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Der Achämenidenhof

The Achaemenid Court

Akten des 2. Internationalen Kolloquiums zum Thema
»Vorderasien im Spannungsfeld
klassischer und altorientalischer Überlieferungen«
Landgut Castelen bei Basel, 23.–25. Mai 2007

Herausgegeben von
Bruno Jacobs und Robert Rollinger

Harrassowitz Verlag . Wiesbaden

ISSN 2190-3638
ISBN 978-3-447-06159-9
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court
Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Padova

I erected a pile in front of the gate. I flayed as many nobles as had

rebelled against me. I draped their skins over the pile. Some I spread
out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile, some I
placed on stakes about the pile. (…) I brought Ahi-iababa to Nineveh,
flayed him, and draped his skin over the wall of Nineveh.1
I captured many troops alive. From some I cut off their arms (and)
hands. From others I cut off their noses, ears and extremities. I gouged
out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living and one of
heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city, I burnt their adoles-
cent boys and girls.2
I erected towers of heads before his (of Aramu, king of Urartu /
Armenia) gate: [some] heads of nobles I [spread out] within [the
piles], others I erected on stakes around the piles.3
These quotations from the texts of king Ashurnasirpal II (first half of the IXth
century BC) and Shalmaneser III (second half of the IXth century BC) are
only three examples of the very numerous detailed descriptions of extremely
cruel treatments inflicted to defeated enemies presented in the Assyrian royal
inscriptions. Starting from that king, this kind of descriptions is widely
attested until the very end of the Assyrian empire. Ashurbanipal, the last
great Assyrian king, boasts in his texts to have had the head of his arch-
enemy Elamite king Teumman hung at the central gate in Nineveh, in order
to exhibit it to the Elamite emissaries coming to the capital; with great
satisfaction, he adds that they went mad at such terrifying sight. The official
iconography staunchly flanked the written documents. The skinning, the
blinding and the beheading of royal adversaries,4 the impalement of defeated

1 Grayson 1991, 199, A.0.101.1, 89–91 and 93 (Ashurnasirpal II, punishment of the people
and of the king of BƯt-HalupƝ in Syria).
2 Grayson 1991, 201–202, A.0.101.1, Col. i, 116–ii, 1 (Ashurnasirpal II, punishment of the
inhabitants of the town TƝla in the Kašiyari mountains in Central Syria).
3 Grayson 1996, 20, A.0.102.2, Col. ii, 53–54 (Shalmaneser III, punishment of Armenian
nobles in the Armenian city Ar֋asku).
4 Skinning of Yaubi’di, king of Hamath: Matthiae 1996, Plate 6.27; blinding of three
Median kings, Matthiae 1996, Plate 6.28 (both in the Khorsabad Palace, Sargon II). Be-
heading of Teumman: Watanabe 2006, Fig. 9 (BM ANE 124801c) (Palace of Nineveh,
40 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

soldiers, and other similarly unpleasant scenes are duly and efficaciously
portrayed in the reliefs which adorned the main ceremonial rooms of the
palaces of various Assyrian kings. As for Ashurbanipal, in a famous relief of
his palace in Nineveh he is depicted as joyfully banqueting with his wife in a
garden, both enjoying the shadow of a tree from which the severed head of
Teumman hangs.5 The cruelty and the often bloody detail of such descrip-
tions embarrassed and shocked the scholars who approached the Assyrian
civilization in the past century, leading to the formulation of the well estab-
lished and still largely prevailing image of the “ruthless Assyrians”. Only A.
T. Olmstead, almost 90 years ago, suggested that the cruelty of the descrip-
tions given in Ashurnasirpal’s texts depended on, and was proportional to the
need of stabilizing the Assyrian dominion in the conquered regions and of
establishing and enforcing the Assyrian image in the periphery after a period
of Assyrian political and military crisis. Olmstead suggested a telling defi-
nition for those ruthless descriptions: “calculated frightfulness”, a definition
which may be confidently extended to the texts of all other Assyrian kings.6
Admittedly, those ruthless descriptions represent only a small fraction of
the Neo-Assyrian iconographical and documental landscape. Actually, more
formal, less repugnant and less shocking depictions or narrations of war epi-
sodes prevail in number. Moreover, war episodes are only a part, albeit a
major part, of the numerous written and visual communicational devices
used in the Assyrian empire. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that a martial
and often crude attitude emanates from a large part of the palace reliefs and
from an overwhelming majority of the royal inscriptions. Apart from the
specific political needs urging in the background, the basic ideological
message governing these representations is that the Assyrian king is a strong
warrior in perennial struggle against threatening and hostile enemies; in this
role, he is allowed to adopt the most cruel measures in order to avert the
impending dangers. Any Assyrian or any subject who may have looked at
the palace reliefs, or may have heard the stories which had been given a
written form in the royal inscriptions was informed and reassured that the top
institutions of the empire, the king and his court, had been and were con-

Ashurbanipal); the severed head of Teumman is also depicted in other scenes: some sol-
diers select it among other piled heads; other soldiers transport it on foot and on chariot to
the king (Watanabe 2006, Figs. 10–13). Severed heads transported along with deportees
from Babylon: Dietrich 2003, Fig. 17 after 123 (Original Drawings, I, 49). Impalement of
soldiers: Matthiae 1996, Plate 4.8 (Central Palace in Kalhu, Tiglath-pileser III).
5 “(The Elamite envoys of Teumman) saw the severed head of Teumman, their lord, in
Nineveh and went mad” (Borger 1996, 106–107, Prism B, Col. VI, 57–63); “I hang and
exhibited the severed head of Teumman in front of the gate of the city centre of Nineveh”
(Borger 1996, 107, Prism B, Col. VI, 66–67); for the relief with the royal banquet, Fales
2001, fig. 12.
6 Olmstead 1918.
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 41

stantly on the alert for preserving and defending the Assyrian people and
territory from enemy outrages and threats. Admittedly, royal inscriptions and
reliefs have a patent celebratory character by their own nature, since they are
aimed at communicating confidence and relief, and as such they only contain
descriptions of victories and successes. Nevertheless, the celebration of a
victory intrinsically suggests that an impending threat had manifested and
that it was averted by the king’s action; consequently, it also suggests that
only a correct behaviour of the king – attention, alarm and discipline – may
grant that any kind of future threat may be averted.
The same martial and crude atmosphere permeating the official ideolo-
gical media is to be found in the rhetorical formulas used in the epistolary
etiquette of the royal correspondence in the Sargonid period. Let us consider,
as a telling example, a letter containing a mobilization order sent by king
Sargon II to some cavalry officers:
A royal order of [great urgency(?)]. Get together your prefects plus
the h[orses] of your cavalry collection points immediately! Whoever is
late will be impaled in the middle of his house, and who(ever) changes
the [… of] the city will also be impaled in the middle of his house, and
his sons and daughters will be slaughtered by his (own) order! Don’t
delay, leave your work and come straight away!7
This message is shaped with such a dreadful and cruel language in order to
evoke an urgent emergency which requires immediate obeisance. Such a
dramatization of the relationship between the king and his subjects is at work
in many other letters, where the king is portrayed as ready to inflict death or
dreadful punishments: e.g., “The king my lord will kill me, (when) he hears
(this) (i.e., that two teams of horses did not arrive in time)”, as written by an
alarmed official to king Sargon.8 In general, even the highest officials in the
empire rhetorically and formally represent their attitude towards the king as
that of “fear”, which is aptly reassumed in the widespread epistolary formula
“I am one who fears (scil., and consequently obeys) the king”.9
Summing up, the efficaciousness of the Assyrian imperial machine was
ideologically represented as the product of a ruthless line of command, both
in its relationships with the external world and in the functioning of its

