Thursday, June 20 2024

The Armenian Contribution to Hellenism and Orthodoxy


The ties of Armenian culture and Hellenism go back at least to the 6th century BC, as a reference to Armenia was made by the Greek historian Heracletus of Militus in 525 BC.

According to 20th century linguists, the Armenian and Greek languages share common ancestry, with the two peoples having similar traditions as well.


Armenians have contributed greatly as carriers of the Greek language, civilization and Eastern Orthodoxy, since they were an important part of the Byzantine Empire.

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Alexander the Great invades Armenia

In 334 BC, Alexander the Great, leading an army of 40,000 men, invaded Asia Minor, aiming to topple the Persian Empire that had invaded Greece over a century prior.

It took the Macedonian Army three years to defeat Persian king Darius III and destroy the Persian capital of Persepolis.

With the fall of the Persian Empire in 331 BC, Alexander appointed a new satrap, Mithranes from the Orontid royal house, to govern Armenia.

After Alexander’s sudden death in 323 BC, the partitioning of his empire and warring among his generals led to the emergence of three separate Greek kingdoms.

Armenia fell under the rule of Seleucus in 311 BC, establishing the Seleucid Dynasrty. Despite pressure from the Seleucids, the Orontid dynasty continued to control the largest of three kingdoms into which Armenia had been divided.

Armenia and the Hellenistic influence

Several historians argue that Hellenism was Armenia’s greatest cultural influence, becoming so ingrained into the culture that many characteristics continue down to the present day.

The Greek language became the official language of the rulers, as Greek inscriptions uncovered at Armavir — the first Orontid capital — show.

The inscriptions indicate the existence of a Greek temple of Apollo and Artemis, served by a predominantly Greek priesthood.

The Armenians identified with the Hellenistic culture which shared the zodiac, the pantheon of gods and traditions.

They absorbed Greek philosophy, architecture and the gods, giving Armenian deities Greek names, and eventually, their human likenesses.

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The Armenians in Byzantium

In the 4th century BC, certain parts of Armenia known as Western Armenia became part of the Byzantine Empire.

Armenians flourished in the Byzantine Empire. Numerous Byzantine emperors were either ethnically Armenian, half-Armenian, part-Armenian or possibly Armenian.

Emperor Heraclius, who established the Heraclian Dynasty (610-717) was Armenian on his father’s side. Basil I, Romanos I, John I Tzimiskes and Nikephoros II were also Armenian.

In fact, one in five Byzantine emperors and empresses were either fully or in part Armenian.

The Akathist Hymn, sung during Orthodox Lent, commemorates the saving of Constantinople from the Persians and Avads by Emperor Heraclius with the miraculous help of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary.

The Macedonian Dynasty, named after Basil I the Macedonian hailing from the theme of Macedonia in Thrace — not geographical Macedonia — reigned during the most glorious period of the Byzantine Empire.

It was a period in which the Empire reached its greatest extent since the Muslim Conquests, and the Macedonian Renaissance in letters and arts began.

Also importantly, from the 5th century and onward, Armenians were regarded as the main constituent of the Byzantine Army, with the palace guards being picked among the bravest Armenians.

According to some scholars, Armenian military power was the basis of the stability and longevity of Byzantium and Hellenism.

In addition, bishops, architects, important military figures and other prominent members in the history of the Byzantine Empire were Armenians, contributing greatly to politics, Greek  Orthodoxy, and trade.

The contribution of the Armenian people to the Byzantine Empire, and consequently to Hellenism and Orthodoxy, was constant throughout its history.

Armenian Hellenism
Byzantine victory over the Bulgarians, from the Madrid Skylitzes. Public Domain

“Basil the Bulgar Slayer”

Basil II, also known as the “Bulgar Slayer” (976-1025) , was one of the strongest Byzantine emperors, winning territory in the Balkans, Mesopotamia, Armenia and Georgia.

Despised by the Bulgarians for his cruelty, he took over their land after years of war, and with the later submission of the Serbs, the Empire regained its ancient Danubian frontier for the first time in 400 years.

Basil II increased his domestic authority by attacking the landed interests of the military aristocracy and of the church.

The expansion of Byzantium by the Armenian emperor was important for the spreading of Hellenism and Orthodoxy in today’s Balkan territories.

The reconstruction of Hagia Sophia

A devastating earthquake on October 25, 989 ruined the great dome of Hagia Sophia, the eternal symbol of Greek Orthodoxy in Constantinople.

After the disaster, Byzantine emperor Basil II asked the Armenian architect Trdat, the creator of the great churches of Ani and Agine, to repair the dome.

The magnitude of the destruction in the church was such that reconstruction took almost five years to complete. Hagia Sophia was re-opened on May 13, 994.

The magnificent reconstructed dome designed by Trdat remains atop the “Great Church” to this day.

Greek and Armenian persecution by the Turks

In the 20th century, the Armenian people and Hellenism both faced violent persecution by the Turkish state, culminating in the 1922 destruction of the Greek and Armenian population of Smyrna.

In fact, the Armenian Genocide (1915-1916) by the Ottomans during World War I is one of the darkest hours of modern history, as 600,000-1,500,000 Armenians were killed.

Greece is one of the countries that officially recognizes the Genocide of the Armenians by the Ottomans. It also grants development and humanitarian assistance to Armenia and has supported that country’s rapprochement with European institutions.

As of 2021, a total of 31 countries have now recognized the Armenian Genocide, along with Pope Francis and the European Parliament.

Greece was also one of the first countries to recognize Armenia upon its independence, which was won on September 21, 1991. There has been a Greek Embassy in Yerevan since 1993 and a corresponding Armenian Embassy in Athens since that time.