The Armenian element in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire

Among the various ethnic groups in the Byzantine empire, the Armenians constituted one of the strongest. At the end of the sixth century the Byzantine empire controlled the major part of Armenia. The events of the seventh century, the rise of the Arabs in particular, deprived it of this control, but it still retained some Armenian speaking lands. The expansion of the empire which began late in the ninth century greatly increased the extent of these lands. By the middle of the eleventh century, all Armenia was in Byzantine hands, though shortly afterwards it was permanently lost to the Seljuk Turks.


The great source of the Armenian element in the Byzantine empire consisted, of course, of the Armenian speaking lands under its control. Thus in the eighth century, when all Armenia was in Arab hands, the native Armenian population under the control of the empire was not very large; whereas, in the eleventh century when virtually all Armenia was annexed to the empire it was very considerable. But the Armenian element in the Byzantine empire was not restricted to the Armenian lands proper. It found its way into other regions of the empire.

Many Armenians came into the Byzantine empire even when Armenia was under foreign control. They came sometimes as adventurers, but more often as refugees. Thus in 571, following an unsuccessful revolt against the Persians, numerous Armenian noblemen, headed by Vardan Mamikonian and accompanied by the Armenian Catholicus and some bishops, fled to Constantinople. Vardan and his retinue entered the Byzantine army; the rest seem to have settled in Pergamon where an Armenian colony is known to have existed in the seventh century. It was from this colony that Bardanes came who, as Philippicus, occupied the imperial throne from 711 to 713.

The religious ferment in Armenia which in the seventh century gave rise to the Paulician sect had the effect of bringing more Armenians into the Byzantine empire. Armenian Paulicians, driven from their homes sometime before 662, settled in the empire, especially in the region of the junction of the Iris and the Lycus rivers in the territories of the Pontus. Their settlements extended almost as far as Nicopolis (Enderes) and Neocaesarea (Niksar). These were regions where the Armenian element was already considerable. Comana, for instance, is referred to by Strabo as the market of the Armenians.

The discontent caused by the Arab conquest of Armenia forced other Armenians to seek refuge in the territories of the empire. Thus, about 700 a number of nakharars [lords] with their retinue fled to the Byzantine empire and were settled by the Emperor on the Pontic frontier. Some of these later returned to Armenia, but others remained. More nakharars, completely abandoning their possessions in Armenia, fled to the Byzantine empire during the reign of Constantine V Copronymus. Still more came about 790. It is said they numbered 12,000 and they came with their wives, their children, their retinue and their cavalry. They were welcomed by the Emperor and were granted fertile lands upon which to settle. We are not told the location of the lands given to them.

As their title implies these refugees belonged to the Armenian nobility, who were sometimes criticised for fleeing the country and thus abandoning the poor to the mercy of the Arabs. Mass migrations such as took place in the course of the seventh and eighth centuries seem to have subsided in the ninth, but individual Armenians continued to come into the Byzantine empire to seek their fortunes.

The Armenians, however, did not always come willingly. They were sometimes forcibly removed from their homes and settled in other regions of the empire. Justinian had already resorted to this practice, but the numbers involved were small, perhaps a few families. Transplantations on a large scale took place during the reigns of Tiberius and Maurice. In 578, 10,000 Armenians were removed from their homes and settled in the island of Cyprus. “Thus“, says Evagrius, “land, which had been previously untilled, was everywhere restored to cultivation. Numerous armies also were raised from among them that fought resolutely and courageously against the other nations. At the same time every household was completely furnished with domestics, on account of the easy rate at which slaves were procured“.

A transplantation on a vaster plan was conceived by Maurice and it was partially carried out. In ordering this removal, Maurice’s real motive was, no doubt, the fact that he needed the Armenians as soldiers in Thrace.

