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Classical Armenian Literature

What follows is as much as I can remember and reconstruct of what I wrote on my MPhil examination on Classical Armenian literature...

Writing and scholarship arose late in Armenia’s history.  The political and cultural individuality of the Armenian nation was manifest in the days of the Achaemenian Empire, but it was only in Christian times that literature developed.  Thomson observes soundly that Armenian literature was both “the result of an established Christian presence,” and “ a major factor” in Armenia’s conversion to the new faith.
Nevertheless, long before the invention of the Armenian alphabet, Armenians had been familiar with classical culture, and the influence of Greek literature was enormous especially at the court.  Artavazd, an Armenian king of the first century B.C., wrote plays and histories; public inscriptions were put up, coins were minted, and the Armenians were acknowledged as teachers and scholars within the Greek-speaking world.  But the
language of these transactions was mainly Greek, though Aramaic appeared in inscriptions and Syriac was known in church circles.  Furthermore, the Armenians possessed “a rich heritage” of oral tales.  These were recited by bards (gusan) to the accompaniment of the lyre, and such entertainment was popular in princely circles.  Apart from a few fragments preserved by certain historians, the songs were never put into writing, as the clergy condemned such tales and those who chanted them.  Accordingly, we  may fairly say with Thomson that written literature was “the perquisite of a small group that deliberately set itself apart from pagan traditions.”
Mashtots, called Mesrop after his own time, was the originator of the Armenian alphabet—an innovation which can be placed near A.D. 400. Koriun’s biography of Mashtots provides most of our information on this remarkable development, though it is light on precise details, and laden with rhetorical description.  Mashtots’ missionary work was directed at the more remote parts of Armenia: despite the preaching of St. Gregory the illuminator and the conversion of king Trdat, much of Armenia remained pagan.  In this connexion the enthusiastic exaggeration of Agathangelos is misleading, though this pious author is our only source for these events.  Furthermore, Pavstos Buzand (another historian) describes the struggles of the fledgling church in the face of immense resistance from pagan nobles whose outlook was essentially Iranian.  
In the course of his missionary activity, Mashtots became convinced that religious texts must be put into Armenian.  The clergy used Greek or Syriac, and the liturgy was conducted in these languages.  Mahé and others have imagined extempore translations of the liturgy into Armenian, Thomson adds that such a practise would have been “insufficient and tedious.”  Accordingly, the alphabet was developed by Mashtots “in concert” with Sahak, the Catholicos.  Koriun assures us also that king Vramshapuh was directly involved.  This king is said to have reported to Mashtots that a certain Syrian bishop (called Daniel) had also made a script for Armenian.  This is strong evidence for Syrian missionary work in Southern Armenia, and we might also adduce the influence of Syrian  vocabulary on Armenian literature, and the contribution of Syrian authors to it also.
Daniel’s alphabet was, of course, deficient for all the reasons that might be expected from the application of a Semitic script to an Aryan language.  At Edessa, the centre of Syrian Christianity in Roman Armenia, Mashtots divided his pupils in two groups.  One was sent to Samosata to learn Greek, and the other remained in Edessa to learn Syriac.  Furthermore, the new alphabet was developed at Samosata along Greek lines.  When this
task was finished, texts were translated into Armenian from Greek and Syriac, and more pupils were sent to Edessa and Constantinople to learn the relevant languages and to gather texts for translation.  Koriun tells us that the Proverbs of Solomon were the first things put into Armenian.
The Bible was, obviously, the staple of reading and study, but the Fathers were not neglected.  The homilies of Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzenus, Severus of Gabbala, Eusebius of Emesa, Evagrius, Afrahat, and Ephrem Syrus provided “a solid basis for instruction and a wide range of parallels, imagery, and interpretation” assimilated by Armenian writers.  The biblical commentaries of John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria also assisted.
A basis for the exposition of the faith was found in the Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem, whose work seems to have influenced Agathangelos’ Teaching of St. Gregory.  Countless lives of saints and martyrs were models for descriptions of the frequent persecutions in Armenia.  The sayings of the Egyptian fathers were both entertaining and useful as a pattern for the “idiosyncrasies of Armenian holy men and hermits,” but the Hexahemeron of Basil of Caesarea furnished more practical information on the physical world.  Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Chronicle must be given special emphasis.  The first work offered a fund of knowledge, as it was quoted and adapted often, but it was also a model for the writing of history in a Christian context.  Accordingly, many Armenian authors regarded historiography as “a demonstration of the ultimate triumph of piety and truth over the forces of evil and death.”  Eusebius’ Chronicle, however, being an attempt to correlate the history of the world with the Biblical narrative, was the main source of Armenian knowledge of the Empires of the ancient world.  This work also strove to show how the histories of various “meshed together,” and it was therefore used as a “schema in which the history of Armenia had its rightful place.”  Moses Chorenatsi was the first to imitate Eusebius, and his work was the first to set the ancient oral traditions into the patterns of world history and to demonstrate the antiquity of Armenia as a distinct nation.
I. When KORIOUN began to write his biography of Mashtots, he already had a well developed idea of what a biography was, as did his audience.  We are not surprised therefore to parallels with Gregory Nazianzen’s Life of Basil of Caesarea.  An influence of Greek rhetoric is also detected.  When Agathangelos wrote his life of St. Gregory, Koriun’s work was taken as a model.
The chief problem with the Life of Mashtots is ascertaining what the work actually is, and the purpose of its composition is obviously connected to this problem.  In tutorial, the question was addressed with reference to genre.  Though the word “history” appears once in the Life of Mashtots, this appellation is not appropriate as a title for the whole work.  Much that we should expect from a sober history is not there: the history of writing in
pre-Christian Armenia, for instance, is totally absent, and the history of the two translations of the Bible is extremely vague.
Before Mashtots’ innovation, the Armenians had not been illiterate.  They simply did not write in Armenian, but rather in Greek, Syriac, or possibly Middle Persian.  Armenia is full of ancient epigraphy left by Phoenicians, Assyrians, Urartians, and Persians.  Apollonius of Tyana mentions a collar incribes armeniois grammasi, and Russell has judged that a Manichaean script prevailed in Armenia before Mashtots’ innovation.  The second
version of the Bible was made perhaps to expunge an undesired, and possibly heretical Syrian influence.  The tie to Antiochene theology and exegesis was severed, and an Alexandrine influence replaced it.  The opinions of Mahé and Winkler are most illuminating in this connexion.
Some Armenian historian view the work as an encomium.  Mahé’s view is that the work is “en guise d’épitaphe ou d’éloge funèbre.”  What then is its purpose?  Based on the opinions of Mahé and Abeghian, I argued in tutorial that whereas the invention of the Armenian alphabet must have excited controversy among those Armenians loyal to Syrian Christendom, the innovations of Mashtots and his circle needed some apology.
II.  Though much is attributed to YEZNIK OF KOGHB, he is most famous for his treatise on the origin of evil, wherein for groups are attacked.  The pagan Greeks, the dualist Persians, the Greek philosophers, and the Marcionites (says Yeznik) do not apprehend that man has free will, and that there is no created thing that is evil by nature.  Evil comes from man’s perversion of free will.  One of Yeznik’s main sources was Methodius’ treatise
On the Freedom of the Will, which attacked the dualism and determinism found in the Gnosticism of Valentinus.  Suprisingly, Yeznik’s treatise had only a small effect on later Armenian authors.  Paganism, the Marcionite heresy, and Persian mythology were problems of his own age with little relevance to later centuries, when the main concerns were the defence of Armenian Christendom against the encroachments of the Byzantine Church, and the temptation to convert to Islam for social and economic advantage.  Yeznik’s style, furthermore, is unusual in Armenian literature.  The treatise is exact, sparse, extremely particular in its analysis and progressions, whereas other authors are verbose, and fond of elaborate imagery—two features grounded in customs of public declamation.
III. AGATHANGELOS’ work is a pastiche of other sources, and has a textual history more complex than that of any other piece of Armenian literature.  No other text was translated (even in part) into so many different languages.  There were, furthermore, two distinct recensions of the history, there are different Greek and Arabic versions, and the Syrian version includes later events not found in the Armenian.  Finally, the first
Armenian recension did not survive, and only the second is quoted in later literature.
Composed of hagiography, mythology, and legend, the History is a blend of fact and fiction: the events of a hundred years are compressed into a life time, and the importance Ejmiacin betrays an author of the fifth century, as the Armenian patriarchal see was at Ashtishat until the late fourth century.  Nevertheless, the work demonstrates the wide learning of an author typical of his time: extensive use of the Bible, hagiography, and the
Church Fathers.  The History is not cohesive, and the descriptions of Gregory’s journeys is lifted from Koriun’s Life of Mashtots.
My tutorial essay took the form of notes, and did not try to prove a single thesis.  I noted that the History was written probably in A.D. 460, or soon thereafter, when encroachments from Syria, Byzantium, and Iran made assertion of the Armenian identity a national emergency.  Based on the theological learning in the History, which combines influences from John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Proclus of
Constantinople, Thomson deduces that this text belongs to the first or second generation of Mashtots’ pupils.  Mahé believes both that Agathangelos is an assumed name, and also that none of his biographical details are trustworthy.  
Agathangelos’ work is clearly a reshaping of history to suit the contemporary political reality.  This is evinced by comparison to the work of Pavstos Buzand, in whose work Syrian influence is quite prominent.  This influence was excised from Agathangelos’ History for the reasons articulated by Winkler.  Agathangelos is, furthermore, at pains to associate the early Armenian Church with Greek Christianity.  I noted that Pavstos correctly locates the centre of Armenian Christendom in Ashtishat, but Agathangelos puts in Valashapat, the royal residence.  Royal endorsement of the new religion is to be inferred.  Finally, many fanciful episodes and miracles were invented by Agathangelos, and other authors either mention very little of St. Gregory, or do not mention him at all.
St. Gregory is regarded as a model of the Armenian patriarchs who came to play the chief role in resistance to Sasanian Iran.  Such resistance can be found (according to Garsoian) in the so-called “Iranian sub-stratum” of the History.  A transformation of the pagan element of Armenian culture is implied here, and Agathangelos’ History can be seen as a re-interpretation of received tradition.
IV. A quotation from Tacitus worth deploying: ambigua gens ea antiquitus hominum ingeniis et situ terrarum, quoniam nostris provinciis late praetenta penitus ad Medos porritur: maximisque imperiis interjecti et saepius discordes sunt, adversus Romanos odiô et in Parthum invidiâ (Tacit. Annal. II.lvi.1).  YEGHISHE writes of the Armenian revolt against Persia (450-451).  He wrote under the patronage of David Mamikon, who is otherwise unknown.  Though another historian, Ghazar Parpetsi, describes the same events, Yeghishe’s interpretation of them has proven itself more influential.  Yeghishe views the revolt as “a struggle between vice and virtue in which the Armenians [fought] for their ancestral customs.”  The true patriot dies for Armenian Christianity against militant Zoroastrianism, and “apostasy not only leads to personal damnation, [but also] brings about the ruin of the nation.”  Recurring throughout the work are themes of the covenant of loyalty to church and country, and the valour of the righteous contrasted with the baseness of those who forsake that covenant.
Yeghishe drew on many sources, and allusions to the Bible and hagiography abound.  The works of the so-called “Hermes Trismegistus” were a major influence on Yeghishe, who was also the first Armenian author to rely on the work of Philo of Alexandria.  Nevertheless, the books of the Maccabees were his greatest influence.  Comparison to the Maccabees and allusions to Matathias’ speech were made for obvious reasons, and the
parallel between awrenkh and nomoi are noteworthy.  Yeghishe, though, was not the first to exploit this allusion.  Agathangelos used the Maccabee texts to describe Armenian paganism, but Pavstos was the first to apply the comparison of the Armenians to the Maccabees, and also used certain passages of these texts to describe battle scenes.  The Maccabees do not die in expectation of eternal life, but the Armenians who die for the
defence of their homeland and its traditions do.  In this connextion Thomson draws our attention to the motif of the covenant.  This theme is not found in the New, but rather in the Old, Testament.  Its full significance derives from Syrian baptismal theology.  When Afrahat, for instance, describes this covenant, he urges the initiates to prepare for holy war—a theme also elaborated by Ephrem Syrus.  Yeghishe has added a national significance to this holy war.  He was also probably the first to call the Church ukht, the normal word for “covenant,” as Zekiyan asserts.  The Armenians seem to have expanded this notion of the covenant to include every aspect of personal, religious, and national identity.
I argued in my essay that the formation of a distinct Armenian identity was associated with the adoption of Christianity and the rejection of the Chalcedonian synod.  These developments, of course, were related neither to one another, nor to the revolt and battle at Avarayr.  Nevertheless, later Armenian tradition (beginning, of course, with Sebeos) linked he rejection of Chalcedon with the Battle of Avarayr.  The two occurred in the
same year, and the lack of Roman assistance in the face of the Persian onslaught put even greater distance between Armenia and Rome, as the benefits of union seemed low.  These notions are in embryonic form in Yeghishe’s history.
This work is hardly a sober history, and controversy rages over its date.  Furthermore, the work is a pastiche of scriptural and liturgical allusions, hagiography, and martyrology, and Yeghishe owes a massive debt to Philo of Alexandria.  Accordingly, it seems best to view this work as a commentary on events already well-known and formerly recorded by Ghazar Parpetsi.  We are not therefore surprised to find that Yeghishe nowhere uses the word patmuthiun.  Ghazar’s narrative is straightforward, whereas that of Yeghishe is shot through with apocalyptic hyperbole.  In this connexion, I find the views of Crowe overly ingenious.
V. MOSES KHORENATSI: This author’s history is the most comprehensive and controversial piece of Armenian historiography.  Moses claims to have been a pupil of Mashtots, but there are no direct indications within his book that he was a writer of the fifth century.  He writes of persons and places otherwise attested only in the seventh centuries, and he is at great pains to extol his patrons, the Bagratuni, who rose to prominence only in the eighth century.  It is also troubling that Moses is neither known, nor quoted, until the tenth century!  Nevertheless, he is known as Patmahayr, “the Father of History.”  In many ways, though, he deserves this title, for Moses is the first Armenian author who discusses the writing of history.  
Compared to Agathangelos and Yeghishe, Moses is clear and dispassionate, and for him the historian’s duties are veracity, reliability, and chronological accuracy.  Moses compares his sources to one another, and attempts to rationalise tales that seem to have only symbolic meaning.  In this connexion, the great (albeit fictitious) deeds related by Moses were those likely to bring credit to members of the aristocracy for whom he wrote, and the importance of the Bagratid house was enhanced by the ascription of a glorious ancestry.  Finally, because paganism was no longer a serious threat to Armenian Christianity, Moses attitude to the oral tradition is rather more moderate than that of Pavstos, for instance.
Moses’ History was written on a grand scale.  In imitation of Eusebius, he starts at the beginning of the world as described in Genesis.  The Armenians are supposed to have descended from Japheth, and a legendary Armenian antiquity of Armenia paralleling those of Greece and Assyria is expounded.  The history of Armenia’s role between Parthia and the Graeco-Roman world follows, as does the more recent history of Christian Armenia.  This grand view was profoundly influential on later writers.  The two foreign sources that had the greatest influence on Yeghishe’s work
were Josephus’ Jewish Wars and his Antiquities of the Jews.
The most significant part of my essay was a summary of Mahé’s overview of the scholarship on the author:
a) M.V. de La Croze: Moses was a ninth century impostor, and his citations of Flavius Josephus are grounded not in the Greek in the original, but rather in a late mediaeval compilation by Yosippon.
b) A. von Gutschmid: in 1876 he decided Moses to be a writer of the late fifth century, aiming to fortify Armenians against Zoroastrians and Nestorianism.  In 1885 he revised himself, and attributed the work to an impostor of the early seventh century.
c) A. Carrière: he judged that Moses used sources later than the fifth century, and wrote some time between the eighth and the tenth century.
d) F. C. Connybeare: pronounced that reflections of Moses’ sources in later literature are actually derived from the work itself, not the reverse (1902).
e) Friedrich Eduard Schulz: he copied cuneiform inscriptions found above Lake Salé, but killed by brigands before any serious work was accomplished.
f) A. H. Sayce: he translated the cuneiform inscriptions, which came to be called Urartian.  These vindicated the existence of queen Semiramis, as Moses claimed.  Equally momentous discovered were Greek inscriptions at Armavir and Garni, and excavations at Artaxata, Erebuni, and  Teïchebani—these all showed that Moses’ history was founded on an ancient and authentic tradition.
g) A. Émine: he undertook philological analysis which penetrated to the core of oral tradition, which apparently remained alive down to modern times.
Needless to say, Thomson doubts the antiquity of Moses’ work, and adduces many reasons why: gross geographical and political anachronisms, and an invocation of the Khazars arouses suspicion.  But the most damning error is apparently the author’s attitude to the Bagratids and Mamikoneans.  Garsoian has expounded much the same ideas.  The glories of the Bagratuni family were retrojected long into the past, and a fictitious Jewish origin was ascribed to them.  The example of Shembat, an imaginary Jewish ancestor of the Bagratids, proves that this noble family had been martyrs even
before the birth of Christ.
The conclusion to my rather facile tutorial essay was that the date of the composition or subsequent redaction of Khorenatsi’s work must be considered secondary to the dating of the texts and traditions on which it is founded.  Furthermore, I might add that precise dating may have little or nothing to do with the value of the source in question.
VI.  SEBEOS:  This author—or rather the work attributed to a man of that name—describes the last century of Sasanian rule and the beginning of the Moslem aera.  The text has no heading and was only identified in modern times.  The correctness of the ascription to Sebeos may fairly be challenged, but this controversy is not very significant in Thomson’s view.  The work is often mistakenly called The History of Heraclius, and is a work of the late seventh century.  Armenian troubles are illustrated vividly in a letter supposedly sent by Maurice to Khosrow II: the Roman emperor suggests that the two powers unite to rid themselves of the turbulent Armenians who dwell between them.  Sebeos also draws our attention our
attention to the Armenians who lived outside their homeland—a result of numerous population transfers.
I began my discussion of Sebeos by summarising Mahé’s treatment of Armenian historiography: until the seventh century it was “national, catechising, and Mamikonean.”  Four massive shocks changed this.  These were the Persian sack of Jerusalem in 614, the Arabian conquest of that city in 637, the contraction of the Roman Empire, and the total collapse of the Sasanid state in 651.  The prevalent model of
historiography, being so thoroughly biblical, offered no way of interpreting these disasters.  A new school of thought emerged, which was more outward-looking, and universal.  Sebeos’ work is the first expression of this new attitude, and I tried to show that it is embedded in his views on the foreign powers surrounding Armenia.
Sebeos acknowledges the legitimacy of the Arabian occupation of the Levant, on the grounds that it is a punishment for sin.  Nevertheless, direct Arab rule of Armenia (a state of affairs that ensued rather quickly) was not well received, and Sebeos compares the Arabian Empire to the fourth beast of Daniel’s prophecy.
Sebeos regards the Byzantine Greeks and their heretical church as greatly inferior to his own nation and her orthodox creed.  For Sebeos St. Gregory is the source of Orthodoxy, and the Nicene synod (erroneously said to have occurred after St. Gregory and Tiridates visited Constantine) merely canonised the faith of the Armenian saint.
Sebeos attitude to the Persians is most unfavourable, and Khusraw II, “the Sasanian brigand,” and “harbinger of the apocalyptic process” is blamed for present woes.  It is also worth noting that Sebeos is the first Armenian historian to excuse lack of Armenian involvement at Chalcedon by reason of the Persian war at A.D. 451.
I concluded with an explanation of Sebeos’ emphasis on Orthodoxy.  The end of the world was at hand, and Armenia must hold fast to right belief for the sake of her own salvation.  The Arabs were sent by God to destroy the world order which was pagan on the one hand, and heretical on the other.  Armenia, as things might have seemed at the time, was suddenly free of the malignant influence of two hostile powers, the old conflicts
needed nolonger to be waged, and a new modus vivendi needed to be found with the Arabs.
VI. ARISTAKES narrates the troubles brought by Turkish expansion in the eleventh century.  His History is a very personal document, frequently interrupted by lamentations and disquisitions on Armenian sinfulness.  Poetical threnodies are not uncommon in later Armenian literature, says Thomson, but Aristakes’ work is unique in its integration of narrative and lachrymose content.
I began my essay with the historical background.  The first most significant date is A.D. 862, when Ashot was crowned by the Caliph “Prince of Princes.”  This inaugurated the aera of the Bagratids, who sought immediately to legitmate their royal (or nearly royal) power, and in the past they had been mere coronants.  Ashot’s son Sembat I captured Dvin on Good Friday 21 April, A.D. 892—the second most important date.  This and the subsequent foundation Ani were believed to have inaugurated a golden age.  Such a notion seems credible if we restrict our gaze to art and architecture, but the truth is that Armenia was fragmenting quickly and Gagik, a rival prince, was backed by the Arabs.  Gagik killed Sembat in battle.  Daylamite and Turkmen raids began at the beginning of the eleventh century, and Basil II came to the Armenian border to claim the patrimony  promised him by Daniel of Tayk.  The Seljuk invasions, however, are regarded as disrupting the idyllic perfection of the Armenian nation, described (predictably) in terms reminiscent of Isaish 34.
The Turkish seizure of the Armenian plateau was alarmingly swift.  Armenian disunity, and Turkish expansion were two obvious factors, but the Byzantine removal of the nakharars, who were settled in Cappadocia and Mesopotamia, and whose lands were annexed—this probably facilitating Turkish possession of Armenia more than anything else.  Asia Minor was emptied of her native defenders, Armenian-Greek ethnic worsened
within the Byzantine Empire, and the local Armenian army was disbanded.
Aristakes, of course, does not discuss any of the foregoing things.  His emphasis is on understanding the cause of the sins which have brought about those calamities.  Aristakes’ attitude is probably connected with the rapid growth of city life, the result of which was (in Aristakes’ view) corruption and greed.  But God’s punishment is not permanent.  There is nothing certain about the future, nor was anything in the past inevitable.  This is
a radical departure from ideas of radical determinism found Sebeos and Matthew of Edessa.
My preposterous tutor added that she was shocked to find no mention of eastern politics, nor any trace of Iranian influence in Aristakes.  But why should we have expected these from a priest and threnodist?  I concluded by observing that Aristakes’ History embodies a call to righteousness and national solidarity and represents a change from a bigoted and often gloomy view of history towards one that is ultimately more hopeful.
The Armenian histories just mentions tell us much about their authors, their general outlook, and the preoccupations of their class.  The writers belonged to a small group, whose interests often differed from those of their patrons.  The influence of Greek and Syrian learning led them to impose their own interpretations on the history of their nation, and the Iranian motifs in much early Armenian literature were largely
unrecognised by later generations.