Armenian Legends and Poems  at sacred-texts.com
At the end of the fourth century (374-383), Nerses the Great was Catholicos. During these ten years he displayed great energy. Under his rule, many councils were held and many regulations drawn up to safeguard the morals of the people. In addition to this, a number of schools, hospitals, orphanages, almshouses, and other charitable institutions arose under his supervision. A contemporary historian says that during Nerses’ term of office, upwards of 2000 abbeys and monasteries were built. These religious houses served as centres, not only of religious life, but also of learning, where numerous ecclesiastics and teachers were trained. This intellectual movement, which was of a purely religious and educational character, not merely lived through the political tempest of those times, but gradually grew and progressed. In the year 400, the representative of the Arsacid dynasty on the throne was Vramshapuh, an able monarch, who, being himself a lover of peace, did much to encourage and foster the intellectual movement and to keep the country free from foreign foes and internal dissensions. King Vramshapuh reigned twenty-one years and it was, approximately, these years that constituted what is called "the Golden Age of Armenian literature."
St. Sahak (353-439), who, with St. Mesrop, was the moving spirit of the intellectual movement, was Catholicos during part of this period.
The Golden Period was of short duration, only lasting twenty-five years, but it was rich in achievements. The students educated abroad on their return originated a new literature, pervaded by Christian ideas. They considered themselves as torch-bearers in the new movement, and all their work is animated by inspiration.
This period is one of marvellous activity. The new national alphabet had charms that wrought like magic and, coupled with the new religion of hope, captivated all Armenian hearts. Armenians realised that it was a religion for the people, not merely for the great and powerful. All over Armenia national schools were opened. Nearly every book of importance written in Greek and Syriac was translated into Armenian, as well as some of the Latin authors. Translation was a recognised profession, and "translator" was a title of honour, like the European "doctor." There are upwards of fifty chronicles and histories written in ancient Armenian, which is richer in literature than the Greek of the same period, and the Armenian language is so flexible and so well adapted to the exact rendering of every kind of literature that if, for instance, the Anabasis of Xenophon were lost, it might be reproduced in Greek, almost word for word, from the Armenian version. Among the writings which now survive only in Armenian, the originals having been lost, are the Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, two works of Philo on Providence, together with some of his Biblical commentaries, the Chronicle of Eusebius, the works of St. Ephrem and others.
Besides translations, Armenia produced, during the period with which we are concerned, original works, chiefly of an historical character. These give very succinct accounts of the Persian and Mongol invasions, and throw fresh light on the state of the East during the Middle Ages. As these works lie outside our present subject, we cannot here even name their authors. Those who wish to investigate them are referred to what we have written elsewhere. 1
What is most remarkable is that, at the very beginning of the intellectual movement, when the alphabet had just been formed, the literary language is so highly developed, so rich and subtle, that it is more like a language which is the product of centuries of culture. This very fact shows that culture was no novelty in Armenia. The new movement only introduced a fresh era in Armenian civilisation.
Twenty-five years after the introduction of the Armenian alphabet, the Arsacid dynasty
fell (428), the last king being Artashir III. From this time the Armenians have ceased to be politically independent.
From 432 onwards, the greater part of Armenia was governed by Persian satraps. The Persians regarded with great apprehension the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, as this caused the Armenians to enter into closer relations with the Greeks. As a matter of fact, at the end of the fourth century, the Greeks came to aid the Armenians in driving away the Persians. It was the aim of the Persians to eradicate Christianity from Armenia. In order to further this object, they declared war on the Greek Empire. The latter, instead of fighting, made peace with the Persians, accepting very humiliating terms. The Armenians were left to their fate, but, nevertheless, they resolved to stand up for their religion against the Persian monarch, who led a great army against them with the intention of enforcing Zoroastrianism. At this time there was no Armenian king. The majority of the remaining princes and nobles, however, formed a regular army, the people gladly serving as volunteers, though there was a very small party, led by Prince Vasak Suni, that were inclined, for political reasons, to entertain the Persian proposals.
All this took place between 449 and 454. The first religious war (451) is known as Vardanantz, because Vardan Mamikonian, who was the commander-in-chief of the Armenian army of defence, was the moving spirit in the struggle of Armenian Christianity against the religion of Persia. He fell in the battle of Avarair, but his fame survived him and he is the most beloved of Armenian heroes.
This war, though it crushed the hopes in which the Armenians had indulged themselves of regaining their political independence, nevertheless convinced the Persians of the impossibility of uprooting a religion which was so firmly implanted in the hearts of the people.
The first religious war was followed by a second, in which the Armenian princes offered a valiant resistance and the Persians were obliged to give way. The leader of the resisting princes was appointed satrap by the Persians. Thus Armenia won back partial independence, the Persians themselves appointing an Armenian satrap and proclaiming religious liberty. The Chief of the Magi, who was sent to convert the Armenians to Mazdiism, returned unsuccessful and reported to the Persian king: "Even if the immortals themselves came to our aid, it would be impossible to establish Mazdiism in Armenia." Although Vardan and his followers perished in this war, and although the Armenians, apparently, lost the battle, the struggle resulted in the triumph of the ideal for which Armenia was struggling--that of religious freedom. This the Persians realised and never, after this time, did they make any attempt to force the Armenians to change their faith. Neither did any of the various Mohammedan conquerors
venture on any steps towards bringing about the conversion of the whole Armenian nation, though they have enforced conformity on a small scale; they have had to content themselves with political supremacy. The Mohammedan world has realised that Christianity is a great power in Armenia, and this is the reason why the religious heads of the nation--the Catholicos and the patriarchs--meet with great consideration, not only from the governments of Christian states, but also from Mohammedan powers; both by Christian and by Mohammedan countries which have rule over Armenia these dignitaries are recognised as representatives of their country, not only in religious, but also in secular affairs. Thus the Christian National Church has been one of the chief factors of the unity and the national consciousness which exists among Armenians even up to the present day, and this is the reason why the battle of Vardan is regarded as a national triumph and is still annually commemorated. 1
154:1 See Travel and Politics in Armenia, by Noel Buxton, MP., and Rev. Harold Buxton; with Introduction by Viscount Bryce and a Contribution on Armenian History and Culture by Aram Raffi. Smith, Elder & Co. 1914.