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Augustus and the Nakharars of Armenia

Lee E. Patterson

Eastern Illinois University

One notable problem with ancient sources is their tendency to focus on the top stratum of society.  This has often led modern scholars down a similar road, whereby explanations of historical causation derive from the motivations of kings and emperors and the like.  While this state of affairs takes us some way toward understanding the past, very often the picture is incomplete without consideration of broader swaths of the populace.  Such limitations have often impaired efforts to understand Roman relations with peripheral peoples, especially in the Near East.  This venue of scholarship has drawn increasing attention in recent years, with, for example, region-focused studies shedding light on internal cultural, political, and social structures, of which a vivid example is Andrew Smith’s recent study on Palmyra (Smith 2013).  Vital to understanding Roman interactions in the East, with regional entities as well as with the vast eastern superpower ruled first by the Parthian Arsacids and later the Persian Sasanians, is the role played by Armenia, whose importance to Roman interests had gone back to the first century BCE.  The policy of the emperor Augustus called for Armenia to be a vassal state.  As such, its king was expected to help manage Roman affairs in the eastern frontier.

It is these Armenian kings who tend to draw most of the attention of our sources, but occasionally we get glimpses of the internal political dynamic, notably the nakharars (e.g., Pliny NH 6.10.27).  The term nakharar refers to the noble houses of Armenia that collectively wielded significant political leverage in their relations with the king, who relied heavily on them to maintain control of the country and for the mustering of forces.  In exchange for their political and military support, the king bestowed on them honors and prestige, even though the relationship was not always harmonious (Gregoratti 2013: 134-35).  When instability arose, it was often the result of rival families supporting different royal claimants to the throne.  Very often, the lines of demarcation were determined by whether a family was pro- or anti-Roman.

This dynamic had a profound effect on the Armenian policies of Augustus, more so than authors like Tacitus seemed to appreciate, especially in two notable periods, which will be the focus of this paper.  It is well known that Artaxias II (r. 30-20 BCE) cultivated a strongly anti-Roman policy and that the end of his reign is associated with Augustus’ famous effort to recover lost Roman standards from the Arsacids: the army he sent to enthrone Artaxias’ successor provided sufficient inducement to the Arsacid king Phraates IV to return them (Aug. RG 29; Suet. Aug. 21.3; Vell. Pat. 2.91.1).  But the end of Artaxias’ reign came at the hands of anti-Arsacid nakharars, despite his attempt to promote good relations with the nobility, as attested in the tenth-century Armenian author T‘ovma Artsruni (1.8 [55]), who says that Artaxias built a temple to “Heracles” and “Dionysus” (even giving the Greek names in Armenian: զՀերակղեայ և զԴիոնիսեայ, Herakłeay . . . Dioniseay).  The former is the great Zoroastrian hero god Vahagn.  Such cult centers served political as well as religious purposes and tended to be located on the estates of nakharars (Russell 1987: 189, 325-26). As for the chaotic events of the 6 BCE to c. 10 CE period (Aug. RG 27, Tac. Ann. 2.4.2), during which Augustus’ goal of a stable, pro-Roman Armenia proved elusive, we see a series of ephemeral kings (and one queen) while the role of the nakharars in contributing to this instability has received an insufficient accounting in modern scholarship (e.g., Sherwin-White 1984).

By focusing on these events, this paper proposes to shed new light on Augustus’ Armenian struggles as examples of the broader challenges of Roman policy, whose maintenance of Armenia as a vassal state met with varying levels of success.  The internal political dynamic, as driven by the nakharars, provides much of the explanation.

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Augustus and After

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