Sunday, 17 December 2017

Greece from 675-650BC

Map of Aegean showing city states:
Image from Historical Atlas
Not so many bows shall be stretched nor slings so many slung when the War-God makes his mellay in the plain, but then shall be the woeful work of the sword; for this is the sort of battle the spear-famed lords of Euboea are masters in. Thus they cut their hair short so as not to give their enemies a hold of their heads.
Archilochus, writing around 650BC, quoted in Plutarch Life of Theseus: written about 120AD

This period begins to see more sources appear. Titus Livius gives some insights into the early Rome at the time, although we will examine the history of Italy in more detail in another post. Pausanias and other later sources give chronological details about timelines in Greece. Do bear in mind that writers such as Pausanias and Strabo are writing geography rather than history and so are more interested in telling the legends of various places than fitting timelines exactly. Later chronicles give insights on some aspects of the period, such as the winners of the Olympic Games. We also have contemporary poets who were active around this time. Fragments of their writings have been preserved and are sometimes quoted in the works of later authors. However, we have almost no original works of these poets and only know them through quotations or paraphrases, so caution must be used here. As I have stressed in the last post about Greece, we have some sources but great caution must be used with them. And, as always, the reader should remember that all the opinions in this post are my own and should be treated with the scepticism that this statement deserves. For the general state of Greece and the rest of the world it may be useful to look at the previous post in this series to give context.

In 673 in Rome, according to tradition, Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, died. Numa had been instrumental in setting up and stabilising Rome after the heady days of Romulus and had founded much of Roman religion. He was viewed as a philosopher king by later writers such as Livy and Plutarch. There was a curious incident in 181 BC when Lucius Petillius discovered some chests with inscriptions claiming to be from the burial place of Numa. The books were taken out and Quintus Petillius, a tribune of the plebs at the time, read the books and said that they must be destroyed. The Romans trusted the word of their tribune and publicly burned the books rather than treating them with respect. It was guessed at by some that the writings would cast doubts upon certain traditions, so rather than destabilise the state the Romans chose to destroy them. Numa was remembered as wise but the Romans much preferred him as a memory.

Later painting of Numa Pompilius
Each chest had an inscription, in Latin and Greek letters: … that the books of Numa Pompilius were inside. When, on the advice of his friends, the owner had opened the chests, the one which carried the inscription about the buried king was found empty, with no trace of a human body or anything else, everything having been destroyed by the wasting action of so many years. In the other were two bundles, tied with waxed rope, containing seven books each, not merely whole, but looking absolutely fresh. The seven Latin books dealt with pontifical law, the seven Greek with a system of philosophy which might have been current at that time. Valerius Antias adds that they were Pythagorean, confirmation of the common belief, which says that Numa was a pupil of Pythagoras, being arranged by a plausible invention. The books were at first read by the friends who were present; … When, on reading the important contents, he had observed that much of it was subversive of religion, he told Lucius Petilius that he intended to throw those books into the fire; … The senate voted that it seemed sufficient that the praetor promised the oath; that the books should be burned as soon as possible in the comitium; that compensation for the books, whatever seemed proper to Quintus Petilius the praetor and the majority of the tribunes of the people, should be paid to their owner. This the scribe did not accept. The books were burned in the comitium in sight of the people…
Livy 40:29

Later painting of Tullus Hostilius defeating the Veians
We might castigate the Romans for destroying the knowledge but the books were probably contemporary forgeries. Numa was succeeded by Tullus Hostilius in 673. According to the history of Livy, Tullus Hostilius fought wars with Alba Longa, the old mother-city of Rome. The Albans supposedly besieged the fledgling city and dug a trench around it before retreating. The conflict was then settled by three warriors from each side fighting to the death. The Romans were victorious and the Albans were forced to join the Romans. But when Rome fought the neighbouring city of Veii, the Albans defected from the Romans. Tullus Hostilius defeated Veii and then destroyed the town of Alba Longa as punishment for the betrayal. The Latin families of Alba Longa were integrated into Rome and became important in later history. A number of Alban customs were brought into Rome as well, including the Vestal Virgins who guarded the temple of Vesta. Tullus Hostilius built a new senate house, the Curia Hostilia to help house the expanded population.

This monarch (Tullus Hostilius) was not only unlike the last, but was actually more warlike than Romulus had been.
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1:22, written around 9BC

Orientalising work of a head from this period
All of the legends of ancient Rome should be treated with a fair amount of scepticism. There likely was a person called Tullus Hostilius and Alba Longa was destroyed and integrated into Rome. But all of these things probably happened around 600BC rather than the traditional dates. It is also rather suspicious that both Romulus and Tullus Hostilius both fight with Fidenae and Veii, move people from Alba Longa to Rome, are brought up in rural circumstances and die vaguely supernatural deaths. It is possible that some of the same stories and legends attached themselves to both kings. I will not go into detail on the affairs of Rome but did want to mention them before continuing on with the affairs of Greece.

On either side the soldiers urged on their champions. They reminded them that their fathers' gods, their native land, their parents, and all their countrymen, whether at home or with the army, had their eye only on their swords and their right hands.
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1:25, written around 9BC

Greek pottery from the era showing
the myth of the Centauromachy
At the Olympic Games of 672 Eurybus of Athens won the stadion race. Philombrotus the Lacedemonian won the Pentathlon again. Dahippus of Croton took the crown for boxing. The tethrippon, or chariot race, was won by the town of Dyspontium, which would be destroyed some decades later in a war over the Olympic Games. But for now they had their moment of glory and history remembered them.

Around the years 671 the Assyrians took Egypt from the Nubians. This would affect Greek history in that the future Egyptian monarchs would look to hire in outside mercenaries from Greece and Caria, leading to many Greeks visiting Egypt. But for now the Assyrians controlled much of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard and if the Greeks wished to trade, they would have to trade with the Assyrians.

Vase by the Polyphemus Painter
showing the blinding of Polyphemus
From around 670 to 650 the Polyphemus vase painter was active in Attica. He was probably a pupil of the Mesogaia painter and painted mythological scenes from Homer in the Orientalising style of pottery. 

Around the year 668 the Second Messenian War, where the subjugated Messenians under the leadership of Aristomenes, revolted against their Spartan masters, ended in a Spartan victory. The story of the end of the war is worth telling. After the Messenian defeat at the Battle of the Great Foss, Aristomenes had led the Messenians in raid after raid on the Spartans who nevertheless had summoned allies and pursued a scorched earth policy against the Messenian warriors who were besieged on Mount Eira. There was a prophecy that the Messenians would fail once goats drank from a stream on the mountain so of course the Messenians rigorously stopped any goat from grazing in the vicinity. However there was a tree that was in the area that had grown so much that it dipped its branches in the water, and this was interpreted by the Messenian seer as a fulfilment of the prophecy and that their doom was nigh, but only the Messenian commanders were told of this dire news. Knowing that the fate of Messene was lost they buried sacred objects of the ancient city in a hidden place on the mountain that they hoped would one day allow their city to rise again.

Griffin vase from the Cyclades
They had come to Delphi after the disaster at the Trench and asked concerning safety, receiving this reply from the Pythia: “Whensoever a he-goat drinks of Neda's winding stream, no more do I protect Messene, for destruction is at hand.”
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4:20, written around 180BC

For the Messenians possessed a secret thing. If it were destroyed, Messene would be overwhelmed and lost for ever, but if it were kept, the oracles of Lycus the son of Pandion said that after lapse of time the Messenians would recover their country. Aristomenes, knowing the oracles, took it towards nightfall, and coming to the most deserted part of Ithome, buried it on the mountain, calling on Zeus who keeps Ithome and the gods who had hitherto protected the Messenians to remain guardians of the pledge, and not to put their only hope of return into the power of the Lacedaemonians.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4:20, written around 180BC

A Spartan deserter who was carrying on an affair with the wife of a herdsmen on the mountain overheard that the Messenians had abandoned their posts during a heavy rainstorm and returned to the Spartan kings to tell them that the Messenians were weak. Based on the word of the deserter the Spartans attacked with all their forces. The Messenians fought back in a desperate battle for freedom. The Messenian women took up arms alongside the men and a furious battle was fought on the slopes of the mountain in the teeth of the gale. But the Spartans had the upper hand and the weight of numbers and eventually the Messenians had to flee, abandoning their last stronghold.

A painting by Franz Caucig showing Aristomenes being freed
by a priestess
The Messenians, when they heard, were filled with desperate courage, and mustering as they happened to be gathered rushed on the Lacedaemonians. … The women dared to take arms, and they too further inflamed the ardour of the men, when they saw their women preferring to perish with their fatherland rather than be taken as slaves to Lacedaemon…
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4:21, written around 180BC

They tried to flee to Arcadia, where Aristocrates was king. Aristocrates had been bribed to betray them in the Battle of the Trench years earlier but the Messenians and Arcadians were unaware of his treachery. Aristomenes decided upon a sudden surprise attack upon Sparta itself, hoping to seize the city with Arcadian aid. But Aristocrates wrote a letter to the Spartans betraying the plan. His treachery was discovered by the Arcadians who stoned their king to death while Aristomenes refused to partake in the stoning but merely wept at the treachery of friends.

When this was declared to all, the Arcadians themselves stoned Aristocrates and urged the Messenians to join them. They looked to Aristomenes. But he was weeping, with his eyes fixed on the ground. So the Arcadians stoned Aristocrates to death and flung him beyond their borders without burial, and set up a tablet in the precinct of Zeus Lycaeus with the words: “Truly time hath declared justice upon an unjust king and with the help of Zeus hath easily declared the betrayer of Messene. Hard it is for a man forsworn to hide from God. Hail, king Zeus, and keep Arcadia safe.”
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4:22, written around 180BC

Lower part of a female
figurine from the era
The Messenian cause was doomed. The survivors of the battle fled across the sea or stayed with the Arcadians: But not Aristomenes. He wished to continue on the war but knew that he would have to find allies. He spoke to the Oracle of Delphi but what message he was given is not recorded. So he sailed across the Aegean towards Asia hoping to speak to one of the great kings of Asia and bring back an army to crush the Spartans. But his hope was unfulfilled and Aristomenes would do no more harm to Sparta. He died on the island of Rhodes on his way to Lydia and was given a hero’s funeral. Thus ended an extraordinary life and the freedom of the Messenians, who would be treated as slaves for the next centuries. They would rise again but until Sparta was truly humbled by another power Messene would be in slavery.

Aristomenes, coming to Rhodes with his daughter, purposed to go up from there to Sardis to Ardys the son of Gyges, and to Ecbatana of the Medes to king Phraortes.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4:24, written around 180BC

If all of this sounds like epic poetry it is because it is. We have few sources for this war and they are quite late. Pausanias writes about it in his geography of Greece but his source was probably Rhianus of Crete who wrote an epic poem called the Messeniaca. So in other words, the deeds of Aristomenes should be viewed as mostly fiction, although he probably did exist. Rhianus wrote about 200BC and Pausanias wrote about 170AD. Messene was eventually re-founded in 369BC and the epic poetry about Aristomenes was probably from the myths of the returned Messenians, who needed a strong hero figure for their new state. Even if the tales about him are myths, they are myths that show that freedom is worth fighting for and that the chains that bind will not bind forever. So I have thought them worth recording here.

There is also the tomb of Aristomenes here. They say that it is not a cenotaph, but when I asked whence and in what manner they recovered the bones of Aristomenes, they said that they sent to Rhodes for them, and that it was the god of Delphi who ordered it. They also instructed me in the nature of the rites carried out at the tomb. The bull which is to be offered to the dead man is brought to the tomb and bound to the pillar which stands upon the grave. Being fierce and unused to bonds he will not stand; and if the pillar is moved by his struggles and bounds, it is a good omen to the Messenians, but if the pillar is not moved the sign portends misfortune.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4:32, written around 180BC

Corinthian Alabaster jar from the period
The people of Messene were enslaved for the next centuries, along with the other conquered regions of the Peloponnese and would form the helot population. Helots were like feudal serfs but were not free and had few rights. There were regular beatings and ritual humiliations. A Spartan secret society would murder the most enterprising helots to discourage rebellion and the Spartan state itself would occasionally carry out mass executions if they thought a rebellion was imminent. Sparta has been mythologised by history but the Spartan state was a brutal slave state that required mass subjugation to function. All the Greek states held slaves but the Spartan system was particularly heinous.

