The Contents of the Letters and Their Political and Historical Contexts


Babylon was the most important metropolis in Babylonia because it had been the capital of lower Mesopotamia for centuries, and had a long cultural tradition including scribal art, scholarship, and religion. The city was respected and admired not only in the region but all over the Ancient Near East. Hence whoever controlled the city had to respect its traditions and try to win over the support of its elites and inhabitants. After Babylonia became a part of the Assyrian Empire, controlling and maintaining its capital became one of the greatest priorities for the Assyrian kings. Despite their efforts, Babylonia sometimes caused upheaval to Assyria.

Esarhaddon, the father of Assurbanipal, had concurrently been king of Assyria and king of Babylonia (680-669). However, he decided to divide the realm of the Assyrian Empire.[[24]] In the middle of Iyyar (II), 672, he appointed his sons Assurbanipal and Šamaš-šumu-ukin to the thrones of Assyria and Babylonia, respectively. He concluded a treaty concerning this royal succession with the Assyrian citizenry and vassal nations.[[25]]

Esarhaddon died due to illness on the way to a campaign against Egypt in Marcheshvan (VIII), 669. In accordance with the succession treaty, Assurbanipal ascended the throne of Assyria in the very next month, in Kislev (IX), 669, whereas Šamaš-šumu-ukin entered Babylon with the statue of Marduk and ascended the throne of Babylon only in Iyyar (II), 668. For this event, Assurbanipal played the role of his appointer and the returner of the statue. Three letters sent by Šamaš-šumu-ukin to Assurbanipal are extant. In no. 102, he reports on rumours about Sîn-balassu-iqbi, the governor of Ur, and suggests that the king should detain the man until he has investigated and written a detailed report to the king. In no. 104, he discusses the clearance of boats of a foreign emissary, the Elamite prince Ummanigaš. He had already given them the permission to sail, but now defers the decision in the matter to Assurbanipal.

Even after Šamaš-šumu-ukin assumed residence in Babylon as the king, its city assembly continued to function as the administrative body. This is evident from the fact that no letters sent by Assurbanipal to Šamaš-šumu-ukin are extant, while all the preserved letters to Babylon were addressed to the Babylonians. Assurbanipal wrote no. 1 to the Babylonians probably at the beginning of his reign. In the letter, he shows his full respect of Babylon and affirms that he would maintain Babylon's privileged status (kidinnūtu).

At the beginning of 652, Šamaš-šumu-ukin started his revolt. Assurbanipal tells the Babylonians in no. 2 that the first battle between Assyrians and Babylonians occurred, a number of Babylonians were taken captive in the battle, and he sent them back to Babylon. He does not say which side won the battle. After these events, on the 23rd of Iyyar (II), 652, Assurbanipal sent no. 3 to the Babylonians. He refers to Šamaš-šumu-ukin as his "no-brother" and urges them not to side with him. These letters indicate that he made an effort to settle the revolt peacefully.

However, his efforts failed. The hostilities began between Assyria and Babylonia in Tebet (X)[[26]] and two battles between them took place in Adar (XII), 652.[[27]] Assyria laid siege to Babylon in Tammuz (IV), 650.[[28]] Assurbanipal addresses no. 4 to the besieged Babylonians and makes an attempt to save the city from massacre during the impending decisive assault of the Assyrian army. Eventually, the revolt was suppressed with the death of Šamaš-šumu-ukin in the fire and the fall of Babylon around the end of Ab (V), 648.[[29]] The king refers to his "no-brother" in a broken context in no. 5 that possibly immediately preceded Šamaš-šumu-ukin's death. Probably soon after the revolt, the king addressed no. 6 to the Babylonians. In no. 7, he promises to reward their good behaviour and refers to the destruction of Babylon. No. 8, duplicated by no. 9, is from Assurbanipal probably not to the Babylonians but more likely to the Urukians. The king refers to their connections with the revolt and requests them to not deliver their city to destruction but guard it.

24 On the rationale and motivations of this controversial and bold political decision, see Nissinen and Parpola 2004, 214-218; Parpola 2004b, 8; Porter 1993, 119-153; Frame 1992, 93-114; Tadmor, Landsberger and Parpola 1989. The "division" was only meant to be cosmetic and by no means politically "final."

25 SAA 2 6; Lauinger 2012; Borger and Fuchs 1996, 15-16 and 208, A I 8-22 // F I 7-17.

26 Grayson 1975, 131. no. 16:11.

27 Sachs and Hunger 1988, 44f, no. -651 iv 10 and Grayson 1975, 132, no. 16:13-15.

28 Grayson 1975, 130, no. 15:19.

29 Borger and Fuchs 1996, 43-44 and 234-235, A IV 46-58; Borger and Fuchs 1996, 279 and 293, IIT, 111-113.

Sanae Ito

Sanae Ito, 'The Contents of the Letters and Their Political and Historical Contexts', The Correspondence of Assurbanipal, Part I: Letters from Assyria, Babylonia, and Vassal States, SAA 21. Original publication:Winona Laka, IN, Eisenbrauns, 2018; online contents: SAAo/SAA21 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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SAAo/SAA21, 2014-. Since 2015, SAAo is based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Historisches Seminar (LMU Munich, History Department) - Alexander von Humboldt Chair for Ancient History of the Near and Middle East. Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 [] license, 2007-20.
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