Spending most of its thousands of years of history landlocked and under the control of whoever happens to building an empire at any given time, and still being able to resist being assimilated or forced to convert to another religion, not to mention resisting massacres and a genocide, had to take some amount of military prowess, and this was certainly the case with Armenia.
Despite the region's rap sheet when it comes to being conquered over the centuries, Armenia's geography actually made it a very difficult place to conquer, with its numerous mountains and valleys. And from ancient to Medieval times it was made even harder to conquer by its social system, in place from at least the 300's BC to 1045 AD. Armenian society followed a system similar to feudalism; the Kingdom was divided into provinces, each ruled over by a wealthy family, the head of which was called a nakharar. Each nakharar family had it's own private militia. For centuries the Mamikonian family, who ruled the lands north of Lake Van, commanded Armenia's biggest army, and the head of the family was considered Armenia's sparapet, or general, even long after the monarchy fell. The rival Bagratuni family was less militaristic and more diplomatic, which would serve them well when foreigners did come to dominate Armenia. To conquer Armenia, an empire would have to go through each and every little province individually and defeat its army; taking Armenia's capital and killing the king wouldn't be nearly enough. The system was somewhat akin to the clans of Scotland, the King himself held little more power than the nakharars.
Most early mentions of the Armenian military come from Assyrian records where they (as the empire of Urartu) were often cast as Always Chaotic Evil invaders from the North. Urartu (existing between 858-585 BC) was formed by a confederation of Anatolian tribes who banded together to resist being conquered by the Assyrians; among these tribes scholars theorize were the ancestors of the Armenians. The Urartians used their position in the Anatolian Highlands to their advantage, Assyria was never able to fully conquer Urartu, and Urartu only finally succumbed to hordes of Sythians and Cimmerians attacking from the north at almost the exact same time Assyria did. It is probable that Urartu helped the Cimmerians and Sythians take down Assyria, only to be betrayed and invaded themselves shortly thereafter. However, what survived of Urartu eventually became what we know as Armenia today. Records are scant with regards to Armenia for the next few hundred years, though we know it was dominated by Persia during this time, ruled over by a dynasty of governors called the Orontids. The Armenians make a cameo in Anabasis, written in the 400's BC, where they seemed to have semi-autonomy and were doing quite well for themselves. After Alexander the Great made his conquests in the Middle East and promptly died, Armenia fell under the dominance of the Selucid empire.
The Kingdom of Armenia first came into being after the Romans defeated the Selucid Empire in 190 BC, leading a local general from the area, Artashes I, to declare himself King. Rome and Persia had their hands too full to object. At the height of it's power in the First Century BC, the Armenian Empire spread over parts of what is today the Caucasus, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. After its expansion under the leadership of King Tigran the Great, it conquered a fairly sizable chunk of the entire Middle East. This zenith of power came at a time when Persia and Rome were both weakened, and lasted a few decades, until Rome defeated the Pontic Greek kingdom and its king fled south to Armenia, prompting Rome to send troops into the heart of Armenia and capture its capital. Despite defeating Armenia, Rome had no interest in annexing the country outright just yet (due to both how costly it would be and out of fear of raising neighboring Persia's ire) and settled for some territorial gains and taxation. Gradually, after the Roman and Persian empires regained power, they chipped away at Armenia's territory until only Greater Armenia remained. Only a few generations after Tigran's reign Armenia briefly lost its independence (becoming a Roman province, and later a Persian one, as the two empires fought over it). Armenia reaffirmed itself in the region with the Arsacid Dynasty, a Parthian-Persian line of kings, after Persia won a war against Rome and hand-picked a new King for Armenia. Armenia became a buffer kingdom between Rome and Persia from then on, whereas it's king would be approved by both empires as agreed by a treaty. This went on until the Sassanid Persians overthrew the Parthians. When Armenia finally was partitioned between Byzantine Rome and Sassanid Persia in 387 and its monarchy abolished, it was only with the nakharar's consent, as different families had different strategic alliances with both empires and most didn't like the monarchy. The nakharars under Byzantine rule, however, would soon find that the Justinian reforms robbed them of most of their power, including their right to a private army.
