The Sparapetut'iwn in Armenia
in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries

by Robert Bedrosian

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This article was published in Armenian Review Vol. 36 #2(1983) pp. 6-46.

One of the most important offices in Arsacid Armenia belonged to the sparapet or commander-in-chief of the armies. Like many other offices in the Armenian kingdom such as those of the coronant, the chamberlain, and the master of the hunt, the sparapetut'iwn was a hereditary charge held traditionally by the senior member of one family, the Mamikoneans. Exactly when the sparapetut'iwn was instituted in Armenia is not known, since the earliest relevant Armenian sources (fifth century) give a confused picture of the establishment of Arsacid offices in the country. Likewise the time of the abolition of the office is unclear since one meets Mamikonean sparapets after the fall of the Armenian Arsacid kingdom (A.D. 428) and during the seventh and eighth centuries. In the medieval Bagratid and Arcrunid kingdoms as well as in Cilician Armenia, the sparapetut'iwn was still an important office, although with the removal of the Mamikoneans to the Byzantine empire in the late eighth century, its occupants were drawn from other lordly (naxarar) families.

Because of Armenia's strategic geographical position between two mighty and inimical powers, Rome-Byzantium on the west and Iran on the east, the country was often forced to participate in the campaigns launched by one empire against the other. As an ally of the one and a border state of both, Armenia was subjected to devastation by the armies of both empires. The almost perpetual state of war which was endemic between Armenia and its neighbors, as well as warfare within the country between the Arsacid kings of Armenia and their naxarars, made the sparapetut'iwn an institution capable of rivaling the country's bnik ters ("native lords"), that is, the Arsacid kings themselves.

Etymologically the word sparapet derives from the Parthian spadapet (spad -army, pat-leader) which in turn derives from the Old Persian spadapaitis (1). The Iranian origin of this word and of other Armenian Arsacid official terminology is a reflection of Armenia's long cultural and political ties with Iran which date from Achaemenid times (2).

Although there exists no separate study of the sparapetut'iwn, both Iranists and Armenists perforce have commented on the importance of this office and its occupants in their works on Iranian and Armenian soclety. Among Iranists treating the Sasanian Eran-spahbad the most detailed information is found in the writings of A. Christensen and G. Widengren. Christensen, in L'Iran sous les Sassanides, wrote that in the Sasanian hierarchy each of the four social groupings, the clergy (asravan), soldiers (arteshtaran), bureaucracy (dibheran), as well as the commoners (vastryoshan) and artisans (hutukhshan), had a supreme head. The chief of the military was the Eran-spahbad, and until the time of Xosrov I (531-579), the Iranian army was under the command of a single Eran-spahbad who performed the threefold functions of minister of war, commander-in-chief, and negotiator of the peace (3).

As a result of Xosrov I's military reforms, four spahbads were created in place of a single leader. The spahbad of the east controlled the armies of Khurasan, Sacastan, and Kerman; the spahbad of the south, the armies of Pars and Susiana; the spahbad of the west, the armies of Iraq to the Byzantine frontier; and the spahbad of the north, the armies of Media and Azerbaijan (4). Since the rarely-encountered officer known as the arteshtaransalar (chief of the warriors) is not mentioned after Kavadh and the Eran-spahbad was abolished during the reign of Kavadh's successor Xosrov I, Christensen equates the two terms (5).

In L'Iran sous les Sassanides. Christensen expressed doubt that an office as important as that of the Eran-spahbad could be hereditary in one family. G. Widengren cites the transmission of the Armenian sparapetut'iwn in the Mamikonean family as an example of such a tendency and believes that the Iranian Eran-Spahbad was also a hereditary position (6).

Among Armenists, the sparapetut'iwn has been examined most notably by N. Adontz and C. Toumanoff. Adontz placed the consolidation of the Mamikonean holdings in the southern district of Taron during the reign of king Trdat the Great's son Xosrov II Kotak (ca. 330-339). While noting the existence of sparapets prior to the accession of king Arshak II, Adontz seems to place the real establishment of the sparapet as a court official (gorcakal) during Arshak Il's reign (350-367) (7).

In Armenia in the Period of Justinian, Adontz wrote:

The Mamikonean as sparapets, were said to stand above all the zoravark' or military commanders. The Armenian army was made up of many contingents furnished by the princely houses. Each of these detachments was commanded by its own prince, but the supreme command belonged to the hereditary sparapets, the Mamikonean house, who, in this sense stood "above all the princes and their armies" (8).

