Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Armenian Legions in the Roman and Byzantine Army

Byzantium a Greco-Armenian Empire?
  • Armenians were everywhere in the Eastern Empire from Emperors, Generals, rank and file troops, Clergy and in business.

The Byzantine Empire was not a Greek Empire.  Although it is true that Greek was used as the language of the Empire, that can not be taken as proof that the empire was 'Greek.'  Latin was the original official language, imposed by the Romans who established and ruled the Roman Empire.

In 395 A.D. when the Roman Empire split into western and eastern (Byzantine), Latin continued to be used as the official language but in time it was replaced by Greek as that language was already widely spoken among the Eastern Mediterranean nations as the main trade language.

Yet the Emperors, the Church clergy, the army, and the artists, although they spoke Latin and Greek, where not exclusively of Greek ethnicity.  The Empire was made up of many nationalities - Thracians, Egyptians, Macedonians, Illyrians, Bythinians, Carians, Phrygians, Armenians, Lydians, Galatians, Paphlagonians, Lycians, Syrians, Cilicians, Misians, Cappadocians, etc.  The Greeks composed only a small portion of this multi-ethnic Empire.

The earlier Byzantine Emperors were Romans but in time people of different ethnic backgrounds ruled this multi-ethnic empire.  It is known that the empire reached its zenith while it was ruled by the Macedonians while the Macedonian Dynasty was in power for almost two centuries.  Other dynasties that ruled were the Syrian, Armenian, Phrygian (Amorian), and other emperors were of various nationalities." - Even this "Macedonian Dynasty” founded by Basil I who was of Armenian descent.

The collective Armenian role in Constantinople escalated in the seventh and eighth centuries as hundreds of Armenian nobles were forced to seek haven in the Byzantine Empire during the Arab occupation of Armenia.  

In Byzantium the Armenian nobles became an important element within the dominant elites and figured in numerous military and political events.  A total of twenty rose to the rank of emperor, and there were those who attained prominence within the established Orthodox Church.  They were kings and princes, rebels and usurpers, intellectuals and diplomats—all operating within the Byzantine context.

Eastern Emperor Basil I on horseback.
Though from the Theme of Macedonia, Basil was of
Armenian heritage ruling from 867 to 886.

Provincia Armenia
Province of the Roman Empire

The Coming of Rome
While Armenia Minor had become a client state and incorporated into the Roman Empire proper during the 1st century AD, Greater Armenia remained an independent kingdom under the Arsacid dynasty.

Throughout this period, Armenia remained a bone of contention between Rome and the Parthian Empire, as well as the Sasanian Empire that succeeded the latter, and the casus belli for several of the Roman–Persian Wars. Only in 114–118 was Emperor Trajan able to conquer and incorporate it as a short-lived province.

In 114, Emperor Trajan incorporated Armenia into the Empire, making it a full Roman province.

From Antioch the emperor (Trajan) marched to the Euphrates and farther northward as far as the most northerly legion-camp Satala in Lesser Armenia, whence he advanced into Armenia and took the direction of Artaxata....Trajan was resolved to make this vassal-state a province, and a shift to eastern frontier of the (Roman) empire generally...Armenia yielded to its fate and became a Roman governorship..Trajan thereupon advanced and occupied Mesopotamia...and, like Armenia, Mesopotamia became a Roman province.

In 113, Trajan invaded the Parthian Empire because he wanted to reinstate a vassal king in Armenia (a few years before fallen under Parthian control). In 114 Trajan from Antiochia in Syria marched on Armenia and conquered the capital Artaxata. Trajan then deposed the Armenian king Parthamasiris and ordered the annexation of Armenia to the Roman Empire as a new province.

The new province reached the shores of the Caspian sea and bordered to the north with the Caucasian Iberia and Albania, two vassal states of Rome.

As a Roman province Armenia was administered along with Cappadocia by Catilius Severus of the gens Claudia.

