Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 09/08/2004

Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written consent from Groong's Administrator.
Copyright 2004 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
Why we should read...

Bishop Sebeos' `History'
(288pp, Antelias, Beirut, 1990)

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 8, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian

In the annals of Armenian history, 7th century Bishop Sebeos'
chronicle records a particularly bleak period. After Khazar Barpetzi's
5th century 'History' that closes the classical Golden Age of Armenian
writing, we have no other historian until Sebeos who, writes his own
in 661AD, and covers in detail the period between 589 and 661. Sebeos'
voice is radically different to that of his predecessors.  He speaks
with a cold, indifferent, dispassionate tongue. His is a dry account
with none of the vision and hope, none of the moral outrage, none of
the critical challenging or the passion to remedy, none of the
exhortation or the encouragement we encounter in his forerunners. It
is as if Barpetzi, having registered a last epic endeavour of a still
relatively confident feudal order, has his famous premonitions of
collapse confirmed by Sebeos.

Bishop Sebeos tells of a powerless age for the Armenian feudal elite,
an age in which it is reduced to little more than a pawn or instrument
in the designs of neighbouring great powers. Both secular and church
estates are splintered and disorganised, with no force possessing
broad political ambition or independent centralising power. While
generous in praise of the nobility's courage and military prowess
Sebeos shows that these served only foreign, not Armenian, interests
(p122, 133). Here Armenian territory itself features routinely only as
a theatre of war, where contending empires measure strength to gain
advantage in the region as a whole. (p139, 142, 145, 146).

The extent of the Armenian feudal order's enfeeblement can be gauged
by the contrast between Sebeos' depiction of his own times and that of
his synopsis of previous Armenian history with which his work opens.
The first part reads as an epic of resistance to oppression. Writing
of his battle against Bel, Haik, the mythological father of the
Armenian nation is shown as a stubborn and independent man who
'refuses servitude' and 'rejects demands to address Bel as a god'
(p76). While 'all other nations immediately bent to Bel's will' Haik
'refused to submit or serve'. (p77). Later, after the defeat of Ara
the Beautiful and conquest of Armenia by Assyrian Queen Shamiram,
Armenians again 'rebelled and freed themselves from servitude to
Assyrian kings.' (p79). This theme of resistance and revolt continues
through the summary of the 451AD Vartanantz battles against the
Persians (p92) and Vahan Mamikonian's guerrilla wars that stretched
from the 470s to 480 (p94). The story of Sebeos' own time suggests no
such impulse to freedom.


Sebeos' work is not, properly speaking, a history of Armenia, albeit
Armenia features centrally in it. Sebeos focuses instead on the 7th
century Byzantine-Persian conflicts as these two powers grapple to
dominate the entire Middle and Near East, and then on the challenge
presented to both by the emergent Arab Empire. He shows the Byzantine
and Persian empires, wracked by internal dissension and internecine
conflicts that always verge on exploding into civil war, were
eventually to leave both powerless before the Arab offensive. It is in
this context that Armenia appears and, at best, as little more than an
item of real estate, a bargaining counter to be used in others'
gambles. At worst it is a nuisance and impediment best removed from
the scene.

Around 590 AD, Persian Emperor Khosrov (reign 591 - 628) hoping to regain
his lost crown appeals to Byzantine Emperor Maurice (reign 582 - 602)
for military assistance. In return he promises Maurice: 'All Assyrian
lands from Aroustan up to the town of Mdzbin; and of the land of
Armenia, all territory from Danouder to the plains of Ayrarat, from
the town of Dvin, right up to the shores of lake Van and the land of
Arestavan.'  (p104)

The prospect of a substantial portion of Armenia proves irresistible.
So to Khosrov's aid Maurice dispatches even some of those Armenian
military formations within his jurisdiction. Having secured control
over a greater part of Armenia Maurice accelerated the implementation
of the strategic Byzantine policy of removing from Armenia its
nobility and their military forces. This was as a prelude to religious
and cultural assimilation, (p121) itself part of a single overall
design to eliminate Armenia as a separate and identifiable social and
political entity. Explaining himself in a communication to Khosrov,
now installed as Emperor, Maurice does not mince his words. The
Armenians he writes:

    '... are a devious and disobedient nation that placed between us
    cause confusion. Come, I shall gather mine (i.e. the Armenian
    nobility and their military forces) and send them to the Thrace,
    and you gather yours and send them east. If they die we will have
    enemies that are dead. If they kill, they will have killed our
    enemies. Either way we shall be able to live in peace which would
    be impossible were they to remain in their own land.' (p114)

Accordingly both Persian and Byzantine heads of state proceed to
deploy Armenian troops under their command to the furthest reaches of
their empires (p114, 119, 125, 131 etc). Driving this policy of
Armenia without a native feudal elite and without its own native
military force was the Armenian nobility's notorious instability and
unreliability. By its constant manoeuvring and shifting between Greek
and Persian spheres the Armenian nobility came to be seen as a
fundamentally untrustworthy political ally or agent of imperial rule.
For as long as it retained any degree of autonomous political and
military power this nobility presented a permanent prospect of
rebellion weakening an important flank of either empire.

There is no substantial change to this general picture even during the
only period of significant Armenian power that Sebeos recounts - the
age of Teotoros Rshdouni and the Arab invasions of Armenia. The Arabs,
albeit temporarily restrained by Rshdouni's resistance, merely replace
the Persians to dispute possession of Armenia with the Byzantine
Empire. Ordering Byzantine King Constans to halt his invasion of
Armenia, the: 'Arab prince declared: "Armenia is mine. Do not go
there. If you do I shall attack in such a way that will allow you no
escape." Constans replied "The land is mine and I shall go there. If
you attack...god shall be judge."' (p199)


Nigol Aghbalian, in a fine essay accurately summarises the character
of the Armenian nobility described by Sebeos. The Armenian feudal
estates did 'not have any trust or confidence in each other', they
'exploited their own nation' and whilst 'obstreperous under foreign
rule' were actually 'incapable of securing its own independence.'
(Aghbalian Collected Works Volume IV, page 453) Devoid of any solid
foundation or coherent political project, this elite did not have the
wherewithal to benefit from internal Greek and Byzantine turmoil.  Its
efforts at revolt were feeble, half-hearted and lacked powerful
central leadership. So incidents of resistance were stillborn,
fragmented or descended into farce.

Aghbalian's evaluation of this period and his assessment of the
Armenian nobility reveals an interesting historical irony.  His
membership of the ARF led Soviet Armenian Marxists to denounce him as
a narrow-minded nationalist. Yet this alleged nationalist depicts the
Armenian nobility in class terms, as a corrupt feudal elite that was
opposed to the nation. His Soviet Marxist critics on the other hand
frequently present this same nobility as if it embodies in every epoch
some popular, patriotic and even democratic national ambition! This
contrast deserves scrutiny not least for the fact that it could throw
some light on the distorted expressions of nationalism that developed
within Soviet Armenian society. But to return again to Sebeos...

Sebeos is rarely judgemental in his observations. But, perhaps
unintentionally, his descriptions of the ineffective and venal
nobility are withering. In 589 AD a group of noble houses 'united with
the aim of withdrawing from servitude to the Greeks hoping to install
their own King so as to avoid the fate of dying in the Thrace. They
preferred to live and die for their homeland.' However hopes for quick
personal gain lead to treachery as 'some betrayed colleagues (to the
King) and then fled into hiding.' (p121) Later around 594-5 AD Samuel
Vahevouni and his allies plunder a Persian imperial caravan of
treasures intended to buy their loyalty. Their aim, Sebeos writes was
'to use this treasure to win over the Huns and with the latter's
support fight against both (Byzantine and Persian) Kings and by force
recover our land.' But the enterprise fails as 'their ambition
unravelled on their arrival in Nakhichevan. Mistrustful of each other
they divided the treasure among themselves and halting they camped at
a place called Jahouk.' (p115-16):

