Pharandzem (c. 320–c. 364)

views updated

Pharandzem (c. 320–c. 364)

Queen of Armenia who, after the capture of her husband, assumed the responsibility for the defense of Armenia during a massive Persian invasion. Name variations: P'arandzem; (maiden name) Pharandzem Siuni; the name Pharandzem is of Iranian origin, the attested Middle Persian form being Khorandzem. Pronunciation: p'ar-an-DZEM, with a slight hesitation between the p and the a . Born around 320; daughter of Antiochus Siuni; married Arsaces II, king of Armenia, around 338 (marriage repudiated by Arsaces so he could marry Olympias, c. 355); married Prince Gnel: children: (first marriage) Prince Tiridates, possibly eldest son (b. around 340, possibly died young); Prince Pap (b. around 342).

Gnel executed by King Arsaces (c. 359); Emperor Julian invaded Persia (Arsaces his ally, 362); Julian killed in Mesopotamia (363); Persian invasion of Armenia and Arsaces captured and taken to Persia (363–64); Pharandzem assumed defense of Armenia, fall of fortress of Artagers; Pharandzem captured and executed.

That Armenian historians have anything to tell us about Queen Pharandzem in a Middle Eastern milieu—where they frequently neglect to provide even the name of a ruler's wife—attests to her extraordinary character. The chronology of her life remains uncertain, and even her motivations are obscure, but there is no doubt that she is one of the most remarkable women to appear in Armenian history before the modern era.

Our earliest source for a biography of Queen Pharandzem is the enigmatic historical text known as the Epic Histories, an original Armenian work of the late 5th or early 6th century. Pharandzem of Armenia was killed about 364, by which time she had a grown son old enough to lead an army into battle; thus we may assume that she was born sometime between 320 and 330. Her life may then be placed in the first 40 years following the conversion of Armenia to Christianity and in the context of the momentous consequences of that event.

The decision of King Tiridates the Great of Armenia to convert to Christianity was the most important milestone in the history of the country until the 20th century. Although Armenia was certainly the first nation to embrace Christianity as its state religion, the exact date when this took place and the circumstances surrounding it have only recently begun to become clear. After many wars between Rome and Iran for the domination of Greater Armenia, the two powers agreed with the Treaty of Rhandeia (63 ce) that while the country was to be ruled by a member of the Parthian royal house of the Arsacids (rulers of Iran), the king was to reign as a vassal of Rome. Despite this treaty, the struggle for control of Armenia continued, and the single most important event in the two-and-one-half-century-long conflict that followed was the overthrow of the easy-going Parthian Arsacids in 224 and their replacement as rulers of Iran by the militant Persian Sasanids. Where Parthia had been a nuisance to Rome, Persia was a serious threat, consciously attempting to restore the glories of Achaemenid Persia with the concomitant goal of driving the Romans out of Asia.

After 224, this great international conflict was of major significance for Armenia, where a branch of the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia still ruled. The news of the fall of the Parthian Arsacids was received with horror by their relatives in Armenia, for there was now a real direct threat to the Armenian royal house from that of the new dynasty in Iran. The Persian struggle against Rome naturally came first in the Sasanid scheme of things, while the Armenians maneuvered frantically between the two powers, perforce being driven into the arms of Rome. Although, at first, Rome was unable to be of much help to Armenia, in 297 the Roman army trounced the Persians in Armenia, and the Sasanids were forced to sign a humiliating treaty at the city of Nisibis. This set the stage for the conversion of Armenia to Christianity which was to take place a few years later, and which is intricately linked to the unusual social structure that existed in the country.

The formal Christian conversion of King Tiridates and the royal court by St. Gregory the Illuminator took place in the early 4th century. The year 301 is usually given, but scholars increasingly accept 314 as the correct date. The conversion of Armenia to the faith of the Roman emperor was not well received in Persia but for the time being there was not much that the Sasanids could do about it. While the Armenian kings, by and large, remained committed to Christianity, many princely houses, including that of Siunik, were to remain pagan or crypto-pagan for many years to come.

According to the Epic Histories, Pharandzem was the daughter of Antiochus, one of the princes of the house of Siunik (though all other sources make him head of the family, i.e. the prince of Siunik). Pharandzem was married to Prince Gnel, nephew of King Arsaces II of Armenia. Gnel's brother, Prince Tirit, having heard of Pharandzem's beauty, contrived to see her, fell in love with her, and sought some means of disposing of his brother so that he might marry her. To this end, he concocted the slander that Gnel wished to be king of Armenia and that he was plotting with various princes to murder King Arsaces and seize his throne. So cleverly did Tirit plant these insinuations that the king came to believe them and developed a plot of his own to place Gnel under arrest. The king sent Vardan, head of the great house of Mamikonian and brother of the commander-in-chief of the king's army, to invite Gnel to the royal encampment at the village of Shahapivan, where the new year's festival called Navasard was celebrated each August. Finding Gnel, Pharandzem, and their princely entourage in the nearby village of Araviutk, Vardan enticed him to Shahapivan, assuring him that the king had learned the falseness of the accusations and wished to have him present for the celebration of the festival. Believing Vardan's assurances, Gnel, Pharandzem and their entire suite traveled all night to reach the royal encampment, arriving on Sunday morning on the feast of St. John the Baptist. Upon his appearance at the camp, Prince Gnel was immediately pulled from his horse, arrested, bound and taken away to be executed at a nearby racetrack.

Pharandzem, however, borne into the camp in a litter in her husband's retinue, witnessed the arrest and immediately ran to the tent in which Nerses, the chief bishop of Armenia, was celebrating Sunday mass. Interrupting the service, she told him what was happening and begged for his intercession. The chief bishop immediately terminated the ceremony and hurried to the royal tent, where the king was pretending to be asleep, and begged him in the name of Christ's mercy not to execute his own brother's son. As the king continued to feign sleep, Erezmak, the chief executioner, entered the tent and announced that Gnel had been executed according to the king's command and had already been buried. At this, Nerses condemned the king, cursed him, and predicted the sorry fate that awaited him.

Arsaces then ordered that his nephew Gnel be officially mourned as a royal prince, and commanded that all in the camp should attend the funeral services. At the same time, he observed the disconsolate Pharandzem and conceived a passion of his own for her. Only a few hours later, Gnel's brother Tirit unwisely revealed to Pharandzem his love for her and admitted that it was he who had contrived her husband's death. Pharandzem, horrified and grief-stricken, spread the alarm. When the king learned the true circumstances of Gnel's downfall and how he, himself, had been duped by Tirit, he gave the order for him to be executed as well. King Arsaces then married Pharandzem, but she never forgave him for executing her first husband. Their marriage was so unhappy that when Emperor Constantius II (r. 338–361) offered Arsaces a Roman bride, he accepted. The new bride was Olympias , daughter of the former Praetorian prefect Ablabius. Olympias must have arrived in Armenia in the year 358 and shortly afterwards was elevated to the rank of queen. Pharandzem, meanwhile, had given birth to the king's son, Prince Pap, who, when he was old enough, was sent to the Roman court as a hostage for his father's good behavior. Unwilling to see another woman seated on the throne and probably fearing for Pap's accession should Olympias bear the king another son, Pharandzem contrived to have Olympias murdered. Since Olympias' ladies in waiting protected her food from all poison, we are told that Pharandzem found a priest at the royal court, Merjiuinik, who was willing to mix poison in the Holy Eucharist so that Olympias was murdered while taking communion. In return for this deed, Merjiuinik received a single village.

All of these events were interconnected with a long war between Armenia and Iran, which the author of the Epic Histories says lasted 34 years. It is in the midst of this account of one massive Persian invasion of Armenia after another that the Epic Histories, in a chapter obviously out of place in the text, interrupts its narrative to return to Pharandzem and her son Pap. According to this source, at the time of Pap's birth, Pharandzem had dedicated him to demons and, as he grew to manhood, he became a practitioner of every vice, above all that of sodomy. When the queen learned of this and attempted to remonstrate with him, she saw demons appear in the form of serpents winding themselves around him, whereupon she fled the room crying that her son was possessed and that she had known nothing of this.

Since it is extremely unlikely that Pharandzem would have dared dispatch Olympias while Olympias' Roman patron Constantius II was still alive, the murder must have taken place in 361, the year Constantius died, or very shortly thereafter. Pharandzem was sole queen, once again. Then the Persian king Sapor made peace with Arsaces, summoning him to Persia under a promise of safe conduct but, fearing his closeness to the Roman emperor, upon his arrival having him treacherously imprisoned. He then forced Arsaces to write a letter to Pharandzem telling her and the grandees of Armenia to join him in Iran. Pharandzem, realizing what had happened, ignored the order. In 362, the new emperor Julian (r. 361–363) attacked Persia, undertaking a disastrous campaign into Mesopotamia during which he was wounded and died. The new emperor, Jovian (r. 363–364), anxious to terminate the war at any cost, ceded the overlordship of Armenia to Sapor and gave him a free hand to do whatever he wished there. Sapor immediately invaded the country on a punitive expedition and appears to have ravaged it from end to end.

