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Ashurbanipal (died ca. 630 B.C.) was the last great king of the Assyrian Empire. He was an able soldier and administrator, a scholar, and a patron of art and learning.

The events of the reign of Ashurbanipal are imperfectly known, and the course of his campaigns cannot be chronologically described. Designated crown prince in 672 B.C. by his father, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal succeeded to the throne 3 years later; his elder brother Shamash-shum-ukin was proclaimed king of Babylonia in the same year. Ashurbanipal's first task was the settlement of Egypt, recently conquered by Esarhaddon. Native princes were appointed as vassal rulers, but after repeated revolts by Egyptians the country was put under military occupation in 663 and Memphis and Thebes destroyed. Ashurbanipal then defeated Tyre, which had aided Egypt, and made an alliance with Lydia against the threat of Cimmerian hordes to the northeast. In 654 the Egyptians expelled the last Assyrian garrison and regained their independence.

Ashurbanipal spent the middle years of his reign in a bitter struggle with his brother. In 652 Shamash-shumukin rebelled with Elamite aid against Assyrian hegemony, and the revolt was joined by the Chaldeans of South Babylonia, the Arameans and Arabs, and the princes of Palestine. Ashurbanipal attacked Elam, starved the Babylonian cities into submission, and in 648 captured Babylon; Shamashshum-ukin perished in the flames of his burning city. Ashurbanipal installed a puppet king, Kandalanu, in Babylon and subdued the Arabs. The Elamites after several years of warfare were forced to capitulate, and their capital, Susa, was destroyed. Among those who subsequently paid homage to Ashurbanipal was Cyrus, the first king of Persia.

Little is known of Ashurbanipal's last years, though private documents hint at shrinking frontiers and the dislocation of trade. Assyria's end was not far off, but few at the time of his death, about 630, would have dared to predict it.

The splendid reliefs from Ashurbanipal's palace at Nineveh (near Mosul, Iraq) depict him as a warrior and an intrepid hunter of lions. Thousands of cuneiform tablets found in the ruins of this palace show Ashurbanipal's wide range of interests. The dockets on some tablets show they had been copied, or borrowed, from the ancient temple libraries of Babylonia, and they comprise religious literature, scientific treatises, and historical records. The king's interest sprang from a degree of education unusual among monarchs of the ancient world, for he could read the ancient Sumerian texts and was an expert mathematician. His love of learning and his desire to uncover and preserve the past have earned him the title of the "archeologist king."

Further Reading

For a general account of the reign of Ashurbanipal consult A. T. Olmstead, History of Assyria (1923), and J. B. Bury, S. A. Cook, and F. W. Adcock, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 3 (1925). The principal cuneiform texts are translated in Daniel D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (2 vols., 1926-1927), and in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago Assyriological Studies, no. 5, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, ed., Historical Prism Inscriptions of Ashurbanipal I (1933). Seton Lloyd, Foundations in the Dust: A Story of Mesopotamian Exploration (1947), gives an interesting account of the excavation of the palace at Nineveh and the discovery of Ashurbanipal's library. The relief sculptures from this palace are illustrated in E. A. Wallis Budge, ed., Assyrian Sculptures in the British Museum (1914); see also C. J. Gadd, The Stones of Assyria (1936). □

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668 - CIRCA 627 b.c.e.

King of Assyria


The Royal Library. Digging in mounds of ancient Assyria during the 1840s, the British explorer Austen Henry Layard discovered a library of some thirty thousand fragments of cuneiform tablets, which had been preserved because they were baked in the conflagration that swept the city when it was sacked in 612 b.c.e. When pieced together these fragments constitute a royal library of more than two thousand tablets. The library also originally included three hundred wooden and ivory writing boards covered with a thin layer of wax and inscribed with cuneiform texts. The cuneiform texts are no longer preserved.

Tablet Acquisition. The tablets in the library were acquired during the reign of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria. The monarch, one of the few Mesopotamian rulers who claimed to be literate, ordered his courtiers to search for copies of texts throughout the realm. Tablets and writing boards were taken, sometimes by force, from temples, other royal libraries, and private collections. Ashurbanipal ordered that complete editions of omen series, rituals, lexical texts (lists of signs or words), and literary texts be assembled. No new compositions were commissioned. Commentaries to explain the meaning of older traditional texts were also found in the library.

The Scholar’s Collection. The collection was not assembled to be used as a lending library. It was a private library for the professional use of the king’s advisers. As the gods’ trustee, the king had to manage his realm in accord with their wishes, but without divine direction; the gods were unfathomable, “like a sealed beer-barrel.” Thus, the tablets in Ashurbanipal’s library were a royal reference guide to provide insight into the supernatural. If used properly, they would allow the scholars and priests resident in his court to communicate with the gods and maintain the tenuous rapport that existed between man and god.

Library Use. The king was not perfect. He was human. (Only a few Mesopotamian kings ever claimed to be divine, and none of these rulers lived in the first millennium b.c.e., when great libraries were founded.) The king’s mistakes, whether intentional or unintentional, could be interpreted by the gods with prejudice and could provoke divine displeasure or anger. Such misguided actions (which modern people call sins) would not be punishable without warning. The king would be given preliminary notice in the form of portents, dreams, oracles, and visions sent as premonitions of divine displeasure. If these divine signals were correctly interpreted through the texts found in the library, the ruler could identify his mistake, avoid punishment by atoning for his actions, make sacrifices to appease the gods, and instruct his exorcists to prepare rituals to avoid calamity.


Simo Parpola, ed., Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars, State Archives of Assyria, volume 10 (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1993).

Olof Pedersén, Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East, 1500–300 B.C. (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1998).

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Ashurbanipal (d. c.626 bc) (Assurbanipal) Last great king of Assyria (669–633 bc). During his reign, Assyria reached its largest extent, encompassing Upper Egypt, before a rapid decline. Excavations at Nineveh after 1850 revealed an advanced civilization.

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