The single counterpoint to incapacity is provided by Prince Teotoros
from the House of Rshdoun. Based in the province of Vasbourakan he
appears as a brave soldier and a clever tactician. While the Armenian
nobility as a whole was 'engaged in internecine disputes' that
'condemned the collapse' (p166): 'Only the god fearing and
brave (Teotoros Rshdouni) retained his army at the ready. Thanks to
his courageous wisdom he kept his province under constant control and
caused his enemies no little trouble.' (p166)

Rshdouni built sufficient strength to manoeuvre successfully between
Greek and Persian powers and thus succeeded in gaining a modicum of
recognition from both (p177-178). As a semi-autonomous Greek ally he
successfully battled against the Arab invasion (p179) whilst
simultaneously resisting Byzantine attempts to absorb the Armenian
Church (p181). But Rshdouni's reputation was to rest primarily on his
role in resisting the mid-7th century Arab invasions of Armenia.

In 640 as the first Arab expeditions reached Armenia, the Armenian
nobility was teetering on the brink of terminal disintegration. But in
643 Rshdouni was able to summon enough force to 'destroy them (the
Arab invaders) in an almighty massacre...and so secured a great
victory.' In 646 he succeeded in altogether expelling Arab armies from
Armenia. By 652 he was powerful enough to abandon his alliance with
the weaker Greeks and negotiate more favourable terms with the
Arabs. The measure of autonomy he secured for the portion of Armenia
that came within his ambit is clear in the declaration of the Arab
authority: 'Let this be my declaration of peace between you and us for
as long as you so desire it. For three years I shall demand no taxes
from you. Thereafter you must promise to pay only that which you
wish. Retain 15,000 soldiers among yourselves and sustain them by your
own means and these I shall count against your taxes...I shall send no
emirs or Arabs officers to your castles. The enemy will not enter
Armenia. And if the Greeks attack you I shall support you with as many
troops as you feel you need...' (p198-199)

Rshdouni's resourcefulness and bravery earned him an enduring
reputation in popular memory and he entered the pantheon of legend as
the much loved 'Uncle Toros' in the epic of David of Sassoon. But his
position was fundamentally untenable. There was no powerful social
base upon which Rshdouni could rely, to mount an enduring resistance
to the Arab invasion, a description of whose devastating onslaught
ends Sebeos' history.

Only in his telling of the Arab destruction of the Persian Empire, the
neutralising of the Byzantine Empire and the Arab devastation of
Armenia does Sebeos' prose ignite with some passion. He strikes that
note of profound horror and terror that was to be echoed by subsequent
Armenian men of letters when reflecting on the Arab invasion they all
considered unprecedented in savagery and destructiveness. About the
defeat of the Persians by Arab armies that 'captured 22 fortresses
killing every single person within them' Sebeos writes:

    'But who is capable of describing the terrifying catastrophe of
    the Arab onslaught which set ablaze both land and sea? Very early
    on the Holy seer Daniel predicted these misfortunes that were to
    visit the earth...Daniel uses four beasts as symbols to describe
    four kingdoms that were to visit the world...Fourth...was the
    Kingdom of the Arabs which was to be worse than all the
    previous..."  (p175-6)

Sebeos and his followers, such as Ghevond and Lasdivertzi, had good reason
to see the Arab occupation of Armenia as an unprecedented calamity. It
undermined the economic, political, social and demographic foundations
of a cohesive state from which Armenia was never to properly recover.
However unlike these others, Sebeos' work suggests a broader context
for understanding this essentially correct historical evaluation of
the Arab invasions.

The Armenian nation may have lived some of its bleakest decades during
imperial Arab occupation. But the elite of its Christian Byzantine
neighbour strove endlessly to fracture and destroy Armenian feudal
capacity to resist imperial Arab domination. In the hundred
year-period following the first Arab invasion of Armenia, Byzantine
policy consciously depleted Armenia of its military strength. Its
political, military, religious and administrative policy sought to
diminish Armenian power and autonomy. Thus Byzantine imperial policy
contributed significantly to forcing open Armenia's gates to Arab
conquest. (See N Atonz 'Armenia in the Justinian Period).

Put differently had it not been for Byzantine policy, Arab victory
over Armenia would by no means have been assured and even had it been,
it would have been less comprehensive and on terms that would have
reserved a greater breathing space for Armenia and Armenians.  Arab
rule did shake the demographic, political and social foundations of
Armenia. But from this devastation facilitated by Byzantine policy the
Armenian noble houses began to revive and to re-establish an
independent monarchy in the 9th century. And... just as the Armenian
state was recovering and accumulating new strength, the Byzantine
Empire did the same exact thing again... in the 11th century, this
time lowering the ramparts to the invaders from the east.


In the chronological sequence of Armenian historians Sebeos follows
Barpetzi, the last and great historian of the 5th century Golden
Age. Despite the temptation it is, however, of little value to judge
Sebeos by the standards of his predecessors. They are separated from
each other by some 170 years. They were men of totally different ages,
expressive of totally different conditions. The 5th century historians,
Puzant, Barpetzi, Yeghishe and Khorenatzi synthesised the moral
confidence and political determination of a powerful Church in
alliance with a section of the secular nobility. Their work was a
constituent element of a wider strategy, an ideological and cultural
component of a far-reaching political project to recover and enhance
the power of the Church and secure the independence of what they
regarded as their state and land.

Sebeos' work is of a different order. It echoes an age of decline,
recording the post-Golden Age era of disintegration and collapse. His
is not the voice of a force or a class on the ascent, one that is
striving to retain or enhance power and position. Nigol Aghbalian
rightly suggests that Sebeos, who 'neither judges nor condemns',
reflects the 'insecure and vacillating nobility' that he wrote
about. (Aghbalian p454). But still his history is of immense and
irreplaceable value to anyone delving into Armenian history,
Byzantine-Persian great power relations and the rise of the Arab

By almost unanimous consent Sebeos offers a detailed and fundamentally
reliable record of political and military events not just in Armenia
but also in the entire region. His record is all the more valuable for
the fact that it is one of the few for an era in which all records,
Armenian or non-Armenian, are scarce. This work is in addition a rich
repository of information that can help define, besides political and
military developments, something of Armenian military traditions and
social customs. The volume does have its limits. Like almost all
Christian Armenian historians Sebeos explains historical development
in terms of punishment or reward for man's breach of God's will. But
in contrast to many of those who preceded and who followed him, his
volume is bare of significant reference to the broader social or
economic realm. So while indispensable for the reconstruction of the
political and military events that he focuses on, he does not supply
any internal information that would suggest or assist in their
secular, causal historical explanation.

For all its differences with its predecessors Sebeos's volume deserves
a place on the same shelf as the works of the Golden Age historians.
Summarising its value, Robert Thompson, in his introduction to his
English translation of Sebeos (The Armenian History attributed to
Sebeos, Liverpool University Press, 1999) writes: 'Sebeos'
contribution to our knowledge of the ending of classical antiquity is
greater than that of any other single extant source. Without him we
would know very little of the history of his homeland across some 80
dramatic years... He fills ...important blanks in... the last war
between rival empires ...(and)... provides some fascinating glimpses
of Roman politics in an age of crisis. But his text is to be treasured
above all as presenting the fullest reliable and chronologically
precise account of the Arab conquests and providing unique information
on the circumstances leading to the first Arab civil war.'

Coming from Robert Thompson, whose general appreciation of and respect
for classical Armenian historiography is seriously flawed and
shamefully wanting, this is an unexpected, for him extraordinary, but
nevertheless accurate, judgement.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

| Home | Administrative | Introduction | Armenian News | World News | Feedback |