7 Parpola 1987, 22, no. 22, 6–rev. 7; in italics, Parpola’s supplied translation. Parpola
translates the penultimate sentence dullƗkunu rammƝa with “leave your business”; here,
the term “business” must be understood as “work, affair, task, commitment assigned by
the king or by a royal official”, which is the meaning generally given to dullu in the royal
correspondence, and not as “private affairs”. For dullu as the (compulsory) job assigned to
each subject by the king, see Fales 2001, 119; for the rhetorical formulae in Neo-Assyrian
letters, see Ponchia 1989.
8 Parpola 1987, 179, no. 231, rev. 4–5.
9 E.g., in Parpola 1987, 120, no. 149, 10.
42 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

internal mechanisms. Such ideological attitude certainly depended on the

basic need to give cohesion and unity to the social élites involved in the
dramatic expansion of the Neo-Assyrian empire. As a matter of fact, an
accelerated expansion, like that which took place in the VIIIth and VIIth cen-
turies BC, might generate, as it factually did many times during this period,
disaffections, unfaithfulness, social and political tensions and strife, opposi-
tion and even revolts. All this, obviously, does not imply that we must con-
sider the Assyrians as ruthless as they may appear looking at the rhetorical
devices they used in the ideological communication, as it has been and still is
naïvely admitted in much of modern historical research, often under the
influence of many Biblical passages depicting Assyria as the ruthless instru-
ment of God’s will. Simply, it should be taken for granted that a very severe
and strict behavioural etiquette was prescribed and currently adopted in the
official relationships in the royal court and in the high bureaucracy;
according to such etiquette, the king had the power of inflicting cruel punish-
ments and even death, and his subjects were forced to declare both their
respectful fear and their absolute obeisance.
Turning now to the portrayals of the Assyrian kings and to the des-
criptions of their relationships with their subjects presented by the Greek
historiographers, it is easy to detect that their attitude and their relationship
protocols are very similar to those of the Assyrian texts and monuments.
Ctesias has a major role in this, first because Herodotus does not describe the
Assyrian court, and second because it was just Ctesias who decisively con-
tributed to the creation and the development of what are commonly con-
sidered the main clichée in the representation of the “Oriental court”.10
Ctesias, in general, depicts the Assyrian kings as prone to cruelty both
against foreign kings and against their own subjects; contemporarily, he
insists on the fact that the Assyrian subjects feared their sovereigns, as
demonstrated by the following examples. After his first victorious war,
Ninos has the king of the Babylonians killed.11 In the Median campaign, he
captures the Median king Pharnos with his family, and has him impaled
(änestaurÓqh).12 Once more, Ninos dreadfully threatens Onnes to gouge
out his eyes (æpeílhsen åkkóyein tàv %ráseiv) upon his unwillingness to
exchange Semiramis with his own daughter.13 As to Semiramis, Ctesias
states that she used to make “disappear” (æfánize) all the soldiers with
whom she had sexual intercourse, clearly implying that she had them
killed.14 As for the Assyrian kings in general, Ctesias states that they

10 Lenfant 2004, CXXVII–CXXXVII.

11 Ct., F1b, 1, 7 (Lenfant 2004, 22).
12 Ct., F1b, 1, 10 (Lenfant 2004, 24).
13 Ct., F1b, 6, 10 (Lenfant 2004, 31).
14 Ct., F1b, 13, 4 (Lenfant 2004, 39).
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 43

exercised a strong control upon their subjects, and that the Assyrian subjects
strongly feared their masters. From the twin palaces she had built in
Babylon, Semiramis êmelle tÉn te pólin æpasan katopteúsein kaì
kaqáper eç tàv kleîv Íxein tÔn åpikairotátwn tÊv pólewv tópwn,
“intended to check the whole city, so as to keep the keys of the most
important places in the city”.15 Further, her son Ninyas was feared by his
subjects because of the large number of soldiers who camped in the open
country for guarding the king’s capital: in this way all his subjects were
convinced that rebellion or disobedience would have been promptly
punished (sunébaine toùv &pò tÈn basileían tetagménouv pántav,
qewroûntav … toîv äfistaménoiv ¨ mÈ peiqarcoûsin ®toímhn oÝsan
timwrían).16 Ctesias also states that Ninyas kept himself secluded in his
palace “like a god not seen”, and that his subjects greatly feared him because
of his invisibility: “no one dared to be disrespectful to him, not even with his
words” (kaqáper dè qeòn äóraton dià tòn fóbon Íkastov oédè lógÖ
blasfhmeîn åtólma).17 All these passages clearly show that Ctesias aimed
at producing a “cruel and fearful” image of the Assyrian king. And it cannot
be denied that the image given by Ctesias strikingly resembles that which
was currently adopted in the Neo-Assyrian rhetorical etiquette in the court
and institutional relationships.
It is necessary to investigate the reasons which may have provoked or
fostered that similarity. First of all, it might be surmised that Ctesias elab-
orated his narration upon a direct memory of the Neo-Assyrian protocol or
etiquette, a memory which might have been preserved in the written and / or
oral sources he might have consulted. This assumption is reasonable and
rather likely, since a memory of the rigid protocol current in the Assyrian
court might have survived in various manners, in written or in oral form,
albeit filtered and diluted in the periods which followed the fall of Assyria.
Neo-Assyrian instructions for court, palace and administration personnel,
similar to those found at large in the archives of the Hittite capital, were not
found in the Assyrian capitals. It cannot be excluded, however, that they may
have existed, and that some exemplar may have been preserved in some
place not affected by heavy destructions during the dramatic fall of the
Assyrian empire.18 Furthermore, Neo-Assyrian official letters – either written
by the king or addressed to the king – shaped according to the rigid “cruel
and fearful” etiquette might have been preserved in the private archives of
the descendants of some officials, or in official archives which were not
destroyed, dispersed and / or abandoned, or, more possibly, in the scribal

15 Ct., F1b, 8, 3 (Lenfant 2004, 35).

16 Ct., F1b, 21, 5 (Lenfant 2004, 52).
17 Ct., F1b, 21, 7 (Lenfant 2004, 52).
18 For a short, albeit dramatic description of the bloody fall of Nineveh, see Stronach 1997.
44 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

schools of the Babylonian region or of some other formerly Assyrian centres.