In the same year as the end of the Second Messenian War, 668BC, the Spartans supposedly fought the Argives at Hysiae. All that is known is that Argos was victorious, possibly the last victory that Argos unaided won against Sparta. It is said that Pheidon was tyrant of Argos at the time. He had been a king of Argos, which was a mostly ceremonial position, before enlisting the support of the people to become a popular ruler unfettered by rules or the powerful aristocrats. He was a good example of the trend towards popular autocratic rulers that was occurring in Greece. With city-states being very small entities (even the larger states only numbered in the tens of thousands), it was possible for a single charismatic individual to overthrow the existing social order, usurp power and rule without the law.

Here are common graves of the Argives who conquered the Lacedaemonians in battle at Hysiae.1 This fight took place, I discovered, when Peisistratus was archon at Athens, in the fourth year of the twenty-seventh Olympiad, in which the Athenian, Eurybotus, won the foot-race. On coming down to a lower level you reach the ruins of Hysiae, which once was a city in Argolis, and here it is that they say the Lacedaemonians suffered their reverse.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2:24, written around 180BC

The Greek word tyrannos described these rulers and originally had few negative connotations but soon the excesses of these men led to tyrant becoming a word of ill omen. The word itself may not even be Greek and may be of Lydian extraction. Gyges of Lydia, as a usurper of the throne ruling at this time, might have been seen as a tyrant and was referenced by the Greek poets.

Later painting by Jean-Leon Gerome showing
the legend of Candaules, his queen and Gyges
I care not for the wealth of golden Gyges, nor ever have envied him; I am not jealous of the works of Gods, and I have no desire for lofty despotism; for such things are far beyond my ken.
Archilochus, writing around 650, referenced in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, written around 330BC

So the Argives led by Pheidon II defeated the Spartans in what was probably a full hoplite battle. The continuing Lelantine War and the Messenian Wars saw the Greeks move from unorganised skirmishing to full hoplite battles, determined by heavily armed infantry pushing at each other with spears until one side broke their formation, threw down their heavy shields and ran. Some have spoken of the Battle of Hysiae as the first proper hoplite battle and assumed that Pheidon invented hoplite warfare. Others have questioned whether the battle ever took place. Others have speculated that the dates of the Second Messenian War are wrong and that a Spartan defeat by the Argives triggered the Second Messenian War. Pausanias records that the war ended in 668 but if it instead began in 668 it would end in 651 instead. This is quite plausible as the poet Tyrtaeus is associated with the war and he seems to have been active in the 640’s rather than the 660’s.

So let each man bite his lip and abide firm-set astride upon the ground, covering with the belly of his broad buckler thighs and legs below and breast and shoulders above; let him brandish the massy spear in his right hand, let him wave the dire crest upon his head; let him learn how to fight by doing doughty deeds, and not stand shield in hand beyond the missiles. Nay, let each man close the foe, and with his own long spear, or else with his sword, wound and take an enemy, and setting foot beside foot, resting shield against shield, crest beside crest, helm beside helm, fight his man breast to breast with sword or long spear in hand.
Tyrtaeus, writing around 650BC, quoted in Stobaeus’ Anthology, written around 400AD

Pottery jar from Thera from this period
The Second Messenian War saw Sparta begin to change from a fairly luxurious state (after all they had so many slaves so the Spartans were wealthy) to a society that scorned material goods and kept itself in a constant state of readiness. There were still traces of luxury to be found at the end of the century but state of Sparta could be typified by the poems of Tyrtaeus. Tyrtaeus was an Athenian poet who supposedly came to Sparta during the Second Messenian War and wrote poems praising the martial spirit of the victors. While we only have fragments of his work, Tyrtaeus is one of the earliest Greek poets known to us.

Such a man is good in war; he quickly turneth the savage hosts of the enemy, and stemmeth the wave of battle with a will; moreover he that falleth in the van and loseth dear life to the glory of his city and his countrymen and his father, with many a frontwise wound through breast and breastplate and through bossy shield, he is bewailed alike by young and old, and lamented with sore regret by all the city. His grave and his children are conspicuous among men, and his children's and his line after them; nor ever doth his name and good fame perish,…
Tyrtaeus, writing around 650BC, quoted in Stobaeus’ Anthology, written around 400AD

We know almost nothing of the man save the traditions around him and what can be gleaned of his work. It was assumed he came from Athens to fulfil a prophecy that an Athenian would lead Sparta to victory. He is said to have been lame and possibly mad and that he was sent to the Spartans by Athens as an insult. Instead of being useless he is supposed to have composed lyric poetry to stir the martial spirit of the Spartans, bind up their differences and lead them to victory. All of this is later conjecture. We have no complete works of Tyrtaeus and he may simply have been a later Spartan writer who composed poetry about the wars. Regardless of Tyrtaeus’ dates and the influence of his poetry in the formation of Spartan warrior culture he was a poet who was active in this century.

Small terracotta heads from Crete
But in a moment one and all together shall we be wielding the flail, standing up to spearmen; and dire will be the din when both sides clash rounded shield against rounded shield, and awful the shrieks as they fall one upon another, piercing men's breasts with the spear; and no whit will they draw back for the pounding of the missiles, nay, despite the battery of great hurlstones, the helms shall abide the rattle of war unbowed.
Tyrtaeus, writing around 650BC, from a 3rd Century BC papyrus

From myth, war and poetry we turn to sport. Chionis of Laconia won the stadion foot race in 668 beginning a phenomenal winning streak that would become almost mythical itself. But we shall speak more of Chionis later. Philombrotus the Lacedaemonian won the pentathlon for the third Olympiad in a row, finishing a twelve year winning streak and gaining yet more laurels for Sparta. Between the Olympics, the Battle of Hysiae and the end of the Second Messenian War, 668 was an eventful year.

Greek vase from the period showing
the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur
In 667 according to the traditional date some Megarians wished to found a colony. Going to the oracle of Delphi they were told to found a city in “the land opposite the city of the blind”. Sailing towards the Black Sea and passing through the Bosphorus the Megarians found what they were looking for. Byzas, son of King Nisos of Megara, noted that the city of Chalcedon was sited in a bad location, as the currents drove the ships and fish shoals away from their harbour on the Asian side of the straits towards a peninsula that could be easily fortified and that could be an outpost at the mouth of the Black Sea. The Megarians settled across the straits from the “blind” Chalcedonians, Byzas married the daughter of a Thracian king, to make peace with the locals, and the city was named after him: Byzantium. Byzantium would arguably go on to be the greatest of all the cities of Greek civilisation and still stands today as largest city in Europe (depending on how it is measured of course).

Hence the saying that Apollo, when the men who founded Byzantium at a time subsequent to the founding of Chalcedon by the Megarians consulted the oracle, ordered them to “make their settlement opposite the blind,” thus calling the Chalcedonians “blind”, because, although they sailed the regions in question at an earlier time, they failed to take possession of the country on the far side, with all its wealth, and chose the poorer country.
Strabo Geography 7.6, written around 23AD

In 664 Psamtik I (or Psammetichus) came to the throne in Egypt. He would be an inquisitive and capable Pharaoh. He may have conducted quasi-scientific experiments and would certainly be a friend to the Greeks. Slightly later in his reign he was supposedly counselled to seek the help of “bronze men” to help him fight his wars. Seeing some shipwrecked Greek and Carian pirates on the shores of his lands he noticed their heavy armour and enlisted them as mercenaries, beginning a relationship between the Egyptian Pharaohs and Greek mercenaries that would span for centuries.

Island of Amorgos
where Semonides hailed from
Also in the year 664 in the Olympic Games, the great athlete Chionis of Laconia won the stadion race for the second time but this time, also won the diaulos race as well.

Around this time the poet Semonides of Amorgos flourished. Only fragments of his work remain and a lot of the stories about him are probably associated with a later poet called Simonides of Ceos. The two names are spelled the same in the original Greek but modern scholars spell them slightly differently to avoid confusion. He was a Samian who was involved in the colonisation of Amorgos (an island in the southern Aegean). Like his contemporary Archilochus he was a great poet but could be viciously sarcastic at times. One of the longest fragments of his work is a long diatribe about how women are awful. In a culture that was only beginning to move towards the written word, the spoken word was a powerful tool and the tongue could be sharper than the sword.

In the beginning God made woman's mind apart from man's. One he made a bristly Sow; all that is in her house lies disorderly, defiled with dirt, and rolling upon the floor, and she grows fat sitting among the refuse heaps in garments as unwashed as herself. Another did God make of a knavish Vixen, a woman knowing in all things, who taketh note of all, be it bad or good; for the bad often she calls good and the good bad; and she hath now this mood and now that.
Semonides, writing around 650BC, quoted in Stobaeus’ Anthology, written around 400AD

Later sculpture of Archilochus
Archilochus also flourished around this period. He was a poet from the island of Paros and was involved in the colonisation of Thasos. He is probably the first Greek poet of note after Homer and Hesiod and Semonides and Tyrtaeus were probably his younger contemporaries. He had a sarcastic wit and would happily make fun of himself. One of his most quoted poems has him fighting in a battle, getting scared, dropping his shield and running away.

The shield I left because I must, poor blameless armour! Beside a bush, it gives joy now to some Saian, but myself I have saved. What care I for that shield? It shall go with a curse. I'll get me another just as good.
Archilochus writing around 650BC, quoted in Plutarch’s Spartan Institutions: written around AD110

He wrote a poem describing the beginnings of the Trojan War, the fragments of which were only discovered in modern times. He was revered by the Greeks but his invectives were feared, as he was reputed to have fallen in love with a woman and when her father broke his word and gave his daughter in marriage to another that Archilochus began to write poems against them. His poems were apparently so vicious that the father and his daughters (and possibly the suitor) all hung themselves. This is probably a later tale based on some scurrilous poem that is no longer preserved.

It should be noted that literature has many cases of self-hanging for grief, and this was the death, according to the old story, of the daughters of Lycambes, who could not withstand the onslaught of the satire of Archilochus.
Eustathius, On the Odyssey, written around 1190AD

Papyrus fragment of
poem by Archilochus
He happily wrote about sex and used kingfishers as a loosely veiled sexual metaphor. This connection is preserved by having the genus of the hummingbird named after Archilochus. He was supposedly killed by a Naxian when he returned to Paros sometime after 648. Even though the death had been a fair one in battle, Calondas, the slayer, was refused entry to the oracle at Delphi, for having slain the servant of the Muses. Such was Archilochus.

Stand and look at Archilochus, the old maker of iambic verse, whose infinite renown hath spread both to utmost East and furthest West. Sure the Muses and Delian Apollo liked him well, such taste and skill had he to bring both to the framing of the words and to the singing of them to the lyre.
Palatine Anthology, written around 600AD

In 660 Corcyra, a Corinthian colony on island now known as Corfu, defeated Corinth in a sea battle. The dates are sketchy and this may have happened in 665 instead. But it is worth remembering as this is probably the first recorded sea battle of the Greeks.

Again, the earliest sea-fight in history was between the Corinthians and Corcyraeans; this was about two hundred and sixty years ago, dating from the same time.
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1:13

Around the year 660, the city of Magnesia was attacked and destroyed by the Cimmerians. Possibly they had been fighting Gyges the Lydian previously and had moved on, or possibly were working in league with the Lydian king. However, it was a sign that the Greek colonisation of the coastlands of Asia was not to be without conflict from the more powerful tribes and kingdoms of the interior. Gyges himself had fought with the Greeks, attacking Miletus and Smyrna and taking Colophon.

Around this time the tyrant Pheidon II of Argos standardised weights and measures and some of these were adopted in other city states as well. The later writer Ephorus says that he invented coinage as well but that is almost certainly untrue.

Painting by Jacques Louis David showing the wooing
of Helen by Paris
Also around this time other Greek poets began to try and fill in the gaps in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by writing epic poems of their own to describe other parts of the Trojan War. Lesches may have written the “Little Iliad” around this time, describing the contest between Odysseus and Aias for the armour of Achilles and the building of the Wooden Horse. Stasinus is said to have written the “Cypria” around this time as well, which described Paris’ abduction of Helen and other events leading up to the war. Other items in the Epic Cycle should probably be dated to around this time as well, such as the Aethiopis, Iliupersis, Nostoi and Telegony. But little can be said of these works save that they once existed, as we have only summaries and fragments.

