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Armenia Between Rome and Persia

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Queen Parandzem, continued the battle against the Sasanid invasion army. The Armenian forces, under the leadership of queen Parandzem, positioned themselves in the strong fortress of Artagerkt (near Kaghizman) and Shapour surrounded the fortress. After 2 years of courageous defence the fortress fell finally into the hand of the Persians. Queen Parandzem was raped and murdered.

Vardan Mamikonian (393 AD — 451 AD), also known as Saint Vardan was an Armenian military leader, a martyr and a saint of the Armenian Church.  Vardan Mamikonian, a member of the Mamikonian family, is revered as one of the greatest military and spiritual leaders of Christian Armenia in the 5th century. Saint Vardan Day, usually in February (rarely at times in first week of March but always falling on a Thursday), is commemorated by churches in Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Major Christian Armenian churches are named after Saint Vardan. A major equestrian statue representing him is found in the Armenian capital Yerevan.

P’arhanjem, or Pharantzem, Siwni (born circa 320?-368?) was an ancient Armenian noblewoman and through marriage was a relation to the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia.

She was granddaughter of Antiochos (Andovk) Siwni and the daughter of Antiochus, or Andovk, Siwnik (Siunik), also known as Pharandsem, who served as a Naxarar of the Siunia Dynasty in the Syunik Province, the southernmost province (marz) of Armenia.

Inscriptions found in the region around Lake Sevan attributed to King Artaxias I confirm that in the 2nd century BC the District of Syunik constituted part of the Ancient Armenia.

Nakharar (Armenian naxarar, from Parthian naxvadār “holder of the primacy”) was a hereditary title of the highest order given to houses of the ancient and medieval Armenian nobility.

The Siunia also known as the Siak or Syunik were a family of ancient Armenian nobles who were the first dynasty to govern as Naxarars in the Syunik Province in Armenia from the 1st century.

Through her father, Pharantzem was a descendant of Sisak, the legendary ancestor of the Armenian princely house of Syuni, also called Siunids, Syunid and Syuni.

The Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi states that Sisak was the brother of Harmar who was known as Arma, son of Gegham and a descendant of the legendary patriarch of the Armenians, Hayk. Gegham had taken up residence near Lake Sevan and, following his death, the lands encompassing the areas from Lake Sevan to the Araks River were inherited by Sisak. The region assumed Sisak’s name (Sisakan) after he died, and those who descended from his dynastic line were known in Armenian as Syunis, or Sisakyaner. The Naxarars were descendants of Sisak.

After the Kingdom of Armenia introduced the system of administrative divisions known as nahangs (provinces) in the 2nd century BC, the Siunis were confirmed by King Vologases (Vagharshak) the Parthian as the lords of the province of Syunik.

Her paternal uncle Valinak Siak( c.330), was the first known Naxarar of the Siunia Dynasty in the Syunik Province, while Valinak’s successor and brother who was Pharantzem’s father, Andovk served as the Naxarar of Syunik in (c.340).

Pharantzem’s mother was an unnamed noblewoman from the Mamikonian family, about whom anything certain known until then is that the first known Mamikonid Nakharar was a certain Vatche Mamikonian (330-339), and she had at least one known sibling, a brother called Babik (Bagben), who was re-established as a Naxarar of Syunik by the Mamikonian family in 379. Babik’s rule lasted for less than ten years and by about 386 or 387, Dara was deposed by the Sassanid Empire.

Pharantzem was extremely well known for her beauty and modesty. She married the Arsacid Prince Gnel, a Prince from the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia and nephew of the Armenian King Arsaces II (Arshak II) Tiranus, King of Armenia.

Gnel was the son of Tiridates by an unnamed mother, hence his paternal uncle was Arsaces II (Arshak II) who ruled as Roman Client King of Armenia from 350 until 368 and was a grandson to the previous ruling Roman Client Armenian King Tiran (Tigranes VII) who ruled from 339 until 350.

Gnel was most probably born and raised during the reign of Tiran. Sometime during the reign of his paternal grandfather, the Sassanid King Shapur II launched a war on Rome and her allies, firstly by persecuting the Christians that lived in Persia and Mesopotamia.

Shapur II’s war by capturing these territories began to dealt a severe blow to Roman prestige in the East. Eventually the Sassanid King with his army had invaded Armenia, taking the members of the royal family including Gnel as hostages as they were betrayed to Shapur II by Tiran’s chamberlain. Gnel with all members of his family had become Sassanid political prisoners in which his paternal grandfather was blinded and thrown into prison after Shapur II accused Tiran of collusion with Rome.

