Sennacherib's Prisms Reveal the Glorious Reign of an Assyrian King
Imagine if all of the world’s ancient cultures and civilizations had had well-developed writing systems. Then envision the marvels we would know about today, the hidden secrets and remarkable tales of glory. Luckily, some of the most advanced civilizations in the ancient world did develop their unique writing systems, and once they were deciphered, a world of wonders was brought to light.
The Mesopotamian civilizations created cuneiform, a writing system composed of wedge-shaped impressions and signs. They were used to inscribe Sennacherib’s Prisms, the detailed annals of Assyrian King Sennacherib. They are some of the most important cuneiform writings ever discovered. Here’s what we know about them.
Sennacherib’s Prisms and the Deeds of the King
Sennacherib's Annals are a series of inscriptions and texts documenting the military campaigns and accomplishments of Sennacherib, the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, who reigned from 705 BC to 681 BC. As such Sennacherib’s Annals, which were recorded onto what have come to be known as Sennacherib’s Prisms, provide valuable historical insights into the politics, military strategies and conquests of the Assyrian Empire during this period.
The Annals are primarily known from several clay prisms and tablets that were discovered in the ruins of ancient Nineveh, located near modern-day Mosul, Iraq, in the mid-19th century. These inscriptions were written in Akkadian cuneiform script and describe Sennacherib's campaigns, including his military endeavors against various neighboring kingdoms and cities.
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One of the most famous events documented in Sennacherib's Annals is his campaign against the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, which is also mentioned in the biblical Book of Kings and the Book of Isaiah .
According to the stories documented on Sennacherib’s Prisms, Sennacherib's forces besieged Jerusalem, but the city was miraculously spared. The Assyrian king claims to have received tribute from King Hezekiah of Judah, although the extent of the Assyrian victory is disputed and interpreted differently in historical and biblical sources.
These ancient texts provide a wealth of information about the military and administrative structure of the Neo-Assyrian Empire , including details about the organization of the army, the names of conquered cities, and the various regions that fell under Assyrian control.
One Sennacherib’s Prisms, known as the Taylor Prism, is on display at the British Museum in London. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
A Reign Etched in Stone: The Stories on Sennacherib’s Prisms
Sennacherib’s Prisms are among the most well-known and valuable sources for understanding the reign of Sennacherib and the history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Almost all that we know about Sennacherib's reign comes from his own inscriptions, which were inscribed on clay prisms. These inscriptions provide valuable insights into the political, military, and administrative aspects of his rule.
Sennacherib ascended to the Assyrian throne after the death of his father, King Sargon II . His reign marked a period of consolidation and expansion of the empire's power. His campaigns targeted various regions, including Babylonia, Elam, the Levant and Anatolia, though Sennacherib is perhaps best known for his campaign against Babylon, which had rebelled against Assyrian rule. Sennacherib successfully captured the city and is said to have extensively damaged it in the process.
In his time, Sennacherib was one of the most powerful rulers of the region. His lengthy list of titles and epithets serves as a stark reminder:
“Sennacherib, the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, the wise shepherd, favorite of the great gods, guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the destitute, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, an unrivaled kinship has entrusted to me, and above all those who dwell in palaces, has made powerful my weapons; from the upper sea of the setting sun to the lower sea of the rising sun, he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare, leaving their homes and flying alone, like the sidinnu, the bird of the cave, to some inaccessible place…”
One of the most notable events of Sennacherib's reign was his campaign against the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. The biblical Book of Kings and the Annals of Sennacherib provide differing accounts of this campaign.
According to the texts recorded on Sennacherib’s Prisms, Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem but ultimately received tribute from King Hezekiah of Judah. The biblical account, on the other hand, emphasizes a miraculous intervention that saved Jerusalem from destruction.
Sennacherib was also known for his impressive building projects. He expanded the city of Nineveh and constructed a grand palace known as the “Palace Without Rival.” The palace featured intricate reliefs depicting scenes from Sennacherib's military campaigns and other aspects of his rule.
One of Sennacherib’s Prisms, on display at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. ( Public domain )
The Stone Speaks: Sennacherib's Prisms as Memory of Bygone Era
Alas, like many other powerful rulers, Sennacherib was assassinated in 681 BC, possibly by his own sons. His reign was followed by a period of political instability and power struggles within the Assyrian royal family. Nevertheless, his reign left a lasting impact on the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
Sennacherib’s military campaigns extended the empire's reach and brought wealth and resources, but his brutal tactics and policies also led to resentment and rebellion. His building projects contributed to the architectural and cultural legacy of Assyria. Thanks to the prisms he left behind, we were able to learn about all of this in stunning detail.
