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Notes on Sebeos’ attitudes toward the foreign powers that surrounded Armenia: Romans, Iranians, and Arabs.


The History commonly attributed to Sebeos embodies a radical change in Armenian historiography.  Before addressing the present question, we must examine this change and its origin.  Mahé discusses this very subject in his famous article "Entre Moïse et Mahomet."  The writing of history began in Armenia soon after the invention of the alphabet.  The earliest employment of the new letters, to say nothing of their invention itself, was the province of churchmen, who used the alphabet to evangelise Armenia.  The significance of this can hardly be overstated: as far as can be reasonably determined on scant evidence, it seems that the earliest Armenian liturgies were conducted in either Greek or Syriac.  Scripture was declaimed in one of these languages and then translated ex tempore into Armenian.  The first version of the Armenian Bible grew out of this tradition: it was a free translation, justified by the doctrines of Eusebius of Emesa’s Commentary on the Octateuch and grounded in the Antiochene school of exegisis.  A second translation followed the Ephesian Synod of 431, both more literal and connected with the Alexandrine school.  In Mahé’s judgment, the exegetical school of Alexandria led the Armenians to view scripture “above all as a book of history that relates the mighty deeds of God for the creation of the world and the salvation of men.”[1]  Not surprisingly, Koriun, the first Armenian historian was also one of the translators in Mashtot’s circle, and the preface to his Life of Mashots proves that the Bible was treated as an historical text in which God is the main character.  If such an interpretation be accepted, the Christian historian merely extends the work of the sacred historian by adducing new demonstrations of the working out of divine grace in the world.[2]  This seems to be exactly what the earliest Armenian historians did. 


A new trend begins in the sixth century: highly elaborate histories emerge, woven from abstruse arguments both theological and exegetical.  The Greek and Syrian fathers were ransacked, as were works of philosophy, science, rhetoric, and other liberal arts.  Armenian historiography became more syncretic, aiming at encompassing all knowledge and all human reflection.  It was imposed as the dominant genre of Armenian literature—the single genre to which all others were made subordinate.  The first and most obvious example of this is the History of Agathangelos.  What began as a simple Life of St. Gregory was transformed into a lengthy history in three books, which are tantamount to a catechism founded on the Bible and patristic literature.[3]  Likewise (Mahé continues) Yeghishe’s History of Vardan[4] is basically a commentary on events already more soberly expounded by Ghazar Parpetsi.  Yeghishe, however, adds an embroidery of philosophic and theological arguments grounded in Syriac works on the Persian religion, Philo of Alexandria, the Wisdom of Ahiqar, and possibly also Hermes Trismegistus.  We should also observe that this school of Armenian history was strongly sympathetic to the Mamikonean family.  Though scarcely believable to a modern historian, this bizarre pastiche was profoundly influential—at least as far as Yeghishe’s work is concerned, as it shapes Armenian attitudes to this day.


Now, in the seventh century, this school of history, which we might fairly describe as national, catechising, and Mamikonean, underwent a gigantic shift.  Four massive shocks were at the root of this: the Persian sack of Jerusalem in 614; the Arabian conquest of that city in 637; the consequent contraction of the Roman Empire; and the total collapse of the Sasanid state in 642.  The prevalent model of Armenian historiography, being so thoroughly biblical, offered no means of interpreting these disasters.[5]  Accordingly, Mahé judges that « toutes des questions obligent à élargir dans le temps et dans l’espace le cadre traditionnel de l’historiographie nationale arménienne…[qui] doit donc nécessairement s’ouvrir à l’universel. »


Leaving aside the vexing questions as to the identity of the author of the History attributed to Sebeos and the associated fragments, the latter texts represent the first Armenian reaction to the Persian conquest of Jerusalem.  The Persian army is identified with the fourth beast mentioned by Daniel the Prophet, and the plunder of the churches and capture of the Holy Cross is compared to Nebuchadnezzar’s ravaging of Jerusalem, which is described in 2 Kings 24.  This is hardly surprising, and Sebeos himself identifies as a continuation of the prophet’s message: “I shall confirm,” he writes, “the prophetic word which has spoken according to God’s order.”[6]  Nevertheless, all comes to pass, that Christ and his Cross may be worshipped and glorified by the infidels also.  The emperor Heraclius  by creating essentially Christian jihád, humiliated his pagan foe, and restored the Holy Cross to Jerusalem.  It was easy for Sebeos to find a suitable, albeit rather obvious, theological framework in which to understand and explain such events.  More on the Persians below.


