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The Critical Corner - 01/31/2011

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Why we should read...

`Tigran II and Rome' by Hagop Manantian
(Collected Works, Volume 1, 1977, Armenia) 

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

January 31, 2011


Hakob Manantian removes Tigran II from his `Great' Pedestal


Hagop Manantian's `Tigran II and Rome', first published 70 years ago
in Soviet Armenia, remains still one of the most balanced studies of
Armenian King Tigran the Great's extraordinary imperial reign. For a
brief period Tigran II, who ruled Armenia from 95 to 55BC, was a major
regional power against whom all others, including an aggressive
imperialist Rome had to measure themselves. According to Cicero Tigran
"made the Republic of Rome tremble before the prowess of his arms."
Having early on seized the title of `King of Kings' from an enfeebled
Persian throne Tigran went on to wage a 25 year military campaign to
build an Empire that at its height stretched from Armenia northwards
into Georgia and Iberia, eastward to the Caspian Sea, southwards into
Assyrian lands and westwards to the shores of the Mediterranean taking
in Cilicia, Damascus, Antioch, Phoenicia and large swathes of Syrian
hinterland too.

Tigran's triumphs could not leave Rome undisturbed. It too was hungry
for the rich spoils of conquest available in Asia Minor. So, head to
head combat between Rome and Armenia was inevitable. Hakob Manantian's
volume is his account of this clash, of Rome's war to destroy the
Armenian imperial state, the last remaining obstacle to its supremacy
in Asia Minor. It is at the same a sobering evaluation of Tigran's
historic regional role and his national legacy. Though marked by some
weakness it also remains a fine addition to a necessary Armenian
polemical arsenal against imperialist falsification of Armenian
history that stretches back a good 3000 years and was noted as early
as the 5th century by founder of Armenian historiography Movses
Khorenatzi (see Note 1).


I. THE DENIGRATION OF TIGRAN II

Manantian takes erudite polemical aim against both classical Roman
primary sources and 20th century European imperialist historiography.
The Romans `with the greatest of skill' he says `produced a
self-serving history' that `suppresses truths unfavourable' to
itself. (p408). The chief Roman culprit here was Plutarch who to
glorify his imperial masters fabricates the Armenian Tigran II and his
ally King Mithridates VI of Pontus as backward, cowardly, uncivilised
and incompetent figures of a dismal East against whom Roman troops
marched with soles bearing the imprint of civilisation. Plutarch is
targeted in addition because it is upon his fictions that imperialist
European historians rested when seeking to reinforce their own
`notable hostility' towards `the East and the people of the East' so
that they too could paint Europe's imperialist plunder in civilising
lights.

Manantian demolishes falsification with panache, combining meticulous
examination of sources with intellectual rigour. As he disentangles
fact from fiction, he restores Tigran II to the status of the
formidable King that he was. Tigran was no mediocrity, no disloyal and
incompetent eastern barbarian who merely tagged along with the more
forceful and talented though equally barbarian King of Pontus. A man
of extraordinary ability he was, at 45, a late comer to the throne yet
had the energy and stamina to attain imperial heights at 70 and still
lead armies into battle on horseback at 75. Possessing extraordinary
capacity to recover from crippling and almost fatal blows, of immense
vigour and stubborn will, he seized his opportunity and with great
political and military acumen built an Empire that was the envy of all
neighbouring monarchs.

In the effort to recover a historically more authentic Tigran II,
Manantian even turns the tables on Rome. It was the Romans, not the
Armenians, he argues who were the barbarians. Barbarism was imperial
Rome's defining characteristic, in Hellenistic Asia Minor at least.
There it existed as a parasitic order relentlessly exploiting and
draining occupied territories of wealth and skilled manpower but
contributing nothing to its economic, social or cultural development.
The point is underlined in a quote from 19th century German classical
historian Theodor Momzen, much admired by Mark Twain, who wrote: `The
already heavy burden of Roman rule in the East soon became intolerable
repression and oppression in the face of which neither royal crown nor
peasant hut was free of the danger of confiscation. Every sheath of
wheat that grew was for Roman tax collectors alone and every child
that was born was born to become the property of its slave traders.'
(p417).

The Roman conquest of Asia Minor was in Manantian's summation:

    `...the beginning of a destruction and calamity that was to have
    terrible and devastating consequences for the future economic and
    cultural development of the Hellenistic east (p415).

