Encyclopedia >> Encyclopedia of Armenian Culture >> Hellenistic culture in Armenia

 Hellenistic culture in Armenia.  The invasions of Alexander of Macedonia (late of IV century BC) created a new era in the history of the countries of Western Asia. In the territory of ancient East the period  of «Hellenism» began. Hellenism doesn’t bear only  Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse (National Archaeological Museum, Naples)the influence of western civilization; it is richer. This refers to the system of cultural penetrations and influences, which is characterized by the eastern influence on Greek phenomenon. The cultural development in the countries of East was conditioned by the historical development of the territory in the  previous century. Anyhow, it was the result of unprecedented synthesis of eastern and western civilizations as well. 

The rich culture of ancient East was mixed with classical Greek culture. As a result a unique culture was formed with  Hellenistic features.

In III-I centuries BC some changes took place in the development of Armenian culture. If in the previous historical period (VI-IV centuries) Armenia was under the reign of Achaemenid Empire and dealt with Iranian culture, in the Hellenistic period Armenia dealt with western culture. Armenia was involved in the cultural movement, which was conditioned by the political and economic rise of the country.  The unification of Armenian territories and the foundation of Artaxiad Dynasty,  the preservation of the country’s independence in the I century BC, urban development in the I-III centuries AD., the rise of crafts and trade, the relations with neighboring countries contributed to the development of Hellenistic culture.

The Hellenistic period in Armenia lasted 6 centuries, which was divided into two phases:Hannibal Hellenistic period (1st phase) and late Hellenistic period (2nd phase)

The first phase was characterized by the penetration of Hellenistic social and cultural relations into Armenia, as well as by the formation and development of new and unique phenomena under political and economic conditions. 

The political rise of the country, the relations with the neighboring Hellenistic countries, the development of the towns contributed to the  development of the culture  in the first phase of the history of  Hellenistic culture. This phase is considered to be the period of the rise of Hellenistic culture.

The second phase of the Hellenistic period in Armenia is marked by the fall of  Hellenism. The feudal relations were established in the country, the towns lost their influence on the social life, as a result of the formation of ministries (Armenian: նախարարություններ; nakhararutyunner),  phenomena leading to the natural economy were strengthened, the economic and cultural relations between different  regions weakened. The Armenian state weakened too, which could not resist the political and cultural pressure of Rome. Hellenistic traditions lost their influence and Armenia dealt with the late antique Roman culture.

There were two movements in the Armenian culture of Hellenistic period. The first movement was the traditional (national) movement, which was developed in rural territories and was «faithful» to its local, old eastern sources, traditional worldview and beliefs. The second one was Hellenistic movement which was developed as a result of the changes in the life of the society and bore the influence of the new ideas and values of the elite and free urban population.  These two movements were connected to each other; the development of the Armenian Hellenistic culture was conditioned by the penetration of these two movements, as well as by the interaction and connection of old The temple of Garniand new values. Armenian material and spiritual culture has its unique role in the ancient world.

Hellenism was expressed in the Armenian material culture, especially in the field of urban development.  Parallel with   the development of old towns, the construction of new towns started. The example is the town Argishtikhinili-Armavir. From the administrative center it became the capital of the country and a sanctuary.  There was a temple dedicated to the sun, to the moon and to the worship of the ancestors of the Armenian kings. It was surrounded by sacred groove of sycamores.

One of the new towns was Yervandashat built in III century BC described by Moses of Chorene. The ruins of this town witness the powerful defensive system and high technique of construction in the town.  The bibliographical sources and the recent excavations  give us an idea of the capital Artashat. It was probably founded in 189-188 BC,  Artashat is said to have been chosen on the advice of the Carthaginian general Hannibal.  Antique writers Strabo and Plutarch called Artashat «a large and beautiful city»«Armenian Carthage», they emphasized the good location of the city and defense system. The city lies at the confluence of the rivers Arax and Metsamor, which was inaccessible for the enemies.  Artashat was not only a strong fortress, it was the economic and cultural center as well. There were many residential, social and magnificent buildings for worship.

