In 705, Sargon II was killed in battle and his body was never recovered. Amid the tragedy and apparently without opposition, his eldest living son and designated successor ascended the throne of Assyria on the twelfth of Abu (V).[1] Sennacherib, whose name means "The god Sîn has replaced the brothers" (Akk. Sîn-aḫḫē-erība) and who was about forty years old at the time, was well suited for the task, as his father Sargon had conferred on him numerous important military and administrative duties soon after he had become king in 722.[2] His on-the-job training, which may have been supervised by a man called Ḫunnî, served him well during his twenty-four-year reign (704–681), both at home and on the battlefield. He personally led the Assyrian army on campaign no fewer than ten times and sponsored large-scale building projects in several Assyrian cities, Aššur, Nineveh, and Tarbiṣu in particular. His name and deeds, as recorded in his own words, as well as in later foreign sources, were never forgotten; Sennacherib was remembered long after his death for besieging the Judean capital Jerusalem, an event described in the Bible (2 Kings 18:13–19:36 and 2 Chronicles 32:1–22) and for destroying Babylon and its revered temples.[3] His fame (or infamy) revived when European explorers began uncovering the ruins of Assyrian royal cities in the mid-nineteenth century. Of the late Neo-Assyrian kings mentioned in the Bible and classical sources, Sennacherib is probably the best known.

Sources for Sennacherib's reign are both abundant and informative. Royal inscriptions provide the bulk of the information about his successes both on the battlefield and at home, where he sponsored major building enterprises. Royal rhetoric, which does not always accurately record historical reality, is supplemented by chronographic texts (the so-called Babylonian Chronicle and Eponym Chronicle), letters, astrological reports, legal and administrative documents, and grants, as well as by numerous bas reliefs sculpted on orthostats that lined the interior walls of his ornately decorated palace at Nineveh. The Bible and some classical sources (e.g., Berossus, Babyloniaca; Herodotus, Hist.; and Josephus, Ant. Jud.) also provide insight into his reign.


1 The fact that the Assyrians were not able to recover Sargon's body and that Sennacherib was not able to hold a funeral for his father as tradition prescribed was regarded as highly inauspicious. The so-called "Sin of Sargon" text (Livingstone, SAA 3 no. 33), probably written during the reign of Sennacherib's immediate successor Esarhaddon, reports that Sennacherib investigated the nature of his father's alleged sin; for a recent study, see Weaver, Iraq 66 (2004) pp. 61–66. E. Frahm (JCS 51 [1999] pp. 73–90) has suggested that the Assyrian scholar Nabû-zuqup-kēnu may have studied the passage about the spirits of the deceased in Gilgamesh Tablet XII in order to elucidate the consequences of Sargon II's death. He proposes also that Sennacherib immediately transferred the royal court to Nineveh since the newly enthroned king may have feared that his father's unburied ghost was still present at Dūr-Šarrukīn (mod. Khorsabad) and that his renovations of the temple of the god Nergal at Tarbiṣu at the very beginning of his reign were inspired by Sargon's ill fate.

2 For information on Sennacherib's name, his family background, and his responsibilities during his father's reign (including the relevant source material), see in particular Frahm, PNA 3/1 pp. 1113–1118 sub Sīn-aḫḫē-erība I–II.3b-1'; and Frahm, RLA 12/1–2 (2009) pp. 12–14 §§1–4. The name Sîn-aḫḫē-erība implies that he was not Sargon II's firstborn son; his elder brothers, it appears, had all died by the time of his birth. Because his eldest son Aššur-nādin-šumi was old enough to become king of Babylon in 700, S. Parpola (LAS 2 p. 231 n. 390) and E. Frahm (PNA 3/1 p. 1113 I.1) suggest that Sennacherib was born around 745. The identity of Sennacherib's mother is unknown, but it has been suggested that she may have been Sargon's wife Atalia.

Sennacherib's name appears as snḥr(y)b in the Bible (2 Kings 18:13 and 19:20); s/šnḥ(ʾ)r(y)b in Aramaic sources (including Ahiqar); Σεν(ν)αχηριμ in the Septuagint; Σαναχαριβοϛ in Herodotus (Hist. 2, 141); and Wsḫ-rn=f in Demotic sources. For other Greek and Latin forms of his name, see Weissbach in Wissowa, Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Zweite Reihe 1/2 col. 2271; that publication does not collect the many different writings of the name which derive from Hebrew and Greek transcriptions of Sennacherib. A document from Nineveh written ca. 670 (83-1-18,231) seems to imply that giving the name of the former king Sennacherib (or that of Ashurbanipal, who was at that time either the ruling king or heir designate) to a commoner was considered taboo, a sacrilege punishable by the river ordeal; see Kataja, SAAB 1 (1987) pp. 65–68.

3 For a study of sources referring to Sennacherib from the reign of his son and successor Esarhaddon to the twentieth century, see Frahm, Sanherib pp. 21–28.

A. Kirk Grayson & Jamie Novotny

A. Kirk Grayson & Jamie Novotny, 'Introduction', RINAP 3: Sennacherib, The RINAP 3 sub-project of the RINAP Project, 2019 []

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