Meet Ashurbanipal, the Last Great King of Assyria

King Ashurbanipal was an ancient Mesopotamian king of the Assyrian Empire. In spite of his numerous and stupendous accomplishments as a warrior king, scholar, spy, and empire builder, Ashurbanipal often finds himself in the unenviable list of forgotten ancient rulers. Thankfully, this is about to change with the following biography of Ashurbanipal.

Read on to discover the major accomplishments and facts about Ashurbanipal’s reign.

Quick Facts about Ashurbanipal

Facts about Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal’s Birth Story and Rise to the Throne

Born around the year 669 BC, Ashurbanipal was most likely the fourth son of Esarhaddon, then-king of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian emperor had dominion over both Assyria and Babylonia.

Upon the passing away of his brother, crown prince Sin-nadin-apli, Ashurbanipal was made the heir to Assyria while his older brother Shamash-shum-ukin was made heir to Babylonia. King Esarhaddon purposely made this pronouncement because he hoped it would avoid sibling rivalry after his death.

As crown prince of the empire, Ashurbanipal shadowed his father, learning the ins and outs of the job. He also picked a lot of military strategy and battle techniques from his father. At some point, he even took the position of chief spymaster for his father.

In addition to his military tutelage, Ashurbanipal was exposed to literature, science and history. At a young age, he learnt to speak both Akkadian and Sumerian languages fluently.

Around the year 669 BC, King Esarhaddon died and the throne of the Assyrian Empire peacefully passed on to Ashurbanipal. The following year, his brother Shamash-shum-ukin was crowned king of Babylonia.

Ashurbanipal’s empire was the mightiest at the time

During the time of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian Empire without a shred of doubt was the largest in the world. Ashurbanipal’s father Esarhaddon was a brilliant military strategist and conqueror. Likewise was Esarhaddon’s predecessor King Sennacherib. With each passing ruler, the Assyrian Empire stretched its boundaries.

When Ashurbanipal inherited the throne, places all the way in Egypt and Syria and even Anatolia paid tributes to the Assyrian ruler. The Assyrian capital Nineveh (present-day Iraq) alone had about 120,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in the world at the time.

He made the Assyrians very prosperous and advanced

Aside from its sheer size, the Assyrian Empire, which included Babylonia, was one of the most advanced at the time in the world. It is not as if other smaller kingdoms stood a chance against the might of Ashurbanipal and his vast wealth.

From religion to education to literature, the reign of Ashurbanipal was characterized by growth. He could fund all those areas of the economy because he received tributes from several tribes and city-states in and around Mesopotamia. His title as the last great king of Assyria is truly deserved.

Ashurbanipal was a religious zealot

Across the Assyrian Empire, the region was full to the brim with shrines, statues and temples (ziggurats) built in honor of the about thousand or so Mesopotamian gods. This phenomenon is in no way surprising. Ancient Mesopotamians were deeply polytheist. However, Ashurbanipal took his devotion to the gods to a different level.

Call it delusion of grandeur or sheer hubris, Ashurbanipal believed that he was the direct representative/manifestation of the Assyrian gods. Many of the translations from ancient clay tablets discovered in the region vividly show us how much of a religious zealot the Great Ashurbanipal was. He also invested quite a lot of resources into the expansion, repairs and rebuilding of temples and shrines in his kingdom.

King Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal hunting a lion. 645 – 635 BC

Fought lions to demonstrate his strength

For someone with the epithets as the one above, fighting a lion seems an easy task to do. The ritual of hunting lions did not start during Ashurbanipal’s reign. The ritual, which was reserved only for Assyrian royals, was to demonstrate the monarch’s courage and strength to his people.

Ancient Assyrians regarded lions as the most dangerous animal. In their eyes, a lion symbolized disaster and chaos. Therefore, who better to vanquish chaos and bring back order to the people than the Mesopotamian kings themselves? This was a prevalent narrative in many ancient civilizations.

In Ashurbanipal’s case, the ritual was done in the most spectacular of fashion. A true show man, Ashurbanipal also rode chariots and horses with such skill and bewilderment. His archery skills were also very advanced. Many sculptures across his kingdom and palaces showed him either strangling or piercing the throat of a lion.

He was a renowned admirer and collector of arts

Ashurbanipal was the kind of emperor who would go to the ends of the world to lay a hand on an artwork that he cherished. In almost every military march and conquest he embarked upon, he collected artworks from foreign lands. Technically, it was not so much of collecting. It was more like plundering and seizing. It was the BC years after all, a time when the Greek city-states were still in their diapers, a time when Rome was just a small disorganized tribe. So who could blame him for not observing some rules of engagement?

In addition to “collecting” artworks, King Ashurbanipal encouraged the production and preservation of Assyrian arts and sculptures across the empire. The king was truly a renaissance man of his era.

He spared none of his enemies

An exhibition at the Louvre Museum showing Ashurbanipal’s campaign against Susa and the Elamites

An empire as large as the one ruled by Ashurbanipal was undoubtedly rife with rebellions and dissent. Ashurbanipal like most ancient rulers tackled this by suppressing dissents.

