Yeghishe's History of the Vartanants Saints
(Translated by Beyon Miloyan)
The History of the Vartanants Saints is a major source for the Battle of Avarayr, its causes and aftermath. The History covers the thirty-six-year period from AD 428 to 464 in seven chapters. Volume I contains the first four chapters and covers the period from the fall of the Armenian Arsacid dynasty (428 AD) to the events that led to the Battle of Avarayr (451). Volume II covers the period from the Battle of Avarayr to its aftermath in 464. But Yeghishe’s History is otherwise an account of the Vartanants saints who were martyred in the war.
Volume I of my translation was initially published under the title History of Vartan and the Armenian War («Վասն Վարդանայ եւ Հայոց Պատերազմին»), first ascribed to the book by the Mkhitarist Fathers in the 19th century, and later popularized by Ter-Minasyan’s 1957 critical edition. With the completion of Volume II, I amended this to the History of the Vartanants Saints («Պատմութիւն Սրբոցն Վարդանանցն»), the earliest known title of the book as recorded in Kirakos Gandzakets’i’s History of the Armenians. This change is not merely a reversion to an earlier title, but also an attempt to capture the spirit of the book more accurately, as Yeghishe was, in the first instance, writing a history, martyrology and panegyric of saints. Thus, whereas only a few pages of the book deal with the Battle of Avarayr, pages upon pages are devoted to portraying saintly acts of virtue, both individual and collective. This is not to downplay the political and military aspects of Yeghishe’s History, but to emphasize that the distinguishing feature of Yeghishe’s collective(s)—be it the nation, its soldiers, princes or clergy—is that they are composed of individuals united by covenant (ուխտ) in a spirit of Christian brotherhood, and not merely on the basis of secular-national bonds.
The text can also be understood as an apology. Yeghishe portrays his saints not as citizens of the world but as citizens of heaven. Like the unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetus, the saints aspire to live in this world as though they were only passing through. They are constantly persecuted. They have no desire for material gain, so they cannot be bribed. They are taxed oppressively but continue to live happily. They rejoice in the face of the cruelest torments. Battle is not the focal point of Yeghishe’s narrative but a stimulus for the virtuous Christian. Indeed, the largest block of Yeghishe’s narrative describes the virtues of saints outside the battlefield, for to Yeghishe Christian virtue was nowhere to be found on the battlefield, where “brave men rose up against brave men and both sides suffered defeat.” So how could these saints go to such great lengths to resist their king, whom, as Yeghishe himself emphasizes, it is incumbent upon them to obey? How can they, whom the king and his mages view as stray members of an aberrant sect, be said to live up to the godly commandment to not oppose their earthly king, but, in their words, “to honor and to love him with all our might, not as some insignificant man, but as truly as we serve God”? Yeghishe does not attribute the saints’ resistance to politics, language or nationality, but to the salvation of their souls, for Yazdegerd II had sought to make Zoroastrianism compulsory throughout the Persian empire, and the saints would spare no suffering to uphold their faith.
Little is known about the life of Yeghishe, though a corpus of works attributed to him has survived. Only some of these bear the same distinct style in which the History of the Vartanants Saints was composed. His elaborate prose and profound theology indicate he was a vartabed, and perhaps also a bishop, and his essay on monastic life indicates that he joined the cloister later in life. There is one reference in our History to a Yeghisha, bishop of Amatunik, which Yeghishe does not identify as himself but which some readers have surmised to be a reference to our author. If true, then Yeghishe would have been an eyewitness of the events he was reporting as he himself states in three instances:
“Behold, it is not willingly that we describe, with tearful laments, the many blows we received and that we were eyewitness to.”
“I myself happened to be there and saw and heard the sound of [the king’s] impudent voice.”
“As we saw at this time with our own eyes, the same nahatakutyun took place in Armenia.”
Despite these claims, there has been considerable debate about whether Yeghishe was, in fact, a contemporary historian. Though I believe the debate is a moot one, as we cannot rule out that Yeghishe was a contemporary, I briefly address it here. While the earliest known reference to Yeghishe in Armenian literature is by the 10th century historian, Tovma Artsruni, according to whom Yeghishe had been Saint Vartan’s scribe, it was not until the 19th century that Yeghishe’s status as a contemporary was first called into question, beginning with a series of three articles by Ter-Poghosyan in the 1895 issues of Handes Amsorya.
Ter-Poghosyan concluded, based on a comparison of several excerpts from Yeghishe’s and Ghazar’s histories, that despite Yeghishe’s claims of being an eyewitness, it was likelier that he had relied on Ghazar’s account than vice versa. Now because Ghazar, about whom we have more biographical information, is known to be a later author (as his History covers the period 387-485), Ter-Poghosyan implies that Yeghishe was at least a 6th century author. This view was most recently popularized by Robert Thomson, who based his own judgment on a comparison of the original historical information conveyed in the two works, observing that there are only minor differences between them. While these speculations have been fueled by the fact that neither author mentions the other, Ter-Poghosyan’s and Thomson’s arguments both hinge on the point that Yeghishe’s mere claims to being an eyewitness do not amount to solid evidence, and thus we are to treat these as literary embellishments intended to add gravitas to his work.