On the other side of the partition, although the ruling Arsacid dynasty had initially been of Parthian-Iranian origin, it had severed its relations with Persia when the rival Sassanid dynasty took over, and further when Armenia accepted Christianity in 301. While under Persian control, in 451, the battle of Vartanantz was fought by Armenians, led by Vartan Mamikonian of the Mamikonian nakharar family, against the Persians in order to resist forced conversion to Zoroastrianism. Although a military defeat, the Armenians pressed on with guerrilla warfare for the next thirty years until the Persians, tired of fighting, allowed the Armenians to freely practice Christianity in exchange for forming an Enemy Mine against the Huns, so it was really more of a moral victory. The battle of Vartanantz has the somewhat unfortunate distinction of being the first holy war.
Armenia's borders would be subject to the political arm wrestling match between the Byzantine and Persian empires until the 600's, when the Muslim Arabs overtook Persia. After that all of Armenia was under Byzantine rule In Name Only, as the empire had been too weakened by religious in-fighting to fully control the area, and the province reverted back to being self-governed by nakharars. Rather than fight the Arabs when they threatened to invade, Armenia negotiated a treaty with the Arabs under its appointed Byzantine governor Theodorus Rshtuni that stipulated taxation in exchange for peace. Neither the Church nor the militaristic Mamikonians were happy, but otherwise things were peaceful for fifty years or so. Once the Byzantine Empire pulled itself together in the early 700's, they decided they didn't like this arrangement, and started exerting more control over Armenia; the Arabs responded by annexing Armenia wholesale in a war between 701 and 703. Things were not pleasant under Arab rule; non-Muslims were heavily taxed and discriminated against. The Mamikonians organized three large-scale rebellions throughout the 8th century, all of which ended disastrously against the Arab army. The final revolt of 775 crushed the Mamikonians so completely their family was almost fully killed off and they faded from history, their holdings taken over by the Bagratuni family, who's dealings and ability to make friends in high places would begin to serve them well in the next century.
By 845 the Bagratuni's felt confident enough to stage another rebellion against the Arabs, starting a guerrilla war that went on for over seven years. Arab Caliph al-Mutawakkil finally squashed the rebellion via hiring Turkic mercenaries from central Asia. The Turks, making an Early-Bird Cameo in the region, actually managed to defeat every individual nakharar army over a two year period, using the same Rape, Pillage, and Burn methods they'd employ in later centuries, devastating Armenia and thoroughly crushing the rebellion. Though looking dim, things would turn around fairly rapidly for Armenia; in 867 Basil I became the emperor of the Byzantines, and the empire became a force to be reckoned with once again. Hoping to make peace with the Armenians and prevent them from joining forces with the Byzantines, the Arabs, in a surprising turn of events, sent Ashot Bagratuni a crown and made him King of Armenia; Basil I followed suit, and Armenia regained its old role as a buffer state. This kingdom, however, was marred by internal dissension throughout its existence. Not all the nakharar families liked answering to the Bagratunis, and eventually the Artsruni and Siunik families would declare themselves kings as well. What would follow would be a series of back-stabbings and Enemy Mines worthy of Game of Thrones.
What finally became of the kingdom was the result of its inner divisions; the Bagratuni King resorted to giving brothers and younger sons their own small kingdoms to keep the peace. The Byzantine Empire, looking to expand, bribed each one of these kings of the smaller kingdoms to let the Empire annex their lands upon their deaths over a period of 100 years. In the middle of the 1000's, a new threat faced Armenia from the north; the Seljuk Turks. It was a threat that disunited Armenia was ill-equipped to face. In 1043, King Gagik II traveled to Constantinople to plea for aid against the invaders, but the Byzantines instead imprisoned and murdered the king. The capital of Ani had been left in the hands of the Catholicos of the church, and he surrendered to the Byzantines without a fight in 1045. Thus Armenia's power structure, as well as it's nakharar armies, were finally dissolved. This marked the end of an independent Armenian Kingdom in Greater Armenia. Armenia was instead defended by Byzantine draftees from foreign lands, who didn't have their hearts in defending Armenia. Then came 1064; the Seljuk Turks, taking advantage of Byzantine Armenia's weakness, finally invaded and sacked Ani, reducing the city to ruins and massacring the populace. The Byzantine's last stand was in Manizkert in central Armenia, but they were handily defeated and their emperor held for a ransom. Anatolia would never be the same. Over the course of a couple centuries, the Byzantine Empire's dealings in Armenia directly led to their downfall at the hands of the Turks.
