The Artaxiads (Artashesiank)

By Levon Zekiyan –

The first two decades of the second century B.C. were a particularly important turning point for ancient Armenia. During this period, its political and cultural unification and consolidation took place. Also during this time, Armenia started to advance toward a political power never again to be equaled in that country, not even during the more fortunate economic and cultural periods that followed.

At the roots of this evolution was the foundation, around 190 B.C., of the Artaxiad dynasty by Artaxias (Artashes) I (c. 190-159) with the proclamation of independence from the Seleucids, who had constituted the ascendant power in Armenia immediately after the collapse of Alexander’s empire. Artashes had the approval and acknowledgement of the Romans for, having defeated Antiochus at Magnesia in 190, they were interested in having the Armenian sovereign as an ally.
According to Strabo (XI, XIV, 15), it was during the reign of Artashes that Armenian became the common language throughout the country. This must be taken as the expression of a widespread ethnic harmony that had already existed in those regions for a long time.
Ultimately, the Armenian language became extremely important in only a few decades, an achievement that had not been accomplished over far longer periods of domination by the Persians and Greeks.

One of Artashes’ most important accomplishments was the construction of the new capital, Artashat (Artaxata), not very far from the present capital of Armenia, Yerevan, which is to the south, at the entrance to the plain lands of the River Araxes, at a point where the watercourse forms a near peninsula. Hannibal, who had taken refuge in Armenia after escaping from the Romans, had pointed out to Artashes the strategic and military importance of the place.

The most outstanding representative of the Artaxiad dynasty was Tigran (Tigranes) II, called the Great. During the forty years of his reign (95-55 B.C.),he extended the boundaries of Armenia to their fullest, making an ally of rival Rome. In addition to Sophene, he annexed Armenia Minor, sharing the territory with his father-in-law, Mithridates Eupator, the famous king of Pontus. He later incorporated Atropatene Media (the western regions of Persia) into his kingdom, and then all of Mesopotamia, as far as Ctesiphon and Seleucia, and the western coasts of Syria as far as Phoenicia, part of Cappadocia and Cilicia. Tigran was now at the height of his power, the “king of kings,” as was stated on the coins he had minted. The position of Artaxata now seemed somewhat marginal in the rest of the vast territory, so Tigran set about constructing a new capital in a more central position further south, near present-day Diyarbekir in Turkey. He called it Tigranakert (Tigran’s construction).

It was inevitable that this imperial expansion should culminate in a head-on collision with Rome. Mithradates, already in open conflict with the Romans, provided the stimulus. He had taken refuge with his son-in-law, who had skillfully remained on the sidelines of the dangerous game his father-in-law was playing with Rome. Now, against his will, Tigran suddenly found himself personally involved. Tigran’s first rival was Lucullus. Having won an initial battle in 69, Lucullus came off badly in the second campaign, being drawn into a trap Tigran had set for him inside the Armenian plateau. So in spring of 67, the Armenian counter-offensive managed to regain the positions they had lost, and Lucullus was called back to Rome (taking the cherry and the apricot – prunus armeniaca – with him). His place was taken by Pompeo, who inflicted a harsh if partial defeat upon Tigran. Tigran had somewhat haughtily underestimated the military power of the Romans; his exclamation when he saw the Roman legions has gone down in history: “If they have come as ambassadors, they are too many; if they have come to fight, they are too few.” Pompeo nevertheless turned out to be chivalrous towards the bitter old sovereign. He spared him the humiliation of having to lay down his crown at the victor’s feet and made a stout ally of him.

The long affair ended with the peace treaty of Artaxata in 66 B.C.


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