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Mamikonian Dynasty › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 01 March 2018
Vardan Mamikonian (Центральный банк Республики Армения)
The Mamikonians were a powerful clan group who were influential in Armenian political and military affairs from the 1st century BCE onwards. They rose to particular prominence from c. 428 CE to 652 CE in the half of Armenia ruled by the Sasanian Empire when marzpan viceroys represented the Persian king. One of the dynasty's most famous figures is Vardan Mamikonian who fell at the 451 CE Battle of Avarayr fought against Persia to defend Armenia's cultural and religious independence.


The Arsacid dynasty ruled Armenia from 12 CE and had managed to keep their balance on the diplomatic tightrope strung between the great powers of Rome and Persia for four centuries. By the 5th century CE, though, the Sasanian Empire had begun to expand its influence into areas previously contested between the two Empires. Armenia had already been formally divided between Persia and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 387 CE. The last Arsacid ruler was Artashes IV (r. 422-428 CE) as the Armenian crown, unable to repress the pro-Persian and anti-Christian factions at court, was abolished by Persia in their half of the country (sometimes referred to as Persarmenia). In 428 CE the marzpans were installed, a position which was higher than satraps and more akin to viceroys. Representing the Sasanian king, the marzpans had full civilian and military authority in Armenia and the system would not change until the mid-7th century CE.


The dynasty that now ruled the roost in Armenia was the Mamikonians whose heartlands were in the northern province of Tayk. Their earliest recorded member is Mancaeus who defended Tigranocerta in 69 BCE against Roman attacks. Long a powerful clan group, the Mamikonians had been particularly successful in the military thanks to their ability to raise cavalry forces of 3,000 knights. By the end of the 4th century CE the hereditary office of grand marshal ( sparapet ), who led the armed forces of Armenia, usually had a Mamikonian lord in the position. Amongst the other noble families the Mamikonians had been only second in importance to the Arsacid royal family itself, indeed two members had even served as regents: Mushegh and Manuel Mamikonian.
Once the ruling house of Arsacid fell, the Mamikonians were left to dominate both Armenian politics and military affairs within the limitations imposed by their Persian overlords. One of the most powerful early Mamikonian princes was Hamazasp, who married Sahakanyush, the daughter of the First Bishop Sakak c. 439 CE. The marriage unified the most prominent feudal and ecclesiastical families in Armenia and the vast territories of the Mamikonians with those of the descendants of Saint Gregory the Illuminator (dc 330 CE). Over the next three centuries, seven Mamikonian princes would rule Armenia.
Armenian Marzpanate

Armenian Marzpanate


Fortunately for Armenia, Sasanid Persia, although selecting each ruling viceroy, mostly left alone the two key institutions of the Armenian state: the nakharars and the Church. The former were local princes whose ranks and titles were based on the hereditary clans of ancient Armenia, and they governed their own extensive lands as semi-autonomous fiefdoms. Some princes did switch loyalties to the Persians, even converting to Zoroastrianism, in exchange for tax and other privileges under the new regime.
The second institution, the Christian Church founded in Armenia around 314 CE, was not outlawed and crushed. Rather, it was indirectly attacked by the Sassanids through their active promotion of Zoroastrianism, the sending of missionaries from Persia, and reductions in tax privileges for the Church's landed estates. The actual institutions of churches and monasteries themselves, like the nakharars, were largely permitted to keep their lands and revenue, maintain a low profile and live to fight another day.
Matters came to a head with the succession of the Persian king Yazdgird (Yazdagerd) II in c. 439 BCE and his prime minister Mihr-Narseh. Sasanid rulers had long been suspicious that Armenian Christians were all simply spies of Byzantium in Persian territory but both these figures were zealous proponents of Zoroastrianism and the double-edged sword of political and religious policy was about to cut Armenia down to size. The fiscal obligations on the Church were increased, more Persian-friendly bishops were appointed, and a delegation of nobles and clergy invited to Persia was even forced to convert to the Persian religion on pain of death. A military confrontation seemed inevitable, and it came in 451 CE at the Battle of Avarayr (Avarair) when the Armenians faced a massive Persian army.


