Ashurbanipal ‘the Great’, the Lion of Assyria

Ashurbanipal of Assyria was as bloodthirsty as Genghis, as magnificent an empire builder as Alexander, as much a scholar as Alfred – though history doesn’t remember him as a 'Great'. That was an honour he bestowed upon himself, writes Jonny Wilkes in BBC History Revealed

Relief showing lion hunt on horseback.

The name Ashurbanipal can hardly be counted among the most famous when it comes to ancient leaders. Against the likes of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and many others, he may struggle, in the Western world at least, to get picked out of a line up.

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Even Gareth Brereton, the curator of a British Museum exhibition about him and his often-overlooked Assyrian Empire – I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria, which ran from late 2018 until early 2019 – says that he is “the greatest king you’ve never heard of”.

In his day, Ashurbanipal was the most powerful person on Earth. As the dominant force in seventh-century-BC Mesopotamia, the crucible of civilisations, he furthered Assyria’s reach beyond what had been achieved in the previous two millennia. And he used his power to build a vast library of texts from across his empire – the oldest of its kind surviving – that has bestowed a wealth of knowledge about this ancient world and its peoples.

In recent years, the legacy of the Assyrian Empire has been under threat by destruction at the hands of Islamic State. With priceless items and landmarks lost, it is more pressing than ever that Ashurbanipal does not become just another forgotten king.

Who was Ashubanipal?

For all he did as King of Assyria, the young Ashurbanipal did not expect to take the throne. His father, Esarhaddon, appointed him crown prince in 672 BC following the death of Ashurbanipal’s eldest brother. This meant skipping over the older Shamash-shum-ukin, who instead took the lesser title of King of Babylon, a major city state (and former chief power in the region) under Assyrian control.

Assyrian palaces were more than residences; they were complexes from which the empire was run (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Assyrian palaces were more than residences; they were complexes from which the empire was run (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Ashurbanipal, whose name means ‘The god Ashur is creator of an heir’, received instruction in kingship, from royal decorum and hunting to administration and training for war. He learned to fight, fire a bow, ride a horse, lead a chariot, and mastered a skill associated for centuries with being an Assyrian warrior king: lion hunting.

Slaughtering lions represented a king’s ability to protect his people from the dangers of the world, so hunts would be public events. “I pierced the throats of raging lions, each with a single arrow,” Ashurbanipal had written, and in stone reliefs he is seen strangling them with his bare hands.

Unusually, Ashurbanipal pursued scholarly pursuits too. He could read and write – in Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic – and studied mathematics and the esteemed practice of oil divination. He demonstrated such intelligence and aptitude for leadership that he would assume command of the court when his father travelled.

It was on the way to Egypt that Esarhaddon died, leading to Ashurbanipal becoming king in 668 BC. The succession went smoothly, thanks to a treaty imposed on Assyrian subjects compelling their allegiance, and an oath of loyalty forced on the courtiers by his grandmother, Naqi’a-Zakutu. He came to the throne with the empire at its height, and continued on the expansionist path of his predecessors.

The world’s greatest war machine

Ashurbanipal brought a swift end to an ongoing war in Egypt by defeating both the Kushites and Nubians, capturing the capital of Memphis and sacking Thebes. Egypt remained under Assyrian control for around a decade, but even when the country achieved independence again, Ashurbanipal felt no need to retaliate. As trade continued, he lost nothing.

That peace allowed him to besiege the Phoenician city of Tyre, then turn his attentions to the troublemaking regions of Elam and Urartu. War and quashing rebellions were near-constant features of Ashurbanipal’s reign, and while he did not lead soldiers into battle himself, preferring to stay at the capital of Nineveh, his armies conquered all. The eighth-century-BC king Tiglath-Pileser III had reformed the Assyrian army into the world’s greatest war machine and, under Ashurbanipal, its infantry, cavalry, chariots and siege expertise saw the empire grow to its largest, reaching from modern-day Turkey to the Persian Gulf.

What defined the military campaigns of Ashurbanipal’s reign was the utter ruthlessness of both his armies and the punishments he meted out as king. Defeated peoples would be plundered, taxed and deported to the empire, where they were be put to work or inducted into the infantry.

Enemy leaders were made an example of. One relief portrays a king with a dog chain through his jaw and being made to live inside a kennel, and another shows the head of an Elamite king hanging from a tree while Ashurbanipal and his wife enjoy a meal.

Relief of Ashurbanipal and his wife
Ashurbanipal and his wife take dinner, watched by the head of a defeated king hanging from a tree to their left (Photo by Alamy)

Merciless to his enemies, Ashurbanipal proved popular to the Assyrians and an able administrator. He followed the policy of previous kings of splitting the empire into provinces or vassal states, each with a governor, and the empire had a reliable network for communication and supplies due to miles of royal roads, like arteries pumping the lifeblood of the empire.

And at the heart: Nineveh. Now near Mosul in Iraq, it had been transformed into a city of never-before-seen size and splendour, complete with the so-called ‘palace without rival’, built by Ashurbanipal’s grandfather Sennacherib. Located on the bank of the Tigris River, Nineveh boasted spectacular gardens, a permanent oasis in the desert watered by canals and monumental aqueducts. No wonder that some historians today claim Nineveh, not Babylon, as the true home of the Hanging Gardens. It was here that Ashurbanipal ruled, built a new palace and established a centre of society and culture.

War and quashing rebellions were near-constant features of Ashurbanipal’s reign

Some 300 miles to the south on the Euphrates River sat the city of Babylon, where Ashurbanipal’s “favourite brother” Shamash-shum-ukin ruled as king. He kept the peace for. 16 years, but tensions between the two brothers borne from when their father overlooked him as heir slowly mounted.

Ashurbanipal managed Babylonian affairs and dictated decrees, leaving his brother as nothing more than a puppet. Resentful at his restricted powers, Shamash-shum-ukin eventually formed a coalition with several conquered peoples and rebelled in 652 BC.

The resulting war ended in disaster for Shamash-shum-ukin. His allies abandoned him and the Assyrians laid siege to Babylon for two years. Those inside starved – according to one inscription, resorting to eating the “flesh of their sons and daughters” – and, with defeat approaching, Shamash-shum-ukin committed suicide by setting his palace ablaze.

A remorseless Ashurbanipal set about on his punishment: “The rest of those living I destroyed… and their carved up bodies I fed to dogs, to pigs, to wolves, to eagles, to birds of the heavens, to fishes of the deep.”

Ashurbanipal managed Babylonian affairs, leaving his brother as a puppet

In the years that followed, Ashurbanipal’s wrath fell hardest on Elam. With its people divided by civil war, he saw a chance to rid himself of this defiant enemy. His armies ravaged the lands, salted the ground to prevent anything from growing, plundered palaces and temples, looted royal tombs of their bones, and killed or deported in huge numbers.

So eager was Ashurbanipal to demonstrate his power that he claimed to have killed a king and his son with his own sword, despite not being at the battle. A more consistent display of his ruthlessness came after sacking the city of Susa in 639 BC, when he had four Elamite leaders draw his chariot in the triumphal procession. He left Elam in ruins, having refused any rebuilding or new governor, and with a severely decreased population. The Assyrian Empire had never been stronger, and at no other time did Ashurbanipal better deserve his self-given moniker, “great king, mighty king, king of the world”.

Through such names, writings and the reliefs adorning the walls of his palace, he established his image as warrior and conqueror, but also scholar. His ability to read and write made him a rarity among Assyrian kings, so he would be represented with a stylus, as well as a sword, in his belt.

Marble relief of Assyrian soldiers
Assyrian soldiers escort loot and captives from Babylon in this marble relief. (Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Texts would be signed with his name, implying he wrote them himself, and he once declared: “All the art of writing of every kind, I made myself master of them all …  The best of the scribal art, such works as none of the kings who went before me had ever learnt, remedies from the top of the head to the toenails, non-canonical selections, clever teachings, whatever pertains to the medical mastery of Ninurta and Gala, I wrote on tablets, checked and collated, and deposited within my palace for perusing and reading.”

The library of Ashurbanipal

Hungry for knowledge, Ashurbanipal began an undertaking the legacy of which would surpass his decades of military victories and territorial expansion – the building of his library. Sometimes called the first modern library in history, it constituted the most complete collection of the world’s knowledge at the time. A zealous man, Ashurbanipal hoped the texts would help him better understand the gods, so sought out omens, incantations, prayers, rituals and proverbs. Yet that only made up a fraction of the library.

Thousands of texts, mostly written in cuneiform on clay tablets, had been gathered or copied by scholars sent to every corner of the empire. More came in after being looted or when Ashurbanipal threatened conquered nations to send what writings they possessed. Housed at his palace in Nineveh with rooms devoted to a myriad subjects, the tablets covered history, law, geography, medicine, sciences, lexicography, literature, poetry, religion and magic to name a few. Government records would be kept in deeper recesses.

When discovered in the mid-19th century, the library revealed its most important treasures, such as a nearly complete list of Assyrian rulers and the Epic of Gilgamesh, regarded as the first great epic work of literature. This includes the famous Flood Tablet, which bears a striking resemblance to the biblical story of the Flood. The excavation also uncovered the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth. The Library of Ashurbanipal ranks as one of history’s most significant archaeological finds.

Excavating an empire

Relying on religious texts and biased historians from Greece and Rome, understanding of the Assyrians remained scant or suspect until the 19th century. But when French archaeologist Paul-Émile Botta discovered the city of Dur-Sharrukin in 1843, others were inspired to seek out the lost empire. English adventurer Austen Henry Layard excavated Nimrud and Nineveh, uncovering a wealth of artefacts, reliefs and colossal stone statues of lamassu.

He is also credited with the unearthing of Ashurbanipal’s library in 1852, although that was actually the achievement of his Assyrian assistant, Hormuzd Rassam. The finds, and translations of the ancient cuneiform texts by George Smith, caused a sensation.

Excavations have continued, on and off, ever since. But when Islamic State held the land near Mosul, Iraq, many priceless treasures were bulldozed, blown up and vandalised. Their cleansing of anything un-Islamic is a reminder of the need to preserve our knowledge of the Assyrian Empire, or risk it being lost forever.

Ashurbanipal’s library long outlived his empire. In fact, the downfall of the latter helped the precious texts survive. Within two decades of his death c627 BC, the cause of which remains unknown, the Assyrian Empire had collapsed.

It had grown too big, with its resources too stretched to remain stable, and the loss of its talismanic leader sparked both civil war and rebellions by a number of vassal states. In 612 BC, Nineveh was besieged and destroyed. When the attackers razed the once-wondrous capital, the burning walls of the palace fell on top of the library, unintentionally baking the clay tablets and preserving them for posterity.

Today, the British Museum houses more than 30,000 tablets and fragments of the Library of Ashurbanipal, as well as the iconic 30-tonne stone lamassu (winged bulls with the bearded heads of humans) and the finest examples of reliefs from Assyrian palace walls. And while its exhibition may not make Ashurbanipal as famous as other ancient personalities, it brings together more than 200 artefacts to tell the story of an empire and its last great king, as well as the struggles archaeologists face with saving sites under threat.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

Ashurbanipal was the last great king of one of history’s first empires, its roots stretching back nearly 2,000 years before his time. In the 14th century BC, the millenniumold state of Assyria, once the powerhouse in Mesopotamia, broke the dominion of the neighbouring Mitanni kingdom and launched campaigns of conquest.

Assyria flourished, for a while. It lost much of its territory in the 12th century BC – the cause remains a mystery – before a line of powerful kings restored their lands and influence, establishing what is called the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

They subdued enemies, including Babylon and Egypt, due to innovations in battle. They were among the first to utilise iron, and deployed superior tactics. Soldiers fought in pairs – one to fire a bow while the other held a body-sized shield – and mastered siege warfare. What’s more, they were utterly ruthless. The words “destroyed”, “devastated” and “burned with fire” appeared often in the inscriptions of kings.

Yet they were efficient administrators too. They built far-reaching infrastructure, such as royal roads, and cities like Ashur, Nimrud and Nineveh. Although their power collapsed in the seventh century BC, the Assyrians helped draw the blueprint for every empire that followed.

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the February 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed