Review by Raffaele D’Amato  of Armen Ayvazyan’s latest book  in Medieval Warfare (2013, volume III-6)

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Dr. Ayvazyan has written a good book, in which episodes, places and the names of the protagonists in Armenian history and their relations with Byzantium between the sixth and the early seventh century are described with extreme precision.

The book, splendidly introduced by Ilkka Syvanne, is divided into two parts. The longer first part deals with the insurrection of the Armenian army against the Imperial power of Justin­ian in AD 538-9, culminating in the Battle of Avnik and the escape of the Armenian rebels into Sassanid Persian territory. The chief protagonist in this rebellion was Prince (‘Nakharar’) Artabanes Arshakuni, one of Justinian’s generals who, before and after the rebellion, played an important role in the Roman Imperial army. Ayvazyan skillfully introduces the very complex situation in Armenia, divided between the two superpowers of Rome and Persia, but defended by a mainly ethnic army driven by pride and feelings of national independence. He explains that the rebellion was staged by a Roman army mainly composed of Armenians against the oppressive behaviour and taxation of the Imperial governor Acacius.

In the first chapter, Ayvazyan touches on the reasons for the revolt. In the second chapter, dealing with the geopolitical situation of Armenia, he reconstructs the various phases of the confrontation between Artabanes and the rebels on one side, and Justinian’s general Sittas, probably also an Armenian and sent by the Emperor to put down the insurrection, on the other. The third chapter presents a very good reconstruction of the Battle of Avnik, in which Sittas was killed and the Imperial army defeated. Ayvazyan’s detailed analysis, notwithstanding the paucity of the sources and the scarce historical evidence, is impressive in the richness of the notes and quotations, and shows his encyclopedic knowledge of the period – which characterizes the whole book.

After narrating the end of the rebellion – when the Armenian forces withdrew into Persarmenia, offered their service to the Sassanian king, and subsequently spontaneously returned to the Roman side – Ayvazyan analyses the tactics of the Armenians and compares them with their previous exploits against both Romans and Sassanians. He concludes that the favourite tactics were often (a) retreat and the engagement of the enemy in the rugged terrain of Armenia, combined with a transition to counter-offensive; (b) combat in the highlands of Armenia, which was easier for the native warriors; or (c) the premeditated killing of the enemy commanders. He also demonstrates the great reputation that the Armenians enjoyed as fighters, both from Romans and Persians.

In the second part of the book, Ayvazyan analyses the reasons for the omission of the Armenians from the emperor Maurice’s list of the empire’s enemies, in his famous military treatise, the Strategikon (a topic also discussed by Ayvazyan in Medieval Warfare II-4). He demonstrates the existence of a general prejudice towards the Armenians inside the Roman empire, beginning in the classical age and continuing up to the Middle Ages, because of their fierce and independent character and their strong national identity. Nonetheless, the main reason for the omission is that, during the reign of Maurice, the Armenians were a strong element of the Roman military, and so it would have been totally inappropriate to present them (even those still fighting under Sassanian command) as enemies of the empire, especially in a field manual for officers, many of whom were themselves Armenians.

What I have really appreciated in this book is the author’s clear and impartial analysis of the spirit of Armenian warriors fighting inside and outside the military machine of the Roman Empire. He demonstrates the prejudice to which Armenians were sometimes subjected, like the conspiracy of Emperor Maurice who, writing to Koshrow II, King of the Persians, proposed that they remove the Armenian military class and resettle it in remote areas of the Roman and Sassanian empires. But, on the other hand, he underlines the importance that Armenians had in the Byzantine army of the sixth and seventh centuries (and also later). This was especially true after the loss of the Balkans to the Slavs and Avars in the early seventh century, which compelled the Empire to find its manpower in Anatolia and Armenia. He also underlines how often the Armenians were proud to be Roman generals, although their land was subjected to imperial control.

There are some important references to the military equipment of the Armenians, who acted mainly as heavy cavalrymen, but were also well-organized as infantry, archers and peasant levy. The only disappointment are the illustrations of codices and miniatures that are unrelated to this period. Maybe it would have been more informative to see some of the carved reliefs from the fifth-seventh century that are still visible on the Armenian churches of the period, or some interesting miniatures from manuscripts representing Armenian warriors of the same period. On the other hand, the maps are detailed and, especially in the minute description of the campaign of Sittas versus Artabanes, fill a gap in the military cartography of the Roman north-east frontier during these two centuries.

Dr. Ayvazan’s book is clear proof of how important it is for historians to analyse and narrate their own land’s history. They are able not only, thanks to their local knowledge, to shed new and clear light on the terminology of places and protagonists, but also to identify socio-cultural elements, often ignored by the general historian, that are very important for a better understanding of general history.

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