Tzimisces' Letter to King Ashot about his campaign in 975

 In Volume 1 of Matthew of Edessa’s Chronicle, we are said to be given a copy of the letter that Emperor Tzimisces wrote to Ashot, king of the Armenians:

To Ashot, shahnshah of Greater Armenia, and my spiritual son. Hear and learn just what kinds of marvels and amazing victories God has given us. Knowing about them it is impossible to comprehend the sweetness of God and His great love for humanity and the astounding benevolence in making friendship among His inheritance. We should like to inform you about what we were able to accomplish during this year, O glorious Ashot Bagratuni, my son. I shall make you aware of it as you are a Christian and faithful to our beloved empire, to make you happy and so that you glorify the awesome greatness of Christ our God and realize the extent to which God always helps the Christians. For He made tributary to our empire the entire Persian East. [You shall learn also] how we removed the relics of the blessed patriarch James of Nisibis from a Tachik city and extracted our tribute from the Tachiks; how we took from them our captives and arose and departed. Now it happened that [the caliph, or Commander of the Faithful, the] Amir al-Muminin—prince of the [Fatimid] Africans, whom the Arabs call Maghrebis—in his arrogance and pride arose and came against us with many troops. And for a while he put our troops in danger, but then we conquered them with the great strength and assistance of God. As our other enemies [had done], they also turned back in disgrace. 

After this, we took the interior portion of their land, putting many districts to the sword. Then we quickly turned and exited. We made our winter quarters and paid stipends to all our cavalry. At the beginning of the month of April, we applied ourselves to the land of the Phoenicians and Palestinians and avenged ourselves on the impious Africans, who had come to the district of Syria. Then, arriving with all our troops, we went on to Antioch, subduing and adding all these districts to our empire. Taking great tribute and countless captives, we went as far as the city of Homs. Those who were of the districts tributary to us, arose and received us well. Then we reached Baalbek, which is called Heliopolis, which is Areg [“Sun”] City. This had noteworthy and daunting fortifications and was very large and rich. They arose before us in battle. But the multitude of our troops put them to flight and put them to the edge of the sword. After a few days, we besieged Sun City. Our forces took many captives, boys and girls, and treasures of gold and silver as well as many animals. 

After this we arose and advanced to the large city of Damascus. We also wanted to besiege it. However, the head of the city was an old and wise man. He sent many gifts to our majesty and beseeched us not to enslave them or lead them into servitude as had happened to the residents of Baalbek, and not to ruin their districts as [we did] with the others. They brought many valuable gifts and numerous excellent horses and mules and beautifully wrought creations of gold and silver and taxes from the Arabs amounting to 40,000 dahekans. They received generals from us and gave a document [confirming] that they would eternally be subject to our realm from generation to generation. We set up there as general a certain glorious man from Baghdad, who was named T’urk’. He came to us in service with 500 cavalry, and believed in Christ. Formerly, he had served our empire. The Damascenes wrote an oath that they would pay taxes unimpeded and also praised our realm and [vowed that they] would fight against our enemies. Then we left them without a siege. 

From there we arose and went to the Sea of Tiberias, where our Lord Jesus Christ had performed a miracle with 153 fish. Now we also wanted to besiege that city. However, they came out in submission to our realm and brought us many gifts, as the Damascenes had done, and 30,000 dahekans in taxes along with other gifts. They requested military commanders from us and gave us a document expressing submission, as had the Damascenes, [confirming] that they would remain obedient to us forever and pay our tax without hindrance. Thus, we left them without taking captives, did not destroy the city or the district, or plunder them. For this place was a patrimonial home of holy Apostles. [We had respect] here and also for Nazareth, where the Mother of God, the blessed Virgin Mary, heard glad tidings from the angels. Then we went to Mt. Tabor and ascend- ed to the place where Christ our God was transfigured. 

While we were there, [people] came to us from Ramla and Jerusalem to beseech our majesty and to find mercy from us. They also requested a general, became tributary, and pledged to remain our subjects—all of which we granted. We also wanted to free from Tachik captivity the Sepulcher of Christ our God. We designated generals in all the themes which submitted and became tributary to our empire: Beisan, also called Decapolis, Genesareth, and Acre, also called Ptolemais. In writing, they agreed to pay taxes yearly and without impediment, and to be in service to us. We advanced as far as Caesarea, located on the shore of the Ocean Sea [Mediterranean]. They submitted and came under our rule. Furthermore, if the loathsome Africans had not fled to the coastal fortresses and holed up there out of fear of us, with the aid of God we would have gone on to the holy city of Jerusalem to pray in the holy places of God. When we heard that the coastal population had fled, we brought into obedience the upper part of the land, placing them under Byzantine sovereignty. We established a general there and also brought over to our side by siege and warfare those who had not submitted. After taking them, we went via the coastal route, which leads directly to the prominent, renowned, and very well-walled city of Vr’iton, which is now called Beirut. Engaging in fierce battle, we also took that [city] and arrested a thousand Africans, including Nasir [the general] of the Amir al-Mu’min and others of the best princes. We put a general in that city and wished to go thence to Sidon. 

