Agathangelos #

Introduction #

Ագաթանցեղոս, historian.

by Agop Hacikyan, et al.

Life of Agathangelos #

Most 5th century Armenian authors consider Agathangelos, with his famous History of the Armenians (also known as the History of the Life of St. Gregory), to be the first chronicler. All we know about him is what he says of himself in the introduction to his book: he was a scribe named Agathangelos, came from the city of Rome, had been educated in Latin and Greek, and was well acquainted with the art of letters, was summoned by King Trdat to the Arsacid court, and was commissioned by him to record the events of the times. At the end of his book, he appends this note: “Now as we have received the command of your majesty, bravest of men Trdat, to write down all this as suitable for a writer of chronicles, in this way we composed our work, setting everything in order according to the form of Greek literary skill.”

These autobiographical glimpses lead one to assume that Agathangelos lived in the fourth century, was of Roman origin, and was commissioned to write his book by King Trdat III. Because the Armenian alphabet had not yet been created, and because there is an extant Greek version of Agathangelos’ book that was long thought to predate the Armenian version, it was long assumed that it was originally written in Greek, and translated into Armenian at a later date. It is now thought that the History was written in Armenian in the 5th century, and that the Greek version is a 6th century translation of this Armenian original. The language of the work is characteristic of 5th century Classical Armenian, and the dating is supported by other internal evidence, such as borrowings from Mashtots and Koryun. The identity of the author, however, is still a mystery. The name Agathangelos (literally, bearer of good tidings) is in all probability a pseudonym.

Some of the ancient translations of the History, such as those into Latin, Georgian, Arabic, and Slavonic, were made from the Greek version, whereas the Ethiopian version was translated from the Arabic. There are significant differences between some of these translations and the extent Armenian and Greek versions of the History: some passages in the translations do not appear in the Armenian version, and vice versa. This has led some scholars to posit a longer version of Agathangelos’ History, which has not survived.

The Work #

Agathangelos’ History chronicles one of the most crucial periods in Armenian history: the 3rd and beginning of the 4th centuries, which witnessed a major turning point for the entire Armenian nation. The book is a mixture of hagiography, martyrology, and legend, but it nevertheless contains an appreciable amount of historical fact, and provides invaluable insights into Armeno-Persian relations during the period, while shedding light on such historical figures as Trdat III and St. Gregory the Illuminator. It also supplies precious details about the pagan deities of ancient Armenia, their temples, and the manner I which they were destroyed to make room for the new faith when it was proclaimed state religion.

The History consists of five parts: Introduction, The Story of the Life of St. Greogry, the Martyrdom of the Hripsimiants Virgins, The Teaching of St. Gregory, and the Conversion of Armenia. The book was written against a backdrop of relentless struggles, to resist the political and religious oppression of Persia and persistent encroachments on the part of the Syrian and Greek clergy.

The History begins with the Sasanid seizure of power in Persia by overthrowing the Parthians (A.D. 226). Soon after that, they attack Armenia, and in an attempt to add to their triumph they also remove the ruling Armenian Arsacid dynasty, which was related to the Parthians. The Armenian King Khosrov wages war so successfully, however, that the Sasanid king Artashir, unable to match him on the battlefield, resorts to treachery. He sends a man named Anak to the Armenian court to befriend the king, but with a secret mission to assassinate him. The mission is successful, but in revenge the assassin and his family are annihilated by the Armenian feudal lords. Thereupon, Artashir invades Armenia and puts Khosrov’s family to the sword. Only two children are saved from all this carnage: Khosrov’s youngest son, Trdat, who is rescued by his tutor and taken to Rome, and Anak’s son, Gregory, who finds refuge in Caesarea.

Trdat, tutored under the care of a Roman nobleman, Licinius, gains mastery of the military arts and spares the emperor Diocletian in an ignominious defeat by the Goths. To express his gratitude, the emperor sends him to Armenia and establishes him on this father’s throne. Meanwhile, Gregory is raised by a Christian family in Caesarea, becomes a Christian himself, and after learning of his father’s deeds, enters Trdat’s service in an attempt to atone for his father’s treachery. Eventually, their paths cross.

Soon after his return to Armenia to claim his throne, Trdat, who is unaware of Gregory’s background, decides to go to the temple at Eriza (in Aciilisene) to pay homage to his favorite Armenian goddess, Anahit, and he orders Gregory to place a wreath before the golden statue of the goddess. Gregory refuses to do so, on grounds of his religion. The king, outraged and humiliated, orders the most horrible tortures to be inflicted on him, but Gregory remains firm. When one of the king’s attendants reveals that Gregory is the son of Anak, his father’s assassin, Trdat, in utter rage, orders he be thrown into Khor Virap (“the Deep Pit”) under the fort of Artashat, which is full of snakes and loathsome creatures. Gregory remains there for thirteen years, protected by Providence and fed daily by an old woman who brings him bread and water.

Meanwhile, a group of nuns, headed by Gayané and including Hripsimé, who was famed for her beauty, arrives in Armenia, after fleeing Diocletian’s persecutions, and finds refuge in the vineyards near Artashat. Trdat is advised by the Roman emperor that Hripsimé has spurned his offer of marriage, and he is asked to return her to Rome, or to marry her himself if he so chooses. Trdat’s efforts to woo Hripsimé are as unsuccessful as Diocletian’s, and in revenge the humiliated king kills both Gayané and Hripsimé, together with many of their companions. Divine retribution is not long in coming for the king: while on a hunting expedition, he is suddenly transformed into a wild boar and begins to roam the forest. His sister, Khosrovidukht, is told in a vision that Gregory alone can help her brother. Gregory is brought out of his pit and through his prayers and intercession, the king is cured. Thereupon, his court and the capital city, Artashat, are converted to Christianity. Immediately, the evangelization of Armenia is undertaken, with the full and active participation of the king. People are converted and baptized en masse. Gregory, accompanied by the king, travels the length and breadth of the country, destroying pagan temples, building churches, and establishing schools. With the aid of the king’s good offices, Gregory is consecrated bishop in Caesarea. Towards the end of his life, St. Gregory retires and leads a hermetic life. At the king’s request, he ordains his son, Aristakes, as Catholicos, and he dies in peace.

The History has been translated into Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Latin, Slavonic, Ethiopian, Georgian, Italian, French, and English.

References #

  1. Acikyan, A. J., Basmajian, G., Franchuk, E. S., & Ouzounian, N. (2000). The Heritage of Armenian Literature: Volume I. From the Oral Tradition to the Golden Age. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.