Armenia was well known to classical Greek and Roman writers who on occasion made personal journeys to Armenia describing some of its countryside, villages and cities. Many of which are today only remembered through their records. Pliny the Elder for example recounts a few in his work “The Natural History” (6.10):
“The more famous towns in Lesser Armenia are Cæsarea, Aza, and Nicopolis; in the Greater Arsamosata, which lies near the Euphrates, Carcathiocerta upon the Tigris, Tigranocerta which stands on an elevated site, and, on a plain adjoining the river Araxes, Artaxata… Claudius Cæsar makes the length (of the country Armenia), from Dascusa to the borders of the Caspian Sea, thirteen hundred miles, and the breadth, from Tigranocerta to Iberia, half that distance. It is a well-known fact, that this country is divided into prefectures, called “Strategies,” some of which singly formed a kingdom in former times; they are one hundred and twenty in number, with barbarous and uncouth names.”
Ptolemy gives a list of Armenian towns, some of which are not recorded in other sources, and their site remains unknown. The towns which are best known in connection with the writers of Greece and Rome are: Artaxata or Artaxiasata; Tigranocerta; Theodosiopolis; Carcathiocerta; Armosata; Artageira; Naxuana; Morunida; Buana; Bizabda and Amida.
Let us examine some of these cities in more detail:
Arsamosata (Արշամշատ, Arshamshat) was a city in Armenian Sophene near the Euphrates. It was founded by King Arsames I of the Orontid Dynasty in the 3rd century BC. Polybius provides our earliest extant evidence for Arsamosata in western Armenia (Sophene). According to him Antiochos III encamped before Armosata, which was located near the “Fair Plain,” between the Euphrates and the Tigris. Polybius also says that Xerxes was the king of the city. This Xerxes (Armenian: Shawarsh) is the son of Arsames, who founded Arsamosata. Pliny said it was one of the important cities of Greater Armenia, and Tacitus described it as a fortress. Ptolomy said it was located in the region between the Euphrates and the Tigris. In the Middle Ages it was called Ashmushat. The city has been identified with the modern Kharput (Elazığ). T. A. Sinclair has located Arsamosata at the site of Haraba near Kharput. Much of that site now lies submerged under the waters due to the construction of the Keban Dam.
Founded by King Artashes I in 176 BC, Artashat served as the capital of the Kingdom of Armenia until 120 AD, and was known as the “Vostan Hayots” or “court” or “seal of the Armenians.” The story of the foundation is given by the Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi of the fifth century:
“Artashes traveled to the location of the confluence of the Yeraskh and Metsamor [rivers] and taking a liking to the position of the hills [adjacent to Mount Ararat], he chose it as the location of his new city, naming it after himself.”
According to the accounts given by Greek historians Plutarch and Strabo, Artashat is said to have been chosen on the advice of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. However, modern historians argue that there is no direct evidence to support the above mentioned passage. Some sources have also indicated that Artashes built his city upon the remains of an old Araratian settlement.
Strabo and Plutarch describe Artashat as a large and beautiful city and the royal residence (basileion) of the country. Plutarch also mentions that it was the royal residence of Tigranes. A focal point of sophisticated culture, Armenia’s first theater was built here. Movses Khorenatsi mentions numerous pagan statues of the gods and goddesses of Anahit, Artemis and Tir were brought from the religious center of Bagaran and other regions to the city.
Artashes also built a citadel (which was later named Khor Virap and gained prominence as the location where Gregory the Illuminator was to be imprisoned by Trdat the Great) and added other fortifications, including a moat. The city’s strategic position in Araks valley on the silk road, soon made Artashat a center of bustling economic activity and thriving international trade, linking Persia and Mesopotamia with the Caucasus and Asia Minor. Its economic wealth can be gauged in the numerous bathhouses, markets, workshops administrative buildings that sprang up during the reign of Artashes I. The city had its own treasury and customs. The amphitheater of Artashat was built during the reign of king Artavazd II (55-34 BC). The remains of the huge walls surrounding the city built by King Artashes I could be found in the area.
A rather mysterious and forgotten city in ancient Armenia. Ptolomy twice mentions an Artemita in Armenia (5.13.21, 8.19.13). These are the only extant ancient attestations for Artemita. M. L. Chaumont has suggested it was located on the southern shores of Lake Van at the site of the town of Edremit. Horatio Southgate (1840) in his book “Narrative of a Tour Through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia” also identifies Artemita with the village Erdremit:
“The name of this village (Erdremid) seems to have escaped entirely the notice of geographers, probably from the fact, that the few travelers who have passed this way did not stop here, but ended their day’s journey in Van. It was only the accident of sickness which induced me to make it my resting-place for a night. I think there can be little doubt that is the site of the ancient city of Artemita.”
Today there is a village in the Armavir Province of Armenia known as Artamet.
Epiphaneia on the Tigris
Another fairly unknown ancient Armenian city was recorded by a Greek author Stephanos. Stephanos is our sole extant source for an Epiphaneia on the Tigris. He adds that originally it had been called “Arkesikerta” and that it had been founded by Arkesios. A number of sources mention that Antiochos IV Epiphanes conducted a campaign against the Armenian king Artaxias probably in 165 B.C. We can therefore safely assume that the settlement was subsequently renamed by Antiochos IV.