The nobles of Armenia were infuriated by the brutality of Shapur II and his treatment of the Armenian royal family, took up arms and fought against Shapur II and his army with assistance from the Romans. They successfully drove Shapur II and his army out from Armenia. After Shapur II was defeated, he had signed a treaty and Gnel with members of his family were released from prison. As Tiran being depressed and blinded from his experience in captivity, had abdicated his throne and Arsaces II succeeded Tiran as Armenian King in 350.

During the reign of Arsaces II, Gnel was a popular prince within the Arsacid dynasty and within Armenian society Armenia and could have been seen as a potential successor to his uncle.

Pharantzem was extremely well known for her beauty and modesty. Her reputation for her beauty had become renown and widespread to the point as Gnel’s paternal cousin Tirit had become passionately in love with her and desired her to be his wife.

Finding a way to plot against his cousin Gnel, Tirit approached their uncle Arsaces II and said to him: “Gnel wants to rule, and to kill you. All the grandees, the Naxarars and the Azats like Gnel and all the Naxarars of the land prefer his lordship over them than yours. Now they say, ‘look and see what you do, king, so that you can save yourself”. Believing the words of Tirit, Arsaces II became agitated and did confirm the statements of Tirit.

Arsaces II from then until Gnel’s death had a grudge against Gnel which he had frequently tried to persecute and plot treachery against him for a long time.

From that moment Gnel was on the run with his wife from his uncle. Arsaces II did eventually kill Gnel around the time of the festival of Nawasard as his falsely lured his nephew and his wife into Shahapivan a native camping place of the Arsacids which was below a walled hunting preserve based on a lie that Arsaces II wanted to reconcile with Gnel. When Gnel was captured by Arsaces II’s soldiers he was taken to a nearby hill of the mountain called Lsin where he was executed.

After the death and burial of Gnel, Arsaces II issued an order to mourn the death of his nephew which Arsaces II weep and mourn for Gnel greatly while Pharantzem mourned so much for Gnel she tore off her clothes, was screaming and cried so much.

Now Tirit had successfully got rid of his cousin, he was unable to control his lust for Pharantzem. Tirit had sent his messenger to Pharantzem a note reading: “Do not mourn so much, for I am a better man that he was. I loved you and therefore betrayed him to death, so that I could take you in marriage”.

In her mourning Pharantzem, raised a protest, pulling out her hair and screaming as she mourned that her husband died because of her.

When the Armenians in particular Arsaces II heard the cries of Pharantzem, Arsaces II began to realise the plotting of Tirit and the senseless death of Gnel. Arsaces II was stunned in what happened and had regretted in killing Gnel. For a while Arsaces II, didn’t do anything to Tirit.

Tirit had sent a message to Arsaces II stating, “King, I want you to order that I be allowed to marry Gnel’s wife”. As Arsaces II heard this he said: “Now I know for sure that what I have heard is accurate. Gnel’s death occurred for his wife”.

Arsaces II planned to kill Tirit in return for Gnel’s murder. When Tirit heard this, he was in so much fear for Arsaces II he fled at night. Arsaces II was informed that Tirit had left and ordered his soldiers to find Tirit and kill him. His soldiers found Tirit in the forests in the district of Basen and killed him there.

In the early years of his reign, Arshak II found himself courted by the Roman Empire and Sassanid Empire, both of which hoped to win Armenia to their side in the ongoing conflicts between them. By 358, Arshak II had married a Greek Cretan noblewoman woman called Olympias, the daughter of the late consul Flavius Ablabius, which through this marriage Armenia was able to remain neutral to Rome and remain an ally to her.

Olympias, the second wife of Arsaces II since he pirior to his kingship had married an unnamed woman who appeared to have died before the year 358 and by whom he had a son called Anob, was given to him as an imperial bride from the Roman emperor Constantius II as Arsaces II was greatly favored by the emperor, who considered him as an ally to Rome.

According to the Historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXV. vii, 9-13; vol. II, pp. 532/3-534/5), describes Arshak II as ‘steadfast and faithful friend’ to the Romans.

The King of Sassanid Persia Shapur II, intensified his efforts to conquer Armenia once and for all. He was able to bribe two Armenian noblemen Vahan Mamikonian and Meruzhan Artsruni and make them join his royal court. Arshak II focused on strengthening the army. He rewarded loyal generals and severely punished disloyal ones.

He crafted an ambitious plan in which all criminals that settled in his newly founded city, Arshakavan, were given complete amnesty. Approximately 150 000 individuals settled in the city. His hope was to create a large army directly under his command but, many in the Armenian nobility did not agree with the plan and subsequently destroyed the city and killed the inhabitants.