As I have recently suggested commenting the possible sources of the
Assyrian logos of Ctesias, even in a great Assyrian city like Arbela, which
apparently was not involved in the destructions during the fall of the empire,
a great number of official documents of the Assyrian period might have been
preserved in various manners.19 Finally, it cannot be excluded that later texts,
aimed at criticizing the Assyrian dominion20 or at legitimizing the imperial
role of Babylon21 and / or the power of the Median dominion, might have
criticized some specific aspects of the Neo-Assyrian “way of life”, including
the Assyrian court protocol. On the other hand, some memory of the peculiar
Neo-Assyrian etiquette may have been preserved even orally, either among
the members or the families of the social élite, who generally tend to
preserve a detailed, self-legitimizing memory of the past, or even among
common people.
Specifically for the Assyrian empire, it is likely that the memory of its
rigid etiquette was preserved especially for ideological purposes. Such kind
of memory may have been useful for depicting the Assyrians in a negative
way, either in general terms like in the Bible, or more in detail, in order to
depict positively the way of life which prevailed after their dominion – for
example, in Babylonian or in Median polemic texts. Such memory, however,
might have survived for totally different causes: it may have represented an
example of strong efficiency to be invoked as a model for the political and
the institutional praxis, especially in crisis periods or when the institutional
or the political situation was perceived to be disorganized.
It is likewise probable, however, that Ctesias, like any other Greek
observer and / or historian, projected back to the Assyrian period behaviours
and protocols of the Achaemenid court which he may have observed, or may
have been told about, or even may have partially or totally invented for
whatever personal, political or historical purposes. Yet, it should be noted
that in this case it would be impossible to consider Ctesias’ projection an
attempt to depict the Assyrian protocol as a positive example, i.e. as the
unavoidable counterpart to imperial efficaciousness: as is known, today
scholars generally acknowledge that Ctesias considered the cruelties and the
dreadfulness at the Achaemenid court a sign of decadence and corruption.22
The possibility that Ctesias projected the “cruel and fearful” court eti-
quette back to the Assyrian period bears the consequence that the ideological

19 MacGinnis 1988, 40; Lanfranchi in press.

20 Like the so-called “declaration of war” of Nabopolassar against the Assyrian king Aššur-
etel-ilƗni, a text which reports a pretended Babylonian official document which inaugu-
rated the final conflict between Babylonia and Assyria (published in Gerardi 1986).
21 Cf. the still enigmatic Babylonian text published in Wiseman 1967, which seems to be a
celebration of the extension of the Neo-Babylonian empire.
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 45

presentation of the king as “cruel and fearful” was current in the etiquette of
the Achaemenid court; or alternatively, at least, that either Ctesias directly
experienced some traits of it at court, or his sources represented it in that
peculiar way. As a historian of the Neo-Assyrian empire, I must be so honest
as to leave the problems of the quality of the Achaemenid royal image and of
the Achaemenid court etiquette to the specialists of Achaemenid history. I
feel entitled, however, to frame these problems in the more general questions
of the influences of the Assyrian empire upon its periphery.
Recently, there has been an increasing consensus in acknowledging that
the Assyrians attempted, and factually managed to mould and shape both the
social élites incorporated in the empire and the élites of the peripheral,
independent states in an “Assyrian way”; i.e., that they consciously attempt-
ed at, and factually succeeded in an enculturation of large sectors of the Near
Eastern society.23 I shall quote here only some telling examples. According
to the Assyrian royal inscriptions, foreign princes and princesses were volun-
tarily sent or forcedly brought to the Assyrian court, to be married to the
Assyrian king or to Assyrian princesses and princes for establishing dynastic
ties, or to be kept there as political hostages.24 Some of them were sent back
to their original countries, to be kings and queens there, in parallel with
Assyrian royal women who were married to foreign princes or kings, and
sent to their countries as princesses or reigning queens.25 At the Assyrian
court, foreign princes and princesses were taught the “Assyrian style” and
the Assyrian culture, and were “helped” to develop a positive attitude
towards Assyria and its empire. On the other hand, the Assyrian princesses
sent abroad for royal marriages were in the position for teaching the

23 The problem of the Assyrian enculturation of the Near Eastern élites and peoples has been
raised mainly by S. Parpola with his school, but his idea either has been only partially
accepted (see e.g., Liverani 1988, 825–826, who states that the Assyrians had no time for
restructuring the most recently annexed provinces), or has met a strong opposition, espe-
cially when the problem of the Assyrian religious influence is taken into account. The
latter actually bears important consequences about the possibility that the Assyrian
religious concepts influenced some traits of the ancient Hebrew religious thinking. See,
among many others, the studies of Cogan 1974 and Holloway 2002, who both, although
with different approaches and analyses, at the end exclude the possibility that there were
Assyrian religious influences (either voluntary or induced by historical developments) on
the Hebrew religious thinking.
24 E.g., KatƝ, king of Cilicia, gave (or better, was forced to give) his daughter in marriage to
the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (IXth century BC) after having been defeated by him in
his own country, so that his daughter was factually a hostage in the hands of the Assyrian
king (Grayson 1996, 119, A.0.102.40, Col. iii, 7–8).
25 Tabû’a, an Arabian princess educated at the Assyrian court, was sent back to her country
by king Esarhaddon and was installed queen of Adumutu, an important town in Northern
Arabia: Borger 1956, 53–54, Nin. A, Col. IV, 1–31. Ahat-abƯša, a daughter of king Sargon
II, was given in marriage to an Anatolian prince who was then enthroned as the king of
Tabal (a state in south-eastern Anatolia, north of Cilicia): Fuchs 1994, 129 line 198.
46 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

“Assyrian way of life” to their new royal courts and to their courtesans. The
favour accorded to the “Assyrian way of life” by members of the peripheral
élites is well illustrated by the proudness with which a king of Cilicia cele-
brates his alliance with the Assyrian king: “So, the Assyrian king and the
whole Assyrian ‘House’ were made a fa[ther and a mo]ther for me, and
Hiyawa (i.e., Cilicia, in Assyrian Qu’e) and Assyria were made a single
‘House’.”26 A king of Sam’al, a small kingdom south-east of Cilicia, was
proud to celebrate his having been enthroned by the Assyrian king, his
“running at the wheel (of the chariot) of the Assyrian king”, and the loyalty
to Assyria of his father, who had died at the siege of Damascus and for this
was honoured with a solemn funeral in the Assyrian capital.27 Finally, I can
only shortly allude to the widespread assumption of Assyrian motifs and
details (such as posture, tools, dress, etc.) in the royal iconography of the
Neo-Hittite states in the West and elsewhere.28
The problem of the Assyrian enculturation is very important when con-
sidering the Achaemenid dynasts and court. As for the Assyrian sources, in a
late inscription of Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, it is stated that,
after the final collapse of Elam, Arukku, son of Kuraš, king of Parsumaš (the
Assyrian rendering of ParsƗ, classical Persis), was sent to Nineveh for
residing at court.29 This obviously is a strong clue, if not a true proof, for
assuming that also in this case the Assyrians attempted and carried out the
enculturation of the foreign prince, and consequently that Assyrian etiquette
and protocol might have been adopted, at least in part, at the court of the
ancestors of Cyrus II. On the other hand, it cannot be forgotten that at least
since the VIIIth century BC the Median regions were subjected to a strong
Assyrian influence in the framework of a constant military pressure. A large
number of Median princes and kinglets served in the Assyrian army, even in