There was a time when the countless tribes of men, though wide-dispersed, oppressed the surface of the deep-bosomed earth, and Zeus saw it and had pity and in his wise heart resolved to relieve the all-nurturing earth of men by causing the great struggle of the Ilian war, that the load of death might empty the world. And so the heroes were slain in Troy, and the plan of Zeus came to pass.
Scholiast on Homer (from the Cypria), Il. i. 5

Island of Paros where Archhilochus hailed from
In 657 Cypselus became tyrant of Corinth. In the previous century Corinth had been ruled by kings but these had been overthrown by an aristocratic family called the Bacchiadae. There are legends about Cypselus, that there had been a prophecy that he would overthrow the Bacchiadae and that soldiers had been sent to kill him but had refused to murder the baby. Instead Cypselus was hidden in a chest and his life preserved. The chest was later devoted to the temple at Olympia and was still shown centuries later. This tale is likely to have been a later myth to explain Cypselus’ name (which means “chest”) and is rather too similar to the stories of Perseus, Sargon of Akkad and Moses. He was more likely a usurper who took advantage of the fact that Corinth was fighting and losing wars at the time to seize power for himself.

When he was a new-born babe, smiled at the men who had been sent to make away with him, and they turned away. And when again they changed their minds, they sought for him and found him not, for he had been put away in a chest by his mother. It was because of this that Cypselus constructed the building at Delphi, firmly believing that the god had at that time stopped his crying so that he might escape the notice of those who were searching for him.
Plutarch, Septem sapientium convivium 21, written about 120AD

Weights used to aid long jumpers in the ancient Olympics
In 656 Chionis of Laconia once again dominated the ancient Olympics winning both the stadion and the diaulos races. He supposedly leaped a long-jump distance that placed him as the world record holder up until 1952 when his record was beaten after an impressive 2,608 years. His records in the Olympics of the ancient world (mainly in the racing) were not equalled until 480 when a Sicilian won similar glory, as well as winning the hoplite race. But the Spartans then erected a stela in Olympia to note that the only reason Chionis had not also won the hoplite race was because it was not invented yet. Whatever the truth of the measurements attributed to him, Chionis of Laconia must have been an incredible athlete.

29th Olympiad [664 B.C.] - Chionis of Laconia, stadion race. Chionis could leap a distance of 22 feet.
Eusebius’ Chronicle, written around 330AD

In 652 Cratinus of Megara won the stadion footrace, finally ending the dominance of Chionis, and Comaeus of Megara won the boxing competition. There is not much else to say of this year.

Corinthian alabaster jar from the period
Around this time the first proper temple of Apollo was erected at Delphi. Also, around this time period a noble of Megara called Theagenes asked the people of Megara for a bodyguard to protect him against his aristocratic enemies. He was granted one upon which time he promptly and predictably used it to take over the city and make himself tyrant. He then took the wealth of the rich and distributed it to the poor, including using their livestock for feasts.

For example, to prove that Dionysius is aiming at a tyranny, because he asks for a bodyguard, one might say that Pisistratus before him and Theagenes of Megara did the same, and when they obtained what they asked for made themselves tyrants. … All these examples are contained under the same universal proposition; that one who is aiming at a tyranny asks for a bodyguard.
Aristotle Rhetoric 1.2 written around 330BC

Around 650 the long Lelantine War finally came to a close. The two sides were fighting over the Lelantine Plain, a small plain between Chalcis and Eretria. The war had apparently gone on for over fifty years and was either fought in a ritual manner or have seen many truces and ceasefires over that time. The small town of Lefkandi in the plain was abandoned during this time, as the Eretrians must have moved away from it. While both sides apparently abstained from using javelins and arrows during the war, they did use cavalry and the Chalcidians thought that the Eretrian cavalry was better. Both sides had allies so the Chalcidians called a nobleman called Cleomachus of Pharsalus to aid them. Cleomachus was from Thessaly and brought some cavalry warriors with him. The two sides met in battle and the Thessalian cavalry prevailed, although their leader Cleomachus died. Cleomachus was homosexual and had his lover with him in the battle. When Cleomachus died he was given a hero’s funeral and it is possible that the memory of his heroism helped shape positive Greek attitudes towards homosexuality.

In the heat of the war between the Chalcidians and the Eretrians, Cleomachus went with the Thessalian force to aid the Chalcidians; at what time it was evident that the Chalcidians were the stronger in foot, but they found it a difficult thing to withstand the force of the enemies' horse. Thereupon they requested Cleomachus, being their confederate and a man signalized for his courage, to give the first onset upon the enemies' cavalry. Presently the youth whom he most entirely loved being present, he asked him whether he would stay and be a spectator of the combat.
Plutarch Amatorius 17, written around 120AD

This Chalcidian victory is supposed to have ended the war but it is not clear exactly who won. Chalcis and Eretria were by now unimportant cities among the Greek states. Other cities such as Sparta, Corinth and Miletus were now far more influential and powerful. So the long war trailed off to an end with both sides the losers.

Greek pottery from this period
However, Cleomachus was there slain, and the Chalcidians show his monument erected in the market-place, with a fair pillar standing upon it to this day
Plutarch Amatorius 17, written around 120AD

So the twenty-five year period that we were looking at comes to a close. The Second Messenian War was over and Sparta was shaken but strong. The Lelantine War had brought ruin to its participants in exchange for fleeting glory and a footnote in the history books. There was glory in the contests of Olympia and scattered outbreaks of poetry. The founding of new cities continued, while many of the old cities began to ditch their traditional government in favour of the rule of tyrants. Such is the record of the period.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Greece from 700-675BC

Orientalising Greek Pottery
Also I believe that the earth is very vast, and that we who dwell in the region extending from the river Phasis to the Pillars of Heracles inhabit a small portion only about the sea, like ants or frogs about a marsh…
Plato, Phaedo, written around 360BC

In 700BC Greece was quite similar in many ways to the Greece that we are familiar with in the Classical period. There was poetry and writing. Pottery was crude but recognisably Greek. The Iliad, the Odyssey and Hesiod’s works were either composed or would soon be composed. The pantheon of gods and mythology were recognisably Greek, although we only have fragments of both from this era. The Greeks were already famous sailors and colonisers of distant lands. The Delphic Oracle had been established. The small Greek city states dotted the lands around the Aegean and Sparta had already achieved a measure of power on the land. The Olympic Games had been in place for nearly a century. This period has been termed part of the Archaic Period. Archaic is a word that sometimes implies crudity but I feel that it should instead be interpreted using one of its other connotations: Beginnings. Truly this time was an age of beginnings.

With all these similarities there were still substantial differences. Athens was still not particularly important and Eretria and Chalcis were two of the larger city-states in Greece at the time. Greek pottery and art was heavily influenced by artworks from Lydia and Asia and their sculpture was far behind the Egyptians and the Assyrians. There was little that could be said for certain about science or philosophy among the Greeks at this time. There was also no historical writing in any real sense. The Olympic Games had been in place for nearly a century but the Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean games had not yet begun. Hoplite warfare was only in its infancy. Greek architecture was still quite crude and there were none of the distinctive temples of the later ages. All the basic ingredients for later Greek greatness were there but during this time period, if we did not have the traditions of later times we would have very little to report about this region at this time.

The sources for this period are nearly all inferences from the writings of later writers. Sometimes there are sources such as Hesiod or other poets to augment this but these are terse and may be misinterpreted. There are some hints from archaeology also but we are mostly reliant on the traditions of the classical era to shed light on this period of Archaic Greece. As always, the reader must bear in mind that these are my interpretations of the information available to me and that there are almost certainly mistakes, if not through my misreading of the sources, then at least through the sparseness of the source material.

Orientalising Greek Pottery
Around this time in Attica, temples to Athena and Poseidon were dedicated at the Cape of Sunium near the city of Athens. Another sanctuary to Poseidon was set up around this time at the Isthmia near Corinth. The temple of Apollo was built on the island of Delos. Paros began to export the famous white marble that would be used in many of the temples and sculptures of antiquity. Like the marble from Carrara it was fine grained and flawlessly white, allowing an artist great scope in working it. However, we must remember that most statues and temples of the ancient world were in fact painted quite colourfully rather than being left in their unadorned form.

Sparta, Argos and Paros held the first documented musical competitions, although music theory would still not be developed for another century. Samothrace, an island in the northern Aegean, was colonised by settlers from Paros. Triremes, ships with three banks of oars, began to be adopted around this time, although this was probably invented by the Phoenicians and adapted by the Samians and Corinthians.

In art, the Analatos and Mesogaia painters of vases were active. These were painters who are nameless but who are known for their artwork. During this period most of the works were copying oriental patterns.

In politics, one of the dual kings of Sparta, Polydorus, changed the constitution of Sparta to allow the kings and Gerousia (28 older Spartan citizens that functioned rather like a Senate) to veto decisions made by the assembly of the Spartans, making Sparta more centralised.

Orientalising Greek Pottery
In medicine the first Greek school of medicine opened in Cnidus (a Greek colony on the coast of what is present day Turkey). It later became quite famous but was overshadowed by the nearby school on the island of Cos. The approach of the two schools differed, with the physicians of Cnidus focusing on the symptoms of the disease itself and the physicians of Cos trying to categorise the disease in its overall and general form. Both approaches are useful and have their place in medicine but the school of Cos is better remembered because it is associated with the great physician Hippocrates some centuries later. At this stage the Cnidian physicians were probably little more than priests with some experience in healing and the scientific basis for medicine in the western world would have to be established later.

The Lelantine War was still ongoing and would still be ongoing at the end of this time period. It does seem unlikely to me that two small cities located about twenty miles apart could fight for over fifty years with all of Greece involved unless the war had turned into something more like a ritualised vendetta, with long periods of peace and occasional almost scripted combats. The later sources saying there were agreements to exclude archery seem to support this ritual theory of combat. The war will be ongoing throughout this time period but there isn’t much we can say about it so we should just remember that during this time Eretria and Chalcis, on the island of Euboea, were fighting for the twenty miles of grassland between their towns.

Orientalising Greek Pottery
Now in general these cities were in accord with one another, and when differences arose concerning the Lelantine Plain they did not so completely break off relations as to wage their wars in all respects according to the will of each, but they came to an agreement as to the conditions under which they were to conduct the fight. This fact, among others, is disclosed by a certain pillar in the Amarynthium, which forbids the use of long distance missiles.
Strabo: Geography 10:1

In the year 700 Atheradas of Sparta won the stadion foot race in the Olympic Games. It is a little unusual that we can tell who won certain athletic trophies but have little exact knowledge of anything else from this time period. But it is a nice way to remember human achievement from the bygone years.

In 696 Pantacles of Athens won the stadion foot race in the Olympic Games.

In 694 Sennacherib launched his seaborne expedition against the Chaldean exiles in Elam and used Greek and Phoenician sailors to build and crew his fleet. It is hard to imagine the brutality of Sennacherib’s campaigns occurring at the same time as the Greeks running footraces and fighting for decades over the same small patch of grassland. But the Assyrians were contemporary with the Greeks and the Assyrians doubtless influenced the Greeks, albeit in subtle ways.

In 692 Pantacles of Athens would repeat his feat and not only win the stadion race but also the diaulos race. The stadion race was a 180m sprint and was the oldest and most prestigious race of the games. Nearly all the winners of the stadion races in antiquity are known. The diaulos race (meaning “doublepipe”) was a longer race, around 400m.

Orientalising Greek Pottery
In 688 the city of Gela in Sicily was founded by Greek settlers from Rhodes and Crete. They were led by Antiphemus of Rhodes and Entimus of Crete. Antiphemus’ brother Lacius supposedly founded the city of Phaselis to the east. A legend told over a thousand years later says that the two brothers went to the oracle of Delphi, who told the brothers to go in different directions, east and west. Antiphemus supposedly laughed out loud at the oracle’s advice so his city in Sicily was named Gela when he eventually did found his city and the prediction had come true, from the Greek verb “to laugh”. While this is a nice story it is probably not true.

Also in 688 boxing was added to the Olympic Games. Onomastus of Smyrna was the victor of the first boxing match there. Everything about Onomastus is a bit suspicious. He apparently not only won the first match but he also wrote the rules of the sport. While this could well be innocent, it is hard not to suspect that this might have favoured Onomastus. Even his name is a little fishy, as it literally means, “having a name”. But we shouldn’t poke too much fun at this shadowy boxer.

Boxing was almost certainly more ancient than this, with Minoan and Mycenaean frescoes showing ancient boxers and legends about Theseus having invented a form of it. Boxing is even mentioned in the Iliad as part of the funeral games of Patroclus. The boxing of the Greeks was brutal, with heavy strips of ox-hide wrapping the hands. This would not soften the blow to the opponent but allowed the boxer to hit harder and with more weight. The rules didn’t rule out much. There were no bells, time-limits, rounds or rings. Wrestling and eye-gouging were not allowed but there don’t seem to have been rules against kicking. The harshest rule of all was that there were no weight classes, meaning that boxing must have really just have been heavy weight boxing, unless a lighter man was particularly brave. If Onomastus of Smyrna really did write the rules I think we can safely surmise he was a heavy man.

