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Parent houseArsacids of Parthia
CountryKingdom of Armenia
Current headExtinct
Final rulerArtaxias IV
TitlesKing of Armenia

The Arsacid dynasty, called the Arshakuni (Armenian: Արշակունի, romanizedAršakuni) in Armenian, ruled the Kingdom of Armenia, with some interruptions, from 12 to 428.[1] The dynasty was a branch of the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia. Arsacid kings reigned intermittently throughout the chaotic years following the fall of the Artaxiad dynasty until 62, when Tiridates I, brother of Parthian King Vologases I, secured Arsacid rule in Armenia as a client king of Rome. However, he did not succeed in establishing his line on the throne, and various princes of different Arsacid lineages ruled until the accession of Vologases II, who succeeded in establishing his own line on the Armenian throne, which ruled the kingdom until its abolishment by the Sasanian Empire in 428.[1]

Two of the most notable events under Arsacid rule in Armenian history were the conversion of Armenia to Christianity by Gregory the Illuminator and Tiridates III in the early 4th century and the creation of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in c. 405. In contrast to the more Hellenic-influenced Artaxiads, the reign of the Arsacids of Armenia was marked by greater Iranian influence in the country.[1]

Early Arsacids

Kingdom of Armenia under the Arsacid dynasty, 150 AD

The first appearance of an Arsacid on the Armenian throne occurred in 12 when the Parthian king Vonones I was exiled from Parthia for his pro-Roman policies and Occidental manners.[2] Vonones I briefly acquired the Armenian throne with Roman consent, but Artabanus II, incorrectly known as Artabanus III in older scholarship, demanded his deposition, and as Emperor Augustus did not wish to begin a war against the Parthians, he deposed Vonones I and sent him to Syria. Soon after the deposition of Vonones I, Artabanus II installed his son Orodes on the Armenian throne. Emperor Tiberius had no intention of giving up the buffer states of the eastern frontier and sent his nephew and heir Germanicus to the East. Germanicus concluded a treaty with Artabanus II in which he was recognized as king and friend of the Romans.

In 18, Armenia was given to Zeno, son of Polemon I of Pontus,[3] who assumed the Iranian name Artaxias (a.k.a. Zeno-Artaxias).[4] The Parthians under Artabanus II were too distracted by internal strife to oppose the Roman-appointed king. Zeno's reign was remarkably peaceful in Armenian history. After Zeno's death in 36, Artabanus II decided to reinstate an Arsacid on the Armenian throne, choosing his eldest son Arsaces I as a suitable candidate, but his succession to the Armenian throne was disputed by his younger brother Orodes, who had been overthrown by Zeno. Tiberius quickly concentrated more forces on the Roman frontier and once again after a decade of peace, Armenia was to become the theater of bitter warfare between the two greatest powers of the known world for the next 25 years.

Tiberius sent an Iberian, Mithridates, who claimed to be of Arsacid blood. Mithridates successfully subjugated Armenia to Roman rule and deposed Arsaces, inflicting huge devastation upon the country. Surprisingly, Mithridates was summoned back to Rome, where he was kept as a prisoner, and Armenia was given back to Artabanus II, who gave the throne to his younger son Orodes. Another civil war erupted in Parthia upon Artabanus II's death. In the meantime, Mithridates was put back on the Armenian throne, with the help of his brother, Pharasmanes I, and of Roman troops. Civil war continued in Parthia for several years, with Gotarzes eventually seizing the throne in 45.

In 51 Mithridates's nephew Rhadamistus invaded Armenia and killed his uncle. The governor of Cappadocia, Julius Pailinus, decided to conquer Armenia but settled with the crowning of Rhadamistus, who generously rewarded him. Parthian King Vologases I saw an opportunity, invaded Armenia and succeeded in forcing the Iberians to withdraw from Armenia. The harsh winter that followed proved too much for the Parthians, who also withdrew, thus leaving open doors for Rhadamistus to regain his throne. After regaining power, according to Tacitus, the Iberian was so cruel that the Armenians stormed the palace and forced Rhadamistus out of the country, and Vologases I got the opportunity to install his brother Tiridates on the throne.

