same time feudal dukes, ruling their principalities and commanding their armies in the service of the king. In Iberia, where the Crown was comparatively stronger, the ducal office was conferred on only a few of the princes. In both monarchies, many dynasts were enfeoffed of great Crown offices, often aulic in character. The lesser nobility was composed of the knights, vassals of the king and of the princes, who served in the cavalry of the realm.

The most prominent Armenian princes on the eve of the abolition of the monarchy were those invested with the hereditary control of the four marches of the kingdom, notably the margraves (vitaxae) of Gogarene in the north and of Arzanene in the south, as well as the Mamikonids (Mamikonian) of Tayk', Taraun, Bagravandene, and Acilisene, hereditary High Constables; the Bagratids (Bagratuni) of Syspiritis, Kogovit and Tamoritis, hereditary Coronants of the Kings [597] of Armenia; the Princes of Siunia; the Kamsarakans of Siracene and Arsharunik'; the R'shtuni ruling the southern shore of lake Van; and the Artsrunis connected with the margraviate of Adiabene. In the Syrian march of Armenia (once the kingdom of Sophene), which had passed by the treaty of Nisibis under dual Roman-Armenian control and been given the Roman appellation of gentes, there were the Princes of Ingilene and of Greater and Lesser Sophene (1).

The balance between the Crown and the dynasts was one of tension, and thus delicate; and in the history of Armenia and Iberia it was frequently upset. The ensuing struggles often became involved in the vaster conflicts of empires. While the Arsacids of Armenia and the Chosroids (Mihranids) of Iberia gravitated towards the autocratic and beureaucratic Roman state, their princely vassals, though Christians, were drawn to the aristocratic realm of the Sassanids. One of the internal Armenian crises led in 377/8 to the expulsion of King Varazdat by Manuel, Prince of the Mamikonids (2), who then assumed the power. As the chief quarrel with Iran of the princely party whom Manuel represented was religious, Sapor II's guarantee of religious freedom and political autonomy to Armenia induced the Mamikonid government to recognise, in 378/9, the suzerainty of the Great King. At that moment, the Roman Empire was paralysed by the disaster of Adrianople; but soon the weakness of Sapor's successors and the rise of the great Theodosius decided Manuel to transfer Armenia's allegiance to the Empire. Restoring the throne to two Arsacid brothers, the co-kings Arsaces III and Valarsaces, Manuel continued to rule until his death in 385/6. Thereafter, the co-operation of Crown and dynasts came to an end. Some of the princes revolted against Arsaces III and appealed to Ctesiphon for another Arsacid king. Varazdat's son Chosroes was sent at the head of an Iranian army and occupied the greater part of the kingdom, reducing Arsaces to the western [598] province of Upper Armenia. Thus it was Armenia itself which brought about its partition. And in 387 Theodosius I and Sapor III made peace on the basis of the fait accompli, recognising the existence of two Armenian kingdoms, one under Roman, the other under Iranian overlordship (1). Faced with the barbarian pressure elsewhere and beset with internal troubles, the Christian Empire had to cede an important part of Christendom to its chief foe of the day. The whole of Iberia had by then been abandoned to Iran, as had also beeen Albania.

Division in Armenia was followed by political disintegration. It sealed the secessionist trend of many frontier principalities; thus the Gentes came under the sole aegis of the Empire and the Vitaxae of Gogarene passed to Iberia. Arsaces III died c. 390, and the Emperor allowed him no successor. His kingdom (Armenia interior, or magna) was placed under the comes Armeniae, residing at Theodosiopolis (Erzerum), and its princely states acquired the same status of sovereign vassals of the Empire as the Gentes (2). Inner Armenia and the Gentes formed Roman Armenia. In Iranian Armenia, four times larger than the other, the Sassanids strove to strengthen their control, while the aristocracy kept quarrelling with the Crown. At the instance of the princes, Chosroes III was deposed by the Great King, replaced by his brother Vr'amshapuh, then reinstated. Finally, after the reign of Yazdgard I's son Sapor— a step toward the intended absorption of Armenia—Vr'amshapuh's son Artaxias IV was brought to the throne by the princes. But they had grown tired of any authority above their own in Armenia; and, despite the solemn warnings of the chief prelate of Armenia, St. Isaac, last male descendant of St. Gregory, the apostle of the country, they resolved upon a fatal step. They petitioned the Great King to abolish the very institution of the Armenian monarchy and to become their immediate suzerain. Vahram V, who could hardly have hoped for such a fulfillment of [599] the Armenian policy of his house, hastened to accede. In 428 he deposed Artaxias IV, deprived St. Isaac of his office (1), and showered favours upon the princes. The court of Ctesiphon was careful to respect their sovereign rights; its suzerainty was expressed in the presence of a viceroy marzpan at the old royal capital of Dvin, in the fealty of the princes and in their military aid (for which subsidies were now given). For the rest they remained sovereign oligarchs of Armenia.

