Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.); (Part 8) Assyrian

Years might have elapsed before Sennacherib could have ventured to recommence hostilities: he was not deluded by the exaggerated estimate of his victory in the accounts given by his court historians, and he recognized the fact that the issue of the struggle must be uncertain as long as the alliance subsisted between Elam and Chaldaea. But fortune came to his aid sooner than he had expected. Umman-minanu was not absolute in his dominions any more than his predecessors had been, and the losses he had sustained at Khalule, without obtaining any compensating advantages in the form of prisoners or spoil, had lowered him in the estimation of his vassals; Mushezib-marduk, on the other hand, had emptied his treasuries, and though Karduniash was wealthy, it was hardly able, after such a short interval, to provide further subsidies to purchase the assistance of the mountain tribes. Sennacherib’s emissaries kept him well informed of all that occurred in the enemy’s court, and he accordingly took the field again at the beginning of 689 B.C., and on this occasion circumstances seemed likely to combine to give him an easy victory.

[NOTE: The Assyrian documents insert the account of the capture of Babylon directly after the battle of Khalule, and modern historians therefore concluded that the two events took place within a few months of each other. The information afforded by “Pinches’ Babylonian Chronicle” has enabled us to correct this mistake, and to bring down the date of the taking of Babylon to 689 B.C.]

Mushezib-marduk shut himself up in Babylon, not doubting that the Elamites would hasten to his succor as soon as they should hear of his distress; but his expectation was not fulfilled. Umman-minanu was struck down by apoplexy, on the 15th of Nisan, and though his illness did not at once terminate fatally, he was left paralyzed with distorted mouth, and loss of speech, incapable of action, and almost unfit to govern. His seizure put a stop to his warlike preparations: and his ministers, preoccupied with the urgent question of the succession to the throne, had no desire to provoke a conflict with Assyria, the issue of which could not be foretold: they therefore left their ally to defend his own interests as best he might. Babylon, reduced to rely entirely on its own resources, does not seem to have held out long, and perhaps the remembrance of the treatment it had received on former occasions may account for the very slight resistance it now offered.

The Assyrian kings who had from time to time conquered Babylon, had always treated it with great consideration. They had looked upon it as a sacred city, whose caprices and outbreaks must always be pardoned; it was only with infinite precautions that they had imposed their commands upon it, and even when they had felt that severity was desirable, they had restrained themselves in using it, and humoured the idiosyncrasies of the inhabitants. Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V., and Sargon had all preferred to be legally crowned as sovereigns of Babylon instead of remaining merely its masters by right of conquest, and though Sennacherib had refused compliance with the traditions by which his predecessors had submitted to be bound, he had behaved with unwanted lenity after quelling the two previous revolts. He now recognised that his clemency had been shown in vain, and his small stock of patience was completely exhausted just when fate threw the rebellious city into his power.

If the inhabitants had expected to be once more let off easily, their illusions were speedily dissipated: they were slain by the sword as if they had been ordinary foes, such as Jews, Tibarenians, or Kalda of Bit-Yakin, and they were spared none of the horrors which custom then permitted the stronger to inflict upon the weaker. For several days the pitiless massacre lasted. Young and old, all who fell into the hands of the soldiery, perished by the sword; piles of corpses filled the streets and the approaches to the temples, especially the avenue of winged bulls which led to E-sagilla, and, even after the first fury of carnage had been appeased, it was only to be succeeded by more organised pillage. Mushezib-marduk was sent into exile with his family, and immense convoys of prisoners and spoil followed him. The treasures carried off from the royal palace, the temples, and the houses of the rich nobles were divided among the conquerors: they comprised gold, silver, precious stones, costly stuffs, and provisions of all sorts.