Further deportations and settlement of Armenians in the Byzantine empire, especially in Thrace, are attested for the eighth century. During the reign of Constantine V Copronymus, thousands of Armenians and monophysitic Syrians were gathered by the Byzantine armies during their raids in the regions of Germanicea (Marash), Melitene and Erzeroum and were settled in Thrace. Others, also from the environs of Erzeroum, were settled along the eastern frontiers. These, however, were subsequently seized by the Arabs and were settled by them in Syria. During the reign of Leo IV, a Byzantine raiding expedition into Cilicia and Syria resulted in the seizure of thousands of natives, 150,000 according to one authority, who were settled in Thrace. These, however, were chiefly Syrian Jacobites, though some Armenians may have also been included. Many of the Armenians settled in Thrace were seized by the Bulgar Krum (803–814) and carried away, but most of them eventually returned.

The diverse ethnic groups established in Thrace were reinforced by later arrivals. In the tenth century, during the reign of John Tzimiskes, a considerable number of Paulicians were removed from the frontier regions of the east and were settled in Thrace, more exactly in the country around Phillippopolis. These Paulicians were most probably predominantly Armenians. A little later, perhaps in 988, Armenians were settled also in Macedonia. They were brought there from the eastern provinces of the empire by Basil II in order to serve as a bulwark against the Bulgarians and also to help increase the prosperity of the country.

Meanwhile, other Armenians had been settled elsewhere in the empire. Nicephorus I used Armenians, among others, in his resettlement of Sparta at the beginning of the ninth century. Some time earlier, about 792, an unsuccessful revolt among the Armeniacs, a corps which was no doubt predominantly Armenian, led to the settlement of a thousand of them in Sicily and other islands. In 885 Nicephorus Phocas, grandfather of the tenth century Emperor by the same name, settled a multitude of Armenians in Calabria. These, as Gregoire suggests, may have been of the Paulician faith as Tephrike, the stronghold of that sect, had fallen to the imperial forces only a few years before and the Paulicians had been dispersed. Armenians, among others, were also settled in Crete following the recovery of that island in 961 by Nicephorus Phocas, the future Emperor. Two Armenian military settlements are known to have existed in western Asia Minor in the tenth century. These were the settlements at Prine and Platanion, which, according to Constantine Porphyrogenitus, furnished a number of Armenian troops in the expedition against Crete during the reign of Leo VI. Armenians, settled in the Thracesian theme, also participated in the expedition against Crete in 949.

It was through the army that the Armenian element in the Byzantine empire exerted its greatest influence. It is well known that the Armenian element occupied a prominent place in the armies of Justinian. Armenian troops fought in Africa, in Italy and along the eastern front. They were also prominent in the palace guard. Procopius mentions by name no less than seventeen Armenian commanders, including, of course, the great Narses.

But the Armenians were only one among the different ethnic elements which constituted the armies of Justinian. These elements included many barbarians: Erulians, Gepids, Goths, Huns, Lombards, Moors, Sabiri, Slavs and Antae, Vandals; some Persians, Iberians and Tzanis and among the provincials, Illyrians, Thracians, Isaurians and Lycaonians. Under the immediate successors of Justinian, the ethnic composition of the Byzantine army remained very much the same. “It is said“, writes Evagrius,. “that Tiberius raised an army of 150,000 among the peoples that dwelt beyond the Alps around the Rhine and among those this side of the Alps, among the Massagetae and other Scythian nations, among those that dwelt in Paeonia and Mysia, and also Illyrians and Isaurians and dispatched them against the Persians“. The figure given by Evagrius may perhaps be questioned, but the rest of his statement in its essentials cannot be doubted. It is confirmed by Theophanes, though the figure he gives is much smaller (15,000). And John of Ephesus reports that following the breakdown of negotiations with Persia (575–577), a force of 60,000 Lombards was expected in Byzantium. The same author states: “Necessity compelled Tiberius to enlist under his banners a barbarian people from the West called Goths–who were followers of the doctrine of the wicked Arius. They departed for Persia, leaving their wives and children at Constantinople“. In Constantinople, the wives of these Goths requested that a church be allocated to them, so that they might worship according to their Arian faith. Thus, it seems quite certain that the ethnic composition of the Byzantine army under Tiberius remained substantially the same as it had been during the reign of Justinian.

