The kings of the Neo-Assyrian Empire have long been considered some of the most ruthless monarchs in ancient history. However, at the same time they were sacking cities and slaughtering those who rebelled against them or resisted conquest, they often pursued gentler interests. Sennacherib (reigned 705-681 BCE) enjoyed gardening and loved flowers. His son, Esarhaddon (reigned 681-669 BCE) was more interested in building projects than military conquest, even though he decimated Egypt. His son and successor Ashurbanipal (reigned 668-627 BCE) is better known for his library than for any of his military campaigns. This same pattern can be seen in earlier kings of the empire as well and is epitomized in an event which might be the greatest party ever thrown.
In the year 879 BCE, the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 884-859 BCE) organized a festival to celebrate the completion of his new city, Kalhu, and the inauguration of his grand new palace. He invited the whole country to attend and 69, 574 people accepted, including the 16,000 new citizens of Kalhu and 5,000 dignitaries from his own territories and foreign lands. While scholars have suggested that the festival may have served the king as a public relations gesture, he certainly did not need to go to the trouble. By the time Kalhu was built and Ashurnasirpal II had moved into his grand palace, his reputation as a monarch not to be trifled with had been firmly established. This, after all, was the king who wrote of his conquest of the rebel city of Tela in c. 883 BCE:
I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes and others I bound to stakes round the pillar. I cut the limbs off the officers who had rebelled. Many captives I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I consumed with fire. The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.
Like King Tiglath Pileser I before him (reigned 1115-1076 BCE), Ashurnasirpal II did not care if people hated him, so long as they feared and obeyed him. A public relations event such as the Kalhu festival would have been considered unnecessary by a monarch who had already gone to great lengths to make sure his name was synonymous with terror. It could be, then, that Ashurnasirpal II threw his great party simply because he wanted to show off his new city and palace. Reasons for the actions of Assyrian kings are not often made clear in their inscriptions (unless they are justifying the sacking of cities) as historian Marc Van de Mieroop notes:
It seems safe to say that the building of new cities was a complex enterprise. If this conclusion is correct, we would expect the kings who undertook the work to elaborate on their activities in their building inscriptions. Yet, when we study these texts, we find a lack of information on certain aspects of the undertaking. First, the kings must have had a motivation for the building of these vast cities but, when we look at their records, no reason for the work is declared. Ashurnasirpal’s justification for the work on Kalhu is merely a statement that the city built by his predecessor Shalmaneser had become dilapidated (The Ancient Mesopotamian City, 55).
In the same way that the kings felt no need to justify the building of their cities, Ashurnasirpal II seems to have felt no need to elaborate on his reasons behind throwing his party. In his inscriptions he writes:
When I consecrated the palace of Kalhu, 47,074 men and women, who were invited from every part of my land, 5000 dignitaries and envoys of the people of the lands Suhu, Hindanu, Patinu, Hatti, Tyre, Sidon, Gurgumu, Malidu, Hubushku, Gilsanu, Kummu, And Musasiru, 16,000 people from Kalhu, and 1500 palace officials, all of them – altogether 69,574 including those summoned from all the lands and the people of Kalhu – for ten days I gave them food, I gave them drink, I had them bathed, I had them anointed. Thus I did honor to them and send them back to their lands in peace and joy.
The menu from the great feast has been preserved; his Banquet Stele records that this celebration included, but was not limited to, 1,000 oxen, 1,000 domestic cattle and sheep, 14,000 imported and fattened sheep, 1,000 lambs, 500 game birds, 500 gazelles, 10,000 fish, 10,000 eggs, 10,000 loaves of bread, 10,000 measures of beer, and 10,000 containers of wine (Bauer, 337). Ingredients, spices, and other edibles included sesame, grains, grapes, onions, garlic, honey, mustard, milk, nuts, cheese, olives, dates, ghee, and turnips. As Marc Van de Mieroop writes, “This was a special banquet, and worthy of boasting” (155). Scholars continue to speculate, however, on why the king would throw such an elaborate festival for the people when he did not have to do so.
There is no other reason given for the party than simply that the king felt like it. Kalhu had been an old trading center which had fallen into ruin over the years and was completely re-built by Ashurnasirpal II. His greatest pride was his new palace, and it seems a simple enough explanation that the king just wanted to show off what he had accomplished – off the battlefield – to as many admirers as he could gather. This does not mean, of course, that he did not wish to impress upon them his military victories. Although it is thought that few of the guests would have been invited into the palace, the dignitaries who are mentioned in the inscription may well have been. There they would have seen the massive reliefs lining the walls depicting the king slaying lions with his bare hands and toppling city walls and massacring those who opposed him. Along with the pictures, they would have read the king’s words, repeated over and over on the reliefs, the so-called Standard Inscription. Historian Jonathan Taylor describes the inscription in this passage:
The Standard Inscription is, as its name suggests, a single, standardised text which recounts the victories of Ashurnasirpal. The first five lines assert the king's credentials:
Palace of Ashurnasirpal, vice-regent of Ashur, chosen one of the gods Enlil and Ninurta, beloved of the gods Anu and Dagan, destructive weapon of the great gods, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Ninurta, great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Adad-nirari, great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria; valiant man who acts with the support of Ashur, his lord, and has no rival among the princes of the four quarters, marvellous shepherd, fearless in battle, unopposable mighty floodtide, king who subdues those insubordinate to him, he who rules all peoples, strong male who treads upon the necks of his foes, trampler of all enemies, he who smashes the forces of the rebellious, king who acts with the support of the great gods, his lords, and has conquered all lands, gained dominion over all the highlands and received their tribute, capturer of hostages, he who is victorious over all countries ...
The next nine lines report the extent of his victories, stretching from Mount Lebanon in the west to Armenia in the east, and encroaching south into Babylonian territory. The last eight lines tell how he rebuilt the city of Nimrud [Kalhu] and made it his capital and settled there people from his newly conquered territories. He built a great palace, decorated with the finest woods and metals, and stone statues of the beasts of the mountains and the seas; then he filled it with booty (1).
The dignitaries would no doubt have been impressed by the size and scope of the new palace and the city but, perhaps equally or even more so, by the images and inscriptions of the feats of the king – and the unspoken threat of what would happen to them if they decided to oppose the power of Assyria. This, of course, is only a theory proposed by historians (although it seems in keeping with Ashurnasirpal II’s personality), and it could be that the reliefs should simply be taken at face value - as a record of the king’s personal and professional triumphs preserved for posterity on the walls of his palace. As there is no other record of the Kalhu festival, it is not known how well the guests enjoyed themselves or whether any dignitaries were cowed by palace reliefs and the Standard Inscription. All that is known is that, once upon a time, King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria hosted the greatest party ever thrown and, through his inscriptions, wanted to make sure that future generations would know of it.