Chapter 18

Conspirators, Diviners, and Officials

It would be hard to imagine a worse way to come to the throne than the one endured by Esarhaddon (681–669 BCE).1 He was far from being his father Sennacherib’s obvious successor; he was the youngest of the royal princes, in his early thirties,2 and had only recently been appointed crown prince. Sennacherib, who had ruled Assyria for twenty-four years, had just been brutally assassinated at the age of fifty-nine or sixty.3 In a horrifying twist, this murder had been executed not by a usurper but by one of the king’s own sons—one of Esarhaddon’s older brothers. This disastrous sequence of events haunted Esarhaddon throughout his reign, giving rise to conspiracies and assassination plots, and to a matching, almost debilitating, fear of such conspiracies and assassination plots on the part of the king. The story of his worries involves not just the anxiety-ridden king himself, but a number of other fascinating individuals as well: the diviner Bel-ushezib, an enslaved female prophet, the dream interpreter Nabu-ushallim, the captured Babylonian scribe Kudurru, and several men who schemed to replace Esarhaddon as king, including a mayor named Abda, a powerful eunuch, and Sasi, the apparent mastermind behind several conspiracies. Esarhaddon’s search for answers and his reactions to what he learned will guide us on a tour of how the Mesopotamians tried, in many different ways, to fathom the will of the gods.

Esarhaddon: An Unlikely Heir to the Throne

But first we need to go back to the source of Esarhaddon’s power and also his grief: his eleventh-hour appointment as heir to the throne. In 683 BCE, just two years before King Sennacherib was murdered, he had changed his mind about the royal succession. He decided against an older prince and suddenly wanted his youngest son Esarhaddon to be the next king, and so, he said, did the gods.

At around the same time, Sennacherib appointed Esarhaddon’s mother, Naqi’a (who had until then been one of the king’s secondary wives), to the powerful position of segallu, or queen (see Fig. 18.1).4 Sennacherib’s previous queen (the mother of the former crown prince) had either died or been deposed. No matter which, this would have been a great loss for many in the court. Sennacherib had written of her, ten or twelve years before, that she was “my beloved wife, whose features (the goddess) Belet-ili has made perfect above all women.”5 She had a long career in the palace and must have been loved by many other loyal family members and servants.


Fig. 18.1 Bronze plaque of King Esarhaddon of Assyria and his mother Naqi’a, from Hillah, Iraq. seventh century bce. (© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/Art Resource)

Obviously, when the king made these two big decisions about Esarhaddon and Naqi’a, he had no idea that he was two years away from being assassinated. But we have the benefit of hindsight and can see why the older princes reacted badly to these two big changes. Their mother was no longer queen, a former minor wife had abruptly replaced her as the most important woman in the land, and that woman’s son had inexplicably become the king’s appointed successor. All the older sons had been unceremoniously bypassed for the most powerful position in Assyria, which was arguably the most powerful position in the whole world at that time. Assyria certainly had the largest empire on Earth in the seventh century BCE (though of course its kings knew nothing about most of the kingdoms and empires in the rest of the world). The vengeful prince who eventually led the assassins was the man who had been the original crown prince, until he was toppled from the position by Sennacherib’s choice of Esarhaddon.6

Esarhaddon explained the crisis this way, in his most confessional inscription: “I am my older brothers’ youngest brother (and) by the command of the gods Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Bel, and Nabu, Ishtar of Nineveh (and) Ishtar of Arbela, (my) father, who engendered me, elevated me firmly in the assembly of my brothers, saying ‘This is the son who will succeed me.’ ”7 Esarhaddon continued by describing how his father had consulted the gods “and they answered him with a firm ‘yes,’ saying: ‘He is your replacement.’ ”

Throughout his account of his selection for the throne and the events that followed, Esarhaddon repeated over and over that the gods had given him that “firm ‘yes’ ” vote, that they were on his side. He kept consulting diviners to be certain. He desperately needed to be reassured of the gods’ support because, right from that moment when he was chosen to be the next king, he gained a whole pack of enemies.

King Sennacherib must have known that changing his heir would be an unpopular move. To try to keep the peace in his family and kingdom, he required all his sons, along with “the people of Assyria, young and old,” to swear an oath to support Esarhaddon’s succession. Sennacherib, too, consulted with the gods about every step in this process. Accordingly, he chose “a favorable month, on a propitious day” for Esarhaddon to go through the ceremony in which he became the heir to the throne. Esarhaddon writes that he “joyfully entered the House of Succession, an awe-inspiring place within which the appointing to kingship (takes place).” One suspects that his joy was tinged with more than a hint of terror. His fate had changed completely and, to judge from his later correspondence, he spent much of the rest of his life in a state of high anxiety.

The older princes were clearly furious about Esarhaddon’s promotion. “Persecution (and) jealousy fell over my brothers and they forsook (the will) of the gods,” wrote Esarhaddon. “They trusted in their arrogant deeds, and they were plotting evil.” This evil, he wrote, included spreading rumors, slander, and lies about him, and even turning his father against him. But, of course, their worst act of all (which he didn’t specifically mention) was plotting to kill their father the king. Sennacherib perhaps didn’t suspect that he himself was in danger, but he feared for his heir and convinced Esarhaddon to flee west from the capital.8 Esarhaddon wrote that the gods “settled me in a secret place away from the evil deeds” and kept him safe in a tower, somewhere in Syria.

One version of the story of the assassination recorded that the princes stabbed their father, but a more graphic tale had them toppling one of the huge stone lamassu statues in the palace and crushing him to death. It’s unclear which was true. After the murder, the land was in an uproar. Loyal advisors found ways to inform Esarhaddon, in his place of hiding, that he was next on the hit list of his murderous older brothers, which honestly cannot have come as a surprise. But Esarhaddon knew that he had to return to the capital—he alone had the right to be king. He just had to overcome the seemingly impossible odds against him: the hatred of his brothers toward him, the antipathy of many in the court and across the empire, and the not particularly secret plots against his life.

