The Armenian state of Cilicia (1080-1375) started as a princedom under the rule of Rupen I (1080-1095). It played an important role during the first Crusades under the Rupenian dynasty. In a hundred years, it would become a kingdom due to the efforts of Prince Levon II.
Levon (known as Leo in non-Armenian sources) was born in 1150. His father Stepan, the third son of Prince Levon I (1129-1137), was murdered by the Byzantines in 1165. His paternal uncle, Mleh I (1169-1175), had made a host of enemies and was assassinated by his own soldiers in Sis. Levon’s elder brother, Rupen, elected to succeed Mleh, was imprisoned in 1183 by Prince Bohemond III of Antioch, who had begun hostilities against him in alliance with Prince Hetum III of Lambron.
Levon became regent during his brother’s absence. Rupen was released in 1187 after the payment of a large ransom and cession of two cities to Antioch. He relinquished power to his brother and retired to the monastery of Drazark.
Levon II had an initial rapprochement with Bohemond III as a result of the alliance between Byzantium and Sultan Saladin of Egypt. He even married Isabelle, a niece of his rival’s wife.
He approached Frederick I Barbarossa, the German emperor, when he entered the Armenian territories on his way during the Third Crusade, but the emperor drowned in Cilicia in 1190. Nevertheless, Levon participated in the siege of Acre and in 1191 he joined King Richard the Lionheart in the conquest of Cyprus.
Levon II was intent upon ensuring the security of Cilicia. He entered in conflict with Saladin, who died in 1193, and Bohemond III, whom he took prisoner in the same year. A solution of the conflict between Cilicia and Antioch was found when Raymond of Antioch, son of Bohemond III, married Levon’s niece Alice. However, Raymond died soon and Alice and her infant son Raymond-Rupen were returned to Cilicia. The Armenian prince determined that his great-nephew should inherit Antioch on the death of Bohemond III.
Levon II pressed for a royal crown and sought the assistance of German emperor Henry VI and Pope Celestine III. The latter required submission of the Armenian Church to Rome, but this was opposed by the Armenian bishops. Byzantine emperor Alexios III sent Levon a royal crown, and the negotiations between an Armenian embassy headed by Bishop Nerses of Lambron and the Byzantine side in Constantinople centered on religious questions, and were fruitless in the end.
Finally, Levon II was crowned on January 6, 1198, in Tarsus by Catholicos Gregory VI Abirad, and received another royal insignia by the Papal legate, Archbishop Conrad of Mainz. After the fall of the Bagratuni kingdom of Ani in 1045, an Armenian kingdom had been restored. He was Levon II when a prince, but after his coronation, he became Levon I, because he was the first king of that name. He would issue coins with the legend “King of All Armenians” (Takavor Amenayn Hayots).
Levon I was entangled in the conflict of succession of Antioch. When Bohemond III died in 1201, although the barons had sworn allegiance to the king’s great-nephew Raymond-Roupen, Bohemond’s second son, Count Bohemond of Tripoli, opposed the validity of the oath and was installed as Bohemond IV of Antioch. The Papacy, the Templars, the emir of Aleppo, and the Seljuk Sultan of Konia were involved in the conflict at one time or another. Levon was finally able to install Raymond-Roupen as prince of Antioch in 1216.
Meanwhile, he received “injurious information” about his wife Isabelle. The king imprisoned her in the fortress of Vahka, where she died around 1206. He married Sibylle, the half-sister of King Hugh I of Cyprus, in 1211. His daughter Rita (d. in 1220) married King John I of Jerusalem in 1214.
However, before his death in 1219, Levon quarreled with his great nephew Raymond Roupen and named his young daughter Zabel (born in 1215) as his rightful heir. Levon I is known in Armenian history as Levon I Medzakordz (the Magnificent). Several years of conflict for the succession of the throne of Cilicia would ensue. Finally, in 1226 Zabel would marry Hetum, son of Constantin of Baberon, and this would end the long dynastic and territorial rivalry, unifying the two most powerful families of the kingdom: the Rupenians and the Hetumians.