Armenian Empire Reaches Its Peak Under Tigranes the Great Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Armenian king Tigranes the Great, by defeating war-weakened Parthia and the civil-strife-ridden Seleucid Empire, conquered the area from central Iran to the Mediterranean, bringing Armenia to its greatest expanse.

Summary of Event

Ancient Armenia extended farther to the south and west of modern Armenia, including substantial portions of what is now eastern Turkey and northern Syria and Iraq. Originally under the rule of native dynasties, most of Armenia passed under the rule of Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator and his descendants in the late fourth century b.c.e. In 189 b.c.e., independence was regained under a dynasty descended from the Seleucid general Artaxias, although the neighboring kings of Pontus to the west (now in eastern Turkey) and Parthia to the east (now Iran) had substantial influence. Tigranes the Great spent the first forty years of his life as a hostage in the court of the Parthian king Mithradates II after a war between Armenia and Parthia. Tigranes the Great Mithradates VI Eupator Pompey the Great Licinius Lucullus, Lucius

Scholars have inferred from the literary sources that in 95 b.c.e., Artavasdes II, Tigranes’s uncle and predecessor, died or was killed. In that year, the Armenians paid a ransom of seventy rich valleys to the Parthians for Tigranes’s return. The popularity of Tigranes may in part have been due to his claim of descent from the Orontid Dynasty of early independent Armenia as well as his proven descent from the Artaxiad kings. The sources say little of internal affairs in Armenia under Tigranes, emphasizing external relations. Parthia, threatened for the first time by Roman intervention on its western frontiers, may have hoped to set up Tigranes as a subordinate ally, but he proved to be his own man.

Tigranes the Great.

(Library of Congress)

Shortly after taking the throne, Tigranes formed an alliance with Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus and married the king’s daughter, Cleopatra. He waged war with Parthia, regaining the lost valleys and forcing the small neighboring state to the northwest, Sophene, into tributary status. Although Parthia, temporarily weakened because of invasions on its eastern frontier (now Afghanistan and Pakistan), had attempted an alliance with Rome, after the death of the Parthian king Mithradates II in 87 b.c.e., Tigranes took advantage of Parthia’s situation. He took the ancient Persian title of “king of kings,” previously claimed by the Parthian monarchs, and invaded territory that is now in northern and central Iraq. In 83, Tigranes occupied Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia, taking advantage of civil strife in the declining Seleucid Empire. Marriage alliances were secured with local kings in the east, establishing a political pattern in the area that was to last for centuries. After 80 b.c.e., Tigranes founded a new capital, Tigranocerta, at an uncertain location in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), to secure his southern frontiers. Greek cultural influences were strong in Tigranocerta, as Greeks from some defeated cities to the west were forced to live there. Greek mercenaries as well as Armenians formed the city’s garrison. The city survived a Roman attempt at its destruction in 69 b.c.e. and remained inhabited for centuries, becoming an important Christian center some five centuries later.

At about the same time as he founded his new capital, Tigranes captured the Seleucid capital, Antioch (now in southeastern Turkey but considered part of Syria until well into the twentieth century), which was then one of the largest cities in the world and a major Greek cultural center. By this time, the Armenian army numbered more than six figures. Only a narrow tongue of land (now in Syria and eastern Turkey) remained under Selucid rule until the Romans under Pompey the Great finally destroyed what remained of that empire in 60 b.c.e. At the height of his power, Tigranes ruled much of the Middle East and had no strong opponents, either internally or externally. Even Ptolemaic Egypt was too weakened by internal conflict to be a threat to him.

Unfortunately for Tigranes, his unification and consolidation of the area only paved the way for Roman conquest. By 70 b.c.e., popular discontent at continual and expensive warfare as well as the humiliation of local kings, whom Tigranes had treated like domestic servants, undermined his popularity, and his subjects, especially the Greeks, began to look to Rome. In 69 b.c.e., Rome, avenging earlier defeats, sent an army under Lucius Licinius Lucullus against king Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus, Tigranes’ ally, capturing Tigranocerta and all Tigranes’ conquests west of Armenia’s historic borders. In 67, Tigranes again invaded Cappadocia (now in central Turkey), but the arrival of an even stronger Roman army under Pompey the Great, assisted by Tigranes’ own son who had rebelled, forced the elder Tigranes to sue for peace. Under the alliance, Tigranes was forced to pay large sums to Rome, and his kingdom was reduced to its size at the time of his accession plus the seventy valleys. Greek and Roman influence became even stronger in the latter days of his reign. Tigranes died in 55 b.c.e. and was succeeded by one of his sons, Artavasdes II; Tigranes the Younger, his son by another mother, apparently had died in Roman captivity or exile.


Although Tigranes the Great’s external conquests proved ephemeral and despite his reputation for cruelty and terror, his lasting achievement was significant. At a time when smaller states in the Middle East were being absorbed by Pontus, Parthia, and Rome, Tigranes laid the foundations for the preservation of Armenia as an independent state ruled by the same dynasty for hundreds of years to come, even if under Roman or Parthian protection. He increased the influence of Greek civilization and arguably set the state for the spread of Christianity into Armenia in the following century. According to Armenian historians, in the fourth century c.e., a few years ahead of Rome, Armenia became the first Christian state. Factors set in motion by Tigranes would result in the preservation of ancient literature, including Christian writings, and probably the prevention of the absorption of Armenia by Islam in later centuries. Although many historians of other nations, including Rome, judged Tigranes negatively, to Armenian writers, both contemporary and later, he was a national hero.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Debevoise, Neilson C. A Political History of Parthia. 1938. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. Discusses the general Armenian background from the viewpoint of relations to Parthia. Has not been superseded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherwin-White, A. N. “Lucullus, Pompey, and the East.” In The Last Age of the Roman Republic 146-43 b.c. , edited by John A. Crook et al. Vol. 9 in Cambridge Ancient History. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Provides a brief, up-to-date, well-documented account, primarily from the Roman viewpoint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherwin-White, A. N. Roman Foreign Policy in the East, 168 b.c. to a.d. 1. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984. More detailed than the previously cited work, with some emphasis on military history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sullivan, Richard D. Near Eastern Royalty and Rome 100-30 b.c. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990. Provides a highly detailed treatment and assessment of the career and importance of Tigranes the Great. Numerous references to primary and secondary sources. Also covers the general background, as implied in the title.
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