Meanwhile, not all the news was bad. Esarhaddon’s brothers discovered that they were less popular than they had anticipated. Esarhaddon did have his defenders. After all, the “people of Assyria . . . swore by oil and water to the treaty, an oath bound by the great gods”9 to support Esarhaddon’s succession. (This was an important point; he reminded the reader twice in his inscription about this oath that the people had sworn.) And Sennacherib’s blood was on the hands of the brothers; killing a relatively popular king was not a great way to gain followers. But although Esarhaddon was pleased to claim that the population “did not come to their aid,” that wasn’t entirely true. His brothers certainly had some support.

While spending time in hiding, Esarhaddon assembled an army of his own and, when he was ready, fought his way back to Nineveh in order to take the throne. On the day of his victorious entry into the capital, two months after his father’s death,10 he wrote that he “joyfully entered Nineveh . . . and I sat happily on the throne of my father.”11 He had survived; he was now the official king. And once again he consulted the diviners: “Favorable signs came in good time to me in heaven and on earth. They (the gods) continually and regularly encouraged me with oracles through ecstatics, the message(s) of the gods and goddess(es).”

The Mesopotamians believed that the gods and goddesses hid such messages in many places in the heavens and on earth. They could be found in the actions of the sun, moon, stars, and planets, in dreams, in animal behaviors, in plants, in the messages of prophets, and in the internal organs of sacrificed animals.12 It was as though the gods had inscribed their plans for the future right across the natural world, but only diviners had the expertise to read this sacred writing. Esarhaddon made use of almost all the techniques of divination as he tried to hold onto his power, and as he tried to root out later plots against him.

Just to be sure that the rebels and their supporters were crushed, Esarhaddon got rid of the security forces who protected the palaces in Nineveh and in the old capital of Kalhu and replaced them with loyal followers.13 He also sought out the “guilty soldiers who incited my brothers.” He calmly noted that he “imposed a grievous punishment on them: I exterminated their offspring.”14 He didn’t say, however, whether the soldiers themselves, or for that matter his brothers, were killed. In fact, the assassins had escaped north into exile in the land of Urartu, Assyria’s longtime enemy, and continued to cause Esarhaddon difficulties for years.15

Urartu (called Biainili by its inhabitants) had always been a region that was difficult for invaders to conquer, as it lay in mountainous territories, and its communities spread out across a number of fertile valleys with no obvious routes of communication with the lowlands. In winter, when the snowstorms were fierce, even the Urartian valleys could be cut off from one another. Urartu had become a unified land only during the ninth century, when Assyrian kings had repeatedly sent military campaigns into the region and the people had joined together in defense. Once the heartland was unified, the rulers of Urartu had conquered many neighboring regions, expanding their kingdom during annual military campaigns to incorporate a vast area north of Assyria and south of the Caucasus Mountains. It was one of the only great powers able to hold out against Assyrian imperial ambitions, though the Assyrians did manage periodically to conquer parts of the region, only to lose them again. Like the Hittites before them, the Urartians had adopted cuneiform, and (also like the Hittites) seem to have been trained by Assyrian scribes, since they initially wrote not in their own language, but in Akkadian. Later they adapted cuneiform to write in Urartian, and scribes composed royal inscriptions attesting to the kings’ military successes.16

In Esarhaddon’s time, the Urartian ruler Rusa II (c. 673 BCE) constructed some of the largest fortresses in Urartian history. The administrative center of a fortress city called Teishebaini was a massive mudbrick structure on stone foundations that extended over 4 hectares (10 acres) and incorporated 150 rooms.17 It was more than simply a palace for the governor—it contained warehouses, granaries, workshops, and a brewery. A place like this might have safely housed a fugitive from Assyria, such as the prince who killed Sennacherib.

Bel-ushezib and Sasi: An Astronomer and a Suspected Conspirator

One of the diviners who had lifted Esarhaddon’s spirits during his exile was named Bel-ushezib.18 This man later took credit for reading the signs that had predicted Esarhaddon’s successful succession to the throne. He wrote to Esarhaddon to remind him that it was he who had reported “the omen of the kingship of my lord, the crown prince Esarhaddon.”19 Bel-ushezib had brought this uplifting message from the gods when Esarhaddon’s morale might have been at its lowest point, when he was living in exile, hiding in fear for his life. Bel-ushezib “[we]nt to pay homage to the crown prince my lord, who evaded execution [by fleeing] to the Tower, whose murder along with your servants [was plotted] every day.”20 Bel-ushezib didn’t specify here which omens he observed, but they were probably astronomical observations; that was his area of specialization. His other letters to Esarhaddon were full of such sightings, and he often gave incredibly detailed suggestions for what the king should do based on what he had seen.

For example, another letter from Bel-ushezib, written later, when Esarhaddon was king, provided guidance in the planning of an invasion of the land of Mannea, in what is now northwestern Iran. The diviner started with two astronomical observations, both pertaining to shooting stars or meteors. (The first was “If a star flashes like a torch from the east and sets in the west: the main army of the enemy will fall.”21) From these he continued on to make very specific and apparently well-informed recommendations about the invasion, such as, “the whole army should not invade; (only) the cavalry and the professional troops should invade,” and “[the cha]riots and wagons should stay side by side [in] the pass.” He reassured Esarhaddon that his words came directly from the god Marduk himself: the god “[has ordered] the destruction of the Manneans and is for the second time [delivering] them into the hands of the king, my lord. If on this 15th day the moon [is seen] with the sun, it will be on account of them.”

In spite of the specificity of the messages from Marduk, Bel-ushezib was aware of the limitations of his own knowledge, in this case of geography. He acknowledged that the countryside in Mannea was unknown to him, and that the king needed to get practical advice, in addition to the messages from the gods. “The lord of kings should ask an expert of the country, and the king should (then) write to his army as he deems best,” he wrote. Bel-ushezib’s final message from Marduk was that “I (Marduk) will deliver all countries into his hands.” But the diviner also wrote, humbly, at the end of the letter, as he almost always did when advising the king: “The king may happily do as he deems best.”