Most notably, Sennacherib’s Prisms are inscribed with the texts detailing Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem, which occurred during the reign of Hezekiah, the 13th King of Judah. Following is an excerpt from the prism:
“As for the king of Judah, Hezekiah, who had not submitted to my authority, I besieged and captured forty-six of his fortified cities, along with many smaller towns, taken in battle with my battering rams. ... I took as plunder 200,150 people, both small and great, male and female, along with a great number of animals including horses, mules, donkeys, camels, oxen, and sheep. As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem. I then constructed a series of fortresses around him, and I did not allow anyone to come out of the city gates. His towns which I captured I gave to Mitinti, king of Ashdod; Padi, ruler of Ekron; and Silli-bel, king of Gaza.”
That the annals contained on Sennacherib’s Prisms are at least partially historical, is confirmed by the Hebrew Bible, in which several passages allude to Sennacherib’s siege and conquests. In the passage 2 Kings 18-19, it is recounted how a successful Assyrian attack on Samaria occurred around this time. This attack resulted in the entire population being deported, as was the case with other conquered cities and regions.
Next, the Assyrians attacked Lachich, whose plunder was only ended when King Hezekiah pleaded for peace. As a result, Hezekiah had to pay a tribute of 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold. For the time, this was an enormous sum, and meant that Hezekiah had to give up all the silver in his personal palace, and even the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the gold from the doors and doorposts of the temple.
Sennacherib's Prism in the Israel Museum. (Hanay / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Sennacherib’s Deeds Committed to Eternity
Furthermore, Sennacherib’s Prisms tell us that the Assyrian army conquered exactly 46 walled cities, and countless small settlements to boot. Sennacherib boasts in his annals that he captured and deported 200,150 people, both young and old, male and female, as well as numerous goods and livestock.
All the cities and territories he conquered were given to the three kings of the Philistines. Needless to say, Sennacherib decisively crushed King Hezekiah and Judah. So much so, that the latter had to give to Sennacherib his own daughter, and even his personal jewelry and household items. He ended up as a meager, tributary ruler, eternally shadowed by his defeat.
Due to the magnitude of Sennacherib’s victories, we can safely conclude that he ordered the prisms built as a way to boast to his own people and to his enemies too. The prisms could have served as small monuments of sorts. There are three of them that survived in their complete form, and eight others that are fragmented. All of them bear the identical texts and have been remembered as the Annals of Sennacherib . The dates on them, however, indicate that they were manufactured roughly sixteen months apart.
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The so-called Taylor Prism, one of the earliest cuneiform artifacts analyzed in modern Assyriology, having been found a few years before the modern deciphering of cuneiform, was discovered in 1830 at Nineveh. It is currently housed in the British Museum in London. The so-called Sennacherib Prism, purchased in 1919 from an antiques dealer from Baghdad, is housed in the Oriental Institute in Chicago. The third intact prism is housed in the Jerusalem Museum in Israel.
"Though we possess three impressive copies of the final edition of Sennacherib’s annals (the Taylor, Jerusalem, and Oriental Institute Prisms), none was found in scientifically conducted excavations and the precise circumstances of their discoveries remain unknown. Fortunately, there are internal clues that help us determine their place of origin. Sennacherib’s prisms generally fall into two types- octagonal and hexagonal. There appears to be a connection between their shape and place of origin. At the end of the octagonal inscriptions in the building accounts, there is a description of the construction of the “Palace without Rival.” But, in the hexagonal prisms, the inscriptions end with the building of the Nebi Yunis arsenal. Because these three prisms are hexagonal, we may assume that they had been originally deposited in the arsenal’s foundations. The Taylor Prism came into the possession of Colonel John Taylor, a British diplomat and antiquarian, at Mosul in 1830. It was acquired by the British Museum from his widow in 1855. The Oriental Institute Prism was acquired by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1920 and quickly supplanted the Taylor Prism as the standard version of the Annals of Sennacherib. The Jerusalem Prism was acquired by the Israel Museum at a Sotheby’s auction in 1970."
The Stones Older Than Memory
Sennacherib's reign is a significant period in the history of the ancient Near East, marked by both military prowess and architectural achievements. His legacy continues to be studied by historians and archaeologists to better understand the dynamics of the Assyrian Empire and its interactions with neighboring kingdoms.
The best source for this reign lies in the Sennacherib’s Prisms . The Annals and the associated inscriptions continue to be important primary sources for historians and archaeologists, contributing to our understanding of the ancient Near East and the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
Top image: The Taylor Prism was discovered in 1830 at Nineveh and is currently housed at the British Museum in London. It tells the story of King Sennacherib’s third campaign and his conquests in Judah. Source: Public domain
Geyer, J. B. December 1971. “2 Kings XVIII 14–16 and the Annals of Sennacherib” in Vetus Testamentum 21.5, pp. 604-606.
Grabbe, L. L. 2003. Like a Bird in a Cage: The Invasion of Sennacherib in 701 BCE . Sheffield Academic Press.
Russell, J. M. 1991. Sennacherib's Palace Without Rival at Nineveh . University of Chicago Press.