Orientalising Greek Pottery
At the twenty-third Festival they restored the prizes for boxing, and the victor was Onomastus of Smyrna, which already was a part of Ionia.
Pausanias: Guide to Greece 5:8

In 685 Greek history became rather more serious and the Second Messenian War began. Or at least we think it did. It may have been decades later but these are the dates that tradition has handed down to us. The war has been dated from 685 to 668 but it is quite possible that in fact the war started in 668. In that case all the dates should be shifted downwards. I honestly believe that the war was later, as the sources fit better then, but there are arguments for both sides.

The Messenians had been enslaved by the Spartans after the First Messenian War ended in 724. But Messene had been an independent city state with its own proud traditions and they chafed at being treated as a permanent slave underclass.

The revolt was quickly led by Aristomenes. Aristomenes was a true figure of legend and it’s hard to know what to believe about the man, who seems to have been larger than life. He refused the title of king and was merely the commander in chief of the rebel Messenian helots.

Of the young men who had grown up in Messenia the best and most numerous were round Andania, and among them was Aristomenes, who to this day is worshipped as a hero among the Messenians. ...
When all their preparations were made for the war, the readiness of their allies exceeding expectation for now the hatred which the Argives and Arcadians felt for the Lacedaemonians had blazed up openly.

Pausanias: Guide to Greece 4.14-15

In 684 the Spartans and Messenians clashed at the Battle of Deres where the Messenians won a notable victory, or at the very least fought the Spartans to a stalemate. It was not enough to end the war however. To scare the Spartans Aristomenes launched a night raid and broke into a Spartan temple to Athena, called the Temple of Athena of the Brazen House, and placed a shield there. This was intended to terrify the Spartans into realising that nowhere was safe from the raids of the Messenians. The Spartans sent a message to the Delphic Oracle who supposedly counselled them to seek aid and leadership from Athens, presumably as their city was sacred to Athena, whose temple had been used to scare them. This is probably a later back reference to the fact that Tyrtaeus, a martial poet whose writings were glorifying the Spartan military, was said to be from Athens and said to have been involved in the war. None of this can be proven.

Orientalising Greek Pottery
It was the view of Aristomenes that any man would be ready to die in battle if he had first done deeds worthy of record, but that it was his own especial task at the very beginning of the war to prove that he had struck terror into the Lacedaemonians and that he would be more terrible to them for the future. With this purpose he came by night to Lacedaemon and fixed on the temple of Athena of the Brazen House a shield inscribed “The Gift of Aristomenes to the Goddess, taken from Spartans.”
Pausanias: Guide to Greece 4.14-17

But at least Sparta won one victory that year. Cleoptolemus of Laconia won the stadion race at Olympia that year.

In 683 the Messenians under Aristomenes defeated the Spartans and their Corinthian allies at the Battle of Boar’s Barrow.

As they fled, Aristomenes ordered another Messenian troop to undertake the pursuit. He himself attacked the enemies' line where it was firmest, and after breaking it at this point sought a new point of assault. Soon successful here, he was the more ready to assail those who stood their ground, until he threw into confusion the whole line of the Lacedaemonians themselves and of their allies. They were now running without shame and without waiting for one another, while he assailed them with a terror that seemed more than one man's fury could inspire.
Pausanias: Guide to Greece 4.14-17

In the year 682 Athens changed its dating system. Previously the Athenians had measured time by having “Archons” who gave their names to the years, like a reigning king. So, 754 would have been the second year of Alcmaeon. However, this was a fairly imprecise system, particularly for anyone outside of Athens. So the system was changed in 753 to have the archons only stay 10 years in their office. There were seven Decennial Archons before the system was changed again to only have one archon per year. So the year (their year did not quite match our own) 682-681 would have seen Creon become the first annual Eponymous Archon. It is hard to know if there was any Assyrian influence in this, as it does seem very similar to the far older limmu system in Assyria. But there is no proof that the Athenians copied the Assyrians and it may have simply been a case of convergent evolution of cultures.

In 682 another battle took place in the Messenian War. It is known as the Battle of the Great Foss or the Battle of the Great Ditch/Trench. The Messenians had recruited the Arcadians as allies but the Spartans had bribed these to simply withdraw as the battle was starting, leaving the betrayed Messenians to suffer a crushing defeat.

It was not difficult for the Lacedaemonians to surround the Messenians thus isolated, and they won without trouble the easiest of victories. Aristomenes and his men held together and tried to check the fiercest of the Lacedaemonian assaults but, being few in number, were unable to render much assistance.
Pausanias: Guide to Greece 4.14-17

Aristomenes and those who managed to escape the rout retreated to Mount Eira where they fought on as guerrillas from their mountain stronghold for the next decade. According to legend Aristomenes was captured by the Spartans and thrown into the Caeadas, a chasm on Mount Taygetus where they threw criminals to their death and supposedly abandoned deformed babies (the Apothetes where the newborn children were abandoned was likely to have been a different location). Aristomenes is supposed to have survived the fall by holding onto his shield to break his fall, a rather unlikely parachute, and then following a foxhole out of the gorge to safety. Tectonic movement has partially covered up the original chasm so we cannot search for Aristomenes’ foxhole sadly. Another tale has Aristomenes being taken prisoner by the Spartans and being set free by Archidameia, a priestess of Demeter who had fallen in love with him.

After three splendid victories over the Lacedaemonians, Aristomenes, the general of the Messenians, was disabled by wounds and captured along with many others. They were all sentenced by the Laconians to be thrown down a precipice; the rest were to be stripped, but Aristomenes was allowed to keep his armour, out of respect for his bravery. The others were killed instantly; but the broad shield of Aristomenes, which was to some extent lifted up by the air, let him gently down upon the ground. Aristomenes looked up, and saw nothing above, except inaccessible precipices; but he was too was bold in spirit, to give up all hope of safety. Examining the mountain carefully, he at last spotted a cleft, into which some foxes were entering. He broke off a bone from a dead body, and caught one of the foxes by the tail. Although he was severely bitten by the fox, he would not let go, but followed it into the cleft. After clearing away the rubbish with the bone that he held in his other hand, he escaped through the mountain, and arrived in the Messenian camp, just as his men were going out to fight again. He immediately armed himself, and led them into battle. The Laconians saw that enemy's troops were being led by Aristomenes, who was again engaging in battle, although they had just thrown him down the precipice, a punishment which no-one had ever before survived. They retreated from him, as from one who was more than human, and promptly fled from the battlefield.
Polyaenus 2:31

In rather more prosaic tales, around this time, in either 685 or 682, some Megarians settled on the eastern shore of the Bosphorus, in present day Turkey, founding the town of Chalcedon. This was viewed as a stupid site to settle, as the land across the water was deemed a far superior location. But the land across the water was settled as the city of Byzantium in 657. Because they had missed this opportunity the Chalcedonians were sometimes referred to as the City of the Blind. Byzantium would go on to have the more interesting history so the Greeks were probably right but Chalcedon has contributed to the world as well.

Orientalising Greek Pottery
In 680 chariot racing was added to the Olympic Games. The race was the tethrippon and was a four horse chariot race. This meant that there were now a number of events and the games became a two day festival. The Olympic racetrack was re-discovered in 2008 by archaeologists, a hippodrome about 780m by 320m that could be subdivided into different tracks depending on the event. Because horses and chariots were extremely rare in rocky Greece only the wealthy could afford such luxuries. Thus, with the chariot racing, the winner was held to be the owner of the chariot rather than the driver of the chariot. Later rich “athletes” would enter up to seven chariots in the event in the hopes of winning. Because one could technically “win” the Olympic chariot race without even being in Olympia it meant that it was the one Olympic prize that women (who were banned from the games) could win, and some later did. However the first winner of the tethrippon was Pagon of Thebes. Thalpis of Laconia won the stadion race, continuing the trend of Spartan victors of the footrace.

In 676 Callisthenes of Laconia won the stadion race at Olympia. Philombrotus the Lacedaemonian won the pentathlon.

In 675 Cyzicus was founded as a colony near the Sea of Marmara. There may have been an older city here previously however.

So in 675 we leave the account of the Greeks, with the Lelantine and Second Messenian Wars still ongoing, with art, music, sport and culture all continuing and growing apace. It is not a pivotal moment in history that we have looked at. The Lelantine War may not have been a real war and the Second Messenian War may not have occurred during this time frame. It is fun to laugh at the ancient Marquis of Queensbury (Onomastus) and enjoy the heroic and probably false tales about the heroic Messenian Aristomenes and to enjoy the records of the winners of the ancient Olympics. It is not a pivotal moment like the Persian or Peloponnesian Wars but it is still our history and it does no harm to remember the stories of this time instead of simply calling it the Archaic Period and skipping straight past it to the Persian Wars. Hopefully it had some interest anyway. I will leave you with some more tales of Aristomenes.

Orientalising Greek Pottery
On the day of the festival, when the Lacedaemonians make a public sacrifice to the Dioscuri, Aristomenes the Messenian and a friend mounted on two white horses, and put golden stars on their heads. As soon as night came on, they appeared at a little distance from the Lacedaemonians, who with their wives and children were celebrating the festival on the plain outside the city. The Lacedaemonians superstitiously believed that they were the Dioscuri, and indulged in drinking and revelling even more freely. Meanwhile, the two supposed deities, alighting from their horses, advanced against them with sword in hand. After leaving many of them dead on the spot, they remounted their horses, and made their escape.
Polyaenus 2:31

There the young men, intoxicated, I suppose, and without any self-control, attempted to violate the girls. When Aristomenes attempted to deter them from an action contrary to Greek usage, they paid no attention, so that he was compelled to kill the most disorderly. He released the captives for a large ransom, maidens, as when he captured them.
Pausanias: Guide to Greece 4.14-17

On another occasion, when Aristomenes the Messenian had been made prisoner by the Lacedaemonians, and was bound with cords, he went so close to a fire which was in the prison, that it burnt through the cords. Then he fell upon the guards and slew them. He proceeded secretly into Sparta, where he fixed up the guards' shields in the temple of Chalcioecus with this inscription: "Aristomenes has escaped from the Lacedaemonians unhurt." Then he returned to Messenia.
Polyaenus 2:31

700-675BC in the Near East

Assyrian reliefs from Nineveh
The Seal of Destinies by which Asshur, king of the gods, seals the destinies the Igigu and Anunnaku gods, the heavens, the netherworld, and mankind. Whatever he seals cannot be changed. Whoever tries change what he seals, may Asshur, king of the gods, and the goddess Mullissu, together with their children, kill him with their mighty weapons. I am Sennacherib, king of Assyria, the ruler who reveres you. Whoever erases my name or alters this Seal of Destinies belonging to you, erase his name and his seed from the land.
The Seal of Sennacherib, RINAP3:212

As is usual for these blogs, a word of caution must be said about our sources and the lack of them. We are fortunate to have a number of Assyrian inscriptions and letters, augmented by some Babylonian chronicles. There are also occasional Egyptian writings and Greek myths to supplement the account but for this period there are few Hebrew sacred writings that are of interest to the historian. Sadly, unlike the last post on the Near East, we cannot start this post with a talking sheep. As always, the opinions in this blog are my own interpretation of the sources and the events and must be treated accordingly.

Prism of Sennacherib
In the year 700BC Sennacherib ruled the Assyrian Empire from Nineveh. Shabaka was Pharaoh in Egypt and Nubia. Hezekiah was king of Judah, which had been devastated by the Assyrian invasion from the previous year, which had left Judah as little more than a city-state centred on the untaken city of Jerusalem. Argishti II was king of Urartu, which was still struggling with the aftermath of the Cimmerian invasion and the Assyrian wars of the previous decade. Shutur-Nakhunte II was king of Elam, a strong state in south-western present day Iran, which nevertheless has very few surviving sources.

Just to give context to what was happening elsewhere in the world, the Greeks were founding colonies in the Mediterranean. The Zhou Dynasty in China had moved its capital to Wangcheng around 771 and was now known as the Eastern Zhou as the empire slowly disintegrated into warring states. India was in the Later Vedic Period and the states such as Kuru, Panchala, Kosala and Videha were flourishing along the Ganges Plain. In Mesoamerica the Olmec had abandoned the city at San Lorenzo and the city at the La Venta site was now the focal point of the culture. In Peru the Chavín culture was flourishing near the coastal regions. There were a huge amount of other cultures in Africa and Eurasia as well but these will suffice to give an idea of what was happening elsewhere in the world.