After the fall of the Bagratuni kingdom, a mass exodus of Armenians settled in the region of Cilicia, north of Cyprus on the Mediterranean coast where the wars between the Arabs and Byzantines had left the land depopulated, and established a kingdom there from 1199 to 1375. Later on the Cilcian Armenians became key players in The Crusades, of course on the side of the Christian European crusaders. The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia joined European forces in invading the Holy Land during this time. This earned them an Arch-Enemy in the form of the Mamluks, an Islamic people who'd dominated Egypt. By the time Ghengis Khan and the Mongols started making their rounds into Europe and the Middle East, leaving devastation in their wake, Cilicia played it smart and King Hetum I sent a representative all the way to Mongolia to negotiate an alliance. The Mongols agreed, and together they attacked the Mamluks. Sadly, they were both defeated, and this not only ended the Mongol expansion into the Middle East but things would spiral downward for Cilicia in the ensuing decades as well. Not only did Cilicia lose the protection of the Mongols, but it's kings converted to Catholicism and attempted to force the populace to convert, which did not go over well; on two separate occasions, peasant uprisings got far enough out of hand to result in a king's assassination. In it's weakness, the Mamluks took advantage and finally conquered Cilicia in 1375. And shortly thereafter, the Ottoman Turks would take Cilicia from the Mamluks, though a substantial Armenian population would remain there until 1915.
In the 1300's Greater Armenia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire too, which would on the bright side provide some stability to the famine-ravaged region after being devastated by Seljuk Turks, Mongols, and worst of all the forces of Tamerlane, but at the expense of Christians being treated like second-class citizens. After this point there was really no Armenian military to speak of, not until the 20th century. The Armenians were essentially the Ottoman Empire's most obedient minority for most of its history, and fought in its military, largely becoming a Proud Merchant Race. Trouble began after the Ottoman Empire began to fall apart in the 19th century. Armenians along with the empire's other Christian populations would become scapegoats for the empire's growing troubles, due also in part to revolutionary groups such as the Dashnak pushing for Armenian independence, and subjected to government-condoned massacres in the 1890's. Armenians did not take this lying down however, and in places such as the City of Zeitun were able to put up a resistance, defeating the Turkish army with simple pistols and rifles against overwhealming odds until the intervention of European powers mediated the conflict. These massacres, however, proved to be merely a test run for the atrocities that were to come.
During World War I, Armenians fought on both sides of the conflict as the Ottoman Empire made an ill-fated attempt to invade Russia in the winter, because Armenians happened to also be living on the Russian side. Though there were a number of Armenians working as spies for the Russians, ironically there were a higher number of Turkish people working as spies too, and besides that the blundering military tactics of General Enver Pasha did more to foil the Turkish efforts than anything else. But the Turkish government, now under the control of the Young Turks, accused all of its Armenian civilians of treason after their defeat (when really they had just been waiting for a good enough excuse to get rid of the Armenians since the 1800's), and thus in 1915 the events of the Armenian Genocide unfolded as Turkey sought to expel all Armenians from its borders. Because the Ottoman Empire had conveniently disarmed its minorities and drafted most of their able-bodied men into its army (only to be slaughtered), resistance to the genocide was few and far between. The citizens of Van, however, were able to pull off a resistance similar to the earlier Zeitun Resistance, holding off the Turkish army with little more than pistols and rifles using recycled bullets. Despite being desperately outnumbered, they were able to hold the Turkish siege back long enough for the Russian army to liberate the city. A similar resistance happened at the mountain of Musa Dagh, where the Armenians resisted for 53 days before French Warships rescued the citizens and brought them to Egypt.