Diviners who specialized in astronomy, like Bel-ushezib, made their observations of the sky every night, probably from the highest platforms of ziggurats, way above the house walls of the city that would have obstructed their view. The night sky in ancient Nineveh was much darker than it is in modern cities; they had no light pollution. The stars were innumerable, the Milky Way a bright ribbon across the heavens, the patterns of the constellations strikingly clear. They named the stars and the constellations, and some of these identifications have come down to us, almost unchanged.22 For example, they saw in the sky a sheep (Aries), the Bull of Heaven (Taurus), twins (Gemini), a crab (Cancer), a lion (Leo), and a snake (Hydra).23 They recorded some unmistakable descriptions of the constellations. For example, this is “the Wagon” (the Big Dipper): “[4 s]tars are drawn at its fore. Its pole (is) towards the heel of Eru. 3 stars on its pole—1 bright star at the head of the pole and 2 lower stars side by side on the pole—are drawn.”24 Sometimes the astronomers went beyond describing the simple positions of the stars and added imaginative details that had come to seem real, perhaps, as they stared into the night sky, just as one can sometimes see faces in clouds. One of the twins of Gemini, for example, “carries a . . . large jug in his right hand; [in] his left [hand] he carries a whip; he holds a lightning bolt with the whip.”25

The visible planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, stood out from the stars not just in their brilliance but also in their eccentric travels across the sky. Every astronomical detail revealed some message from the gods, if you just knew how to read it. The diviners watched for shooting stars and lunar eclipses, noted the movements of the planets among the constellations and around the sun and moon, and paid attention to where the sun and moon stood with respect to one another and the stars. Observations of the weather were included—clouds, too, were in the sky and were controlled by the gods.

Starting in the eighth century BCE, astronomers started keeping detailed daily records of what they saw, and, incredibly, generations more continued to do the same for 700 years.26 Alongside the highlights of the night sky, they listed political and social events, and disease outbreaks. They seem to have been looking for patterns and correlations between them—for example, could eclipses or particular movements of planets reliably predict epidemics or famines?27 Although the diviners had different priorities from those of modern astronomers—they believed that their observations provided messages from the gods—they were astute observers and interpreters nonetheless. They eventually got to the point of being able to predict astronomical events, such as eclipses.28 Some of their notes have allowed modern scholars to assign exact dates to ancient events based, for example, on observed eclipses or appearances of the planet Venus that are known to have happened on specific dates.

Bel-ushezib didn’t only write to the king about divine omens; he also had warnings for him about treacherous schemes brewing around the empire. For these, he didn’t need to consult oracles; he simply watched what was going on, listened to what he was told by informants, and let the king know. He had his eye, especially, on a man named Sasi. In one letter, Bel-ushezib mentioned a powerful hostage who had been smuggling gold and luxuries to this man, and noted that one of Sasi’s friends “may have been induced to join the conspiracy. . . . The king should be wary of them.”29

Sasi is a puzzling character. He had a very public career, serving as the mayor of a city at one point,30 and later as the superintendent for Esarhaddon’s crown prince, Ashurbanipal.31 He certainly was deeply involved in the conspiracies against Esarhaddon, but it’s unclear which side he was working for. His story is fascinating.32 Some ancient letters suggest that Sasi had fostered a widespread ring of dissidents who planned to overthrow Esarhaddon, and even that Sasi believed he, himself, was destined to rule Assyria, but others, curiously, suggest that Sasi was loyal to Esarhaddon.

An Enslaved Female Prophet

The king heard from a lot of informants during the first decade of his reign, some of their letters more damning than others. One is particularly vivid. It was written by an official who was loyal to the king,33 who started his letter with a series of alarmed imperatives that would have all been marked with exclamation points, that is, if cuneiform had punctuation. This man wrote that he had discovered the names of the conspirators. Before revealing them, though, he pleaded, “Destroy their [peopl]e, name and seed from your palace!” and he repeated, “Let [the people] die! [Rescue] your life and the life of your family! . . . Do not destroy your life. . . !”34

The source of his inside information was, surprisingly, an enslaved girl in the Syrian city of Harran, who had related a message from the god Nusku. The writer unfortunately (though not surprisingly) didn’t provide her name, only that of her owner, a man named Bel-ahu-usur. He noted that the girl spoke the god’s words directly, as though she were just his mouthpiece. In this, prophecy was different from other types of divination—the girl had, they believed, been taken over by the god and the words she spoke were beyond her control. But this girl’s message was crucial for the king to hear. She had been in some way “enraptured” for three months, which was perhaps a sign of divine possession. Her message? A treasonous one, even if it was in the words of a god: “The kingship is for Sasi. I will destroy the name and seed of Sennacherib!”

People trusted prophets, male and female, and their utterances were taken seriously. Esarhaddon later specifically required that any words spoken by a prophet, an ecstatic, or someone who questioned oracles had to be reported to him. He included this clause in an oath that people were obligated to swear, namely that they would support his son as his successor.35 Prophets tended to shout their messages in public, and sometimes their revelations voiced the gods’ support of the king. But this girl was different. Yes, she was shouting a message from a god, but she was not a professional prophet and she was denouncing the king. Could her words be believed? Presumably Esarhaddon thought not, especially since the girl had asserted that the god Nusku planned to destroy him (“the seed of Sennacherib”) and to place another man, Sasi, on the throne. Sasi, though, might have been thrilled with this message and its promise of great power.

The letter writer revealed that the girl had been taken to the house of Sasi himself; the aspiring usurper must have been protecting her. The letter writer suggested to Esarhaddon that he should question the man who owned the enslaved girl, and that the guards who took her to Sasi’s house should “bring her here, and let the king perform an (extispicy) ritual on her (account).” This was how they could check on the truth of her prediction.

