Smbat Sparapet & Hetum the Historian

Smbat Sparapet and Hetum the Historian

By Karekin Zarbanalian

The valiant deeds of Smbat Sparapet are less known to us than his compositions. Only about 30 years ago did a manuscript of his Chronicle first appear and quickly begin to exchange hands, on which basis several editions of the text were soon published in Moscow and Paris.

            Born in 1208, the eldest of 8 children to Constantine of Paperon and Lady Alice Pahlavuni, Smbat was a child of the young Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, which had been established on the feast of Epiphany in 1198 with Levon’s coronation at the cathedral of Tarsus. In 1226, Smbat’s younger brother, Hetum, acceded the throne. Smbat was appointed sparapet (commander-in-chief) of the kingdom and given charge of the fortress of Paperon, some 25 miles NW of Tarsus. He would go on to wage many battles, achieving a number of victories against the forces of the sultans of Egypt and Iconium.

As the Mongols grew in power and began their westward invasions, Hetum and his father Constantine, being unsure of their ability to oppose them, thought instead to make peace with them and sent Smbat on a diplomatic mission to Güyük Khan in 1248. Smbat himself describes this delegation in his Chronicle: “In the year 697 A.E. [1248] I, Constable Smbat, went to the T’at’ars and in the year 699 A.E. [1250] I returned to my brother, King Het’um.” He returned with a promise of autonomy for the kingdom, with his brother going on to visit Karakorum in 1253. Smbat also relates other of his brave deeds from his tenure. For example, when Sultan Kay Khusraw entered Cilicia with a large cavalry and besieged Tarsus, Smbat and his father Constantine fell into a prolonged battle with them and, with the help of Frankish warriors, emerged victorious.

            Smbat sealed his life with valor in warfare, as related by a contemporary vardapet. In 1275, messengers arrived to Levon III with news that the emir of Egypt was to invade Cilicia again with his countless troops. Levon gathered his forces at once, divided them into six regiments, took command of one and gave command of another small regiment to his aged uncle, Smbat. When the Egyptians marched onto the borders of Cilicia, Smbat’s regiment was the first to face them, and the Egyptians, encouraged at the thought that that was the size of Levon’s forces, began their attack. But it was a trap, for the other regiments quickly besieged them, with Levon coming in from behind and slaughtering many Egyptians. But when the emir and a small number of his forces found an escape, Smbat pursued them, in the course of which his horse ran into a tree and he sustained such heavy injuries that he passed away a few days later (in 1276) at the age of 68.

Smbat’s Sparapet's Chronicle. Smbat’s Chronicle covers the roughly 400-year period from 951 (during Gagik Bagratuni’s reign) to 1331 and summarizes events in Armenia and Byzantium.

            It would be in vain to expect a formal Armenian prose in such a composition, for this was not the intention of the author, who instead used a common dialect to make his narrative easy to understand for his contemporaries. But though his style is plain and laconic, it is pleasing to the ear. Smbat’s and Matthew of Edessa’s Chronicles overlap in the period leading to 1162, for which Matthew provides a more detailed account. From the period 1163 to 1272, Smbat’s Chronicle provides original information not found in Matthew's account. Smbat is one of a few authors who covered the Rubenian dynasty, and his work combines both history and chronicle, both of which might explain why his work has been so valued by modern European scholars.

            Aside from his Chronicle and his letter(s) to his sister and brother-in-law, Smbat has left two other works, one of which is the Assizes de Antioch, and the other, a recodification of Mkhitar Gosh’s Lawcode combining elements of Byzantine law. The purpose of these works was to endow his nation with a solid basis in civil and ecclesiastical law. In his own words: “I wrote this for the consolidation of the holy church, and for the judges and kings of the land—having grasped the spirit of the laws and presented them briefly...” He composed this Lawcode in 1265. In this work, too, Smbat uses the common dialect of the 13th century. The elegant Armenian style of the Holy Translators, which gradually wore away over the course of time, is not to be found here. As with the political circumstances of the country, the literary language was by now transformed and had entered a new era of existence.



Hetum the Historian. Born in 1240 to prince Oshin of Corycus, Hetum the Historian was the nephew of Smbat Sparapet and king Hetum. His well-known History was composed in Latin and was known throughout Europe due to its various translations and publications.

          Hetum’s renown grew in the time of Levon III (1270-1289), when he became lord of the fortress of Corycus, and then marshal of the kingdom’s forces, a position which he occupied into the reign of Hetum II (1289-1293).

            Yet Hetum (the Historian) went on to renounce earthly glory and seek peace in the cloister. He himself says that “I had long ago resolved to don the monk’s habit, but on account of the difficult times that faced the Armenian kingdom, I could not then abandon my country.” When at last he came to witness peaceful days in the kingdom, he left the royal court in 1305 and withdrew to Cyprus, where he joined the Premonstratensian order as a monk, but all the while did not cease thinking about the Armenian kingdom.

            A year after making his oath, Hetum headed West on a pilgrimage to Avignon in the time of Clement V, not only to pay his respects to His Holiness, but also to relate to him the suffering of the Christians in the East and, as a member of the royal family, to request his assistance, that he may send Crusaders to help them.

            At that time, histories of the Orient were not appealing to Europeans, but His Holiness, seeing the erudition of Hetum, induced him to describe the Oriental nations, and especially the Tartars, Assyrians, the wars in the Levant and the conditions in Cilicia.

            Hetum agreed, but as he was not sufficiently fluent in European languages to compose such a history, he dictated it in French to one Nicholas Falcon, who in 1307 translated it into Latin at the Pope’s behest and called it Histoire d’Orient. The book was well-received and went on to be translated into various languages; first, in Haguenau in 1529 with the name Liber historiarum partium Orientis Haythono auctore, then in Basel (in 1532 and 1555), and then in Helmstadt in 1585 alongside the Travels of Marco Polo. Then it was published in Cologne in 1671 under the title Historia orientalis quae da Tartaris inscribitur, on which basis there was a French translation called Fleurs de histoires de la terre d’Orient, complées par frère Heyton, seigneur de Cort, et cousin germain du roi d’Armenie, par le commandement du Pape. This French translation had a number of publications.

            There was also another old French translation in Paris in 1529, with the name L’histoire marveilleuse… du grand empereur de Tartarie… nomme le grand Can, traduit du latin du M. Aytone seigneur du Courcy, par frère Jean de Longdit, as well as a Dutch publication in 1664, an Italian publication in 1535, a number of reprints of an English translation, and, at last, a Classical Armenian translation published in Venice in 1842.

The History of the Tartars. This work consists of 52 chapters providing, in part one, a brief history of the Tartars, but also covering the Hagarenes, the Saracens, the Egyptians and Armenians, as well as brief descriptions of the Indians, Persians and Georgians. It also covers events that took place from the times of Abaqa khan to Ghazan, of which Hetum was an eyewitness. It is a fascinating History that not only describes the conquests of the mighty Mongols, but also provides geographical and historical insights about a number of contemporary peoples and lands.