After 661, when Armenia was subject to the Caliphate, the customary biblical and theological explanation no longer made sense, and there arose a new school of historiography, such as Mahé described.  Sebeos’ History embodies this change, and it is within the context of this outward-looking, universal history that we can explore the substance of the question.


First, Sebeos’ attitude to the Arabs.  His portrait of Mohammed is downright flattering.  The Arabian prophet is “well versed in the history of Moses,” and he is said to have enjoined upon his followers all manner of respectable precepts.”[7]  In contrast to the perfidious Jews and the heretical Chalcedonians, both of whom have wandered from the truth, the Arabs have a legitimate claim on the patrimony of Abraham, viz. the Promised Land, and, by reason of the faithful adherence to the religion of Abraham, God grants them possession of Palestine and the Holy City, and promises them divine aid.  Accordingly, as Mahé declares, the Saracen occupation of the Holy Land « n’est pas étrangère aux desseins de la Providence. »[8] 


Nevertheless, the author or compiler of Sebeos’ History condemns Armenian association with the victorious Arabs.  Those Armenians who have allied with the caliphate are said to have made “an accord with death,” and “a pact…with Hell.”[9]  The sentiment expressed by these strong words accords well with the general Armenian reaction to Arabian rule, which soon replaced the native administration, and introduced onerous taxes under the caliph Abdel Malik (685-705).  There were several Armenian revolts.  Nevertheless, Sebeos interpretation of Mohammed’s role seems to have been unique in Armenian historiography, as later authors question his legitimacy, and demonise him. 


In any case, Mahé lays too much stress on Sebeos’ being a Monophysite.  As Kaegi has observed, in Sebeos’ History (as opposed to the Fragments) the Islamic Empire is compared to Daniel’s fourth beast, a divine retribution for all Christian sin.  This is in sharp contrast to the work of John of Nikiu, who, for instance, blames Arabian success on the errors of the heretical Chalcedonians.  Whereas Sebeos, as we have observed, acknowledges the legitimacy of Mohammed’s mission within the Abrahamic faith (for lack of a better term), John of Nikiu views Islam as an entirely different religion, calling Mohammed “a beast,” who invented “a detestable doctrine.”[10]


Second, the Byzantines.  Sebeos’ feelings on this people are to be deduced from a letter embedded in his History.  The text is represented as having been prepared by several Armenian bishops and sent to Constans II, drafted in response to the emperor’s demand that the Armenians embrace the formula of Chalcedon.  There are no compelling reasons to believe that the letter, is genuine, at least not as it is reported by Sebeos. Though part of this letter is quoted by Stephannos of Taron in the early eleventh century, there are no other later citations, and Stephannos, as far as we can tell, is merely quoting Sebeos.  Several chronological and other inconsistencies make it impossible to reconcile this letter with actual history.[11]  Nevertheless, we may fairly conclude that the sentiments expressed are those of Sebeos himself.


The letter makes three main arguments: I. Armenian orthodoxy was acknowledged and respected by the Persian king, and Khusraw Parvéz decreed that all Christians within his dominions hold to the Armenian confession—a turn of events connected with a synod held after the Persian taking of Jerusalem in 614; II. Whereas the faith and teaching of St. Gregory had preceded the first Nicene synod, that council had merely confirmed the orthodoxy of Armenia, and the Armenian creed (wrongly cited as the Nicene Creed) is quoted in support of this; III. The Armenian church remains grounded in the work of the earliest Fathers.


It is not too hard to see a blatant attempt at exalting the Armenian at the expense of the Greek Church.  For Sebeos, St. Gregory “is the source of orthodoxy,” and the significance of this in Sebeos’ mind must have been very great, as he makes no attempt whatever to ascribe an apostolic origin to the Armenian Church.  Why this was avoided is not clear to me, as any Greek Christian would have retorted with the claim that the Constantinopolitan see was founded by St. Andrew, that Rome was founded by Ss. Peter and Paul, and so forth—obvious signs of superiority.  In any case, Sebeos repeats the war cry that is still heard to-day, that king Trdat and the nobles of Armenia embraced Christianity “thirty years before Constantine.”[12]  Accordingly, St. Gregory’s faith is confirmed twice: first at Nicaea, at which St. Gregory’s son Aristakes was present, and again when St. Gregory and Trdat visited Constantine.  Thirty years intervene between these episodes, which incidentally are placed in reverse order.  Sebeos’ invocation of Nicaea as the touchstone of Orthodoxy means that he can attack the Chalcedonian synod, and expose the Byzantine Church as innovative and heretical.