When the people of Sidon heard about this, they sent their city elders to us. [The elders] came and beseeched our majesty and, in great fear, asked to become tributary to us and to be and remain in our service. When we heard their requests, we assented to them, taking taxes from them and giving them generals. Then we arose from there and went to the old fortress of Byblos [Jbeil], which we also seized in battle, taking its residents into captivity. With a great amount of booty and captives, we went through all the coastal cities via a difficult and narrow road, by which route other cavalry had never passed due to its narrowness and difficulty. We found there flourishing and lovely cities and fortified strongholds. In them were Tachik guards. We besieged all of them, destroyed them to their foundations, and led their inhabitants into captivity. Before we reached Tripoli, we sent both thematic and garrison cavalry to the pass called K’areres, since we had learned that the loathsome Africans were occupying that pass. We ordered that an ambuscade be set there, creating a deadly trap for them. What we ordered was implemented. Two thousand of their [fighters] arose from their concealment and fell upon our troops. Many of [the enemy] were killed, while many others were taken captive and brought before our imperial majesty. Moreover, wherever others of them were encountered, they were put to flight. We completely destroyed the entire land of Tripoli, cutting down their vineyards, olive groves, and gardens, and generally wrecking and ruining all districts, and pulling them up by the roots. The Africans who were there dared to arise against us in battle. Then did we attack and generally destroy all of them. 

Next we took the great city called Chue’l, which is called Jabala, and also Valania, and Saone, and even the renowned Burzuya. And thus there remained no place of either sea or land between Ramla and Caesarea which had not submitted to our majesty, by the power of the Increate God. Indeed, we made obedient to our empire [territory] as far as Babylon and made them our servants. For it was seven months that our imperial majesty circulated around with many troops in that land. We emptied cities and districts, while [the Commander of the Faithful], the Amir al-Muminin did not dare to issue forth from Baghdad against us nor to send his cavalry to aid his own troops. Moreover, had it not been for the great heat and the waterless route from there to the environs of Babylon—as your highness himself knows—our royal majesty then would have gone on to Babylon. Indeed, through the grace of God Who enthroned us, we would have chased him to the country of the Egyptians and completely conquered him. 

We now have freed from servitude to the Tachiks all of Phoenicia, Palestine, and Syria, and convinced them to enter under Byzantine rule. Furthermore, we subjected to our rule the great Mount Lebanon and all the Tachiks who were there. We took a great number of captives and divided them among our cavalry. Mildly and humanely, we shepherded Asorestan, removing therefrom some 20,000 souls and settling them in Jabala. Behold, and realize that God gave to the Christians such a victory as had never occurred before. Beyond this, we discovered in that city of Jabala the blessed sandals of Christ our God which He wore as he walked the earth, and an image of our Savior which subsequently the Jews had pierced and [from which hole] immediately flowed blood and water. The hole made [in the picture] from the lance also [was visible]. In the same city we also found venerable hairs from the head of John, [known as] the Precursor and the Baptist. We took them for safety to our God-preserved city. Then, with the assent of God, in the month of September, we returned our God-supported troops to Antioch. We inform your majesty about what was accomplished at our direction, so that you admire these achievements and also glorify God’s great love for humanity, and how much goodness was accomplished here and how enlarged and extended the realm of the holy Cross of Christ has become, and how far the name of God is praised and glorified. Our kingdom has grown rich with renown, and praise for the glory of benevolent God is on our lips. It was God Who subdued those who were brought under our control. Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, forever. 

From a report of Lewon, protospatharius of Derjan and military commander of Taron, we have received salutations and joy in the Lord. 

[Moreover, in that report] we have learned that you have not given up Aytseats’ fortress, which you took for your own. Now we have written to our generals not to take that fortress nor to take the grain you provisioned there, since at present we have no need of it. But as regards the 40,000 sovo’lo’n(s) we sent [to you], have them taken to our general for him to send to our kingdom. For your crops and cereals you shall receive equal value, good for good.

The renowned Armenist and Byzantinist Nicholas Adontz raises the question:

Is there any reason to question the document’s authenticity? It contains nothing which is incompatible with what we know about Tzimisces' expedition. The only aspect which might be troublesome is the poorly-understood reason why the emperor would appeal to the king of Armenia. The letter, such as it has been translated into French and Russian, does not allow us to learn this. The translators did not understand the last part of the document. One of them simply omitted it, while Dulaurier rendered it incorrectly.

He continues:

Matthew of Edessa narrates that Emperor Tzimisces, as soon as he received news about the disastrous outcome of a battle, launched a campaign against the Arabs to preserve the honor of the army. Prior to this, General Melias, after an initial triumph, had suffered defeat near Amida and had fallen into the enemy's hands. Tzimisces first went to Armenia, entering Taron and camping opposite the fortress called Aytseats'-berd (Goats' Fortress), close to the city of Mush. The unexpected arrival of the Byzantine army was alarming to the Armenian princes. Thus they hurried to assemble their troops near King Ashot III, wanting to be ready for any eventuality.

However, the emperor was not ill-disposed toward the country. He entered into negotiations with King Ashot, concluded a treaty of alliance with him, demanded an auxiliary force of 10,000 men from him, took victuals, and departed to continue his campaign. The emperor was victorious everywhere, reaching as far as Jerusalem. At that point he ended his campaign and sent to Ashot the letter which interests us, in which he relates his exploits. At the conclusion of the letter, he returns to the question of the fortress of Aytseats'-berd, and we see that this issue had been the object of a discussion between Ashot and himself during his sojourn in Taron. It is precisely this section of the letter which presents difficulties…

The final part of the document appears to be a post-script. After recounting his conquests, the emperor says to his correspondent "greetings and joy in Our Lord." Then he returns to the question of Aytseats' fortress as well as to other obligations which had been placed on King Ashot and which, according to the emperor's strategos, had not been implemented. These are precisely the questions which led the emperor to write his letter to Ashot. 

Adontz’s complete study (translated to English by Robert Bedrosian) can be read here.


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