The situation changed in the course of the reign of Maurice, chiefly as a result of the Avaro-Slavic incursions into the Balkan peninsula. These incursions virtually eliminated Illyricum as a source of recruits and reduced the possibilities of Thrace. They cut communications with the West and made recruitments there most difficult. The empire, as a consequence, had to turn elsewhere for its troops. It turned to the regions of Caucasus and Armenia.


In the armies of Maurice, we still find some Huns and also some Lombards. We find Bulgars too. But the Armenian is the element which dominates. In this respect Sebeos is a precious source. He writes in connection with the war which Maurice undertook against the Avars after 591: Maurice “ordered to gather together all the Armenian cavalry and all the noble nakharars skilled in war and adroit in wielding the lance in combat. He ordered also a numerous army to be raised in Armenia, an army composed of soldiers of good will and good stature, organized in regular corps and armed. He ordered that this army should go to Thrace under the command of Musele (Moushegh) Mamikonian and there fight the enemy“. This army was actually organized and fought in Thrace.

Mamikonian was captured and killed, whereupon, the raising of an Armenian force of 2,000 armed cavalry was ordered. This force, too, was sent to Thrace. Earlier, during the Persian wars, important Armenian contingents under the command of John Mystacon operated on the eastern front. In 602 Maurice issued the following edict: “I need 30,000 cavalrymen by way of tribute raised in Armenia. Thirty thousand families must be gathered and settled in Thrace“. Priscus was sent to Armenia to carry out this edict, but before he had time to do so the revolution which overthrew Maurice broke out and the edict apparently was not enforced. It is interesting to observe the correlation of the number of cavalry with the number of families which were to be transplanted to Thrace. Each family was obviously intended to furnish one cavalryman and no doubt each family was going to be given some land. Here we have perhaps an indication that Maurice sought to extend the system of military estates in Thrace. But, however that may be, it is quite clear that under Maurice, Armenia became the principal source of recruits for the Byzantine army. The same was true under Heraclius though that Emperor drew heavily also from among the people of the Caucasus–Lazes, Abasgians, Iberians–as well as on the Khazars. All throughout the seventh century indeed the Armenians were one of the most prominent elements in the Byzantine army. And if by the end of the seventh century the conquest of Armenia by the Arabs made it difficult to draw upon that country for new recruits, Armenians continued nevertheless to occupy an important position in the army of the empire. This was not only because some Armenian-speaking lands remained within the boundaries of the empire, but also because a considerable number of Armenians had been integrated into its new military organization.

Among the themes of Asia Minor the Armeniakon was one of the most important, in rank second only to the Anatolikon. It was a large territory, comprising in whole or in part six former provinces as these provinces are known to have existed in the sixth century. Cappadocia I and part of Cappadocia II; Armenia I and what was still in the hands of the empire of Armenia II; Elenopontos and Pontos Polemoniakos. It was roughly in the form of a triangle whose angles were located on the Black Sea, the one at Sinope, the other at a point not far to the east of Trebizond, and the third a little to the south of Tyana. The theme had been organized perhaps as early as before 622 and remained a unit throughout the seventh and eighth centuries. In the course of the ninth century it was parcelled out into a number of smaller themes. By 863 there were four themes in the place of the previous one: the Armeniakon. a new and much smaller circumscription, the Charsianon, Chaldia and Koloneia. The new theme of Sebasteia, created about 912, was also formed out of territory which had formerly belonged to the Armeniakon.

