Esarhaddon is one of the best attested ancient Assyrian kings; a large and diverse corpus of his own inscriptions and numerous other cuneiform documents, as well as the Old Testament (Ezra 4:2) and a few classical sources, provide evidence on his reign. He was the third king of the Sargonid dynasty (721–612 BC), the last ruling family of the Assyrian empire. There is a substantial body of circumstantial evidence which leads me to believe that the Sargonid kings were ethnic Arameans and their tribal homelands were in or near the city of Ḫarrān in northwestern Mesopotamia.[1] The founder of the dynasty, Sargon II, was a military man and it is generally assumed that he was a usurper since his name means "the king is legitimate,"[2] although in one inscription on a glazed wall plaque he claims to be the son of Tiglath-pileser III; he gives us no genealogy in his other inscriptions. This would make him the brother or half-brother of his immediate predecessor, Shalmaneser V. If the common assumption that he was a usurper is correct, then Sargon had not been designated as successor by Shalmaneser V, but had seized the throne from him or upon his death. The wall plaque inscription could have been a true genealogic statement or an attempt to legitimize his rule. Sargon and his successors, while possibly ethnic Arameans, nevertheless assumed the legacy of their predecessors, the Assyrians. They conducted their business in Akkadian, the language of the Assyrians, took Akkadian throne names, and ruled from the old Assyrian capitals of Aššur (modern Qalʿat Šarqāt) and Kalḫu (modern Nimrud, biblical Calah), and then later from Dūr-Šarrukīn (modern Khorsabad) and Nineveh. They also adopted Assyrian religion, culture and history as their own and proclaimed themselves as the rightful successors and heirs of the ancient Assyrians and their imperial legacy.

Sargon II (721–705 BC), Esarhaddon's grandfather, was killed in battle in 705 BC, likely against the Cimmerians in Anatolia. His body was never recovered and this left a nagging feeling of guilt in his successors that manifested itself in a composition generally titled "The Sin of Sargon." This text was probably composed during the reign of Esarhaddon, but it is not included here as it is not really a royal inscription. It has been treated fully by H. Tadmor, B. Landsberger and S. Parpola in SAAB 3 (1989) pp. 3–51, and appears in Livingstone, SAA 3 as text no. 33. Sargon II was succeeded by his adult son Sennacherib (704–681 BC).

Sennacherib ("The god Sîn has replaced the brothers") inherited several problems from his father, the worst of which was the fact that many Babylonians conspired with the Elamites to destabilize Assyrian control of southern Mesopotamia. Sennacherib tried several different approaches to pacify that area and bring it under his control, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, in 700 BC, Sennacherib tried to solve the problem by installing Aššur-nādin-šumi ("The god Aššur is giver of a name"), his eldest son and designated successor, as king on the Babylonian throne. This solution worked for six years, but in 694 BC Sennacherib tried to stop Elamite meddling in Babylonia permanently by launching an amphibious invasion from the Persian Gulf. The Elamites counter-attacked by land and seized northern Babylonia. At that point some Babylonians captured Aššur-nādin-šumi and turned him over to the Elamites, who took him back to Elam and presumably executed him. Sennacherib took his revenge in 689 BC with a brutal attack on Babylon; he drove out the populace, destroyed the city and even cut watercourses through the devastated site to destroy any remnants of the city that he might have missed.

Possibly late in the reign of his father (Sargon), Sennacherib added another wife to his harem. Her name was Naqīʾa ("Pure") in Aramaic and she appears in the ancient sources under that name or as Zakūtu, which is simply its Akkadian translation. Naqīʾa must have been an exceptional lady since she seems to have been extremely influential in palace politics during the reigns of Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. It is safe to say that Sennacherib was deeply devoted to Naqīʾa and this devotion was not tempered when she presented him with a bundle of joy, his youngest son, whom they named Esarhaddon ("The god Aššur has given a brother"). It seems likely that this was the only son that Naqīʾa bore Sennacherib. I know virtually nothing about the raising of Esarhaddon and assume that Assyrian harems operated in the same, or in a similar, manner as in other societies. If so, then Esarhaddon spent his early years in the harem with his mother and lived with the men of his family after he reached sexual maturity. Esarhaddon may have been born with some sort of genetic disorder that left him frequently ill and in and out of remission. There has been a great deal of speculation as to the nature of his indisposition (see Frame, Babylonia p. 92) but the symptoms that we are given are ambiguous and a definite diagnosis certainly eludes us. Esarhaddon felt cursed by this disease and it probably was at least partially responsible for the treatise "The Sin of Sargon." We are fortunate enough to get a glimpse into Esarhaddon's personality through his letters, queries to the gods, omen reports and other types of non-royally commissioned texts that have survived. He suffered from anxiety and insecurity and he frequently pleaded with the gods to tell him what sins he had committed and why these things were being done to him. He was also a little paranoid because of the murder of his father and his shaky and frightening ascent to the throne. At least once while he was king he sensed an impending rebellion and reacted by purging his nobles.

The Sargonids had no strict laws of succession. Sitting monarchs designated successors, usually from among their sons, and named them as crown princes, installed them in the House of Succession with elaborate rituals, and exacted oaths from their cohorts to honor the selection after the monarch's death.

In 689 BC after Esarhaddon's eldest half-brother, Aššur-nādin-šumi, was taken from Babylon and likely executed by the Elamites, Esarhaddon was selected as crown prince and installed in the House of Succession. At that time, Esarhaddon was given a new name to fit his new position as crown prince: Aššur-etel-ilāni-mukīn-apli ("The god Aššur, prince of the gods, is the confirmer of an heir"). A few of Esarhaddon's inscriptions use this name instead of Aššur-aḫu-iddina (texts nos. 13 and 74–75). Since Esarhaddon was the youngest of his half-brothers, his designation did not go down well with his siblings. By 681 BC familial discontent had reached the point that Esarhaddon was endangered and he felt it necessary to take refuge in the West, possibly with his mother's relatives in or near Ḫarrān. This self-imposed exile created either a sense of futility and panic in his brothers, or an opportunity for them to act, and they plotted to seize the throne. On the twentieth day of the tenth month of 681 BC, Sennacherib was assassinated by one or more of his sons. One of the assassins was most likely Esarhaddon's elder brother Urad-Mullissu, and Esarhaddon had to fight his way to the throne. He marched from his exile in the West through the bitter cold of the mountains until he met his brother's army that had been sent to stop him, but just as with Napoleon on his return from Elba, the usurper's army quickly went over to the side of Esarhaddon, who then marched with full strength on to Aššur. In the twelfth month of 681 BC Esarhaddon ascended the throne in Aššur.

Esarhaddon ruled from 680 until 669 BC. He was active militarily and as a builder of public works. With the exception of the texts on two partially preserved prisms (texts nos. 6 and 8) and a fragmentary clay tablet (text no. 34) from Nineveh, Esarhaddon's royal inscriptions are not arranged chronologically so our order of events is based on information in Mesopotamian chronicles. In the South, Esarhaddon fought with Aramean tribes and the Elamites in two campaigns and he engaged himself in extensive building activity in Babylonia (see below for details). In the West, he conducted a campaign in Arabia and put down a rebellion in Sidon. He also claims to have received tribute from several kings of Cyprus. A second rebellion, this time in Tyre, may have prompted Esarhaddon to launch a successful invasion of Egypt in 671 BC, but he could not hold it and died in 669 BC, on his way to invade Egypt a second time. Esarhaddon also undertook the rebuilding of a temple in Ḫarrān, possibly in gratitude for his hospitable treatment while in exile. In the North, he fought the Cimmerians and, in his eighth year (673 BC), he invaded the land Šubria in order to capture or kill the brothers who had assassinated his father and had taken refuge there. Shortly after this successful campaign, which rid Esarhaddon of the last pretenders to his throne, he convened a grand assembly, declared his successors — Ashurbanipal ("The god Aššur is the creator of an heir"), a younger son, as king of Assyria, and Šamaš-šuma-ukīn ("The god Šamaš made firm the name"), his eldest son, as king of Babylonia — and made his family, people, and vassals swear oaths to uphold this succession plan. This elaborate ceremony was backed by writing a treaty with each vassal, thus confirming the designation of the pair's succession. There is evidence that the two princes were Naqīʾa's favorite grandsons. These treaties and others of Esarhaddon are not included in this volume as they are well treated in Parpola and Watanabe, SAA 2. In the East, Esarhaddon conducted another campaign against the Medes in eastern Iran.


1 See E.V. Leichty, "Esarhaddon's Exile: Some Speculative History" in Studies Biggs pp. 189–191.

2 But note Frahm, Sanherib p. 2 for a different view of this matter.

Erle Leichty

Erle Leichty, 'Introduction', RINAP 4: Esarhaddon, The RINAP 4 sub-project of the RINAP Project, 2019 []

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