Thus the sparapet stood at the head of the princely class just as the hazarapet stood at the head of the peasant population (9). According to Adontz, the division of command of the army under four sparapets found in the history attributed to Movses Xorenac'i does not correspond to historical reality. Finally, Adontz observed the important position which the bishop of the Mamikoneans occupied in ecclesiastical affairs:

The bishop of the Mamikonean held the leading position in the Church after the patriarch or Catholicos, the influence of the naxarar system is obvious in this case. Just as the hereditary Mamikancan sparapets stood at the head of the nararars under the Arsacids and even later, so in ecclesiastical affairs, the chief administrator found at the side of the Catholicos was the representative of the same house (10).

Toumanoff believes that the Mamikoneans were the "immemorial dynasts" of Tayk', a district on the Armeno-Georgian border, and were possibly of Georgian origin. Although he mentions Mancaeus, defender of Tigranocerta against the Romans (B.C. 69), as the first historically visible member of the dynasty, Toumanoff does not specify when the sparapetut'iwn was entrusted to the Mamikoneans. He notes that by the fourth century this family had acquired half of Taron centered in the castle of Oghakan on the Arsanias river. By 439, as a result of the will of St. Sahak, the last descendant of St. Gregory, the Mamikoneans acquired the other half of Taron centered in the city of Ashtishat as well as the principalities of Bagravande and Acilisene—making them "the greatest territorial princes of the Monarchy, ruling a State that nearly sundered it into two halves" (11).

Toumanoff compares the sparapet with the Iberian (Georgian) spaspet (12) who, unlike the sparapet held an apparently non-inheritable office (13) which included civil as well as military functions (14). Finally, Toumanoff suggests that while in Sasanian Iran both an Eran-spahbad and an Aspahbad (master of the horse, i.e., head of the cavalry) coexisted, in Armenia this could not have been the case since the Armenian army was primarily cavalry. He concludes therefore that the term aspet which the Armenian sources apply to the Bagratid princes was not an official, administrative, but merely a family title (15).

Before turning to an examination of the relevant Armenian sources on the sparapetut'iwn, some general observations on these sources are in order. First, none of the sources considered in this study was written while the Arsacid dynasty ruled Armenia. The Arsacids were deposed in the Byzantine-controlled portion of the country in 390 and in the Iranian-controlled portion in 428. The earliest example of classical Armenian writing to survive, the Bible, was not finally translated until after 431 (16). The historical sources with which we are concerned describe a kingdom which had long since lost its glory. Thus, although the sparapetut'iwn outlived the kingdom which created it and existed throughout the fifth century, one has no guarantees that the sources faithfully describe this institution in the heyday of the state (i.e. as an Arsacid institution). Second, the sources which have survived even from the post-428 period are few and belong to different genres. Koriwn's Life of Mashtoc' is a biography; "Agat'angeghos'' is a short epic account of Armenia's conversion to Christianity; the History by P'awstos Buzand is more a collection of episodes than a history; and Ghazar P'arpec'i's work is a eulogy of the Mamikonean family. Third, although some of these books contain the word "history" in their titles, not one of them is a history of Armenia. Instead they are, for the most part, the products of House historians who have written about the role of a particular family in Armenian affairs. P'awstos Buzand and Ghazar P'arpec'i were both historians of the Mamikonean House. Thus their works contain few disparaging remarks about their patrons and most likely numerous half truths and outright distortions. Finally, one is obliged to eliminate from consideration two works traditionally accepted as fifth century compositions: Eghishe's On Vardan and the Armenian War, and the History of Armenia attributed to Movses Xorenac'i. Serious doubt was raised about the dating of Eghishe's history by N. Akinean who believed that rather than describing the Vardananc' (450), the work might instead be an account of the late sixth century rebellion also led by a Vardan Mamikonean (17). Eghishe, a Mamikonean sympathizer, is unknown to the definitely late fifth century P'arpec'i who most certainly would have used the former's work had it existed when he was writing. In any case, Eghishe's history does not contain any information on the sparapetut'iwn which differs from what is found in P'arpec'i. As regards Xorenac'i, this enigmatic writer and/or editor seems to have operated in the last part of the eighth century. He is violently anti-Mamikonean and provides much information on the sparapetut'iwn which contradicts the sources which will he examined here. For this reason Xorenac'i's history cannot be ignored, but neither can it be classed with authentic fifth century sources. A discussion of Xorenac'i's information on the sparapetut'iwn therefore is confined to the notes (18).

Footnotes 1-18


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