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Armenia’s Greatest Military Leader: Vardan Mamikonian And His Dynasty

Armenia’s Greatest Military Leader: Vardan Mamikonian And His Dynasty


Vardan Mamikonian was an Armenian military leader who lived between the 4 th and 5 th centuries AD. He is best-known for leading the Armenians against the Sassanians at the Battle of Avarayr in 451 AD. Although the Sassanians emerged triumphant, it was a Pyrrhic victory for them. In the long run, it was a victory for the Armenians, as the battle is often credited with paving the way for the signing of the Nvarsak Treaty in 484 AD.

Vardan’s family, the Mamikonians, were influential aristocrats in Armenia between the 4 th and 7 th centuries AD. But most of them are actually obscure figures with little written about them in historical records. Apart from Vardan, the other well-known Mamikonian is Vahan, who signed the Nvarsak Treaty with the Sassanians.

In many ways, the defining theme of the Mamikonian dynasty was its Christian roots and its opposition to Sassanian Zoroastrianism. Etchmiadzin Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Armenia, still stands in Armenia's holy city of Ejmiatsin. (Butcher / CC BY 3.0)

In many ways, the defining theme of the Mamikonian dynasty was its Christian roots and its opposition to Sassanian Zoroastrianism. Etchmiadzin Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Armenia, still stands in Armenia's holy city of Ejmiatsin. (Butcher / CC BY 3.0)

The Beginnings Of The Mamikonian Dynasty

The origin of the Mamikonian dynasty is shrouded in mystery and legend. According to the  History of Armenia, traditionally attributed to Moses of Khoren, the Mamikonians were the descendants of two “Chem” Chinese noblemen. One of these noblemen was named Mamik, hence the name of the dynasty.

The two noblemen had rebelled against their half-brother, and after their defeat, fled to Persia. Subsequently, the Persian king sent them to Armenia, where they established the Mamikonian dynasty. It may be mentioned that Moses of Khoren’s work is rejected by most serious scholars, due to the anachronisms in his text.

Nevertheless, the reference to “Chem” has intrigued many over the ages. This term is most commonly interpreted to mean that the founders of the Mamikonian dynasty came from China, and more specifically, were of Han Chinese origin. Not all scholars, however, agree with this interpretation. For instance, Edward Gibbon, the 18 th century English historian best-known for  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote that the founder of the Mamikonian dynasty was a certain Mamgo, who was not a Han Chinese, but a subject of the Chinese emperor. He was a Scythian who had incurred the displeasure of the emperor, and therefore fled to the court of the Sassanians.

Although the emperor wanted Mamgo to be handed over to him, the Sassanian ruler, Shapur, pleaded the laws of hospitality. Shapur promised to banish Mamgo to the western borders of his empire, thereby avoiding a war with the Chinese. Gibbon goes on to say that Mamgo and his followers were sent to Armenia to repel the invasion of Tiridates, the king of Armenia.

Mamgo, however, having considered the options before him carefully, decided that it would be better to join Tiridates than to fight him. Tiridates, for his part, recognized Mamgo’s worth, and welcomed him into his kingdom, thus resulting in the founding of the Mamikonian dynasty. Scholars have yet to arrive at a final conclusion regarding the origins of the Mamikonian dynasty.

The expansion of the Mamikonian dynasty and the increase in their land holdings in the region of what is Armenia today. ( / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The expansion of the Mamikonian dynasty and the increase in their land holdings in the region of what is Armenia today. ( / CC BY-SA 3.0)

From Obscurity To A Powerful Armenian Aristocratic Family

Regardless of their origin, the Mamikonians gradually became a powerful aristocratic family in Armenia. The power of this family was derived from two primary sources, the first of which being the vast amount of land that they owned. This included the province of Tayk in the northwest, and the region of Tarawn in the southwest.

More land was gained by the family through Hamazasp Mamikonian’s marriage to the only daughter of Saint Sahak the Great. The saint was the last male descendant of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. Following his death in 438 AD his lands, i.e., the patriarchal estates of Bagrewand, Daranalik, and Ekełeacin, were passed on to his son-in-law. Therefore, the Mamikonians became the greatest landowners in Armenia.

The second source of the family’s power came from their possession of the office of  sparapet, or supreme commander of the entire Armenian army. This office was a hereditary one and remained within the Mamikonian family. For instance, if the holder of the office was a minor, temporary surrogates (similar to regents) would be appointed to carry out the duties of the  sparapet. Moreover, not even the ruler of Armenia had the power to deprive the Mamikonians of this office. The Mamikonians likely also held another hereditary position, i.e., the office of  dayeak, or royal tutor.

Although the Mamikonians were great landowners and gained a great amount of prestige through their possession of the office of  sparapet, they were never able to become the rulers of Armenia. This was due to the very same reason that they were able to keep the office of  sparapet, i.e., the Armenian customary laws of hereditary offices.

Nevertheless, when the ruling Arsacid dynasty went into decline, the Mamikonians were able to exert much control over the kingdom. For instance, following the ravaging of Armenia by the Sassanians in 363/4 AD, it was Mushegh Mamikonian who negotiated with the enemy, thereby securing the safe return of the king, Pap, who was still a child. Mushegh’s successor, Manuel, served as regent during the minority of Arshak and Vologases, the sons of Pap.

Portrait of Vardan Mamikonian. (Ohan Gaidzakian (1837-1914) / Public domain)

Portrait of Vardan Mamikonian. (Ohan Gaidzakian (1837-1914) / Public domain)

Vardan Mamikonian: The Star Of The Dynasty In So Many Ways

The most famous member of the Mamikonian dynasty, however, was Vardan Mamikonian, who lived between the 4 thand 5 th centuries AD. Vardan was born around 387 AD in Artaxata, in the Daron region, to the north of the city of Moosh. At the time of his birth, the Armenians still had a kingdom, though its days were numbered.

In 432 AD, Vardan became  sparapet. By this time, Armenia was no longer a kingdom, but a province of the Sassanian Empire. According to the ancient sources, the Sassanians were bent on forcing the Armenians, who were Christians, to convert to Zoroastrianism, their state religion. Naturally, this was rejected by the Armenian Church. 

The Sassanians sent a letter to the Armenians, telling them that their Christian faith was incorrect, and urged them to convert. In response, a rejection of Zoroastrianism and an apology of Christianity was sent to the Sassanian king. This letter was signed by the Catholicos Yovsep and 17 bishops. Next, the Sassanian king summoned a number of leading Armenians, Georgians, and Albanians to his court, where they were told to adopt Zoroastrianism, or be punished. One of the men who made the journey to the court of the Sassanian king was Vardan, as he held the office of  sparapet.

Vardan refused to convert, and openly professed his Christian faith. Whilst the rest of the men refused to convert as well, they pretended to embrace Zoroastrianism, thereby saving themselves from punishment. Vardan chose not to follow their example but was eventually persuaded to fake his conversion. The Sassanian king was pleased with the apparent conversion of the Armenians and granted them lands and titles. When they returned to their countries, an army accompanied by 700 Zoroastrian magi went along so as to spread Zoroastrianism amongst the population. This caused great sorrow to the Christians, and when Vardan and his comrades returned to their homes, they were rejected by their families.

Vardan explained that he did not really convert, and that he was still a Christian at heart. He also resolved to leave the Sassanian part of Armenia and moved to the Roman one. The leading Armenians, however, persuaded him to stay, and to rebel against the Sassanians. The rebels began their work by targeting the magi who were sent to Armenia.

According to Ghazar Parpetsi’s  History of Armenia, a group of magi who wanted to kindle the sacred Zoroastrian fire in a church was prevented from doing so. For the Christians, this act would have defiled their sacred building.

Vardan and his comrades began to kill the magi, destroy the Zoroastrian fire altars, and fought against the Armenians who converted. The surviving magi, in response, sent secret information to the Sassanian king about the Armenians’ plan to rebel.  

Though the Mamikonians lost the Battle of Avarayr it also allowed them to continue practicing Christianity as their faith despite the Sassanians displeasure. (Karapet Berkretsi / Public domain)

Though the Mamikonians lost the Battle of Avarayr it also allowed them to continue practicing Christianity as their faith despite the Sassanians displeasure. (Karapet Berkretsi / Public domain)

The rebellion reached its climax on the 2 nd of June 451 AD, when the Battle of Avarayr was fought. The day of the battle, incidentally, coincided with the Feast of Pentecost. The Sassanians, having received news of the Armenian rebellion, sent an army of 200000 men to invade the country. The Armenians, on the other hand, only had about 60000 men in their army. Moreover, before the battle was fought, an important nobleman, Vasak, the Prince of Syunik, defected to the side of the Sassanians, thereby reducing the strength of the Armenian army. Although messengers had been sent by Vardan to Constantinople to seek military aid from the Eastern Roman Empire, they were unsuccessful.

Despite their disadvantages, the Armenians fought bravely. As a matter of fact, the Sassanians were only able to gain the upper hand when they unleashed their war elephants upon the Armenians. Many Armenians lost their lives as they were trampled to death by these beasts. Amongst the dead were Vardan himself, eight other generals, and many of the noblest Armenians. Incidentally, images of the Sassanian war elephants are found on a 15 th century hymnal depicting the Battle of Avarayr. Today, this hymnal resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In spite of their defeat, the Armenians were able to inflict heavy losses on the Sassanian army, so much so that it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for them. Ghazar Parpetsi claimed that the Sassanians lost about 3500 men, whereas the Armenians lost around 1000 men. Moreover, trouble was brewing for the Sassanians elsewhere in their empire. Consequently, the Sassanian king was not able to continue his war with the Armenians.

Vahan Mamikonian, Vardan’s nephew, led the rebellion against the Sassanians that resulted in the Nvarsak Treaty. (Public domain)

Vahan Mamikonian, Vardan’s nephew, led the rebellion against the Sassanians that resulted in the Nvarsak Treaty. (Public domain)

The Battle Of Avarayr Was A “Victory” For The Armenians

Thus, for the Armenians, the Battle of Avarayr was not a defeat. Instead, it is regarded as victory, since it meant that they could continue practicing their Christian faith. Thus, the day of the battle has become an Armenian national holiday, and a festival of the Armenian Church. Furthermore, for his sacrifice at the Battle of Avarayr, Vardan was made a saint of the Armenian Church.

The conflict between the Armenians and the Sassanians, however, did not end with the Battle of Avarayr. Instead, it continued in the decades that followed. Although the Sassanians failed to crush the Armenians as they had intended to, they continued to persecute them.

Another rebellion broke out amongst the Armenians at the beginning of the 480s AD. This rebellion was led by Vahan Mamikonian, Vardan’s nephew, and lasted from 481 to 484 AD. It has been noted that this rebellion was noticeably different from the previous one in that it was not only supported by the elites, i.e., the nobility and the Armenian Church, but also by the common people.

It was not clear whether the Armenians or Sassanians would emerge victorious from the war. Even after their defeat in a battle near the Kura River, they continued their struggle against the Sassanians by employing guerrilla tactics.        

The turning point of the rebellion came in 484 AD when the Sassanian king, Peroz, lost his life during the campaign against the Hephthalites on the eastern border of his empire. Peroz’s successor, Balash, began negotiations with the Armenians. This culminated in the signing of the Nvarsak Treaty between the two sides. Under this treaty, the Armenians were guaranteed the freedom to practice their Christian faith. Apart from that, Vahan was appointed as  marzpan of Armenia, which meant that he was in charge of the province. This was the high point of the Mamikonian dynasty.

The Mamikonian dynasty began to decline slowly in the 6 th century AD. Following a failed rebellion in 571-2 AD, Vardan II fled to Constantinople, and eventually settled near Pergamon, in Anatolia. Nevertheless, the Mamikonians were still sufficiently influential and were awarded the title “Prince of Armenia” by the Byzantine emperors from time to time during the 7 th and 8 th centuries AD. 

Moreover, at Aruč, a little west of Yerevan the capital of Armenia today, lie the ruins of a vast palace, and an adjoining domed basilica. These buildings were dedicated to Grigor Mamikonian, who lived during the 7 th century AD, and his wife, Helen, and serve as a testament to their wealth even during their period of decline. 

The Mamikonian dynasty came to an end during the 8 th century AD, when the Sassanians were replaced by the Arabs as rulers of Persia. The Mamikonians rebelled against the new rulers but were ultimately defeated in battle. The last Mamikonian heiress, according to some sources, was even forced to seek refuge in marriage with an Arab freebooter by the name of Jahhaf.

Although the Mamikonian dynasty met with an ignoble end, they are still highly regarded in Armenia today. This is especially so for Vardan Mamikonian, and many equestrian statues of this national hero have been erected all over Armenia.

Top image: Vardan Mamikonian's equestrian statue in Gyumri, Armenia.            Source: Tony Bowden / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                      


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It’s good to know about Armenian history beyond besides the Holocaust the Turks inflicted upon them early in the 20th c.  And of course & unfortunately Kim Kardashian who’s only half Armenian.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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