Extispicy was one of the few techniques available to the Mesopotamians by which they could pose questions to the gods and receive prompt answers. Most omens simply appeared spontaneously and had to be interpreted—like the signs in the night sky, or births of deformed animals, or movements of birds. The gods sent those whenever they felt like it, not on demand. But at this point, Esarhaddon needed to ask them whether the girl prophet was actually speaking for the god Nusku. Not everyone who claimed to have a message from the gods was telling the truth, after all.

When the girl arrived at the palace for the validity of her prophecy to be tested by the diviner, the process would have taken an entire day. Four young rams were procured, for reasons that I will come to shortly. The diviner would then have posed the question to the sun god Shamash and the storm god Adad as to whether the girl’s prophecy was false. He might have whispered this into the ear of one of the rams, or written the question on a tablet that he placed in front of the statues of the gods, for them to read.36 After asking the question, he finished by making a standard request: “Be present in this ram; place an affirmative answer, favorable, propitious omens of the flesh of the query by the command of your great divinity, so that I may see them.”37

At this point the four rams were slaughtered as sacrifices to the gods, two for Shamash and Adad, and one each for the goddess Aya (the divine wife of Shamash) and the god Bunene (the divine vizier of Shamash). The diviner slashed the veins in the rams’ necks. One of the rams that had been sacrificed to Shamash and Adad was then disemboweled, its internal organs carefully examined. Most important was the liver, along with, sometimes, the lungs and intestines. Hidden in the naturally occurring lumps on the liver or lungs, or in the bends of the intestine, the expert would find the gods’ response to the question that he had posed. Often the shapes even looked, to the diviner, like cuneiform signs, as though the gods had taken a stylus to the internal organs of the ram and written on them.38 The diviner had to check and list each part of the organs in turn, in order to come up with the gods’ yes or no answer. A “firm yes” was usually the desired outcome. In this case he hoped that the gods would say, yes, the girl had faked her prophecy. Sometimes, back in the Old Babylonian period, scribes had even created and archived clay copies of livers, bearing notes about the meanings of the topography of the liver’s surface.

The author of the letter to Esarhaddon was sure that the extispicy would reveal that the girl prophet had been lying. He wrote fervently, “May the name and seed of Sasi, Bel-ahi-usur (the slave owner), and their accomplices perish, and may (the gods) Bel and Nabu establish the name and seed of the king, my lord, until far-off [days]!”39

Finally, the letter writer advised that a particular colleague of Sasi’s should be interrogated. He even suggested a whole series of questions that should be used in the cross-examination, including “Did Sasi speak with you . . . on the following day? Why have you [not reported] what you sa[w and heard]?” And he advised the king to “stay in safety in your palace.” The conspiracy that had been uncovered represented a major threat to the king. Unfortunately, we don’t know the result of the liver-reading.

A second letter to Esarhaddon from the same writer is harder to make out because many breaks interrupt the text, but it is clearly full of the same warnings to the king and curses on his enemies, and was written in the same state of agitation. In this case, rather than reporting the ranting of a prophet, the writer wanted to let the king know that he himself “had a vision” that pertained to the conspiracy,40 though it’s a little hard to make out the rest of his message. Sasi was mentioned again, this time in reference, alarmingly, to preparations for an ambush. Apparently Sasi had concrete plans to kill Esarhaddon.

Nabu-ushallim: A Dream Interpreter

Esarhaddon received messages like this from others as well. Another one of his loyal followers, a man named Nabu-ushallim, wrote to say that he had been held captive for the past three months in a man’s house as retribution for his support of Esarhaddon (see Fig. 18.2).41 He wrote that “because of what I see and hear and betray to the king my lord, because of this, many people hate me and are plotting to kill me.” Clearly this was not his first contact with the king; he had reported to him before and had suffered for it. His enemies had even tried to prevent his letters getting through. Once again, the treacherous Sasi was involved: “All this is done to me at the orders of the overseer of the city of . . . (Ashur) and at the orders of Sasi,” but, to the frustration of the writer, Nabu-ushallim, he realized that “the king does not know it.”


Fig. 18.2 Letter from Nabu-ushhallim to King Esarhaddon of Assyria about a conspiracy, 681–669 bce. This image shows that the scribe wrote on all six sides of the tablet. The message began at the top left of the front side. (Yale University, Peabody Museum)

On this occasion, however, it seems that Sasi was not the one who wanted to become king. Abda, the overseer of the city of Ashur, had dreams of overthrowing Esarhaddon, and this time they were, literally, dreams. Nabu-ushallim, the author of the letter, had a reputation as a dream interpreter, so the overseer Abda had consulted with him. In his letter, Nabu-ushallim described Abda’s dreams in detail. One involved a small boy who handed a staff to Abda and said, “Under the protection of this . . . staff you will become mighty and powerful.” Dreams had always held great meaning for Mesopotamians. If a god appeared in a dream and spoke, just as when a prophet proclaimed a vision, the dreamer or a witness had an obligation to let someone in power know—this was another way that gods sent messages to humans, and anyone could be the medium through which a deity spoke. In this case the speaker in the dream was a small boy rather than a god, but perhaps it was clear to Esarhaddon whom the small boy represented. The message definitely seemed to indicate that a god had chosen Abda for the throne.

Nabu-ushallim was dealing with powerful, dangerous men here. Abda had recruited 120 elite soldiers to his side, all of whom had sworn their allegiance to him in a formal ceremony that had included the sacrifice of an ox. Some of the soldiers had even approached Nabu-ushallim, asking him to join them: “Come and swear with us!” they said. But Nabu-ushallim stayed loyal to the king, in spite of the perils of doing so when surrounded by rebels. He told Esarhaddon that “I did not obey.”