Though respecting the social and political status quo of their new dependency, the Sassanids attempted to spread Iranian cultural and religious influences. In this they were not successful. The conversion of Armenia had already thwarted their programe; and now the invention of the Armenian alphabet, at the turn of the fifth century, by St. Mesrop (Mashtots') ensured a more thorough Christianisation of the people and achieved Armenia's linguistic and cultural independence of its neighbours. Armenian literature was born and a school of translators arose who rendered into Armenian the Scriptures as well as Greek patristic, philosophical and historical works. Original writers made their appearance, especially in the field of history (2). To counterbalance this spiritual independence, Iran at first encouraged Syrian influence in Armenia. Iranian Christianity was largely Syrian and was already then drifting away from the rest of Christendom (as was soon manifesed in the Nestorian secession); thus it looked as though a link between Armenia and Iran might be forged, and Armenian ties with the Roman Empire weakened.

The next step was more radical. the politic Vahram V was succeeded in 438/9 by the fanatical Yazdgard II, whose declared intention was to convert Caucasia to Zoroastrianism. Armenian sustained the first blow. Encouraged by the temporising of the princes, Yazdgard launched a terrible persecution of Armenian Christians. But before the year was over, a popular revolt broke out; the princes joined this and St. Vardan II, Prince of the Mamikonids, took the [600] command of what became a war of liberation. But it was doomed to failure. The Emperor Marcian was unable to aid the Christians; a group of princes, under Vasak of Siunia, viceroy of Armenia, withdrew from the struggle; and the insurgents were utterly crushed at Avarayr, on 2 June 451, when St. Vardan lost his life. An understanding was thereupon reached by the conciliatory party and the Great King; but Yazdgard was obliged to give up his religious policy in Armenia. In Albania, this policy provoked the revolt of King Vach'e' II c. 460, the result of which was the dispossession of the Albanian Arsacids c. 461. In Iberia, the Sassanids appear to have been more cautious, and the anti-Iranian revolt occurred two decades later.

After the partition of Armenia, Roman power tended to weaken in West Georgia. One of the local dynasties, rulers of the Lazian people, spread its control to the whole of Colchis; and the war measures of the imperial government in 456 succeeded merely in imposing Roman suzerainty over these Lazic kings. About 468 the Iranians dared to attack Colchis or, as it was now called, Lazica. At the same time Iberia turned towards the Empire. King Vakhtang I Gorgasal (c 440-522) (1) was a strong monarch and, while the high nobility inclined towards Iran, he ended by espousing a pro-Roman policy. In 482 he put to death his most powerful vassal, Varsk'en, Vitaxa of Gogarene, who had become Zoroastrian and martyred his Christian wife, St. Susan, daughter of the Mamikonid Vardan II. By this act he placed himself in open revolt against his suzerain the Great King, who had induced Varsk'en to apostatise. Vakhtang appealed to the Armenian princes for co-operation and to the Huns north of the Caucasus for aid. After some hesitation, the Armenians, led by Vardan II's nephew Vahan, joined the insurrection. Some assistance, it seems, was obtained—unofficially—from the Emperor Zeno. This insurrection had no more military success than that of 451. The Iberians were routed and the Armenians took to guerrila warfare. Then the unexpected happened. The Great King Peroz fell in 484 fighting the Hephthalites, and his successor Valash was obliged, in view of the weakened state of his realm, to re-establish peace in Caucasia. In 485 he concluded an agreement with the Armenian princes: instead of an Iranian viceroy, the Mamikonid Vahan became a presiding prince (with the title of marzpan), Christianity was to be undisturbed, while Zoroastrianism was proscribed. Peace was also [601] made with Vakhtang of Iberia; and this made possible his rapprochement with the Empire. Vakhtang adhered to Zeno's religious policy and, in recompense, his chief bishop was raised, in 486/8, to to the rank of a Katholikos, dependent on Antioch (1). In Albania, too, the Arsacids were temporarily restored, with Vach'agan III. The peace of Valash lasted until the following century.

When he broke the Hundred Years Peace with the Empire, the Great King Kavadh I also broke the peace of Valash in Caucasia. In Kavadh's Roman war of 502-6, Vakhtang of Iberia refused to participate; Kavadh must have resumed the Zoroastrianising policy towards Iberia after his restoration in 498/9 and thus again have turned Vakhtang against Iran. In 513/14 the Armenians unsuccessfully rose against the Great King, and lost their autonomy. The guarantee of religious freedom, thereupon conceded by Kavadh, may indicate that the revolt had been caused by his failure to observe the stipulations of 485. About that time, King Damnazes of Lazica professed Zoroastrianism and passed to Iranian allegiance. Thus the Sassanids now controlled the whole of Caucasia, except for Iberia where they seem to have met with considerable resistance. But by 517/18 an Iranian viceroy had been installed at Tiflis, the capital, and Vakhtang, apparently, reduced to a part of his realm; and this must have caused his appeal for protection to Justin I. Meantime, Damnazes' successor Tzathus I returned to Christianity and Roman allegiance, and an imperial army was dispatched to Lazica. But the aid to Vakhtang proved insufficient, and, unable to withstand the foe, the aged king fled to West Georgia. All these events led to the Persian war which Justinian inherited from Justin in 527 and terminated in the peace of 532. The status quo in Caucasia was then restored, with Armenia divided as before, Iberia in Iranian hands, and Lazica under Roman control.

The Empire's attempts to consolidate its position in Caucasia led to a reduction of local autonomies and to oppression by provincial officialdom. Zeno had already infringed the sovereign rights of the princes of the Gentes. In 532 Justinian suppressed these principalities altogether. Their military independence had already been destroyed by 528, with the creation of the magister militum per Armeniam, in command of five duces; and in 536 the newly annexed territories were organised as the provinces of First Armenia (the former kingdom) and Fourth Armenia (the Gentes). Finally, so as to crush the [602] economic independence of the now 'mediatised' dynasts of Roman Armenia, the Emperor, beginning in 535, strove to quash the local law of agnatic succession. All this and the behaviour of Roman officials caused Armenia to revolt in 539 and to appeal to the Great King. A similar picture was presented by Lazica: Roman representatives bullied the king and robbed the population until Gubazes II likewise appealed to Chrosroes I for aid. the peace of 532 had meantime been broken and the second Persian war begun in Syria. Chosroes heeded the two appeals; in 541 Iranian forces occupied Lazica with its great fortress of Petra; and in 543 war was carried into Armenia. When a truce was concluded in 545, Lazica was not included in its provisions.

But Iranian control implied Zoroastrianising, and soon Gubazes II and his people again turned to the Empire. From 549 to 557 war was waged on Lazic territory and was complicated by the pro-Iranian sympathies of Lazica's vassal principalities of Abkhazia and Suania, and by the murder of Gubazes by an imperial official which nearly sent the kingdom back into the Great King's arms. This was averted by the Emperor's justice and the solem installation of the slain king's brother Tzathus II. When the Lazic war ended in 561, Iran abandoned all claims to West Georgia, though the question of Suania was left undecided.

The Fifty Years Peace of 561 lasted three years longer than the 'Limitless Peace' of 532. In 572, with the assassination of the Iranian viceroy by the Mamikonid Vardan III, another insurrection flared up in Armenia which was joined by some Iberians. The insurgents appealed to the Empire, and Justin II decided to aid them. This, together with other events, led to another Persian war, which was to last till 591. The war was not at first propitious to the Christians. By 575 Iran regained control over Armenia and, undoubtedly, Iberia. There, the defeat in 522 of Vakhtang Gorgasal had spelt victory no less for his vassals than for his Iranian overlord. The powers of his successors were curtailed and they were relegated, with an empty royal title, to their demesne of Kakhetia, on the Albanian border, while an Iranian viceroy and the princes ruled at Tiflis. But soon the latter grew impatient of even the restricted Crown; and when, in 580, King Bacurius III died leaving young sons, the Iberian princes, exactly like their Armenian confrères, transferred their allegiance to the Great King. With this, the Iberian Crown went into abeyance (1). [603] Of the Lazic kings, nothing is known after Tzathus II; probably the extinction of the dynasty led to the passing of the kingdom under direct Roman control. Thus by the end of the sixth century all the Christian Caucasian states had become kingless.

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