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Arshak II

Arshak II

The basics
Quick Facts
Gender male
Father: Tiran of Armenia
Spouse: Olympias of ArmeniaPharantzem
Children: Pap of ArmeniaAnob of Armenia
The details
For the King of Iberia, see Arshak II of Iberia

Arshak II (Armenian: Արշակ Բ, flourished 4th century, died 369 or 370), also known as Arsaces II and Arsak II was a prince who was a Roman client king of Arsacid Armenia from 350 until 368.

Early life

Arshak II was the second born son to Tiran (Tigranes VII) by an unnamed mother. His father served as a Roman client king of Arsacid Armenia from 339 until 350. His date of birth is unknown and little is known on his early life. Sometime during his father’s reign, the Sassanid King Shapur II launched a war on Rome and her allies, firstly by persecuting the Christians that lived in Persia and Mesopotamia. Shapur II, by capturing these territories, began to deal a severe blow to Roman prestige in the East. Sometime into his father’s reign, Shapur II with his army had invaded Armenia; eventually taking Arshak II with members of his family as hostages as they were betrayed to Shapur II by his father’s chamberlain. Arshak II, along with members of his family, had become Sassanid political prisoners in which his father was blinded and thrown into prison after Shapur II accused his father of collusion with Rome.

The nobles of Armenia were infuriated by the brutality of Shapur II and his treatment of Arshak II with members of his family, took up arms and fought against Shapur II and his army with assistance from the Romans. They successfully drove Shapur II and his army out from Armenia. After Shapur II was defeated, he signed a treaty, and Arshak II and members of his family were released from prison. As Arshak II’s father was depressed and blinded from his experience in captivity, he abdicated his throne, and Arshak II succeeded his father as Armenian King in 350.


Arshak II, like his father, strongly pursued a policy on Christian Arianism. In the early years of his reign, Arshak II found himself courted by the Roman Empire and Sassanid Empire, both of which hoped to win Armenia to their side in the ongoing conflicts between them. By 358, Arshak II had married a Greek noblewoman Olympias, the daughter of the late consul Flavius Ablabius. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXV. vii, 9-13; vol. II, pp. 532/3-534/5) described Arshak II as a "steadfast and faithful friend" to the Romans.

The King of Sassanid Persia, Shapur II, intensified his efforts to conquer Armenia once and for all. He was able to bribe two Armenian noblemen, Vahan Mamikonian and Meruzhan Artsruni, and had them join his royal court. Arshak II focused on strengthening the army. He rewarded loyal generals and severely punished disloyal ones. He crafted an ambitious plan in which all criminals that settled in his newly founded city of Arshakavan were given complete amnesty. Approximately 150,000 individuals were settled in the city. His hope was to create a large army directly under his command, but many in the Armenian nobility did not agree with the plan and subsequently destroyed the city and killed its inhabitants.

The Romans and the Persians chashed again. Roman Emperor Jovian, being in a very difficult position, negotiated an undesirable peace with Shapur II in which he allowed the Persians to take over the fortresses of Nisbis, Castra Maurorum, and Singara along with a part of Armenia. Arshak II found himself abandoned by the Romans and left to defend Armenia all alone. The Persians swiftly attacked, but were unsuccessful, partly due to the leadership of the general (Armenian: sparapet) Vasak Mamikonian. Shapur II, seeing that brute force was not going to subjugate Arshak II, turned to treachery. Arshak II was invited by the Persian King for peace talks. When Arshak II arrived with Vasak Mamikonian, he was taken prisoner and his general was skinned.

Arshakuni Armenia under Arshak II

Imprisonment and suicide

Living in a Persian prison, Arshak II was unable to stop the Sassanid invasion of Armenia. Shapur II conquered Armenia and tried to convert Christian Armenians to Zoroastrianism, the main religion of the Sassanid Empire.

Sometime in 369 or 370, an Armenian named Drastamat visited the imprisoned Arshak II. The king reminisced about his glory days and, feeling depressed, took his visitor’s knife and killed himself. Drastamat, moved by what he had just witnessed, took the knife from Arshak II’s chest and stabbed himself as well.


Despite having a troublesome reign, Arshak II was able to improve many aspects of his kingdom. The chief architect of the reforms was his cousin, Saint Nerses I the Great. They included:

  • the establishment of many monasteries, to isolate monks from the stress of everyday life and helped spread the gospel;
  • the building of hospitals;
  • the founding of many schools that would teach Assyrian and Greek, since the Holy Bible was read in those languages at that time;
  • the interdiction of inbred marriages, polygamy, divorce, pagan rituals, drunkenness and revenge killings;
  • strongly encouraging slave-owners to be merciful to slaves and treat them as equals.


Arshak II was named in honor of his Parthian, Pontian and Armenian ancestors who ruled under this name as king, in particular he was named in honor of Arshak I, also known as Arsaces I, the founder of the Arsacid Parthian dynasty and the first ruler of the Parthian Empire.

The letter of Vagharshak, king of Armenia, to Arshak the Great, king of Parthia,
To Arshak, king of earth and sea, whose person and image are as those of our gods, whose fortune and destiny are superior to those of all kings, and whose amplitude of mind is as that of the sky above the earth, from Vagharshak your younger brother.

Physical appearance

According to the Armenian 5th century historian Faustus of Byzantium in his writings History of the Armenians (Book IV, Chapter 15), states Pharantzem in describing Arshak II as, “physically, he is hairy, and his color is dark”.

Family & Issue

Arshak II appeared to have three known wives.

  • Prior to his Armenia kingship, Arshak II married an unknown woman who appeared to have died before 358. His first wife bore him a son:
    • Anob
  • By 358, he married the Greek noblewoman Olympias. They were married until her death in 361 They had no children.
  • In 360, he married the Armenian noblewoman Pharantzem, the widow of Arshak II’s nephew, the Arsacid Prince Gnel. Pharantzem remained with Arshak II until his death. She bore Arshak II a son:
    • Papas (Pap). He was born in 360 and is the only known child born to Arshak II during his reign.
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