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History of the Armenians, Moses Khorenats'i
Commentary on the Literary Sources by R. Thomson

The purpose of Moses' History

If the elucidation of some of Moses' sources shows that he was a well-read scholar, the use to which he puts them indicates that he was a mystifier of the first order. He quotes sources at second hand as if he had read the original; he invents archives to lend the credence of the written word to oral tradition or to his own inventions; he rewrites Armenian history in a completely fictitious manner, as in his adaptations of Josephus. Clearly Moses Khorenats'i does not live up to his professed standards: no imaginary events, no obfuscation through rhetoric, strict chronology, and unbiased comparison of source materials. What then was his purpose in composing such an extraordinary book, where fact and fiction, history and legend, the real and imagined, are interwoven in a most confusing manner? The analysis of Moses' sources proves conclusively that his History is not the product of a second-rate mind unable to comprehend the canons of historical writing and to pursue them effectively. Whoever Moses was, he was not only learned but clever. His protestations of strict methodology were intended to deceive, to divert critical attention, and to encourage acceptance of his own tendentious narrative.

His motives appear to be complex. There is clear anti-Mamikonean bias. [107] There is a general interest in the origins of the various Armenian noble families—where Moses proposes fantastic etymologies. And there is also a fascination with the ancient legends and traditions still current in his own time. These Moses tries to integrate into "world history" as known from Eusebius' Chronicle or to rationalize as distorted memories of actual events.

Moses provides the clue to his purpose himself: "Since our kings and other forefathers were negligent toward scholarship" and did not record "the many valiant deeds that were performed in our land" (I 3), he "has attempted to make a judicious collection of antiquarian lore" (I 19). Since "there is no study of the antiquity of our land," he has written "this history in simple


terms" so that "people may read the history of our fatherland" (III 1). This History is indeed the work of an antiquarian. [108] Moses' book I is entitled "genealogy," tsnndabanut'iwn being a calque on the Greek genealogia which was used for histories of the origin of the world. Moses refers to Diodore, [109] whose World History began with an arcaiologia—of which the Armenian hnak'awsut'iwn is a calque. But Moses had a more precise model: Josephus. He ransacked the Jewish Wars, not only adapting passages out of context for literary effect but also giving Armenia an important role in Roman-Parthian history and forging a close link between the Bagratids and Palestine. The following passages from the first book of the Wars, available in Armenian, are not without significance:

Josephus, Wars, I 1.1: "Some, having taken no part in the action, have collected from hearsay casual and contradictory (anpatshach) stories, which they have then edited in a rhetorical style; while others, who witnessed the events, have . . . misrepresented the facts, their writings containing . . . nowhere historical truth (stugut'iwn ew chshmartut'iwn). Moses, I 19: "Not injecting anything imaginary or unsuitable (anpatshach).. . the truth (chshmartut'iwn) of our labor."

Josephus, Wars, I 1.3: "They disparage the actions of the Jews. But I fail to see how the conquerors of a small people (ork' p'ok'unts' 'yalt'ets'in) deserved to be accounted great." Moses, I 3: "Although we are a small (p'ok'r) country and very restricted (end p'ok'u) in numbers, weak in power, and often subject to another's rule."

Josephus, Wars, I 1.5: "I might justly reprehend (kshtam-bits'em) those erudite Greeks." Moses, 13: "I wish ... to insert the reason for reprehending (kshtambut'ean) . . . the unscholarly habits of our first ancestors."

Josephus, Wars, I 1.5: "I myself, at a vast expenditure of money and effort (janiw ew metsaw ashkhatut'eamb) present to Greeks and Romans this memorial." Moses, 13: "I shall commence, though with an effort (janiw)."

Josephus, Wars, I 1.5: "But in the matter of history, where faithfulness (hawastin aseli e) and laborious collection of the facts are essential ... I shall be content with a brief

summary (hamafawt . . . ants'its')." Moses, I 1: "I shall describe briefly but faithfully (hamafawt ew hawasti)."
The History of Moses Khorenats'i is a complex work. On the one hand it is an attempt to collect, arrange, and interpret legends of the Armenian past. Then the main episodes of Armenian history are correlated with the principal trends of world history, from the most ancient times to the period of the Roman empire. And so far as the internal affairs of Armenia are concerned—where there are no outside sources such as Eusebius to provide a framework—Moses attempts to construct a chronological narrative that would account for the situation described in fifth-century texts. [110]

On the other hand, Moses is not a disinterested antiquarian. He puts his erudition to a definite purpose—boosting the reputation of the Bagratuni family. Although he pretends to be writing dispassionately, carefully sifting his sources and scrutinizing them for historical accuracy, in fact Moses is an audacious, and mendacious, faker. He does not merely suppress the unflattering evidence and emphasize the flattering. He willfully distorts his sources and invents episodes. Sometimes he is giving expression to unwritten tradition. But when he is recasting written texts—be they originally foreign or native Armenian—he is completely unscrupulous in his distortions. Undoubtedly Moses has preserved many reminiscences of historical truth. But his attitude to his sources and his methods of historical writing are such that his uncorroborated word can never be fully trusted.

Many of the texts known in Armenian to Moses were either translated or composed after the time at which he claims to be writing. There are also various historical clues scattered in his History that enable us to reject a fifth-century date. These have been noted by various scholars, and in recent times conveniently rehearsed by Toumanoff, [111] so a brief recapitulation is all that is necessary here.

I 12 Moses is the first Armenian writer to equate Siunik' and Sisakan. The latter term is first found in Syriac in the sixth century; in the seventh-century Armenian Ashkharhats'oyts' it refers to a canton, not the whole province.
I 14 Moses knows of four Armenias. These four Byzantine provinces were not so organized until 536 A.D. (By Justinian).