Indeed the `cultural collapse and disintegration' that Asia Minor
subsequently experienced must be placed `squarely upon Roman
shoulders' that had not only plundered and destroyed the east by means
of military invasion but through `financial and usurious exploitation
too.' (p411)

Against this reactionary invasion the argument follows, Tigran II's
and Mithradates's resistance was objectively a defence of Asia Minor's
still surviving pre-Roman Hellenistic civilisation that with its
global productive and trading infrastructure underpinned substantial
cultural development. In a sometimes eye-opening recent study H K
Hakobyan weaves the thread thicker writing that: `Tigran during the
1st century BC was in effect an agent of globalisation, continuing the
work done by Alexander of Macedonia. It is by this that Tigran's
international significance is to be measured. (p51 `Tigran the Great'
244pp, Yerevan, 2005)

Unfortunately Manantian, and nor for that matter Hakobyan, offer any
substantial or detailed argument and cloud their case instead with a
questionable and romanticised defence of the two monarchs. It is one
thing to claim that inheriting Asia Minor's Hellenistic civilisation
they were de facto acting in its defence against a reactionary and
predatory Rome. It is quite another to depict them as some kind of
modern revolutionary democrats, a picture that disregards their
slaveholding character, their merciless oppression of their own people
and their militarist conquest of other nations and peoples. But this
is what Manantian does.

As Mithridates leads his imperial armies into neighbouring states
subjugated by Rome, he is presented as a nation-liberator, almost a
class warrior `defending and protecting the exploited' and inspiring
them to `social and class war' against `brutal Roman rule' (p440-441).
Here Manantian takes issue with Momzen.  `It is difficult' he writes
`to agree with him that both the Armenian-Roman conflict and the
Mithradates wars were reactionary movements against the people of the
west.' (p466) True enough the people of these states hated the
Romans. But there is no call to paint conquest by a new colonial power
as national liberation. Hakobyan in addition suggests a sort of
benign, progressive Armenian imperialism that restored order,
stability and security and so aided commerce and trading (Hakobyan,
p101). It is perhaps proper when considering such views to recall the
case of Genghis Khan. For him Armenians, and rightly so, can have not
a positive word. Yet he has been labelled by English writer Ralph Fox
as a progressive imperialist for the very same reasons Hakobyan
applauds Tigran.

Intent on raising even higher the barricades in Tigran's defence,
Manantian, like many Armenian historians, avoids critical
consideration of mass deportations that were central instruments of
his imperial policy. Tigran forcibly uprooted 300,000 people from
their Cappadocian homelands, relocating them to Armenia there, to
serve his programme of Hellenistic reform. Manantian tries to give
this project a progressive gloss suggesting that resulting development
of towns and crafts benefited the Armenian people. Do we need
reminding that Iranian Shah Abbas, for whom Armenians also have not a
good word to say, himself uprooted and deported whole (Armenian)
communities relocating them to Iran there to serve his own programme
of national development.


II. THE CLASH OF EMPIRES

Manantian's romanticism aside, the core of his evaluation remains
solid and temperate. As he restores Tigran to his proper historic
position he does not place him upon that `Great' pedestal built by
some Roman, European and Armenian historians, neither does he paint
him with gaudy patriotic colours so cheaply available in the store of
Armenian historical makeup. There is no blurring of Rome's eventual
triumph and the devastating consequences this had for Armenia and the
region.

Tigran's forces were in fact defeated in their first major clash with
Rome at the 69BC Battle of Tigranakert. Manantian disposes of
Plutarch's ridiculous account of a stunning victory of Roman arms
against cowardly and inept Armenian `barbarians', an account echoed by
20th century Kurt Eckhardt who also opposes `an incomparably skilled
Roman military' `to the savage bandits that marched behind Tigran's
flag.' At Tigranakert there had been `no bloody confrontation' and so
no test of either side's military prowess, fighting skills, bravery or
courage. But there is no concealing the scale and severity of the
Armenian collapse that was a `panic and flight, without fight'(p523),
a rout all the more humiliating for being a result not of Armenian
military inferiority but of strategic political mistakes committed by
the Armenian Emperor.

During the first 90-85BC Roman assault on Mithradates of Pontus,
Tigran II had chosen to remain neutral hoping that in return Rome
would refrain from striking at his imperial possessions. Granting
Roman sources a point, Manantian comments that they:

    `...correctly suggest that Tigran should not have allowed the
    destruction of Pontus that protected his flank.' (p489)

This error was compounded by an amazing complacency. Considering
prospects of Roman assault remote, Tigran left to defend the edges of
his Empire leaving an emboldened Rome free to attack his now
politically isolated and also leaderless Empire.

Manantian does attempt to explain Tigran's decisions. `Had he entered
the field against the Romans (when they first attacked Pontus) he
would have been obliged to simultaneously engage Rome as well as his
deadly Persian foes' he was then battling to overwhelm. In addition
Manantian notes Rome's tremendously skilful deceptive diplomacy that
succeeded in putting Tigran off guard. Hakobyan goes further claiming
it a mistake to `assume that Tigran did not expect a Roman attack.'
Both Armenia and Rome, he writes, understood well that `all was
leading in the direction' of war and so `were working to prepare for
the moment of unavoidable combat (p116).' That Tigran was outsmarted,
Hakobyan insists, was a function not of his miscalculation but of
Mithradates's all too easy and surprising collapse before the Romans.

However explained, Tigran's political decisions facilitated a Roman
triumph that began the collapse of his Empire. Luculllus was able to
strike at the defenceless heart of the Armenian Empire - its newly
built capital city of Tigranakert, home to Tigran's personal family
and storehouse for his treasures of conquest. Roman historiography is
silent or contemptuous about the months of Armenian resistance against
Roman forces encircling Tikranakert. Nevertheless, shortly after
Tigran's daring expeditionary raid that rescued his entrapped family,
Rome captured and sacked the city. It is appropriate to here note that
objection to Tigran's forced population deportation and relocation is
not just a-historical albeit righteous moral judgement. Such measures
can never aid the securing of stable foundations for any state. At the
battle of Tigranakert the Roman triumph that was to effectively seal
the fate of Tigran's empire was eased when segments of the city's
population that had been forcibly relocated there went over to the
Romans.

Tigran did retaliate, organising a brilliant guerrilla style campaign
that humbled Lucullus and forced his humiliating crawl out of the
region. But his fortunes were never to recover. His 69BC defeat at
Tigranakert determined `the fate and future not just of Pontus, but of
Armenia and Asia Minor.' (p477) It marked the beginning of `the
disintegration of the great Armenian state (p522), put a categorical
end to the `fostering Hellenistic urban cultural and civilisation in
backward Armenia' and an end also to the fortunes of Hellenistic
civilisation in the east, (p526).


III. THE END OF EMPIRE AND THE DEBATE ON ITS LEGACY

Despite Lucullus' retreat dressed by Plutarch as a triumphant
departure, Rome was able to dictate harsh terms. Besides imposing a
heavy burden of war reparations and taxation Rome shrunk Tigran's
imperial borders to a fraction of their earlier size. But it was left
to Lucullus's successor, Pompey, that `notorious agent of Roman finance
and usury' to write the death certificate for Tigran's Armenian Empire.
Faced with a dreadfully weakened Tigran, Pompey from 66BC on was able
to `subjugate and plunder Armenia without bloodshed or sacrifice'
(p583), draining it further of the power and the wealth that Tigran
had accumulated.

 From the grandeur `King of Kings' Tigran was now to become a
subordinate tax-paying `friend and ally' of Rome, a `buffer state', `a
Roman military outpost.' (p598). For a short period the dominant
regional state, Pompey returned Armenia to what it had been at the
outset of Tigran's reign. By its end Armenia had `ceased to be a great
power', had lost `effective independence' and lost also the means `to
take its fortunes into its own hands'. Bagrat Ouloubabian in his book
of essays on Armenian history sums it up well:

    And so...before the very eyes of its creator Tigran the Great's
    universal state shrunk and refitted within the borders that had
    marked Armenia during his father King Artashes I reign. When
    Tigran's son Artavast II rose to the throne Armenia was to a
    certain extent a state dependent on Rome.' (p133)

With the age of Armenian Empire over Rome trampled down what remained
of Hellenist civilisation in the East. A measure of its triumph was
the subsequent triumph of Christianity in Armenia. Imposed by military
violence it obliterated the last remnants of Hellenistic culture that
Tigran attempted so hard to introduce into Armenia.

For the development of the Armenian state, the Roman defeat of
Tigran's Empire signalled in addition a failure to sink and
consolidate durable foundations for a future independent and
self-reliant Armenian state, monarchical or otherwise. Indubitable as
were his personal qualities Tigran was unable to subdue the acutely
centrifugal Armenian estates and fiefdoms that repeatedly fractured
every attempt to construct a stable and centralised Armenian state
capable of resisting the violent ambitions of neighbouring great
powers. Simultaneous with Rome's triumph, an emboldened Persia also
rejoined the band of neighbouring conquerors hungry for control over
Armenia. So:

    `With the establishment of Roman hegemony... a most difficult and
    taxing political buffer like condition was created for Ancient
    Armenia that was to endure for centuries. Finding itself between
    two powerful enemies, between Roman and Iran, Armenia was
    compelled, against the essential interests of the Armenian people,
    to become a participant in endless and vicious wars that were
    periodically waged by its neighbouring great powers.' (p601)

Following a brief period of genuine state independence, the future of
Armenia and its people was henceforth to be largely `determined' `by
(neighbouring) great powers' (p602), that is by Persian, Roman and
then Arabic and into our own days, Ottoman, Russian empires.