26 The inscription is a Hittite Luwian – Phoenician bilingual recently found in Çineköy, a

village ca. 30 km far from Adana, which in ancient times was the capital of Cilicia. Its
author was Warikas, designated in the Luwian text as the “king of Hiyawa” and as the
“king of the Adana land”, and in the Phoenician text as the “king of the DNNYM (Phoeni-
cian translation of ‘Adaneans’)”. In the Assyrian texts, the name of Hiyawa was rendered
as Qu’e. This text may be dated to second half of the VIIIth century BC, during the reigns
of the Assyrian kings Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 BC), Shalmaneser V (726–722 BC),
and Sargon II (721–705 BC). Edition: Teko÷lu – Lemaire 2000; studies: Lanfranchi 2005;
Lanfranchi 2007; Lanfranchi 2009.
27 Phoenician inscription of king Bar-rakib of Sam’al, to be dated to the reign of Tiglath-
pileser III or slightly later (his father Panamuwa, king of Sam’al, died during Tiglath-
pileser III’s siege and taking of Damascus in 733–732 BC): Donner / Röllig 1962–64, Bd.
I, 39–40, text no. 215, 10; 12; 16; page 40, text no. 216, 8–11. For Bar-rakib’s strong pro-
Assyrian attitude, Lanfranchi 1997.
28 See in general the pioneering study by Orthmann 1971, 149–162.
29 Prism H2, col. II’, 7’–13’: Borger 1996, 191–192 (text) and 250 (translation): “Kuraš (=
Cyrus), king of Parsumaš (…) sent Arukku, his oldest son, with his tribute to Nineveh, for
declaring his being my servant” (transl. mine).
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 47

the central sector of the army which was called kisir šarrnjti, “the king’s
squadron”;30 and Median princes and kings solemnly swore loyalty to king
Esarhaddon and his sons Ashurbanipal and Šamaš-šumu-ukƯn when Esar-
haddon settled his own succession.31 According to this notion, we can take for
granted that the whole Zagros area north of Parsumaš was largely Assyrian-
ized by the end of the VIIth century BC – the Elamite resistance notwith-
standing. Looking at the descriptions by the Greek historians, it may be
added that some traits of the Assyrian royal image have been singled out in
the image of the Median kings, especially in the image of Astyages as
depicted by Xenophon in his Cyropaedia: pencilling beneath the eyes, rouge
rubbed in the face, wig of false hair, purple tunic, necklaces on his neck and
bracelets on his wrists. Xenophon further states that Astyages dressed Cyrus
in a similar manner.32 If Xenophon’s story about the education of Cyrus at
the court of Astyages is hold for true, we would have a confirmation of the
transfer of Assyrian elements to the Median, and later to the Persian élite.
The adoption of the most various Assyrian cultural elements by the peri-
pheral élites in general, and especially the strong Assyrian influence on the
Median and Zagros élites seem to represent a valid framework for assuming
that the “cruel and fearful” royal image adopted in the Assyrian royal eti-
quette might have been transferred to the Persians, as a product of encultura-
tion, at least since the reign of Ashurbanipal. Consequently, we might legiti-
mately state that when Ctesias described the image of the first Assyrian
kings, he was projecting back to the Assyrians a true Persian, or better
Achaemenid, court protocol – but also, and most curiously, that this was a
true Assyrian usage transmitted to the Persians.
We must honestly state, however, that this line of reasoning may prove to
be far-fetched. A “cruel and fearful” attitude of the king can be elaborated in
any cultural context, and especially if in the background there is the belief
that the political and social developments require strict discipline and prompt
action. As a matter of fact, the “cruel and fearful” image of the king might
have been elaborated at any time in the long history of the Persian empire
since Cyrus II – and especially in the turbulent period in which Ctesias was
at work. Thus, notwithstanding the fact that in recent research strong
Assyrian influences on the Persian world have been detected and singled out,
it cannot be definitively proved that the Assyrian “cruel and fearful” court
etiquette was assumed and maintained by the Persian court élites.

30 Lanfranchi 2003; Lanfranchi 1998; Liverani 1995.

31 The relevant texts (all of them being fragments of an extraordinarily long oath to be sworn
in front of the Assyrian gods and of the Assyrian king and princes) have been published in
Parpola / Watanabe 1988, as no. 6 (28–58) and no. 7 (59); for commentaries on these high
debated texts, see mainly Watanabe 1987, 6–25; Parpola / Watanabe 1988, XXIX–XXXI;
Liverani 1990; the articles quoted in fn. 30, above; and Fales 2001, 232–239.
32 Xen., Cyr., I, 3, 2–3; cf. Parpola 2003, 339–340.
48 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

Nevertheless, in the previous discussion we have clarified at least one

point. In Ctesias, the cruel punishments and the fearful images of his first
Assyrian kings function as foundations, allegedly historical but factually
mythical (according to the still valid technical definition of myth suggested
by A. Brelich33) of some specific characters of the later dominions of the
Medians and of the Persians. If similar punishments, and / or a similar royal
image are to be found in the descriptions of the Median and the Persian sov-
ereigns, they all find their first example, and consequently their, so-to-say,
legitimizing origin in what the first Assyrian kings had chosen to do in the
same contexts. It is true that Ctesias never proclaims clearly and apertis
verbis the concept that this specific Assyrian usage was transferred to the
Median and Persian empires. In the logical structure of Ctesias’ work, how-
ever, the Assyrian empire functions as a true “matrix” for the later empires;
and such “matrix” is clearly detectable when he states that the Medes and the
Persians adopted the peculiar dress invented by (the Assyrian queen)
If it is acknowledged that Ctesias considered the Assyrian empire as a
“matrix” for the later empires, we must ask how such a “matrix” was envis-
aged. The example of Semiramis’ dress seems to suggest that Ctesias
believed that there was what we might designate a “cultural continuity”
between the Assyrians, the Medes and the Persians. In other words, it seems
to suggest that he believed that the Medes and the Persians, who were
nations different from the Assyrians, simply adopted some or many Assyrian
usages and styles – a belief which curiously coincides with the modern
notion of the Assyrian enculturation discussed above. This assumption turns
out to be true at least for another example which will be discussed below. At
this point, in my opinion, we may safely admit that for Ctesias the Assyrian
empire was the “imperial matrix” at the political and institutional level,
especially because he describes the Assyrians as the inventors and the
founders of the “universal dominion over all Asia”.35
As a matter of fact, Ctesias states that before Ninos, the first Assyrian
king in his list, in Asia there were other kings whom he designates ågcÓrioi
(katà tÈn 'Asían &pÊrcon ågcÓrioi basileîv).36 This adjective may be
translated simply “local”, if ågcÓriov is given a generic meaning like “stem-
ming from the region which is mentioned above, Asia”; consequently, it
might be taken as implying that those kings were “Asian”. Such a meaning,
however, would produce an useless redundancy in Ctesias’ (or Diodor’s

33 Brelich 1966, 7–12.

34 Ct., F 1b, 6, 6 (Lenfant 2004, 30).
35 As stated in the passage (Ct., F 1b, 7, 2 [Lenfant 2004, 24]) where he attributes to Ninos
the “strong and terrible desire (deinÈn åpiqumían) to submit the whole of Asia (between
the Tanais and Nilus rivers)”.
36 Ct., F 1b, 1, 4 (Lenfant 2004, 22).
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 49

