From lion-wrestling to long division
barbarism and excess of an ancient kingdom in the Middle East – is The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), a vast oil painting more than 16ft across, by the French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix.
One of the masterpieces of the Louvre, it was inspired by Lord Byron’s now little-known 1821 tragedy, Sardanapalus. Byron believed that Sardanapalus was the last king of the ancient Assyrian empire, which stretched, at its peak, from the Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran. As it happens, Byron was a little hazy on the history. “Sardanapalus” is a corruption of Ashurbanipal, who, upon his ascent to the Assyrian throne in 669 BC, became, in the words of the curator of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, “arguably the most powerful individual on the planet”.
In fact, Ashurbanipal was not the last Assyrian king – that dishonour goes to one of his two sons who ruled after him. Yet, within 20 years of his reign ending around 631 BC, the centuries-old Assyrian empire had disappeared. It had been “the first true empire”, says the British Museum’s Gareth Brereton. “The Babylonian and Persian empires, even Alexander the Great, all followed the Assyrian way of doing things.”
In Byron’s day, the empire’s principal cities had yet to be excavated. Nineveh, near Mosul in modern-day Iraq, is mentioned in the Bible as a den of debauchery and sin, but it wasn’t uncovered until the mid-19th century, when extraordinarily intricate reliefs were sent from there to the British Museum by the archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, sparking an “Assyrian revival”. Today, the name Nineveh is probably more familiar from news footage than from the Bible, as one of the sites systematically destroyed by the Islamic State.
Presenting almost 250 objects – including bronze cauldrons, carved ivories, glass vessels and lots of gold – the British Museum’s exhibition will evoke Nineveh as an oasis of civilisation. Ashurbanipal ruled from a spectacular mud brick palace set within luxuriant, landscaped gardens watered by aqueducts. Inside, he was surrounded by elaborate furniture, carpets and gypsum wall reliefs depicting magical lionheaded guardians and his own military victories.
In one, we see Ashurbanipal in full action-hero mode: fighting and killing lions. A high point of Assyrian art, these royal lion hunt reliefs – which depict the slaughtered beasts with surprising naturalism and sensitivity – attest to his desire to be seen as a strongman. Yet, even though he also conquered Egypt, Ashurbanipal – who may have trained as a priest – was more bookworm than great warrior.
Unlike earlier Assyrian kings, for instance, he did not lead his powerful army into battle, preferring, instead, to stay at home. He is also depicted with a stylus tucked proudly into his belt. “I can resolve complex mathematical divisions and multiplications that do not have an easy solution,” he boasted on one of the 30,000 fragmentary clay tablets recovered from his vast library. “I have read cunningly written texts… that are difficult to interpret.”
He used his intellect to manage his empire efficiently, too. It was connected by a network of “royal roads”, with a fast-track mail service. Provincial governors were issued with golden signet rings bearing the royal seal, so that, as Brereton puts it, “the king could be in many places at once”. These were all things that the Persians and Babylonians later emulated.
Yet for all his administrative brilliance, he couldn’t avert a showdown with his elder brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, who had been given the throne of the vassal kingdom of Babylon, about 50 miles south of modern Baghdad. This was a sop – their father, Esarhaddon (who reigned from 681-669BC), proclaimed his sons were “equal”, but everyone knew Ashurbanipal would really be in charge. For the first 15 years of their reigns, they coexisted peacefully, but Ashurbanipal kept interfering in Babylonian affairs. Eventually, Shamash-shum-ukin had had enough, and mustered a coalition of foreign kingdoms unhappy with Assyrian rule to wage war against his brother.
The British Museum holds a cuneiform tablet recording an extraordinary letter in which Shamash-shum-ukin goads Ashurbanipal by recalling “the game of 20 squares”, which they had played as children. Essentially, the elder brother is telling the younger: despite your confidence, ultimately, I will win, with a single bold move.
It turned into all-out conflict, culminating in a two-year siege of Babylon that started in 650BC and was disastrous for its citizens. According to ancient sources, the Babylonians had to eat the flesh of their sons and drink their daughters’ blood. Afflicted by “plague, pestilence, [and] illness”, they “withered away” and “became like corpses”.
Eventually, Ashurbanipal triumphed. “He went on a campaign of retaliation against all the kings who had supported his brother,” says Brereton, “laying them to waste.”
Ashurbanipal is a paradoxical figure: a scholar-king who liked fighting lions (if those royal reliefs are to be believed); a connoisseur of ancient texts who enjoyed flaying captured enemy leaders alive. “For me,” says Brereton, “Ashurbanipal was one of the greatest Assyrian kings.” He smiles. “But whether he was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – that’s up to the visitor to decide.”
I Am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria
‘THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL INDIVIDUAL’A relief of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback; and above right, The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) by Delacroix
OASIS OF CIVILISATIONThe Monuments of Nineveh by AH Layard, 1853