Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of Bagrevand (775)

DISCLAIMER: I’m sorry if the title of this post gives anybody the wrong idea–I don’t mean “Caucasian history” in the “why don’t they have a White History Month” sense. I mean literally the history of the Caucasus region. I don’t know how else to describe it.

When Arab armies moved out of Arabia in the 630s and utterly wrecked the Roman-Persian balance of power that had defined western Asia for centuries, you could make a strong case that nobody, apart from the Romans and the Persians, felt it more acutely than the Armenians. The Kingdom of Armenia had long been a buffer between the two great powers, with dynasties ruling as Roman or Persian (first Parthian, and later Sasanian) clients, and coming and going often at the whim of one of the two empires. This changed in the fourth century, when the Romans and Sasanians partitioned the ancient kingdom into two parts: so-called Lesser Armenia, which became a Roman province, and Persian Armenia, which held nominal independence for a time before becoming a Sasanian domain in the early fifth century. The events described here primarily affected Persian Armenia; Lesser Armenia, along the southern coast of the Black Sea, remained in Roman hands until it was taken by the Seljuq Turks in the late 11th century.

persian_armenia
The Caucasus (Persian Armenia, Iberia, Lazica, and Albania) just prior to the Arab conquest (Wikimedia | Armenica.org)

Having suffered through the push-and-pull Roman-Persian relationship for the better part of a millennium, the Armenians now had to face a new upheaval with the destruction of the Sasanian Empire and the arrival of conquering Arab armies in the Caucasus as early as the late 630s, not even a decade after Muhammad’s death. In the early 650s, a leading Armenian noble named Theodoros Ṛštuni (Theodore Rshtuni if you like) cut a deal to submit Armenia to Arab rule in exchange for a prisoner release and Armenian autonomy. Fighting continued, though, and eventually pulled in the Romans (even though the Romans and Armenians were at odds over religious disputes about the nature of Christ). But by the 660s, the Arabs (now the Umayyad Caliphate) were fully in control of Armenia, which doesn’t seem to have been that onerous given that it included a fair amount of local autonomy and no imposition of Islam on the Armenians (conversion was never a high priority for the Umayyads anyway).

This was the best deal the Armenians were going to get, but the imposition of Arab rule grated on them anyway–especially on the nakharar, the heads of the leading Armenian noble families. They’d done pretty well for themselves as Roman and/or Persian clients, but the Arabs were apparently much less interested in cultivating their loyalty–they had less reason to be, in the absence of any other power capable of challenging Arab control over the area. Several revolts cropped up here and there over the decades to come, but internal rivalries among the nakharar (perhaps exacerbated by the decline in imperial attention) kept most of them from becoming serious threats to the Arabs. One major revolt did break out in 703, when the Arabs reorganized their Caucasian holdings into the province of Arminya and took more direct control, but it was defeated in 705 and the nobles who had led it were all executed.

A much larger revolt finally broke out in 774. When the Abbasid dynasty took over the caliphate in 750, they made major changes to imperial administration. One change was a drastic cutback in the remaining allowances that were still being paid to the nakharars, along with a substantial increase in taxes on the Armenian population. This may have been partly punitive, since the Armenians had taken advantage of the Abbasid revolution to launch another failed revolt in 748 and the Abbasids might not have appreciated that. But whatever the Abbasid motivation was, replacing the nakharars’ remaining spoils with new taxes was enough to bring nearly all of them, fractious as their relations could be, together in opposition. Only two of the major Armenian houses, the Artsruni and the Siwni, stayed out of the fighting, and they obviously fared better in the immediate aftermath of (SPOILER) the revolt’s failure.

The murder of an Arab tax-collector in northern Shirak province kicked off the war in late 774, but two major battles in April 775 ended it, decisively, in favor of the Arabs. Bagrevand was the second of these, pitting a contingent of the Abbasids’ seasoned Khurasani fighters (at a time when the Khurasanis were the most reknowned fighters in the caliphate) against the Armenian rebel army. The Armenians were crushed, and the revolt’s leaders, Smbat Bagratuni and Mushegh Mamikonean, were both killed. I don’t find too much by way of detail of this battle in any of my books covering either Caucasian or Islamic history, so I tend to assume that it was a rout.

The upheaval that followed the unsuccessful revolt fundamentally changed Armenian and Caucasian politics forever. The Abbasids invited noble Arab families to move into the Caucasus and establish emirates there to strengthen the caliphal hold on the region. This policy especially took root in Caucasian Albania, the region that more or less became modern Azerbaijan (not to be confused with the Iranian province of Azerbaijan, of course). The noble families that had joined the rebellion were liquidated, their members either being executed or fleeing to Byzantine protection, except for the Bagratuni, who managed to fend off the Arabs and survive more or less intact. This became important when a branch of the family (also known as the Bagrationis) established a kingdom in Caucasian Iberia and Lazica in the 800s that coalesced into Georgia, and also when, in the 880s–as Abbasid power waned and Byzantine power waxed–the Bagratunis established an independent (if subordinate to the Byzantines) Armenian kingdom that survived until the Seljuqs showed up in the 11th century.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

4 thoughts

  1. Excellent piece, thought provoking. Now, “the Bagrationis,” would that have lingered in the Russian memory until – for instance – Operation Bagration in WWII?

    1. In a way, yes. Operation Bagration was named for Pyotr Bagrationi, a 19th century Russian (Georgian) general who was killed at Borodino. He was, clearly, a member of the Bagrationi family. The Bagrationis lost their royal authority in Georgia and its successor kingdoms when Russia annexed the area outright in the 1800s, but they transitioned pretty smoothly into a new role as one of the Russian Empire’s leading noble families.

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