Marshes of southern Mesopotamia
In the year 700BC there was trouble again in Babylon. The Bit-Yakin tribe of the Chaldeans once again rose up and it seems that Merodach-Baladan once again had a hand in the rebellion. Sennacherib marched into Babylonia and down to the southern marshes where he fought and defeated someone who he calls Suzubu but whose real name may have been Mushezib-Marduk. Suzubu fled into the marshes and could not be found by the pursuing Assyrians, who by now must have learned to hate the marshes.

I defeated Mushezib-Marduk), a Chaldean who lives in the marshes, at the city Bittutu. As for him, terror of doing battle with me fell upon him and his heart pounded. He fled alone like a lynx and his hiding place could not be found.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

Sennacherib marched further into Chaldea (or Sealand as it was also called), towards the district of Bit-Yakin itself. Merodach-Baladan loaded the gods of his land onto ships and fled down into the Persian Gulf to take refuge in the city of Nagitu in the kingdom of Elam. Sennacherib, frustrated at the mobility of the enemy, who had always managed to elude him in the marshes, burned and destroyed everything that he could on the shores of the marshy sea and marched back to Babylon around the year 699.

Merodach-Baladan II
…Dislodged the gods of the full extent of his land from their abodes, and loaded them onto boats. He flew away like a bird to the city Nagite-raqqi, which is in the midst of the sea.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

In Babylon, Bel-Ibni, the Babylonian puppet of the Assyrians was found to be unsatisfactory. He had allowed the Chaldeans to revive their strength while Sennacherib was campaigning against Judah and Philistia. He may have even been thought to be in league with the Chaldeans. Sennacherib removed him from the throne and placed his first born son and heir, Ashur-nadin-shumi, on the throne of Babylon. The people of Babylonia had rebelled against Sennacherib and his puppets. Perhaps they would respect his son?

On my return march, I placed Ashur-nadin-shumi, my first-born son whom I raised on my own knee, on his lordly throne and entrusted him with the wide land of Sumer and Akkad.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

Around this time Hezekiah may have made some form of further tributary arrangement with Sennacherib but this is unknown. In Elam around the year 699, Shutur-Nakhunte II was killed by his brother Hallushu-Inshushinak. The Babylonian Chronicles use the rather strange phrase, “they shut the door in his face” and I am not sure what exactly this means but it is as poetic a phrase as any to describe a coup. Hallushu-Inshushinak assumed the kingship of Elam. The kings of Elam would not have great fortune in this time period.

Shutur-Nakhunte, king of Elam, was seized by his brother, Hallushu-Inshushinak and Hallushu-Inshushinak shut the door in his face.
Babylonian Chronicles: From Nabonassar to Shamash-shuma-ukin

Image originally from
Hakkari Stele
Around the years 699-697 Sennacherib made an expedition to Mount Nipur, a mountainous region that is not known with certainty by historians and Ukku, a mountainous kingdom that bordered Urartu and was probably the region of Hakkari in present-day Turkey. In 1998 a number of stelae were discovered in Hakkari that are quite interesting and very unlike most other artwork of the Middle East. They appear more closely related to the stelae of the nomadic peoples of the steppes of Central Asia. The stelae were not from this time period however and predate Sennacherib by about 600 years. Sennacherib led the campaign from his chair that was carried into the mountains. He takes care to describe how he went on foot when the path was too steep for the chair to be carried. He pursued the inhabitants of Mount Nipur before turning on Ukku. Maniye the king of Ukku was able to escape but his city was captured, plundered and destroyed.
Maniye had probably been a friend of Assyria previously and was probably the source of the report of the Cimmerian invasions of Urartu during the time of Sargon II. So it’s not clear why Ukku was chosen for such destruction. Sennacherib may have wanted to demonstrate Assyrian power on the borders of Urartu. Unlike his father, Sennacherib never fought with Urartu to our knowledge and he may have wanted to have a show of strength on the frontier to make sure that Argishti II did not get any illusions of Assyrian weakness. Stone reliefs of the destruction of Ukku now decorated the walls of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, joining the illustrations of the siege of Lachish.

Mountains of Ukku near Hakkari
He, Maniye, saw the dust cloud stirred up by the feet of my troops, then he abandoned the city Ukku, his royal city and fled afar
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

Around the year 697 it seems that Hezekiah of Judah took his son Manasseh as co-regent. This was not unusual, as the kings of Israel and Judah often seem to have had co-regencies, but Manasseh was probably quite young when he was enthroned, probably just in his teenage years.
In the year 696 there was a rebellion against Assyrian rule in Cilicia. The cities of Hilakku, Ingira and Tarzu (probably Tarsus), rose up, led by the ruler of Illubru named Kirua. The exact map of the campaign is unclear but it seems likely from the records of Sennacherib that the rebels tried to fortify the famous Cilician Gates, one of the few roads through the mountains. The rebellious cities were defeated by Sennacherib’s generals and Kirua was besieged in his city of Illubru, which was reduced by Assyrian siege rams and towers. No ramp was needed to take the city and the walls were broken. The loot and the prisoners were sent back to Sennacherib in the city of Nineveh. The unfortunate Kirua was flayed.

Image originally from
Drawing of the sack of Ukku
The people living in the cities Ingira and Tarzu aligned themselves with him, then seized the road through the land Que (Cilicia) and blocked its passage.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

The campaign of 696 was a minor footnote and is only mentioned in a few of Sennacherib’s inscriptions. However, the display of Assyrian might must have impressed the Greeks living nearby and they told later legends of an Assyrian king who was buried near Tarsus. When Alexander the Great passed the region many years later on his way to fight Darius at Issus he was shown the “tomb of Sardanapalus”. Some scholars have guessed that this expedition of Sennacherib’s may have given rise to the myth.

Also near the wall of Anchialus was the monument of Sardanapalus, upon the top of which stood the statue of that king with the hands joined to each other just as they are joined for clapping. An inscription had been placed upon it in Assyrian characters, which the Assyrians asserted to be in metre. The meaning which the words expressed was this:—"Sardanapalus, son of Anacyndaraxas, built Anchialus and Tarsus in one day; but do thou, O stranger, eat, drink, and play, since all other human things are not worth this!" referring, as in a riddle, to the empty sound which the hands make in clapping. It was also said that the word translated play had been expressed by a more lewd one in the Assyrian language.
Arrian’s Anabasis Chapter 5, written around 130 AD

In 695 Sennacherib’s generals moved against the border of the Neo-Hittite kingdom of Tabal. Gurdi, the king of the city of Urdutu, was attacked and his city besieged, looted and destroyed, although Gurdi himself was not counted among the slain. Gurdi may have been the king responsible for the death of Sennacherib’s father Sargon, so there may have been motives of vengeance. It may have also been the case that Sennacherib wanted to stay away from the region for superstitious reasons, letting his generals fight these wars.

Mountains of Cilicia
They besieged that city and took possession of the city by means of piling up earth, bringing up battering rams, and the assault of foot soldiers. They counted the people, as well as the gods, living inside it as booty. They destroyed and devastated that city. They turned it into a mound of ruins.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:17

However, it was around this time that the Cimmerians were moving into Phrygia and the Assyrians may have wanted to shore up their north-western frontier against the nomadic tribes. Mita of Mushki, who probably was the Midas of Greek legend, had a substantial kingdom in central Anatolia. The Phrygian kingdom goes into decline around this time period and the later classical authors such as Strabo or Jerome record that Gordion was sacked by the Cimmerians and that Midas committed suicide by drinking bull’s blood. The sources here are extremely tentative, as Jerome was writing over a thousand years later and his chronicle is spectacularly wrong on a number of points, but it is likely that the Cimmerians were in the vicinity and that the Assyrians responded as they almost always responded, with a show of force.

Phrygian cauldron
And those Cimmerians whom they also call Trerans (or some tribe or other of the Cimmerians) often overran the countries on the right of the Pontus and those adjacent to them, at one time having invaded Paphlagonia, and at another time Phrygia even, at which time Midas drank bull's blood, they say, and thus went to his doom.
Strabo 1:3:21, writing around 24AD

In 694 Sennacherib decided to move against the Chaldeans who had fled across the sea to Elam. He did so in a way that was characteristically megalomaniacal, elaborate and intelligent. He had previously cemented his rule over Phoenicia and imposed some form of sovereignty over Cyprus. The Assyrians themselves were not noted sailors but the Phoenicians and the Greeks were. Sennacherib ordered them to build sea-going ships on the Tigris River and then sailed them down as far as the city of Opis, on the northern frontier of Babylonia. Because the Chaldean tribes must have controlled the mouths of the Tigris River, Sennacherib then had the ships transported on rollers and then into the canal systems of Babylon before sailing them down the Euphrates River, with Sennacherib and the armies following by land.

Nineveh relief of Assyrian ships
They skilfully built magnificent ships, a product characteristic of their land. I gave orders to sailors of the cities Tyre and Sidon, and the land Ionia, whom I had captured. My troops let the sailors sail down the Tigris River with them downstream to the city Opis. Then, from the city Opis, they lifted the boats up onto dry land and dragged them on rollers to Sippar and guided them into the Araḫtu canal, where they let them sail downstream to the canal of Bit-Dakkuri, which is in Chaldea.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:46

They arrived at the marshlands near the edge of the sea and apparently pitched their camp miles from the sea. However this was still too close and the camp had problems with the tides. The Phoenician and Greek sailors probably had real difficulties with the tides. Their ships were built for the Mediterranean, which only experiences very minimal tides. Their boats must also have had very low draughts to allow them to sail along the canals. So they may have had to refit them to sail in the Persian Gulf. The records of Sennacherib say that they spent five days and nights waiting for the tides to abate before Sennacherib offered sacrifices and the ships laden with warriors set off.

For five days and nights, on account of the strong water, all of my soldiers had to sit curled up as though they were in cages.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:46

It cannot have been the full army, as it seems to suggest that Sennacherib stayed on dry land the entire campaign. The Assyrian navy landed at Nagitu and surprised the Elamites and Chaldeans, capturing their gods and taking prisoners before burning what they could not carry and returning across the sea to their waiting king. Sennacherib had taken a huge risk with entrusting his soldiers to the sea and it had paid off, except that it hadn’t.

Mesopotamian marshes
My warriors reached the quay of the harbour and like locusts they swarmed out of the boats onto the shore against them and defeated them. … They carried off their garrisons, the population of Chaldea, the gods of all of the land Bit-Yakin. … They destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire those cities. They poured out deathly silence over the wide land of Elam.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:46

Hallushu-Inshushinak, king of Elam, must have heard word of the preparations and guessed what it was for. While Sennacherib carried out his convoluted plan of striking from the southern edge of Mesopotamia, the Elamites carried out a very simple plan attacked Babylonia on the usual land route during his absence, outflanking the Assyrian army and cutting their supply lines. Sennacherib had won a victory to be sure but his army was now in a very dangerous position. Sippar, a sacred city that was an Assyrian base in the region, was captured by the Elamites and its inhabitants slaughtered. The Elamites then moved on Babylon where the inhabitants of the city, hating Sennacherib and all associated with him, took his son prisoner. Ashur-nadin-shumi was the crown prince of Assyria and king of Babylon so this was the most serious of rebellions against the Assyrians. Ashur-nadin-shumi was handed over to the Elamites, transported to Elam and presumably executed. There is no record of any attempts to use him as a hostage. Sennacherib was probably not in a mood to bargain.

Assyrians transporting prisoners
Afterwards, Hallushu-Inshushinak, king of Elam marched to Akkad and entered Sippar at the end of the month Tashritu.  He slaughtered its inhabitants. Shamash did not go out of Ebabbar. Ashur-nadin-shumi was taken prisoner and transported to Elam.
Babylonian Chronicles: From Nabonassar to Shamash-shuma-ukin

In 693, while the fighting continued, the Elamites put Nergal-ushezib on the throne of Babylon and he promptly attacked Nippur, another sacred city that was loyal to the Assyrians. The Assyrians moved north and took Uruk, slaying as they went. The Elamites seem to have moved south to attack the Assyrians but end up just attacking Uruk, which had the misfortune to be sacked twice in a few months. Nergal-ushezib tried to stop Sennacherib at Nippur in a battle that the Assyrians had to win in order to return home. The Chaldeans and Babylonians were no match for the Assyrians and Sennacherib captured Nergal-ushezib and brought him back to Nineveh, where he was imprisoned and died in captivity.

