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Why we should read... Bishop Sebeos' `History' (288pp, Antelias, Beirut, 1990) Armenian News Network / Groong September 8, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian In the annals of Armenian history, 7th century Bishop Sebeos' chronicle records a particularly bleak period. After Khazar Barpetzi's 5th century 'History' that closes the classical Golden Age of Armenian writing, we have no other historian until Sebeos who, writes his own in 661AD, and covers in detail the period between 589 and 661. Sebeos' voice is radically different to that of his predecessors. He speaks with a cold, indifferent, dispassionate tongue. His is a dry account with none of the vision and hope, none of the moral outrage, none of the critical challenging or the passion to remedy, none of the exhortation or the encouragement we encounter in his forerunners. It is as if Barpetzi, having registered a last epic endeavour of a still relatively confident feudal order, has his famous premonitions of collapse confirmed by Sebeos. Bishop Sebeos tells of a powerless age for the Armenian feudal elite, an age in which it is reduced to little more than a pawn or instrument in the designs of neighbouring great powers. Both secular and church estates are splintered and disorganised, with no force possessing broad political ambition or independent centralising power. While generous in praise of the nobility's courage and military prowess Sebeos shows that these served only foreign, not Armenian, interests (p122, 133). Here Armenian territory itself features routinely only as a theatre of war, where contending empires measure strength to gain advantage in the region as a whole. (p139, 142, 145, 146). The extent of the Armenian feudal order's enfeeblement can be gauged by the contrast between Sebeos' depiction of his own times and that of his synopsis of previous Armenian history with which his work opens. The first part reads as an epic of resistance to oppression. Writing of his battle against Bel, Haik, the mythological father of the Armenian nation is shown as a stubborn and independent man who 'refuses servitude' and 'rejects demands to address Bel as a god' (p76). While 'all other nations immediately bent to Bel's will' Haik 'refused to submit or serve'. (p77). Later, after the defeat of Ara the Beautiful and conquest of Armenia by Assyrian Queen Shamiram, Armenians again 'rebelled and freed themselves from servitude to Assyrian kings.' (p79). This theme of resistance and revolt continues through the summary of the 451AD Vartanantz battles against the Persians (p92) and Vahan Mamikonian's guerrilla wars that stretched from the 470s to 480 (p94). The story of Sebeos' own time suggests no such impulse to freedom. I. POWERLESS AMID GREAT POWER RIVALRY Sebeos' work is not, properly speaking, a history of Armenia, albeit Armenia features centrally in it. Sebeos focuses instead on the 7th century Byzantine-Persian conflicts as these two powers grapple to dominate the entire Middle and Near East, and then on the challenge presented to both by the emergent Arab Empire. He shows the Byzantine and Persian empires, wracked by internal dissension and internecine conflicts that always verge on exploding into civil war, were eventually to leave both powerless before the Arab offensive. It is in this context that Armenia appears and, at best, as little more than an item of real estate, a bargaining counter to be used in others' gambles. At worst it is a nuisance and impediment best removed from the scene. Around 590 AD, Persian Emperor Khosrov (reign 591 - 628) hoping to regain his lost crown appeals to Byzantine Emperor Maurice (reign 582 - 602) for military assistance. In return he promises Maurice: 'All Assyrian lands from Aroustan up to the town of Mdzbin; and of the land of Armenia, all territory from Danouder to the plains of Ayrarat, from the town of Dvin, right up to the shores of lake Van and the land of Arestavan.' (p104) The prospect of a substantial portion of Armenia proves irresistible. So to Khosrov's aid Maurice dispatches even some of those Armenian military formations within his jurisdiction. Having secured control over a greater part of Armenia Maurice accelerated the implementation of the strategic Byzantine policy of removing from Armenia its nobility and their military forces. This was as a prelude to religious and cultural assimilation, (p121) itself part of a single overall design to eliminate Armenia as a separate and identifiable social and political entity. Explaining himself in a communication to Khosrov, now installed as Emperor, Maurice does not mince his words. The Armenians he writes: '... are a devious and disobedient nation that placed between us cause confusion. Come, I shall gather mine (i.e. the Armenian nobility and their military forces) and send them to the Thrace, and you gather yours and send them east. If they die we will have enemies that are dead. If they kill, they will have killed our enemies. Either way we shall be able to live in peace which would be impossible were they to remain in their own land.' (p114) Accordingly both Persian and Byzantine heads of state proceed to deploy Armenian troops under their command to the furthest reaches of their empires (p114, 119, 125, 131 etc). Driving this policy of Armenia without a native feudal elite and without its own native military force was the Armenian nobility's notorious instability and unreliability. By its constant manoeuvring and shifting between Greek and Persian spheres the Armenian nobility came to be seen as a fundamentally untrustworthy political ally or agent of imperial rule. For as long as it retained any degree of autonomous political and military power this nobility presented a permanent prospect of rebellion weakening an important flank of either empire. There is no substantial change to this general picture even during the only period of significant Armenian power that Sebeos recounts - the age of Teotoros Rshdouni and the