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 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:
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.
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).
Last Update: 3 Feb. 2008
Painting Credit: Battle of Avarayr; by
the artist Grigor Khanjian
Relief: St. Vardan
Comments and feedback welcome