A few days ago I discussed Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. In that article I proposed the hypothesis that Caesar modeled himself after Alexander the Great in his ambitions to be a world conquering hero. Alexander was not the first world conquering hero, however, since he himself explicitly tried to model himself after the Persian kings. The Persian kings, in turn, modeled themselves after their Babylonian and Assyrian predecessors. Ever since the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BC), Mesopotamian kings tried to present themselves as world conquering heroes who, with the help of the gods, established their righteous rule over the earth. Like Julius Caesar, these Assyrian and Babylonian kings issued yearly reports of their campaigns, in which they recorded their victories and other impressive deeds. Since Assyrian kings did not have to deal with pesky senators who thought absolute monarchy was a bad idea, they could be very explicit and in-your-face with their ambitions of world conquest. They also didn’t use the neutral sounding third person, but made sure that they used the first person wherever possible. One of the most interesting and best preserved Assyrian royal inscriptions is Sennacherib’s Taylor Prism.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire
Assyria had been a regional power ever since the early second millennium BC. From the city of Ashur they ruled over Northern Mesopotamia and at times expanded their sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea in the west and the Zagros Mountains to the east. These two natural features were seen as the edges of the civilized world by the inhabitants of Mesopotamia. During the rule of Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727), the Assyrians expanded their empire all the way to the Philistine city states on the Levantine coast and Mt. Alvand in Iran. In order to make sure that Assyria would not lose these lands, Tiglath-Pileser made the local kings and chiefs swear an oath to him that they would provide him with a yearly tribute and not act against Assyrian interests. In regions where there was no central authority, or where the local rulers had been rebellious, he left generals as ‘governors’. Because of these new policies the Assyrian Empire became more stable, so 745 BC is often taken as the starting date of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Tiglath-Pileser’s policies were continued by his son Salmanasser V (727-722 BC) and Sargon II (722-705), who was likely a usurper.
Sargon II was probably one of the most competent Assyrian rulers. He managed to conquer the kingdom of Israel in 721 BC, to defeat archrival Urartu in 713 BC and to subjugate all of the Levantine coast and the Zagros region. He also built an impressive new capital city named Dur-Sharrukin. However, Sargon also had to deal with some significant setbacks. Because Sargon was widely seen as a usurper, the Babylonians did not accept him as king of Babylon, like they had with Tiglath-Pileser and Salmanasser. Instead, a Chaldaean named Merodach-Baladan (Marduk-apla-iddina), proclaimed himself king of Babylon in 721 BC. Despite his early military successes, Sargon was unable to retake Babylon until 710 BC. After Sargon’s victory, Merodach-Baladan fled to Elam and from that moment onward Sargon could rule in relative peace. This peace was shortlived, however, as the Cimmerians, a nomadic people from the steppes north of the Black Sea, had invaded Anatolia. Sargon died in battle in 705 BC while trying to fight off the Cimmerian invasion, leaving his empire to his son Sennacherib.
Crisis in the Assyrian Empire
Upon his father’s death, Sennacherib was immediately faced with numerous rebellions throughout the empire. In order to understand these rebellions, one needs to realize that the local rulers were bound to the Assyrian king only by a personal oath. By swearing such an oath, these local rulers recognized that the gods had appointed the Assyrian king as supreme ruler over their domains. Anyone who would break such an oath would be a rebel against the will of the gods and could therefore expect to be punished, not only by the Assyrian army, but also by famines and plagues sent by the gods. However, if the new Assyrian king was a usurper, like Sargon II, or the son of a usurper who had met a fitting death, like Sennacherib, the local rulers were no longer bound by that oath. Upon the death of Sargon II, Merodach-Baladan returned from Elam and reclaimed his position as king of Babylon. In the Zagros region and along the Levantine coast many local rulers refused to pay tribute. The most noteworthy of these local ruler was Hezekiah, the king of Judah, who is know in the Bible for his righteousness. To top it all off Shebitku, the Nubian pharaoh of Egypt, tried to win over the local rulers of the Levant to his side. Sennacherib realized that only by thoroughly defeating and punishing his enemies he could gain credence as a true Assyrian king who was supported by the gods.
The Taylor Prism
Sennacherib’s campaigns are recorded on three clay prisms: the Taylor Prism, the Oriental Institute Prism and the Jerusalem Prism. These prisms are nearly identical, but the Taylor Prism is the oldest one, dating to 691 BC. Like all Assyrian royal annals, the Taylor Prism starts with a lengthy introduction in which the king praises himself:
1Sennacherib, the great king, 2the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, 3king of the four quarters, the wise shepherd, 4favorite of the great gods, guardian of right, 5lover of justice, who lends support, 6who comes to the aid of the destitute, who performs pious acts, 7perfect hero, mighty man, 8first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes 9the insubmissive, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt.
To a modern audience such a haughty introduction would appear ridiculous. If Caesar praised himself like that, he would probably have met his end much earlier. One might be tempted to think that Sennacherib was a narcicist or a psychopath, but if this were true then all Assyrian and Babylonian kings were. In ancient Mesopotamia the people expected their leaders to present themselves like that. They were not familiar with the concept of false modesty. In fact, such introductions would make the people feel safe knowing that such a strong and righteous king ruled over them. However, even in the Near East this exorbitant self-praise was sometimes met with derision, as these words attributed to the prophet Isaiah indicate:
Isaiah 10 (NIV)
12 When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes. 13 For he says: “By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding. I removed the boundaries of nations, I plundered their treasures; like a mighty one I subdued their kings. 14 As one reaches into a nest, so my hand reached for the wealth of the nations; as people gather abandoned eggs, so I gathered all the countries; not one flapped a wing, or opened its mouth to chirp.” 15 Does the ax raise itself above the person who swings it, or the saw boast against the one who uses it? As if a rod were to wield the person who lifts it up, or a club brandish the one who is not wood!