II 62 Moses refers to the territory east of Lake Van as Vaspurakan, a term used only after the partition of Armenia in 591. Not until the early eighth century Narratio de Rebus Armeniae is Vaspurakan used to designate a province in the same sense as Moses uses it.

II 65 Moses refers to the Khazars, not mentioned in other Armenian sources before the seventh-century Ashkharhats'oyts'.

III 18 Moses knows of an Iranian advance into Bithynia. Only in the 604-629 war did the Iranians advance so far west.

III 46 Moses refers to two positions, Presiding Prince and Comes, in Byzantine Armenia; this reflects the position after Heraclius' victory over Iran in 629.

More important is Moses' attitude toward the Bagratids and his bias against the Mamikoneans. Moses may not have invented the theory of a Jewish origin for his patrons, but he certainly gave it classic expression. The Iberian Bagratids took this theory further and claimed descent from King David. This claim had already been made by the very end of the eighth century and received expression in stone before 830 (in the relief of Ashot at Opiza). [112] It is difficult to imagine that Moses Khorenats'i would have passed over in silence the superior claims of his Armenian patrons' Georgian cousins. His History, then, predates the end of the eighth century.

Moses' History reflects the period when the Bagratids were gaining the upper hand over their Mamikonean rivals. In the last years of the Umayyad Caliphate neither of the two families had won a decisive hold over the other. But in the two decades between the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq (750) and the Armenian uprising of 771-772, the tension between the two families was reflected in the generally pro-Greek policies of the Mamikoneans and the more cautious, compromising, and relatively pro-Muslim attitude of the Bagratids.

The revolt of 772 ended in disaster on the battlefield in Bagrevand. Among the thousands of Armenians who perished


were the princes of both the Bagratuni and Mamikonean families. But this battle was a decisive turning point in the comparative standing of the two noble families. The Mamikoneans never regained a prominent rank and declined to comparative insignificance. In the long run it was the Bagratids who emerged as the preeminent force in Armenia, as the Muslims played them off against the rising power of the Artsrunis in the southeast. [113]

In view of Moses' cavalier attitude toward historical realities, it would be rash to identify his patron Sahak Bagratuni with the Sahak appointed Prince of Armenia by the caliph from 755 to 761. [114] However, Moses' History fits most appropriately into the first decades of Abbasid control over Armenia. The rivalry between Mamikoneans and Bagratids had not yet been resolved decisively in favor of the latter, but the Bagratids were striving to legitimize their rising power. Their claim to a role as defenders of the faith predating that of the Arsacid royal family was an important weapon of propaganda.

But Moses Khorenats'i's History is more than a nonce publication to satisfy the political need of the moment. It is an attempt to sum up the Armenian tradition, to present it in a coherent—albeit tendentious—fashion, and to provide the Armenians with a history as respectable as that of other nations.

The ecclesiastical interests of Moses also point to a date in the eighth century. The Armenians were by then freed from Byzantine interference, the last attempt at enforced reunion of the churches having failed in the reign of Justinian II at the end of the seventh century. [115] The eighth century was the period of the first codification of Armenian canon law, [116] of the development of the theory of apostolic origin, [117] of special vigor against internal dissenters, [118] and of the predominance of ecclesiastical learning over secular studies. [119] By the eighth century the Arme-


nian church had become a truly separate, national church; its practices and usages were revised and canonized. Political autonomy was lost for the moment—to reemerge rather fitfully from the ninth to the eleventh centuries—but under Muslim domination the Armenians retained independent control over their religious, social, and cultural lives, so the time was ripe for the formulation of Armenian individuality, for the codification of traditions and practices that made the Armenians different from others.

Moses' interest in historical explanations is his particular contribution to this process of tradition forming. In this study of his History, the emphasis has been placed on unraveling the literary sources he used. However, no less important for the long history of the Armenian people would be an assessment of the role played by Moses' History, among other historical writings, [120] in the development of what became the "received" tradition, for this tradition was of major significance in the emergence of Armenian nationalism in the nineteenth century and is still a vital force in today's debates on national identity. But the later role of the tradition—as opposed to its elaboration—must await another occasion.


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107. See above, pp. 42, 46, 49-50.

108. Toumanoff, Studies, p. 332.

109. III 1 at n. 3.

110. See notably the works of Sargsyan (references in the bibliography) for a study of Moses' chronological framework.

111. Toumanoff, HA 1961, and Studies, pp. 330-4.

112. Details in Toumanoff, HA 1961, and Studies, pp. 330-4.

113. For the history of Armenia in the middle decades of the eighth century, see Grousset, Histoire, pp. 320-34, and Laurent, L'Armenie, pp. 93-7.

114. For this Sahak, see Toumanoff, Studies, p. 341.

115. See Garitte, Narratio, § § 144-50 and pp. 350-6.

116. See Kanonagirk' Hayots', esp. I p. x ff.

117. See II 34 n. 8. On the later development—based on this theory—of Armenia as the seventh patriarchate, see Dvornik, Idea of Apostolicity, pp. 243-3.

118. See Garsoian, Paulician Heresy, esp. pp. 135-9.

119. See Inglisian, pp. 174-7, in Deeters, Armenisch und kaukasische Sprachen.

120. It is worth noting that Moses' work is the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the Armenians, though the term Hayots' patmut'iwn is standard; cf. Lazar, p. I1. Agathangelos wrote a "history of the Armenians" even though that work covers a period of only some one hundred years. Abgaryan, Sebeosi, p. 106, thinks the term "history of the Armenians" was first applied to the whole Buzandaran of Faustos and not just to the surviving books. Although some would translate the title as "history of Armenia," in classical Armenian the geographical entity "Armenia" is more usually rendered by "land (ashkharh, erkir) of the Armenians."