The Romans and the Persians were involved in conflict again. Jovian, being a weak Roman emperor, made a dishonorable peace with Shapur II in which he allowed the Persians to take over the fortresses of Nisbis, Castra Maurorum, and Singara along with a part of Armenia.

Arshak II found himself abandoned by the Romans and left to defend Armenia all alone. The Persians swiftly attacked but were unsuccessful, partly due to the leadership of the general (Armenian: sparapet) Vasak Mamikonian.

Shapur II, seeing that brute force was not going to subjugate Arshak II, he turned to treachery. Arshak II was invited by the Persian King for peace talks. When Arshak II arrived with Vasak Mamikonian, he was taken prisoner and his general was skinned.

Living in a Persian prison, Arshak II was unable to stop the Sassanid invasion of Armenia. Shapur II had conquered Armenia in which he tried to convert Christian Armenians to Zoroastrianism, which was the religion the Persians believed in.

Sometime 369 or 370, an Armenian by the name of Trastamat visits the imprisoned Arshak II. During his visit to Arshak II, the King was reminiscing on his glory days and feeling depressed, he took his visitor’s knife and killed himself. Trastamat, moved by what he had just witnessed, took the knife from Arshak II’s chest and stabbed himself as well.

After the death of Tirit, Arsaces II married Pharantzem. Pharantzem married Arsaces II as her second husband. At the same time as Arsaces II had Pharantzem as his wife, he also had another wife, Olympias, whom he married before marrying Pharantzem.

Through marriage to Arsaces II, Pharantzem became an Armenian Queen consort and a very powerful, wealthy and influential woman in Armenian society.

Sometime after her marriage to Arsaces II, Pharantzem fell pregnant. In 360 Pharantzem bore Arsaces II a son, whom they named Papas (Pap). Papas was the only known child born to Pharantzem and the only known child born to Arsaces II during his Armenian Kingship.

He was born and raised in Armenia and little is known on his early life. Armenian historian of the 5th century Faustus of Byzantium in his writings History of the Armenians (Book IV, Chapter 15), states that the parents of Pap nourished him during his childhood and when he reached puberty he became robust.

Pharantzem was also a stepmother to Anob, as Anob was the first son of Arsaces II born to him from a previous union prior to his Kingship of Armenia.

As Arsaces II in Persian fashion had more than one wife Pharantzem had a grudge and had a great envy against Olympia. After the birth of her son, Pharantzem plotted to kill Olympia through poison. Pharantzem had arranged for Olympia to be poisoned in 361 administered to her in the Holy Sacrament of communion by a priest from the royal court. Olympia was extremely careful in where she accepted matters of food and drink from as she only accepted food and drink offered to her from her maids.

The behaviours, actions of Pharantzem and Arsaces II, in particular the deaths of Gnel, Tirit, Olympia and possibly the prior ruling King of Armenia Tigranes VII (Tiran) had totally outraged the reigning Catholicos St. Nerses I. The church was totally alienated from the royal court of Arsaces II and St. Nerses I was not seen again in the royal court in the lifetime of Arsaces II.

Although Pharantzem was hostile to any Sassanid influence from Persia; the actions of Pharantzem towards Olympia had placed Armenian politics unfavorable to Christian interests and she was considered an impious woman. After the death of Olympia, Pharantzem became the Armenian Queen.

In the year 367 or 368 the Sassanid King Shapur II, had turned to treachery to capture Arsaces II as he was taken as a political prisoner by the Sassanid monarch, in which Arsaces II had died in prison. This was a part of Shapur II’s plan to conquer Armenia once and for all, as Shapur II was in military conflict and failed diplomatic treaties with the Roman emperors Jovian and Valens. Shapur II after successfully capturing Arsaces II, he sent his army to invade Armenia.

When the Sassanid army were heading to invade Armenia, Pharantzem and her son, Papas took the Armenian treasury and hid themselves in the fortress of Artogerassa, where the fortress was defended by a troops of Azats. The Armenian invasion was led by Cylaces (also known as Cylax Zig) and Artabanes (also known as Artabnan Karen), two Armenians who defected to Shapur II.

Shapur II wanted to suppress Arsacid rule in Armenia and replace the dynasty with Persian administrators and traditional Armenian aristocrat Lords to govern over Armenia.

Faustus of Byzantium in his Epic Histories also mentions two Armenian nakharars, Meruzhan Artsruni and Vahan Mamikonian in leadership positions under Shapur II’s suzerainty as well as Zik and Karen who carried Persian noble titles. This also implies that Shapur II might have intended to combine Sassanid administrative rule (Zik and Karen) with that of Naxarar rule (Artsruni and Mamikonian).

Pharantzem was able to have initiate negotiations with Cylaces and Artabanes for the surrender of the fortress during that time. Pharantzem appealed to them in the name of her husband. Cylaces and Artabanes defected from Shapur II and back to the Arsacid monarchy as represented by Pharantzem in which Papas for his safety was sent to Anatolia to the court of Valens. Papas during his time with Valens was in communication with his mother from the fortress whom he encouraged to await his rescue.

Themistius reported of Pap’s arrival at Valens’ court in Marcianopolis where the Emperor was wintering. Valens bade him to stay at Neocaesarea in Pontus Polemoniacus three hundred kilometers from the Armenian border. In 369, Pap returned to Armenian territory at the request of the nobility. He was accompanied by the comes et dux Terentius but was not yet endowed with a royal rank.

Valens was reluctant to bestow a royal title upon Pap in order not to violate an earlier treaty signed by Jovian in July 363.

Valens dispatched his magister peditum praesentalis Arinthaeus to Armenia just as Shapur II invaded the country in pursuit of Pap who was hiding near the Roman frontier in Lazica. Meanwhile Terentius restored Sauromaces to the throne of Iberia, but the king appointed by the Persians, Aspacures retained control of the eastern part of that kingdom. Valens was working to restore Papas to the Arsacid throne and withdraw the army of Shapur II from Armenia.

When Shapur II heard of Papas’ restoration to Armenia, instead of going after Papas personally he concentrated his attack on the now long besieged fortress of Artogerassa, which fell in the winter of 370, and in capturing Pharantzem; ending her siege in the fortress of Artogerassa and invading Armenia.

The Persian forces that were sent by Shapur II finally conquered Armenia and captured the fortress after two years. Pharantzem refused to surrender herself to Shapur II, but threw herself into Artogerassa (St. Martin, iii. 293, 302) where she bravely defended herself and Armenia for 2 years, till famine and disease had left few survivors out of 11,000 soldiers and 6000 women who had taken refuge in the fortress.

She then threw open the gates with her own hand. M. St. Martin adds, what even the horrors of Oriental warfare will scarcely permit us to credit, that she was exposed by Sapor on a public scaffold to the brutal lusts of his soldiery, and afterwards empaled.

Pharantzem with the Armenian royal treasure were taken to the palace of Shapur II. Shapur II wanting to humiliate Armenia and the Roman Empire, had Pharantzem given to his soldiers whom they brutally rape until she died. Shapur II also began systematically persecuting the local Christians by forcing apostasy to Mazdaism, a form of Orthodox Zoroastrianism.

Shapur II contacted Pap who was still in hiding and tried to persuade him to come over to his side. Under Shapur II’s influence Pap murdered the duplicitous Cylaces and Artabanes and sent their heads to the shahanshah as a sign of loyalty.

In the spring of 370 Shapur II prepared a massive invasion of Armenia which was realized in the spring of 371. Valens’ generals Traianus and Vadomarius met the Persian force in Armenia at Bagrevand not far from the village called Dzirav and came off victorious. Faustus of Byzantium gives considerable credit for the victory to sparapet Mushegh Mamikonian.

Moses of Chorene of Armenia and Roman Ammianus Marcellinus noted that the Valens’ generals did not participate in the battle actively but rather were engaged in protecting the King.

During the ensuing battles more Armenian territories were reclaimed from the Persians, including Arzanene and Corduene which were ceded to Persians by Jovian in 363.

By the end of the summer Shapur II retreated to his capital at Ctesiphon and Valens went back to Antioch. Shapur II was unable to confront the massive Roman build up in Armenia as a result of his preoccupation with Kushan attacks in the eastern realm of his empire. While peace prevailed with Persia, the situation inside Armenia began to crumble.

After the death of Pharantzem, Papas was restored to his Armenian Kingship by Valens. Pap was struggling to rule a kingdom that was recently dismantled by Shapur II; his actions to keep a tight grip on power led to his downfall.

Pap poisoned the popular Armenian Catholicos Nerses in 373, who was a very close Roman ally. The poisoning of Nerses was one of the measures that Pap took to restrain the excessive power of the Church, which included the confiscation of rich estates which were attached to the Holy See.

Pap had nominated a certain Husik as a replacement and sent him for consecration in Caesarea, the bishop of Caesarea Basil refused to consecrate the nominee but Valens requested that Basil quickly resolve the situation by finding a new nominee acceptable to Pap. Basil failed to do so and the Roman see of Caesarea effectively lost its traditional role of consecrating the Catholicos of Armenia.

Pap’s refusal to cooperate with Basil angered Valens. In addition, Pap demanded control over Caesarea and twelve other Roman cities including Edessa as former Arsacid domains while openly courting Persia. Valens decided to execute Pap and invited him to a meeting in Tarsus. Pap arrived with 300 mounted escorts but quickly became anxious when he found out the Emperor was not there in person, fleeing back to Armenia.

Terentius sent two generals with scutarii (shielded cavalry) familiar with the local terrain after Pap, an Armenian named Danielus and an Iberian named Barzimeres who failed to capture and execute Pap. Both generals gave an excuse that Pap had used magical powers to avoid capture and used a dark cloud to mask his party. Faustus’ in his Epic Histories also claimed that Pap was possessed by devs (demons). This could have simply been an attack against Pap’s sympathies towards Arians and pagans.

Valens then assigned Traianus to gain Pap’s confidence and murder him. Traianus murdered Pap in 374 during a banquet which he had organized for the young king. Marcellinus Ammianus drew parallels between the treacherous murder of the Quadi King Gabinius by Valentinian I and the murder of Pap by Valens, who also wrote that the murder of Pap haunted Valens prior to the Battle of Adrianople.

The Armenian Naxarars still loyal to Pap did little to protest as a result of a large Roman army present on Armenian territory. The new Roman nominee for a king was accepted virtually by everyone. It was another Arsacid and nephew of Pap, who grew up in Rome named Varasdates (Varazdat) that began to rule under the regency of Musel Mamikonian.

The Mamikonians were notoriously pro-Roman. Shapur II had long been courting Pap and he was infuriated when Pap was murdered and a new Arsacid placed on the Armenian throne instead.

Pap married an Armenian noblewoman called Zarmandukht, whom through marriage became a Queen of Armenia. She bore Pap two sons Arsaces III (Arshak III) and Vologases. Little is known on her origins as the historical sources from this period provide no information on her life prior to marrying Papas.

Through her marriage to Papas, Zarmandukht became an Armenian Queen consort; a very powerful, wealthy, influential woman in Armenian society and through marriage was a relation to the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia.

She was a contemporary to the rule of four Roman Client Kings of Armenia: Papas (Pap) who ruled from 370 until 374; Varasdates (Varazdat) who ruled from 374 until 378 and Arsaces III (Arshak III) with his co-ruler Vologases who ruled from 378 until 386/387.

Following the assassination of Papas in 374, as her sons with Papas were too young to rule on the Armenian throne, the Roman emperor Valens had sent the nephew of Papas, Varasdates to occupy the Armenian throne. Zarmandukht’s nephew-in-marriage was a young man highly reputed for his mental and physical gifts had lived in Rome for an unknown period of time. Varasdates began to rule under the regency of Musel Mamikonian, whose family were pro-Roman. It is unknown what became of Zarmandukht and her sons during Varasdates’ reign.

In 378 with the failed reign of Varasdates and the murder of his regent Musel Mamikonian, the brother of Musel, Manuel Mamikonian, filled his late brother’s position of Sparapet. The Mamikonian family had long been the leading generals of Armenia, holding the title of Sparapet, basically a chief general. Manuel being so mad at the Armenian King, with a military force drove out Varasdates from Armenia back to Rome. Manuel raised Arsaces III and Vologases to the throne as co-kings of Armenia, under the nominal regency of Zarmandukht.

To end the political anarchy in the country as Manuel being now the powerful regent-in-charge of Armenia, Manuel married Arsaces III to his daughter Vardanduxt and he married Vologases to the daughter of Sahak from the Bagratuni Dynasty. The Mamikonian government brought peace, stability to Armenia in which Manuel guided the country wisely. Manuel treated Zarmandukht and her sons with honor. He raised Arsaces III and Vologases and Manuel nurtured them as if they were his own children.

Manuel had given Zarmandukht the title of Queen and received the highest honors in Armenia due to her promoted status. In the year 383, the Sassanid King Shapur III had sent various royal gifts to Manuel and various members of the Armenian aristocracy. This included a crown on a mantle to a royal standard to Zarmandukht and a body of cavalry commanded by Suren Marzban. Manuel remained neutral to the Romans and the Sassanid ruling monarchs. After this moment no more is known on Zarmandukht and the date of her death is unknown.

According to Faustus of Byzantium, Manuel was convinced that the Persian ruler was plotting against him and so attacked the Persian emissary Suren and his 10,000 troops. Manuel decimated Suren’s army but allowed Suren to live and leave. This led to an invasion of Armenia by the Persian forces. Armies under generals such as Varaz were sent to invade Armenia but were defeated by Manuel. According to Faustus, this led to seven years of peace for Armenia.

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