After World War I Armenia was independent for a brief period once they defeated Turkey in the Battle of Sadarapat (with its borders drawn by none other than Woodrow Wilson...though it must be said he only wanted to help the Armenians because they were Christian). In that battle, Turkey attempted to finish the Armenian nation off once and for all (and possibly complete the Armenian Genocide) by moving into the city of Yerevan, but were thankfully defeated by an army of practically any Armenian that could carry a gun, and forced to retreat after decisive defeats in the cities of Karakilisa and Abaran as well. But after being weakened by repeated massacres, disease and famine, and years of nonstop wars with Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the country was finally conquered and divided between Turkey and the newly-formed Soviet Union (who secretly supplied the Turkish with money and weaponry to gain their help in taking over Armenia), where it was given the boundaries it holds today. Not everyone took this lying down though, and general Garegin Njhdeh (the commander who was in charge of the Karakilisa defense three years earlier) led an armed resistance against the Soviets in 1921, even managing to capture the capital of Yerevan for 42 days until they were pushed south. The southern regions of Armenia would declare independence, though the Republic of Mountainous Armenia was short-lived. Upon being overwhelmed by the Red Army, they negotiated a truce that included the southern province of Syunik being included in the Armenian SSR; an important provision which gave modern Armenia a border with Iran and prevented Turkey and Azerbaijan from surrounding Armenia on three sides.
Thousands of Armenians would fight on the Soviet side in the Great Patriotic War years later, with many of its citizens being drafted (see also Reds with Rockets since Armenia was a part of the Soviet Union at the time).
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Armenia finally regained its independence, Armenia went to war with Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh (itself given to the Azerbaijani SSR by Stalin when dividing up the Caucasian SSR into the borders that Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan hold today), whose citizens had chosen to secede from Azerbaijan and declare independence. This war was essentially a continuation of the post-WWI battles Armenia and Azerbaijan had fought prior to being absorbed by the USSR, which did nothing but put the conflict on pause, in a sense. There were massacres on both sides of the conflict, sadly, and the war spiraled out of control. Russia and Turkey avoided becoming directly involved for fear of sparking a much larger Christian-Muslim conflict, though Turkey's sympathies remained towards Azerbaijan, and Russia provided Armenia with weapons under-the-table. Armenia earned several victories, of note being the capture of Shushi, when a cease-fire was declared in 1994, leaving the two countries in a very uneasy truce, with Armenian troops still occupying the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh) to this day. The frozen conflict could boil over into another war at any given time. And with Azerbaijan becoming increasingly impatient and violating the cease-fire, war could indeed be on the horizon, if the Azeris have their way. There have been peace talks mediated by Russia, but since neither side wants to concede anything (not to mention the conspicuous absence of any representative from Artsakh at these meetings), the talks have so far gone nowhere.
Armenia today has a very effective and modernized military, consisting of an army and an air force (though, being located where it is, no navy), and receives aid from Russia and Greece among other allies. Males of age 19 are conscripted into the military for two years, though females can serve in the military as well. Armenia continues to build up it's army due to constant threat from Azerbaijan, but it's overall approach since the ceasefire has been a peaceful one, akin to Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" philosophy. Recently Russia has increased its military presence in Armenia, signing an agreement which stipulated that Russian troops will be stationed there until at least 2044. They also stipulated that they would remain neutral if Azerbaijan started another war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, but they would still provide military equipment to Armenia. However, Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of Central Asian countries (including Russia) that protect one another if they are attacked, so if Armenia were to be directly attacked by Azerbaijan it could count on their support. However, Nagorno-Karabakh, being a non-member and an unrecognized country, is not a part of that agreement. One can hope that cooler heads will prevail.
In all, since the Armenian-Parthian War of 87-85 BC the Armenian military has a 19-7 win/loss record when it comes to battles (Though when they did lose, it was pretty disastrous. But at least one of those losses was really a moral victory.).
