Fifth Century Historian Describes Deplorable State of Armenian Society

A friend recently sent me an excerpt written in the 5th century by historian Movses Khorenatsi, in which he described the deplorable societal conditions in ancient Armenia.

The History of Armenia. Movses Khorenatsi. – Amsterdam: T. Vanandetsi Press, 1695 (Photo: expositions.nlr.ru)

My friend commented: “St. Movses could have easily written these words about our Armenian clergy, leaders, church, organizations, judges, institutions and us today in 2017 as he did in the 5th Century. So what has changed in 1,600 years? What will change? What if nothing changes? What if this is who and what we are? The greatest challenge we face as Armenians is how to survive and succeed on the world stage in spite of ourselves and not give up hope. Because despite the worst of our nature that St. Movses describes, somehow this small nation found a way to survive to this day. Let’s not lament over Armenia. Let’s rejoice over our children, grandchildren and the bright future that each of us can create for our nation.”

The quotation below is from Movses Khorenatsi’s trailblazing book, History of the Armenians. The chapter is titled, “Lament over the removal of the Armenian throne from Arsacid Family and of the archbishopric from the family of St. Gregory.” The book has been translated from Armenian into English by Prof. Robert W. Thomson of Harvard University. I have added in brackets a few clarifications to the translation.

Movses Khorenatsi wrote:

“I lament over you Armenia; I lament over who you are superior to all the nations of the north. For your king and priest, counselor and teacher, have been removed. Peace has been disturbed, disorder has taken root, orthodoxy has been shaken, and heresy has strengthened through ignorance.

“I pity you, church of Armenia, which has lost the splendor of the sanctuary and has been deprived of the noble pastor and his companion. No longer do I see your rational flock pastured in a verdant place and by peaceful waters nor gathered in a fold and protected from wolves, but scattered to the wilderness and precipices…

“The teachers are ignorant and presumptuous, taking honor by themselves and not called by God, elected by money and not by the [Holy] Spirit; lovers of gold and envious, they have abandoned gentleness, where God dwells, and have become wolves, tearing their own flocks.

“The religious are hypocritical, ostentatious, vainglorious, lovers of honor rather than lovers of God.

“The [senior] clergy are proud, slothful, frivolous, lazy, haters of the arts and instructive words, lovers of commerce and buffoonery.

“The students are lazy to study and eager to teach; they are theologians before their examinations [before they finish their studies].

“The laity are arrogant, insubordinate, blusterers, loafers, topers [drunks], pernicious, and they flee their patrimonies.

“The soldiers are cowards, false boasters, hating their weapons, negligent, lovers of ease, intemperate, thieves, drunkards, marauders, imitators of brigands.

“The princes are rebellious, companions of thieves, robbers [bribable], rapacious [greedy], avaricious, grasping, plunderers, despoilers of the land, depraved, likeminded with their subjects [servants].

“The judges are inhuman, false, deceitful, venal, [not protectors of rights] ignorant of the law, volatile, contentious.

“And [in general], love and shame have been entirely removed from all….

“The kings are cruel and evil rulers, imposing heavy and onerous burdens and giving intolerable commands. Governors do not [keep the order] correct disorders and are unmerciful. Friends are betrayed and enemies strengthened. Faith is sold for this vain life. Brigands have come in abundance and from all sides. Houses are sacked and possessions ravaged. There is bondage for the foremost and prison for the famous. There is exile abroad for the nobility and innumerable outrages for the common people. Cities are captured and fortresses destroyed; towns are ruined and buildings burned. There are famines without end and every kind of [epidemic] illness and death. Piety has been forgotten and expectation is for hell…”

My friend who sent me this “lament” is comparing Movses Khorentasi’s description of the deplorable state in Armenia 1,600 years ago to today’s conditions in general both in Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora. Of course, one cannot generalize to everyone in Armenian society. There are respectable exceptions in every segment of our society, among the teachers, clergy, military, students, judges, and rulers.

I agree with my friend when he expresses the hope that our nation will survive despite all the shortcomings and setbacks, and despite all enemies inside and outside of the country, as it has for centuries since Movses Khorentatsi wrote his highly critical observations.

10 Comments

  1. Armenians will succeed in-spite of themselves. That was a snapshot from the 5th century, it was different before and after the 5th century Khorenatsi era. The golden age of Armenia 8-10th centuries were different under the Bagratouni dynasty.

  2. Well done, Mr. Sassounian. Very timely reminder. Armenians have always been Armenia’s number one problem. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we are still around.

    Before we begin attacking our “Serjiks”, “Sashiks” or “Lfiks” we should first take a long hard look at our collective selves. After all, governments are an accurate reflection of their people. All the “oligarchs” we hate today did not come down from another planet, they are the product of Armenian society. Think of it this way: Mexico is the way it is because of Mexicans. Germany is the way it is because of Germans. China is the way it is because of the Chinese. Senegal is the way it is because of the Senegalese. Armenia is therefore the way it is because of us Armenians. Period.

    Close study of our history reveals to us that we Armenians, generally speaking, are too individualistic, too arrogant, too proud, too emotional, too self-centered, too self-righteous, too clannish, too materialistic, too ostentatious, too competitive and too jealous of each-other to develop a properly functioning nation-state. Consequently, Armenians have produced a surplus of criminals, cowards and traitors. Without going into detail, geographic and political circumstances have bred us to be the way we are. Our flaws as a people is therefore genetic and cultural.