Between Rome and Parthia

Unhappy with the growing Parthian influence at their doorstep, Roman Emperor Nero sent General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo with a large army to the east to install Roman client kings (see Roman–Parthian War of 58–63). After Tiridates I escaped, the Roman client king Tigranes VI was installed. In 61, he invaded the Kingdom of Adiabene, one of the Parthian vassal kingdoms.

Vologases I considered this an act of aggression from Rome and restarted a campaign to restore Tiridates I to the Armenian throne. In the following Battle of Rhandeia in 62, command of the Roman troops was again entrusted to Corbulo, who marched into Armenia and set a camp in Rhandeia, where he made a peace agreement with Tiridates. It stated that Tiridates was recognized as King of Armenia, but he agreed to become a Roman client king and go to Rome to be crowned by Emperor Nero. Tiridates ruled Armenia until his death or deposition around 110, when the Parthian king Osroes I invaded Armenia and enthroned his nephew Axidares, the son of the previous Parthian king, Pacorus II, as King of Armenia.

Greater Armenia as part of the Roman Empire (in red), Lesser Armenia (in blue); 117 AD
Arshakid Mausoleum: 4th century

The encroachment on the traditional sphere of influence of the Roman Empire started a new war between Parthia and Rome and ended the peace that had endured for about half a century since Nero's time.[5] Roman Emperor Trajan marched towards Armenia in October 113 to restore a Roman client king in Armenia. Envoys from Osroes I met Trajan at Athens, informed him that Axidares had been deposed and asked for Axidares' elder brother, Parthamasiris, to be granted the throne. Trajan declined the proposal and in August 114 captured Arsamosata, where Parthamasiris asked to be crowned, but instead of crowning him, he annexed his kingdom as a new province to the Roman Empire.[6] Parthamasiris was dismissed and died mysteriously soon afterwards.

As a Roman province, Armenia was administered along with Cappadocia by Lucius Catilius Severus. The Roman Senate issued coins that celebrated this occasion and borne the following inscription: Armenia et Mesopotamia in potestatem P.R. redactæ ('Armenia and Mesopotamia brought back into the power of the people of Rome'). After a rebellion led by a pretender to the Parthian throne (Sanatruces II, son of Mithridates V), was put down, some sporadic resistance continued, and Vologases III had managed to secure a sizeable amount of Armenia just before Trajan's death in August 117. However, in 118, the new Roman emperor, Hadrian, gave up Trajan's conquered lands, including Armenia, and installed Parthamaspates as King of Armenia and Osroene, although the Parthian king Vologases held most Armenian territory. Eventually, a compromise with the Parthians was reached, and Vologases was placed in charge of Armenia.

Vologases ruled Armenia until 140. Vologases IV, the son of the legitimate Parthian King Mithridates V, dispatched his troops to seize Armenia in 161 and eradicated the Roman legions that had been stationed there under legatus Gaius Severianus. Encouraged by the spahbod Osroes, Parthian troops marched further west into Roman Syria.[7]

Marcus Aurelius immediately sent Lucius Verus to the eastern front. In 163, Verus dispatched General Statius Priscus, who had been recently transferred from Roman Britain along with several legions, from Syrian Antioch to Armenia. The Artaxata army, commanded by Vologases IV, surrendered to Priscus, who installed a Roman puppet, Sohaemus (Roman senator and consul of Arsacid and Emessan ancestry), on the Armenian throne and deposed a certain Pacorus, who had bien installed by Vologases III.[8]

Coin issued to celebrate the victory of Lucius Verus Armeniacus against Vologases IV in the war for Armenia.

As a result of an epidemic within the Roman forces, Parthians retook most of their lost territory in 166 and forced Sohaemus to retreat to Syria.[9] After a few intervening Roman and Parthian rulers, Vologases II assumed the throne in 186. In 198, Vologases II assumed the Parthian throne and named his son Khosrov I to the Armenian throne. Khosrov I was subsequently captured by the Romans, who installed one of their own to take charge of Armenia. However, the Armenians themselves revolted against their Roman overlords, and in accordance with a new Roman-Parthian compromise, Khosrov I's son, Tiridates II (217–252), was made king of Armenia.

Sassanids and Armenia

In 224, Persian King Ardashir I overthrew the Arsacids in Parthia and found the new Persian Sassanid dynasty. The Sassanids were determined to restore the old glory of the Achaemenid Empire and so they proclaimed Zoroastrianism as the state religion and considered Armenia as part of their empire.

To preserve the autonomy of Arsacid rule in Armenia, Tiridates II sought friendly relations with Rome. That was an unfortunate choice because Sassanid King Shapur I defeated the Romans and made peace with Emperor Philip. In 252, Shapur invaded Armenia and forced Tiridates to flee. After the deaths of Tiridates and his son Khosrov II, Shapur installed his own son, Hurmazd, on the Armenian throne. When Shapur I died in 270, Hurmazd took the Persian throne, and his brother Narseh ruled Armenia in his name.

Under Diocletian, Rome installed Tiridates III as ruler of Armenia, and in 287, he was in possession of the west Armenian territory. The Sassanids stirred some nobles to revolt when Narseh left to take the Persian throne in 293. Rome, nevertheless, defeated Narseh in 298, and Khosrov II's son Tiridates III regained control over Armenia with the support of Roman soldiers.


Anachronistic painting of the baptism of King Tiridates III (Trdat III) by St. Gregory the Enlightener.

Main article: Christianization of Armenia

As late as the later Parthian period, Armenia was predominantly Zoroastrian.[10] However, that was soon to change. In the early 4th century AD, Saint Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates III and members of his court to Christianity, making Armenia the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion.[11][12]

The Armenian alphabet was created by Saint Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD for the purpose of Bible translation, and Christianization as thus also marks the beginning of Armenian literature. According to Movses Khorenatsi, Isaac of Armenia made a translation of the Gospel from the Syriac text about 411. That work must have been considered imperfect because soon afterward, John of Egheghiatz and Joseph of Baghin, two of Mashtots's students, were sent to Edessa to translate the Biblical scriptures. They journeyed as far as Constantinople and brought back with them authentic copies of the Greek text. With the help of other copies obtained from Alexandria, the Bible was translated again from the Greek according to the text of the Septuagint and Origen's Hexapla. This version, now used by the Armenian Church, was completed about 434.


During the reign of Tiran, the Sassanid king Shapur II invaded Armenia. During the following decades, Armenia was once again disputed territory between the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire until a permanent settlement in 387, which remained in place until the Arab conquest of Armenia in 639. Arsacid rulers intermittently (competing with Bagratuni princes) remained in control preserving their power to some extent, as border guardians (marzban) either under Byzantine or as a Sassanian protectorate, until 428.


Out of the three phases (Achaemenid, Arsacid, Sasanian) of Iranian influence in Armenia, the Arsacid one was the strongest and most enduring. The phase began with the ascendance of the Parthians in the 2nd century BC and reached its zenith following the establishment of an Arsacid branch on the Armenian throne in the mid-1st century AD. The Arsacid kings of Armenia attempted to base their court on the same model as the one in Ctesiphon.[13] Many Parthian aspects were directly imported into Armenian civilization, such as the gusan, which resembled a bard or minstrel.[13] In Arsacid Armenia, the custom of aristocratic children being raised by foster parents or tutors was widespread, as in the rest of the Iranian commonwealth.[14]

The Arsacid kings knew Parthia and regarded it as their native country.[15] Tiridates III (r. 298–330) is known to have said the following thing during a speech: "For I know the country of the Greeks and that of the Romans very well, and our regions of Parthia—for it is even our home—as well as Asorestan, Arabia and Atropatene."[16] Under the Arsacids, the Armenians became familiar with some of the stories that were later added into the Persian epic Shahnameh. They include the stories of figures such as Hraseak (Afrasiyab), Shawarsh (Siyavash) and Spandarat (Esfandiyar).[17]

The Armenians viewed the bond between their country and the royal houses of Parthia as indestructible.[18] Armenian sources use the terms "king" and "Arsacid" (Aršakuni) as synonyms.[19][18] The Arsacid king was regarded as the bnak tērn ašxarhis ("natural lord of this country").[19]

Imperial ideology and religious practices

The Arsacids were advocates of Iranian legitimacy, which they remained even after the fall of the Parthian Empire.[20][21] They insisted that they carried the xwarrah ("fortune", cognate of Armenian pʿaṙkʿ),[22] which was the divine glory wielded by legitimate Iranian and Iranic kings.[23] The city of Ani served as the centre of the cult of Aramazd (the Armenian equivalent of Ahura Mazda), as well as the royal necropolis of the Arsacids. In the same fashion as the Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC), the Arsacids of Armenia and Iran practiced entombment and burial, probably doing it with great care to avoid contaminating the sacred earth of the Zoroastrian yazata (angelic divinity) Spenta Armaiti.[24] The bones of the buried Arsacid kings were believed to carry their xwarrah, which was the reason that the Sasanian shahanshah Shapur II had their bones disinterred and taken out of Armenia after his raid on the necropolis. The tombs were seemingly strongly fortified since Shapur II was unable to open the tomb of Sanatruk.[25][26]

The ancient sanctuary of Bagawan was of high importance to the Arsacids, who celebrated the Iranian New Year's festival (Nowruz) there.[27] The boar, which was the favourite totem of the yazata Verethragna (Vahagn in Armenian), was the symbol of the Arsacids.[28]

Language and naming traditions

While the culture of Armenia was dominated by Hellenism under the Artaxiads, the reign of the Arsacids marked the predominance of Iranianism in the country, with Parthian replacing Greek as the language of the educated. However, Armenian Hellenism was not eradicated, as the Arsacids of Iran were proud philhellenes.[1] Armenian was considered a "vulgar" language and so the Parthian language was spoken amongst the upper class and at the court. It was during that period that Classical Armenian incorporated most of its Iranian loanwords.[13] The modern historians R. Schmitt and H. W. Bailey compare the Parthian influence on Armenian to that of the French influence on English after the Norman Conquest of 1066.[29]

After their conversion to Christianity, the Arsacids continued to preserve their Iranian naming traditions, as demonstrated by the male names Trdat, Khosrov, Tiran, Arshak, Pap, Varazdat and Vramshapuh and the female names Ashkhen, Zarmandukht, Khosrovdukht, Ormazdukht, Vardandukht. Notably the name of Nerses I's mother, Bambishn, means "queen" in Persian.[30] Overall, the Christian Arsacids remained true to their Arsacid Iranian traditions.[13]

Arsacid kings of Armenia

This is a list of the kings of Armenia c. 12 – 428, most of whom were members of the Arsacid dynasty. The list also mentions the non-dynastic rulers of Armenia as well as periods of interregnum.[31] Note that some dates are approximations.


  1. ^ a b c d Toumanoff 1986, pp. 543–546.
  2. ^ Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.42–47
  3. ^ Olbrycht 2016, p. 605.
  4. ^ Garsoïan 1985, p. 181.
  5. ^ Statius Silvae 5.1; Dio Cassius 68.17.1.; Arrian Parthica frs 37/40
  6. ^ Dio Cassius 68.17.2–3
  7. ^ Sellwood Coinage of Parthia 257–260, 268–277; Debevoise History of Parthia 245; Dio Cass.71.2.1.
  8. ^ HA Marcus Antoninus 9.1, Verus 7.1; Dio Cass. 71.3.
  9. ^ HA Verus 8.1–4; Dio Cass. 71.2.
  10. ^ Boyce 2001, p. 84.
  11. ^ Academic American Encyclopedia – Page 172 by Grolier Incorporated
  12. ^ Estimated dates vary from 284 to 314. The latter is the date favored by mainstream scholarship, see Garsoïan (op.cit. p.82), following the research of Ananian, and Seibt (2002)
  13. ^ a b c d Chaumont 1986, pp. 418–438.
  14. ^ Rapp 2014, p. 89.
  15. ^ Russell 2004, p. 41.
  16. ^ Russell 2004, pp. 41–42.
  17. ^ Russell 2004, p. 1066.
  18. ^ a b Garsoïan 1985, p. 180.
  19. ^ a b Russell 1987, p. 163.
  20. ^ Lang 1983, p. 518.
  21. ^ Pourshariati 2008, p. 44.
  22. ^ Rapp 2014, p. 246.
  23. ^ Rapp 2014, p. 112.
  24. ^ Russell 1987, p. 159.
  25. ^ Russell 1987, p. 451.
  26. ^ Canepa 2018, p. 230.
  27. ^ Canepa 2018, p. 115.
  28. ^ Russell 2004, p. 170.
  29. ^ Schmitt & Bailey 1986, pp. 445–465.
  30. ^ Garsoïan 1985, p. 201.
  31. ^ Garsoïan 2004, p. 94.


Further reading