The battle was preceded by sporadic outbreaks of open rebellion with Zoroastrian temples burned down and even priests killed. There was also a minor Armenian victory against a small force of Persians in the summer of 450 CE. The crisis peaked, though, in May or June 451 CE on the plain of Avarayr (modern Iran). The 6,000 or so Armenians were led by Vardan Mamikonian, the son of Hamazasp, and they presented a genuinely united front of the anti-Persian aristocracy and Church.Unfortunately for the Armenians, help from the Byzantine Empire was not forthcoming despite an embassy sent for that purpose. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the Persian-backed marzpan, Vasak Siuni, was nowhere to be seen in the battle either.
Battle of Avarayr

Battle of Avarayr

The Persians, greatly outnumbering their opponents and fielding, besides their ordinary troops, an elite corps of “Immortals” and a host of war elephants, won the battle easily enough and massacred their opponents; 'martyred' would be the term used by the Armenian Church, thereafter. Indeed, the battle became a symbol of resistance with Vardan, who died on the battlefield, even being made a saint. Minor rebellions continued in the next few decades and the Mamikonians, in particular, continued a policy of careful resistance against Persian cultural control. The strategy paid off for in 484 CE the Treaty of Nvarsak was signed between the two states which granted Armenia a greater political autonomy and freedom of religious thought. In this result, the Armenians were helped by the military disasters the Sasanids were enduring on their eastern frontiers and the Persians being fully occupied with the other side of their empire.
Ultimately then, Avarayr was then and still is, seen as a moral victory for Christian Armenia. In political terms, too, the Mamikonians were ultimately successful, as Vahan, the nephew of Vardan, was made the marzpan in 485 CE. During his decade-long reign, Armenia prospered, as is seen in the many new building projects of the period, especially the cathedral at Dvin and many impressive basilicas. Trade also flourished, and the city of Artashat was confirmed as a trading point between the Byzantine and Persian Empires in a Byzantine edict of 562 BCE.


Armenia's zeal for Christianity did bring it closer to the Byzantine Empire and several Mamikonian rulers enjoyed patronage from the emperor in Constantinople when they were given the honorary title Prince of Armenia. However, the Armenian and Byzantine Churches did often differ on matters of dogma. Disagreement with the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE opened a rift which would never be closed. Then the Council of Dvin c. 554 CE declared the Armenian Church's adherence to the doctrine of monophysitism (that Christ has one nature and not two) thus breaking away from the duophysitism of the Roman Church. As in politics, Armenian Christians were having to find their own rocky road between east and west.


Another important figure from the period of Mamikonian rule was the historian Movses Khorenatsi ( Moses of Khoren). Widely known as the father of Armenian history, his History of the Armenians pulled together ancient texts, oral traditions, and the author's own embellishments, and has become the staple historical source of Armenian history ever since it was compiled sometime in the second half of the 5th century CE (although there are some historians who consider Movses to have lived as late as the 8th century CE). The work, at least for western scholars, is notoriously inconsistent with much fabrication but its overall effect is not disputed - it helped to create a sense of continuous history and nationhood for the Armenia people.


By the end of the 6th century CE Armenia was again a point of dispute between Persia and the Byzantine Empire and so a re-division was drawn up, which saw Byzantium acquire two-thirds of Armenia. Worse was soon to come, though. In 627 CE a full-scale war against the Sasanids was carried out by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641 CE) and Armenia was caught in the crossfire. This campaign ended the Sassanid control of Armenia but Byzantine rule was to be short-lived following the dramatic rise of a new power in the region, the Arab Umayyad Caliphate, which conquered the Sasanid capital Ctesiphon in 637 CE.
Armenia was conquered by the Arabs from Damascus between 640 to 650 CE after decades of playing, as so often before, the role of strategic pawn in a battle of Empires between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire. Armenia was formally annexed as an Umayyad province in 701 CE. Although the Mamikonians remained an important clan - several leaders being rallying points for important rebellions in the 8th century CE, their position at the forefront of Armenian politics was ultimately usurped by a new dynasty, the Bagratuni, who would even, by the end of the 9th century CE, establish themselves as the royal family of Armenia.

Constantine V › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 13 November 2017
Leo III & Constantine V (Testus)
Constantine V, also known as Constantine the Dung-named by his enemies, was emperor of the Byzantine empire from 741 to 775 CE. He enjoyed military successes in the Middle East and Balkans but his reign is chiefly remembered for his systematic persecution of any Christians, churches and monasteries which venerated icons, idols and relics. These actions and a neglect of affairs in Italy would, ultimately, see the Popes break from the Byzantine empire and join with the Franks, splitting the Christian Church in two.


Constantine was born in 718 CE as the son and successor to Emperor Leo III, a Syrian diplomat under Justinian II who had gone on to found the Isaurian dynasty which lasted until 802 CE. Constantine was crowned co-emperor with his father in 720 CE. In 732 CE he married Irene, the daughter of the Turkic tribal leader Khazar khan, although, following her premature death, the emperor would marry twice more.
Constantine had seven children in all and the birth of his first, his son Leo, would give rise to the oft-used expression, “to be born in the purple” or porphyrogennetos. The phrase derived from the porphyry, a rare purple-laced marble, that was used in the chamber of the palace at Constantinople where Leo's birth, and many subsequent ones, took place. The restriction that only royalty wore robes made with Tyrian purple dated back to Roman times and this new tradition was one more attempt to further reinforce the legitimacy of dynastic succession and deter would-be usurpers. An additional tool was Constantine's insistence that all officials swear an oath of allegiance to the royal person and heir.


Constantine's reign got off to the worst possible start when Artabasdos seized control of the capital Constantinople in 742 CE.Artabasdos was the military governor ( strategos ) of the Armeniakon region in north-east Asia Minor, the second most important military province, or theme, in the empire. He was also Constantine's brother-in-law. Artabasdos was supported in his claim to the throne by Anastasios, the Patriarch of Constantinople (the Bishop), chiefly because the usurper restored the veneration of holy icons which the Church was so keen on and Constantine was so against.


Constantine moved his army against the rebels, first in the province of Opskikon and then Armeniakon. Next, he liberated Constantinople and so was able to regain his throne in 744 CE. The emperor then set about punishing those who had wronged him. Anastasios was not removed from office but was publicly whipped and sent naked through the streets of the capital riding backwards on a donkey. Artabasdos faired rather worse, he was blinded along with his two sons in a public ceremony in the capital's Hippodrome.
Constantine set about beautifying his capital and restoring it to its former glory both in architecture and commerce. He oversaw the rebuilding of the city ’s main aqueduct (originally built by Valens), the restoration of the Church of St. Irene, had new churches built such as the Pharos Church in the palace grounds, and rejuvenated the city's marketplaces.


As already mentioned, Constantine was a staunch opponent of the use of religious images in Christianity, just like his father before him, and he campaigned relentlessly for their destruction. For the emperor, only the Eucharist was the true image of Christ. Such was his fervour in iconoclasm (the destruction of icons and holy representations) he wrote treatises on the subject and chaired a conference of like-minded Church figures at Hieria, a suburb of Constantinople, in 754 CE. The council included 338 bishops but representatives from the pro-icon sees of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria were not invited. The result was a declaration that the iconoclast position was the new orthodoxy. The historian TE Gregory here summarises the theological problems the issue of icons raised and why some were so against them:
Under Constantine V, Iconoclast theologians began to see connections with the theological disputes of the past 400 years: they argued that images, in fact, raised once again the Christological problems of the fifth century. In their view, if one accepted the veneration of ikons of Christ, one was guilty of either saying that the painting was a representation of God himself (thus merging the human and the divine elements of Christ into one) or, alternatively, maintaining that the ikon depicted Christ's human form alone (thus separating the human and the divine elements of Christ) - neither of which was acceptable. (212)
From 755 CE a harsh persecution of iconophiles began, led by such zealous officials as Michael Lachanodrakon, strategos of Thrakesion. Monasteries were especially targeted, with the state seizing property and Michael infamously burning down the Pelekete monastery on Mt. Olympus. Churches were hit, their precious icons and relics destroyed, and any imagery deemed unsuitable defaced - in some cases in the capital by Constantine himself - or replaced with depictions of crosses or landscape scenes. The only symbol of worship permitted was the True Cross, the wooden remains of which were in Constantinople at that time. Individuals, too, suffered and not just those in the Church but also the army and bureaucracy. Mutilations, stonings and executions were carried out on those who did not toe the line, the most infamous being of St. Stephen. Constantine was also said to have involved himself in these punishments, smearing oil on the beards of unrepentant monks and setting them on fire.