    To put Khorenaci’s words into a historic political context: Soon after Armenia came out from under Persian influence as a result of adopting Christianity (the western value of its time) and moving closer to Rome (the ancient equivalent of the political West today), the ugly genetic and cultural traits of us Armenians gradually began revealing themselves. Similarly, as soon as Armenia came out from under Russian/Soviet rule in our times, the ugly genetic and cultural traits if us Armenians gradually began revealing themselves again. History does repeat. And that’s a scary notion. And that is essentially why I pray to God that the nation of Russia (which is the modern equivalent of ancient Persia) never fully takes its protective hand away from us.

    • PS: Before anyone accuses me of being anti-Christian or an atheist, let me just say that I’m a very proud Christian. But, as a person, I am also intellectually honest and objective. Therefore: Although adopting Christianity did eventually prove beneficial for us Armenians, as it preserved our national identity in a region that eventually became thoroughly Islamic in the 7th century, it hurt us severely in the 4th century by helping drive a wedge between us and Persia with whom we were closely allied at the time for nearly a thousand years.

      After the Urartian period around 6th century BC Armenia was essentially under Persian rule. Armenia was relatively powerful, relatively peaceful and relatively prosperous during this period. Troubles however began when Armenians foolishly began flirting with Rome during the first two centuries of the Christian era. Our rulers’ western-fetish of the time caused problems between Armenia and Persia, its traditional and strategic ally. This western-fetish also turned Armenia into a battlefield between Persia and Rome. The final blow to Persian-Armenian relations came when Armenia adopted Christianity. Fully out from under Persian influence, our people’s collective flaws soon began showing. Thereafter, Armenia was for the most part a subject nation to this or that empire. Brief periods of semi-independence (Bagratid and Kilikian) were unstable and bloody for the most part. Armenia has not enjoy a single peaceful century since its move out of Persia’s orbit.

      In any case, regarding Christianity, it all worked out well in 650 AD as that is when Persia succumbed to Islam. Had we Armenians not adopted Christianity in the 4th century, regardless of the geopolitical troubles it caused, we would have fully assimilated into the Islamic world, or been relegated to the status enjoyed by Yezdis today. Therefore, I am not criticizing Christianity. I am criticizing Armenians.

    • “Armenians have produced a surplus of criminals, cowards and traitors…” That’s as may be, but let’s not forget lick-spittles who do the bidding of their Russian paymasters, by no means should they be omitted.

  3. This is 100% applicable to the conditions of Armenians and Armenia today. They don’t care about Christianity, are easily bought, women are leaving Armenia to sell their bodies to Muslims in Qatar, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and quickly become their servants. The politicians are unpatriotic, quickly selling their souls to any amount of money set before them by oligarchs. There is always instability with the economy in Armenia, hunger, and many Armenians are outright lazy welfare moochers who have no desire to become a somebody to help Armenia and be a model minority. They rather give into drinking, parties menial jobs, and careless living rather than prayer and studies.

    • The problems we have with Armenians today has more to do with the absence of an ideology (be it national, be it political, be it spiritual) than merely religious belief. Similar to what Bolshevism did to Armenians and other Soviet peoples during the 20th century, Globalism/Westernization/Capitalism of today has stripped post-Soviet peoples of any kind of ideological and spiritual conviction. The problems we therefore face in Armenia and in the Diaspora is two fold: Armenian traits (cultural/genetic) and the Anglo-American-Jewish climate of the world we live in.

  4. The fact that we have been persecuted and somehow spared or survived, there is a lesson somewhere in our history to be learned and the question is, do we get it, socially, culturally and spiritually.
    We do have a few good leaders, yet we do not have enough good leadership who identify opportunities to change for the better, especially at the grass root level… We still carry burdensome egos sidelining learning from each other, inclusiveness, innovation, Emotional Intelligence (genuine caring), teaching, encouraging, mentoring, involving, strengthening, motivating, and activism and empowering.
    People emulate their leaders and we all have the ability to change someone’s perspective.
    Each one of us can make a difference to either improve our environment or worsen it. Whether or not we consciously choose to, we will accomplish one or the other.
    Harry

  5. These are all excellent commentaries. As a full-blooded, 100% biologically Armenian born in the U.S.A., I am very proud to be Armenian. I read, write and speak Western Armenian fluently. There are many, many wonderful, productive, caring Armenians in the world, but, unfortunately, Armenians do tend to be clannish, factious, and fractious. It *is* a miracle that we’re still here today as an identifiable ethnic group. As a senior citizen, I truly hope that the Armenians’ status in the world will improve as time passes. Improvement can start in the RA by disembarrassing ourselves from the corrupt, kleptocratic ruling elite and demand that the church leaders in the RA provide more assistance to the many indigent Armenian citizens instead of enjoying their privileged “special status” in the country. For example, the Catholicos could sell his Bentley and give the proceeds of the sale to the poor. Surely he can get around in a more modest vehicle. I’m afraid that we have a long way to go before the status of Armenians in the world changes for the better. It’s up to us Armenians to initiate positive changes. Frankly, I don’t expect to live long enough to see this.

  6. People it isn’t that bad you really think that we are some sort of oddity in the human race that only we are clashing only we have issues and only we have insecurities and only we are full of all the shortcomings. For once can we just start assessing and analyzing all the things that are working well in our society there have to be things that are working well we constantly hear of successful businesses dozens of start ups annually new industries all types of investment, on the transparency side Armenia every year seems to improve its International rankings. If you’re an entity that wants to succeed you look at what’s working and you find tune it to work even better if you constantly go back and look at failures and focus on those it doesn’t help us today. Yes we can learn from the past but those are old stories, what you need today is to learn how to compete and how to improve the system that exists in today’s reality not in your heads. We have a government we have a judicial system we have private enterprise, we have international trade we have oligarchs, we have mafia, what country doesn’t have these things? Look at what’s working and not working, then what you would like to do better with today’s reality at hand, not some self deprecating history that you wish to repeat over and over again I’m done with that narrative

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