In his work Hakobyan does attempt to salvage something from Tigran's
reign for the modern Armenian nation. But his argument is thin.
Tigran's `greatest legacy to future generations' he writes was his
role in the survival `of the Armenian nation.' The `peoples in Asia
Minor that fell to Rome' he writes `have since exited the stage of
history while the Armenians live to this day (p230)'. The Armenian
people lived on certainly, but not as a free people. They lived on as
slaves in hell, chained, driven from their homelands, cut down,
slaughtered and reduced, now to the very edge of survival.

Harsh as Manantian's evaluation is, it does not of course detract from
Tigran's personal qualities. As an individual his history was the true
tragedy of a heroic figure who, rising to heights of imperial glory
with stunning speed, audacity and determination, then lived his last
years as a minor adjunct of the foes who brought him low. It is
surprising that so little modern literary fiction about Tigran has
been written that goes beyond patriotic sentimentality. Ouloubabian
does remind us that `popular folklore' has indeed `adorned Tigran with
the most brilliant of halos'. But this expresses, and quite justly,
popular utopias for a better, secure and peaceful life. It is not
however modern artistic representation. This would require the
reconstruction of the social and historic truths of Tigran's imperial
age, of its ruthless slaveholding character, its militarism and its
conquest and oppression of other nations, all of which must also
feature centrally in any modern, democratic and national discussion of
Tigran' reign.

Unfortunately a great deal of Armenian writing, historical or
fictional, about Tigran's imperial state, and about Armenian history
in general, is submerged in an overenthusiastic patriotism. It pays
little, if any, heed to precision in the definition of the concepts of
nation and people despite these being well developed in modern
Armenian intellectual discourse. Mikael Nalpantian and Krikor
Ardzrouni, two outstanding 19th century intellects, for all their
divergence, correctly understood and deployed the term `nation' to
refer primarily to the majority of a people, to the common people and
not its elite. Drawing on their study of Armenian history and their
contemporary experience as democratic representatives of the Armenian
people they highlighted the Armenian elite's essentially a-national
essence and condemned it for its opposition to the nation as people,
to the needs of the people and to the needs of Armenia. Any genuine
discussion and evaluation of Armenian history, its monarchs, princes
and bishops, including Tigran II should take Nalpantian's and
Ardzrouni's approach as a necessary standard and starting point.

Much of modern Armenian historiography remains sadly indifferent to
Nalpantian's and Ardzrouni's fine legacy. Novelist and early 20th
century ARF leader Avetis Aharonian, for example writes that it was
during Tigran's reign that `our (i.e. the Armenian people's) national
pulse beat at its healthiest and most powerful'. Even historian Leo,
an admirer of Ardzrouni, manages a sigh of regret about an
unparalleled... leader' who raised Armenia to `levels of power never
attained since.' Yet `the pulse that beat' and the `power attained'
during Tigran's reign was not that of the Armenian people or nation. A
people cannot have an Empire. The British Empire was not the Empire of
the British people! The state that Tigran built was not the state of
the Armenian people or nation. It was Tigran's personal property.
Tigran's Empire was the Empire of an absolute monarch utterly remote
from the people. It not only exploited the people but engaged in
colonial conquest little different from that which has devastated the
lives of the common Armenian man and woman. Incidentally its
remoteness from the people is underlined by a singular fact. Consistent
with the entire history of Armenian elites, the language of Tigran's
court was increasingly a foreign language: Greek!

Contrary to imperialist falsification, the Armenian people, like the
African and Asian people, do have a history that stretches back
centuries upon centuries. But as with all histories of a state or
region, not everything is glorious, not everything left behind is an
object of admiration. In the annals of Armenian history there is a
great deal more than the ennoblement of Tigran the Emperor. It will
not of course do to exclude Tigran II and the monarchs that preceded
and followed him from the history of the Armenian people and nation.
For Armenians whose ancestors have lived in historic Armenia, all
preceding epochs have left raw material for modern nation formation.
The study and appropriation of this for the common people however
requires precision and clarity in the use of categories and
conceptions.


Note 1:

Remarking on the fraud of great power history, on their attempts to
assimilate smaller nations and then write them out of history,
Khorenatsi writes that to exact revenge against Haig, the founder of
Armenia, Assyrian King Ninos set about the `annihilation of his every
last offspring' and `ordered the destruction of vast numbers of
volumes that tell of achievements by other nations' among them those
of the Armenians. Imperialist falsification designed to undermine
others' independent nation-building remains relevant to this day.
Armenians have to contend with such falsification not just by Turkish
historiography that seeks to expunge them from any record in their own
historical homelands, but also with that of contemporary European and
US historians who systematically present Armenia and its culture as
secondary appendages to those of superior imperial great powers.
Attention to the latter has been forcefully drawn by Armen Aivazyan in
his controversial, not always correct but frequently to the point `The
History of Armenia as Presented in American Historiography: A Critical
Survey (Yerevan: "Artagers," 1998).



--
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.

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