However Yeghishe’s status as an eyewitness is not confined to these two claims, as we see in the following examples:
“But although we are not permitted to speak against the ruler [Yazdegerd II], neither can we praise a man who will fight against God.”
“This blessed Khuzhik […] repeated to us in order what took place […].”
“Yet I cannot count the numbers of the blessed wives of the valiant ones or the prisoners and casualties of the war throughout Armenia because there are many more whom I do not know about than those I do. For there are about five hundred whom I recognize personally, not restricted to the senior ranks, but also many among the junior ranks.”
The second point may also be viewed by skeptics as support for the notion that Yeghishe copied from Ghazar, as Ghazar recalls the same Khuzhik as an informant (“…as was accurately learned from the blessed Khuzhik…”), though his later date of authorship makes his having a direct informant unlikely. However, these similarities need not imply that one copied from the other. As Ter-Poghosyan himself observed, overlaps between the two works can also be explained by their reliance on common sources. But it should be emphasized that this would not rule out Yeghishe’s status as a contemporary (as Ter-Poghosyan went on to claim) inasmuch as a contemporary would be expected to use reference material.
But what these debates have failed to mention is that both Yeghishe and Ghazar had Mamikonian patrons, thus raising the question: If Yeghishe was in fact a later author who copied from Ghazar, was his Mamikonian patron, David, unaware of it? Or should we assume that he instructed Yeghishe to base a whole new history on one part of Ghazar’s narrative without referencing him once? Otherwise, are we to treat Yeghishe’s claim to having a Mamikonian patron as yet another fabrication? I do not find these arguments convincing. While it is likely that both Yeghishe and Ghazar shared certain sources, Yeghishe’s date of authorship will probably never be verified. Therefore, I am inclined to take the author at his word.
A final point on this topic is that Yeghishe’s narrative does not only overlap with Ghazar’s; for example, Yeghishe’s account of King Vache of Aghuank’s rebellion against Peroz appears almost verbatim in Movses Dasxurants’i’s History of the Aghuans, which is known to be a later work. To those who question Yeghishe’s status as a contemporary, this may be taken to imply that Yeghishe was writing at least after the 7th century, as Nerses Akinean argued (though Akinean made a more tenuous argument that Yeghishe was not even writing about Avarayr).
Yeghishe makes one explicit literary reference in his entire work, and that is to the books of the Maccabees. From these books he appears to have borrowed concepts related to martyrdom and holy war that are so central to his own History, as well as certain imagery from its Armenian translation. If we take Yeghishe at his word, then the Armenian translation of the Maccabees was already in circulation by the early 5th century, for as he says of St. Vartan, “having been versed in Holy Scripture from childhood, he took hold of the brave description of the Maccabees and related their proceedings with exuberant words.” The prominent Maccabean influence on Yeghishe’s text, together with other aspects of his work, such as the saints’ joyful acceptance of their persecutions and tortures, each individual’s considering himself a martyr shrine, the emphasis on collecting the saints’ relics and establishing memorials in their names, are all characteristic of the so-called “cult of the saints” that was prominent throughout the 4th-6th century Near East. St. Gregory Nazianzen, for example, had begun his homily on the Maccabean martyrs by asking his audience to consider what more the admirable Maccabees might have achieved had they had the benefit of emulating Christ’s example. I believe Yeghishe’s History can be viewed as a response to this question with the example of the Vartanants saints.
The 12th century Catholicos Saint Nerses Shnorhali drew on this same parallel between the Vartanants saints and the Maccabean martyrs in Chapter 6 of his Lament on [the Fall of] Edessa («Ողբ Եդեսիոյ»), linking, for the first time, the saints’ martyrdom to Armenian national identity:
Մակաբայեանց նմանէին եւ Վարդանանց պատերազմին,
Միշտ առ միմեանս ձայնէին, աղաղակաւ զայս ասէին.
Մի’ երկիցուք զանգիտելով, եղբա’րք, ի սրոյ մահկանացուին
Եւ ընդ քաջացն արիութիւն մի’ խառնեսցուք զերկիւղ վատին.
Անուն բարեաց ժառանգեսցուք, որ ընթանայ յազգ երկրածին:
The Vartanantz martyrs like the Maccabees entered the fray
Cried out to one another—‘Pray!
Fear not the mortal sword, brothers, do not dismay.
Dilute not the force of your brave valor as cowards—ne’er stray;
And bequeath your good name to our nation to stay.’
By the 19th century, Yeghishe’s History would take on a fully national significance as the Battle of Avarayr came to be seen as a formative moment in the development of a distinctly Armenian national culture. Yeghishe’s History continues to hold great national significance today and remains a cornerstone of Armenian literature.