Even in this case it is good to notice that Isaiah did not deny that the Assyrian king had divine support, but only stated that it is not fitting for him to ascribe his deeds to his own merits.
The Taylor Prism consists of six columns containing reports of his first eight campaigns:
- On his first campaign (703 BC) Sennacherib defeats a combined Babylonian and
Elamite army led by Merodach-Baladan, causing the latter to flee to Elam once more. Upon his flight, Sennacherib takes the forts and villages of the nomadic
Chaldaeans, Aramaeans and Arabs, who were naturally more prone to rebellion. Sennacherib describes the booty that he had taken in great detail, probably to draw attention away from the fact that he did not manage to capture and execute Merodach-Baladan.
- On his second campaign (702 BC) Sennacherib subjugates the nomadic tribes of the Zagros region. His strongest enemy is king Ispabara of Ellipi (modern Lurestan), who owns several fortresses. One of these fortresses might have been Tepe Baba-Jan, a site that was burned down and abandoned around 700 BC. Sennacherib describes in great detail how he had braved the difficult mountainous terrain.
- On his third campaign (701 BC) Sennacherib marches through the Levant. Most Phoenician and Philistine city states submit to him immediately and pay their tribute. Those that resist (Sidon, Ashdod and Ekron) are taken without much trouble. Sennacherib also defeats an Egyptian army that had come to the aid of the Philistine city states. Sennacherib’s most important enemy, however, is king Hezekiah of Judah, who had expanded his sphere of influence over the Philistine city states and had taken king Padi of Ekron, who had been loyal to Assyria, captive. This deed could not go unpunished and Sennacherib describes in great detail how he has taken numerous fortresses and villages with advanced siege equipment and exiled their inhabitants to Assyria. He also states that he has laid siege to Jerusalem, locking Hezekiah up ‘like a caged bird’, until the latter is forced to pay an enormous tribute. Note that Sennacherib does not claim to have taken Jerusalem, which indicates that he had failed to do so. This may be the reason why he draws so much attention to Hezekiah’s tribute. The Bible mentions the siege of Jerusalem as well (2 Kings 18:14-19:37) and claims that the Assyrian army had to break up the siege because ‘an angel of the Lord’ had killed 185.000 of its troops. This may indicate that the Assyrian army was struck by a plague, but there is no archaeological evidence for this disaster or even for a siege near Jerusalem. Moreover, even the Bible admits that Hezekiah was forced to pay a large tribute. Whatever may have been the case, Sennacherib did not succeed in conquering Jerusalem and executing Hezekiah, but he did recieve a large tribute from him, along with a renewed oath.
- On his fourth campaign (699 BC) Sennacherib faces another rebellion by Merodach-Baladan and his Chaldaean and Elamite allies. Merodach-Baladan is forced to flee to Elam once again and Sennacherib appoints his eldest son Ashur-nadin-shumi as king of Babylon.
- On his fifth campaign (696 or 695 BC) Sennacherib subjugates several chiefdoms in Eastern Anatolia, Ukku being the most noticeable among them. Sennacherib again describes how he has braved the mountainous terrain.
- On his sixth campaign (694 BC) Sennacherib decides to pursue the Chaldaean rebels into Elam using Phoenician ships. During his pursuit, however, an Elamite army invades Babylonia, captures the new king of Babylon, Sennacherib’s son Ashur-nadin-shumi, and puts Merodach-Baladan’s son Shuzubu on the Babylonian throne. The account of this campaign is very short, probably because there were not many positive things to mention. Remarkably, Sennacherib does not relate what happened to his own son.
- On his seventh campaign (693 BC) Sennacherib invades Elam. Although he is initially successful, he eventually retreats because of the ‘heavy rains’.
- On his eighth campaign (691 BC) Sennacherib fights against a coalition of Babylonians, Elamites, Chaldaeans and Aramaeans, which he defeats. Sennacherib’s anger towards his enemies and their horrific fate after their defeat are described in grotesque terms. Sennacherib then lays siege to Babylon. The city would eventually fall in 689 BC and be completely destroyed as a punishment for defying Assyrian authority for so long, but this event is not included in the account on the Taylor Prism.
Although Sennacherib had to put up a great struggle to restore Assyrian dominance over the Near East, he eventually succeeded in doing so. He seems to have subjugated the small kingdoms and city states in the Zagros region, Anatolia and the Levant with relative ease. Only Judah managed to offer substantial resistance, but eventually they had to recognize Assyrian hegemony as well. None of these minor states, including Judah, would revolt again during Sennacherib’s rule, which is exceptional in Assyrian history. The only real challenge to Sennacherib’s rule came from the Babylonians and the Elamites, who kept Sennacherib busy for years and even managed to capture and probably kill his son. The destruction of Babylon is often seen as a sign of Sennacherib’s weakness, since he had apparently given up all hopes of ever peacefully resolving the conflict. Nevertheless, this cruel deed did ‘pacifiy’ the Babylonians for years to come. Still, Sennacherib was widely loathed for destroying this holy city. This may also have been the reason why he was killed by one of his sons in 681 BC. One of Sennacherib’s other sons, Esarhaddon, succeeded him and inherited a relatively stable empire. He decided to rebuild Babylon to regain the trust of the Babylonians, but the damage had already been done. The Babylonians would continue to bear a grudge against Assyria for decades, culminating in the destruction of the major Assyrian cities under the Babylonian king Nabopolassar between 614 and 609 BC.