Being King in Ancient Mesopotamia
By Sara E. Cole
Curatorial Assistant, Antiquities Department
J. Paul Getty Museum
In ancient Mesopotamia, being king meant many things. Kings were not just rulers of their kingdoms and empires; they were also expected to be religious leaders, warriors, hunters, scholars, lawmakers, and builders. All of these roles were embedded in a complex belief system that begins with the gods bestowing kingship on mankind.
A Sumerian list of kings (some real and some mythical), says that kingship “descended from heaven.” It was a gift from the gods and the king was therefore divinely chosen. For this reason, he was expected to be especially pious and perform the appropriate rituals to ensure that the gods brought good fortune to his people. In the hymn on the tablet shown below, King Shulgi of Ur gives offerings made of lapis lazuli, silver, and gold to the gods, who in turn favor him.
It was the king’s responsibility to make laws and enforce justice in society. The most famous example of this is the Babylonian Law Code of King Hammurabi, which lists a series of crimes and their respective punishments. Some crimes, like theft or harboring runaway slaves, resulted in the death penalty. Other laws lay out very specific scenarios; for instance, if a female tavern-keeper refuses to accept corn as payment for beer and insists on being paid in money, but the beer is worth less than the corn, she is to be convicted and thrown into the water.
Ruling a kingdom required territorial expansion, putting down revolts, and fending off rivals, so the king was expected to be a fierce warrior. Many kings engaged in lion hunts to show off their strength and bravery. Building grand cities reflected a king’s prosperous rule—temples, palaces, and irrigation systems were meant to serve the gods and the people. And kings were also expected to produce sons who would continue the dynastic line and fulfill the same roles during their own reigns.
Of course, in reality, no single human being could actually be and do all of these things. So it was important for the king to give the appearance that he embodied the perfect worshipper, lawmaker, warrior, hunter, builder, and family man. Much of the art related to kingship expressed these idealistic goals and served as propaganda, promoting an almost mythical version of the king and his power.
King Ashurbanipal, who ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire (centered in present-day northern Iraq) from 668 to around 631/627 B.C., is a case in point.
Ashurbanipal was especially concerned with depicting himself as an erudite man. At his capital at Nineveh, he amassed a library of thousands of cuneiform tablets covering all genres of scholarship and literature. This vast repository stored many hundreds of years of knowledge copied down through the centuries and housed literary compositions like the Epic of Gilgamesh; religious texts; scientific and technical instructions, including recipes for how to make glass; administrative and legal documents (census records, for example); and more.
Ashurbanipal boasted that he could read and write the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. He sought out the oldest tablets he could find and even claimed to have read inscriptions that pre-dated the mythical flood. And, as any good king would, he thanked the gods for this ability—specifically Nabu, the god of writing. This tablet from his library is a bilingual dictionary that records a list of words in Sumerian and gives their Akkadian equivalents.
In contrast to Ashurbanipal’s scholarly pursuits, the carved relief panels that decorated his palace demonstrated another, violent side of kingship. One of the accomplishments of which Ashurbanipal was most proud was his conquest of the Elamite kingdom, in present-day southwestern Iran. In one massive composition that shows a chaotic scene of battle, Ashurbanipal’s army captures and beheads the Elamite King Teumman and his son.
Two other palace reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s reign are currently on view in the Getty Villa exhibition Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq. After Teumman’s death in battle, his head was brought back to Nineveh and displayed as a trophy. A scene of opulent feasting in the king’s gardens shows Ashurbanipal and his queen drinking wine as the head of Teumman hangs from a nearby tree (at left). Behind Ashurbanipal’s banqueting couch, his sword, bow, and quiver of arrows lie on a table as a reminder of his military prowess.
In the tradition of Mesopotamian kings before him, Ashurbanipal hunted lions. Another large panel from his palace visually narrates one of his lion hunts. The storytelling techniques used in this relief are described here.
These hunts were not just about demonstrating power through violence. There was a religious component, too. Royal hunts were followed by ritualized celebrations at the palace in which the king gave thanks to the gods for their support and protection. In the lower register of this relief, Ashurbanipal pours a libation (liquid offering) over the bodies of slain lions. He stands before a table with food offerings and a brazier for burning incense.
Ashurbanipal simultaneously presented himself as a highly educated man who wished to preserve written knowledge, a military leader, a man who appreciated leisure, a hunter, and a pious worshipper. But was his reign really so successful? The Neo-Assyrian Empire quickly went into decline after his death and was sacked by an alliance of rival powers (the Babylonians and the Medes) in 612 B.C. Some would argue that the weakness that led to the empire’s fall in fact began with Ashurbanipal himself—particularly the war he fought against his own brother, the king of Babylonia—in contrast to the image he presented. As all of these objects demonstrate, it can be difficult to disentangle historical reality from royal propaganda, especially when trying to understand events that occurred thousands of years ago.
Originally published by The Iris, 05.04.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.