Assyrian kingship

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
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There are three phases of the development of Assyrian kingship. The oldest model of kingship was actually not kingship: the god Ashur was the king, and the human monarch was just his agent and representative. Political control was wielded by a city assembly. This model ended when Ashur-ubalit took the title king for the first time. No other human had been king of the city-state, which expanded to a territorial state with its heartland between Ashur, Nineveh, and Erbil. This heartland would never be conquered by external forces – nor would the dynasty of Ashur-ubalit be interrupted – until the collapse of ancient Assyria. This absolute monarchy was next reconfigured by Ashurnasirpal II, who moved the capital from Ashur and transformed kingship from controlling a heartland to expanding with ambitions of empire.

Kingship over time.

PhaseMonarchReligious powerPolitical powerCapitalDescription

Parliamentary monarchy

God Ashur

Priestly governor

City assembly

Ashur

The god was king, the governor was the top priest and military leader, and the city assembly exercised political control. Ashur was a city-state and not militarily significant.

Absolute monarchy

Monarch

Monarch

Monarch

Ashur

A human ruled as an absolute monarch with its capital at Ashur, and a territorial state that was controlled and protected via a strong military led by the monarch.

Empire

Emperor

Emperor

Emperor

Various

The empire expanded and the king exercised total control. The political capital moved from Ashur.

As the continuation of the royal bloodline was paramount, he had one queen but many wives and all children he begot from any of them were his legitimate offspring. This is different than the otherwise monogamous Assyrian society. The king needed many wives to ensure one of his principal duties: procreating to supply a suitable replacement when he passed away. Also, marriages were an important tool in establishing treaties and cooperation between different kingdoms.

Parliamentary Monarchy (City-State)

Ashur was a city-state and the title of king – šaru in Assyrian – was held only by the god Ashur. The god Ashur was king and the only sovereign of the city and the state, and the human ruler governed as his representative. Despite this important religious role granted by divine grace, the ruler shared political power with the tribal rulers of the citizen body. The ruler was called either,

  • waklu, meaning overseer of a group of people

  • iššakku, meaning city-lord or governor

  • šangu, the highest sacred office (usually translated as priest)

These three titles emphasize different aspects of the human ruler's role, and when taken together sum up neatly the basic job description of the Assyrian ruler. It was a position focused on a single city, and the ruler had the power and responsibility to lead the city's inhabitants. It was a mostly religious position, and the ruler's legitimacy came from being blessed by Ashur to serve as his agent among humans. It is crucial to note the Assyrian rulers were not gods themselves, as was the custom in ancient Egypt. The Assyrian system has been compared to a papacy.

Interestingly, political power was not held solely by the ruler. It was more concentrated in the city assembly, where the leaders of the family clans represented the collective citizen body. Looking at this political system altogether, it could perhaps best be described as a parliamentary monarchy with the head of state not being actively involved in political leadership. The vigor of political leadership was wielded tribally.

Absolute Monarchy (Territorial State)

The previous model of being a ruler came to a quick end in the 14th century BC. The context was one of rising Assyrian power. The Mittani had been the greatest regional power and had Ashur under control, but their power was becoming frail. Ashur-ubalit opportunistically used the Mittani's weakness as a chance to make Ashur the center of a city-state under his control. Ashur-ubalit exploited this to not just break free, but to emancipate himself as king and to take additional territories by war. Thus, Ashur became a territorial state whose heartland would be unpierced until the total collapse of Assyria in the 7th century BC.

Ashur-ubalit founded a new model of kingship when he became the first Assyrian ruler to take the title of king. Not only was he still the highest priest, but he enhanced his power by becoming the commander of the army. Successive military victories indicated the king had the divine favor not just of Ashur, but of the gods of the cities taken by the rapidly expanding state. The Assyrian king was now one of the most powerful men in the realm. Ashur-ubalit called his kingdom the land of Ashur in reference to both the city and the god.

Ashur-ubalit founded a dynasty that was uninterrupted until the collapse of the Assyrian Empire in the 7th century BC, without any exceptions. This made it one of the longest-serving dynasties of all time. Political power was held by the dynastic king, not the city assembly and its tribal leadership. The royal family developed a special status in Assyrian society. This is reflected in a poem about the creation of mankind. Ea (god of wisdom) said to the go Belet-ili (goddess of creation), "It was you who created man, the human. Fashion now the king, the human advisor. Shape the whole of his figure so pleasingly. Make perfect his countenance and well-formed his body." And so Belet-ili, the goddess of creation and sister of the great gods, fashioned the king as the advisor to humans.

Thus, the Assyrian king had to be not just male, but a perfect specimen of a man in body and in mind. KIngship stayed within the family, but there were usurpations and succession wars because killing the king or crown prince did not exclude the perpetrator from succeeding to the throne. Victory in battle and prevailing over rivals was attributed to divine favor and grace.

The king shared the limelight with the god because being in Ashur, he was very much in the shadow of the god. He also shared the limelight with entrenched urban elites of Ashur, families who could trace their powerful histories back many generations. This would all change in 879 BC in the transition to a new capital.

Emperor

Five centuries after Ashur-ubalit became the first Assyrian to take the title of king, there was another big change in 879 BC under Ashurnasirpal II. The new emperor was both consolidating his power as overlord over the Assyrian heartland and also ensuring the whole of the empire would submit to his kingly power. Assyria in the 9th century BC was reclaiming territories it had lost centuries earlier. But its rise would continue past there, and Assyria would eventually exceed its neighbours many times over in terms of territory and manpower.

Much of this new type of kingship is symbolized in Ashur-ubalit II's bold decision to move the capital from Ashur. He built a new capital at Kalhu, and none of his successors ever resided in Ashur again. The new location had several effects,

  • The new capital facilitated communication and receiving tribute, both of which are essential for the cohesion of large states. However, the traditional capital at Ashur was on the periphery of the empire. It was on the east bank of the Tigris, and to reach the heartland to the west and northwest required crossing the river as well as extensive steppes. The new capital at Kalhu was more central, and positioned along the international trade route that went through Erbil and Mosul and spanned all the way from Persia to the Mediterranean.

  • The new capital meant Assyria and the world no longer saw the king as the pawn of the god, in the shadow of the temple at Ashur. Instead, the king was seen as the master of the universe in his own right. There was no temple for Ashur at Kalhu. Many other sanctuaries were erected for the great gods of Assyria, but even combined their shrines were smaller than the enormous royal palace.

  • The new location strengthened the position of the king at the expense of the old urban elites. With a new capital, the time of the city assembly wielding administrative power was totally terminated.

  • The new capital's design was graphically expressive of the ideology of kingship. Its architecture was meant to overwhelm and impress anyone who visited with the power of the king – and the king alone. At Kalhu, the king was the ruler – not the elites, not the god, not anyone or anything else. The palace dominated the city.

More details about how the palace expressed the ideology of kingship: Kalhu's Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II.

Accessing the king.

Whoever wanted to see the king usually had to apply for an audience and then wait for the honor of it being granted. Access was strictly governed by protocol. Lucky were those whose link with the king was so close that they could almost completely bypass these layers and have easy, free access to the king. These royal companions held an honorary title sa qurbuti meaning 'he who is close' and were at the top of the court hierarchy. Occupying such a position, they were preferred as envoys. They often had a military background, highlighting the amount of time the king spent with the army, and what a good opportunity military campaigns and camp life provided for getting to know the ruler.

Royal banquet

While protocol heavily shaped royal encounter, the royal banquet was a sort of exception. The banquet was key because the king was keen to meet with his people in ways that reinforced community while highlighting his superior position. For visitors, the privilege of feasting with the king did not just mean the finest foods and wines, but also a material memento: people were presented with dinnerware as their farewell gift. The dinnerware's material was a reflection of one's social standing: gold was the most precious, then there was silver, brass, and fine pottery. These utensils often accompanied their proud owners to the grave.