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Leo I the Magnificent, the First King of Armenian Cilicia

Leo I the Magnificent, the First King of Armenian Cilicia

Cover photo: the silver coin with the image of Leo I

Leo I the Magnificent from the Armenian Rubenid dynasty – “Lord of the Mountains” and the first king of Armenian Cilicia – is a key figure without whom it is impossible to imagine the history of the Christian East of the era of the Crusades. A man who achieved the inclusion of his kingdom in the family of Western powers; a tolerant ruler who built a multinational state, where Armenians, Franks, Romans, Syrians equally prospered; a generous patron of  arts and churches ... Despite the trials, he met, his attitude to the various peoples of the East and his steady desire to create a united, powerful Christian kingdom in the Levant remained unchanged.

Leo I the Magnificent 

Leo I the Magnificent is an absolutely outstanding figure. The king, who, despite the pain of the Byzantine-Armenian hostility, will be the architect of a subtle interfaith world and the harmonious patron of all Christians of the East.

The Kingdom of Armenia will arise on the Cilicia Plain, which extends to the Mediterranean.

Panoramic view of the Cilician plain to the Mediterranean: the Taurus Mountains, covered with fertile valleys

Coming to power of Leo I

Leo was born in 1150. He was the younger brother of the "Lord of the mountains" and Baron Rouben III. They controlled part of the land from the North Syrian territories and the ancestral fortress of Vahk to the middle of the Taurus and the east of the Cilician plain: the cities of Sis, Anazarbus, Adana and Mamistra.

The fortress of Vakh, belonging to the Rubenid dynasty  

In 1180, the greatest keeper of the East, the emperor Manuel Comnenus, dies, and two years later fierce series of dynastic conflicts begin in Byzantium. Thus, Byzantium leaves the distant borders of the East, and a new confrontation begins for the Cilician plain: now between the Rubenid dynasty and the principality of Antioch.

Antiochian prince Bohemond III  (also known as the Stammerer) the brother-in-law of the late emperor of Byzantium, considers himself the historical lord of these lands and, in fact, the lord of the Armenians, but he understands that a Muslim ruler Salah ad-Din is close to his borders. In 1183, he decides to sell Tarsus, to the elder brother of Leo, Rouben III. After that, Bohemond III of Antioch concentrated his forces in the East, concluded peace with Salah ad-Din, and turned his attention back to the north: Cilicia.

Coin with the image of Bohemond III of Antioch 

It was 1185. A conflict starts within Armenians – The Rubenid dynasty starts making war with another Armenian dynasty, ruling in the Western Taurus – The Hethumids. The conflicting sides, represented by Rouben III and Hethum III request assistance of Bohemond III of Antioch, who invites Rouben III to Antioch to start negotiations…

Prince Bohemond III treacherously takes prisoner of Ruben III, tortures him and demands to surrender to him rich eastern cities and lowland lands: Adana, Mamistra. Leo realizes that he must return his older brother alive, so he surrenders the cities to Bohemond III.

Despite this, for about a year the brothers beat off every lost fortress, every city, and restore everything they lost.

Rouben III, crushed by this experience, resigns, takes monasticism, and Leo becomes the “Lord of the Mountains”.

The rule of Leo as the “Lord of the Mountains”

When accepting these lands, Leo realizes that it is necessary to conclude a treaty with the principality of Antioch, since misfortune threatens all Christians of the East: in 1186–1187 nomadic Turkmens (Turkomans) come towards the East in unprecedented quantities. Like a disaster, they begin to flood the valleys and ravage the cities.

The kingdom of the Rubenid dynasty, represented by Leo and the principality of Antioch, represented by Bohemond III, manage to repel the attack and beat the nomads.

Against the common danger, in 1187 Leo and Bohemond III conclude a contract. Leo marries Zabel, the niece of the wife of Bohemond III and provides him with substantial funds to cover the costs.

In the same year, an important event occurs: the Muslim ruler Salah al-Din seizes the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and a year later  Antioch. Moreover, Muslims take Bagras Castle, which controls the most important pass - the Syrian gates, the Amonos Mountains – the shortest way to Antioch. Francs of Antioch end up with nothing.

