From 705 BCE to 681 BCE, much of the Middle East was under the iron-fisted rule of King Sennacherib. His fame in contemporary history stems mainly from the Bible, in which he plays a pivotal part as an arch-villain in the history of the Levant.
However, the full story of his life and rule is not so different. He was a king characterized by war and bloodshed from the beginning of his reign until his violent death. But while Sennacherib is known mainly for his role in biblical terms, he was a king with other accomplishments too.
This is the violent history of an ancient conqueror and an ambitious builder.
Sennacherib, the Crown Prince
Sennacherib was born around 745 BCE, the son of Neo-Assyrian King Sargon II. Little is known of his early life, making what scholars know mostly the work of speculation. Nevertheless, what can be said with absolute certainty is that Sennacherib was born into a life of immense wealth and power. He was heir to the throne, as all his older brothers had died before he was born.
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Sennacherib’s father delegated a huge amount of responsibility to his son. While Sargon was away on campaign, all internal duties fell to Sennacherib, who had to engage with many governors to maintain order throughout the kingdom, which was one of the largest empires in the ancient world and covered lands from the borders of Cimmeria, now northeastern Turkey, all the way to the mouths of the Tigris and the Euphrates, covering the land that was the Babylonian Empire.
It is possible that a certain resentment grew in that Sennacherib was denied the opportunity to prove his military worth, but this is speculation.
Sennacherib Becomes King
In 705 BCE, Sargon II led a disastrous campaign against King Gurdî of Tabal in central Anatolia. Sargon’s army was defeated, and he was killed. Thus, at the age of around 35, Sennacherib ascended the throne of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Sennacherib, however, was deeply affected and in psychological denial over his father’s death. According to Assyrian belief, those killed in battle and not buried were doomed to wander throughout eternity as beggars. This was seen as punishment from the gods for some great sin committed during the person’s life.
At first, King Sennacherib distanced himself from the events, and his first action as king was to move the capital of the empire from Dur-Sharrukin to Nineveh, symbolizing a break from his father’s legacy. Nevertheless, his next action was to rebuild the temple of Nergal, which was associated with death, disaster, and war. Sennacherib continued to question the gods, wondering what sin his father had committed during his life to warrant such a fate in death.
Rebellion in Babylon
Previous Assyrian rulers had proclaimed themselves shakkanakku (viceroys) over Babylon instead of proclaiming themselves king, as the god Marduk was seen as the king of Babylon. King Sennacherib ignored this tradition and declared himself king, spurning the tradition of showing reverence for Marduk. This angered the Babylonians, and Marduk-apal-iddina II, a chief of the Chaldeans, led revolts and an open rebellion in Babylonia against Assyrian rule.
The rebellion went unchallenged for several months, as Sennacherib was campaigning in the north, dealing with Tabal and the people who had defeated Sennacherib’s father, and he did not want to fight a war on two fronts. When he finally mustered his army in the south to deal with the Babylonian alliance, his forces were defeated after trying to launch an attack on the enemy near Kish. However, realizing that the Babylonian forces were divided, the Assyrians managed to pick them off piecemeal before marching on the city of Babylon, which opened its gates and surrendered without a fight.
Sennacherib Expands the Neo-Assyrian Empire
After the campaign in Babylonia, King Sennacherib focused his attention eastwards and warred with the Yasubigallians and the Kassites east of the Tigris around the Zagros Mountains. After successfully subduing the people, he then moved to campaign in the west of his empire, intending to conquer the city-states.
Sennacherib had a firm casus belli against the Kingdom of Judah since the local King Hezekiah had stopped paying tribute to the Assyrians and started following a more aggressive policy that put his kingdom at odds with Assyrian goals in the region. Hezekiah made an alliance with Kushite-controlled Egypt and the city of Ashkelon before launching a series of attacks on Philistine cities loyal to Assyria. Meanwhile in the north, inspired by Hezekiah’s brazen rebellion against Assyrian hegemony, the cities of Tyre and Sidon declared themselves independent of the Assyrian yoke. Many neighboring cities joined them.
Sennacherib responded at the head of a massive Assyrian army, threatening to wreak violent retribution on those who had dared defy Assyrian rule. Many of the city-states capitulated immediately, wishing to evade Sennacherib’s wrath. King Luli of Tyre and Sidon quickly fled without putting up a fight, and the Assyrians installed a more loyal ruler in his stead.
