Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.02

Tim Greenwood, The Universal History of Stepʻanos Tarōnecʻi: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Oxford studies in Byzantium.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xv, 358.  ISBN 9780198792512.  $130.00.  

Reviewed by Stephen Rapp, Jr., Sam Houston State University (


Pre-modern Armenian historiography constituted a remarkably tight canon, with habitual incorporation and adaptation of earlier works, including the foundational texts of Agatʻangełos, Ełiše, and Movsēs Xorenacʻi. Because of its reliance on such “classics,” The Universal History (Patmutʻiwn tiezerakan) of Stepʻanos Tarōnecʻi, a comprehensive treatment of the Armenian past completed in 1004/1005 AD, has acquired a reputation for being derivative and therefore has languished in the shadows of Armenian literature. Paralleling this demotion is the tendency to identify this work’s author as Asołik (Asoghik), “little speaker” or “singer,” a name that has been traced only to the mid-thirteenth century and whose equation with Tarōnecʻi must remain hypothetical (p. 9).

In this labor of love, Tim Greenwood, Senior Lecturer in the School of History at the University of St. Andrews, offers a meticulous English translation of Tarōnecʻi’s Universal History and much more. In the venerable tradition of C.J.F. Dowsett, Robert Thomson, and Nina Garsoïan, Greenwood contextualizes Tarōnecʻi as he tackles a wide spectrum of historiographical problems, demonstrating, in the process, Tarōnecʻi’s original contribution to Armenian literature. This finely-tuned volume commences with a nuanced historical and historiographical study occupying nearly a hundred pages (pp. 1-94). Here Greenwood probes the medieval historian and his world, a politically and culturally fractured Armenia (really Armenias) that experienced renewed waves of Byzantine intervention as the grip of Abbasid authority loosened. Tarōnecʻi lauds fellow Armenians while he criticizes Byzantium’s expansionist ambitions in Caucasia and the Chalcedonian formula at the heart of imperial Christianity. All the while, he imparts how Armenian élites balanced the rising Byzantine tide with local Muslim powers, including the Sājid and Shaddādid dynasties. Theologically, the non-Chalcedonian (“miaphysite”) Armenian Church had formed one of the central pillars of Armenian identity since late antiquity. Christianity and language came to define the Armenians, communal strands that intensified and became tightly intertwined as Armenians were increasingly divided. This process reached its apex after 428, when the Sasanians stripped Armenia Major of its indigenous royal authority. Much later, in Tarōnecʻi’s time, the shifting geo-political situation enabled the restoration of the Armenian monarchy under the Bagratuni (Bagratid) family. This is the perilous and fluid environment in which Tarōnecʻi lived and wrote. Most of what we know about him derives from The Universal History itself (pp. 2-3). Born by ca. 970, Tarōnecʻi spent his career in monastic circles and gained the trust of the leaders of the Armenian Church, including Katholikos Sargis I Sewancʻi, who commissioned this important work.

Greenwood’s introduction and detailed commentary to the translation interrogates the structure, content, purpose, and reception of The Universal History. Tarōnecʻi organized his narrative into three books, each constructed around a distinctive epoch of Armenian kingship: the Haykazunikʻ, the immediate progeny of the supposed primordial forefather Hayk; the Aršakunikʻ, the Armeno-Parthian Arsacids; and in his time, the Bagratunikʻ, the Armenian Bagratids (III.2, pp. 210-211). Throughout this work, Tarōnecʻi displays an obsession with chronology, sometimes proffering his own chronological calculations. Because the first two books address periods far removed from the author’s floruit, and because of the influence of the Armenian historiographical canon, they depend heavily upon earlier Armenian histories. Book I engages a massive chronological span, from biblical antiquity through the establishment of the Armenian kingdom and on to the accession of the Aršakuni Trdat IV (r. 298/299-ca. 330). It conveys several lists of ancient non-Armenian monarchs, the inclusion of which validates the antiquity and legitimacy of the Armenian kingdoms and situates the Armenian experience within Afro-Eurasian history from a distinctly Armenian perspective. Book II picks up the reign of Trdat and emphasizes his Christianization thanks to the intercession of Gregory the Illuminator. With the conversion of the Armenians, Tarōnecʻi introduces a second thematic focus: Armenian chief prelates, bishops, ascetics, and other holy men. Tarōnecʻi constantly highlights the ancient and sovereign nature of the Armenian monarchy and Church. The second book tracks the Aršakunis through the Sasanians’ dismantling of the Armenian crown in 428 and pushes ahead to 884, when local kingship was resuscitated by Ašot I Bagratuni. Book III launches with Ašot and traces the Armenian Bagratid monarchs through 1004/1005. This concluding installment maintains the focus on ecclesiastical figures and institutions, especially monastic communities. Indeed, Book III is dominated by a long theological letter, an apology of Armenian Christianity, sent to the metropolitan of Sebasteia in Byzantine Anatolia (III.21, pp. 253-283). But this concluding section also imparts considerable original material on the tenth century. As stressed by Greenwood, Tarōnecʻi’s is “the only sustained contemporary study on tenth-century [Armenian] affairs” (p. 9).