The castle of Bagras 

When peace was concluded after the Third Crusade and the Muslims left these lands, Bohemond III wanted them back, but in vain: Leo's garrison descended from the mountains and took Bagras castle, which made a direct path to Antioch.

In 1193, Leo invites Bohemond III to come to see the new fortified castle of Bagras and hold talks. There, Leo tells Bohemond  that now he will decide when the prince can leave this castle. Bohemond's response was this: “What are you doing, Leo, am I taken prisoner?” Levon states that he will pay for what he did to his older brother. Under torture, Bohemond agrees to cede Antioch to Leo.

The situation in Antioch – in this greatest Christian city of Syria – was this: the population did not want to be under the Armenian domination, because in the 10th and 11th centuries, during the Byzantine rule, Armenians twice tried to take power in this city and massacred it.

The ruins of ancient Antioch  

However, the nobility of Antioch gladly puts the power in Leo’s hands: the latter presents them lands, so they felt like aristocrats and barons, the rest of the population Latin burghers and Orthodox artisans, despite the religious and language differences between them, consolidated against the Armenians and created the Antioch commune.

Under these conditions, Leo was persuaded to let Prince Bohemond go, with whom in 1194 Leo made an interesting contract: to marry Bohemond's eldest son, Raimund, and the elder, already deceased brother's daughter, who was the heir to the throne. The child would inherit both Antioch and Cilicia, and on the basis of this French-Armenian marriage all Christians of Cilicia and Northern Syria would be united.

After marriage, Raimund of Antioch goes to Cilicia, but there he dies. At the time of his death his wife was pregnant. A boy was born, Raimund-Ruben, whom Leo was raising as his own son.

Leo I the Magnificent – the ruler of the kingdom of Armenia

Then happens the greatest triumph in Leo’s life: he starts controlling the Cilician lands: from western Cilicia to the Euphrates and Northern Syria.

Leo manages to come to terms with the holy Roman Empire which allows to call the country “the Kingdom of Armenia”.

Cilician coin with the image of Leo I 

On January 6, 1198, in the presence of all barons and princes: Armenians, Franks, Romans, the Syrian-Jacobite (Syrian) Patriarch, the Armenian Catholicos, the Orthodox Metropolitan – in the Armenian Cathedral of St. Sophia and St. Peter in Tarsa, Leo was coronated, and the state of the “Lords of the Mountains” becomes a kingdom. 

This was one-of-a-kind kingdom of Armenia, “Regnum Armenia”, a unique state under the rule of the Armenian monarchs, and a unique epoch, because under the authority of the Armenian king, a new welfare center of the Armenian people and the Armenian Church, architecture, writing and art were created.

Map of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom in 1199-1375

Three traditions dominate in Leo’s kingdom: Armenian, Byzantine and Latin, since not only Armenian fortresses, villages, enclaves and quarters, but also Romaic, Byzantine, Latin settlements, Genoese colonies, Frankish signoria, Syrians, small communities were under the dominance of his rule. All this was mixed into one state.

It is noteworthy that of the 32 barons and princes who were present at Leo’s coronation, slightly more than 20 were Armenians of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, about 8 were Franks, about 8 were either Romans or Khalkedonites. The court of King Leo was organized according to the Western traditions.

Leo had brilliant like-minded people beside, in particular, Archbishop of Tarsa Nerses Lambronatsi. He was from the Hethumids dynasty. Nerses Lambronatsi was brilliantly educated and used to spend his time in the libraries. He translated many works into Armenian.

The thumbnail of Nerses Lambronatsi  

As he mentioned: “We take from both the Romans and the Franks what is good for us”. And this is very important: at the Armenian court, common services of various confessions, ceremonies and processions began to be cultivated, which practically did not exist in the Christian world at that time. At the services during the liturgy in the Armenian Apostolic Church, some prayers were sung in two languages - Armenian and Greek.

King Leo's wars

King of Armenia Leo the Magnificent, according to the oath of the treaty of 1194, wants to transfer power to the boy he educates, Raimund-Ruben and, thereby, to unite Antioch and the kingdom of Armenia into a single state. However, the Antioch commune wasn’t interested in the domination of the Armenians. It teams up with Bohemond’s second son, Bohemond IV, who raises the question: who has more rights to the throne after the death of his elder brother he or his brother's son?