At this point the conspirators, Abda and Sasi, hired two men and sent them to Nineveh to try to convince King Esarhaddon that it was Nabu-ushallim who was the one plotting against him, rather than Abda and Sasi themselves. Then, someone claiming to be on Nabu-ushallim’s side, a fellow loyal supporter of King Esarhaddon, had asked Nabu-ushallim to write a letter in which he laid out everything that had happened, as evidence against Sasi and Abda. Nabu-ushallim trustingly did so and gave it to his would-be friend. But this supposed ally turned around and handed his letter to Sasi instead. Sasi now knew everything that Nabu-ushallim had heard and, what was more damning, everything he believed the king should know.

By the time Nabu-ushallim wrote his letter to Esarhaddon, he was desperate, and he probably feared that Sasi would have him killed. Plus, the coup against the king might be about to happen at any time, so he wanted Esarhaddon to realize the gravity of the situation. On the other hand, since he had been maligned by the conspirators, he feared that Esarhaddon might not believe his account. He might be mistaken for a traitor. He was in an impossible situation and hoped that his loyalty would come through in his letter.

Kudurru and the Chief Eunuch: An Oil Diviner and a Pretender to the Throne

Sasi was not just a city mayor. He also worked in King Esarhaddon’s library. He was put in charge of two captured scribes, men named Kudurru and Kunaya, who had been brought (against their will) with a group of other scribes from Babylon to Nineveh to copy tablets for the Assyrian royal library.42 This was not a collegial situation. One of their Babylonian colleagues who had finished his work had “been put in irons . . . (because) there is no work for him at present.”43

Given the general atmosphere of suspicion that surrounded Sasi, you will not be surprised to hear that King Esarhaddon directed his son, the crown prince Ashurbanipal, as follows: “Send word that Sasi be interrogated.”44 But, strangely, he was being interrogated not about his own activities, but about his prisoners in the tablet-copying department, Kunaya and Kudurru. Were they, too, in some way involved in a plot against the king? Incredibly, yes. Well, perhaps not Kunaya, but Kudurru had been swept up into the investigation of yet another man’s aspirations to overthrow Esarhaddon and rule Assyria. This new pretender to the throne was not Kudurru’s boss Sasi, nor was it Abda, the overseer of the city of Ashur. This time it was the chief eunuch, a man with wide-ranging powers.

Ever since the reign of Ashurnasirpal II more than 200 years before, and especially since the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III, eunuchs—men who had been castrated, probably in childhood—had been serving in some of the highest positions in the Assyrian administration and military. Perhaps they were trusted by the kings because they couldn’t father children and therefore presumably had no dynastic ambitions. People now tend to assume that eunuchs were largely employed in the women’s quarters of the palace because they didn’t pose a sexual threat, but in fact they were appointed to pretty much any administrative role you can think of.

They were shown in many Assyrian relief sculptures, often right at the side of the king, which indicated their high status (see Fig. 18.3). They are easily recognizable—they had no beards, in contrast to almost all other Assyrian men—and were generally shown as having soft features and being of a somewhat short stature.45 Many of the eunuchs’ roles were just as traditionally “masculine” as those of high officials throughout Mesopotamian history, including fighting in battle and leading troops. On many occasions during his reign, Esarhaddon asked diviners to perform extispicies to determine whether he should “send Sha-Nabu-shu, chief eunuch, and the army at his disposal” to fight in various regions, or to besiege particular cities.46 Sha-Nabu-shu was one of Esarhaddon’s most trusted and valued generals.


Fig. 18.3 Gypsum relief showing larger-than-lifesize figures of King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria and a courtier, who was a eunuch, from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II at Kalhu, 865–860 bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Esarhaddon’s chief eunuch, at the time when this plot to usurp the king was uncovered, was named Ashur-nasir.47 This was a man who might well have had his eye on gaining even more power, as the captured Babylonian scribe Kudurru was to discover.

We know about the chief eunuch’s role in this plot because Kudurru wrote a letter to King Esarhaddon, recounting a shocking experience that he went through. It is one of the most evocative letters to survive from the Assyrian archives, full of specific and almost literary details about the incident. Perhaps he wanted the king to feel that he had been right there in the room with him.

After the traditional blessing for the king that introduced every letter, Kudurru began his shocking tale. “[Ever si]nce the day when the king my lord [dep]orted me (from Babylon), I have sat in confinement, praying to the king, my lord, [every day], until . . . the chief cupbearer sent [a cohort commander] to release me.”48 He seems to have been imprisoned in Nineveh (where he had been working for Sasi in the library). Was he kept in irons during his confinement, like his unfortunate colleague? It must have been a relief to have been released, but why was he wanted?

It turned out that the chief cupbearer, a very high official in the palace, needed Kudurru for his expertise. The cohort commander asked him, as they walked together, “You are an expert in [scrib]al lore? [Someone] tells me [you] are an expert in scribal lore.” Kudurru no doubt assured him, that, yes, that was his specialty. They kept walking until they got to the temple of the god Bel of Harran, where someone powerful was waiting to cross-examine him. In the letter, Kudurru didn’t name his questioner. He stood and waited in the temple, until “the cohort commander re-emerged and took me to an upper room into his presence.” Five powerful men were in the room with him, including the cohort commander who had escorted him, the chief cupbearer who had summoned him, and his unnamed questioner. The chief eunuch was not there, however. “In addition,” Kudurru wrote, “the overseer of the city kept entering and leaving his presence.” It’s tempting to see this as Sasi; he was indeed an overseer of a city.

Kudurru continued, “They tossed me a seat and I sat down, drinking wine until the sun set. Moving my seat closer, he (the unnamed official) started speaking to me . . . saying: ‘You are an expert in divination?’ ” One can imagine the six men, seated in the upper room of the temple as the room grew darker with the coming of twilight, drinking wine together. Kudurru might have been disoriented by it all. Here he was, a prisoner, suddenly thrust into the company of some of the most powerful men in Assyria, getting light-headed from the wine, wondering why he was there. And then his powerful questioner had pulled him closer and asked him to perform a divination for them. The bottom of the letter is unfortunately broken, but when the text resumes on the other side of the tablet, the questioner had come to his point. He said to Kudurru: “ ‘Go and perform the (following) divination before Shamash: “Will the chief eunuch take over the kingship?” ’ ”

What a question! And what answer did they want? Were these high officials supporters of Esarhaddon or not? If they had been loyal to the king, surely they would have asked one of the temple diviners to do the job. They were, instead, asking a captive prisoner from Babylon who happened to have divining skills. Sasi, Kudurru’s overseer in the library, might well have suggested him for the work.

Kudurru continued his letter: “I washed myself with water in another upper room, donned clean garments and, the cohort commander having brought up for me two skins of oil, performed (the divination).” Oil divination was an alternative to reading animal entrails that provided a quicker answer from the gods. Oil would be poured on the surface of a dish of water, and the shapes it assumed could be “read” by a diviner with expert knowledge of such things.49 Similar techniques included sprinkling flour on water, or burning cedar and interpreting the shapes taken by the smoke. The gods left clues about their plans all over the place.

It’s interesting to learn that the temple had upper rooms where the procedure could take place, and that the procedure required cleanliness on the part of the diviner. The clean garments for Kudurru must have been procured from the temple; he certainly wouldn’t have brought them with him.

Kudurru examined the oil and discerned the gods’ reply, announcing: “He will take over the kingship.” So, yet another pretender to the throne seemed to have the gods’ support. Fortunately for Kudurru, this was the response that his interrogators had wanted. The next day was one long party. He wrote, they “made [merry] until the sun was low.” This, no doubt, involved more wine. The officials even made outlandish (probably drunken) promises to Kudurru—that he would be returned to his home and even that they would make him king of Babylonia.

But there is a reason that this account was found in a letter to King Esarhaddon. Kudurru had been performing a charade. He was not, in fact, on the side of the conspirators and, by writing to the king, he had revealed their plot and identified them as traitors. At last, he confessed to the king that his “divination” had been performed under great duress. Kudurru wrote that the whole thing was “but a colossal fraud! (The only thing) [I was th]inking of (was), ‘May he not kill me.’ ” The last section of the letter that can be made out is a plea for mercy: “I am writing to the king, lest [the king my lord] hear about it and kill me.” Kudurru might have feared that the cupbearer and chief eunuch would kill him if they found out that he had identified them and divulged their scheme, but he seems to have feared even more that the king would kill him if he found out about the divination that Kudurru had performed and if he therefore believed that Kudurru was a conspirator.

Esarhaddon Reacts to the Conspiracies

Esarhaddon might well have been uncertain, when he received all these letters, whom to believe. The astronomer and diviner Bel-ushezib, the unnamed girl prophet, the dream interpreter Nabu-ushallim, and the scholar Kudurru had all received or interpreted messages from the gods, and they were not in agreement. The men who wrote to the king all claimed to be on his side, but they reported about oracles and prophecies that implied that the gods may have been against him.

Did the gods want Sasi to be king, as the prophet had proclaimed? Or did they want Abda, as that man’s dreams implied? Or did they support Esarhaddon himself, as Bel-ushezib maintained? The king could see that divinations could be faked—Kudurru had admitted to exactly that. And was Nabu-ushallim, who had accused Abda and Sasi, really on the king’s side or just trying to save himself from punishment after Sasi’s attempts to defame him to the king? How many people right there in King Esarhaddon’s court were against him? If he trusted Kudurru (who, admittedly, was keen not to be killed and might have been less loyal than he seemed), then five or six of his closest advisors were supporting his chief eunuch’s aspirations.

Esarhaddon, who had spies in many places, seems to have rounded up many of the accused conspirators and brought them to Nineveh. The king’s chief physician wrote a letter to him, approving of his actions. The physician wrote that “(the god) Ashur and the great gods bound and handed over to the king these criminals who plotted against (the king’s) goodness.”50 What struck the physician most was that the conspirators had broken the sacred oath they had taken to support Esarhaddon when he was first made crown prince. They had “concluded the king’s treaty together with his servants before Ashur and the great gods, (but they) broke the treaty.” He noted, though, that the gods prevailed: “The goodness of the king caught them up.”

All of the spreading corruption and betrayal had left a bad taste in Esarhaddon’s mouth. Whom could he trust? As the physician put it, the conspirators “made all other people hateful in the eyes of the king, smearing them like a tanner with the oil of fish.”  This expression is brilliant—it evokes beautifully how conspiracies can begin to stick to everything, making every person a suspect.

But this was not the main reason for the physician’s letter. He was sending a healer to the king, and two plants that “are good for counterspells.” Esarhaddon was often ill, and in need of the attention of his physician. His growing fear of people close to him can’t have helped either his physical or mental health.

Adad-shumu-usur: A Physician Dealing with Royal Illness and Substitute Kings

King Esarhaddon’s life was not easy, and he seems to have felt his losses acutely. In a single year (673 BCE), his wife and a young son both died. He mourned them deeply, and he never promoted another wife to become queen (segallu) after that. Instead, his mother, Naqi’a, took over the responsibilities and title of queen.51 She seems to have assumed the role energetically, making up for her son’s hesitancy with her own competence. She received reports from across the empire, and sometimes she and Esarhaddon together were addressed as “my lords.”52

The letters from Esarhaddon’s personal physician and exorcist Adad-shumu-usur reveal a worried, frail king who preferred his own company.53 The doctor sent Esarhaddon various medicines and told him which incantations were effective against such things as vomiting, dizziness, and “cough with phlegm.”54 He also worried sometimes that the king was making his illnesses worse by isolating himself. On one occasion, Esarhaddon shut himself away in a dark room and refused to eat for two days. The physician wrote, in worried tones, that “The king, the lord of the world, is the very image of (the sun god) Shamash. He (should) keep in the dark for half a day only!”55 And he really did need to eat. “[Eating of b]read and [drinking of w]ine [will soon re]move [the illness of the king]. G[ood ad]vice is to be heeded: restlessness, not eating and not drinking disturbs the mind and adds to illness.”

