The Arsacids Dynasty (Arshakuni)

By Levon Zekiyan –

In the decades that followed 60 B.C., Armenia became one of the cherished targets of the hegemony of Romans and Parthians alike, who found support from the pro-Romans and pro-Parthians within the local political setup. A new political situation came about with the campaign of Corbulo, which ended with the treaty of Rhandeia in 63 B.C. In future, Armenia was to have its own king who would be appointed by the Parthians and at the same time be a protégé and ally of the Romans. Thus began the dynasty of the Arsacids(Arshakuni) in Armenia. They were the cadet branch of the dynasty ruling over Persia. As a token of the alliance, the first representative of the Arsacids in Armenia, Tiridates (Trdat) I, accepted to be crowned by Nero in Rome in 66. This was probably the occasion that was celebrated by the statue of Tiridates that can be seen in the Louvre in Paris (a gold coin bearing the head of Nero has recently been found in Armenia).

For a period of only two years, Armenia became an effective Roman province, after Trajan annexed it in 114. But his death and the revolt of the Jews in 117 rendered the plan to dominate the Parthian kingdom ineffective, and Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, preferred to observe the treaty of Rhandeia.

In 224, the international political scene changed sharply, with the advent of the Sassanids in Persia. Although the Armenian Arsacids had been able to escape the extermination inflicted on their Parthian relatives, they nevertheless found an inflexible adversary in the new ascendant power. The Sassanids’ plans for Armenia – political dominion and cultural-religious assimilation – were only partly fulfilled, on the political side, with the extinction of the Arsacid dynasty in 428. Tension ran particularly high on account of Armenia’s having been converted to Christianity during the reign of Trdat III (287-330) by St. Grigor Lusavoritch (the Illuminator). Military vicissitudes between the Roman Empire of the East and the Sassanids made it inevitable that Armenia should be divided into two, and this took place in 387, with a north-to-south demarcation line that passed through the city of Karin or Theodosiopolis, present-day Erzerum. Unfortunately, the part that remained to the west of the line, under Byzantine hegemony, was subjected to cultural-religious pressure no less forceful than that exerted by the Sassanids.

Indeed, given the religious community, a not insignificant part of the Armenian population in those regions was practically Hellenized. The eastern regions, on the other hand, having remained under Persian control, were able to keep their ethnic-cultural identity. Apart from the influence of religious and sociopolitical factors in making this possible, another crucial factor was the invention of the Armenian alphabet in 406 by vardapet Mesrop Mashtots, who was venerated like a saint by the Armenian Church. The western regions, under the Byzantine administration, were also partly affected by this.


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