The Roman Senate issued coins on this occasion bearing the following inscription: ARMENIA ET MESOPOTAMIA IN POTESTATEM P.R. REDACTAE', thus solidifying Armenia's position as the newest Roman province. A rebellion by the Parthian pretender Sanatruces was put down, though sporadic resistance continued and Vologases III of Parthia managed to secure an area of south-eastern Armenia just before Trajan's death in August 117.As a Roman province Armenia was administered along with Cappadocia by Catilius Severus of the gens Claudia.

After Trajan's death, his successor Hadrian decided not to maintain the province of Armenia. In 118, Hadrian gave Armenia up, and installed Parthamaspates as its king. Parthamaspates was soon defeated by the Persians.

Thereafter Armenia was in frequent dispute between the two empires and their candidates for the Armenian throne, a situation which lasted until the emergence of a new power, the Sassanids.

Indeed Rome's power and control increased even more, but Armenia retained its independence (even if as a vassal state), although from now on, it was Rome's loyal ally against the Sassanian Empire. For instance, when Septimius Severus attacked Ctesiphon, many Armenian soldiers were in his army: later -in the 4th century- they made up two Roman legions, the Legio I Armeniaca and the Legio II Armeniaca.

In the second half of the 3rd century, the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon and areas of southern Armenia were sacked by the Romans under Emperor Carus, and all Armenia, after half a century of Persian rule, was ceded to Diocletian in 299 as a vassal territory.

Photo - Duncanon military show

The Roman Legions

Grinding poverty in the rural provinces of the Empire was always a factor in a man's decision to join the army.  Armenians were happy to accept the Emperor's coin.  There was also the opportunity for upward social mobility for both peasant and noble alike.

For example, the Emperor Romanos Lekapenos was the son of an Armenian peasant with the remarkable name of Theophylact the Unbearable (Asbastaktos). Theophylact, as a soldier, had rescued the Emperor Basil I from the enemy in battle and had been rewarded by a place in the Imperial Guard.

Although he did not receive any refined education, Romanos advanced through the ranks of the army during the reign of Emperor Leo VI the Wise. In 911 he was general of the naval theme of Samos and later served as admiral of the fleet (droungarios tou ploimou) and became Emperor in 920.
In the Later Roman Empire, the number of legions was increased and the Roman Army expanded. There is no evidence to suggest that legions changed in form before the Tetrarchy, although there is evidence that they were smaller than the paper strengths usually quoted.
The final form of the legion originated with the elite legiones palatinae created by Diocletian and the Tetrarchs. These were infantry units of around 1,000 men rather than the 5,000, including cavalry, of the old Legions. The earliest legiones palatinae were the LanciariiJovianiHerculiani and Divitenses.
The 4th century saw a very large number of new, small legions created, a process which began under Constantine II
In addition to the elite palatini, other legions called comitatenses and pseudocomitatenses, along with the auxilia palatina, provided the infantry of late Roman armies. 
The Notitia Dignitatum lists 25 legiones palatinae, 70 legiones comitatenses, 47 legiones pseudocomitatenses and 111 auxilia palatina in the field armies, and a further 47 legiones in the frontier armies. Legion names such as Honoriani and Gratianenses found in the Notitia suggest that the process of creating new legions continued through the 4th century rather than being a single event. 
The names also suggest that many new legions were formed from vexillationes or from old legions. In addition, there were 24 vexillationes palatini, 73 vexillationes comitatenses; 305 other units in the Eastern limitanei and 181 in the Western limitanei.

Legio Prima (I) Armeniaca - Armenian First Legion

Symbol of Prima Armeniaca

Legio I Armeniaca was a pseudocomitatensis legion of the Late Roman Empire, probably created in the late 3rd century.
The name of the legion could refer to it being originally part of the garrison of the Armeniac provinces, but the unit, together with its twin legion II Armeniaca, appears to have been included in the imperial field army.
The legion took part in the invasion of the Sassanid Empire by Emperor Julian in 363. 
The Notitia dignitatum records the legion as being under the command of the magister militum Orientis around 400.

