Sardanapalus was the legendary king of Assyria who lived around 621 BC according to the Bible Timeline with World History. Greek historians Ctesias and Diodorus of Sicily recorded that he was the last king of Neo-Assyrian empire. The details assigned by the historians to the legendary Sardanapalus do not match the reign of Ashur-ubalit II (Assyria’s last king). Therefore, the depiction of this Assyrian king is most likely a product of imagination. The general agreement among modern historians is Sardanapalus was based on three Assyrian kings including Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), his brother Shamash-shum-ukin (667-648 BC), and grandson Sin-shar-ishkun (622-612 BC). He is also referred to in the Bible as Osnappar (Ezra 4:10).
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The Legendary King
Diodorus Siculus offers a controversial account of Sardanapalus in his book The Library of History. He is presented as a lazy hedonist who was preoccupied with parties and luxury. According to Diodorus, he was a vain man who made himself an epitaph before his death.
Arbaces (a general of the Medes) and Belesys (priests of the Chaldeans) joined with the Arabs and Persians to rebel against Sardanapalus. They were defeated by the Assyrians in their first few battles, but they encouraged the Bactrians to rebel with them. They came back with the armies of Bactrians, Persians, Medes, Arabs, and Chaldeans to attack the Assyrian army camp while they were feasting after a victory. Galaemnes, Sardanapalus’ brother-in-law, and commander-in-chief was sent to destroy the enemies, but he was killed in battle.
They pressed on to Nineveh to besiege it but were unsuccessful for the first two years. In the third year of the siege, the Euphrates flooded, and the weakened walls of Nineveh were destroyed. After accepting his defeat, he built a pyre inside his palace and set himself on fire along with his eunuchs and concubines.
The true Ashurbanipal was the son of King Esarhaddon and one of the greatest of the Neo-Assyrian kings. His name means “the god Ashur is the creator of an heir.” He reigned the vast empire from 668-627 BC. Ashurbanipal was well-prepared for the life of a king. He was tutored by Nabu-shar-usur, a general of the Assyrian army, then taught history and literature by Nabu-ahi-eriba.
Esarhaddon had appointed him as administrator of Nineveh while he was away on military campaigns. Ashurbanipal’s responsibilities included the appointment of new governors and the supervision of building projects. He was not in line to inherit his father’s throne, so he busied himself with learning the ancient Mesopotamian languages and literature. Much of what is known today about the Assyrian king is through the correspondence he had with his father Esarhaddon and his advisers.
Esarhaddon died in Haran en route to Egypt in 669 BC to stop another rebellion. As his original heir died in 672 BC, Esarhaddon negotiated a treaty with tribal chiefs years before that in the event of his death both Ashurbanipal and his half-brother would rule an assigned territory. Ashurbanipal received the kingship of Assyria while his half-brother Shamash-shum-ukin ruled over Babylon. Naqi’a-Zakutu, Ashurbanipal’s powerful grandmother, also played a large part in her grandson’s rise to kingship.
Ashurbanipal started his reign in 668 BC and wasted no time in stopping the rebellion in Egypt. He invaded Memphis, destroyed Thebes, and appointed rulers loyal only to him. The rebellion in Tyre was also put down during his reign and unrest caused by King Te-Umman of Elam cruelly crushed. An alabaster relief excavated from his North Palace shows Ashurbanipal and his queen feasting in a garden while the head of Te-Umann hung from a tree is proof of his victory.
Shamash-shum-ukin may have been a puppet king for Babylonia. In his discontent, he joined the rulers of Elam, Judah, Egypt, Lydia, and Phoenicia in a rebellion against his half-brother. This was also aided by the Arab and Chaldean tribes. Ashurbanipal did not immediately crush his brother but gave him a chance to prove his loyalty by asking him to pay a special tax. Shamash-shum-ukin refused, and the Assyrian king besieged Babylon for four years.
Shamash-shum-ukin’s Arab and Chaldean allies abandoned him after famine and starvation struck the land. His Elamite allies left him after civil war broke out in their own kingdom and then ran out of provisions. He committed suicide by burning his own palace after he was defeated. Which may have been the basis for Ctesias’ and Diodorus’ fictional Sardanapalus. Upon his death, Ashurbanipal appointed Kandalu as viceroy of Babylon, but he may have been Ashurbanipal himself. He now had the time to deal with the rebellious Elamite rulers, and crushed them completely in 645 BC.
He died in 627 BC and succeeded by his son Ashur-etel-ilani. Civil war broke out afterward, and the decline of the Neo-Assyrian empire started.
Ashurbanipal is known as one of the most scholarly of the Neo-Assyrian kings. The great library of Nineveh is a testament to his scholarly pursuits. Starting in the1850s, archeologists unearthed over 30,000 cuneiform clay tablets in his palace in Koyunjik (Nineveh). These clay tablets were inscribed with medical, legal, literary, and divinatory texts. Letters and administrative records were also found in Ashurbanipal’s great library.
The library was cataloged in a systematic way and resembles the system of modern libraries with clay tablets divided by subject. A copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh and an incomplete list of Assyrian kings were found in Ashurbanipal’s library.
Radner, Karen, and Eleanor Robson. The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011
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