Ashurbanipal Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Areas of Achievement: Government, architecture, art, and literature Assyrian king (r. 669-627 b.c.e.){$I[g]Middle East;Ashurbanipal}{$I[g]Assyria;Ashurbanipal} The last great king of ancient Assyria, Ashurbanipal lived within a generation of its annihilation. Inside his exquisitely decorated palace, he brought together a magnificent library of cuneiform writing on clay tablets, which included materials from twenty-five hundred years of achievement by Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.

Early Life

Ashurbanipal (ah-shur-BA-neh-pal) was born toward the end of a fifteen-hundred-year period of Assyrian ascendancy. His name in Assyrian is Ashur-bani-apli (the god Ashur has made a[nother] son), affirming that he was not intended to stand in the line of royal accession.

His father, Esarhaddon, youngest son of Sennacherib, had become heir when the crown prince, Ashur-nadin-shumi, was deposed by rebels from his position as vassal for Babylon. Esarhaddon was not the son of Sennacherib’s queen, Tashmetum-sharrat, but of the West Semitic “palace woman” Zakutu, known by her native name, Naqi’a. The only queen known for Esarhaddon was Ashur-hamat, who died in 672 b.c.e.

Ashurbanipal grew up in the small palace called bit reduti (house of succession), built by Sennacherib when he was crown prince in the northern quadrant of Nineveh. In 694, Sennacherib had completed the “Palace Without Rival” at the southwest corner of the acropolis, obliterating most of the older structures. The “House of Succession” had become the palace of Esarhaddon, the crown prince. In this house, Ashurbanipal’s grandfather was assassinated by uncles identified only from the biblical account as Adrammelek and Sharezer. From this conspiracy, Esarhaddon emerged as king in 681. He proceeded to rebuild as his residence the bit masharti (weapons house, or arsenal). The “House of Succession” was left to his mother and the younger children, including Ashurbanipal.

The names of five brothers and one sister are known. Sin-iddin-apli, the intended crown prince, died prior to 672. Not having been expected to become heir to the throne, Ashurbanipal was trained in scholarly pursuits as well as the usual horsemanship, hunting, chariotry, soldierliness, craftsmanship, and royal decorum. In a unique autobiographical statement, Ashurbanipal specified his youthful scholarly pursuits as having included oil divination, mathematics, and reading and writing. Ashurbanipal was the only Assyrian king who learned how to read and write.

In 672, on the death of his queen, Esarhaddon reorganized the line of succession at the instigation of his mother. He used the submission of Median chieftains to draft a treaty. The chieftains swore that if Esarhaddon died while his sons were still minors, they and their descendants would guarantee the succession of Ashurbanipal as king of Assyria and Shamash-shum-ukin as king of Babylon. A monumental stela set up two years later in a northwestern province portrays Esarhaddon in high relief on its face and each of the sons on a side. These portraits, the earliest dated for Ashurbanipal and his brother, show both with the full beard of maturity.

The princes pursued diverse educations thereafter. Extant letters from Shamash-shum-ukin offer his father reports of the situation in Babylon; Ashurbanipal at home received letters as crown prince. The situation came to an immediate crisis in 669, when Esarhaddon, on campaign to Egypt, died suddenly. Ashurbanipal did not accede to the kingship of Assyria until late in the year. His grandmother required all to support his sole claim to the throne. The official ceremonies of coronation came in the second month of the new year, and within the same year (668), Ashurbanipal installed his brother as king of Babylon. The transition took place smoothly, and the dual monarchy of the youthful brothers began. Texts describe their relationship as if they were twins. It was clear, however, that Ashurbanipal, as king of Assyria, like his fathers before him, was also “king of the universe.”

Life’s Work

One of the first challenges that Ashurbanipal had to face was a rebellion in a region of Egypt over which Esarhaddon had established Assyrian sovereignty. In 667, the ousted king Taharqa came as far north as Memphis, which he recaptured. The Assyrian army rushed south to defeat him, but he again fled. Ashurbanipal enlisted new troops from Syria and followed, capturing Thebes. Three vassals were found guilty of plotting against Assyria, and they were sent to Nineveh. One of them, Necho, convinced Ashurbanipal of his personal loyalty and was returned to his position in Sais in the Nile River Delta.

After Taharqa’s death, Tanutamon tried to drive out the Assyrians. He captured Memphis and drove the Assyrian vassals into the Delta. With the return of Ashurbanipal and the Assyrian army, Tanutamon fled back to Thebes, which again fell to the Assyrians. In the course of this war, Necho had fallen, and his son Psamtik I was installed as vassal at Sais; he became king of...

(The entire section is 2114 words.)