In 1201, Bohemond III died, and the great war for the Antiochian inheritance began, which lasted for 20 years. This war divided everyone into two main groups: the Latin patriarch and part of the Frankish knights on one side, and the Latin population on the other. Orthodox Antioch was categorically against King Leo, while Orthodox Cilicia was for him, moreover, supported him in the war.

Armenians both praised Leo and criticized him for being too open to Roma and Franks. For example, an Armenian chronicler writes about him: "He didn’t only generously patronized Armenian monasteries, but also the monasteries of Orthodox Syrians, Greeks, Georgians, despite the disasters that these peoples had caused to his people and to him personally." Leo the Magnificent was a generous patron of the Byzantine Patriarchate. This was a tradition for other Cilician kings too.

The ruins of the temple Akner, built by Leo close to Adana

Events that marred old king’s life

By 1216 Raimund-Ruben, heir to the Kingdom of Armenia and the Principality of Antioch, had already reached the age of majority, and they, together with King Leo, decided to make an attempt to take Antioch one last time. Thanks to the efforts of the old king, they attempted. The gates of the city were opened. The fact that the Orthodox Patriacrh was on the side of the King of Armenia played its important role.

Raimund-Ruben, heir to two thrones, grew up to be a fervent but not intelligent young man. He tried to capture the old king. Leo remembered this step for the rest of his life: for him it was the hardest betrayal. He deprived Raymond-Ruben of all support, which resulted in an uprising against him, and the Antioch commune restored power to his uncle, Bohemond IV.

Raimund-Ruben fled to the Kingdom of Armenia and begged the old king for help. Leo refused to even see him. He deprived Raimund-Ruben of the title of ruler and inheritance rights. Raimund-Ruben went to Egypt. He joined the crusaders, and Bohemond reigned again in Antioch.

In 1119, immediately after his death, his kingdom plunged into civil war. Raimund-Ruben landed in Cilicia, occupied Tars, gathered an army and began to march towards the capital.

Armenians choose a new governor, this time – a representative of the Hethumids dynasty. The two main rival dynasties, the Rubenids, who were the main enemies of Byzantium in the 12th century, the convinced Westerners and the Hethumids, who were Byzantine allies in the 12th century, advocated the rights of Armenian princes, the Armenian church, people.

Konstantin Hethumid defeats the army of Raimund-Ruben, and this young king of Armenia, the claimant to the throne of Prince of Antioch, will die in the dungeon of Tarsus.

It seemed that the power would be transmitted to Konstantin Hethumid and his sons, but the Armenian princes were afraid of his excessive authority and decided to do the following: they invited the son of Bohemond IV, Philip the Tall, to rule Armenia, offering him to marry with Leo’s daughter, Zabel.

The agreement was like this: Philip of Antioch becomes King of Armenia; he should change the rite, should respect the rights of Armenian citizens. However, this young man, the husband of Leo's daughter, behaved extremely defiantly, mocked the Armenians: he said that Armenians were not warriors.

In 1225, Philip's warriors capture him and transfer him to the old regent Konstantin Hethumid. Philip Bohemond IV's father was furious, but he could not attack because he was afraid for his son. Konstantin Hethumid calls him to negotiate. Bohemond notes that his soon looks seek, to which the Armenians answer: “He will not live long, we have just given him poison.” Philip dies in the arms of his father.

Enraged, Bohemond together with the Turks launched a war against the kingdom of Armenia, but the kingdom survived. The Council of Barons of the Kingdom of Armenia decides that Zabel, the daughter of Leo, will have a new spouse, the youngest son of Constantin Hethumid, Hethum I, and so Hethumids came to power.

The coronation of Zabel: painting by Vardges Surenyants  

The eldest son of Zabel and Hetum I will be named after his father, so the rule of Leo was the greatest triumph in the Rubenid dynasty, but also the decline of the male line, which, unfortunately, was interrupted.

Source: Sergey Brun's lecture “The Guardians of the Christian East. People of dialogue. Leo I the Magnificent – the first king of Armenia”.


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