M. L. Chaumont suggested one of two possible locations for Epiphaneia: Egil or Diyarbakir (modern Amida), both in southeastern Turkey.
Carcathiocerta was a city in Armenian Sophene near the Tigris, identified with the modern city of Eğil. It was the first capital of Sophene until Arsames I founded the new capital Arshamshat around 230 BCE.
Not much has been recorded about the city but Strabo in his Geography, calls it “The royal city of Sophene”.
Tigranocerta was the capital of the Armenian Kingdom. It bore the name of Tigranes the Great, who founded the city in the first century BC. The name of the city means “made by Tigran”, and was possibly located near present-day Silvan or nearby Arzan (Arzn, in the Armenian province of Arzanene or Aghdznik), east of Diyarbakır modern day Turkey. It was one of four cities in historic Armenia named Tigranakert. The others were located in Nakhichevan, Artsakh and Utik.
The city’s markets were filled with traders and merchants doing business from all over the ancient world. Tigranocerta quickly became a very important commercial, as well as cultural center of the Near East. The magnificent theater that was established by the Emperor, of which he was an avid devotee, conducted dramas and comedies mostly played by Greek as well as Armenian actors. Plutarch wrote that Tigranocerta was “a rich and beautiful city where every common man and every man of rank studied to adorn it.” Tigranes had divided Greater Armenia – the nucleus of the Empire – into four major strategic regions or viceroyalties.
A Roman force under Lucius Lucullus besieged the city in the summer of 69 B.C. but was unable to swiftly overrun it. Tigranocerta was still an unfinished city when Lucullus laid siege to it in the late summer of 69. The city was heavily fortified and according to the Greek historian Appian, had thick and towering walls that stood 25 meters high, providing a formidable defense against a prolonged siege. The Roman siege engines that were employed at Tigranocerta were effectively repelled by the defenders by the use of naphtha, making Tigranocerta, according to one scholar, the site of “perhaps the world’s first use of chemical warfare.” After a lengthy siege the gates to Tigranocerta were sabotaged and opened by the foreign inhabitants of the city. Lucullus entered the city and sacked Tigranocerta. After the plunder, which included the destruction of statues and temples, the city was set ablaze. An abundant quantity of gold and silver was carried off to Rome as war booty. Lucullus took most of the gold and silver from the melted-down statues, pots, cups and other valuable metals and precious stones. The newly established theater building was also destroyed in the fire. Nonetheless Tigranes managed to escape north into Armenian Highlands.
In the summer of 68 BC Lucullus again marched against Tigranes the Great and crossed the Anti-Taurus range heading for the old Armenian capital Artaxata. Once again Tigranes was provoked to attack and in a major battle at the Arsanias River Lucullus was heavily defeated by the Armenian army. Soon he left this campaign and when winter came on early in the Armenian Highland, his troops mutinied, refusing to go further, and he was forced to withdraw southwards back into Arzenene. From there he proceeded back down through Gordyene into old Assyria. During the winter of 68-67 B.C. at Nisibis, his authority over his army was more seriously undermined as mutiny spread in the legions with the troops refusing to obey Lucullus’ commands. After these defeats Lucullus was thoroughly discredited in the eyes of his soldiers, as well as the senate.
The Roman senate sent Pompey to succeed Lucullus in the eastern campaign. Tigranocerta was retaken briefly by Rome, but given back to Tigranes as a means for consolidating peace. Pompey was inclined to make peace with the 75 year old King and Tigranes continued to rule Armenia as an ally of Rome until his death. As Cicero amply describes in his work For Sestius:
“Tigranes—who was himself an enemy of the Roman people, and who received our most active enemy in his territories, who struggled against us, who fought pitched battles with us, and who compelled us to combat almost for our very existence and supremacy—is a king to this day, and has obtained by his entreaties the name of a friend and ally, which he had previously forfeited by his hostile and warlike conduct.”
During the Ottoman period, Armenians referred to the city of Diyarbekir as Dikranagerd (Western Armenian pronunciation of Tigranakert).
The city of Erzurum was founded by the Armenian royal dynasty. In ancient times, Erzurum existed under the Armenian name of Karin. During the reigns of the Artaxiad and Arsacid kings of Armenia, Karin served as the capital of the eponymous canton of Karin, mentioned in Strabo’s Geography (12.3) as a large district named Carana. After the partition of Armenia between the Eastern Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia in 387 AD, the city passed into the hands of the Romans. They renamed it to Theodosiopolis, in honour of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger in A. D. 416. It was for a long time subject to the Byzantine emperors, who considered it the most important fortress of Armenia. As the chief military stronghold along the eastern border of the empire, Theodosiopolis held a highly important strategic location and was fiercely contested in wars between the Byzantines and Persians. About the middle of the 11th century it received the name of Arze-el-Rum, contracted into Arzrum or Erzrum. It owed its name to the circumstance, that when the city of Arzek was taken by the Seljuk Turks, A. D. 1049, its Armenian, Syrian, and other Christian inhabitants moved to Theodosiopolis, and gave it the name of their former abode. Which from its long subjection to the Romans had received the epithet of Rúm.