quoting Ctesias) sentence (“in Asia there were Asian kings”); consequently,
ågcÓrioi needs to be translated more accurately. The meaning of ågcÓrioi,
I believe, is basically determined by political and institutional considerations,
and the adjective must be understood as “each reigning over his own (local)
country”, “national”, plainly referring to the fact that, in Ctesias’ narration,
Ninos progressively expanded his dominion over countries which he had not
possessed previously, and reigned over them after getting a military victory.
In other words: Ctesias believed that Ninos founded the “universal empire
over all Asia”, an institutional structure which had not existed before him,
which was to survive him, and was to be consigned, with further additions,
to his dynastic successors till Sardanapalus, and later on to the Median and
the Persian kings after the fall of the Assyrian dominion. This is confirmed
by the fact that Ctesias, immediately after the notion of the ågcÓrioi kings,
proceeds to state that “there is no memory either of a famous enterprise
either of a name” of these kings, since Ninos was the first (and the only one)
to perform great deeds.37 This note clearly means that, for Ctesias, before
Ninos the status of Asia was “of low profile”, fragmented as it was in various
independent kingdoms; and that only with his enterprises Asia was raised to
a higher status of unity and stability.
If this holds true, we may conclude that Ctesias attributed the “cruel and
fearful” court etiquette and behaviour to the first Assyrian kings because he
considered them the models and the “matrixes” of the universal emperors
who would have governed the whole of Asia two centuries later. Conse-
quently, Ctesias believed that the “cruel and fearful” court etiquette was a
characteristic of the universal dominion over Asia. This concept was
probably developed taking into consideration the problem of the efficacious-
ness and productivity of the royal control over the structure which it com-
manded. And it is very plausible to submit that Ctesias believed that Ninos
could obtain and maintain the dominion over all Asia just because he
adopted a “cruel and fearful” court etiquette and behaved accordingly. We
can move a step further if we consider that the efficaciousness of the “cruel
and fearful” dominion is introduced in logical opposition to the previous
status of Asia, when the kings controlled only their own territories and Asia
was fragmented in “local” states. The conclusion is that the universal domin-
ion over all Asia needs to be managed through “cruel and fearful” court
etiquette and royal behaviour; without these attitudes, the political scenario
would unavoidably fall to the primitive, “low level” status which had
prevailed before Ninos. In sum, Ctesias clearly states that both the develop-
ment and the survival of an universal empire need cruel and fearful kings.
I would conclude this long digression stating that both Ctesias and the
truly historical Assyrian sovereigns did effectively agree in considering that

37 Ct., F 1b, 1, 4 (Lenfant 2004, 22–23).

50 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

turning the fragmented local autonomy into a larger structure managed and
controlled from a single political centre needs a certain degree of violence –
which the Assyrians illustrated in many other ways than with the court
etiquette. And consequently, they basically agreed in believing that local
autonomy is deeply rooted in the pre-political and political thinking of all
peoples, and may be cancelled only through violence.

I will discuss now another problem according to the methodology adopted

previously. It is the convincement that the Persian, and in general the
“Oriental” monarch used to keep himself detached, and in some way almost
invisible to his subjects, a convincement largely widespread among Greek
historians. Herodotus and Ctesias agree in considering that the king’s detach-
ment and invisibility were innovations introduced by individual kings on a
specific historical occasion, and were not a basic, generally “cultural”
characteristic of “Oriental” kingship per se. Herodotus and Ctesias, however,
as in many other points aptly and fully listed by Reinhold Bichler in his
communication at the 2006 meeting on Ctesias,38 disagree as regards both
the national and historical context of the innovation and the royal author of
the innovation. Herodotus attributes the reform to Deioces, the first Median
king who freed Media from the Assyrian dominion (Dhiókhv prÔtóv åsti %
katasthsámenov, mÉte åsiénai parà basiléa mhdéna, … %râsqaí te
basiléa upò mhdenóv).39 Ctesias, however, attributes the reform to the third
Assyrian king Ninyas, son of Semiramis, who “spent all time in the palace,
not being seen by anyone”.40
It should be noted that Herodotus and Ctesias strongly disagree about the
context, the purpose and the effect of the new royal status. Herodotus con-
siders the invisibility as the last stage in the long process of imposing an
united monarchy to his subjects. Deioces started this process rendering just
verdicts which credited him the nomination to kingship; then he pretended,
and was given a palace and a guard corps; then he concentrated the Medes in
one city only; then he had powerful walls built around Ecbatana; finally, he
ordered his people to live outside the walls. The reform of inaccessibility /
invisibility closes the period of consolidation and concentration, and finally
turns out in a “strengthening of his tyranny” (åkrátune ®wutòn tÅ
turannídi).41 Ctesias, however, states that Ninyas introduced the king’s
inaccessibility and invisibility not as a true “court reform”, but as an abrupt
change in the personal behaviour of his royal persona. Since he disliked (or,

38 Bichler in press; cf. also Bichler 2004.

39 Hdt., I, 99, 1.
40 Ct., F 1b, 21, 2 (Lenfant 2004, 51).
41 Hdt. I, 96–100. For an interpretation of Herodotus’ narration of Deioces’ taking of power,
see Panaino 2003 and especially the study of Meier 2004 with all other articles included in
Meier et al. 2004.
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 51

more malignantly, feared) war and danger, he closed himself in his palace in
order to enjoy only luxury and indolence, and in order to avoid any kind of
suffering.42 As it is clear, Herodotus takes into account a conscious attempt
to strengthen the royal institution, but Ctesias puts forward the development
of a moral quality in the royal persona.
Both historians consider and describe the royal inaccessibility and
invisibility negatively. Herodotus states that through personal inaccessibility
and invisibility Deioces finally obtained a strong dominion, which Herodotus
designates “tyranny”.43 Clearly, such term must be understood in its negative
connotation. At the beginning of the story of Deioces, Herodotus states that,
after having been liberated from the Assyrians, the Medes and the other
Asian peoples in the end aÝtiv åv turannídav periÊlqon, “fell again under
tyranny”,44 thus suggesting that they turned to the same situation which
prevailed under the Assyrian rule. As for Ctesias, the king who closes
himself in the palace is depicted as substantially vicious and coward (he lives
among women); the final result is a long period of military inactivity (albeit
interrupted by a single war episode under king Teutamos45). Finally, both
agree in considering that inaccessibility and invisibility were aimed at con-
cealing the splendour and the richness of the palace and of the royal way of
life.46 They disagree, however, in interpreting the purpose of hiding royal
splendour and richness. Herodotus states that Deioces had two objectives.
First, he aimed at avoiding that the Median aristocrats, who were peer to him
in age and nobility, might become hostile (i.e., revolt against his own
tyranny) if only they might see him.47 Second, he aimed at convincing his
peers that he was of a different nature (®teroîov) than theirs.48 Ctesias, how-
ever, states that Ninyas did not want his subjects to get angry when seeing
his luxurious and lazy life, a fact which is confirmed later by the indignation
of Arbakes when he could directly see the court life of Sardanapalus.49 The
attempt to inspire the belief in a different nature of the king is present also in
Ctesias, but it seems to be introduced as a consequence of his invisibility,
and not as the primary purpose of Ninyas. Ctesias actually states that only at
the end of the process of self-hiding all his subjects considered him as a “god

42 Ct., F 1b, 21, 2 (Lenfant 2004, 51).

43 Hdt., II, 100, 1.
44 Hdt., I, 96,1.
45 Teutamos’ episode: Ct., F 1b, 22, 2–3 (Lenfant 2004, 58).
46 Hdt., I, 99, 2 (Deioces aims especially at avoiding that his peers may see him and get
angry at his sight). Ct., F1b, 21 7 (Lenfant 2004, 52).
47 Hdt., I, 99, 2.
48 Hdt., I, 99, 2.
49 Ct., F 1b, 21, 7 (Lenfant 2004, 52); for Sardanapalus’ luxurious life, F 1b, 24, 4 (Lenfant
2004, 56).
52 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

