The Assyrian King, Ašurbanipal - Part 1

By Dean A. Walker, B. A.,

New Haven, Conn.


Of all the great empires that in turn held sway over the human race before the beginning of the Christian era, none exceeded in duration of power and splendor of achievement the great empire of Assyria. Egypt may show a longer line of dynasties reaching further back into the dawn of history; but her soil was often invaded by foreign armies, and Hyksos, Ethiopian, Assyrian and Grecian conquerors interrupted the line of succession of her native rulers. Alexander's empire covered a wider territory, but as a unit continued only through the life-time of its founder. Babylonia, by whose hand Assyria fell, enjoyed her power but fifty years, and the empire of the Medes and Persians that followed filled out only two hundred years.

In contrast to these short-lived or intermittent powers, the Assyrian empire had an uninterrupted autonomy of more than six hundred years, through which the succession of its kings may be directly traced; while the unknown beginnings of its history as an independent power may cover as much again. It was not, like Alexander's empire, the creature of a day or of one man, but like the republic of Rome, it rose from small beginnings with gradual increase of power and spread of territory till it overshadowed the earth and well fitted the description of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 31:3-9), "Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. The waters made him great, the deep set him up on high with her rivers running round about his plants, and sent out her little rivers unto all the trees of the field. Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the field and his boughs were multiplied and his branches became long, because of the multitude of waters, when he shot forth. All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his branches dwelt all great nations. Thus was he fair in his greatness, in the length of his branches; for his foot was by great waters. The cedars in the garden of God, the fir trees were not like his boughs, and the chestnut trees were not like his branches; nor any tree in the garden of God was like unto him in his beauty. I have made him fair by the multitude of his branches; so that all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied him."

The highest point of Assyrian power was reached near the close of the empire under the dynasty of the Sargonides, a dynasty founded indeed by a usurper, but Assyrian in every feature, numbering, in direct line, five kings, the first four of whom were fine representatives of the ancient Assyrian character. The glory of this dynasty reached its height in the reign of the subject of this paper, Ašurbanipal, the son of Esarhaddon, grandson of Sennacherib, and great-grandson of Sargon.

Ašurbanipal was king of a warlike nation and descended from a family of warriors, and inherited in full the warlike disposition of his ancestors. Sargon, the founder of the dynasty, was a usurper, who had made good his claim to the throne merely by his ability to hold it and on the principle that might makes right. Of his ancestry we know nothing. He himself in his inscriptions gives us no clew to his origin, though it was the custom of Assyrian kings to begin their records with a statement of their descent and a tribute of praise to their ancestors. Sargon was probably an officer of the army risen from the ranks by virtue of his military ability. The long absence of his king, Šalmaneser IV., at that time engaged with ill success in the sieges of Samaria and Tyre, and the consequent discontent of the people and laxity of government at the capital, invited a revolution. Sargon seized the opportunity to make himself king and was accepted by the army and people. After an active reign of seventeen years, he was succeeded by his son, Sennacherib, who with equal energy enlarged and strengthened the dominion of Assyria, till he was assassinated by his two eldest sons, Adrammelech and Sharezer, as recorded in 2 Kgs. 19:37 and Isa. 37:38. Their ambition to rule in his stead was frustrated by a younger son, Esarhaddon, who with a portion of the army was guarding the frontier of Armenia. Recognized by his troops as king, Esarhaddon drove the assassins into Armenia and took the throne, which he held for thirteen years. His reign was marked by the same vigorous policy as those of his predecessors, till, becoming afflicted with an incurable disease, he abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Ašurbanipal, reserving for himself only the province of Babylonia. The crowning of Ašurbanipal by his father is placed in the year 670 B. C., but his accession to the sole command of the empire took place on the death of his father, two years later. Dating from 668 B. C., his reign covered a period of forty-two years, the longest reign in Assyrian history and one exceeded by few in the history of other nations, either ancient or modern.

Ašurbanipal had had a thorough military training in the numerous campaigns of his father, and at the very outset of his reign, his education was put to the test. One of the signal events of his father's reign had been the conquest of Egypt, and its division into twenty districts. These were placed, some under Assyrian officers, and others under native Egyptian princes, who had sworn allegiance to the conqueror. But now Tirhakah, the Ethiopian, taking advantage of the illness of Esarhaddon, by whom he had been driven out of Egypt, returned at the end of two years and soon again made himself master of the entire valley of the Nile except a small corner of the delta. In this spot, well protected by its numerous canals, the Assyrian governors were able to hold their ground while a message was carried post-haste to Ašurbanipal at Nineveh. The king's response was prompt and efficient. A strong Assyrian force was sent under command of the Tartan, which quickly drove Tirhakah out of Egypt and reorganized the country on the former plan.

Before this was accomplished, however, the Egyptian governors who had had command of some of the cities, questioning whether, after all, their lot would be any better under an Assyrian than under an Ethiopian master, and fearing lest he might, as soon as he should be more firmly established, replace them by Assyrian governors, made ready in secret for an insurrection, and invited Tirhakah to return and take the throne, promising to secure for him the possession of Lower Egypt. The plot, however, was discovered by the Assyrian officers, and two of the ringleaders, Necho and Saretikdari, were taken and sent to Nineveh in chains. There they sued for pardon and Ašurbanipal, either from motives of policy or because his cruelty of disposition, afterward shown, was not yet developed, not only forgave them, but even appointed Necho head of the vassal kings, to rule Egypt in the name of Assyria.

On the death of Tirhakah, which occurred soon after, the war was renewed by Tirhakah's step-son and successor, Urdamani, a youth of great vigor, who in a short time had captured Memphis and driven Necho and the Assyrian forces into the delta. At this critical moment, the tardy arrival of troops from Nineveh enabled the Egyptian princes to take the offensive. This second Egyptian campaign was attended with equally successful results. Memphis and Thebes were retaken and Urdamani was driven out of Egypt. The city of Amen was pillaged and two of its obelisks, with a large amount of other booty, were sent as trophies to Nineveh. Governors were again placed over the districts of Egypt and among them, probably, was Psammetichus, the son of Necho, whose reign the Egyptians were accustomed to consider as beginning on the expulsion of Tirhakah.

Somewhere in the first half of his reign, Ašurbanipal conducted two other lesser expeditions, the dates of which cannot be exactly determined though they are represented in a cylinder inscription as occurring on his return from his Egyptian campaigns1 The first was against the city of Tyre, which had revolted and held out against a siege with some obstinacy. On the fall of Tyre, the smaller Phoenician cities that had joined in the revolt were quickly taken. Baal, king of Tyre, was pardoned and reinstated on his throne. Yakinlu, king of Aradus, on seeing that he must fall into the hands of the Assyrians, committed suicide. His eight sons were taken in the city. The eldest was pardoned and appointed to succeed his father, while the other seven were put to death. Ašurbanipal next directed his march to Cilicia, where a small insurrection had broken out. This was easily quelled, and, in token of submission, the Cilician king, whose family was already connected by marriage with the royal house of Assyria, was required to send his daughter to the royal harem at Nineveh. In this expedition Ašurbanipal crossed the Taurus range and penetrated to regions never before reached by Assyrian arms.

About this time there occurred an event very flattering to the pride of the Assyrian monarch. Gyges, the wealthy and powerful monarch of Lydia, who is described in Ašurbanipal's inscriptions as "of a country beyond the sea, whose name the kings, his fathers, had not even heard of," sent an embassy, bringing as a present two Cimmerian chieftains. The ambassadors were charged to say that Gyges having, on a former occasion when hard pressed by his enemies, been told in a dream of the might and glory of Ašurbanipal and the great god Asur, and having sent to do them homage, had signally defeated his enemies. He now sent these two chieftains as a present in token of his gratitude for this divine assistance. Ašurbanipal was not the man to lose such an opportunity as this. He accepted the present as tribute, kindly acknowledged Gyges as a vassal, imposed a further tribute and sent a small body of Assyrian troops to make good his defence against the hordes of the Cimmerians, with, perhaps, the further purpose of holding Gyges to his allegiance. He had thus extended his authority to the furthest limits of Asia Minor, far beyond that of his father, Esarhaddon.

A short and unimportant campaign followed for the punishment of the city of Karbat, a city on the frontier of Elam, whose troops had made an inroad into the territory of Babylonia. The city was taken and its inhabitants were deported to Egypt, in accordance with a well settled policy of the Assyrian kings in their treatment of rebellious towns.

The Assyrian arms were next turned to the north, against the Minni, a brave and warlike people inhabiting the mountains in the region of Lake Van. The expedition was one of great difficulty owing to the nature of the ground to 'be traversed. The Minni had strongholds in the mountains difficult of access and easy to defend. But the Assyrians were not less skilled in the storming of walled fortresses than they were valorous in the open field. The king, Akhsheri, fled from his capital to one of his castles, but there he was assassinated by his attendants and his body was thrown to the Assyrians from the wall. His son, Vahalli, then surrendered and sent to Nineveh his eldest son as a hostage and his daughter as a concubine, and agreed to pay in addition to the regular rate of tribute thirty horses.

Ašurbanipal had now directed2 campaigns with marked success in the southwestern, north-western and north-eastern corners of his empire, and in the two latter had added large territories to his dominion. But these campaigns had been of short duration and easily won. He now was to meet a danger that at one time threatened to lose for him all the ground he had gained, if not to deprive him of his empire itself. The war, or rather series of wars, which now followed covered a period of twelve years. But again the energy of the Assyrian monarch, backed by well disciplined troops, was too much for the combined forces of his enemies, and the war resulted in their complete overthrow and the annexation of all Elam to the Assyrian domain.

During the reign of Esarhaddon, the relations of Elam and Assyria had been peaceful and even friendly, and so continued when Ašurbanipal ascended the throne. The latter, during a time of famine in Elam, had even assisted Urtaki, the Elamite king, with supplies of corn, and had offered asylum in Assyrian territory to certain tribes who had fled to avoid the famine. But when the famine was passed, forgetting these favors, and instigated probably by Assyria's sworn enemy, the Chaldean, Mardukšumibni, Urtaki collected his troops and fell upon Babylonia, where, since the death of Esarhaddon, Sa'ul-mughina, a younger brother of Ašurbanipal, had been ruling as viceroy. Sa'ul-mughina appealed to Ašurbanipal for aid, and on the approach of the Assyrian troops, the Elamites withdrew. They were overtaken, however, and defeated, and Urtaki with difficulty escaped to Susa, where about a year later he and his chief captain in despair committed suicide.

Ašurbanipal had not intended any further efforts in this direction; but the death of Urtaki led to domestic complications in Elam that invited Assyrian interference. Urtaki himself had gained the throne by driving into exile the former occupant, his elder brother, Ummanaldas, whom he had subsequently caused to be put to death. Now, on the death of Urtaki, a third brother, Temin-umman, disregarding the claims both of the two sons of Ummanaldas and of the three sons of Urtaki, seized the throne and proceeded to put to death his brothers' sons. But his five nephews, being forewarned of his intentions, fled with sixty members of the royal family and attendants to the court of Ašurbanipal, leaving, however, a considerable body of sympathizers in Elam. Ašurbanipal was quite ready to take up their cause, while on the other side, Temin-umman strengthened himself by alliances with several foreign princes, including two of the descendants of the famous Merodach-baladan, whose territories lay along the Persian Gulf, and several important Arabian chieftains. The war resulted in the total defeat of the Elamites and their allies, and cost Temin-umman his head, while excessive punishments were inflicted on the chiefs who had assisted him. Elam was then divided into two provinces to be ruled by two of the sons of Urtaki. The eastern province was assigned to Tammarit; and the western, with Susa as its capital, to Ummanigaš.

The close of this foreign war was quickly followed by a dangerous civil outbreak. Sa'ul-mughina, the viceroy of Babylonia, to whom a life of dependence was becoming irksome, resolved to throw off his brother's yoke and declare himself king of Babylonia in his own right. By a free use of the rich treasures of Babylonian temples, he induced Ummanigaš, now ruler of western Elam, to forget his indebtedness to Ašurbanipal and join him in his revolt. The cruel punishments inflicted by Ašurbanipal on the hostile chiefs at the close of the previous war made it easy for Sa'ul-mughina to find sympathizers among other neighboring peoples, and he enlisted in his cause a powerful Arabian tribe and one of Merodach-baladan's grandsons, Nebobelšumi. With every prospect of success, he was prepared to advance into Assyria, when his plans were defeated by a disturbance in another quarter. The weakness of the forces retained by Ummanigaš at Susa tempted Tammarit, ruler of eastern Elam, to make himself master of the western province also, and accordingly he surprised Susa and put Ummanigaš to death. He was disposed, however, to continue the policy of Ummanigaš, and went to assist Sa'ul-mughina in his revolt. In his absence, a mountain chieftain, Indabigaš by name, came down upon Susa and occupied Tammarit's throne. The army of Elam in Babylonia refused to assist Tammarit to regain his throne and returned home in a body. Tammarit fled into concealment, and later made his way to Nineveh. Sa'ul-mughina, thus abandoned by his strongest allies, was obliged to assume the defensive. But his walled towns fell one by one, till finally Babylon itself was taken. Before opening the gates, however, the populace, maddened by the pangs of hunger, had seized Sa'ul-mughina and burned him alive. Many of the nobles who had taken part in the insurrection were put to death, while those for whom this was not the first offence were mutilated and their limbs cast to the beasts of prey. Nebobelšumi, however, escaped and found refuge with the mountain chieftain Indabigaš at Susa.

It was probably about this time that the subject provinces in the west were lost to the Assyrian empire. Psammetichus, the son of Necho, who after his father's death at Memphis had been appointed a governor in the Delta, seized the opportunity presented by the engagement of all the Assyrian forces in Babylonia and Elam to renounce his allegiance, and invited Gyges to do the same. The latter, whose friendly embassy and gifts had been received by Ašurbanipal as an act of submission, and who had been required to send tribute, though his country had never been actually invaded by Assyrian arms, was quite ready to do so, and also sent aid to Psammetichus. These forces, believed to be the Ionians and Carians mentioned by Herodotus, were of great assistance to Psammetichus, and Egypt under the dynasty then established, known as the twenty-sixth Saite dynasty, began a long and prosperous independence. It would perhaps have been better for Gyges to have kept his troops at home; for shortly after this, his country was overrun by a horde of barbarians, supposed to be the Cimmerians, on whose defeat he was congratulating himself when he sent his second embassy to Ašurbanipal. Gyges himself lost his life and was succeeded by his son Ardys. Lenormant thinks this invasion of the Cimmerians was made by invitation of Ašurbanipal. However that may be, Ašurbanipal seems to have made no effort to retain possession of Egypt. To hold it thus far had already necessitated three campaigns, and he seems to have regarded further efforts as futile, owing to the distance of Egypt and the present occupation of all his forces in Babylonia. He refused to be distracted from the work in hand. If it was his intention to take up the Egyptian affair when the war in Elam should be finished, he probably found when that time came that Psammetichus was too firmly established to make the attempt practicable.

On the death of Sa'ul-mughina and the punishment of the Arabian chieftains, a peace of several years followed. Ašurbanipal demanded of Indabigaš the surrender of Nebobelšumi, but did not trouble himself to enforce the request by arms. Internal troubles in Elam, however, soon again invited Ašurbanipal's interference. Indabigaš was slain by Ummanaldas, chief of his bowmen, who seized the throne but had to maintain it against numerous other claimants. As a pretext for war, Ašurbanipal renewed his demand for the person of Nebobelšumi, and when this pretext was made void by the suicide of the refugee, who found that he was to be given up, Ašurbanipal did not wait for other excuse, but overran the country. Ummanaldas succeeded in maintaining himself in the mountains of eastern Elam, but western Elam was taken and placed under the authority of Tammarit, who as mentioned above, had been a refugee at the court of Ašurbanipal since the inroad of Indabigaš. But he had not held this position long, before he was discovered to be plotting to make himself independent of Assyria. He was seized and sent in chains to Nineveh. A second attempt by Ummanaldas to possess himself of the whole territory was followed by the subjugation of both divisions. The entire country was devastated and its cities were spoiled. The crowning act of this long series of wars was the complete subjugation of all Elam and its organization as a province of the Assyrian empire, ruled by Assyrian officers. In a battle near Damascus, Ašurbanipal severely chastised the Arabian chiefs who had assisted Sa'ul-mughina, after which the country seems to have enjoyed peace till his death.



1) A discussion of the chronology of these events and of the relative value on this point of the various inscriptions recording them would require more space than can here be given to it. The principal sources for the history are the inscription K 2675 and the cylinder inscriptions A and B and Rm I. But the three latter sources seem to follow, at least for the events before the Elamitic war, a geographical rather than a chronological order. We have here followed the cylinder inscriptions.

2) The cylinder inscriptions represent Ašurbanipal as conducting his campaigns in person; but K 2675, the oldest and most reliable source, does not bear this out. In the campaign against the Minni, even Cylinder B says that he sent his troops, but later uses the first person singular. These later inscriptions seem to have been written expressly to exalt the prowess of the king and accordingly ascribe to him what was in fact done by his generals. The only campaign in which it is quite certain that the king actually took part is the last campaign against Elam.