Sebeos understanding of this synod is somewhat inaccurate, but in this connexion, Sebeos is the first Armenian author to excuse lack of Armenian involvment at Chalcedon, by reason of the Persian war.  The Persian, to whom we shall return later, are the enemies of piety, “who not only destroyed the population of the country but also exterminated the teachers and testaments of the church, so that the Armenians were now ignorant of books and literature.”[13]  The Nicene faith endured of course, and St. Gregory’s teaching was obviously potent enough to sustain the Armenian nation in their darkest hour.


Thomson’s judgement on this strange document is equivocal—hardly a surprising turn of events given it’s numerous inaccuracies, and Greenwood notices inconsistency in Sebeos’ attitude to Chalcedon, which he interprets as evidence of a later redaction on compilation—but we may venture a provisional conclusion now.  At the risk of announcing the obvious, I will say that Sebeos has attempted to excise the Byzantine Church and her influence from the history of Armenian Christianity.  The gross chronological error implicit in the difference of thirty years between Nicaea and St. Gregory’s visit to Constantine shows that the Armenian Church was not only always orthodox, but also independent of Greek influence.


Third, the Persians.  We have already observed the treatment of the Persians in the Fragments attributed to Sebeos, and that it is congruent established Armenian attitudes to scripture and history.  Greenwood has examined Sebeos’ History in minute detail, and has judged that this work is grounded in the Sasanian historica tradition.  Though he is critical of Nöldeke’s theory of the Khwadaynámag tradition, Greenwood does suggests that some sort of Persian royal biography was used by Sebeos.  Information gleaned from it, however, is presented with “a distinctive Armenian and Christian character.”[14]  This interesting point, however, is not immediately relevant.


Although Khusraw Parvéz is said to have acknowledged the rightness of Armenian Christianity, the judgment of Sebeos’ History is largely unfavourable to this Persian king..  He is “a Sasanian brigand,” and “the destroyer and the corrupter, cursed by God.”[15]  Khusraw is the first cause of the calamities that have engulfed the world; he “consumed with fire everything beneath,” and “he disturbed the sea and the dry land in order to bring destruction upon the whole earth.”  Such statements led Howard-Johnston to attribute the destruction of the Late Antique world order to Khusraw’s pride and arrogance.  Whether this be true or not, it seems clear (as Greenwood noted) that the author of Sebeos’ History “viewed Khusraw II as the harbinger of the apocalyptic process.”[16]  We might fairly extend this judgment to the Sasanid empire in general, as comparison to Daniel’s beasts suggests.




The author or compiler of Sebeos’ History believed, as Greenwood has observed, that he was narrating the events that should very soon culminate in the end of the world.[17]  This explains the use of imagery from Daniel, and the emphasis on correct belief.  The end times were “well under way,” the Caliphate was the fourth beast, and given the speed at which the Roman and Persian empires had been overtaken or humiliated, the reign of the Caliphs was likely to be meet a swift end also.  The implication of this is that the Armenian nation, being steadfast in orthodoxy and having survived the tribulation, will enter Christ’s kingdom, but other nations will perish.  This notwishstanding, we might be inclined to see in Sebeos’ History something much different.  As we have already observed, both the Persian and the Greek nation approved the faith of Armenia, and the Arabs were sent by divine behest to destroy the world order, which was heretical on the one hand, and pagan on the other.  Armenia, we might say perhaps tritely, is now free of the influence of the two hostile powers between which it had laboured for more than five hundred years: the old causes and conflicts need no longer be waged, and a new modus vivendi must be sought with the new masters of the world.

[1] Mahé, p. 125.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 131.

[4] Thomson has dated this to the end of the sixth century (Mahé, p. 131).

[5] Ibid., p. 132.

[6] Kaegi, p. 147.

[7] Ibid., p. 134.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 148.

[11] Thomson, p. 331.

[12] Thomson, p. 333.

[13] Thomson, p. 334.

[14] Greenwood, p. 337.

[15] Greenwood, p. 379.

[16] Greenwood, p. 380.

[17] Greenwood, p. 383.