With the king a prisoner in Persia and his son Pap a hostage with the Romans, it was the queen, alone, who undertook to lead the country. Unable to stop the invaders from ravaging Armenia, she took refuge in the great castle of Artagers, where she shut herself up with a vast number of soldiers, retainers and treasure. The Persians, of course, laid siege to the castle, surrounding it and waiting for it to fall. Pharandzem was not totally isolated, however, for the castle had a secret entrance, and it was through this that certain messengers from the Roman authorities were able to reach her from time to time, urging her to hold out until her son could come to her rescue with a contingent of Roman troops.

Unfortunately, neither Pap nor the Roman forces ever arrived, and, after a large number of the garrison of the castle died suddenly (presumably of some sort of epidemic from the words of the Epic Histories), the queen finally surrendered after a courageous and resourceful defense of 14 months. It took nine days, we are told, for the Persians to empty the castle of all its treasure, after which Pharandzem and the other captives were led away together with the booty, presumably to Ctesiphon, the Persian capital located near modern Baghdad. There, Pharandzem was thrown to the Persian troops, who were allowed to rape her to death. This event, taking place some 14 months after the peace of 363, would have occurred sometime in late 364, thus closing the 34-year war that had begun with the death of King Tiridates around 330.

We have, however, a considerably different version of these same events from the late 8th–early 9th-century Armenian historian Moses of Khoren. Relying as he does on written records rather than the oral and epic traditions utilized by the author of the Epic Histories, Moses merits a hearing as an independent witness. Both the Epic Histories and Moses agree that Arsaces II married Pharandzem after the murder of her husband Gnel but disagree on the circumstances of the murder and as to whether or not she was the king's first wife, as stated by the former, or his second, as asserted by the latter. According to Moses, not only Tirit but Vardan had plotted to do away with Gnel by poisoning the king's mind against his nephew, and here no reason is given for the calumny. The king then sent word to Gnel that he would hunt in the latter's lands at the foot of Mt. Tsalik (where Shahapivan was located, although Moses makes no reference to the town in connection with the murder). There, he ordered Vardan to slay Gnel with an arrow, as if he had been killed by accident. Arsaces, we are told, had Gnel buried some distance away in the royal city of Zarishat; no mention is made of a racetrack. Moses agrees that Arsaces made a pretense of mourning for Gnel and that Chief Bishop Nerses, divining the truth, cursed him for his wicked deed, but adds that King Arsaces rifled his nephew's inheritance and other properties before marrying his widow. It is here that Moses not only tells us that Pharandzem bribed a priest to murder Queen Olympias, whom he describes as Arsaces' first wife, in order to acquire her rank as queen, but also accuses her of ordering the king to kill her uncle Vaghinak so that her father Antiochus might become prince of Siunik. During the time of the great Persian invasion after the death of Julian, we are told that Pharandzem indeed shut herself in the great castle of Artagerk [sic] but that the garrison, unwilling to wait for the arrival of Pap, surrendered on its own accord. The garrison, we are then told, was taken to Persia along with the queen and that all of them were executed by being impaled upon wagon poles.

While we have the word of the author of the Epic Histories against that of Moses of Khoren, the matter is less equivocal than it at first appears. The author of the Epic Histories is given to embellishments common to the epic tradition in general and to the Iranian epic tradition in particular. Moses, on the other hand, while far from completely reliable, lived too late to understand the requirements of this tradition and, basing himself as he usually does upon written sources, may very well have preserved a more accurate account of events than did the earlier epic source. With this as a guide and an increased understanding of the situation in Armenia in the 4th century provided by the monumental work of Nina G. Garsoian , we may venture the following reconciliation of the two narratives that have come down to us.

The story that Pharandzem was the daughter of a younger brother of the prince of Siunik seems probable, for there is no need for the Epic Histories to lower her status in the family. It seems likely, too, that early on she had been married to Prince Gnel. The elaborate and vivid story of how Gnel was murdered upon his arrival at the king's encampment at Shahapivan makes a good story but for this very reason may be dismissed as unrealistic. The less spectacular version given by Moses, though not without its fictional elements (the locus of the prince's death being "suitably" placed at a royal hunt), is probably nearer to the truth.

The figure of Pharandzem remains enigmatic in Armenian literature.