The first two books of The Universal History are derivative, but Greenwood adeptly illustrates their historical merit through Tarōnecʻi’s presentation and selective reworking of received sources. As a rule, Tarōnecʻi does not slavishly replicate his sources; in most cases, he adjusts and adapts them while emphasizing the sequence of Armenian kings and chief prelates, to his mind emblems of the authenticity and viability of the Armenian people. Consequently, The Universal History is especially valuable as an artifact of how literate Armenians at the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries conceived their identity and place within Eurasia.

At the outset of Book I, Tarōnecʻi specifies his principal sources and pronounces to his patron, the Armenian katholikos: “Now having selected from all of these, like [picking] delightful flowers, pleasing to the eye with very beautiful colours and sweetly scented, from far-stretched plains and mountain valleys, I have brought and offer [this] as a present to your God-loving person…” (I.1, pp. 98-100). Tarōnecʻi’s initial book leans heavily upon Eusebius’ Chronicle (which had been translated into Armenian, in which it uniquely survives) and Movsēs Xorenacʻi’s History of the Armenians (Patmutʻiwn Hayocʻ). Dependence upon Xorenacʻi persists in Book II, where Tarōnecʻi also engages other heavyweights of Armenian historiography, particularly Agatʻangełos, Łazar Pʻarpecʻi, the History attributed to Sebēos, Łewond, the lost history of Šapuh (but echoed in the extant text by Uxtanēs), and Yovhannēs Drasxanakertcʻi. The start of Book III exploits Drasxanakertcʻi up to the year 923, when this source ends. From this juncture, Tarōnecʻi emerges the main narrative of Armenian history for the tenth century up to Aristakēs Lastivertcʻi’s coverage of the eleventh century.

Throughout this splendid publication, Greenwood skillfully repositions and consolidates Tarōnecʻi within the Armenian historiographical canon (see esp. pp. 10-28), thus putting to rest the tenacious charge of repetition and derivativeness and the inference of historiographical poverty. Tarōnecʻi was original and creative, but he labored within an established literary framework. In this regard, Greenwood emphasizes two clusters of contemporaneous Armenian texts for understanding and contextualizing Tarōnecʻi: first, Tʻovma Arcruni’s History of the House of Arcrunikʻ and The History of the Anonymous Story-Teller, formerly misidentified as the (lost) History of Šapuh Bagratuni; and The History of Tarōn (in two distinctive sections, attributed to Zenob Glak and Yovhannēs Mamikonean respectively) and Uxtanēs. Greenwood prudently acknowledges the historiographical diversity enshrined in these sources. But he also demonstrates how they exude a “creative attitude towards the past, one not based upon, or circumscribed by, narrative. Some feature well-known episodes from the distant past reimagined in new ways; others tell stories about characters who seem to combine elements from the lives of several different historical figures” (pp. 10-11).