The sacred edifices were sacked, the images hacked to pieces or carried off to Nineveh: Bel-Marduk, introduced into the sanctuary of Assur, became subordinate to the rival deity amid a crowd of strange gods. In the inmost recess of a chapel were discovered some ancient statues of Kamman and Shala of E-kallati, which Marduk-nadin-akhe had carried off in the time of Tiglath-pileser I., and these were brought back in triumph to their own land, after an absence of four hundred and eighteen years. The buildings themselves suffered a like fate to that of their owners and their gods. “The city and its houses, from foundation to roof, I destroyed them, I demolished them, I burnt them with fire; walls, gateways, sacred chapels, and the towers of earth and tiles, I laid them all low and cast them into the Arakhtu.”

The incessant revolts of the people justified this wholesale destruction. Babylon, as we have said before, was too powerful to be reduced for long to the second rank in a Mesopotamian empire: as soon as fate established the seat of empire in the districts bordering on the Euphrates and the middle course of the Tigris, its well-chosen situation, its size, its riches, the extent of its population, the number of its temples, and the beauty of its palaces, all conspired to make it the capital of the country. In vain Assur, Calah, or Nineveh thrust themselves into the foremost rank, and by a strenuous effort made their princes rulers of Babylon; in a short time Babylon replenished her treasury, found allies, soldiers, and leaders, and in spite of reverses of fortune soon regained the upper hand. The only treatment which could effectually destroy her ascendency was that of leaving in her not one brick upon another, thus preventing her from being re-peopled for several generations, since a new city could not at once spring up from the ashes of the old; until she had been utterly destroyed her conquerors had still reason to fear her. This fact Sennacherib, or his councilors, knew well. If he merits any reproach, it is not for having seized the opportunity of destroying the city which Babylon offered him, but rather for not having persevered in his design to the end, and reduced her to a mere name.


In the midst of these costly and absorbing wars, we may well wonder how Sennacherib found time and means to build villas or temples; yet he is nevertheless, among the kings of Assyria, the monarch who has left us the largest number of monuments. He restored a shrine of Nergal in the small town of Tarbizi; he fortified the village of Alshi; and in 704 B.C. he founded a royal residence in the fortress of Kakzi, which defended the approach to Calah from the south-east. He did not reside much at Dur-Sharrukin, neither did he complete the decoration of his father’s palace there: his pride as a victorious warrior suffered when his surroundings reminded him of a more successful conqueror than himself, and Calah itself was too full of memories of Tiglath-pileser III. and the sovereigns of the eighth century for him to desire to establish his court there. He preferred to reside at Nineveh, which had been much neglected by his predecessors, and where the crumbling edifices merely recalled the memory of long-vanished splendours.

He selected this city as his residence at the very beginning of his reign, perhaps while he was still only crown prince, and began by repairing its ancient fortifications; later on, when the success of his earlier campaigns had furnished him with a sufficient supply of prisoners, he undertook the restoration of the whole city, with its avenues, streets, canals, quays, gardens, and aqueducts: the labour of all the captives brought together from different quarters of his empire was pressed into the execution of his plans–the Kalda, the Aramaeans, the Mannai, the people of Kui, the Cilicians, the Philistines, and the iyrians; the provinces vied with each other in furnishing him with materials without stint,–precious woods were procured from Syria, marbles from Kapri-dargila, alabaster from Balad, while Bit-Yakin provided the rushes to be laid between the courses of brickwork.

The river Tebilti, after causing the downfall of the royal mausolea and “displaying to the light of day the coffins which they concealed,” had sapped the foundations of the palace of Assur-nazir-pal, and caused it to fall in: a muddy pool now occupied the north-western quarter, between the court of Ishtar and the lofty ziggurat of Assur. This pool Sennacherib filled up, and regulated the course of the stream, providing against the recurrence of such-accidents in future by building a substructure of masonry, 454 cubits long by 289 wide, formed of large blocks of stone cemented together by bitumen.