According to an important source of the tenth century, the original Armeniakon theme was so called because of the neighboring Armenians and the Armenians who dwelled in it. This is not to be interpreted to mean of course that the population of the theme was everywhere predominantly Armenian. Along the Black Sea, especially in the region of Trebizond, the Greek-speaking element was certainly the most numerous. In the interior, in the region between the Iris and the Halys and in the loop which the latter river forms; i. e., the core of the lands which later came to constitute the small Armeniakon and the Charsianon themes, the old Cappadocian native population, by now deeply hellenized, most probably predominated. There were some Armenians, of course, but they were not in any considerable number. Quite different, however, was the situation in the eastern regions of the theme, the regions which were eventually detached from it to form the themes of Chaldia, Coloneia and Sebasteia. Here the Armenians were very numerous. In Chaldia, along the coastal areas there were many Greeks, of course, but in the interior, in districts such as Keltzine, the Armenian element was very strong. It was strong also in the lands which later formed the themes of Coloneia and Sebasteia. These lands lay in the most part in Little Armenia [Armenia Minor/P’ok’r Hayk’] where the Armenian language, despite the progress made by Hellenism, never ceased to be spoken. Important Armenian elements were also to be found in the region of the Iris-Lycus rivers where Neocaesarea, Comana, Gaziura, Amaseia and Eupatoria were located. This region was retained in the smaller Armeniakon theme.

The comparatively strong Armenian element in the population of these eastern themes reflected, and was reflected by, the ethnic composition of their military organization. The military corps of the original Armeniakon theme consisted primarily of Armenians. Of the various themes into which it was broken predominantly Armenian were the armies of Coloneia and Sebasteia, and no doubt also of the smaller Armeniakon. The Armenian element must also have been considerable in the army of Chaldia.


The significance of the Armenian element in the political and military life of the empire may be further seen by the number of persons of Armenian descent who came to occupy influential positions. They served as generals, as members of the imperial retinue, and as governors of provinces. Under Heraclius the Armenian Manuel was named praefectus augustalis in Egypt. Armenian generals served the same emperor in the field. One of these, Vahan, was actually proclaimed emperor by his troops just before the battle of Yermuk. He later retired to Sinai and became a monk. Armenian princes in Constantinople were very influential. Many Armenians are known to have been prominent in the service of the Empire in the eighth century also. The Armenian Bardanes occupied the throne from 711 to 713. Artavasdos, son-in-law of Leo III and at one time general of the Armeniacs, also tried for the throne, and for a time was actually master of Constantinople. During the brief period when he held Constantinople, he crowned his son Nicephorus co-emperor and made his other son, Nicetas, general of the Armeniacs. The Armeniacs were Artavasdos’ strongest supporters. Other eminent Armenians are known to have served the empire under Constantine V Copronymus. Tadjat Andzevatzik, who came to Byzantium about 750, proved to be a successful commander in the course of Constantine’s Bulgarian campaigns. Under Leo IV we find him as general of the Bucellarii. He subsequently fled to the Arabs. Another Armenian, the prince Artavazd Mamikonian, who joined the forces of Byzantium about 771, was general of the Anatolikon under Leo IV. More Armenians are mentioned in connection with the reigns of Constantine VI and Irene.

Illustrious personages of Armenian descent appear frequently also in the annals of the empire in the ninth century. Leo V, known as the Armenian, occupied the throne from 813 to 820. Other Armenians, both related and unrelated to the ruling houses, are known to have played important roles in the political and military life of the empire in the ninth century.

The number of Armenians subject to the Byzantine empire increased considerably in the period following the accession of Basil I [866-886] to the throne. This was the result of two developments: the territorial expansion of the empire eastward and a movement westward by Armenians. During the reign of Leo VI (886–912) additional Armenian territory was annexed, when the Armenian chieftain Manuel was induced to cede his lands, the region known as Tekis, to the empire. Located between the Euphrates and the Chimishgezek-su and bounded on the south by the Arsanas, Tekis was inhabited entirely by Armenians. Manuel, accompanied by his four sons, moved to Constantinople where he was showered with honors; two of his sons were vested with important commands, while the other two were given new holdings in the neighborhood of Trebizond. His former possessions, augmented by the addition of two districts, Kelzene and Kamacha, the one taken from the theme of Chaldia, the other from that of Coloneia, and both Armenian speaking, were organized, sometime between 899 and 912, into the theme of Mesopotamia. The new theme was entirely Armenian.

In the meantime, a considerable Armenian element moved westward and settled in the territory formed by the regions along the upper Tocha-su where the so-called desert of Symposion seems to have been located. By 934 the theme of Lycandos, to use the words of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, was full of Armenians. The number of Armenians within the empire increased still more as a result of the Byzantine offensive along the eastern frontier, which began about 927. The most decisive event of this offensive in the annexation of new territory was the capture of Melitene in 934. Melitene was not Armenian country, though, at the time of its capture, some Armenians may have lived there. It was not long, however, before Melitene became an Armenian town.

All these territories were Armenian speaking: The country of Khanzit located south of the Arsanas in the loop formed by that river and the Euphrates and extending eastward in a southerly direction as far as the regions beyond Lake Golgik (Buhairat Sumnin) where, near the point where the Arghana-su, one of the sources of the Tigris, breaks through the Taurus, the fortress of Romanopolis was built; the city of Arsamosata (Asmosata, Shimshat), located on the southern banks of the Arsanas further east, and its surroundings; and the country north of the Arsanas and east of the Chimishgezek-su. The Khanzit with Romanopolis was added to the theme of Mesopotamia, but Arsamosata and the region east of the Chimishgezek-su were organized into new themes known respectively as the Asmosaton and Charpezikion themes, though the latter gave way shortly after 949 to the new theme of Chozanon which seems to have been established about this time and included the same general area. The year 949 saw also an important new annexation. This was Theodosiopolis (Erzerum, Qaliqala) which was made the center of a new theme consisting of the country about the source waters of the Euphrates and the Araxes.

To these territories was added in 966 the country of Taron, an Armenian country. Meanwhile the westward expansion of the Armenians continued. “During the patriarchate of Khatchik, patriarch of Armenia”, writes the Armenian historian Asoghik, “the Armenian nation scattered and spread itself to the countries of the west to such an extent that he appointed bishops for Antioch of Syria, Tarsus of Cilicia, Soulndah (Lulnday) and for all these regions“. Soulndah is the fortress of Lulon situated south of Tyana and commanding the road which went through the Cilician Gates. It was annexed definitely by the Byzantines in 876–77.

Khatchik was the Armenian Catholicus from 972–992, but the scattering and spreading of the Armenians for whom he saw fit to establish new bishoprics began somewhat earlier, a fact which can be established on the basis of other oriental sources. One of these sources, for instance, while describing the successful campaigns of Nicephorus Phocas against the Arabs, remarks that many Armenians, having fled to the frontiers of Byzantium, were settled by the Byzantines, some in Sebasteia of Cappadocia where they “multiplied exceedingly“, others in the fortresses of Cilicia which had been captured from the Arabs. This movement of the Armenians was no doubt encouraged, perhaps even forced, by the imperial authorities in order to repeople the various towns captured from the Arabs as, for instance, Melitene; Tarsus, captured in 965; Antioch, captured in 969 and others, which suffered considerable losses in population as the result of the departure of most of the Moslems. It is known, for instance, that Armenians and Syrian Jacobites were used by Nicephorus Phocas to repeople Melitene which had become virtually deserted. The spread of the Armenians into Byzantine territory in the tenth century was not restricted to the newly conquered Cilician and Syrian lands but extended, as the mention of Sebasteia in the reference quoted above indicates, into older provinces including the Cappadocian regions around Caesarea and Nazianzus.

A later oriental source in describing the spread of the Armenians into the Byzantine empire in the tenth century adds that in all the wars waged by the Romans “the foot soldiers of the Armenians marched and they aided them greatly“. There is nothing in this statement indicating the relative numerical strength of the Armenian element in the Byzantine army, but the statement does attribute to this element a role of major importance.

