His father died in 705 campaigning in a distant land. Four years were spent by Sennacherib fighting hard against various rival neighboring countries over which his father had extended his scepter by military victories and exactions of annual tribute.
These exactions were much hated, and the death of Sennacherib’s father provided the opportunity to rise up and throw off the Assyrian yoke. Yet his father had done well militarily, the army was strong, and it served his son well.
Sennacherib returned to Nineveh with his booty wagons full of loot and tribute.
His position as king established by might of his arms and victories, Sennacherib set to building himself a palace equal to his greatness. Since he ruled every nation to the north and south and the east and west of him, he decided to make Nineveh the most splendid city on earth and his palace the greatest in magnificence ever seen. Spring flood has damaged the foundations of the old palace of his father and also undercut the city walls along the riverside. The king decided to start with entirely new foundations, employing stone instead of mud-brick.
Since his campaigns had gained him many tens of thousands of captives, he put them to work quarrying and dressing and dragging the great stones from river quarries to the building sites. His army superintended the projects, lashing and bullying the captives, as well as executing any that fell down and could not work any longer or those who were maimed by their legs or arms being crushed by foundation stones. No record was kept of the captives slain in this way, but precise records were kept of the stones cut and transported to the capital. Idols, such as human-headed winged bulls, were roughly hewn at the quarry then dragged on sledges to the building sites. These weighed as much as twenty tons and were transported thirty miles across rough ground, since no boat existed that could carry such loads.
The palace required nine years to build from the new foundation up. The walls rose 82 feet, and the palace towered 65 feet above the walls. There were three main portals, with colossal winged bulls set on each side of the doors, and the lintel of each portal was supported by a pair of giant columns, the base of which were bronze fashioned in the shapes of a lion on one side and a bull on the other. The columns were single beams of the giant trunks of Cedars of Lebanon or solid bronze. The wooden columns were overlaid and inlaid with gold and silver and crowned with Grecian-style, Aeolic capitals. Beyond the portals opened three outer courtyards, service buildings, and government offices, over two miles of magnificent corridors and audience halls composed the inner part of the palace. Brightly painted wall panels of carved alabaster decorated the labyrinthian maze of corridors and state chambers. These celebrated the campaigns and victories of the great king. Courtyards and more apartments followed, those of the royal household, with its guard of eunuchs. Stolen gold had become as plentiful as silver, ceilings and furniture were made of aromatic wood and ivory, and the floors were made soft and virtually soundless with thick, rich carpets. Treasures of artwork stood everywhere, sent or plundered from every land. No wonder the king grew very proud of his architectural masterpiece, calling it “Palace Without Rival.”
Enthroned in such unparalleled splendor and majesty, Sennacherib reigned majestically and absolutely like a great god over the whole known earth. Was that stretching things a bit? Not so! He had crushed and destroyed mighty Babel, and also taken and sacked the royal cities of Egypt and led away the flower of her people with fish hooks in their noses. His empire extended over every tribe and nation from the borders of Ethiopia and Arabia to Lydia, and from Lydia to Scythia. The kings of Urartu high in their mountain fortresses trembled at the mere mention of his name.
Slaves beyond number were his to use in vast building projects or in the royal palace or in the fields. What he didn’t want he could sell in the teeming markets of his chief cities. What more could a king so great as this want? Life was good! His gods had blessed him above all over kings, his counsellors and nobles told him.
He woke in the night in the year 686, an hour or so before dawn, and lay for a few moments beneath his attar-of-rose-scented, gold-threaded blankets. Something, he did not know what, had awakened him Torches burned down on poles thrust, with spear tips, into the ground outside the royal tent, while inside scented oil lamps shed light and fragrance. Posted guards always sat outside his sleeping chamber, both in the palace and while on campaign in moving quarters like this one, but he could hear no breathing or sound of anything but the insects and the night-flying birds. Wondering about so much silence, he called, but no one hurried to his bedside.
Angry, to the point heads would roll when he found out the reason for their tardiness, the great king sat up. He flung aside his blankets and put his feet down to the carpets of the floor. Where were his slippers? He needed help. He called again. No answer! Stumbling over a body he slammed against his own throne, which topped with a great crash.
Very angry now, his shoulder and ribs on one side giving him sharp pains, he left his chamber in his stockings and stepped into the much larger but less splendid portion that held his chief generals and courtiers. This room lay deathly still. Everyone in it sat or lay motionless as if they had fallen asleep, yet their eyes were filled with rigid terror. One or two even had hands raised as if to ward off some great blow.
Gazing upon them, the king’s heart beat painfully fast. He couldn’t take in what he was seeing, and he felt like an arm was over his throat, suffocating him.
Roaring like a wounded lion, he burst out into the night air, seeking an explanation. But he found only his bodyguard, fallen to the ground, lying like broken statues either without expression or with that single look of rigid terror.
“This cannot be!” his mind told him as he bellowed with rage and continued on through the vast camp, knocking into one tent after another, dashing the doors open only to discover more rigid stares and collapsed, motionless bodies. Hundreds, soon thousands, met his gaze. He could not accept the fact they were all dead. Not all! He continued walking, passing the great siege engines (from whose ranks he had sent a great Wheel with the rabshekeh up against Jerusalem, mainly with an aim to destroy the Judahites’ heart to resist), their engineers lying sprawled beneath them, their arms and legs spread-eagled as if a giant had cast them to the earth, killing them.
A long time passed in this way as the distracted, frantic king, nearing utter exhaustion, reached the edge of the camp in his now dirt-blackened, shredded hose. Was there no one alive? It couldn’t be! He kept searching, searching. When he at last stumbled out on the road to Jerusalem, which was empty of moving traffic because all his men were lying either dead upon it or in the ditches or on the hillsides along the road, he had to stop. No beast lay dead; the innumerable oxen, horses, mules, sheep, and other captured livestock, were alive, but not one man in the army breathed! It was impossible! Unthinkable! Yet the brutal dawning light exposed the brutal truth—everyone was dead except himself!
With nothing to do but wait for someone to come to drive his chariot, the king sat down on the back step of a siege engine built like a high, crennelated city tower, and waited.
Hours later, toward noon, he was greatly relieved when he heard the hoof-beats of galloping horses and the sound of chariot wheels and, soon after, Assyrian whip cracking, along with curses.
His rabshekeh and his men and messengers—returned from the assignment at Jerusalem!
Heartened by the sight, the king hurried forth to meet them on the road, his night gown flapping in the wind and his tattered stockings exposing his bare feet to the dirt and burrs on the roadstead. But the rabshekeh, astonished to find the Great King out alone on the road, dirty and disheveled as a commoner, was even more astonished when he viewed the vast graveyard of dead men. He tried to tell the king that the mission had failed—Hezekiah had refused to surrender and had even refused tribute! There was nothing more to do but attack the city with the army—but where was the army? What had happened to them?
When the king found that the rabshekeh was utterly useless when it came to an explanation, he gave up trying to find the reason. Since they were now clearly too few to commandeer so great a host of livestock and spoil from the captured cities of Judah, they were forced to leave it all on the spot and flee for their lives. If they should be caught so weak in numbers, they would be captured by the Judahites should they sally forth from Jerusalem in pursuit. That too was unthinkable to the Great Sennacherib, King of Assyria-- being captured by so inferior a folk as the Judahites! Taking what provisions and gold they could carry without hindering their progress, they immediately set out to the north for Nineveh.
Bad news somehow always flies faster than good news, and it arrived before the king and his humble entourage of one general and some of the royal bodyguard and a few couriers appeared before the main gate of Nineveh. Thousands of merchants and traders, not willing to leave without solid word about the whereabouts of the rich spoils of the campaign, milled about the gates and in the city’s chief markets. Immediately, many hundreds in a mob rushed toward the dusty, tattered, travel-worn king but were turned back by gate guards and soldiers. They were angry at such treatment—as if they were a pack of vultures. Was it true, they all wondered, that the king had lost the spoils of war? What were they going to buy and trade now? The whole city and palace were abuzz with the report of a mysterious disaster happening to the king’s army in some obscure province called Judah.
Thousands of courtiers, officials, and eunuchs stood awaiting the king in the halls and corridors and audience chambers of the “Palace Without Rival,” all talking about it in hushed tones. How would the king explain it to them? What could explain it? Nothing like this had ever happened to a king of Assyria before. The reports were utterly bewildering, for more than one had come, telling the story various ways and giving rise to many wildly different interpretations. The more fanciful tales related how the earth round about Jerusalem, Lachish, and Libnah had suddenly opened up, spewing forth a great flood of salty waters. Then Judah’s invisible god came forth like a gigantic sea monster, the one called Rahab, and swallowed up the army. Another tale said it was a man-devouring dragon, Rabiscu the demon, called forth by the king of Judah by the sacrifice of his son and daughters on a fiery altar to their god. Only the king had escaped from being consumed by the dragon. A dragon from hell large enough to swallow 185,000 men? A sea monster like Rahab or Tiamat, opening the earth beneath the army with a flood, then sparing only the king’s life? Why only the king?
Those reports that made most sense were, however, the most alarming. They said that all had gone well with the king’s western campaign on up to the siege of Jerusalem, the little capital of the tiny country of Judah. It had gone well, indeed! The king had taken forty-six fortified cities and “smaller cities without number,” with his battering rams, engines, mines, breaches, and axes. He had captured 200,150 people according to the strict Assyrian count, and horses, mules, asses, camels, oxen, sheep, also without number. The king of Judah? Sennacherib had cornered the king in Jerusalem, his royal city.
The king of Judah was desperate, sending word out to Sennacherib at Lachish, “Hezekiah king of Judah to the king of Assyria, leave me and my city and I will bear what you put on me.”
The king, busy with capturing the last hold-out fortresses of Lachish and Libnah before proceeding with the death-blow to the capital, not bothering to go himself, had given his chief general, the rabsekeh, the task of taking the third-rate capital and looting it. This the rabshekeh proceeded to do, leaving the king with the main army and taking only a detachment of the royal bodyguard and some messengers. The rabshekeh had a letter written by the king that ridiculed Hezekiah’s God called Jehovah and demanded the surrender of the city.
The rabshekeh had orders that when the king was taken with his household, they were to be brought in chains before Sennacherib either at Lachish or Libnah, who would do with them as he pleased.
Now with the king’s arrival back in Nineveh, everything was soon found to be in a state of deepening and spreading chaos. The king did not return laden with the immense spoil of his campaign, which included the gods of conquered cities and nations, nor did he return with his army.
What had happened? It was evident to all that Jerusalem had not fallen to the king. Had the Judahites somehow defeated the king? That was impossible, they all knew. Something else had happened to swallow up so vast a host. Had Hezekiah paid off the king with a large enough tribute? But where was the money?
At a loss to discover the truth from the lips of the king, who returned in a rage, and so angry nobody dared approach him about the army, the governing officials and courtiers held secret councils, not daring to anger a wounded lion.
Without the army everyone knew the state lay in grave peril of attack. If highly populous Babel in its river-girt kingdom caught wind of it, or the equally dangerous horsemen of the plains and mountains, the Medes, they might send out armies to attack Nineveh itself. Without an army, there was no way to defend the greatest, most fortified cities of the realm, they knew. Panic quickly spread through the city as news, unofficially, spread from one person to the next. Surely, their enemies would leap at the chance of overthrowing Assyria and seizing all its wealth. After all, it was largely what the Assyrians had stolen from the nations at sword-point. This was their enemies' chance to get it all back, and then some.
With panic went the certain realization that something had to be done rather quickly, or everything was lost in the slime-pit of weakness, indecision, and chaos. News of the debacle at Jerusalem would soon reach the courts of rival powers. Spies followed the army everywhere, just to glean news of the king’s doings and pass them back to their client kings. By the time the king entered Nineveh’s gates the court of Babel no doubt had already heard the news.
What would they do? Surely, their king would ally himself with other powers and then go forth to attack Assyria!
The Assyrian court knew how exceedingly hated and loathed their country was in the world, that there could be no question that their vassals and tributaries would gleefully rise up to destroy her, the moment Assyria was perceived to be weak. The very thought of a weak Assyria was enough to terrorize even the most stout-hearted army captains and generals.
Sennacherib, however, did not give himself to idleness and pleasure after his return. He might have spent his days in the royal harem or with any of his wives, as it was expected of a king of his rank. On the contrary, though robbed of his army, he made strenuous efforts to gain back his former might.
He ordered forth officials to recruit and requisition the needed numbers of fighting-age men. He was furious when the command could not be obeyed satisfactorily, since Assyria was soldier-poor, thanks to the loss of the army.
Conscripts had to be trained and equipped, and that took time.
Vast revenues were needed to create and equip an entirely new army. He had to exact new, heavy taxes on the people, since he had left all the spoil behind from his last campaign.
Virtually alone in his efforts, he spent every waking hour promulgating one decree after another, to levy man-power from this city and that city, wherever full-blood Assyrians could be found.
Foreigners could not be made to fight savagely against neighboring powers to whom they were bound by lineage or race—so he had to use his fellow Assyrians, who under his reign had learned to despise such things and could, therefore, act as the merciless, killing machine he needed in order to carry the day against his enemies.
Having shown no pity to inferiors, his people had learned to show no pity.
Meanwhile, as the seething mass of rebellion and turmoil in the city boiled just under the surface of official life, the customs and daily routine of the great “Palace Without Rival” continued as usual.
With the completion of his latest campaign, the artisans set to portray the king’s latest exploits on the alabaster walls. Accounts of his campaign, and seven previous to it, were also inscribed on newly sculptured winged bulls and on a hexagonal clay prism. In these accounts Sennacherib boasted of his taking forty-six cities of Judah and innumerable smaller places, along with innumerable cattle, small and great, and Lachish and Libnah, with “great spoil.”
He also boasted of shutting Hezekiah the king up in his city like a bird in a cage. There the pictorial boasting ceased. Of what happened to his army, or why he did not subdue Hezekiah after demanding tribute and his surrender, not a word more was inscribed in the official accounts.
Strangely, having never been weak before, the despot could not attempt a ploy of deception, deception being the weapon of the weak.
Instead, he chose to remain silent on the one point everyone in the world yearned to see explained. This was taken as evidence of abject shame, which was worse than weakness to the Assyrian mind—it was an abomination.
So despite the vigorous efforts of the king to build back up the Assyrian military power to its former state of world supremacy, the whole project lagged and stalled.
Furious, the king had many a conscription foreman flogged, even flayed and impaled on a stake, for failing to bring in sufficient numbers of fighting men for which he had set quotas.
Likewise, in equipment and in tax levies, the administration bogged down.
No longer could anyone be frightened into doing what the king wanted.
It did not matter how many people he punished or flayed and executed, the mass of his government and his people turned a stubborn, mulish countenance toward him. One man without an army of willing servants, he found his efforts and war plans were proving increasingly futile.
It was unthinkable to beg compliance with royal decrees.
Formerly, disobedience earned swift retribution, but now he could not even get executioners to do their work. They were always running off, deserting their posts, or letting their prisoners escape.
As soon as he gave an order, it seemed a hundred people thought of a way to circumvent it or delay it indefinitely.
Living in a state of constant tension and rage day after day, month after month, took its toll on the king’s vitality, even in so splendid a setting as his “Palace Without Rival.”
No fool, he knew what everyone was thinking, behind their false smiles and half-concealed, knowing winks and glances. “They think the god of the Judahites cowed and defeated me at Jerusalem!” he thought. “They think Hezekiah’s god, the one called Jehovah, destroyed my great army! Ridiculous!
It was mere bad water in the army’s water-skins and the resulting fever that took them all in the night! Did not Hezekiah’s men stop up all the good wells of the land so that we had nothing but bad water to drink of?
Thus, my army fell sick and died, that is all! It could not be helped!”
The Ninevites thought little of the royal excuse concerning bad water and fever. They still had no sensible idea how the disaster had really happened, though sickness, particularly in war campaigns, was a known hazard.
Never had an entire army fallen ill all at the same time, perishing in a single night, even though Hezekiah had stopped up the fresh, good waters of his country.
Nor would they take the Judahites’ own account of it, which held that their invisible God, Jehovah, had sent an invincible death angel out and he had slain the king’s army for the king’s blaspheming of the God’s Name as well as for viciously slandering and attacking “the virgin daughter of Zion,”—the holy, covenanted land of Judah.
Any god that would permit his country to be invaded and subdued right up to the walls of the chief city of the king and the god’s own house—that god, to their thinking, could not be taken seriously.