Arab invasions of Armenia. The Arabs, albeit temporarily restrained by Rshdouni's resistance, merely replace the Persians to dispute possession of Armenia with the Byzantine Empire. Ordering Byzantine King Constans to halt his invasion of Armenia, the: 'Arab prince declared: "Armenia is mine. Do not go there. If you do I shall attack in such a way that will allow you no escape." Constans replied "The land is mine and I shall go there. If you attack...god shall be judge."' (p199) II. AN OBSTREPEROUS AND IMPOTENT ELITE Nigol Aghbalian, in a fine essay accurately summarises the character of the Armenian nobility described by Sebeos. The Armenian feudal estates did 'not have any trust or confidence in each other', they 'exploited their own nation' and whilst 'obstreperous under foreign rule' were actually 'incapable of securing its own independence.' (Aghbalian Collected Works Volume IV, page 453) Devoid of any solid foundation or coherent political project, this elite did not have the wherewithal to benefit from internal Greek and Byzantine turmoil. Its efforts at revolt were feeble, half-hearted and lacked powerful central leadership. So incidents of resistance were stillborn, fragmented or descended into farce. Aghbalian's evaluation of this period and his assessment of the Armenian nobility reveals an interesting historical irony. His membership of the ARF led Soviet Armenian Marxists to denounce him as a narrow-minded nationalist. Yet this alleged nationalist depicts the Armenian nobility in class terms, as a corrupt feudal elite that was opposed to the nation. His Soviet Marxist critics on the other hand frequently present this same nobility as if it embodies in every epoch some popular, patriotic and even democratic national ambition! This contrast deserves scrutiny not least for the fact that it could throw some light on the distorted expressions of nationalism that developed within Soviet Armenian society. But to return again to Sebeos... Sebeos is rarely judgemental in his observations. But, perhaps unintentionally, his descriptions of the ineffective and venal nobility are withering. In 589 AD a group of noble houses 'united with the aim of withdrawing from servitude to the Greeks hoping to install their own King so as to avoid the fate of dying in the Thrace. They preferred to live and die for their homeland.' However hopes for quick personal gain lead to treachery as 'some betrayed colleagues (to the King) and then fled into hiding.' (p121) Later around 594-5 AD Samuel Vahevouni and his allies plunder a Persian imperial caravan of treasures intended to buy their loyalty. Their aim, Sebeos writes was 'to use this treasure to win over the Huns and with the latter's support fight against both (Byzantine and Persian) Kings and by force recover our land.' But the enterprise fails as 'their ambition unravelled on their arrival in Nakhichevan. Mistrustful of each other they divided the treasure among themselves and halting they camped at a place called Jahouk.' (p115-16): The single counterpoint to incapacity is provided by Prince Teotoros from the House of Rshdoun. Based in the province of Vasbourakan he appears as a brave soldier and a clever tactician. While the Armenian nobility as a whole was 'engaged in internecine disputes' that 'condemned the land...to collapse' (p166): 'Only the god fearing and brave (Teotoros Rshdouni) retained his army at the ready. Thanks to his courageous wisdom he kept his province under constant control and caused his enemies no little trouble.' (p166) Rshdouni built sufficient strength to manoeuvre successfully between Greek and Persian powers and thus succeeded in gaining a modicum of recognition from both (p177-178). As a semi-autonomous Greek ally he successfully battled against the Arab invasion (p179) whilst simultaneously resisting Byzantine attempts to absorb the Armenian Church (p181). But Rshdouni's reputation was to rest primarily on his role in resisting the mid-7th century Arab invasions of Armenia. In 640 as the first Arab expeditions reached Armenia, the Armenian nobility was teetering on the brink of terminal disintegration. But in 643 Rshdouni was able to summon enough force to 'destroy them (the Arab invaders) in an almighty massacre...and so secured a great victory.' In 646 he succeeded in altogether expelling Arab armies from Armenia. By 652 he was powerful enough to abandon his alliance with the weaker Greeks and negotiate more favourable terms with the Arabs. The measure of autonomy he secured for the portion of Armenia that came within his ambit is clear in the declaration of the Arab authority: 'Let this be my declaration of peace between you and us for as long as you so desire it. For three years I shall demand no taxes from you. Thereafter you must promise to pay only that which you wish. Retain 15,000 soldiers among yourselves and sustain them by your own means and these I shall count against your taxes...I shall send no emirs or Arabs officers to your castles. The enemy will not enter Armenia. And if the Greeks attack you I shall support you with as many troops as you feel you need...' (p198-199) Rshdouni's resourcefulness and bravery earned him an enduring reputation in popular memory and he entered the pantheon of legend as the much loved 'Uncle Toros' in the epic of David of Sassoon. But his position was fundamentally untenable. There was no powerful social base upon which Rshdouni could rely, to mount an enduring resistance to the Arab invasion, a description of whose devastating onslaught ends Sebeos' history. Only in his telling of the Arab destruction of the Persian Empire, the neutralising of the Byzantine Empire and the Arab devastation of Armenia does Sebeos' prose ignite with some passion. He strikes that note of profound horror and terror that was to be echoed by subsequent Armenian men of letters when reflecting on the Arab invasion they all considered unprecedented in savagery and destructiveness. About the defeat of the Persians by Arab armies that 'captured 22 fortresses killing every single person within them' Sebeos writes: 'But who is capable of describing the terrifying catastrophe of the Arab onslaught which set ablaze both land and sea? Very early on the Holy seer Daniel predicted these misfortunes that were to visit the earth...Daniel uses four beasts as symbols to describe four kingdoms that were to visit the world...Fourth...was the Kingdom of the Arabs which was to be worse than all the previous..." (p175-6) Sebeos and his followers, such as Ghevond and Lasdivertzi, had good reason to see the Arab occupation of Armenia as an unprecedented calamity. It undermined the economic, political, social and demographic foundations of a cohesive state from which Armenia was never to properly recover. However unlike these others, Sebeos' work suggests a broader context for understanding this essentially correct historical evaluation of the Arab invasions. The Armenian nation may have lived some of its bleakest decades during imperial Arab occupation. But the elite of its Christian Byzantine neighbour strove endlessly to fracture and destroy Armenian feudal capacity to resist imperial Arab domination. In the hundred year-period following the first Arab invasion of Armenia, Byzantine policy consciously depleted Armenia of its military strength. Its political, military, religious and administrative policy sought to diminish Armenian power and autonomy. Thus Byzantine imperial policy contributed significantly to forcing open Armenia's gates to Arab conquest. (See N Atonz 'Armenia in the Justinian Period). Put differently had it not been for Byzantine policy, Arab victory over Armenia would by no means have been assured and even had it been, it would have been less comprehensive and on terms that would have reserved a greater breathing space for Armenia and Armenians. Arab rule did shake the demographic, political and social foundations of Armenia. But from this devastation facilitated by Byzantine policy the Armenian noble houses began to revive and to re-establish an independent monarchy in the 9th century. And... just as the Armenian state was recovering and accumulating new strength, the Byzantine Empire did the same exact thing again... in the 11th century, this time lowering the ramparts to the invaders from the east. III. THE HISTORY AND THE HISTORIAN In the chronological sequence of Armenian historians Sebeos follows Barpetzi, the last and great historian of the 5th century Golden Age. Despite the temptation it is, however, of little value to judge Sebeos by the standards of his predecessors. They are separated from each other by some 170 years. They were men of totally different ages, expressive of totally different conditions. The 5th century historians, Puzant, Barpetzi, Yeghishe and Khorenatzi synthesised the moral confidence and political determination of a powerful Church in alliance with a section of the secular nobility. Their work was a constituent element of a wider strategy, an ideological and cultural component of a far-reaching political project to recover and enhance the power of the Church and secure the independence of what they regarded as their state and land. Sebeos' work is of a different order. It echoes an age of decline, recording the post-Golden Age era of disintegration and collapse. His is not the voice of a force or a class on the ascent, one that is striving to retain or enhance power and position. Nigol Aghbalian rightly suggests that Sebeos, who 'neither judges nor condemns', reflects the 'insecure and vacillating nobility' that he wrote about. (Aghbalian p454). But still his history is of immense and irreplaceable value to anyone delving into Armenian history, Byzantine-Persian great power relations and the rise of the Arab Empire. By almost unanimous consent Sebeos offers a detailed and fundamentally reliable record of political and military events not just in Armenia but also in the entire region. His record is all the more valuable for the fact that it is one of the few for an era in which all records, Armenian or non-Armenian, are scarce. This work is in addition a rich repository of information that can help define, besides political and military developments, something of Armenian military traditions and social customs. The volume does have its limits. Like almost all Christian Armenian historians Sebeos explains historical development in terms of punishment or reward for man's breach of God's will. But in contrast to many of those who preceded and who followed him, his volume is bare of significant reference to the broader social or economic realm. So while indispensable for the reconstruction of the political and military events that he focuses on, he does not supply any internal information that would suggest or assist in their secular, causal historical explanation. For all its differences with its predecessors Sebeos's volume deserves a place on the same shelf as the works of the Golden Age historians. Summarising its value, Robert Thompson, in his introduction to his English translation of Sebeos (The Armenian History attributed to Sebeos, Liverpool University Press, 1999) writes: 'Sebeos' contribution to our knowledge of the ending of classical antiquity is greater than that of any other single extant source. Without him we would know very little of the history of his homeland across some 80 dramatic years... He fills ...important blanks in... the last war between rival empires ...(and)... provides some fascinating glimpses of Roman politics in an age of crisis. But his text is to be treasured above all as presenting the fullest reliable and chronologically precise account of the Arab conquests and providing unique information on the circumstances leading to the first Arab civil war.' Coming from Robert Thompson, whose general appreciation of and respect for classical Armenian historiography is seriously flawed and shamefully wanting, this is an unexpected, for him extraordinary, but nevertheless accurate, judgement. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.