Sebeos' History

Translator's Preface

Sebeos' History is a seventh century document of special importance for the study of Armenia and the Middle East in the sixth-seventh centuries. It was during this period, when Iran and Byzantium were wrestling for control of the Armenian highlands, that Armenian culture became more individual, independent, and distinctively national. While Sebeos focuses his attention primarily on Armenia's lay and clerical naxarars (lords), he also provides extensive and valuable information on events taking place in the neighboring societies of Byzantium, Iran, and among the Arabs.

Byzantinists will find factual and anecdotal information on the reigns of emperors Maurice (582-602), Theodosius (co-emperor, 590-602), Phocas (602-610), Heraclius I (610-41) and his successors to Constans II (641-68), including their wars against Iran in the east and the Goths in the west. Iranists will find information on officials such as the hamaharz, pustipan, marzpan, ostikan, Asparapet, patgospan, and hamarakar; and a wealth of information on the reigns of shahs Peroz (459-84), Valas (484-88), Kawad I (488-96; 498-531), Xosrov I Anushirvan (531-79), Hormizd IV (579-90), Xosrov II Aparvez (590; 591-628), Kawad II Sheroe (628), Artashir (628-29), queen Boran (630-31), and Yazdigerd III (632-51). Sebeos' account of the rebellion of Vahram Choben and his description of the last days of the Sasanian dynasty have the authenticity of a contemporary. In addition, Sebeos narrates the birth and rise of Islam and provides unusual information on Jewish nationalism, the Khazars of the north Caucasus, and the Kushans on Iran's northeastern border.

Regrettably, aside from canonical and hagiographical literature and a few inscriptions, there are no other Armenian historical sources for the period of the sixth-seventh centuries. As such, Sebeos' information on Armenia and the Armenians has particular importance. His account begins where the fifth century Ghazar P'arpets'i's History left off—with the rebellion of Vahan Mamikonean in the 480s. Unfortunately, the account then skips the early and middle parts of the sixth century, picking up again with the rebellion of Vardan II Mamikonean (572) against Iran. Sebeos describes the separatist activities of the district of Siwnik' in eastern historical Armenia; Vahram Choben's efforts to enlist the aid of Mushegh Mamikonean, and Mushegh's role in Vahram's defeat; the alleged plan of the emperor Maurice and shah Xosrov to depopulate Armenia, and the rebellions this engendered. He especially concentrates on the reign of Maurice (582-602), who was perhaps of Armenian descent and had a peculiar antipathy toward the Armenians. The late sixth and early seventh centuries were a period when the Armenian naxarars were strong and independent and prone to switching allegiance from Byzantium to Iran, or vice versa. Sebeos describes the careers of several such prominent lords as Smbat Bagratuni, his son Varaztirots', T'eodos Xorxoruni and others, some of whom became important officials in the two rival empires. As a cleric, Sebeos was particularly interested in religious matters. He describes the activity of Armenian kat' oghikoi; Byzantine attempts to force Chalcedonianism on the Armenians; Iranian attempts to force Zoroastrianism on the Armenians; Chrlstianity in Iran; and the spread of Islam.

The present translation, which was completed in 1979, was made from the classical Armenian edition of K. Patkanean [Patmut'iwn Sebeosi episkoposi i Herakln (St. Petersburg, 1879)]. Patkanean based his text on the earlier edition of T. Mihrdatian (Constantinople, 1851) and a manuscript at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg. Mihrdatian in turn had based his edition on an anonymous manuscript found in the library of Ejmiatsin in 1842 by bishop Yovhannes Shahxat'unian. There is extensive controversy about many aspects of the manuscript tradition. None of the full extant manuscripts of Sebeos predates the seventeenth century. Apparently, the now-lost text of Shahxat'unian bore neither an author nor a title. Shahxat'unian himself determined that the work must be the history alluded to by later medieval historians as Sebeos' history. Consequently, with no positive identification, the work was published as Bishop Sebeos' History of Heraclius despite the fact that it is much more than the history of Heraclius. Apparently, Shahxat'unian and/or Mihrdatian divided the text into sections and chapters and prefaced them with summaries (which were not in the original manuscript).

Another controversy surrounds an earlier work appended to all extant manuscripts of this seventh century history, which has come to be known as the Primary History of Armenia [for an English translation and discussion see R. Thomson, Moses Khorenats'i's History of the Armenians (Cambridge, Mass., 1978) Appendix pp. 357-68; our translation of the Primary History is available elsewhere on this site]. Few Armenists today regard the Primary History and "Sebeos" as the work of the same author. Who Sebeos was, and if he really was the author of this history are presently unanswerable questions [see G. Bournoutian, "Sebeos: A Historical Controversy", Armenian Review (Summer, 1975) pp. 138-46 ] There is nothing particularly distinctive about Sebeos' style—the Armenian is direct and (usually) straightforward. All that is clear from the author's biases is that he was a patriotic historian, not unswervingly loyal to any one House, and a fervent defender of the independence of the Armenian Church.

In 1979, G.V. Abgaryan published a critical edition of Sebeos (Erevan, 1979), which includes the Primary History, and is based on numerous manuscripts and fragments. While Abgaryan's text may be more readable than Patkanean's, the editor's freedom in rearranging passages and completely renumbering the chapters makes it difficult to use as a companion to the scholarly writings on Sebeos by more than a century of prominent Armenists. Nonetheless, the Abgaryan edition has extensive annotation, some of which is referenced in the notes to the present translation. An extensive bibliography for the era of Sebeos and subsequent periods in Caucasian history is available in C. Toumanoff's article, "Armenia and Georgia," [Chapter XIV in The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. IV, The Byzantine Empire, part I, (Cambridge, 1966), pp. 593-637].

The transliteration used here is a modification of the new Library of Congress system for Armenian, substituting x for the LOC's kh, for the thirteenth character of the Armenian alphabet (խ). Otherwise we follow the LOC transliteration, which eliminates diacritical marks above or below a character, and substitutes single or double quotation marks to the character's right. In the LOC romanization, the seventh character of the alphabet (է) appears as e', the eighth (ը) as e", the twenty-eighth (ռ) as r', and the thirty-eighth (o), as o'.

Robert Bedrosian
(New York, 1985)

A Note on Pagination

The following chronological tables may be useful as accompaniments to the translation. The tables open in separate windows, for persistence. Additional tables are available on another page of this site: Chronological Tables. Maps are available on our Maps Page.

Rulers of Armenia and of Eastern and Western Empires
Kat'oghikoi and Corresponding Secular Rulers of the Armenians
Rulers of Armenia and Iberia/Georgia

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