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The Armenians
By Steven Lowe

History    The Early Centuries    Arab Conquest    The Kingdom of Armenia    Lesser Armenia (Cilicia) Arms and Armour    Costume    References


Armenia formed a buffer state between the Byzantine Empire and its enemies to the east, but the relationship between the two was always uneasy.

The Early Centuries

The Armenian tribes migrated into eastern Asia Minor around the seventh century BC, encroaching on Urartu, the major civilisation in the area. In about 590 BC Persia annexed the region, destroying Urartu, and the Armenians gained power at its expense.  The Persian satrap (governor) Orontes formed a break-away kingdom in 401 BC and his dynasty lasted 200 years.

Figure 1. Greater Armenia.

With Alexander the Great’s overthrow of the Persian Empire, there was a major influx of Greek culture, and when Alexander died Armenia was split up between his generals and the descendants of Orontes, resulting in society with a rich mix of Greek and Persian, and later Roman, characteristics.

In ensuing centuries Armenia built up an extensive empire, but in 70 BC King Tigranes was drawn into the war between Rome and his father in law Mithridates of Pontus, with disastrous results. Armenia became a client kingdom of Rome, but kept its Parthian (Persian) royal family.

The Armenians were converted to Christianity in 301 AD (thirty years before Byzantium) and resented Constantinople’s attempts to impose religious and political sovereignty. However, Armenia was caught in the centre of continual warfare between Byzantium and Persia, and in 387 AD they split it in two, with Byzantium taking the western half, and Persia the eastern.

The Armenian alphabet was invented in 405, and many religious and educational works were composed or transcribed into Armenian. Religious faith was a strong unifying factor in Armenian identity. In the mid fifth century the Persian empire tried to impose its own religion of Zoroastrianism, and this led to the war of Vardanank which lasted until 485, when a peace treaty allowed Eastern Armenians freedom of religion and culture.

The Emperor Justinian attempted to assimilate Western Armenia into the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century but was met with resentment and resistance. However, when the Persians invaded the Byzantine Empire in 623, almost reaching Constantinople, the Armenians joined their fellow Christians in ousting the heathen. A serious attempt was mad e to reconcile their religious differences, but it came to nothing.

Arab Conquest

In the early 7th century, Armenia was undergoing a “brilliant cultural efflorescence” (Lang 1970). But the Arab armies of Muhummad’s successors swept into Persia, and having conquered it, invaded Armenia in 642. They wiped out the ruling Mamikonian family, and the Bagratids, whose approach to the Arabs was more flexible, took its place. Their policy of compromise allowed Armenia to maintain its culture and religion. A number of semi-autonomous Arab emirs came to rule a large part of Armenia.  Byzantines and Arabs fought over Armenia for 200 years.

During the period of Arab dominance in the 7th and 8th centuries, Armenia imported ceramics, metalwork and textiles from Damascus, Samarra and Baghdad, and minted silver dirhams. The vice-regal capital of Dvin produced glassware, pottery and dyes, wool, cotton and silk. Dvin also exported horses, cattle, salt, cereal products, wine, honey, leather, timber and furs. Armenia was rich in minerals, and produced metalwork, armour and jewellery.

The Arab Empire weakened in the ninth century, and its hold on Armenia loosened. The Bagratid prince Ashot defeated its Arab emirs, and in 885 was recognised by both the Caliph and Emperor Basil I as Shanshah, the king of kings of the Armenians, But it was not until 920 that Armenia finally broke free of the emirates. Armenia prospered economically and culturally despite the wars, and Ashot III (952-977) built a new capital at Ani “the city of a thousand churches”.

Figure 2. The walls of Ani.

The Kingdom of Armenia

Fiercely nationalistic, the Armenians were often a thorn in the side of the Byzantine Empire. At various different times, the Emperors forcibly transported huge numbers of Armenians to depopulated areas of the Empire, as far away as Bulgaria and Cyprus. However, Armenia was valuable to the Empire as a buffer zone and as a source of manpower and materials. There was even a dynasty of Armenian Emperors of Byzantium.

The Manichean heresy, influenced by the Persian Zoroastrian religion, began in Armenia. Manichees believed that only spiritual things were of value, and that the physical world was evil. Manichees transported to Bulgaria took their beliefs with them, surfacing as the Bogomil heresy. These ideas in turn influenced the 13th century Cathar heresy in Western Europe. The Paulician heresy, which denied the Trinity, also gained a large following in Armenia.

The Armenian kingdom was annexed by the Byzantine Empire in 1045, and its displaced nobles were given land in the mountainous region of Cilicia in southern Anatolia, which they renamed Lesser Armenia.

Although Byzantium gained Armenia’s territory it lost far more. The Empire was forced to divert manpower to its defence, the native Armenian population was resentful and rebellious and Byzantine soldiers had little loyalty to or desire to defend this isolated land, hundreds of miles from home. In 1071, instead of having to fight their way past the Armenians, the Seljuk Turks were able to invade the Empire directly. Their victory at Manzikert was catastrophic. Greater Armenia was lost to the Empire, and passed under Turkish control.

Figure 3. Lesser Armenia

Lesser Armenia (Cilicia)

Once established in Cilicia, the displaced nobles fought for independence. In about 1080, after much warfare, Ruben I created a principality in Cilicia which lasted almost 300 years. There were great achievements in art, literature and fortification, as well as extensive trade.

The principality of Lesser Armenia  aided the First Crusade of 1097 with provisions and military equipment, and sent troops to the siege of Acre. In 1137 Emperor John II Komnenos invaded Cilicia, and in 1145 he captured Prince Levon (Leo) I, and took him to Constantinople in chains. After great trials and many battles, Levon’s son Toros II freed Cilicia. Armenian troops joined Richard I in his conquest of Cyprus during the Third Crusade.  Lesser Armenia signed commercial treaties with Venice and Genoa, and ceded territories to the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights to keep the Seljuk Turks at bay.

In 1199 Prince Levon II was recognised as King Levon I by Byzantium, Saladin and the Western Emperor, and Armenian Cilicia became rich and powerful. Levon based his court on Frankish Crusader models, and adopted western-style feudalism. Cilicia maintained its territorial integrity against Seljuks, Mamluks and Mongols while the crusader states were being steadily eroded. However their original home in Greater Armenia suffered heavily.

From 1253 to 1256 Het’um I travelled to Mongolia to make an alliance. As a result, the Mongols attacked the Sultans of Aleppo and Egypt, promising to return Jerusalem to the Christians if they were victorious. But in 1259 at the height of the campaign the Great Khan died, and Khan Hulagu returned to Mongolia to contest the succession. The initiative petered out and Cilician Armenia began losing territory to Mamluk attacks.

The last male descendent of Het’um I was assassinated in 1342 and Guy de Lusignan, prince of Cyprus, was the best remaining heir. He filled the court with French-speaking favourites, and brought in missionaries to convert the country to western Christianity. Guy was assassinated in his turn, and in the following reign the last Cilician seaport was lost to the Egyptian Mamluks. Armenian Cilicia was now landlocked within Muslim territory. In 1375 the Mamluks captured the capital, Sis, and the kingdom of Lesser Armenia was destroyed. Armenians scattered throughout the Mediterranean, making their living as merchants. Those who stayed behind were forced to live as a Christian minority in a Muslim world.

Figure 4. David and Goliath, from the Aghtamar Palace Church. (915-921 CE)

Arms and Armour

Fig. 4, from the tenth century, shows both lightly and heavily armed warriors in a bas-relief of David and Goliath. David, a slinger, wears no armour, and is even barefoot. Goliath on the other hand seems to be wearing (hanging?) lamellar armour, an open faced helmet with an extension to protect the back of the head, and a mail “bishop’s mantle” around the shoulders. He appears to be wearing boots at least to the knee, and forearm protection strikingly similar in appearance to the 15th century Ottoman “vambrace” (which consists of a series of narrow metal strips joined together by mail rings.)


Figure 5. Ottoman armour - fifteenth century             Figure 5a - detail of the "vambrace".

His sword has almost no quillons, resembling a Seljuk straight sword. His shield is round and rather small.

Figure 6. Crucifixion from the Van Gospel, C.E. 1038.

The illustration above shows warriors without armour, one with a scabbarded sword, a spear and a round shield.

Figure 7.

The picture above was produced in 15th century. It is an illustration of the Battle of Avarair (451 AD) against the Persians, but probably contains many contemporary features.  It shows recurve bows, straight sword with wide crossguards and round pommels, and small round shields. The troops on the right are the Armenians; those on the left are the Persians, with their elephants. The figure in front of the Armenians, carrying  what appears to be a fan, is apparently a traditional character in Armenian warfare – a “clown”, whose purpose was to mock and infuriate the enemy – presumably both to improve morale on the Armenian side and to stir the enemy to ill-judged actions.  It has to be admitted that too much reliance cannot be placed on this illustration, coming as it does at least 300 years after our own period.  It depends on how conservative their artists were, and how little equipment had changed over the centuries.

It is probably safe to assume that the equipment and techniques of warfare used by the Armenians were similar to those of their Byzantine neighbours, but they would have been strongly influenced by the nomadic warriors to their east, and probably used equipment and tactics with aspects of both. It is likely that they were also influenced by the Franks in the Cilician period.


Figure 8. Detail from David and Goliath, from the Aghtamar Palace Church. (915-921 CE)

On the far left of the David and Goliath bas-relief is a figure in what must have been court dress; a floor length tunic of richly patterned fabric, with full sleeves and a wraparound fastening at the front. Tags hang from his belt.

Figure 9. Statue of King Gagik.

Both he and King Gagik are wearing turbans, though Gagik’s is far more extravagant. Gagik is also wearing a loose-sleeved wraparound outer garment, but beneath it is another floor-length tunic. For some reason, the statue has no feet, so we can’t tell what he wore on them.

Fig. 6 shows the kind of thing which would more likely have been worn by the general populace, and a rather equivocal form of headgear.  The male figures appear to be wearing tight-fitting trousers (or open-bottomed hose) beneath their tunics, which reach below the knee, but not to the floor. They may well be split at the front. The females have “generic mediaeval” costume – a floor-length gown, surmounted by a medium length shawl which can also be used to cover the head.

Figure 10. Votive donors. (915-921 CE)

The bas-relief above shows two figures, probably nobility, donating a model of a monastery, or perhaps the monastery itself. They are wearing tunics with long, tightly fitting sleeves and a “cusped” hem which may indicate either wide trousers or (more likely) a split skirt.  It is hard to make out their footwear; they seem most likely to be wearing long boots, but it might be shoes with tight trousers or even hose. However, their hats are quite distinctive in shape.

Figure 11. Bas-relief from the Aghtamar Palace Church. (915-921 CE)

The figure above is wearing loose trousers under a tunic which falls below the knee, but does not appear to be split at the front. The full-length sleeves fit the arm quite closely. This representation shows more clearly the kind of belt already seen in Fig. 8. It appears similar to those worn by the nomadic Turkic races, with leather straps hanging from it to support either weapons or implements, or merely as decoration. Obviously, there is too little information here to be able to generalise much, but the above examples suggest that Armenian dress was not dissimilar to that of their neighbours, though with some features unique to their own society.


Friendly, A., The Dreadful Day: The Battle of Manzikert, 1071, Hutchinson, London, 1982.
Lang, David Marshall, Armenia, Cradle of Civilization, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1970.
Nicolle, D. Arms & Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350: Islam, Eastern Europe and Asia
Novello, Adriano Alpago The Armenians, Rizzoli, N.Y., 1986.

Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers