Images of Kings

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Images of Kings


Late Fourth Millennium B.C.E. Coinciding with the emergence of the first cities in southern Mesopotamia during the Late Uruk period (circa 3300 – circa 2900 b.c.e.) are some of the earliest images of kings. The so-called priest-king is distinguished in sculpture and relief by his fillet (a narrow headband worn high on the forehead and above the ears) and by wearing his hair in a bun and a beard without a mustache. Writing, which was invented in the same period, is often combined with imagery, either indirectly when cylinder seals were impressed on clay tablets or directly such as on the “Blau Monuments” that show the image of the priest-king alongside proto-cuneiform signs describing the transfer of goods.

Early Dynastic Period, circa 2900 – circa 2340 b.c.e.. As royal inscriptions developed they combined traditional and new stylistic techniques to extol the ruler in contemporary terms and convey various images of kingship. The majority of early royal inscriptions, from the mid-third millennium b.c.e., are short and are found on objects dedicated to the gods or on bricks and foundation deposits. There are, however, longer, elaborate texts in which past events are used to justify the present and confirm that the king acted according to right and justice as determined by the gods. One of the best known (circa 2400 b.c.e.) is the account of the war between the rulers of Umma and Lagash, which is preserved on fragments of a large stele found at the site of Tello. The god Ningirsu, acting through the ruler of Lagash, is depicted and described as restoring the natural order and re-establishing justice. The cuneiform inscription surrounds a relief image of king Eanatum, who wears a distinctive fleece-like robe over his left shoulder and is shown leading his army, first on foot and then in his chariot.

Akkadian Period, circa 2340 - circa 2200 B.C.E. With the Akkadian dynasty, sculpture and texts portray the king as an heroic individual. On the stele of Naram-Sin (circa 2254 - circa 2218 b.c.e.), the king dominates the scene and wears a helmet with horns, a sign of his deification. Akkadian rulers presented themselves as not only restoring order but actually, with the will of the gods, changing things for the better. This depiction is appropriate to a dynasty that created an empire equaled by no previous king, and the heroic image formed the basis for future models of kingship.

Ur III Period, circa 2112 - circa 2004 B.C.E. Beginning in the late third millennium b.c.e., hymns were used to narrate royal achievements, some more fictitious and literary than others. The intended audience was the gods and the temple and palace personnel appointed by the ruler—not ordinary people. Under the Ur III kings, texts and art emphasized cultic and civic activities rather than warfare. For example, a large stele of king Ur-Namma (circa 2112 - circa 2095 b.c.e.), discovered at his capital city of Ur, depicts his participation in the construction of a temple. Royal administrative skills (king Shulgi, circa 2094 - circa 2047 b.c.e., claimed he could read and write) and public works, including great monuments such as ziggurats, are presented as ensuring the country’s welfare. However, although they stressed different aspects of kingship, the images of superhuman or deified kings were the same under both the Akkadian and Ur III rulers.

Second Millennium B.C.E. In northern Mesopotamia during the early second millennium b.c.e., the focus was on military achievements. Lengthy accounts of “historical”conquests by kings such as Shamshi-Adad I (circa 1813 - circa 1781 b.c.e.) of Assyria were composed. Stone reliefs also emphasize military activities with scenes of warfare

and royal triumphs. The rulers of the Old Hittite kingdom in Central Anatolia, and those of northern Syria, also followed this approach. In the south, however, there was less emphasis on war in royal literature and more of a focus on the king as judge. Royal praise is an essential element of the Stele of Hammurabi. It combines the image of Hammurabi (circa 1792 - circa 1750 b.c.e.) standing before the enthroned sun god with a long text that creates an idealized view of the king as the dutiful dispenser of justice. During the later Kassite period (circa 1595 - circa 1155 b.c.e.) in Babylonia, the legal tone of elaborate poetic royal inscriptions demonstrates the internationalism of the period with Egyptians, Hurrians, Hittites, Kassites, Assyrians, and Elamites all justifying their reasons for going to war while portraying the enemy as wrong or even evil.

Middle Assyrian (circa 1400 - 1050 b.c.e.) and Neo-Assyrian (934-610 b.c.e.) Periods. By the later second millennium b.c.e., under the Middle Assyrian kings, royal inscriptions become longer and more complex. Appearing during the reign of Tiglath-pileser I (circa 1114 - circa 1076 b.c.e.) an annalistic arrangement of military-campaign descriptions, with stock sentences and stylistic features, introduced a literary form that lasted for almost a millennium. These texts are often associated with monuments such as wall reliefs or large-scale sculpture, particularly during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The reliefs present a version of history that is selected and arranged to convey the chief roles of the king, perhaps organized similarly to accompanying cuneiform annals. Both the pictorial and written narratives have simple structures, and their subject is always the victorious king. The Assyrian king is shown in two main roles: as commander in chief of the army and as chief priest of Ashur, the supreme Assyrian god. These political addresses were designed for an audience who could, with sufficient learning, “read”the images. In addition, epic poems were composed to celebrate the kings. A prayer addressed to Ashur during the reign of Sargon II (721-705 b.c.e.) is a real historical narrative. Elaborate propagandistic works include such texts as the so-called Vision of the Netherworld, while fictional biographies of ancient kings, especially Sargon of Akkad (circa 2334 - circa 2279 b.c.e.), are similar in style to inscriptions carved on stone monuments. Fictional, literary letters were also created and read as if dictated by famous kings or leaders.

Achaemenid Period, 559-331 B.C.E. The king maintained his central position in the art of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Reliefs from the royal cities of Pasargadae and Persepolis in southwest Iran represent him as defeating the forces of chaos, which are depicted as wild animals. Unlike the Assyrian reliefs, however, Achaemenid reliefs include no scenes of military conquest; instead, the king is shown supported by loyal subjects of a united empire. Texts also emphasize this aspect of Persian kingship. It is clear that there were many stories circulating about the Achaemenid kings of Mesopotamia, Cyrus II (538-530 b.c.e.) and Darius I (521-486 b.c.e.), especially their fictional (usually heroic) early years. Many of these, recorded by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century b.c.e.) and other classical writers, were based on traditional Mesopotamian ideas of kingship provided by both texts and images. From the time of Darius I the inscriptions of the kings emphasized their relationship with the great god Ahura-Mazda. By association all owed the king reverence, obedience, and tribute. The use of trilingual inscriptions (Elamite, Persian, and Akkadian) was part of a deliberate attempt to show the diversity, yet unity, of the empire. The texts describe how only those who are false and trust in the so-called lie are to be dealt with harshly while obedience to the god and his servant the king brings peace and security.


Amélie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, c. 3000-330 BC, 2 volumes (London & New York: Routledge, 1995).

John Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

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