not seen”.50 Consequently, Herodotus believes that inaccessibility and invisi-

bility are substantially directed towards the élites of the Median empire;
Ctesias, however, is convinced that the pattern factually ultimately solicits
the divinization of the king by all his subjects. In conclusion: for Herodotus,
inaccessibility and invisibility affect mainly the élite, for Ctesias, their
effects are universal.
Very probably, Herodotus and Ctesias attributed to different kings the
“invention” of royal inaccessibility and invisibility because they had
different opinions about the “matrix” of the Persian royal etiquette. For
Herodotus, the “matrix” was Media, since he states that the court etiquette
was originally (“first”, prÔtov) shaped by Deioces, the first Median king.51
For Ctesias, the “matrix” was Assyria, since he states that Ninyas was the
first king to seclude himself from his subjects.52 In general, we may note that
Ctesias tends to attribute to the Assyrians many elements of the contem-
porary physical and human landscape. Ninos founded the first metropolis in
Asia, not to be easily equalled later;53 Semiramis invented the dress which
was adopted by Medians and Persians;54 Semiramis built the “small hills”
which she used as her seat in the military camp during her military cam-
paigns.55 So, we may conclude that in general Ctesias “corrects” Herodotus
(according to Bichler’s suggestion) when he states that many traits of the
royal protocol and behaviour at the Achaemenid court had originated from
the Assyrian culture and royalty. Further, it may be noted that, as elsewhere
in Ctesias’ work, Babylonia and the (truly historical) Neo-Babylonian empire
are drastically excluded from any stage or episode of the process of estab-
lishing the universal power of Assyria. Thus, for Ctesias there is a direct
continuity from Assyria (the “matrix”) to Persia, no other Mesopotamian cul-
ture and / or power being taken into consideration. Furthermore, in the chain
of transmission of the imperial culture envisaged by Ctesias, the Medes have
no creative part at all, since at the end they are merely depicted as (neutral
and passive) intermediaries between the Assyrians and the Persians.
We can reasonably conclude that the descriptions given by Herodotus and
by Ctesias of the invention and of the first shaping of royal inaccessibility or
invisibility are the exemplary models of the etiquette that they believed, or
pretended to be current at the Persian (or better “Oriental”) court. Either of
Median or of Assyrian origin, this was the character which they wished to
stress in their picture of the royal court etiquette in Persia. We may now
proceed to investigate whether these exemplary models can be traced back to

50 Ct., F 1b, 21, 7 (Lenfant 2004, 52).

51 Hdt., I, 99, 1 (see fn. 39, above).
52 Ct., F 1b, 21, 2 (Lenfant 2004, 51); see fn. 42, above.
53 Ct., F 1b, 3, 1 (Lenfant 2004, 25).
54 Ct., F 1b, 6, 6 (Lenfant 2004, 30).
55 Ct., F 1b, 14, 1 and 2 (Lenfant 2004, 40).
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 53

the court etiquette which was current in Assyria during the Neo-Assyrian
empire. Preliminarily, however, we must acknowledge that Herodotus must
be treated differently than Ctesias. Herodotus, as seen, points to a Median
origin of the model: consequently, we may proceed to the comparison with
the Assyrian practice only taking into account that he might have
unconsciously reproduced an Assyrian practice as reflected in what he con-
sidered to be a Median model. In other words, for Herodotus the comparison
cannot be taken as a measure of his historical reliability as regards the
Assyrian history.
I shall quote here only few Assyrian documents concerning the etiquette
of the approach to the Assyrian king at court. On the one hand, there is a
good number of Neo-Assyrian letters dealing with court life. In some of
them, it is clearly attested that the highest Assyrian officials could reside at
court, and could have direct interaction with the king in many occasions.
Two high officials write to the king quoting a letter of his: “As to what the
king my lord wrote to us: ‘While you were there, I (personally) gave you this
order’”:56 this clearly shows that the king could give direct orders to an
official in a personal dialogue. An important provincial governor invokes
protection from the chief eunuch, since the accusations of some slanderers
have forced him to interrupt his frequentation of the court.57 Another official
writes to the king imploring to be given the honour and the pleasure to
contemplate his face: “(O king my lord), let me again behold that beautiful
face of yours!”58 Apart from the rhetorical flattery in extolling the king’s
physical beauty, especially as regards his face, which is a typical etiquette
topos in the Neo-Assyrian correspondence of the officials with the king,59 it
is clear that this official can even dare to ask to see the king in person. On
the other hand, we have the official iconography of the numerous sculptured
reliefs adorning the Assyrian palaces. Here the king is often depicted
together with persons who, for their rich and ceremonial dress, must have
been high court officials; although not easily identifiable as regards their
dignities, they usually surround him in an extremely dignified attitude, not to
be attributed to simple court employees, servants or slaves.60 Further, in

56 Mattila 2000, 166 (ad SAA 1, no. 98).

57 Mattila 2000, 166 (ad SAA 17, no. 53).
58 Letter ABL 474+, 17–18, according to the translation given in Parpola 1983, 208, ad LAS
213, rev. 2.
59 For the flattering etiquette almost universally adopted in the correspondence between the
Assyrian officials and their king, see mainly Fales 2001, 116–133, with bibliography; for
the specific rhetorical topos which has the officials presented as compliant servants of the
king, see Ponchia 1989. For the topos of the “beautiful face” of the king, so frequently
attested in Neo-Assyrian court correspondence, see Parpola 1983, loc. cit., with many
60 E.g., Matthiae 1996, Pls. 2.7 (Ashurnasirpal II); 5.1, 5.5 (Sargon II).
54 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

some famous depictions of the construction of the royal palace in Nineveh,

king Sennacherib is shown as personally governing the transportation and
the erection of the huge bull-colossi: he stands on his chariot, and he directly
faces a large number of workers guided by their leaders.61 These few exam-
ples among the many others attested in the texts clearly show that according
to the Assyrian court etiquette both the high officials and the common
citizens were allowed to see the king, and that officials could have direct
contact with the king. As is clear, this is nothing else than the protocol com-
mon to any kind of court; the contact with the king is obviously restricted,
but it is allowed to officials in proportion to their dignities and / or degrees.
The “Median” model of Herodotus, in which the king aims at being
inaccessible and invisible to the members of the social élite, does not agree
with the Assyrian etiquette, and does not agree with what we would expect
from any court. The Assyrian model of Ctesias, in which the king is inacces-
sible and invisible to common people, may appear more likely at first sight.
Ctesias, however, states that Ninyas spent his life in the palace &p' oédenòv
èrÓmenov plÈn tÔn pallakídwn kaì tÔn perì aétòn eénoúcwn, “not
seen by anyone except his concubines and the eunuchs who were around
him”.62 Now, concubines – whatever the meaning attributed to this term,
either second class wives of royal or noble origin, or mere lovers of the king
– and especially eunuchs cannot be taken so as to represent the members of
aristocracy; in Ctesias, it is clear that the social level of these categories does
not coincide with that of the other officials, dignitaries and courtesans he
mentions. This obviously seems to imply that Ctesias too believed that, with
Ninyas and after him, the Assyrian nobility could not have direct access to
the king; and from this point of view his description does not correspond to
the Assyrian etiquette, as for Herodotus. It must be stressed that, for Ctesias,
this peculiar custom was introduced by Ninyas as an abrupt change in the
court protocol. This is not only clear from the wording of his narration, but
also from his statement that in the times of Ninos a group of magnates
formed what he calls the basilikòn sunédrion, “royal council”:63 we would
reasonably expect that Ctesias believed that such council required a direct
contact between the king and his councillors. We may conclude that the
models put forward by Herodotus and by Ctesias are very similar as regards
the social targets of the reform which introduced inaccessibility and invisibi-
lity. The “Oriental” king who introduced this custom aimed at being sepa-
rated from the nobility; in the “Median” model of Herodotus, this seems the
only aim of Deioces; in Ctesias, Ninyas wished to be secluded from the
whole population of the empire.

