Map of eastern Anatolia. Design Jona Lendering. Armenia (Akkadian Uraštu; Old Persian Armina): ancient kingdom, situated along the river Araxes (modern Aras), the Upper Tigris and the Upper Euphrates.

For the early history of Armenia, see Urartu.

Achaemenid Armenia

From the mid-sixth century onward, Armenia was a satrapy of the Achaemenid empire; how it had become part of the kingdom of the Persians, is unclear. One possibility is that the earlier kingdom called Urartu had been subjected to the Median empire, and this may have happened as early as 605, after attacks by nomads who lived north of the Caucasus (known to the Greeks as 'Scythians', Sakesinai or Cimmerians). The Medians were overthrown by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 550, and Urartu was annexed by the Persians at the same time. Alternatively, Urartu retained its independence and was conquered in 547, after a direct Persian intervention.

An Armenian on the East Stairs of the Apadana of Persepolis. Photo Marco Prins.
An Armenian on the
of the Apadana of

However this may be, the country rebelled against its Persian overlords after the coup d'état of the
Magian usurper Gaumāta (or Smerdis) had been suppressed by the counter-coup of Darius I the Great. The new king sent two armies against an unknown Armenian leader, commanded by the Persian Vaumisa and the Armenian Dādarši. Vaumisa managed to secure the road to Armenia on 31 December 522 in a battle near Izalā and continued to Autiyāra, where he won his second victory on 11 June 521. Both towns are situated on the banks of the Greater Zab river. Meanwhile, Dādarši defeated the Armenians on 20 May 521 near Zuzza, on 30 May at Tigra and on 20 June at Uyamā. The second name suggests that this second army moved along the Upper Tigris. These five battles, which are all mentioned in the Behistun inscription, meant the end of the uprising. From now on, Armenia was a stable possession of the Achaemenid empire. 
Armenian coin, showing a colt.
Armenian coin, showing a colt

According to the Greek researcher
Herodotus of Halicarnassus (ca.480-ca.425), the tribes in the country belonged to the eighteenth and nineteenth tax districts. Every year, they had to pay five hundred silver talents. The geographer Strabo of Amasia mentions another tax: 20,000 colts.

Under Persian rule, the Urartian language -related to Hurrian- was replaced by Armenian, which was the tongue of the common people. Probably, this was not caused by ethnic, but by political changes: when the Persians had conquered the country, they favored the latter language, which is related to Greek and -at a distance- Persian.


Although the Armenians seem to have called themselves Haikh, Herodotus makes in his Histories a distinction between the Armenians and Alarodians (a rendering of "Urartians"). He also mentions the Chaldaioi, Kolchoi, Makrones, Mares, Moschoi, Mossynoikoi, Saspeires, Tibarenoi (Tabali in Persian), tribes that lived in Armenia (or in its neighborhood).

Armenia was a tribal society, which means that the social and political units are loosely organized; old tribes disappear as new ones come into being, depending on the situation. The Athenian author Xenophon (ca.430-ca.355) informs us about it in book four of his Anabasis. He describes at great length how in 401/400 BCE an army of Greek mercenaries, which had supported the Persian pretender Cyrus the Younger, had to fight its way back from Babylonia to the Black Sea through Armenia. From the  tribes mentioned by Herodotus, Xenophon also mentions the Chaldaioi, Kolchoi, Makrones, Mossynoikoi and Tibarenoi, but introduces the Chalybes, Drilai, Kardouchoi and Taochoi.

A fertile mountain plain between Savsat and Ardahan. Photo Marco Prins.
A fertile mountain plain between Savsat and Ardahan. 

Herodotus already knew that Armenia was rich in cattle (Histories, 5.49). Most tribesmen were poor cattle breeders who roamed with their herds -sheep, cows, horses- between the summer's and winter's pasture. Xenophon mentions no cities, but gives fine description of village live.

[A group of our soldiers] surprised the villagers with their headman, and seventeen colts which were being reared as a tribute for the [Persian] king, and, last of all, the headman's daughter, a young bride only eight days wed. Her husband had gone off to chase hares, and so he escaped being taken with the other villagers. The houses were underground structures with an aperture like the mouth of a well by which to enter, but they were broad and spacious below. The entrance for the beasts of burden was dug out, but the human occupants descended by a ladder. In these dwellings were to be found goats and sheep and cattle, and cocks and hens, with their various progeny. The flocks and herds were all reared under cover upon green food. There were stores within of wheat and barley and vegetables, and wine made from barley [i.e., beer] in great big bowls; the grains of barley malt lay floating in the beverage up to the lip of the vessel, and reeds lay in them, some longer, some shorter, without joints; when you were thirsty you must take one of these into your mouth, and suck. The beverage without admixture of water was very strong, and of a delicious flavor to certain palates, but the taste must be acquired.

[Anabasis 4.24-26]

In short, Xenophon's Armenians were a primitive nation, and it comes as no surprise that Xenophon mentions that their warriors fought with simple weapons, such as slings and arrows. 

The Persian garrisons, on the other hand, were oases of luxury. For example,
somewhere near the
Tigris Xenophon visited a palace that could be used by the satrap; he saw houses with storage towers, which were probably used by the officers (4.4.2). Xenophon mentions an artificial road leading toward this settlement (4.3.5). In the neighborhood of a second Persian village, Xenophon's men found great supplies of beef (a delicatessen), barley, wine, raisins and pods (4.4.9). This is confirmed by the archaeological evidence: e.g., wall paintings were discovered at Arin-Berd.

Independent kingdom

One of the last Persian satraps of Armenia was Artašata, who became king of Persia under the name Darius III Codomannus (336-330). During his reign, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid empire (between 334 and 330), and Armenia regained its autonomy. (We learn of a new tribe, the Albanoi.) Several kings are known from this period:

  Orontes II
  Orontes III
c.320 - c.280
c.260 - c.230
c.220 - 212
212 - c.200
Coin of Tigranes II the Great of Armenia, British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.
Coin of Tigranes II the Great of Armenia, British Museum.

After 200, parts of Armenia became incorporated in the Seleucid empire under king Antiochus III the Great. Soon, the country regained its independence in the form of two small kingdoms, west and east of the Euphrates. The western kingdom was known as Lesser Armenia and ruled by king Zariadris; the other state was called Greater Armenia and ruled by Zariadris' son Artaxias (189-164). The latter rebuilt -following an advice of his Carthaginian friend Hannibal- Yerevan in 188, called it Artaxata, and made it his capital.

The younger capital Tigranocerta was built by a descendant of Artaxias, Tigranes II the Great (ruled c.95-c.55), who had been able to reunite Armenia and briefly ruled over the entire East, but was defeated by the Roman generals Lucullus in 69 and Pompey in 66 BCE.

"Armenia Capta": Roman coin, commemorating Trajan's temporary conquest. Photo Jona Lendering.

"Armenia Capta": Roman coin, commemorating Trajan's temporary conquest.


Armenia between Rome and Parthia

From now on, Armenia was one of the battlegrounds between the Romans and the Parthians, who had replaced the Seleucids in what is now Iraq. Several Roman commanders, like Crassus (53 BCE) and Marc Antony (36) attempted to add Armenia to the Mediterranean Empire in order to have a bulwark against the Parthians. The latter came close to success: king Artavasdes II submitted to Rome and Armenians fought for Marc Antony at Actium.

As is well-known, Marc Antony and his wife
Cleopatra VII Philopator met their end in 30 BCE, and their son Alexander Helius, who was supposed to be king of Armenia, never ascended to the throne. Instead, a son of Artavasdes II, Artaxes, became king, only to be replaced by Tigranes III by order of Augustus' general Tiberius
in 20.


Dynastic quarrels forced Rome to intervene several times. At the beginning of our era, it was Augustus' grandson Gaius Caesar who invaded Armenia. The situation remained chaotic, because both Rome and Parthia tried to gain control of this fertile country. But slowly, an agreement was growing that the Euphrates was to be the frontier between the mutual zones of influence. Lesser Armania, west of the Euphrates, was included in the province of Cappadocia, but Greater Armenia remained independent.

According to a treaty that had been concluded by Augustus and his Parthian colleague Phraates IV, the Romans had the right to appoint the Armenian kings. However, in 54 CE the Parthian king Vologases I, using an internal crisis in Armenia and a change of government in Rome, installed his brother Tiridates as king of Armenia. This deliberate provocation led to war, and to the sack of Artaxata in 58 by the Roman commander Corbulo. Tiridates was forced to go to Rome to be crowned by the young emperor Nero.

Slowly, Rome was increasing its influence, and when Vespasian had added Commagene to the empire, a legionary base was created in Satala, controlling access to Armenia. As a rule, the Romans were permitted to select a king from a member of the royal family, which, through Tiridates, was originally Parthian. However, the country was briefly occupied by the Roman emperor Trajan between 114 and 117 CE. His successor Hadrian gave up the conquests.

Generally speaking, the second century was quiet, although in 161-165, the Parthians and Romans went to war again. The Parthians were defeated by Lucius Verus, and Rome's power increased even more, but Armenia retained its independence, although from now on, it was Rome's loyal ally against Parthia. For instance, when Septimius Severus attacked the Parthian capital Ctesiphon, Armenian soldiers were in his army. They had little alternative, because Severus had added Mesopotamia to the empire, which meant that all roads between Armenia and the south were now controlled by Rome.
c.189 - c.164
Tigranes I
c.164 - ?
Artavasdes I
? - c.95
Tigranes II the Great
c.95 - c.55
Artavasdes II
55 - 34
34 - 20
Tigranes III
20 - c.8
Tigranes IV
c.8 - 1 CE
Artavasdes II
c.2 - c.4
Artavasdes III
c.4 - c.6
Tigranes V and Erato
c.6 - ?
18 - c.34
[pro-Roman, Parthian pretender]
Arsaces of Parthia
c.34 - 36
Mithridates of Iberia
36 - 51
51 - 59
Tigranes VI 'the Cappadocian'
59 - 62
Tiridates (restored)
63 - 75
113 - 114
Roman province
114 - 117
117 - c.140
161 - 163
164 - c.175
Tiridates II
Tiridates III
c.287 - 330

Armenia between Rome and Persia

In the second quarter of the third century, the Parthian Empire was replaced by the Persian Empire of the Sasanian dynasty, a more aggressive power than its predecessor. Several times, the Sasanians attempted to add Armenia to their possessions, but they were repulsed by Armenian kings and Roman generals, although often with great difficulty. The situation was restored to Rome's advantage again by the emperor Carus.

Meanwhile, a religious shift was taking place: Christianity was spreading throughout the East. Although the Armenian Church has claimed that it was founded by the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the first missionaries appear to have visited the country along the Araxes much later. The breakthrough was in the year 303, when Gregory the Illuminator (257-325) converted Tiridates III. For the first time in history, an entire state became Christian. (The Roman emperors 
Diocletian and Galerius, who were persecuting the new faith, will not have appreciated this.) The Armenian Church has remained independent and does not accept several decisions of the Ecumenical Councils.

In the second half of the fourth century, the Sasanian king Shapur II was able push back Rome, and gained influence in Armenia, which was recognized by the Roman emperor
in 384, when he signed a treaty with Shapur's son Shapur III. In 428, the Romans and Persians divided the ancient kingdom. Its traditions survived in the Armenian Church.




The table of kings is based on E.J. Bickermann, Chronology of the Ancient World (1980²).


© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 1998
Revision: 21 October 2007