It can be difficult, when you study the mediaeval period, to feel a strong personal connection to the people whose lives you examine. The majority of named individuals from the period, after all, are just that: names. Against this backdrop of anonymity, however, a few rare lives stand out. They need not be terribly important, only lucky that the accidents of recording and survival have maintained their presence in the annals of history.
One such man is Hamazasp, an Armenian lord from the noble Mamikoneank family, who lived in very trying times. As the 7th century opened, the two superpowers neighbouring Armenia–the Byzantine and the Sasanian Persian Empires–plunged the Middle East into a total and protracted state of war. Their conflict, stretching from the Black Sea to the shores of Egypt, had plunged Hamazasp’s homeland into a wrenching contest of loyalties. Throughout antiquity, both powers had struggled to maintain control over Armenia, and both called Armenian nobles to join their cause and fight in their armies.
When at last they reached a truce (facilitated by mutual exhaustion,) however, the region’s problems reignited. The Arabs, who had undergone a period of rapid political and religious consolidation in Saudi Arabia, emerged from the desert as a powerful military force. Their conquests, which reached Armenia in the 640s, not only brought about the downfall of Persia, but also drastically reduced the size of Byzantine territories and perpetuated the social disruptions of preceding decades.
These great events were recorded by a contemporary chronicler dubbed Sebeos by contemporary historians. His text vividly portrays the confusion and uncertainty of his times, and brings to life Hamazasp’s own small reactions to them.
“Hamazasp, lord of the Mamikoneank, son of Dawit, held the position of prince of Armenia, a virtuous man in all respects. He was a domesticated man, a lover of reading and study. But he was not trained and experienced in the details of military skill in the fashion of his ancestral family; he had not engaged in combat or seen the faces of the enemy. So he began to be zealous for the valiant character of his ancestral house, to carry out with fervent hast acts of bravery in accordance with the abilities of his ancestors, seeking from On High leadership and success for his own valour.” (pp.150-151.)
This little character study vividly captures the dilemma of a man not dedicated to violence, but required by his times and his duties to take up the martial ways of his family. It is a touching paragraph, and a sad one, because it finds in one small life the larger drama of adjustment as the world changed from the ancient to the mediaeval, and a new faith was born.
The History Attributed to Sebeos, trans. R.W. Thompson, with notes by James Howard-Johnston, Tim Greenwood, (Liverpool, 1999).