61 Matthiae 1996, Pls. 8.9, 8.11.

62 Ct., F 1b, 21, 2 (Lenfant 2004, 51).
63 Ct., F 1b, 5, 1 (Lenfant 2004, 28).
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 55

It is now time to discuss whether some memory of the Assyrian empire

helped Herodotus and Ctesias in constructing these models. For this purpose,
it is first necessary to single out the ideological aspects which pre-condi-
tioned the narrations of both historians as regards their approach to the
“Oriental” universal dominion personified by the Achaemenid kings. It is
clear that both Herodotus and Ctesias overcharged a reasonable pattern of
restricted accessibility and partial visibility of the king which is at work in
any royal court. The “Median” model of royal inaccessibility and invisibility
to the members of the élite of Herodotus is ideologically pre-conditioned by
his notion of the “Oriental” imperial power. Herodotus aims at demonstrating
that such power is always subject to institutional instability because there is
no unquestionable entitlement for being or for becoming king. Actually, the
companions and peers of Deioces might have realized that they too were
entitled to kingship only if had they adopted the stratagems of Deioces. Here,
Herodotus is silently suggesting that in democracy the entitlement comes
from the common will of the people.64
Ctesias, on the other hand, presents the Assyrian king closed in his palace
together with concubines and eunuchs because Ninyas consciously predicted
what we today would call “social envy”. Common people and aristocrats
were not allowed to see Ninyas because they should not have understood that
he was totally dedicated to enjoying the richness accumulated by his parents
Ninos and Semiramis. Further, Ninyas was feared by his subjects (pròv …
tòn katà tÔn ärcoménwn ginómenon fóbon, “for … the fear of his subjects
that he developed”).65 Ctesias does not introduce for Ninyas any moral
problem as regards his life style, since he does not attribute to him the
various perversions which he attributes to Sardanapalus. He simply depicts
Ninyas as an egoistic man who does not want to share his richness with
others: Ninyas is conscious that he may be hated for his richness, and conse-
quently fears those who may hate him. This is confirmed by another element
in Ctesias’ narration. Although Ctesias states that Ninyas kept his empire
eçrhnikÔv, “in peace”,66 curiously he neither develops further this statement,
nor attributes to the peaceful attitude of Ninyas that positive value we would
expect to be stressed when comparing peace against war. Admittedly, this is
clearly an argumentum e silentio; nevertheless, we may deduce that, for
Ctesias, peace may generate or develop the king’s egoism, and consequently
may induce him to seek isolation from his subjects, while war may develop
in him positive attitudes such as generosity and communion with his subjects
– according to a well-known pattern which is widely accepted anywhere and

64 Cf. Walter 2004, an important study on Herodutus’ ideas and concepts about the origin of
monarchy expressed in the story of Deioces.
65 Ct., F1b, 21, 3 (Lenfant 2004, 51).
66 Ct., F1b, 21, 1 (Lenfant 2004, 51).
56 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

at any time, “sacrifices and suffering make man better”. We may conclude
that Ctesias uses his Assyrian model of the inaccessibility and invisibility of
the king for depicting the “Oriental” king as deeply egoistic, his rule as
substantially hated by his subjects and therefore always subject to potential
threats, and his attitude towards his subjects as basically oppressive. As it
seems, we have come back to the conclusions put forward at the end of the
first part of this paper: for Ctesias, and for Herodotus too, the universal
dominion is basically unstable, because the products of its development gen-
erate conditions of social disaffection and of unbalanced relations between
the sovereign and his subjects.
Once we have singled out the ideological pre-conditions to the models of
both historians, we may proceed to ask whether some memory of the
Assyrian court life, and of what kind, might have been inspired the models
they developed. As for Herodotus, his attribution of the innovation to the
first Median king prevents a clear response. As for Ctesias, we have seen that
in the memory of the Assyrian empire the Assyrian kings after Semiramis
were depicted as true tyrants, who oppressed their subjects because of their
egoism and of their search for lust, to the point of fearing them and of
secluding themselves from them. From the point of view of ideology, this
kind of memory is clearly negative. It is true that Ninos and Semiramis are
excluded from this negativity – for Ctesias, they did not seclude themselves;
but it is also clear that the overwhelming majority of the Assyrian kings,
from Ninyas to Sardanapalus (thirty generations according to him67), is
included. We may thus ask whether the memory of the Assyrian court
protocol current at the Achaemenid court in the times of Ctesias might have
had such ideologically negative connotation.
I have recently suggested that the Persian dynasts appropriated the preten-
sion to universal dominion which had been developed during the Assyrian
empire.68 This phenomenon is clearly at work already with Cyrus, who
attributed himself the universalistic epithets of the Assyrian kings, which had
been claimed also by Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.69 On the other
hand, it seems that the Achaemenids tended to depict negatively the
Babylonian dominion, and positively the Assyrian dominion, as if the latter
might have been an ideological counterbalance to the pretensions of the
various rebels who claimed to be the descendants of the Babylonian dynasts.
On these premises, we may assume that the Achaemenids could not consider
negatively the Assyrian dominion as a whole, for the simple reason that they

67 Ct., F1b, 21, 8 (Lenfant 2004, 52–53).

68 Lanfranchi in press.
69 For the universalistic titles of Assyrian origin assumed by Nabonidus, see Schaudig 2001,
17. For Cyrus’ titles and epithets derived not only from Nabonidus’ titulary in his most
late inscriptions, but particularly from the titulary of Ashurbanipal, especially of his
Babylonian inscriptions, see Schaudig 2001, 27, and especially Harmatta 1971.
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 57

claimed to be its legitimate heir. Consequently, we should also assume that

they could not consider negatively the origin of a protocol which they
themselves were following in the times of Ctesias – a protocol of restricted
access to the king which, I repeat, is not originally Persian but is common to
any other royal court. In the end, we are forced to admit that the negative
judgment on the origins of the royal inaccessibility and invisibility protocol
was exclusively a Greek attitude; and that both Herodotus, with his
“Median” model, and Ctesias elaborated their narrations according to this
common ideological pattern, aiming at depicting the Persian kings as
oppresssive tyrants.
It remains to be questioned whether the attribution to an Assyrian king of
the origin of the restricted royal accessibility suggested by Ctesias was
originally a Persian attribution. This would obviously imply that, at least as
regards the Assyrians, until the times of Ctesias the Persians had preserved a
conscious memory of the true Assyrian court protocol. All this is possible,
since it accords well with the fact that the Persian kings adopted the Assyrian
claim to universal dominion together with some specific patterns of the ideo-
logical representation of the dominion itself, like the royal epithets of
Assyrian origin. In this way, we are finally left in a dilemma about the Greek
doctor: did he borrow the idea of an Assyrian origin of the protocol directly
from the Persians or did he elaborate a notion which was already widespread
in the Greek culture? In this respect, the fact that Ctesias “corrected”
Herodotus seems to favour the first hypothesis; and this might favour, albeit
admittedly faintly, the hypothesis that in the times of Ctesias the Persians
attributed to the Assyrians the introduction of the restricted accessibility
court protocol.
Upon these premises, we may discuss a last, however important problem.
In his description of the self-seclusion of Ninyas, Ctesias states that the result
was that all his subjects respected him kaqáper dè qeòn äóraton, “like a
god not seen”.70 It is not clear whether Herodotus too has in mind this same
concept when he states that Deioces wished to appear ®teroîov, “of a dif-
ferent nature”, in respect to his peers.71 In fact, he may not necessarily refer
to the divine status, but only to the superior intellectual and political qualities
which he attributes to Deioces during the progression of his royal career. The
uncertainty about Herodotus notwithstanding, it is clear that the conception,
or a common belief of a divine nature of the king cannot have had its origins
in Persia. As we all know well, the Persian king decidedly is, and is repre-
sented as of human nature, and there is no space in the religious beliefs of
the Persians for a possible divine nature of the king. Thus, such image may
simply be a metaphor forged by Ctesias (and perhaps by Herodotus too) for