As one examines the various campaigns of the Byzantine forces in the tenth century, one is struck by the ever presence of the Armenian element. Armenians participated in every major campaign. They constituted about one-third of the cavalry sent against Crete in the ill-fated expeditions of 911 and 949, and figured prominently among the forces of Nicephorus Phocas which succeeded in conquering the island in 960. They are found fighting in Italy under the elder Nicephorus, grandfather of the conqueror of Crete, during the reign of Basil I, and again in 934 under the patrician Cosmas. They fought in the Balkan peninsula as, for instance, in 971 when they contributed greatly to the victory of John Tzimiskes against the Russians and again in 986 when they served under Basil II against the Bulgars.

There is evidence in the sources to the effect that the Armenians serving in the Byzantine army did not constitute a disciplined lot. They could not be relied on to keep their posts: they often deserted; and they did not always obey orders. As these accusations come to some extent from official sources, they cannot be dismissed entirely. But lack of discipline often is associated with spiritedness and of the spiritedness, bravery and fighting qualities of the Armenian soldiers serving in the Byzantine army, there can be no question at all. There can be no question either about the great contribution which these soldiers made to the brilliant successes of this army in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The defeat of the Byzantine army by the Seljuks at the battle of Manzikert in 1071 coupled with the civil wars which followed in Byzantium resulted in the definite loss by the empire of eastern and central Asia Minor. This loss included, of course, the regions inhabited by the Armenians.

The battle of Manzikert and the subsequent loss by the empire of eastern and central Asia Minor brought to an end the great role which, beginning with the end of the sixth century, the Armenians had played in the political and military life of the empire. But Armenians continued to live in the empire down to its very end.

The hostility to the Greeks shown by the Armenians of Abydus at the time when Henry of Flanders tried to conquer that region was not peculiar to that particular group, but reflects the attitude of the Armenians of the empire in general. Known instances of the expression of this attitude are very numerous. This has been noted and commented upon by modern scholars. “The Armenian“, writes J. Laurent, “was never able to fraternize completely with the Greeks. However high he may have risen in the empire, however great his fortunes may have been, however devoted the services which he may have rendered in the army and in the administration, the Armenian never became a Byzantine like others. He kept at least for himself and his private life, his language, his habits, his customs and his national religion; grouped with him were other Armenians, immigrants like him; instead of hellenizing himself in Greece, he armenized the Greek territories where he settled; he remained in the Byzantine empire an unassimilated foreign element, which on occasions became dangerous“. And elsewhere in the same paper: “There it is how at the hour of danger, when the Seljuk Turks were depriving the Byzantine empire of Asia Minor, Byzantium, instead of finding defenders in the Armenians whom it had established in its territories, saw them stand against it and contribute to the success of its ferocious adversaries“.

There is no doubt at all that Greeks and Armenians disliked each other and that at times this dislike turned into bitter hostility and found expression in atrocious deeds as, for instance, that of Gagik, the dispossessed king of Ani, who had the Greek bishop of Caesaria seized and put into a sack together with his large dog and then had his men beat bishop and dog until the maddened animal tore his master to shreds. There is no doubt either that this hostility between Greeks and Armenians was an important factor in the conquest of Asia Minor by the Seljuk Turks.

(Source: “The Armenians in the Byzantine Empire” by Peter Charanis)


NovoScriptorium: Historically, there had never been a state called ‘Byzantium’ or ‘Byzantine Empire’. There had only been the Roman Empire, continuing its existence in the East -not even the term ‘Eastern Roman Empire’ is accurate, as there were never two Empires, but only one in History. Speaking about ‘Greek’ or ‘Hellenism’ in Medieval times is equally not accurate; the inhabitants of the Empire called themselves ‘Romans‘ and nothing else. They did share a common ‘Hellenistic’ background, most of them were native Greek-speakers, but their main bond now was the Christian Roman identity and not the Hellenistic or Hellenic/Greek one. Hence, the correct term to describe historical reality would be ‘Romanity’ instead of ‘Hellenism’. The cultural terms ‘Hellenistic’ and ‘Greek’ refer to two quite different realities and sets of values. The older (Greek) had a more racial/national meaning. Its successors, both the Hellenistic and the Graeco-Roman, mostly had a cultural/ecumenical meaning instead.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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