On this he erected a magnificent palace, a Bit-Khilani in the Syrian style, with woodwork of fragrant cedar and cypress overlaid with gold and silver, paneling’s of sculptured marble and alabaster, and friezes and cornices in glazed tiles of brilliant colouring: inspired by the goddess Nin-kurra, he caused winged bulls of white alabaster and limestone statues of the gods to be hewn in the quarries of Balad near Nineveh. He presided in person at all these operations–at the raising of the soil, the making of the substructures of the terrace, the transport of the colossal statues or blocks and their subsequent erection; indeed, he was to be seen at every turn, standing in Ids ebony and ivory chariot, drawn by a team of men. When the building was finished, he was so delighted with its beauty that he named it “the incomparable palace,” and his admiration was shared by his contemporaries; they were never wearied of extolling in glowing terms the twelve bronze lions, the twelve winged bulls, and the twenty-four statues of goddesses which kept watch over the entrance, and for the construction of which a new method of rapid casting had been invented.

Formerly the erection of such edifices cost much in suffering to the artificers employed on them, but Sennacherib brought his great enterprise to a prompt completion without extravagant outlay or unnecessary hardship inflicted on his workmen. He proceeded to annex the neighbouring quarters of the city, relegating the inhabitants to the suburbs while he laid out a great park on the land thus cleared; this park was well planted with trees, like the heights of Amanus, and in it flourished side by side all the forest growths indigenous to the Cilician mountains and the plains of Chaldaea. A lake, fed by a canal leading from the Khuzur, supplied it with water, which was conducted in streams and rills through the thickets, keeping them always fresh and green. Vines trained on trellises afforded a grateful shade during the sultry hours of the day; birds sang in the branches, herds of wild boar and deer roamed through the coverts, in order that the prince might enjoy the pleasures of the chase without quitting his own private grounds.

The main part of these constructions was finished about 700 B.C., but many details were left incomplete, and the work was still proceeding after the court had long been in residence on the spot. Meanwhile a smaller palace, as well as barracks and a depot for arms and provisions, sprang up elsewhere. Eighteen aqueducts, carried across the country, brought the water from the Muzri to the Khuzur, and secured an adequate supply to the city; the Ninevites, who had hitherto relied upon rain-water for the replenishing of their cisterns, awoke one day to find themselves released from all anxiety on this score. An ancient and semi-subterranean canal, which Assur-nazir-pal had constructed nearly two centuries before, but which, owing to the neglect of his successors, had become choked up, was cleaned out, enlarged and repaired, and made capable of bringing water to their doors from the springs of Mount Tas, in the same year as that in which the battle of Khalule took place. [NOTE: Mount Tas is the group of hills enclosing the ravine of Bavian. These works were described in the Bavian inscription, of which they occupy the whole of the first part.] At a later date, magnificent bas-reliefs, carved on the rock by order of Esar-haddon, representing winged bulls, figures of the gods and of the king, with explanatory inscriptions, marked the site of the springs, and formed a kind of monumental facade to the ravine in which they took their rise. [NOTE: The Bavian text speaks of six inscriptions and statues which the king had engraved on the Mount of Tas, at the source of the stream.]

It would be hard to account for the rapidity with which these great works were completed, did one not remember that Sargon had previously carried out extensive architectural schemes, in which he must have employed all the available artists in his empire. The revolutions which had shattered the realm under the last descendants of Assur-nazir-pal, and the consequent impoverishment of the kingdom, had not been without a disastrous effect on the schools of Assyrian sculpture.

Since the royal treasury alone was able to bear the expense of those vast compositions in which the artistic skill of the period could have free play, the closing of the royal workshops, owing to the misfortunes of the time, had the immediate effect of emptying the sculptors’ studios. Even though the period of depression lasted for the space of two or three generations only, it became difficult to obtain artistic workmen; and those who were not discouraged from the pursuit of art by the uncertainty of employment, no longer possessed the high degree of skill attained by their predecessors, owing to lack of opportunity to cultivate it.