Many in the Church were very keen on their icons, though, and the emperor became deeply unpopular - so much so, a rumour was spread that when Constantine had been baptised as a baby he had defecated into the baptismal font. The emperor thus acquired his inglorious nickname of Kopronymos or “named in dung”. The emperor's reputation was similarly sullied by rumours that he was a harp-playing bisexual when in the privacy of his palace. Many art lovers past and present, no doubt, would likewise take Constantine's name in vain for all the beautiful religious art lost to posterity by his destructive zeal.


Once Constantine had made his throne safe following the Artabasdos rebellion and reorganised his army into six new regiments ( tagmata ), he set about expanding the empire. The historian JJ Norwich here summarises his martial abilities,
He was a courageous fighter, a brilliant tactician and leader; of all his subjects, it was his soldiers who loved him most. (114)
First, Constantine took on the Arab world. Between 746 and 752 CE the emperor enjoyed many successes in northern Syriaand Armenia, not a little helped by the civil war in, and ultimate collapse of, the Umayyad Caliphate with its capital at Damascus. The Umayyad were replaced by the Abbasid dynasty who promptly moved their capital to the safer distance of Baghdad. Peace was made with the Arabs in 752 CE.
Byzantine Empire, 717 CE

Byzantine Empire, 717 CE

Perhaps Constantine should have kept a more careful watch on the western half of his empire for in 751 CE the Lombardsconquered Ravenna which, as an exarchate (semi-autonomous region), had acted as a protector of Byzantine interests in Italy.The defeat, along with Constantine's increasing ties with Pepin the Short (king of the Franks), the emperor's relentless persecution of icons and the decision to move Italy, Sicily and the southern Balkans away from Papal authority and put them under that of the Bishop of Constantinople, led the Popes in Rome to begin looking elsewhere for an ally, notably the Franks and Charlemagne.
In 756 CE Constantine did turn his attention to the west and the Bulgars who had long been making trouble in the Balkans. As with his predecessors and successors, though, the Bulgars proved a stubborn enemy to defeat completely. A successful campaign in 759 CE was followed by two big victories against Khan Telerig (rc 770-777 CE) in 773 CE, the Battle of Anchialos being especially significant in reducing Bulgar influence in Thrace. However, these did nothing to quell Bulgar ambition and the emperor twice lost fleets in storms. Constantine was still fighting them when he died of illness on campaign in 775 CE. His first son then fulfilled his purple destiny and succeeded his father as emperor Leo IV, having already been crowned co-emperor in 751 CE.
The memory of Constantine V was deliberately darkened by the Church whose icons he had so zealously attacked but this had little effect on his popularity with ordinary people during his reign. It was a popularity that withstood such disasters as the devastating Bubonic plague which hit the empire in 747 and 748 CE, wiping out a third of the population. The standard of living in Constantinople, especially, improved under his guidance and the people had access to plentiful food at reasonable prices.The emperor was also a gifted military commander, as not only his victories illustrate, but also in the famous, perhaps staged, action of a desperate mob who broke into his tomb in the Church of the Holy Apostles to plead for him to rise from his sarcophagus and bring back much-needed victories to the failing empire of the early 9th century CE. There may well have been greater Byzantine rulers over the centuries who now command more lines in the history books but few could match the passion in their beliefs that this most learned of emperors applied to his reign.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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