Greenwood’s analysis is painstaking and extensive. One theme that might have been investigated further, however, is the enduring Iranic, or Persianate, matrix of Armenian society, and more precisely, its reception (or lack thereof) in the medieval Universal History. Tarōnecʻi sometimes stresses Iranian political connections but, curiously, not Armenia’s—and Caucasia’s—long-standing socio-cultural ties with the Iranian world, the broadest conceptualization of what Iranians of the Sasanian era designated Ērānšahr. Consider an account from Book III in which Tarōnecʻi paints Armenian tensions with Abkhazia in western Georgia in the colors of the Iranian/Iranic epic tradition (III.7, pp. 222-224). It may not be coincidental that this tale occurs just as Tarōnecʻi’s reliance on Drasxanakertcʻi concludes. The persistence of such Iranic traditions requires further study. To his credit, Greenwood observes, in a footnote to the translation, that the Iranic aspects of Armenian identity could differ substantially among Armenian communities in the tenth century. In this regard, Greenwood acknowledges the expression of the durable Armeno-Iranian nexus in the contemporaneous literature from the Armenian region of Vaspurakan (p. 16). Indeed, the whole of Caucasia, and not just Armenia, had long been integrated into the Iranian cultural world.

Greenwood makes occasional reference to the larger regional context of Caucasia, yet there is no sustained discussion of Georgia and what remained of Albania, which was undergoing Armenization and Turkification, including Islamization. Greenwood’s dodging of Georgian sources, particularly the historiographical texts comprising Kʻartʻlis cʻxovreba (Kartlis Tskhovreba, i.e. the so-called Georgian Chronicles, translated by Thomson), is palpable in the commentary for Book III. In this last section, Tarōnecʻi frequently mentions eastern and western Georgia—regions Georgians called Apʻxazetʻi and Kʻartʻli, cf. Armenian Virkʻ—and their Bagratid rulers. Nevertheless, Greenwood proffers only a few references to contemporaneous Georgian texts, especially the eleventh-century Matiane kʻartʻlisay (The Chronicle/Book of Kʻartʻli). Georgian materials are vital for any discussion of the kouropalates Davitʻ of Taykʻ/Tao (d. 1000/1001), who figures prominently in The Universal History. Ultimately, Greenwood’s analysis and commentary would have been further strengthened through a deeper engagement of the regional pan-Caucasian context.

The translation at the heart of this publication is precise and clear. Greenwood initially worked from the oft-cited 1885 St. Petersburg edition by S. Malxaseancʻ. Greenwood subsequently updated his translation with the 2012 Antelias critical edition by G. Manukyan. Although he does not supply a formal list of manuscripts, Greenwood discusses the important redactions (pp. 83-86). The oldest extant version of Tarōnecʻi is found in Matenadaran 2865, copied in the mid-thirteenth century. Greenwood’s is the first published English translation. But earlier translations were attempted in Russian (Emin, 1864), French (Dulaurier, 1881; and Macler, 1917), German (Gelzer and Burckhardt, 1907), and modern Eastern Armenian (Vardanyan, 2000).

While readers unfamiliar with Armenian may be put off by his (welcome!) adoption of the standard academic transliteration scheme of Revue des études arméniennes, Greenwood consistently renders technical terms, toponyms, and personal names, though as appropriate he signals anglicized forms. Some common terminology, like Kovkas (Caucasus, Caucasia), might have been given throughout by their common English formulations. With the aim of more closely replicating the original Armenian, Greenwood favors Iberia (usually expressed by Armenian Virkʻ, which shares its root with Greek Iberia) over the more recognizable Georgia. In some cases, however, he provides transliterated Vracʻi and Vracʻikʻ for Georgians (III.38 and 40, pp. 300 and 302), i.e., the population of Virkʻ/Iberia.

The introduction, translation, and commentary are complemented by six maps (pp. 317-324). Greenwood has compiled an extensive bibliography, divided into primary and secondary sources. There are, however, no regnal or genealogical tables, which would have particularly benefited Book III.

In sum, Greenwood has produced a translation and accompanying literary study of exceptional quality that will appeal to Armenologists and Caucasiologists as well as specialists of Byzantium, Eastern Christendom, and the Islamic world. Of equal merit is the masterful historiographical commentary found in the extensive introduction and as footnotes throughout the translation. Ultimately, Greenwood persuasively rehabilitates Stepʻanos Tarōnecʻi’s Universal History and demonstrates the vitality and diversity of the Armenian historiographical canon.

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