A new major exhibition opening in November 2018 at The British Museum is about one of history’s greatest forgotten kings – Ashurbanipal.
This exhibition tells the story of Ashurbanipal through the British Museum’s unparalleled collection of Assyrian treasures and rare loans. Ashurbanipal’s world is brought to life through displays that evoke the splendour of his palace, with its spectacular sculptures, sumptuous furnishings and exotic gardens. Also on display is the workings of Ashurbanipal’s great library, the first in the world to be created with the ambition of housing all knowledge under one roof.
Despite being one of Assyria’s greatest kings, Ashurbanipal wasn’t destined for the throne, as he was a younger son of the king.
When his eldest brother and the heir to the throne died, his father Esarhaddon passed over the next eldest son Shamash-shum-ukin, and made Ashurbanipal crown prince instead. This was a bold (and perhaps a slightly foolish) move. Esarhaddon’s own father had been brutally murdered by his sons after he put their younger sibling (i.e. Esarhaddon) on the throne!
Shamash-shum-ukin, would have been pretty annoyed about the decision to bypass him. As a consolation, Esarhaddon made Shamash-shum-ukin king of Babylon. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, not quite. At this time, Babylon was part of the Assyrian empire so he would essentially have to answer to his younger brother! Tensions would later explode into all-out war.
Ashurbanipal was king of the Neo-Assyrian empire. At the time of his reign (669–c. 631 BC) it was the largest empire in the world, stretching from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east, and at one point it even included Egypt. Its capital Nineveh (in modern-day Iraq) was the world’s largest city. This is at a time when the Greek city-states (like Athens and Sparta) were still in their infancy and Rome was just a small settlement.
Ashurbanipal wasn’t modest about being the king of the Assyrian empire – he called himself ‘king of the world’! Quite a claim, but given the size of the empire, it wasn’t far from the truth.
When Ashurbanipal was appointed crown prince, he started his training to be king. He learnt royal etiquette, important military skills and was instructed in scholarship. He shadowed his father in court where he could learn the way of Assyrian kingship.
He also worked as a spymaster for his father, gathering information from agents across the empire and compiling intelligence reports. This helped to develop Ashurbanipal’s knowledge of the empire – and learn who his potential enemies were.
As part of his military training, the young crown prince was taught to drive chariots, ride cavalry horses, and develop skills such as archery. He also learnt how to hunt lions. In Assyria lion hunting was a royal ‘sport’. Although this perhaps seems cruel to modern eyes, killing lions represented the king’s ability to protect his nation against all that was wild and dangerous in the world.
Ashurbanipal commissioned a series of reliefs – a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material – to cover the walls of his palace which showed him hunting, and even strangling lions with his bare hands. These works are some of the most famous examples of Assyrian art.
Ashurbanipal was popular among his subjects but ruthless in dealing with enemies. He was said to have put a dog chain through the jaw of a defeated king and made him live in a dog kennel. That’s pretty brutal, even by the standards of the ancient world.
Ashurbanipal inherited a war with Egypt (and other neighbouring regions), which he went to work dealing with, destroying his enemies and growing the empire even further.
When the state of Elam tried to rise up against Assyria, Ashurbanipal crushed them. He claimed to have killed the Elamite king and his son with his own sword (in reality, he was not at the battle, but at home in the safety of his palace). The Elamite king’s head was brought back to the palace in Nineveh where it was hung from a tree in the garden as a decoration.
Ashurbanipal spent a lot of effort dealing with Elam’s troublesome rulers, who plotted against Assyria. The exasperated Ashurbanipal decided to crush Elam once and for all. He robbed the palaces and temples and ordered that the royal tombs be opened and the bones of kings taken. Those who survived were brought back to Assyria in chains as slaves.
Crushing enemies was not confined to external threats – he also destroyed his own brother. As we’ve already seen, Ashurbanipal’s brother Shamash-shum-ukin had been created king of Babylon. Fed up of answering to Ashurbanipal, his brother conspired against him, creating a coalition with other outlying peoples in the empire and taking contested cities in the name of Babylon.
When Ashurbanipal discovered the plot, he laid siege to Babylon for two years! There were horrific stories of people eating their own children to survive starvation. In the end Ashurbanipal’s brother died in his burning palace to escape capture and his co-conspirators were killed.
While he wasn’t crushing enemies and killing lions, perhaps incongruously Ashurbanipal enjoyed scholarly pursuits. He could read and write, which was unusual for a king. He loved to boast about his scholarly abilities, and he even represented himself in his palace reliefs with a stylus (used for writing) in his belt, along with his sword.
Ashurbanipal developed the first systematically collected and catalogued library in the world. He wanted a copy of every book worth having and sent his minions across the empire to gather all the knowledge in the world. Assyrian books were mostly written on clay tablets, not on paper, in a script called cuneiform, which used little wedges to make up symbols. In total he gathered hundreds of thousands of these tablets, around 30,000 of which are now in the British Museum.
Ashurbanipal proved himself worthy of protecting his people through displays of strength, such as hunting lions. Like many rulers of the ancient world, he liked to boast about his victories in battle and brutally crushed his enemies. However, this vast and diverse empire was controlled through more than just brute force. Ashurbanipal used his skills as a scholar, diplomat and strategist to become one of Assyria’s greatest rulers.
Despite his long and successful reign, Ashurbanipal’s death is shrouded in mystery. Shortly afterwards, the Assyrian empire fell and the great city of Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BC, its ruins lost to history until the 1840s. Their rediscovery has allowed us to piece together a portrait of the powerful and complex ruler that was Ashurbanipal.