Armenian military history

Military history of Armenia

The military history of Armenia encompasses a period of several thousand years, as the Armenian people have existed as a nation since the Early Bronze Age. Its location in the crossroads of Europe and Asia made it possible for them to have military contact both with European and Oriental forces. The Armenians, especially their heavily armed cavalry, were considered fearsome warriors even though they were subjected to foreign rule for a significant part of their history.

Early history


The Achaemenid Persians -- the successors of the Medians, modeled their culture and civilization after that of the Kingdom of Ararat. They were in a close relationship of trade and commerce with a number of important cities of Ararat. Van was also an important center of weaponry making -- supplying much of the weaponry to the arsenal of the Kingdom's armed forces. New fortifications and towers were being continuously built in order to defend the prosperity of the city. In 735, the Assyrian King Tiglathpalaser, launched an incursion into north -- into the domain of Ararat. The rapid expansion of Ararat and particularly its dominance of Northern Mesopotamia, Syria and Eastern Anatolia, were successfully blocking the Assyrian advances further north and northwest. The Assyrians with heavy losses managed to make a breakthrough into the heart of Ararat and reached the Mother City. The Assyrians laid a lengthy siege of Capital Van -- charging the walls numerous times only to be repelled by the heroic defenders. The defensive positions were manned by the military garrison of the city, armed militia and the royal guards led by Sardur II. In the VIth century BC, the ancient Aramian Royal House of Ararat was succeeded by the Orontids [Oriontids]. The Orontids or the Er-uandunis had blood ties to the previous dynasty and followed in a natural succession to the Kingdom. close blood ties -- after the expiration of the last male heir to the throne, Ruša IV, Eruand I became the new reigning monarch.


Artaxiad Dynasty

An Armenian Hellenistic state was founded in 190 BC and ruled by the Artaxiad Dynasty. At the height of its power, Greater Armenia spread over parts of what is today the Caucasus, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. After its expansion under the leadership of Tigranes II, it confronted the Republic of Rome. Although it briefly lost its independence, it reaffirmed itself in the region with the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia. From then on, Romans and Persians both tried to create close relations with the Armenians. Although the Arsacid dynasty was of Iranian origin, it severed its relations with Persia when the rival Sassanid dynasty took over, and further when Armenia accepted Christianity in 301. While under Persian control, in 451, the battle of Vartanantz was fought by Armenians against the Persians in order to resist forced conversion to Zoroastrianism. Although a military defeat, the Persians afterwards allowed the Armenians to freely practice Christianity.

The army of Tigranes II

Tigranes II had massed a large army in his quest to extend the borders of Armenia.

According to the author of Judith, his army included chariots and 12,000 cavalrymen, probably indicating heavy cavalry or cataphracts, commonly used by Seleucids and Parthians. He also had 120,000 infantrymen and 12,000 mounted archers, which were also an important feature of the Parthian army. Like the Seleucids, the bulk of Tigranes' army were the foot soldiers. The Jewish historian Josephus talks of 500,000 men in total, including the camp followers. These latter were the camels, donkeys, and mules for the baggage; innumerable sheep, cattle, and goats for the food supply which was abundant for each man, and much gold and silver. As a result, the marching Armenian army was "a huge, irregular force, too many to count, like locusts or the dust of the earth". It was thus, not unlike the Eastern hordes. Regardless, the smaller Cappadocian, Graeco-Phoenician, and Nabatean armies were no match for the sheer number of soldiers. However, the organized Roman army with its legions posed a much greater challenge to the Armenians.

Note that the numbers given by Israelite historians of the time were probably exaggerated, considering the fact that the Hasmonean Jews lost the war against Tigranes.

Plutarch wrote that the Armenian archers could kill from 200 meters with their deadly accurate arrows. The Romans admired and respected the bravery and the warrior spirit of the Armenian Cavalry -- the hardcore of Tigran's Army. The Roman historian Sallustius Crispus wrote that the Armenian [Ayrudzi - lit. horsemen] Cavalry was "remarkable by the beauty of their horses and armor" Horses in Armenia, since ancient times were considered as the most important part and pride of the warrior.

Armenian Cavalry

Armenian horsemen were used by both Armenia, and also by nearby kingdoms or empires like Pontus, Parthia, Persia, and the Roman Empire.

Chapot wrote:“What they say about Armenia bewilders us. How could this mountain people develop such a cavalry that was able to measure itself against the horsemen of the Medes? One thing which is certain is the fact that Armenia was a source of excellent well bred horses. The people in this country had discovered that horses were not just an economic asset, but could also be used for military purposes.

In Sassanid Persia, the Armenians were accorded a status similar to the elite "Savaran" of the Persian army. The equipment of the Armenian cavalry were in fact similar to that of the Savaran. Pro-Sassanian Armenian cavalry units fought under Sassanid banners and were allowed to enter the royal capital, Ctesiphon. The Armenians were in fact honoured for their services. For example, general Smbat Bagratuni was accorded particular honor and attention by Khosrow II. In 619, due to his victory over the Turks who then resided in Central Asia, he was given gifts, such as lavishly decorated robes, and the command of a number of the king's royal guards. Khosrow II also raised him to third in rank among the nobles of the court. Moreover, pro-Sassanian Armenians supplied excellent light cavalry and infantry, who were notable for using slings to repel enemy cavalry, and spears for close combat.

Early Middle Ages

Following Byzantine occupation of Western Armenia, Sassanid occupation of Eastern Armenia, and subsequent Arab conquest of the region, the Armenians reestablished their sovereignty over their ancestral lands in the form of the Origin of the Bagratid dynasties Kingdom of Armenia.

Armenia in the Byzantine Empire

During the Byzantine occupation of Western Armenia, the Armenians were considered an important element of the Byzantine army. As a result, they were encouraged to settle in distant regions of the Byzantine Empire in order to serve there. For example, in the 6th century, Emperor Maurice encouraged Armenians to settle around Pergamum in Western Anatolia. The Armenian troops became more and more important towards the 7th century; 2000 formed an armoured cavalry elite on the Danube frontier against the Avars, a nomadic people who were invading Europe. Others even defended the imperial capital of Constantinople.

In Armenia itself, local nakharars were able to raise 25,000 to 40,000 men, but such a levy was rare. The country was strongly fortified. It is said that seventy castles defended the province of Vaspurakan, near Lake Van. There existed a special regiment of mountaineers who were trained to roll rocks onto their foes. In siege warfare, Armenians used iron hooks to help them climb fortification walls, and large leather shields to protect them from anything that would be dropped from above. Each nakharar led a force of free men under his own coat-of-arms. Armenians were well equipped for the time, as their country was rich in iron. The Armenian army also consisted of heavy cavalry called Ayruzdi. These Ayruzdi were said to be the strongest ever cavlary force of the time. Levies were recruited from the commoners in Armenia. Christian Armenian levies would fight for Christianity for any of the Christian armies of the time. It is said that most of Vartan Mamikonian's army were Christian levies

Traditional Armenian arms and armour

"David of Sassoun" is an Armenian national epic that developed towards the Middle Ages during Arab occupation of Armenia. Traditional Armenian arms and armour seem to be reflected in it. In this oral tale, the warrior wears a padded helmet, a mail shirt, and a lamellar cuirass plus metal leg defenses and a large shield. His weapons include sword, spear, bow and arrows, but primary importance goes to the mace. Constant reference to such weapons being thrown by horsemen , and even of a mace pinning a rider's leg to his saddle, seem to suggest that later transmitters of this oral tale might have been confusing the mace "gurz" with a heavy javelin known in Iran as "guzar". Javelin-combat between horsemen with blunted weapons is still a popular game in Eastern Anatolia, where it is known as "cerit".

Fortifications of Ani

During the reign of King Ashot III, Ani was to become the capital of Armenia. It was a naturally protected city, built on a triangular plateau, its only vulnerable part being the north. In order to protect the future capital of Armenia and its inhabitants, the king built defenses across the narrowest point of the site. However, upon being declared capital of the kingdom, the city expanded quickly. Consequently, a line of massive double walls were built further to the north during the reign of King Smbat II. These northern walls are in fact the most impressive part of Ani. The rest of the city was also well protected by fortifications and towers.

High Middle Ages

When the Byzantine Empire took over Bagratid Armenia in 1045, and with the subsequent Seljuk conquest of the area, a large number of Armenians moved elsewhere. Most of these fleeing families settled in and around Cilicia where they established a kingdom, while some moved further south, to Egypt, and others went to the Balkans, Crimea, and Poland.

Involvement in the Egyptian army

Although most Armenians were Christians, they played a significant role in nearby Muslim nations, such as Egypt. Some Muslim Armenian mercenaries were employed by the Egyptian Tulunids towards the end of the 9th century. Armenian troops were also featured in Hamdanid, Mirdasid, and Fatimid forces. When Byzantium subjugated the Bagratid Armenian kingdom, many Armenians migrated to Egypt and formed a large corps of infantry archers under Muslim Armenian leadership. Eventually, Armenian troops seized control of Cairo in 1073-1074. Their leader thus took important positions in the Fatimid administration, in the context of which more Armenians were recruited in the Egyptian army. This recruitment was reduced after the Seljuk Turks and Crusaders made their arrival.

Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia

The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was founded during the Middle Ages by Armenians fleeing from the Seljuk Turks. The Cilician Armenians, being Christian, were at times allied with Frankish crusaders during the First Crusade. In the context of the friendly Crusader-Armenian relations, they adopted European traditions, even in their military garments and strategies.

The Armenians also provided great help in the Crusaders' military campaigns in the Levant. In fact, the Crusaders employed Armenian siege engineers throughout their campaigns. For example, a certain specialist named "Havedic" (Latinized form of "Avedis") designed the machines used to attack Tyre in 1124.

Leo II introduced important changes in Cilician Armenian military organization, which until then was similar to that the Armenian kingdoms of Greater Armenia. The "nakharars", Armenian feudal nobles, lost much of their old autonomy. The names and functions of regional leaders were Latinized, and many facets of the army structure were inspired or copied from the Crusader states, particularly from the nearby principality of Antioch.

Fortifications in Cilician Armenia

Armenian architects favored half-round towers that protruded from a curtain-wall far enough to permit archers to enfilade the enemy. Such design ideas influenced castle building in nearby Crusader states, such as the Principality of Antioch, where fortifications ranged from tiny hilltop outposts to major garrison fortresses. Antioch attracted few European settlers, and thus they relied heavily on military elites of Greek, Syrian, and Armenian origin, who probably influenced the design of local fortifications.

Ottoman Rule

In 1375, the Egyptian Mamelukes took over Cilician Armenia, effectively ending Armenian sovereignty. The Ottoman Empire eventually established its rule over Cilicia and much of Armenia. The Ottoman Army at its earlier stage enjoyed the service of Armenian tribal infantry archers who relied on an old-fashioned composite bow. They wore muted colors or black as a result of the Ottoman laws which reserved brighter costume for the Turkish elite. Later on, some Armenian children were raised as Janissaries. The eastern part of the traditional Armenian lands was given to Russia after the Russo-Turkish War.

Armenian militia

The Armenian militia were irregular units who voluntarily left their families in order to fight and defend Armenian villages and city quarters from Ottoman aggression and massacres. There were often only a handful of "fedayees" during their battles against the Ottoman troops and Kurdish irregulars. Their distant goal was to gain Armenian autonomy (Armenakan) or independence (Dashnaks, Hunchaks) depending on their ideology and degree of oppression received by Armenians. Some of them also helped the Iranian revolutionaries during their revolution.

World War I

The Armenian people were subjected to a genocide by the Young Turk government during World War I. Between 1.5 million and 2 million men, women and children were killed. Armenians often resisted, Armenian resistance, the actions of the Turkish government, such as during the Van Resistance. With the establishment of Democratic Republic of Armenia, in the Caucasus Campaign, couple battles fought against the Ottoman Empire which a victory at Battle of Sardarapat proved that the Armenians were a capable power, but ultimately the Armenians were forced to surrender most of their land and weapons. During the same time Democratic Republic of Armenia also faced with Georgian-Armenian War 1918 and Armenian-Azeri war 1918.


In 1920, a series of battles were fought between Turkey and a short lived Democratic Republic of Armenia during the Turkish-Armenian War. After an invasion by the Red Army, Armenia was absorbed by the Soviet Union.

Word War II

Armenia participated in the Second World War on the side of the Allies under the Soviet Union. The 89th Tamanyan Division, composed of ethnic Armenians, distinguished itself during the war, and fought in the Battle of Berlin.


In Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenians had for a long time constituted a majority, and the land was a centre of Armenian cultural and intellectual life. During the 20th century, Nagorno-Karabakh had been denied an Armenian identity by the succeeding Russian, British, and Azeri rulers.

The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh had accused the Soviet Azerbaijani government in conducting forced cleansing of the region. The majority Armenian population, with ideological and material support from Armenia, started a movement to transfer it to Armenia. The issue was at first a "war of words" in 1987. In a December 1991 referendum, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh approved the creation of an independent state. A Soviet proposal for enhanced autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan satisfied neither side, and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a land war erupted between the Armenians and Azerbaijan over the disputed area.

In the post-Soviet power vacuum, military action between Azerbaijan and Armenia was heavily influenced by the Russian military. Furthermore, Azeri military employed a very large number of mercenaries from Ukraine and from Russia. As many as one thousand Afghan mujaheddin participated in the fighting. There were also fighters from Chechnya fighting on the side of Azerbaijan.

By the end of 1993, the conflict had caused thousands of casualties and created hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides. By May 1994 the Armenians were in control of 14% of the territory of Azerbaijan, and a as result, the Azerbaijanis started direct negotiations with the Karabakhi authorities. An unofficial cease-fire was thus reached on May 12, 1994 through Russian negotiation. However, a true resolution to the conflict has yet to be realized.


Name Side Campaign Date Armed Force
Armenian-Parthian War Parthia 87-85 BC Armenia
Battle of Rhandeia Roman Republic 62 Armenia
Battle of Varnakert Arabs 697-705 Armenia
The Battle of 40 Muslim Emirs 863 Armenia
Armenian-Byzantine Battle Byzantine Empire 1042 Armenia
Zeitun Resistance (1895) Ottoman Empire 1895 Armenian Militia
Khanasor Expedition Kurds of Khanasor July 25–27, 1897 Armenian Revolutionary Federation
Zeitun Resistance (1914) Ottoman Empire August 30-December 1, 1914 Armenian Militia
Musa Dagh Ottoman Empire 1915 Armenian Militia
Van Resistance Ottoman Empire 1915 Armenian militia, Armenian volunteer units
Battle of Bash Abaran Ottoman Empire Caucasus Campaign May 21–24, 1918 Armenian volunteer units
Battle of Sardarapat Ottoman Empire Caucasus Campaign May 22–26, 1918 Armenian volunteer units
Battle of Kara Killisse (1918) Ottoman Empire Caucasus Campaign May 25–28, 1918 Armenian volunteer units
Battle of Arara Ottoman Empire Sinai and Palestine Campaign September 19, 1918 French Armenian Legion
Georgian-Armenian War 1918 Georgia Georgian-Armenian War 1918 December 7-December 31, 1918 Armenian Army
Battle of Sarıkamış (1920) Turkey Turkish-Armenian War September 29, 1920 Armenian Army
Capture of Shusha Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh War May 8-May 9, 1992 Armenian Army
Battle of Kelbajar Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh War March 27-April 3, 1993 Armenian Army
1993 Summer Offensives Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh War June-August, 1993 Armenian Army
Nagorno-Karabakh War Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh War February, 1988-May 1994 Armenian Army
Kosovo Force Serbia Kosovo War 1999 Armenian Army in Kosovo Force


Name Side Campaign Date Armed Force
Battle of Tigranocerta Roman Republic Third Mithridatic War 69 BC Kingdom of Armenia
Battle of Artaxata Roman Republic Third Mithridatic War 68 BC Kingdom of Armenia
Battle of Avarayr Sassanid Empire Vartanantz War May 26, 451 Armenian rebels
Battle of Baku Azerbaijan Armenian-Azerbaijani war 26 August-14 September, 1918 Fadayee of Central Caspian Dictatorship
Battle of Oltu Turkey Turkish-Armenian War 18 June-5 September, 1920 Armenian Army
Battle of Kars (1920) Turkey Turkish-Armenian War October 30, 1920 Armenian Army
Battle of Alexandropol Turkey Turkish-Armenian War November 7, 1920 Armenian Army

See also



  • Elishe: History of Vardan and the Armenian War, transl. R.W. Thomson, Cambridge, Mass. 1982
  • Dr. Abd al-Husayn Zarrin’kub "Ruzgaran:tarikh-i Iran az aghz ta saqut saltnat Pahlvi" Sukhan, 1999. ISBN 964-6961-11-8
  • Vahan Kurkjian - Period of the Marzbans — Battle of Avarair
  • Gevork Nazaryan - The struggle for Religious Freedom
  • de Waal, Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press, 2003

External links

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