Sculpture was at a very low ebb when Tiglath-pileser III. desired to emulate the royal builders of days gone by, and the awkwardness of composition noticeable in some of his bas-reliefs, and the almost barbaric style of the stelae erected by persons of even so high a rank as Belharran-beluzur, prove the lamentable deficiency of good artists at that epoch, and show that the king had no choice but to employ all the surviving members of the ancient guilds, whether good, bad, or indifferent workmen. The increased demand, however, soon produced an adequate supply of workers, and when Sargon ascended the throne, the royal guild of sculptors had been thoroughly reconstituted; the inefficient workmen on whom Tiglath-pileser and Shalmaneser had been obliged to rely had been eliminated in course of time, and many of the sculptures which adorned the palace at Khorsabad display a purity of design and boldness of execution comparable to that of the best Egyptian art. The composition still shows traces of Chaldaean stiffness, and the exaggerated drawing of the muscles produces an occasionally unpleasing-heaviness of outline, but none the less the work as a whole constitutes one of the richest and most ingenious schemes of decoration ever devised, which, while its colouring was still perfect, must have equalled in splendour the great triumphal battle-scenes at Ibsambul or Medinet-Habu.

Sennacherib found ready to his hand a body of well-trained artists, whose number had considerably increased during the reign of Sargon, and he profited by the experience which they had acquired and the talent that many of them had developed. What immediately strikes the spectator in the series of pictures produced under his auspices, is the great skill with which his artists covered the whole surface at their disposal without overcrowding it. They no longer treated their subject, whether it were a warlike expedition, a hunting excursion, a sacrificial scene, or an episode of domestic life, as a simple juxtaposition of groups of almost equal importance ranged at the same elevation along the walls, the subject of each bas-relief being complete in itself and without any necessary connection with its neighbour.

They now selected two or three principal incidents from the subjects proposed to them for representation, and round these they grouped such of the less important episodes as lent themselves best to picturesque treatment, and scattered sparingly over the rest of the field the minor accessories which seemed suitable to indicate more precisely the scene of the action. Under the auspices of this later school, Assyrian foot-soldiers are no longer depicted attacking the barbarians of Media or Elam on backgrounds of smooth stone, where no line marks the various levels, and where the remoter figures appear to be walking in the air without anything to support them. If the battle represented took place on a wooded slope crowned by a stronghold on the summit of the hill, the artist, in order to give an impression of the surroundings, covered his background with guilloche patterns by which to represent the rugged surface of the mountains; he placed here and there groups of various kinds of trees, especially the straight cypresses and firs which grew upon the slopes of the Iranian table-land: or he represented a body of lancers galloping in single file along the narrow woodland paths, and hastening to surprise a distant enemy, or again foot-soldiers chasing their foes through the forest or engaging them in single combat; while in the corners of the picture the wounded are being stabbed or otherwise despatched, fugitives are trying to escape through the undergrowth, and shepherds are pleading with the victors for their lives. It is the actual scene the sculptor sets himself to depict, and one is sometimes inclined to ask, while noting the precision with which the details of the battle are rendered, whether the picture was not drawn on the spot, and whether the conqueror did not carry artists in his train to make sketches for the decorators of the main features of the country traversed and of the victories won. The masses of infantry seem actually in motion, a troop of horsemen rush blindly over uneven ground, and the episodes of their raid are unfolded in all their confusion with unfailing animation.

For the first time a spectator can realise Assyrian warfare with its striking contrasts of bravery and unbridled cruelty; he is no longer reduced to spell out laboriously a monotonous narrative of a battle, for the battle takes place actually before his eyes. And after the return from the scene of action, when it is desired to show how the victor employed his prisoners for the greater honour of his gods and his own glory, the picture is no less detailed and realistic.

There we see them, the noble and the great of all the conquered nations, Chaldaeans and Elamites, inhabitants of Cilicia, Phoenicia, and Judaea, harnessed to ropes and goaded by the whips of the overseers, dragging the colossal bull which is destined to mount guard at the gates of the palace: with bodies bent, pendant arms, and faces contorted with pain, they, who had been the chief men in their cities, now take the place of beasts of burden, while Sennacherib, erect on his state chariot, with steady glance and lips compressed, watches them as they pass slowly before him in their ignominy and misery.

