Arzamas was founded in 1578 by Ivan the Terrible in the lands populated at the time by Mordvins. By 1737, more than 7,000 people lived in Arzamas and the town became a major transit center on the route from Moscow to eastern parts of Russia. It was known for its geese and onions as well as leather crafts.
Catherine the Great in 1781 granted town status to Arzamas and a coat of arms based on the colors of the Arzamas regiment. In the early 19th century, Arzamas had over twenty churches and cathedrals, the foremost being the Resurrection Cathedral. It was built in the Empire style to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812.
Alexander Stupin art school was located in Arzamas between 1802 and 1862 and many famous Russian artists studied there, including Vasily Perov.