70 Ct., F1b, 21, 7 (Lenfant 2004, 52).

71 Hdt., I, 99, 2.
58 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

strengthening the negativity either of the “Oriental” king, who would have
pretended to be like a god, or even of the “Oriental peoples”, who would
have been prone to believe in the divine nature of the king.
This statement, however, seems to agree with a tendency which can be
observed in the development of the royal image in the Neo-Assyrian docu-
ments of the latest period. At the beginning of the VIIth century, king Esar-
haddon is equated to gods and mythical persons such as the primeval sage
Adapa both in the official correspondence and in the royal inscriptions. A
court scholar writes to Esarhaddon: “the king, lord of all countries, is the
image of the Sun-god (Šamaš)”;72 another scholar insists: “what the king lord
said is as perfect as (the word) of a god”,73 and a third one confirms: “the
king is the perfect image of a god”.74 What at first sight may appear a flattery
typical of the royal correspondence, however, has a good official counterpart
in a royal inscription of the same king: “I, Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, …
conceived in my mind plans as clever as those of the sage Adapa”.75 Excep-
tionally, also Esarhaddon’s mother, the mother queen Naqi’a, is compared by
a courtesan to the mythical sage Adapa.76 In the first half of the VIIth century
Assurbanipal, Esarhaddon’s successor and son, is not only compared to a god
in the correspondence, but is insistently depicted as having been chosen and
raised by the gods in his royal inscriptions and in the prophetical speeches
addressed to him in the name of the goddess Ištar. In a letter, a court scholar
addresses him in this way: “the father of the king my lord was the very
image of the god BƝl (= Marduk), and the king my lord is likewise the very
image of BƝl”.77 In a large set of his royal inscriptions, Assurbanipal depicts
himself as god-raised since his birth: “I knew no father or mother, and I grew
up in the lap of my goddesses”.78 Finally, an ecstatic prophetess speaking in
name of the goddess Ištar addresses him in a tender motherly attitude: “I am
your father and mother, I raised you between my wings”.79
In general, today it seems widely acknowledged that, when the Assyrian
empire reached its largest dimensions especially with the conquests of Esar-
haddon and Assurbanipal, a tendency developed to elevate the status of the
Assyrian king, extolling his special relationship with the divine world and

72 SAA 10, no. 196 (LAS 143), rev. 4–5; commentary in LAS 2, 130.
73 SAA 10, no. 191 (LAS 144), rev. 6–7; commentary in LAS 2, 112.
74 SAA 10, no. 207 (LAS 145), rev. 12–13; commentary in LAS 2, 112 and 132.
75 Borger 1956, 34, 45ff.: commentary in LAS 2, 219. There is a good parallel in a letter
addressed to Esarhaddon: SAA 10, no. 380 (LAS 229), 3’–4’: “the deeds of the king [my
lord] are like those (of the sage) Adapa”, cf. LAS 2, 219 with a commentary on all the
attestations of this topos.
76 “The mother of the king is as able as (the sage) Adapa”, SAA 10, no. 244 (LAS 184), rev.
7: commentary in LAS 2, 176.
77 SAA 10, no. 228 (LAS 125), 18–19, commentary in LAS 2, 112.
78 Parpola 1997, XL for all relevant texts.
79 Parpola 1997, 18, text no. 2.5, line 26’.
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 59

especially with the gods Aššur and Mullissu (corresponding to the Mesopo-
tamian Ištar). In various kinds of texts, a special accent was given to the
concept that the king was an exceptional human creature, chosen, nourished,
raised and educated directly by the gods, especially by Mullissu in her
motherly aspect.80 It must be stated that the pattern of the divine-chosen and
divine-raised king was not stressed so insistently in the royal inscriptions of
the Assyrian kings before Esarhaddon; instead, it seems that this was a
development of the late imperial period. The reasons for this development
are certainly circumstantial, but especially social and cultural. On the one
hand, it was the effect of the special devotion of the latest Assyrian kings to
the goddess Ištar (Assyrian Mullissu), which is also attested by the fact that
Sennacherib moved his court to Nineveh, the seat of an old-aged temple of
that goddess. On the other hand, it has been stressed that the elevation of the
Assyrian king to a higher, quasi-superhuman level was an unavoidable
reaction of the imperial ruling class to the social turmoil provoked by the
enormous expansion of the Assyrian empire.81 The incorporation in a short
span of time of the whole territory of the Near East, from the Mediterranean
to the Zagros, although favoured by large sectors of the social élites,
nevertheless produced a series of anxieties and oppositions, at the political,
social, cultural and religious level. The attribution to the king of superhuman
capacities and powers was probably consciously envisaged, or unconsciously
felt, as one of the instruments for diffusing and for strengthening the trust in
the governing élite and in the current political trend. If the Assyrian king is
wise like the primeval sage, and is basically a divine-raised man, the troubles
and the pains generated by the imperial expansion may be released and
appeased, and the political developments may be justified and approved.
Considering this evidence, it seems to me that the concept of a divine
nature of the king, or alternatively the common belief in a divine nature of
the king put forward by Ctesias as regards Ninyas (and possibly by
Herodotus for his Median model of the Persian king), represents a fragment
of the memory of the Assyrian empire rather than a mere metaphor. Three
facts converge in supporting this suggestion. First, both Herodotus and
Ctesias push back the origin of the protocol of royal restricted accessibility
to a period which preceded the Persian dominion. Second, Ctesias, although
“correcting” Herodotus as he does elsewhere, moves the origin to the
Assyrian period, the period in which this development took place effectively.
Third, and especially, Ctesias considers and presents it as a consequence of
the achievement of the universal dominion, exactly like it is historically
attested for kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal. I think that this convergence
cannot be attributed to a series of fortuitous coincidences; but rather, that it

80 Parpola 1997, XXXVI–XLIV.

81 Fales / Lanfranchi 1997.
60 Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

represents the surfacing of an intact, although fragmentary memory of the

last developments of the Assyrian self-presentation of the king both in the
court protocol and in the texts. The pushing back of the protocol to a period
before the Achaemenids, shared by Herodotus and by Ctesias, may be inter-
preted both as an attempt to depict a negative image per se of the “Oriental
kingship”, and as a conscious acknowledgement that in the Achaemenid
royal ideology the king was considered exclusively of human nature.
In conclusion, I am inclined to believe that, in their descriptions of the
origins of the restricted royal accessibility protocol at the “Oriental” court,
both Herodotus and Ctesias, albeit in different ways and through different
historical patterns, quoted and commented “fragments” of the memory of the
Assyrian royal ideology which was developed during the final phase of the
Assyrian empire. This memory might have been preserved and elaborated
either at the Achaemenid court, or in Mesopotamian context, or in the
western regions of the Persian empire, or even in the very Greek world,
according to the patterns I have already pointed out some time ago.82 If this
memory came to Ctesias (and / or to Herodotus, albeit through a different
historical framing) from some Persian source of whatever kind, it cannot be
excluded that it may have already had a negative connotation as regards the
pretensions of the last Assyrian kings to be depicted as god-nourished and
god-raised, which deeply contrasted the Persian religious belief and the
Achaemenid royal ideology.

82 Lanfranchi in press.
Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court 61

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