After the destruction of Babylon there is a pause in the history of the conqueror, and with him in that of Assyria itself. It seems as if Nineveh had been exhausted by the greatness of her effort, and was stopping to take breath before setting out on a fresh career of conquest: the other nations also, as if overwhelmed by the magnitude of the catastrophe, appear to have henceforth despaired of their own security, and sought only how to avoid whatever might rouse against them the enmity of the master of the hour. His empire formed a compact and solid block in their midst, on which no human force seemed capable of making any impression.

They had attacked it each in turn, or all at once, Elam in the east, Urartu in the north, Egypt in the south-west, and their efforts had not only miserably failed, but had for the most part drawn down upon them disastrous reprisals. The people of Urartu remained in gloomy inaction amidst their mountains, the Elamites had lost their supremacy over half the Aramaean tribes, and if Egypt was as yet inaccessible beyond the intervening deserts, she owed it less to the strength of her armies than to the mysterious fatality at Libnah. In one half-century the Assyrians had effectually and permanently disabled the first of these kingdoms, and inflicted on the others such serious injuries that they were slow in recovering from them.


The fate of these proud nations had intimidated the inferior states–Arabs, Medes, tribes of Asia Minor, barbarous Cimmerians or Scythians,–all alike were careful to repress their natural inclinations to rapine and plunder. If occasionally their love of booty overpowered their prudence, and they hazarded a raid on some defenceless village in the neighbouring border territory, troops were hastily despatched from the nearest Assyrian garrison, who speedily drove them back across the frontier, and pursuing them into their own country, inflicted on them so severe a punishment that they remained for some considerable time paralysed by awe and terror. Assyria was the foremost kingdom of the East, and indeed of the whole world, and the hegemony which she exercised over all the countries within her reach cannot be accounted for solely by her military superiority.

Not only did she excel in the art of conquest, as many before her had done–Babylonians, Elamites, Hittites, and Egyptians—but she did what none of them had been able to accomplish; she exacted lasting obedience from the conquered nations, ruling them with a firm hand, and accustoming them to live on good terms with one another in spite of diversity of race, and this with a light rein, with unfailing tact, and apparently with but little effort. The system of deportation so resolutely carried out by Tiglath-pileser III. and Sargon began to produce effect, and up to this time the most happy results only were discernible. The colonies which had been planted throughout the empire from Palestine to Media, some of them two generations previously, others within recent years, were becoming more and more acclimatised to their new surroundings, on which they were producing the effect desired by their conquerors; they were meant to hold in check the populations in whose midst they had been set down, to act as a curb upon them, and also to break up their national unity and thus gradually prepare them for absorption into a wider fatherland, in which they would cease to be exclusively Damascenes, Samaritans, Hittites, or Aramaeans, since they would become Assyrians and fellow-citizens of a mighty empire.

The provinces, brought at length under a regular system of government, protected against external dangers and internal discord, by a well-disciplined soldiery, and enjoying a peace and security they had rarely known in the days of their independence, gradually became accustomed to live in concord under the rule of a common sovereign, and to feel themselves portions of a single empire. The speech of Assyria was their official language, the gods of Assyria were associated with their national gods in the prayers they offered up for the welfare of the sovereign, and foreign nations with whom they were brought into communication no longer distinguished between them and their conquerors, calling their country Assyria, and regarding its inhabitants as Assyrians. As is invariably the case, domestic peace and good administration had caused a sudden development of wealth and commercial activity. Although Nineveh and Calah never became such centres of trade and industry as Babylon had been, yet the presence of the court and the sovereign attracted thither merchants from all parts of the world.

SOURCE: History Of Egypt, Chaldaea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria, Volume 8 (of 12), by G. Maspero/Translated by M. L. McClure

Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) Part 7; Assyrian


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