On my return march, in a pitched battle, I defeated Nergal-ushezib, a citizen of Babylon who had taken the lordship of the land of Sumer and Akkad for himself during the confusion in the land. I captured him alive, bound him with tethering ropes and iron fetters, and brought him to Assyria
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

Assyria went on the attack again, capturing border cities between Assyria and Elam. The Elamites fell back to one of their capitals, Madaktu, in the Iranian mountains, while Sennacherib pursued them vengefully. The Elamites were unable to take the strain of the war and Hallushu-Inshushinak was murdered by his own people and his son Kutir-Nakhunte III succeeded him on the throne. It should be noted that the Babylonian records suggest that Hallusu-Inshushinak was murdered before Sennacherib started his campaign. However, Sennacherib’s forces were now overstretched and too far from home. The Assyrian records speak of the armies facing severe cold and heavy rainstorms in the mountains as they pushed towards the capital. Rather than risking his armies Sennacherib retreated. The story of the extreme cold may have been an excuse, as now a Chaldean called Mushezib-Marduk had declared himself king of Babylon and the Assyrians were fully committed in Elam and unable to deal with the new threat.

I ordered the march to the city Madaktu, his royal city. In the month Tamḫīru, bitter cold set in and   a severe rainstorm sent down its rain. I was afraid of the rain and snow in the gorges, the outflows of the mountains.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

In the year 692 Kutir-Nakhunte III of Elam was murdered by his brother Humban-Nimena III who seized the throne for himself. Sennacherib viewed this as the act of the god Asshur fighting his battles for him and his scribes wrote about the murder glowingly in the records.

Kutir-Nakhunte, king of Elam, was taken prisoner in a rebellion and killed. For ten months Kutir-Nakhunte ruled Elam. Humban-Nimena in Elam ascended the throne.
Babylonian Chronicles: From Nabonassar to Shamash-shuma-ukin

In the year 691 there is not much to record. Presumably Assyria, Babylonia and Elam were all resting their forces and preparing for the next inevitable war.

Statue of a god with Taharqa's features
In 690 our gaze shifts temporarily to Egypt. Shabaka, Pharaoh of Egypt, who had ruled probably since 705. He had been a strong ruler and had ruled both Egypt and Nubia. However, there are some suggestions that Shabaka’s death may have had political intrigue surrounding it. Taharqa, who was either Shabaka’s brother or nephew took the throne rather than Shabaka’s son Tantamani. Also, in Taharqa’s inscriptions describing his rise to power Taharqa never mentions Shabaka, instead stressing that Shebitku, a previous Pharaoh, favoured him more than Shebitku’s children. However, I am not convinced that Taharqa was a usurper. He left Shabaka’s son Tantamani alive and Tantamani succeeded him on the throne when Taharqa died later. With so many rulers being overthrown in this period it may be that historians see conspiracies behind every change of rulers.

Shabaka had left a number of inscriptions cementing his power in Lower Egypt and when he died he was placed in an impressive pyramid in the royal cemetery of El-Kurru near his brothers Piye and Shebitku and his father Kashta. Shabaka’s armies had not been successful in stopping the Assyrians in their attack on Philistia and Judah but the Egyptian state that Taharqa inherited was still one of the strongest states in the region. Taharqa had probably been the general who led the force that attacked the Assyrians and would have been acutely aware of the Assyrian threat to the north and east.

Shabaka Stone
This writing was copied out anew by his majesty in the house of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall, for his majesty found it to be a work of the ancestors which was worm-eaten, so that it could not be understood from the beginning to end. His majesty copied it anew so that it became better than it had been before, in order that his name might endure and his monument last in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall throughout eternity, as a work done by the son of Re (Shabaka) for his father Ptah-Tatenen, so that he might live forever.
Shabaka Stone

In the same year 690 the war between Assyria, Babylon and Elam flared up again. Sennacherib marched on Babylonia, as the Babylonians sent a plea for help to the new Elamite king Humban-Numena III. The Elamites had suffered greatly in previous years of war so to ensure that the Elamites came, Mushezib-Marduk took the treasures of the great shrine of Babylon, the Esagila, and sent them to the Elamites.  Humban-Numena took the bribe and began to gather his allies, confederates and tributaries for war. The Elamites marched with not only their own army but the Chaldeans, Arameans, and what the Assyrian writers describe as the “lands of Parsuas, Anzan, Pasheru and Ellipi”. This is one of the indications that the Indo-European tribe known as the Persians (Parsuas) had moved southwards to the vicinity of Elam at this time. If the Persians were indeed marching to battle then one of their chiefs may have been Achaemenes, the legendary ancestor of the later rulers of the Persian Empire. He may or may not have existed but if he did exist, it is likely that he was in the Elamite host. Despite the later power of the Persians, at this point they were merely an allied tribe of the Elamites.

They opened the treasury of Esagila and took out the gold and silver of the god Marduk and the goddess Zarpanitu, the property of the temple of their gods. They sent it as a bribe to Humban-Numena, the king of the land Elam, who does not have sense or insight, saying: “Gather your army, muster your forces, hurry to Babylon, and align yourself with us! Let us put our trust in you.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

The Babylonians and the Elamites joined forces and marched towards the city of Halule. On the plains of Halule the armies of the Elamites, Babylonians, Chaldeans and their allies did battle with the Assyrians. The scribes of Sennacherib write about it in breathless detail, possibly the most lurid description of any Assyrian battle. The Elamites were drawn up on the banks of Tigris and Sennacherib’s forces were unable to reach the water, so it was probably the Assyrians who attacked to try and force their enemies away from the river. As with nearly all ancient battles we have no idea of tactics, all we hear about are the fantastic and improbable exploits of the king, told in ever more gory detail. The slaughter continued into the night when the Assyrians finally stopped killing.

Assyrian Lachish relief from Nineveh
Like a spring invasion of a swarm of locusts, they were advancing towards me as a group to do battle. The dust of their feet covered the wide heavens like a heavy cloud in the deep of winter. … Like a flood in full spate after the storm, I made their blood flow over the broad earth. The swift thoroughbreds harnessed to my chariot plunged into rivers of their blood.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:23

Sennacherib records a complete victory for the Assyrians. The kings of Babylon and Elam are described as fleeing from the battlefield while defecating in their chariots from sheer terror. The herald of the Elamites is mentioned among the slain and a son of the wily Merodach-Baladan was captured alive by the Assyrians. Sennacherib mentions that he spilled blood like a river and that his chariot wheels were bathed in gore. In another inscription he mentions that he killed one hundred and fifty thousand of their combat troops.

The other records tell a more nuanced and contradictory story. Like the campaign against Philistia and Judah, the bombastic language about Halule may be used to mask the fact that something had gone wrong. The Assyrians may well have held the field, killed some high-ranking Elamites and captured high profile prisoners. But they must have done so at a terrible price. The Babylonian records bluntly state that the Elamites forced Sennacherib to retreat. Sennacherib’s list of enemy casualties is far too high to be plausible. According to Sennacherib, the Elamite/Babylonian casualties were three times higher than the British casualties on the first day of the Somme, which is … unlikely.

Iranian seal
Humban-nimena mustered the troops of Elam and Akkad and he did battle against Assyria in Halule. He effected an Assyrian retreat.
Babylonian Chronicles: From Nabonassar to Shamash-shuma-ukin

What is most likely to have happened is that the two armies clashed in a close-fought struggle before breaking off from combat once night had fallen. During the night the Babylonians and Elamites retreated and the Assyrians retreated over the next few days. For all Sennacherib’s claims of victory, his army was in no fit state to pursue or to commence sieges. The great battle left all three kings alive and on their thrones and Sennacherib now needed to use propaganda to show how the bloody stalemate and strategic defeat was in fact a great personal victory. It is a useful warning against relying entirely on Assyrian sources. 

The armies of all three states must have been heavily damaged but the Assyrians were damaged the least and later that year they seem to have been involved in a campaign against the oasis city of Dumatha in present-day Saudi-Arabia, where they were engaged in battle with yet another queen of the matriarchal Arabs. The city they attacked was known as Adummatu to the Assyrians, Dumatha to the Romans and Dumat al-Jandal to the Arabs. It contained a shrine to the goddess of the morning star, Atarsamain, and was the main city of the Kedarite Arab tribe in the region. It is unclear why it was attacked by Sennacherib but it is likely that this expedition was undertaken by a different, smaller army, rather than the main army which had suffered at Halule. Some scholars place this campaign several years later however.

I carried off Teʾelḫunu, queen of the Arabs, together with her gods
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:35

The year 689 saw the Assyrians powerful, yet fearful after their reverse at Halule, wanting to take revenge on their enemies but not wanting to risk another full-blown confrontation.  Of the organised empires of the Near East, only the Egyptians, the Elamites and the Urartians were really capable of fielding an army against them in the field. Then suddenly, without warning or expectation, the game was changed. Humban-Numena III of Elam was stricken with a paralysis that affected him so badly that he was unable to speak. Sennacherib mustered his armies, knowing that his chief rival in the wars to the south was powerless to take the field against him. It would have been better for the Babylonians and the Elamites if Humban-Numena III had actually passed away but the paralysed king could neither command his armies in person nor order his generals into the field.

On the fifteenth day of the month Nisannu, Humban-nimena, king of Elam, was stricken by paralysis and his mouth was so affected that he could not speak.
Babylonian Chronicles: From Nabonassar to Shamash-shuma-ukin

Within a few months Sennacherib must have brought his armies southwards and towards Babylonia. We have no details of the siege but the Babylonian chronicles record that around seven months after the paralysis of the Elamite king, that Babylon had fallen. Sennacherib captured Mushezib-Marduk and had him sent in captivity to Assyria where his fate is unlikely to have been pleasant.
Sennacherib had ignored the traditional rites of the Babylonians, never having undertaken their ceremonies of kingship, as his predecessors Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II had done. He had simply assumed the kingship as his right through force of arms and the later Babylonian chronicles record his early years as kingless. He had installed a Babylonian lackey as king before placing his son on the throne. The near continuous rebellions and the betrayal of his son to the Elamites showed the Babylonian response to Sennacherib’s contempt. When they handed Ashur-nadin-shumi to the Elamites the Babylonians had sealed his fate as surely as if they had murdered him themselves. Faced with the simmering resentment Sennacherib decided to take a drastic step. He destroyed Babylon.

Assyrians transporting prisoners
I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire the city, and its buildings, from its foundations to its crenellations. I removed bricks and earth, as much as there was, from the inner and outer walls, the temples, and the ziggurrat, and I threw into the Araḫtu River. I dug a canal into the centre of that city and levelled their site with water. I destroyed the outline of its foundations and made its destruction surpass that of the Deluge. So that in the future, the site of that city and temples will be unrecognizable. I dissolved Babylon in water and annihilated it, making it like a meadow.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:24

This was a horrendous crime in the eyes of the Assyrians. Babylon was a sacred city, not just to a foreign god, like Jerusalem, Adumattu or Musashir, but to Marduk, a god within their own religion. Sennacherib attempted to justify his actions by referencing some sacrileges of the Babylonians against the city of Ekallatum committed 418 years prior. But then he boasted of the level of destruction, comparing his actions to the Deluge that destroyed all mankind in early history and boasting of diverting canals into the city so as to ensure that the floodwaters of the rivers would erase the troublesome city forever. Those who were not killed were deported and Sennacherib hoped that the city would never rise again. The wars between the Assyrians and Babylonians seemed to have been finished forever. It is worth noting that many key details of this attack, siege and capture are missing and that the destruction that Sennacherib accomplished was probably less than he intended. Daesh have attempted to destroy many relics of cities in the region, including some of Sennacherib’s own. But even with modern explosives it is quite difficult to erase all traces of a city. Babylon would not rise again in Sennacherib’s lifetime but it would rise again.

Later in the year 689 Sennacherib made another controversial decision. His eldest son, Ashur-nadin-shumi, had been murdered by the Babylonians. He now needed a new crown prince and he now designated a younger son, Esarhaddon, as crown prince. Please note that the dates here are unclear and this may have in fact happened in 683. Esarhaddon was the son of Sennacherib’s favourite queen, Naqia, or Zakutu as she is also known, and this probably influenced the decision. The other, older, sons of Sennacherib were furious at being passed over, with Arda-Mulisshi and Nabu-sharra-usur particularly being angry. Esarhaddon seems to have suffered from health problems and was seen as a weak choice, so Sennacherib made the Assyrian generals and leaders swear an oath of loyalty to the new crown prince.

Assyrian Lachish relief showing Sennacherib
Before the gods Asshur, Sin, Shamash, Nabu, and Marduk, the gods of Assyria, the gods who live in heaven and netherworld, he made them swear their solemn oaths concerning the safe-guarding of my succession.
Inscriptions of Esarhaddon: RINAP4:1

Also around this time the Assyrians seem to have established some form of diplomatic relations with the kingdom of Saba in what is now Yemen. There are a number of small inscriptions from Nineveh bearing the name of Karibi-ilu. This has been suggested to have been the king Karib’il Watar, a great conqueror in the kingdom of Yemen. However, Karib’il Watar is probably later, perhaps by a few hundred years. It is possible that it was an earlier Mukarrib of Saba, Karab-El Bayin, who was the Sabaean king mentioned by the Assyrians. It is possible that this connection was forged by the Arabs of southern Arabia wanting to establish good relations with the Assyrians, who controlled the northern edges of their trade routes. Possibly the conquest of the Arabian city of Adummatu had got their attention, or possibly the fact that the inhabitants of Dilmun (probably present-day Bahrain) seem to have had some dealings with the Assyrians around the time of the fall of Babylon in this year. Whatever the truth or otherwise of these conjectures it is a good reminder of the interconnectedness of the ancient world, even in times of war.

The audience gift that Karib-il, king of the land Saba, presented to me. Whoever places it in the service of a god or another person or erases my inscribed name, may the deities Asshur, [...], Sin, and Shamash make his name and his seed disappear.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:24

In 688 Humban-Numena III finally died of his paralysis, which was probably caused by a stroke, and his son Humban-Haltas I succeeded him. There is not much more that can be said of the year 688, as the records of the Assyrians are silent for this time.

On the seventh day of the month Addaru Humban-nimena, king of Elam, died
Babylonian Chronicles: From Nabonassar to Shamash-shuma-ukin

Around the year 687 Hezekiah, king of Judah, dies. He was succeeded by his son and co-ruler Manasseh. The dynasty of Judah appears to have had relatively few coups and their custom of installing the crown prince as co-ruler while the king was still alive appears to have been a very successful one. While Hezekiah is remembered as a good ruler by the later sacred writings of the Hebrews, the kingdom that Manasseh inherited was a shadow of its former self. Judah was reduced to a paltry city state, with all but its capital in disarray, so Manasseh reversed most of the decisions of his father. He seems to have been quite pro-Assyrian, with one possible exception, and certainly paid tribute to the Assyrian kings. He also reversed the decision to centralise worship in Jerusalem, allowing the local cults in the countryside to flourish. He may have tried to foster trade as well in the region. Apart from damning his reversal of Hezekiah’s reforms, the Biblical Book of Kings says very little about his long reign so we must rely on archaeology, which appears to show that there was a revival of Judah’s economy during this time.

Statue of Baal
Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem. And his mother's name was Hephzibah. And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, after the abominations of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel. For he built up again the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; and he reared up altars for Baal, and made a grove, as did Ahab king of Israel; and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord said, In Jerusalem will I put my name.  And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he made his son pass through the fire, and observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards: he wrought much wickedness in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger.
2 Kings 21:1-6

Even with Manasseh’s recovery the kingdom of Judah was now probably weaker than the surrounding kingdoms of Ammon and Moab and large sections of it were ruled by the Philistines. Manasseh’s reforms and hostility to his father’s advisors probably influences the silence of the sources. Later traditions record that he executed the prophet Isaiah, using the fairly dreadful method of sawing him in half and there are no prophets said to be active during his reign. During the first few years of Manasseh’s rule the southern Levant (Philistia/Judah/Moab/etc.) seems to have come under the influence of the Egyptian Pharaoh Taharqa. Taharqa was interested in the region and Sennacherib seems to have not led any more campaigns in the area after this conquest of Babylon.

Isaiah said to himself: I know him, i.e., Manasseh, that he will not accept whatever explanation that I will say to him to resolve my prophecies with the words of the Torah. And even if I say it to him, I will make him into an intentional transgressor since he will kill me anyway. Therefore, in order to escape, he uttered a divine name and was swallowed within a cedar tree. Manasseh’s servants brought the cedar tree and sawed through it in order to kill him. When the saw reached to where his mouth was, Isaiah died.
Yevamot 49b:8, written around 500AD

Image originally from
Remains of Sennacherib's aqueducts
From 689 to 681 the Assyrian sources become nearly silent. To some extent this is because the early stages of a king’s rule are generally better documented than the later years. But it does also seem that Sennacherib did not do any major campaigns for these years. Doubtless there were small campaigns but there is no fully satisfactory explanation for why Sennacherib did not go to war. Most of his enemies were defeated to be sure, but the Assyrian armies were usually at war. Some have hypothesised a second campaign to Judah during this time period but, while not impossible, there are good reasons to suspect that this was not the case.

It is as good a time as any to speak of Sennacherib’s building projects. Like his father, Sennacherib was a prolific builder, demanding that his captives and subject kings provide him with labour and raw materials to make Nineveh the finest city in the world. During the first fifteen years of his rule he had built up new palaces, changed the courses of rivers, re-walled his cities, dedicated and rebuilt temples old and new and built a massive canal and aqueduct system to supply his capital and its gardens with water. To water the high terraced gardens the Assyrians used what is almost certainly an Archimedes screw and Sennacherib claims to have invented new methods of bronze casting and transportation for his statues of bronze and stone. When Babylon was destroyed Nineveh was most probably the largest city on earth.

Assyrian relief of irrigated gardens
I planted alongside the palace a botanical garden, a replica of Mount Amanus, which has all kinds of aromatic plants and fruit trees, trees that are the mainstay of the mountains and Chaldea, collected inside it.
Inscriptions of Sennacherib, RINAP3:46

There has never been a trace of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon found in the ruins of Babylon. However, Stephanie Dalley, an archaeologist who has worked extensively in the region believes that the palace gardens of Sennacherib were what founded the legend. Possibly the gardens were in fact in Babylon or possibly they never existed. But it is also possible that Sennacherib had created one of the wonders of the world.

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus bv the banks of the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus…
Antipater of Sidon, writing around 140BC

In 689 Sennacherib had made Esarhaddon crown prince of the Assyrian Empire, which had enraged the older sons of Sennacherib who had been passed over in the line of succession. These had continued to plot and scheme against the sickly youngster and it seems that around 683 Esarhaddon had had to flee to the land near Harran in present day Syria, because the plots against him were too much. His mother Naqia probably had a hand in sending her son to safety.

By the command of the great gods, my lords, the gods settled me in a secret place away from the evil deeds, stretched out their pleasant protection over me, and kept me safe for exercising kingship.
Inscriptions of Esarhaddon: RINAP4:1

The other princes had their followers who wanted to see them gain power and the sacrilegious sacking of Babylon would have made Sennacherib very unpopular with his own people and army. In 681 the conspirators struck. Sennacherib was surprised in his palace and stabbed to death. At least two princes who were in Nineveh took control of the army and sent a force swiftly westwards to deal with the exiled crown prince. However Esarhaddon had heard the news and was rushing back towards Nineveh to claim the throne himself. The generals had sworn oaths to support him and these oaths held. The troops sent to slay Esarhaddon joined his forces instead and the young prince marched on Nineveh. His brothers fled northwards towards Urartu.

Medieval manuscript showing death of Sennacherib
Afterwards, my brothers went out of their minds and did everything that is displeasing to the gods and mankind, and they plotted evil, girt their weapons, and in Nineveh, without the gods, they butted each other like young goats for the right to exercise kingship. … I did not hesitate one day or two days. … With difficulty and haste, I followed the road to Nineveh and before my arrival in the territory of the land Ḫanigalbat all of their crack troops blocked my advance … In their assembly, they said thus: ‘This is our king!’ Through Ishtar’s sublime command they began coming over to my side and marching behind me.
Inscriptions of Esarhaddon: RINAP4:1

There has been some suspicion that Esarhaddon conspired against his father and had him murdered. After all, Esarhaddon was the one who eventually benefitted the most from the murder. But there are strong indications that Esarhaddon’s account of his brothers murdering the king and Esarhaddon marching to the rescue are in fact correct. The Babylonian chronicles record simply that “a son” of Sennacherib’s slew him. The Bible records that he was murdered by “Adrammelech and Sharezer”, while Berossus, a Babylonian writer from the Classical period, records that “a trap was readied for him by his son Ardumuzan…” Arammelech and Ardumuzan probably refer to the prince Arda-Mulisshi while Sharezer probably refers to Nabu-sharra-usur.

And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.
2 Kings 19:37 KJV, written around 550BC

Modern illustration of the flight of Adrammelech
To clinch the argument, a letter from Babylonia was found that describes the acts preceding the murder, where an official discovered the plot and was veiled and taken to see the king. The hooded official was taken into the presence of the king and revealed what he knew of the conspiracy. The hood was then taken off the head of the hapless official who found that he had been taken to see the rebellious princes instead of the king. The princes then interrogate and murder the official and any others who had already been told. The text then breaks off. It would seem that all the sources confirm Esarhaddon’s story and in the words of Parpola we may “acquit the harassed king of the murder charge he does not deserve and convict the man to whom all the evidence points…

681 was obviously a bad year for kings. Not only was Sennacherib murdered by his sons but the king of Elam, Humban-Haltas I, developed a sudden paralysis and died at sunset on the same day. Presumably this was a stroke, like the one that had killed his father. The possibility of some genetic disorder is certainly worth considering here. His son, Humban-Haltas II, succeeded him. There is a note in the Babylonian chronicles about gods of Uruk returning to their city from Elam so it is possible that the Elamite king was normalising relations with Sennacherib before both of them died.

On the twenty-third day of the month Tashritu, at the noon hour, Humban-Haltash, king of Elam became paralyzed and died at sunset.
Babylonian Chronicles: From Nabonassar to Shamash-shuma-ukin

It’s probably worth saying a few words about Sennacherib. It’s hard to write a history of these times that does not end up becoming a biography of the Assyrian kings. Sennacherib was a capable and ruthless king and commander. He was cruel but probably not much more so than most of the kings of Assyria. He was a great builder, with the city of Nineveh standing as his monument but also a destroyer of many cities, particularly Babylon. Some have seen him as almost an atheist who feared no retribution from the gods. This is probably false. While we know much of Sennacherib, everything that we know comes from his enemies or his scribes. Like most rulers of the ancient world he was illiterate so no writings of his have come down to us, and we can only speculate on his actual thoughts, fears and beliefs.

Palace of Rest, an eternal dwelling, the firmly-founded family house of Sennacherib, great king, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria.
Tomb Inscription from Nineveh: RINAP3:203

Gustave Dore's print of the
Destruction of Sennacherib
He is remembered from the writings of his enemies in Babylon and Judah and in later times may have partly inspired some of the legends of the Greeks. In later millennia he inspired the famous poem of Lord Byron. However one of the most intriguing memories of Sennacherib is preserved in the Talmud. Here there is a tale of two Pharisees Shemaiah and Avtalyon, who are described as descendants of Sennacherib. They were both major figures in Judaism around 100BC. Shemaiah was Nasi (meaning “Prince”) of the Sanhedrin. Both were teachers of Hillel, one of the most important rabbis in the history of Judaism. It seems that it was important for those the descendants of the enemies of Sennacherib to believe that not only had the Assyrian attacks against them failed but that even his descendants had now joined them.

In 680 Argishti II of Urartu died and was succeeded by his son Rusa II. In Babylonia, the son of Merodach-Baladan, Nabu-zer-kitti-lisir, revolted against the Assyrians and attacked Ur. However, the Chaldean attack failed and he had to flee to Elam. The Elamites had no desire to restart the wars with Assyria so rather than granting Nabu-zer-kitti-lisir asylum, they killed him. Chaldea was then ruled by his brother Na’id-Marduk, who made immediate submission to Esarhaddon. Another Chaldean tribe, the Bit-Dakkuri, were also crushed at this time, with their king Samas-ibni taken prisoner and another prominent Chaldean, Nabu-shallim, made ruler of the Bit-Dakkuri. Yet another Chaldean tribe of the marshlands, the Gambulu, made peace with Assyria and were instated as a defence against Elam. The campaigns of Esarhaddon are not arranged chronologically like other Assyrian kings and it can be a little difficult to ascertain what happened when. But it is most likely that the wars against the Bit-Yakin, Bit-Dakkuri and Gamulu all happened in or around 680.