Medicine and exorcism were intertwined in Mesopotamia, because they believed that illnesses were sent by the gods as a form of punishment for actions that the sick person had performed, or, in some cases, failed to perform. A physician did not just prescribe medicines; he was also responsible for exorcising any demons that might be causing the illness by reciting prescribed incantations. Although diviners could determine the will of the gods, they were not trained in exorcism; that required a specialist. An ill king was vulnerable not only because his sickness made him weak, but because it could be interpreted as a sign that the gods didn’t support him. One of Esarhaddon’s many maladies seems to have been a skin condition on his face that would have been hard to disguise, and that might have looked to others like a clear vote of no confidence from the gods. No wonder he sometimes retreated to a room where he would not be seen.

Adad-shumu-usur was a member of an “inner circle” of about fifteen scholars on whom Esarhaddon depended: astrologers, exorcists, physicians, diviners, and lamentation priests.56 All of them had a surprisingly close relationship with the king and all were literate. Adad-shumu-usur, for example, had to be able to consult the many medical and religious texts that would direct him to the right substances to cure his patient, in his role as physician (asu in Akkadian), along with the correct ritual actions and incantations to perform in his role as exorcist (ashipu in Akkadian).57 Both types of treatment were considered to be necessary and effective, and both probably worked in many cases, thanks to the doctors’ knowledge of herbs, honey, minerals, and other natural products, many of which were indeed effective, and to the patients’ trust in the exorcists’ ability to cure them. This no doubt resulted from what is now recognized as the placebo effect, which has always helped people recover if their condition allowed it.

As Esarhaddon became increasingly worried for his own safety, several times he supposed that his own demise was imminent; it had been foretold by the gods. His diviners and his physician were not necessarily convinced. The king believed fervently, at one point, that an eclipse of the sun was about to happen, which would have presaged his death. Accordingly, he stepped down and appointed a peasant to take the throne in his place as a substitute king. For a hundred days Esarhaddon became a “farmer” while the substitute king ruled in his place, living in the palace and being served by the courtiers. The arrangements for this substitute were the concern of Adad-shumu-usur, in his role as exorcist. He determined that the substitute should have not just “the clothes of the king, my lord,” but the “necklace [of go]ld, the scepter and the throne.” Remarkably, a “statue of the substitute king” had even been created, which needed garments of its own.58 Nothing could look less than real. The substitute king had to be given every luxury and privilege that Esarhaddon normally enjoyed. When everything was ready, the physician wrote to Esarhaddon that “the order should be given to enthrone (the substitute king).” Meanwhile, the real king sloped off into obscurity for a while. For more than three months he didn’t have to make decisions, he didn’t have to appear in public, he could live quietly and invisibly so that the gods were clear about which king had to die. It seems to have suited Esarhaddon well.

In spite of all the preparations, Esarhaddon worried about the forthcoming eclipse anyway, and he wrote to his physician (carefully using his assumed identity so that the gods wouldn’t know that it was him): “An order of the ‘farmer’ [to] Adad-shumu-usur . . . : I am well. Speak again with the comman[der-in]-chief (as follows): ‘Will you assume responsibility for the eclipse of the sun? . . . Surely there will be an eclipse of the sun? Send me definite word!”59

As you may recall, this same strategy of appointing a substitute king had been used by King Erra-imitti of Isin in the Old Babylonian period more than a thousand years earlier, but it had backfired when he died anyway and the gardener Enlil-bani, who had been in the temporary position of substitute king, stayed on the throne. Esarhaddon’s substitute was not so lucky. At the end of the hundred days, the substitute king was killed and buried in an appropriately ornate tomb, so that the predicted death of the king had taken place and Esarhaddon could breathe a little easier, at least for a while. Given that at least four substitute kings “ruled” at various times during his reign, the relief doesn’t seem ever to have lasted long. And one pities the men sacrificed for eclipses that never happened or for other omens that would never normally have justified the expense and complications of a substitute king.

Many more than four men suffered for Esarhaddon’s paranoia, though. In 670 BCE the king purged his court. He never mentioned this in his royal inscriptions; we know about it only because the authors of a later Babylonian chronicle mention the executions in a single sentence: “Eleventh year: The king in Assyria killed his many officials with weapons.”60 This was the ultimate outcome of all those worried letters from people like the astronomer Bel-ushezib, the Babylonian scribe Kudurru, and the loyalist Nabu-ushallim. We don’t know whom he targeted, but it seems likely that informers ended up dead, right along with the men and women they had accused.61 Everyone seems to have been suspect, in Esarhaddon’s eyes.

But there was a surprising survivor of Esarhaddon’s purge: Sasi. This man—identified by so many as the ultimate conspirator, the mastermind of several schemes against the king—was, amazingly, still alive in the reign of the next ruler, Esarhaddon’s son Ashurbanipal. Some scholars have proposed that Sasi could have been a double agent, a spy for Esarhaddon who infiltrated the underground circles of conspirators and reported back to his king, naming names and keeping himself safe from royal fear and fury.62 Or perhaps he survived the purge by switching sides, accusing others, and pretending to have been loyal to Esarhaddon all along.

The Succession Treaty and Imperial Expansion: Enlisting the Gods’ Support

Esarhaddon’s reign lasted only twelve years, but in that short time he and his government achieved much more than you might expect, especially given his distrust of pretty much everyone. He built himself a fortified (perhaps coup-proof) palace at Nineveh and strengthened the defenses of the palace at Kalhu. But he didn’t just close himself inside his towers; he also looked outward across the wide empire. He was even able to expand its limits to their greatest extent, and to finally reach a treaty agreement with Elam.

The king fathered at least eighteen children and selected his son Ashurbanipal to succeed him as king of Assyria. Another son was to serve as the king of Babylon after Esarhaddon’s death. In 672 BCE he drew up a “treaty” between himself and the people of the empire concerning the future succession. He decided to have a rare gathering of his vassals so that he could see them in person and witness their oaths to support his plan for Ashurbanipal’s succession, just as they had sworn to support Esarhaddon when he had been appointed crown prince eleven years earlier.

Tablets inscribed with the treaty have been found at several sites across the Near East, from Turkey to Iran. Each vassal seems to have taken a copy home with him and to have overseen his people swearing to be governed by it. The treaty was epic in length: 670 lines.63 It would have taken a long time to read aloud, which must have happened in order for the populations to understand their obligations. Learning from his father’s mistakes, Esarhaddon included clauses to try to prevent the kinds of treacherous conspiracies and assassination plots that had plagued his own reign. He also added almost a hundred lines of complex curses on anyone who damaged the tablet on which the treaty was written, followed by more than 150 lines of yet more (and fiercer) curses on anyone who broke the oath. A lot of them called for vivid and horrible disasters to happen to the oath-breaker and his family. But the writer of curses seems to have run out of steam at some point, coming up with this slightly nihilist wish: “Just as the inside of a hole is empty, may your inside be empty.”64

The text was so long that the clay tablets on which it was written are bigger than almost any other cuneiform tablet from any era. A copy that was recently discovered at a site called Tell Tayinat in Turkey is typical in size, measuring 40 × 28 centimeters (16 × 11 inches).65 Each copy of the treaty had four columns of text on each side and was sealed at the top of the front with three seals belonging to the god Ashur. The tablets were designed to be displayed in temples across the empire,66 and they were, indeed, found in temples by modern archaeologists. Esarhaddon even seems to have made the oath document itself a divine object, so that the tablet in each temple could be worshiped as though it were a god.67 He was clearly preoccupied, even obsessed, with the idea that his choice of successors would be respected.

With the succession settled, Esarhaddon was back to fighting to expand the empire. He was particularly taken by what must have seemed an almost impossible goal: the conquest of Egypt. Egypt had been the star of its own separate universe (at least in the minds of the Egyptians) for close to three millennia by this time—not very far away from Mesopotamia but never remotely vulnerable to Mesopotamian military attack before. No previous Mesopotamian army had been strong enough.

Egypt was now controlled by the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, whose kings had originated in Nubia (modern Sudan). They had unified Egypt for the first time since the end of the Late Bronze Age and had even tried to regain control of the Levant. It had been a Twenty-fifth Dynasty king, Taharqa, who had come to the aid of the Judeans when they tried to rebel against Assyria during the reign of Sennacherib.

Esarhaddon’s first attempt to take Egypt was not a success; in fact, his army completely failed that time to bring Egypt into the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This marked the first major defeat of the Assyrian army in hundreds of years. The Babylonian Chronicle comments dispassionately, “Seventh year. On the fifth day of the month of Adar, the army of Assyria was defeated in the land of Egypt.”68 Behind that sentence lay months of preparations; untold numbers of troops who marched for hundreds of miles carrying heavy armor and supplies, and who fought hard in a very hot, distant, and unfamiliar land; the many deaths that resulted; and an ignominious return to Assyria of those who survived, without the usual spoils of war to enrich the Assyrian treasury. It was an expensive war and a humiliating outcome.

But Esarhaddon was undeterred. He was determined to conquer Egypt. Three years later, in 671 BCE, his troops were back on the march across Syria with their sights on the Egyptian capital of Memphis. During this journey, Esarhaddon received another message from the gods. Unlike all the prophesies of doom that he received in letters, this one was entirely positive.

The king had stopped in the Syrian city of Harran, which had been growing in importance and influence. It was one of the cities where the moon god, Sin, had a great temple. During the time that Esarhaddon was there, for some reason, “a temple of cedar was bu[ilt] outside the city of Harran.” This sounds as though it was a temporary structure, not like the monumental mudbrick and stone temples where the gods normally resided. The statues of two gods were placed inside: Sin, the moon god, wearing two crowns, and, in front of him, Nusku, the god of fire and light. Esarhaddon entered the cedar temple and “placed [the crown(s)] on (his) head, (and it was said to him) ‘You will go and conquer the world with it.’ ”69 Who spoke these words? It sounds like a prophecy spoken by the god Sin himself, but, given that statues don’t actually speak, someone—a priest or priestess perhaps—must have relayed the message.

The gods had once more provided the king with a view of his future, and it may have motivated him to pursue his surprisingly aggressive policy of expansion. He had been promised the whole world.

When the Assyrian forces arrived in Egypt, this time they managed to take control of the northern capital of Memphis. “Memphis was turned into booty,” wrote the author of the Chronicle, “its people taken as plunder; and its property carried off.”70 Although Esarhaddon crowed about his victory, the destruction must have represented an inexpressible tragedy for the Egyptians who were captured and marched off to live somewhere in the Assyrian Empire. Like all the people deported by the Assyrians, the exiled Egyptians were forced to settle in a land foreign to them, far, in their case, from the wide Nile and its rich, dark soil, far from the ancient pyramids that stood near Memphis, already almost 2,000 years old, perpetual reminders of the power of their early kings.

The truth of this campaign belied Esarhaddon’s image of himself bravely leading his troops to Memphis, however. During this period, he was going through one of his many substitute king phases; for months during this time, he was “the farmer” who was not really in power and could not appear in public. His chief eunuch probably led the successful attack on Egypt.71

It was in the wake of this victory in Egypt, once the army had returned home, that Esarhaddon turned on his officials and executed so many of them. But Egypt grabbed his attention again, soon enough. The Egyptians were unhappy with the Assyrian governors and their demands, and the people there rebelled again. For a third time in six years, the Assyrian army gathered weapons, supplies, and armor and headed back to Egypt.

Esarhaddon did not return alive. “The king of Assyria went to the land of Egypt. He became ill during the campaign and on the tenth day of the month of Arahsamni, he died.”72 After a lifetime of fearing assassination plots, Esarhaddon seems to have died of natural causes.

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