Legio Secunda (II) Armeniaca -  Armenian Second Legion

Symbol of Secunda Armeniaca

Legio II Armeniaca (from Armenia) was a legion of the late Roman Empire.
Its name could mean it was garrisoned in the Roman province of Armenia, but later, together with its twin, I Armeniaca, it was moved into the field army as apseudocomitatensis legion. 
The legion is reported to have built a camp in Satala (CIL II 13630, through Ritterling's Legio). According to Ammianus Marcellinus (Res Gestae xx 7), in 360. 
II Armeniaca was stationed in Bezabde with II Flavia Virtutis and II Parthica, when the Persian King Shapur II besieged and conquered the city, killing many of the inhabitants. 
The II Armeniaca however, survived, since it is cited in the Notitia Dignitatum as being under the command of the Dux Mesopotamiae.

Despite a number of reforms, the Legion system survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, and was continued in the Eastern Roman Empire until around 7th century.  

With the legions continuing on in one form or another it is certain that the Armenian units would have served in wars against the Persians or the Arabs.

By the 7th century reforms were begun by Emperor Heraclius to counter the increasing need for soldiers around the Empire.  What Legions were left were settled in local districts as citizen-soldier-farmers resulting in the Theme system.

Emperor John I Tzimiskes meeting with Svyatoslav I the Grand Prince of Kiev.  John was born into the Kourkouas clan, a family of Armenian origin.

Armenian Soldiers in the Byzantine Army

Armenia made great contributions to the Eastern Roman Empire through its troops of soldiers. The empire was in need of a good army as it was constantly being threatened. The army was relatively small, never exceeding 150,000 men. The military was sent to different parts of the empire, and which took part in the most fierce battles and never exceeded 20,000 or 30,000. men.

From the 5th century forwards the Armenians were regarded as the main constituent of the Byzantine army. Procopius recounts that the “Scholarii”, the palace guards of the emperor “were selected from amongst the bravest Armenians”.

Armenian soldiers in the Byzantine army are cited during the following centuries, especially during the 9th and the 10th centuries, which might have been the period of greatest participation of the Armenians in the Byzantine army. Byzantine and Arab historians are unanimous in recognizing significance of the Armenians soldiers. Charles Diehl, for instance, writes: “The Armenian units, particularly during this period, were numerous and well trained.” 

Another Byzantine historian praises the decisive role which the Armenian infantry played in the victories of the Byzantine emperors Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimiskes.

At that time the Armenians served side by side with the Scandinavians who were in the Byzantine army. One historian relates this first encounter between the Armenian mountain-dwellers and the northern people: “It was the Armenians who together with our Scandinavian forefathers made up the assault units of Byzantine.” 

There were similarities in the way of thinking and the spirit of the Armenian feudal lords and the northern warriors. In both groups, there was a strange absence and ignorance of government and public interest and at the same time an equally large interest in achieving personal distinctions and a loyalty towards their masters and leaders.

Many Armenians became successful in the Byzantine Empire. Numerous Byzantine emperors were either ethnically Armenian, half-Armenian, part-Armenian or possibly Armenian; although culturally Greek. The best example of this is Emperor Heraclius, whose father was Armenian and mother Cappadocian. Emperor Heraclius began the Heraclean Dynasty (610-717). 

Basil I is another example of an Armenian beginning a dynasty; the Macedonian dynasty. Other great Roman-Armenian emperors were Romanos IJohn I Tzimiskes, and Nikephoros II.

(Roman Legion)      (Armenian history)      (St-andrews.ac.uk)

(Looys.net)      (larsbrownworth.com)      (rbedrosian.com)

(Byzantine Armenia)      (Roman Armenia)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing my pic and my unit, I'm glad for this ;)

Marco (DramaBelli from Total War Center)

Gary said...

Thanks for coming by

Anonymous said...

Great depiction on armenian units

Anonymous said...

There is a link to the linguistic map of the Byzantine empire circa 580 A.D:
Considering the fact that the Empire after the Islamic conquests of the 6th century was limited to Anatolia, Balkans, Crimea, Southernmost Italy and the islands of Crete and Cyprus it is doubtful that Greek was simply a "trading language", in fact in all essence it was the native language of the majority of the population that was part of the Empire. By citing Emperors of Armenian origin does not confront that fact, and even them were Greek influenced, educated and cultured in all the aspects of their life. If one was to cite the percentage of all the influential People in Governing, Diplomacy, Military, Trade, Arts and Science that were of Greek origin one might assume that only them were the dominant group shaping the future of the Empire through the middle ages. Lastly, the fact that the Byzantine Empire was the bastion of Hellenic Culture and influence at its very end in which we owe along with Muslim scholars the preservation of the achievements of the Hellenistic Period is undeniable truthful. The term Imperium Graecorum or Grikkland spread in Western Europe can not be entirely unfounded.

Narek said...

Thank you, I'm Armenian. Would be glad to see more about Armenian civilization, its unique culture and history.

AlexHellene said...

You mention that ''The Empire was made up of many nationalities''... And than proceed to mention Macedonians and Thracians as different?

Macedonians and Thracians were in Greeks. Thracians became Hellenized soon after Alexander the Great took it.

Secondly, Greeks obviously easily made up the largest nationality group out the ''Eastern'' Roman Empire compare to the others. It's the capital, Constantinople, was located in Greece proper. As I said, Thrace was considered Greek, since it had been under the Macedonian Empire. And after 620 AD, Greek became the official language of the Roman Empire.
Hence why the Roman Empire, was eventually considered both a Roman, but Hellenic one as well.

It's similar to the Soviet Union. Nearly all the Soviet Dictators were actually non-Russian, however due to fact that the Russians were the most numerous group, the capital Moscow, was in Russia proper, and Russian was the main language spoken, it was considered both a ''Soviet'' and ''Russian'' empire, with both words being used interchangeably often, to describe the Soviet Union. The Roman Empire in the Eastern was no different. It'd consider it both Roman and Greek.

Just like the last Roman Emperor, Constantine, before the fall of Constantinople, is his alleged last speech, mentioned: ''Present your shield, swords, arrows, and spears to them, imagining that you are a hunting party after wild boars, so that the impious may learn that they are dealing not with dumb animals but with their lords and masters, the descendants of the Greeks and the Romans.''

Gary said...

Remember there was no such thing as Greece until the 19th century. "Greece" was more of a region like Germany and Italy which also did not exist as nations until the 19th century.

The people you call Greek called themselves Romans.

The massive Slavic invasions changed Latin and "Greek" speaking Balkan areas into enemy dominated Slavic speaking provinces.

The only real truth is language & culture follow economic and military power.

AlexHellene said...

Hi Gary. Thanks for the response.

While there was no country officially called ''Greece'' or ''Hellas'', the people of Hellas in the city states, still referred to themselves as Hellenes, and recognized people from the other city states also as fellow Hellenes.
I don't know about Germans, but Italians in ancient times did not consider or refer to themselves as ''Italians'' but simply belonging to their separate city states, before the take over of the Italian peninsula by the Roman Republic - and than later referred to themselves as Romans. So I wouldn't really consider it the equivalent to the Italian example.

While the Greeks did refer to themselves as Romans, the Greeks in the Roman Empire recognized themselves as a continuation of the ancient Greeks. In his last speech, Emperor Constantine says, ''Present your shield, swords, arrows, and spears to them, imagining that you are a hunting party after wild boars, so that the impious may learn that they are dealing not with dumb animals but with their lords and masters, the descendants of the Greeks and the Romans.''

Although they had their own ulterior motive for it, the Western Europeans, referred to the Roman Empire as the ''Greek Empire'', and many foreign historians and travelers outside the Roman Empire, referred to it's inhabitants as Greeks.

AlexHellene said...

Great blog btw Gary. Keep it going.