Not to be confused with a different type of armored Armos entirely from a certain video game series.
- Arch-Enemy - Turkey, and Azerbaijan.
- For Cilician Armenia, it was the Mamluks.
- Badass Army - Back in the old days when every empire in the region was too afraid to combat them directly, resorting to diplomatic means of conquest, though the modern army has certainly had its moments.
- Child Soldiers - Sadly occurred during most of the World War I resistance, if only because there simply weren't enough adult men left to defend against the Ottomans. In Van for example troops of Boy Scouts were deployed, though usually their job was to tend to the wounded, collect used bullets and put out fires caused by bombs going off.
- David vs. Goliath
- Feuding Families - The nakharars didn't always particularly like one another. Notable rivalries are the Mamikonians vs the Bagratunis, the Artsrunis vs the Bagratunis, the Syuniks vs the Bagratunis...lets just say the Bagratunis didn't make many friends by cozying up to whoever was conquering Armenia.
- Cilicia had the Rubenids vs the Hethumids. This was eventually resolved through intermarriage, which saw a Hethumid dynasty of kings overtake the original Rubenid dynasty.
- Fighting for a Homeland - Fighting to keep a homeland more often than not. Indeed, it was said by historian Christopher J. Walker that had the Armenians not won the Battle of Sardarapat during the Armenian-Turkish War (which won Armenia's independence for a brief period), the word 'Armenia' might today only be an antique geographical term.
- Folk Hero - Tigran the Great and St. Vartan Mamikonian, Doomed Moral Victor as he was.
- La Résistance -
- Most notably under Arab rule, though also under Persian rule, for the simple fact that being a conquered race with a different religion than the conquerors is never very fun.
- In late Ottoman times, naturally. Though contrary to the Turkish version of history, at first they just wanted civil rights and a degree of autonomy as Christians faced growing discrimination in the Ottoman Empire, later they just didn't want to be slaughtered. It should be stressed that what happened in Van and Musa Dagh was a resistance, not a rebellion, and these are about the only two cases where the Armenians weren't completely slaughtered or deported into the desert. The subject still can cause Internet Backdraft anywhere the World War I years of the Ottoman Empire are discussed.
- Last Stand - The Battle of Sadarapat. Van and Musa Dagh probably also count in their own way.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits - In Van they held back the Turkish army with basically nothing more than a few guns, a couple hundred men, and some homemade bullets made of used Turkish bullets that had been gathered by Boy Scouts and recast by local jewelers. And their forces were made up of either men who dodged the draft or men who were too old or out of shape to be drafted to begin with, and troops of Boy Scouts.
- Training the Peaceful Villagers - Again, during the genocide.
- The Remnant: Artsakh, Lori, Sasun and Cilicia after the Seljuk Turk invasion. Of these four Artsakh has still never been fully conquered, and was always left at least semi-autonomous, due to its inaccessibility.
- Worthy Opponent: Even though Persia defeated Vartan's army, they saw the Armenians as worthy opponents and let them keep their religion and culture after defeating them.
- Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters - A lot of genocide deniers today like to throw the term 'terrorist' around a lot when speaking of the self defense of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. There certainly were radicals pushing for Armenian independence such as the Dashnak, but it's not as if they didn't have a good enough reason for wanting independence, and they didn't represent the majority of Armenians at the time. Not that the Ottoman Turks cared.
The Armenian Military in fiction:
- Ararat — Features a few scenes of the Van Resistance in it's movie within a movie.
- "Ara the Handsome" — Possibly based on the military of Armenia's predecessor, Urartu.
- David of Sasun — An Ancient Armenian epic, probably derived from the Arab conquest.
- East of Byzantium — A soon to be made film about Vartan Mamikonian's war with the Persians. There's also a graphic novel, which is coming along much faster.
- The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel — A novel based on the Musa Dagh Resistance.
- Njhdeh - An Armenian-made Bio Pic about Garegin Njhdeh including his military experiences.