At that time, Nabu-zer-kitti-lisir, son of Merodach-baladan, governor of the Sealand, who did not keep his treaty nor remember the agreement of Assyria, … I sent my officials, the governors on the border of his land, against him. … The rebel, the traitor, heard of the approach of my army and fled like a fox to the land Elam. Because of the oath of the great gods which he had transgressed … they killed him with the sword in the midst of the land Elam.
Inscription of Esarhaddon, RINAP 4:1

Around this time a document seems to have been composed by the Assyrian scribes in Nineveh called the Sin of Sargon. It is written as if it was document of Sennacherib’s, where he is wondering for what sin his father, Sargon II, was slain. After much soul-searching and enquiry to the gods he finds out that Sargon had not treated the gods of Assyria and Babylonia correctly. The gods require new statues of both Assur and Marduk to be made and if these were not made then it would spell disaster for the king. Then Sennacherib reveals that he is speaking from beyond the grave and that he had been unable to create the new statue of Marduk and that for this sin he was slain. It is a rather intriguing text but it shows that the new king Esarhaddon had determined to avoid the fates of his father and grandfather and was planning to restore Babylon.

As for me (Sennacherib), after I had made the statue of Assur my lord, Assyrian scribes wrongfully prevented me from working on the statue of Marduk and did not let me make the statue of Marduk, the great lord, and thus shortened my life.
The Sin of Sargon

Drawing of Assyrian relief of building a palace
The Cimmerian threat to the north had not gone away and it seems that the kingdom of Phrygia had been wiped out around this time. The Assyrian empire must have been a tempting target and the Neo-Hittite states near Cilicia and the Taurus mountains were always quite rebellious against the Assyrians. The Assyrians had to respond to the threat and their armies moved to the north-east to face the Cimmerians. The mobile horse tribes of the Cimmerians would have been a real threat to the less mobile Assyrians so there seems to have been a temporary alliance with the Scythians. The Scythians were another horse tribe from the north, closely related to the Cimmerians and the Medes, and their mobility combined with Assyrian strength would enable the Cimmerians to be halted. But Esarhaddon was unsure if these horse raiders from the steppes could be trusted and we know that he consulted the gods and oracles to see if they would keep their word. The temporary alliance worked and the Cimmerians under their lord Teushpa (possibly a similar name to the Persian name Teispes) were halted and the Cilician cities around Tabal were plundered.

Moreover, I struck with the sword Teushpa, a Cimmerian, a barbarian whose home is remote, together with his entire army, in the territory of the land Ḫubushna.
Inscription of Esarhaddon, RINAP 4:1

While the Assyrians were facing the northern threat of the Cimmerians another threat emerged. The king of Sidon, Abdi-Milkutti, formed an alliance with two small states (Kundi and Sissu) in Cilicia and rebelled. Possibly the plans were afoot before the defeat of the Cimmerians. The Phoenicians of Sidon were almost certainly supported by Taharqa, Pharaoh of Nubia and Egypt. The Assyrian army in the north seems to have split into two groups, one to attack the rebellious states of Cilicia while the larger group pushed south to besiege Sidon and stop the other states in the region from rebelling.
Moreover, Sanda-uarri, king of the cities Kundi and Sissu, a dangerous enemy, who did not fear my lordship and abandoned the gods, trusted in the impregnable mountains. He and Abdi-Milkuti, king of Sidon, agreed to help one another, swore an oath by their gods with one another, and trusted in their own strength.
Inscription of Esarhaddon, RINAP 4:1

Drawing of Assyrian relief of building a palace
There is a strange prophetic tablet from around this time describing how the Babylonian god Marduk had been angry with his people for their sins and how he had exiled them for seventy years from their lands. The god had however relented and to show his mercy he would turn the tablet upside-down, allowing the prophecy to be fulfilled in eleven years instead of seventy. The cuneiform counting system has 11 and 70 as the same character if they are switched upside down, so this is a way that Esarhaddon was using to allow the gods to be respected and their prophecies fulfilled while still going ahead with his goal to restore Babylon. The themes of the anger of the national god and the seventy years exile of his people is quite an interesting parallel with the writings of Jeremiah around a century later.

In early 678 or late 679, the Assyrians had consolidated the region and contained the Sidonian threat. To stop Egyptian influence in the region they marched south and destroyed a small city called Arza at the very edge of Egypt. Arza’s ruler, Asuhili, was carried off to Nineveh where he was caged and displayed to the populace as part of a menagerie of bears, dogs and pigs. Possibly he was later fed to these animals, as yet another example of Assyrian brutality to anyone who stood against them.

I plundered the city Arza, which is in the district of the Brook of Egypt, and threw Asuḫili, its king, into fetters and brought him to Assyria. I seated him bound, near the citadel gate of Nineveh along with bears, dogs and pigs.
Inscription of Esarhaddon, RINAP 4:1

In 677 Sidon fell and its king Abdi-Milkutti attempted to flee across the sea but was captured by Assyrian ships. Abdi-Milkutti was decapitated (possibly in 676) and his head sent to Nineveh. Meanwhile the Assyrians demolished large sections of Sidon, took most of its territory and assigned it to Baal I of Tyre who had remained loyal. The city was then renamed after Esarhaddon.

I levelled Sidon, his stronghold, which is situated in the midst of the sea, like a flood, tore out its walls and its dwellings, and threw them into the sea; and I even made the site where it stood disappear. Abdi-Milkutti, its king, in the face of my weapons, fled into the midst of the sea. By the command of the god Asshur, my lord, I caught him like a fish from the midst of the sea and cut off his head.
Inscription of Esarhaddon, RINAP 4:1

Cilician mountains
In 676 Kundu and Sissu, the small rebel kingdoms in Cilicia, were defeated and their king was also decapitated. The heads of the rebel kings were hung around the necks of the nobles of Cilicia and Sidon and the rebels were paraded in triumph through the streets of Nineveh. Around this time the Assyrians seem to have entered into a full marriage alliance with the Scythians, with Esarhaddon even considering giving one of his daughters to the Scythian ruler. It is possible that the Assyrians were making attacks in the north-east against the Medes around this time, and went as far as the area of present day Tehran. But this seems to have been more of a tribute gathering exercise than anything. The full Assyrian army cannot have been present as there was a similar expedition happening to the south. Again the chronology is rather confused but it seems as if Esarhaddon was waging a series of rapid small campaigns against his enemies rather than massing his armies for a single large campaign once per year, as was more customary.

To show the people the might of the god Asshur, my lord, I hung the heads around the necks of their nobles and I paraded in the squares of Nineveh with singers and lyres.
Inscription of Esarhaddon, RINAP 4:1

Assyrian gate guardians
The Assyrian army now marched further south than it had ever marched before, along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf towards a place called Bazu, possibly near present day UAE territory. The march is described as gruelling but after the desert had been crossed the Assyrians engaged in battle with a number of cities and deposed their kings and queens.

As for the land Bazu, a district in a remote place, a forgotten place of dry land, saline ground, a place of thirst, one hundred and twenty leagues of desert, thistles, and gazelle-tooth stones, where snakes and scorpions fill the plain like ants…
Inscription of Esarhaddon, RINAP 4:1

One interesting consequence of this is that one of the kings of Bazu fled away from the Assyrians before coming to Nineveh and submitting to Esarhaddon. This king, Laiale, was pardoned and the province of Bazu was given to him. This small act of mercy was recorded in the Assyrian annals, buried in the ruins of Nineveh and later translated by one of the curators of the British Museum in the 1800’s. The great writer Leo Tolstoy came across the note about Laiale and wrote a short story based on it, called Esarhaddon. It is worth reading in full and can be found here.

Later artists imagining of Sennacherib's palace
Laiale, king of the city Iadi, who had fled before my weapons, unprovoked fear fell upon him, and he came to Nineveh, before me, and kissed my feet. I had pity on him and put that province of Bazu under him.
Inscription of Esarhaddon, RINAP 4:1

The dates are a little unclear but during Esarhaddon’s reign the Kedarite Arabs of Adummatu had sent an embassy to Nineveh to beg for the restoration of their gods that had been plundered by Sennacherib in 690. Esarhaddon restored the gods, after having the Assyrian scribes carefully write the praises of Esarhaddon and Asshur upon the idols. Tabua of the Arabs was restored to them as their queen (possibly a ceremonial role as another ruler, Hazael, is referred to as king of the Arabs). When Hazael died Esarhaddon confirmed his son Iata as king and supported him against a rebellion. This was not an act of altruism however, as Esarhaddon also increased their tribute during this time.

In 675 the Assyrian armies returned to the troublesome north-western frontier to unsuccessfully besiege the rebellious state of Melid (or Malatya as it is now known). The Elamites under Humban-Haltas II attacked Sippar in southern Mesopotamia, ending the period of peace between Assyria and Elam. Their attack was unsuccessful however and they succeeded mainly in disrupting the religious ceremonies of the sun-god Shamash, whose great shrine was located in Sippar. The Elamite attack was short-lived. Humban-Haltas II was stricken with a mysterious illness that left him suddenly dead; the third Elamite king in succession to die suddenly of an unknown and unexpected illness. There must certainly have been some genetic anomaly in the Elamite royal family at this time.
Humban-Haltas II of Elam was succeeded by his brother Urtak-Inshushinak and the Elamite and Assyrian empires made peace again almost immediately. The Elamites were in no real condition to challenge the Assyrians again and the Assyrians were fighting a number of wars on the northern frontiers against the loose confederations of the Median/Cimmerian/Scythian tribes.

Elamite relief
The king of Elam entered Sippar and a massacre took place. Shamash did not come out of Ebabbar. The Assyrian marched to Milidu. On the seventh day of the month Ulûlu, Humban-Haltas, king of Elam, without becoming ill, died in his palace. For five years, Humban-Haltas ruled Elam. Urtak, his brother, ascended the throne in Elam.
Babylonian Chronicles: From Nabonassar to Shamash-shuma-ukin

This brings the twenty-five year period to a close. During this time Babylon was destroyed but it was being rebuilt. The Assyrian empire was now stronger than it had ever been and once the northern tribal threat had been dealt with it seems that they were eyeing the rich prizes of Egypt. There are some questions about the other states however. What was Rusas II of Urartu doing during this time period? Was he behind the tribal attacks on the northern frontiers or was he also being attacked by the horse tribes? What was Gyges of Lydia doing? We can be fairly sure that he was ruling during this time period but the sources do not tell us much. Was Gyges or Rusas behind the persistent revolts in the Neo-Hittite states? What exactly were the Scythians/Cimmerians/Medes/Persians doing during this time? Were they acting in concert or as scattered tribal entities? What was Taharqa of Egypt planning during this time? Was he the prime mover behind the Sidonian revolt? These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily but it is worth pondering that many of the motivations of the major players of this time cannot be understood fully. A complete history of this time period would be much more detailed than the account that I have given but the nature of the source materials restricts our gaze.

Drawing of the excavation of Nineveh
I was able to start the last post with a talking sheep and end it with bowstring eating mice and a poem by Lord Byron. I cannot give such excitement this time but I will end the piece with a later fairy tale that was set in this time period. There was a tale about a sage called Ahikar, who was active in the Assyrian court during the reigns of Sennacherib and Esarhaddon. Being childless he adopted his nephew and taught him many proverbs and wise sayings. But his nephew schemed against his uncle Ahikar and told Sennacherib that Ahikar had plotted rebellion. Ahikar was sentenced to execution but escaped as he had previously shown mercy to the executioner. Sennacherib later repented of his decision to execute Ahikar and he was restored to the king and sent to the Pharaoh of Egypt to assist him with his wisdom. Ahikar trained eagles to be able to carry humans on their backs to allow humans to fly and to answer the challenge of the Pharaoh to “construct a castle between heaven and earth”. Ahikar answered all the riddles of the Pharaoh with wisdom and returned to Assyria where he was welcomed by the king. His ungrateful and treacherous nephew was delivered to him in chains. Ahikar proceeded to lecture his nephew about moral matters at which point his nephew exploded.

The tale is a strange one but it seems to be quite ancient. The earliest manuscript of it was found in Egypt and is from the Elephantine from the 400’s BC. The tale is clearly Jewish folklore but may have a Mesopotamian counterpart. It is alluded to in the apocryphal book of Tobit and the later folklore of Romania, Armenia and other countries also include the tale. There are clear anachronisms in the text, such as Esarhaddon being the father of Sennacherib rather than vice versa but it is a pleasant little interlude of a tale and I thought that if I couldn’t end a blog post with bowstring-eating-mice, that I should at least end it with children flying upon eagles and building castles between heaven and earth. 

Legend of Ahikar
So the king sprang up and sat with Ahiqar and went to a wide place and sent to bring the eagles and the boys, and Ahiqar tied them and let them off into the air all the length of the ropes and they began to shout as he had taught them, “Bring us clay and stone that we may build a castle for king Pharaoh, for we are idle.” Then he drew them to himself and put them in their places. …
And when Nadan heard that speech from his uncle Ahiqar, he swelled up immediately and
became like a blown-out bladder.
The Legend of Ahikar