In the south, it would not be so easy for Sennacherib to restore order. Jerusalem and its allies were prepared to fight. The first to fall to the Assyrians was the city of Ashkelon. The Egyptians then intervened and sent an expedition against the Assyrians, but they, too, were defeated near the city of Eltekeh. Save for the words of Sennacherib himself, who described his campaign, very little is known about this battle.
In the plain of Eltekeh, their battle lines were drawn up against me and they sharpened their weapons. Upon a trust(-inspiring) oracle (given) by Ashur, my lord, I fought with them and inflicted a defeat upon them. In the melee of the battle, I personally captured alive the Egyptian charioteers with the (ir) princes and (also) the charioteers of the king of Ethiopia.
With this victory, the path was open to Jerusalem, and the Assyrians laid siege to the city. What happened next is unclear, but what is certain is that the Assyrians were forced to abandon their attempt to take Jerusalem. The biblical account states that the “Destroying Angel” sent by God swept down and annihilated 185,000 Assyrian troops in front of the gates of Jerusalem. The Greek historian Herodotus claims the Assyrian army was plagued by an army of field mice that destroyed their food supplies. Other theories state they could have been affected by plague or were driven off by a Kushite counter-offensive.
Whatever the case, Jerusalem did not fall. The campaign, however, had been a success on all other fronts, and the lands of Judah were partitioned and given to neighboring territories. Hezekiah realized his actions had led to disastrous consequences, and he once again submitted to the might of Assyria and agreed to pay tribute.
During his reign, Sennacherib would be responsible for completing the destruction of 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel that had been taken into captivity by his predecessors.
Babylon and the Elamites
King Sennacherib had no time to rest before the situation in the southeast of his empire spiraled out of control again. He was forced to invade Babylonia once again to subdue the Chaldean tribe, which was being supported by the neighboring Elamite Empire. After installing his own puppet as ruler of Babylonia, he maintained more control over the area, but the situation would force Sennacherib into conflict with the Elamites.
In 694 BCE, Sennacherib invaded Elam with the stated goal of finding Marduk-apal-iddina and the Chaldean refugees who posed a threat to the stability of Babylonia. Sennacherib assembled a great fleet and took his armies across the Persian Gulf and into the lands of the Elamites. After a difficult crossing, the army performed well and successfully eradicated the Chaldean threat.
The Elamites, however, did not sit idly by. With a series of successive raids, they managed to depose Sennacherib’s puppet, Ashur-nadin-Shum, and install their own. The situation worsened for the Assyrians when another Chaldean leader, Mushezib-Marduk, took the opportunity to seize Babylon.
The Elamite and Assyrian armies clashed at Halule in 691 BCE, and although Sennacherib won a victory that neutralized the Elamite threat, the Assyrian losses were so great that Sennacherib had to delay retaking Babylonia from the rebels.
When he did so, two years later, there was little mercy shown, and after a siege lasting nine months, the city was sacked.
With the pacification of the Babylonians, an era of relative peace came about, and Sennacherib found time to pursue non-military goals. He turned his attention to the city of Nineveh, where many great buildings were constructed at his behest. With the labor of prisoners of war, Sennacherib built the inner and outer walls of Nineveh, both of which still stand today, although parts of them were destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
He also issued projects to improve irrigation and had gardens built in Nineveh and Ashur. These projects were highly ambitious but successful due to Sennacherib’s astute knowledge of logistics and ability to source materials. It is suggested that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were part of the projects constructed in Nineveh.
Death of Sennacherib
In 681 BCE, Sennacherib was murdered by his eldest son, Arda-Mulissu, whom King Sennacherib had replaced as crown prince with Arda-Mulissu’s younger brother Esarhaddon. The attempt to seize power failed, as Arda-Mulissu lacked popular support. With an army at his back, Esarhaddon forced Arda-Mulissu to flee into exile and became the new ruler of Assyria.
Assyria was the superpower of its day. At the time of his rule, Sennacherib was the most powerful man in the known world. Despite his power, most of his military action was not spent on expanding his empire but on quelling rebellious elements within it. Overcoming these difficulties and attention to improving his kingdom with great works of construction proved that Sennacherib was a capable leader deserving of praise and a greater portion of historical recognition.