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date: 19 July 2019

Armenian literature

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Sergio La PortaSergio La Porta

Armenian literature, language, and alphabet 

Armenian literature encompasses many genres. It began to be written after the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in the 5th century, and comprised both original material and translations from Syriac and Greek.

Armenian language and invention of the alphabet

The Armenian language occupies an independent branch among the Indo-European family of languages and shares close affinities to Phrygian and Greek. Both prior to and after the invention of the alphabet, an extensive oral narrative tradition was transmitted in Armenian. There is no evidence for the existence of a corpus of writing in Armenian in a non-native alphabet, although it is possible that Greek and Aramaic were used to write Armenian. The Armenian alphabet was invented by Mesrop Mashtots in c.406 for the specific purpose of facilitating the spread of Christianity in Armenia. The story of the invention has been preserved in the Life of Mashtots composed by Mesrop’s student, Koriwn, in c.440. In addition to inventing the Armenian alphabet, Mashtots is also traditionally credited with the invention of the Georgian and Caucasian Albanian alphabets.

Armenian literature

Following the invention of the Armenian alphabet and the translation of the Bible into Armenian, Armenia participated in the general Christian cultural efflorescence of Late Antiquity.

Along with the books of the Bible, the early translations from Greek and *Syriac into Armenian also comprised liturgical books, canons, sermons, and commentaries on the church fathers, as well as apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. The Armenian community in Jerusalem is credited with the translation of the Hagiopolite Armenian Bible Lectionary as well as of the Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus. EusebiusChronicle and Ecclesiastical History (translated from the Syriac version) were also rendered at this time. Towards the end of the 5th century, a more literal translating style took hold in Armenia that has been labelled ‘Hellenizing’. The corpus of translations accomplished in this style included works of grammar, rhetoric, logic, philosophy; literary works such as the Alexander Romance (Greek) of Pseudo-Callisthenes; and patristic texts. The last texts translated in this manner date to the early 8th century.

In addition to the translation of Greek and Syriac texts, a native literary tradition also began in the 5th century. The earliest piece of Armenian literature to have survived is Koriwn’s Life of Mashtots. The early Armenian literary tradition is marked by a strong attraction to the writing of history. Over the course of the 5th and early 6th centuries, Armenian authors created a series of texts that traced the course of Armenian history from the conversion to Christianity in the 4th century through the struggle to preserve the Christian faith in the mid-5th century. The History, attributed to the enigmatic author Agat‘angelos, relates the life of S. Gregory the Illuminator and his conversion of Trdat, King of Armenia. The History’s textual history is quite complex and undoubtedly based upon prior hagiographical accounts, but the text as we now possess it emerged around 460. The Buzandaran Patmut‘iwnk‘ (Epic Histories) attributed to P‘awstos represents our chief source for the structure of Armenian society in the 4th century and sheds light on the struggles between the Church and the Crown when the monarchy adopted the ‘Arianizing’ tendencies of such contemporary Roman emperors as Constantius II and Valens. Finally, the histories of Elishe Vardapet and Lazar P‘arpets‘i provide two accounts of the events surrounding the war of 450–1 against the Persian Empire, in which the Armenian general Vardan Mamikonean died resisting the efforts of Yazdegerd II to impose Zoroastrianism on the Armenian populace and nobility (naxarars). Elishe’s History, in particular, helped reinterpret Armenian military defeat into spiritual victory that ultimately resulted in Sasanian acquiescence to Armenian Christian steadfastness.

The composition of historical works continued through the subsequent centuries. The History attributed to Sebeos provides an account of events in Armenia from 590 to 661 and is an important source on the spread of Islam in the region; while Lewond, a historian of the 8th century, depicts life during the period of the Arab domination of Armenia. To the 8th century should probably also be ascribed the History of Movses Khorenats‘i. Khorenats‘i’s work, which stretches from the Creation until 428, is the first to place Armenian history within such a broad chronological context.

Historical texts were not the only type of literature produced in the period between the 5th and 8th centuries. The principal tenets of the Armenian theological tradition were also established at this time. The Teaching attributed to S. Gregory the Illuminator (5th cent.) presents a lengthy catechetical discourse on the Christian faith; while the Against the Sects by Eznik of Kolb, likewise dated to the 5th century, combats many of the prevailing philosophical and religious beliefs of the time from a Christian perspective. Subsequent Armenian theologians composed polemics addressing issues surrounding iconoclasm, the nature of the Incarnation, and the incorruptibility of Christ’s flesh. The Catholicus Yovhannes Odznets‘i (in office 718–29) produced the first compilation of canon law as well as the first collection of ecclesiastical correspondence relevant to the rejection of the Council of Chalcedon and to the schism between the Armenian and Georgian Churches. In addition, numerous homilies, liturgical hymns, and biblical and liturgical commentaries were composed. Within the field of science, Ananias of Shirak (c.600–70) executed studies of geographical, calendrical, and mathematical interest.

Sergio La Porta


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