Starting from day one of his reign, Ashurbanipal constantly had to battle rebellions across the empire. For example, he invaded the Egyptian territory in 667 BC. He had to quickly quell a rebellion started by deposed Pharaoh Taharqa, who tried to make a comeback from his base in the south (the Kush regions). Ashurbanipal’s army even marched all the way into the regions around Thebes. He sacked city-states after city-states. He also captured and murdered officials in the revolting cities on his way.

And quite often, after every sacking of a city, Ashurbanipal appointed governors to steer the affairs of the city on his behalf. For example, he appointed Necho I and Psamtik I to rule on his behalf in Egypt.

He was a trained spy

Ashurbanipal carried out similar military campaigns like the ones above several times in Egypt, Anatolia and Syria. In the Arabian Peninsula for example, it is believed that he defeated King Yauta, king of the Qedarites, during a military campaign in 649 BC.

His training as a spymaster and intelligence officer came in very handy as he was able to identify regions and officials that were most likely to rebel.

With the help of Ashur [the patron god of Assyria] and Ishtar, I killed them. Their heads I cut off in front of each other.

The Elamites were the biggest pain in his neck

The Elamites were Ashurbanipal’s sworn enemies. Regardless of how minuscule their chances were, the Elamites did not hesitate to cause a lot of trouble for the Assyrian Empire.

After growing fed up of their troubles, Ashurbanipal razed down to ground the state of Elam. He ordered the killing of their rulers. To serve as a deterrent mechanism, the frustrated emperor even hanged the heads of the Elamite rulers in his palace garden in Nineveh. Ruthless and barbaric as this looks, Ashurbanipal believed that it was the only way of putting to an end the pain Elam caused him.

He killed the old guard in Elam and appointed a new generation of rulers to rule Elam on his behalf. For example he did away with Elamite King Teumann in 653 BC. Military allies of Teumann were also slaughtered and their cities ravaged by Ashurbanipal.

His older brother set himself on fire after a failed rebellion

Initially, the arrangement that Ashurbanipal’s father set for him and his brother Shamash-shum-ukin held for quite some time. However, Ashurbanipal’s alleged interference in Shamash-shum-ukin’s affairs in the kingdom of Babylonia caused cracks to emerge in their relationship. This culminated in his brother rebelling in 652 BC. A three-year civil war ensued as the brothers battled for dominance in Mesopotamia. Shamash-shum-ukin was particularly helped by the Chaldeans, the Elamites, Amuru, and the Arameans.

In spite of all that help, the Babylonians lost and Ashurbanipal besieged their city for several years. When the city could not hold any longer, it surrendered to Ashurbanipal. Disgraced and completely ruined, Shamash-shum-ukin committed suicide by setting himself, along with his family, up on fire.

He built the world’s first organized library – the Library of Ashurbanipal

To rebels and enemies of the Assyrian empire, Ashurbanipal was seen as a brute and ruthless ruler. However, back home in Nineveh, the king was much beloved. He was seen as refined man with beautiful and elegant palaces. Ashurbanipal was also a great scholar in every sense of the word.

Starting from an early age, he was fluent in both Akkadian and Summerian languages. He also loved reading and writing.  Therefore, it was not surprising that he is credited with establishing an organized library – one of the firsts in the world – in the capital city. This feat of his is considered one of his greatest accomplishments.

Ashurbanipal directed scribes to collect and copy texts from across the empire. The topics of these texts were wide, including things from human behavior, animal behavior, omens and movements of heavenly bodies in the night sky. There were also moderately compiled Sumerian dictionaries and Akkadian books about religious rituals, prayers and incantations.

Written in a form of writing called cuneiform, the resources in the Library of Ashurbanipal amounted to about 30,000 clay tablets. Kind courtesy to the king, we modern humans can revel in stories such as Epic of Gilgamesh, the Enûma Eliš (the Babylonian creation myth), and the Epic of Anzu.

Death of Ashurbanipal

The death of Ashurbanipal, as well as the exact year he died, has puzzled historians for centuries. His story abruptly comes to an end around the year 636 BC most likely because he was the one who did most of the writing. It is likely that he took ill and therefore could not continue writing.

Some versions of the historical account claim that Ashurbanipal set himself on fire, along with his courtiers, concubines and servants. The story places the year of this event around 612 BC. However, there is a counter argument that states Ashurbanipal suffered none of the above. It also states that he was not the last ruler of Assyria.

What is concretely clear is that his death ushered in the steady demise of his Assyrian Empire. In view of this, Ashurbanipal can be considered the greatest king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Facts about Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal

  • After the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BC, the Ashurbanipal’s library went down, lost to history for over two millennia. It was discovered in the 19th century CE (1849) by Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam.
  • The first translations of the clay tablets were done by George Smith
  • Discovery of the clay tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal means that those tablets are the oldest known books in recorded history, predating even the Bible.
  • Prior to the discovery of the ancient ruins, historians called Ashurbanipal Sardanapalus. The name came from written texts of ancient Greek historians.
  • His famous epithets included: King of Assyria; King of Sumer and Akkad; King of the Lands; King of the Four Corners of the World; and finally King of the Universe.

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