The new capital Tigranakert was built at the foot of Taurus mountain, it was surroundedThe mosaic of  Garni bathhouse by tall and large walls. The citadel  was situated in the center of the capital, the palaces of noblemen, the temples and the theater were situated near the citadel. The royal palace was situated out of the walls of the city it was surrounded by gardens, parks and hunting grounds.  The urban development of late Hellenistic period wasn’t studied properly. Only some excavations were carried out in Vagharshapat. The city was founded in the reign of Vagharsh I (116-144) in the place of village Vardgesavan. In 164 it became the capital of the country. The excavations carried out in the territory of Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin and St. Hripsime church found traces and remnants typical to the architecture of Hellenistic period.

One of the bright examples of the castle building of the period is Garni, many excavations were carried out in the territory of Garni.  Garni was a famous  castle and royal summer residence in I-III centuries. In the early Middle Ages  Garni was a fortress and military post. The castle was built on the cape and was protected by rocks.  The walls are more than 2 meters wide and 10 meters  high, 14 towers protect the castle. There were a number of monuments in the castle, including royal bathhouse. The royal bathhouse of Garni looks like the antique bathhouses. 

The sacred buildings of pre-Christian period in Armenia, were destroyed during the Christianization of the Armenians, after some transformations these buildings were used as Christian churches. The temples dedicated to old Armenian gods were wonderful  monuments.

The mosaic of  Garni bathhouseThe Garni temple was built in the second half of the I century AD and during the adoption of Christianization wasn’t destroyed like other pagan temples.  Then the temple was used for secular purposes.  In 1679 it was destroyed by an earthquake. The statue of Armenian pagan god Mihr was, probably, inside of the temple, which was destroyed after the adoption of Christianization.  The temple is not big it was built on a high pedestal. It  was columnar.  The temple, which had ridge roof, triangle pediment, colonnade, rectangular plan, was famous from the period of the kingdom of Ararat, but it, was certainly, built under the influence of Greco-Roman monuments. The local art was manifested by the decoration of the temple and processing of the rough rock. The details of the temple aren’t repeated and are characterized by the diversity typical to eastern art. The structure and symmetry of the Chapel are connected to the local traditions.  The size of the chapel corresponds to the size of Erebuni temple. 

The sculpture was also developed in the Hellenistic period in Armenia. The written sources introduce the old Armenian temples, where there were the statues of Armenian pagan gods and the ancestors of Armenian kings. Most of these statues were Bronze statue of Armenian pagan goddess Anahit (British Museum, London)brought from other countries and were statues of Greco-Roman pagan gods.  These statues influenced on the creation of sculptures in Armenia and were characterized by the mixture of local and Greek features. During the excavations in Artashat and Garni marble statues and their debris, as well as decorated parts of architectural monuments were found.  The stone heads of statues were found in different regions of Armenia, which introduce the traditional movement of Armenian sculpture.  The most eminent statue of this period is the bronze statue of Armenian pagan goddess Anahit (found near Satala), the statue is currently in British Museum (London). The images of the kings of Great Armenia and Sophene depicted on the coins are the result of the mixture of local and Hellenistic cultural elements.

Of particular interest is the bathhouse of Garni decorated with a mosaic. This is the only famous sample of the mosaic of Hellenistic period in Armenia.

The mosaic of Garni  was made of colorful stones from the riverbed of river Azat. The mosaic depicts  Greek mythological figures. In the center of mosaic the Ocean is depicted in the image of old man, as well as the Sea is depicted in the image of  a woman. In the external side of the mosaic Greek mythological figures are depicted with Greek inscriptions. 

In I-III centuries the spiritual culture of Armenia was developed, the Armenian pantheon was enriched with new pagan gods.  The main part of Armenian folklore was historical realities. The old Armenian epic tales reflect the development of the Armenian statehood in the reign of Artaxias I and Tigranes the Great. The traditional epic tales included various layers of the past, very often with the confusion and deviations of the characters and time.  So, in the epic tale about Tigranes the Great the story about TigranesTigranes the Great Yervandyan and Azhdahak is combined with the stories on Tigranes the Great.  The epic tale about Artaxias is based on the events of the formation and development of Armenian statehood. Here Artaxias is depicted a powerful and peaceful king, who protected the country form the invasions. The epic tale about Artavasdes: the son of Artaxias, depicts the battle of the brave and proud prince Artavasdes against hydras, the complaint of Artavasdes in the funeral ceremony of Artaxias and the curse of Artaxias are depicted too. Because of this  curse  envious Artavasdes was imprisoned in an underground cave of Masis. 

Ancient Armenian epic tales represent a significant breakthrough compared with the myths.  Mythological perception of the world was changed by real-life views and realities. 

Old Armenian traditions and customs, some social phenomena are reflected in the epic tales.  The old Armenian epic was based on the events from the court life and from the life of elite, as well as the it is based on the ideology of the ruling class. The epic songs were extremely popular. Different parts of the epic tales were told and sang by bandura players.

Unknown artist- Tigran Yervandyan. National Gallery of Armenia.The Armenian pagan religion reached to a new level.  The old Armenian pantheon was formed based on the old Armenian religious beliefs. The pagan gods had family ties, and the family of gods  had its unique hierarchy.  Every god or goddess played his/her role, he/she had power on natural and social phenomena. Many of the deities of the ancient Armenian pantheon were related to the Near Eastern especially to the Asia Minor and Iranian environment. However, the native Armenian traditions,  didn’t lose their value, and the foreign influence was  limited to the existence of the deities of same names. 

Aramazd is the principal deity of ancient Armenian pantheon, he was considered to be the father of all Armenian pagan gods and goddesses.  He was the creator of heaven and earth. Unlike Iranian god Ahura Mazda, Aramazd  being too kind, could also punish. The  separate existence and  worship  of kind and evil gods  and goddesses wasn’t typical to Armenian pantheon. 

Mihr was the son of Aramazd. He was the god of sun and fire. Anahit was one of the well-known goddesses in Armenian pantheon. She was the goddess of maternity and fertility; Anahit was the patron of the country and of the capital Artashat.  Vahagn was the god of cloud, rain, storm and war. Astghik was the goddess of light, love and beauty. Tir was the god of   script, knowledge and architecture.   There were other gods and goddesses as well. During the Hellenistic period the Armenian gods were juxtaposed to the Greek gods.  Aramazd was identified with Zeus, Anahit was identified with Artemis, Mihr was identified with Hephaestus, Vahagn - Heracles, Astghik-Aphrodite, Tir-Appolo.  However, this juxtaposition wasn’t perfect, as these two pantheons were formed in different conditions. 

In III-II centuries BC Greek language and Literature were spread in Armenia. In the reignThe tomb sanctuary of Armenian pagan gods on mount Nemrut of Tigranes the Great (95-55 BC) Greek orator Amphicrates of Athens, philosopher and orator Metrodorus of Scepsis   were in Tigranakert.  There were  many literary works on Tigranes the Great by Metrodorus of Scepsis  and Amphicrates of Athens. It is notable that Artavazdes the 2nd , the son of Tigranes the Great, was fond of Greek literature. He was the author of tragedies, speeches and historical works  in Greek language.

There were performances staged in the theaters of Tigranakert and Artashat, probably the dramas by Armenian authors were staged too.  Theater played a great role in the Hellenistic city, as these theatrical performances propaganded the ideology of ruling class and this or that political party. A theater was built by Tigranes the Great for the people relocated from Hellenistic cities.  Many people Head of Armenian principal deity Aramazd on mount Nemrutwho knew Greek language,  especially the elite and the royal court  attended these theatrical performances.  In 53 BC, «Bacchae» by Euripides was staged in Artashat, Artavazdes the 2nd was present during this performance too. 

The development of Armenian culture in Hellenistic period was identified with the changes. 

Armenian culture still  preserved its  national characteristics, interweaved with Greco-Roman culture.  When Armenia adopted the Christianity as a state religion, the country dealt with  Mediterranean  Christian culture. However, the Hellenistic traditions of Armenian culture weren’t forgotten, they served as a base for the development of Armenian national culture in early Middle Ages.



                                                                                                Margaryan H.


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