—Nina G. Garsoian

Since Garsoian has shown that the murder of Gnel took place most likely in the summer of 359 (specifically on August 29), it would seem impossible for Olympias to have been Arsaces' second wife (as the Epic Histories tells us she was; yet, since Arsaces and Pharandzem had a son old enough to bear arms by the mid-360s, it seems equally impossible for Pharandzem to have been married to Arsaces after Olympias [as Moses asserts]). Garsoian suggests that Armenia, having just emerged from paganism and having been under the heaviest Iranian influence for eight centuries, probably still accepted certain norms of Iranian matrimonial law. Thus, given these laws, it would have been possible for King Arsaces to have been married to Pharandzem and to have had a son with her, and then to have set her aside, giving her to Gnel as his wife in order to marry Olympias, while yet retaining the right to take her back from Gnel at any time he so chose. Thus, Pharandzem must have been married to the king while yet a young woman, to have given birth to his son Pap and then to have been handed to Gnel to make way for Olympias, a gift from the emperor that Arsaces felt unable to refuse. This would account for Pharandzem's hostility to the new queen, whose appearance in Armenia might very well jeopardize her own son's right to the throne. It may have been the Roman awareness of this situation in Armenia, moreover, that led them to demand that young Pap be sent to them as a hostage—in this case, possibly for his mother's good behavior or for that of her prominent family. In speaking of Pap, it is worth noting that a late Armenian source, The Life of St. Nerses (9th century), attributes two sons to the marriage of Arsaces and Pharandzem, the other being named Tiridates, who, if he indeed existed, was obviously named after his grandfather, according to the Armenian practice and so must have been the first-born son and who must have died young.

As far as the curious tale of Pap and his demons, and Pharandzem's strange response (she had supposedly dedicated him to the demons at birth and then, years later, was astounded to find him at their mercy), it may be explained by the way that the author of the Epic Histories chooses to respond to Pharandzem's paganism, or at least her lack of orthodoxy. As for the story of Moses that Pharandzem had her uncle killed so that her father might become head of the house of Siunik, this may simply be an attempt to reconcile two versions of the story that had come down to the author, the first stating that Pharandzem had been the daughter of a prince of Siunik and second that her father had been the prince of Siunik.

In regard to Pharandzem's role in the Persian invasion of 363, we may note that, not being a woman to shy away from murder, she may well have taken the lead in the defense of Armenia after the deportation of Arsaces to Persia. As for the surrender of Artagers to the Persians, there is probably some truth in both versions of the story that have come down to us: the siege of 14 months probably did generate an epidemic among the garrison, whereupon the commanders, unwilling to wait any longer for Pap's arrival with Roman troops, probably realized that any further defense was hopeless.

The ghastly circumstances surrounding Pharandzem's death make it unlikely that the story was invented, and we must see in this crime a manifestation of how seriously the Persians took the conversion of Armenia to the faith practiced by the emperors of Rome. The message sent abroad to all of the subject peoples of Persia was that the Great King would tolerate no such deviation from the norms of the greater Iranian world and that none nor his family, no matter what their race or rank or gender, would be spared the most extreme penalty. When Moses tells us that the queen was impaled, we may take this as a softening of the story out of deference to the readers' sensibilities, he being unable to accept that a queen of Armenia had died such an ignominious death as described in the Epic Histories. Here, however, we can only speculate, for Moses' version may perhaps be the true one and the Epic Histories may have invented her ignominious death to show how the wicked queen was punished for her sins.

King Arsaces died in Persian captivity, held until his death in the notorious "Castle of Oblivion," so-called because it was forbidden to mention the name of anyone who had been consigned there. As for Pap, his son and heir, he reigned as a sort of regent while his father lived in captivity (c. 364–c. 368), after his death becoming king in his own right (c. 368–c. 374). Running afoul of the Romans, he was executed for disloyalty to them. Here we have the bald Roman account of the event by Ammianus Marcellinus to compare to the once again more "suitable" account received or concocted by the author of the Epic Histories. Pap was succeeded by his cousin, Varazdat (c. 374–c. 378), a famed athlete at one of the last Olympic Games, but after his short reign, the throne passed to Pap's sons, so that the descendants of King Arsaces and Queen Pharandzem continued to reign over Armenia until the monarchy was terminated in 428.


Ammian Marcellinus. Res Gestae. Loeb Classical Library edition.

The Epic Histories. Engl. trans. (with extensive commentary) by Nina G. Garsoian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1989.

Moses Khorenats'i. History of the Armenians. Engl. trans. by R.W. Thomson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1978.

suggested reading:

Baynes, N.H. "Rome and Armenia in the Fourth Century," in English Historical Review. Vol. XXV. London, 1910.

Hewsen, R.H. "The Successors of Tiridates the Great," in Revue des études arméniennes. Vol. XIII. Paris, 1978–79.

Robert H. H. , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey