The Battle
of Avarayr

(2 June 451 AD)

Early Armenians vs. Sassanid Persians

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In 451 AD, the same year that Aetius faced Atilla the Hun at Chalons, another historically significant but less well known battle was fought in the east between rebellious Armenians and their Sassanian overlords.

Armenia, circa 450 AD, was a divided kingdom, half subject to the suzerainty of the Byzantine Empire and half under the rule of the Sassanid Persian King Hazgert (Yazdegert).  In an effort to convert the Christian Armenians, Hazgert summoned the nobles (nakharars) of Armenia to court and held them hostage unless they pledged to worship the Sun god Mazda.  Several prominent Armenian nobles, including Vasang (Vassak) Suni, aligned themselves with the Persians, while others lead by Vartan Mamigonian rallied around the Armenian church.

Under Vardan's leadership, Armenia marshaled its forces, driving out the Persian garrisons.  Vardan moved his army to the northern frontier, razing the Persian fortress at Jor in hopes of opening ties to potential allies in the Caucasus, while an Armenian diplomatic delegation made its way to Constantinople seeking Byzantine aid.  That delegation provided fruitless, however, for the eastern Empire had drained its treasury in payments to Attila's Hunnic host and was not inclined to upset the peace with King of Persia.  At the same time, the absence of Vardan Mamigonian gave way to a state of civil war as Vasang threw in his lot with the Persians, seizing key positions in the Ararat provinces and sending captured priests and the children of armenian nobles as hostages to the Persian capital.

In the fall of 450 AD, Vardan's forces returned from the frontier and blockaded Vasang's army in the inaccessible Sewniq Mountains.  Vardan then sent an appeal to the Sassanid king pledging Armenian fealty in exchange for religious freedom.  Having suffered a disastrous expedition against the Kushans, the Persian King promised a general amnesty and religious freedom. The next Spring, however, a large Persian army pushed northward to restore its control of the Caucasus defiles and cut off Armenia's allies.

On13 April 451, the Persian army arrived in Her and Zarevand (modern Khoy and Salmasd) near the Armenian border and laid out a large fortified camp.  Vardan sent a detachment of 2000 cavalry to reconnoiter, which fell on the Persian rear guard and overwhelmed it.   He then rushed his entire army to the frontier, covering 120 miles in five days, to encamp on the Shavarshakan plain near the Armenian village of Avarair.   The two armies were separated by the Deghmoud (Tghmound) river, a small tributary of the Arax.

The Armenian army comprised an estimated 66,000 cavalry and infantry, including civilian volunteers and clergy.   The armies' ranks were bolstered by the patriotic wives of Armenian nobles, some clad in mail and armed for battle. 

According to accounts, the Armenians advanced on the eve of the Feast of Pentecost to defend the banks of the Deghmound, where they arrayed themselves in four divisions commanded by Khoren (prince of the Khorkhuruni clan) on the right, Nershapuh Ardzruni in the center, Vardan with his heavy cavalry on the left, and Hamazaspian (Vardan's brother) commanding the reserve.







St. Vardan

The next morning (2 June 451), they faced a Persian army purported to be anywhere from 90,000 to 300,000 strong with several accounts settling on a number around 200,000.  The Persian army included rebel Armenian elements under Vasang, allied continents from the Caucuasian region and Central Asian, and a herd of trained elephants bearing archers in iron towers.  At the center was the Madyan or "Immortals", a division of 10,000 elite Persian horsemen under the control of Mushkan Nusalavurd, who commanded the Persian army.

The following account of the battle is provided by Yeghisheh, a contemporary court chronicler of the Mamikonian family:

"Both sides being thus prepared and seized with a mighty rage and burnt with a wild fury, rushed against each other. The loud cry on both sides sounded like the clash of clouds, and the thundering sound of the noises rocked the caverns of the mountains.

"The countless helmets and the shining armor of the warriors glowed like the rays of the sun. The flashing thousands of swords and the swaying of innumerable spears seemed like an awful fire being poured down from heaven.

"But who can describe the tremendous tumult caused by these frightful noises the clangor of the shields and the snapping of the bow strings  which deafened everyone alike?

"One should have seen the turmoil of the great crisis and the immeasurable confusion on both sides, as they clashed with each other in reckless fury. The dull-minded became frenzied; the cowards deserted the field; the brave dashed forward courageously, and the valiant roared. In a solid mass the great multitude held the river; and the Persian troops sensing the danger, became restless in their places; but the Armenian cavalry crossed the river and fell upon them with a mighty force. They attacked each other fiercely and many on both sides fell wounded on the field, rolling in agony.

"Amid this great confusion the brave Vardan looked around to observe that a group of courageous and select Persian warriors had forced the left wing of the Armenian division to retreat. He immediately attacked with great vehemence, battered the right wing of the Persian army, and pushed the enemy back towards their beasts. Then he surrounded and slaughtered them. Thus he created such a great disorder that the troops of the Madyan Corps were dislodged from their prepared position and were put to flight without actually being defeated."

"The Persian general Mushkan, observing some scattered Armenians who had remained behind in the mountain vales, shouted encouragement to the soldiers of the Aryan army around him, who were holding a position against Vardan's troops. There on the battlefield consciousness of defeat came to both sides, because the piles of the fallen bodies were so thick that they looked like craggy masses of stone.

"Mushkan, seeing this, ordered Ardashir, who was seated on the wild beasts as if atop a lofty watch-tower or in a fortified city, to incite his troops with the loud sound of huge trumpets and he himself surrounded him (Vardan), with his vanguard. But the valiant Vardan with his brave warriors played no lesser havoc in that place, where he himself was found worthy of martyrdom.

"As the battle continued, the day drew to its close and the fighting ceased towards evening; many were in death's agony; and the bodies of the slain were so thickly heaped together that they looked like fallen trees in the forest. Broken spears and shattered bows were strewn all over and because of that the sacred bodies of the blessed could not be fully identified; and there was a terrible panic and confusion over those who had fallen on both sides. The survivors were scattered over the hilltops and in more protected valleys; and whenever foe met foe they slew each other. The work of destruction continued without pause until sunset.

"And because the great Sparapet (General) of the Armenians had fallen in the battle there was no longer any chief around whom the remainder of the troops could rally. They became dispersed and threw themselves into strongholds of the country and occupied by force many regions and fortresses which no one could capture.

"And these are the names of the heroes who perished on that battlefield; the brave Vardan, the valiant Khoren Khorkhoruni; the daring Artak Baluni; the amazing Tajat Gntuni; the wise Hmayak Dimaksian; the wonderful Nerseh Qatchberuni; the youthful Vahan Gnuni; the just Arsen Endzayetsi; the progressive Garegin Servantsian.

"These 287 heroes and the nine distinguished nakharars perished there. Besides these 287 warriors, 740 others of the royal house, the house of Ardzruni and other nakharars inscribed their names in Book of Life on the day of that great battle. They numbered 1,036 altogether."

From this and other accounts, it appears that the outnumbered Armenians initial strategy was to defend the river line. As the battle progressed the Armenians crossed the river and engaged the Persian forces across their entire front.  On the right, the forces of Prince Khoren forced back the Persian line, but could not break it. On the left, the traitor Vasang leading the Persian's Armenian and other allies repulsed Vardan's attacking foot. Vardan then launched his armored cavalry into the Persian right wing, driving it back and throwing Vasang's forces into disarray.  Reenforced by the reserve division of his brother Hamazaspian, Vardan then drove deep into the Persian rear, throwing the Madyan Guard into disorder as they were attacked from the flank.  Muskhan, however, cooly committed his elephant reserve corps, which blunted Vardan's mounted advance.  More Persian reinforcements were fed into the fray and Vardan's penetration was cut off and broken up into small groups who were soon surrounded.  Vardan himself was slain along with other prominent Armenian nobles.   At the end of the day, the leaderless Armenian contingents abandoned the field, having inflicted an estimated 3500 casualties on the Persians for the 1000 they suffered.

After the battle, Vahan Mamikonian, the son of Vardan's brother, rallied the nationalist forces who waged a guerilla-style resistance for the next 30 years, until the Persians, in decline and under pressure from invading Turks, finally recognized Armenian independence. Vardan Mamikonian was sainted by the Armenian Church and is recognized today as an Armenian national hero.

The Armies

Vartan, Early Armenians (II/28c)

Mushkan, Sassanids Persians (II/69) with elephant option.


Credit:  Armenia.Org (History of Armenia)

This game can be preset using the dispositions indicated in the map above.  Or players can deploy as normal.


The gameboard should be an open plain (good going) bisected by a paltry river (described in sources as a rivulet) running parallel to the player's baselines (and closer to the Armenian base edge).

Victory Conditions


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Last Update:  3 Feb. 2008

Painting Credit:  Battle of Avarayr; by the artist Grigor Khanjian
 scanned from Soviet Armenian Encyclopedia, Vol. 12

Relief:  St. Vardan

Comments and feedback welcome
and can be sent to Chris Brantley.