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Sunday 17 November 2013

From Sardanapalus to Ashurbanipal

One of the most iconic works in the Louvre Museum is The Death of Sardanapalus, painted by Eugène Delacroix at the height of the Romantic Era in 1827. The painting is 5 metres wide by 4 metres tall, and it has to be seen to be fully appreciated – a small-scale photo like mine really can’t do it justice.

Sardanapalus was supposed to be the last king of Assyria, at the fall of that mighty empire in the 7th century BC. According to legend, instead of protecting the country against invaders, Sardanapalus spent his life in hedonism and debauchery, surrounded by wealth and loose women. When the enemy finally arrived outside his palace in Nineveh, rather than defending the city he had his concubines slaughtered and then set fire to his palace while he was still inside it.

The legend of Sardanapalus appealed to the romantic imagination – besides this painting by Delacroix, it was the subject of a play by Lord Byron in 1821. The source of the legend was a Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the first century BC – in other words, 600 years after the alleged events took place. In the 1820s, virtually everything anyone knew about the ancient world came from reading the Graeco-Roman classics – archaeology was still in its infancy.

The tide turned in the 1840s, when serious archaeological exploration of Northern Iraq was carried out first by the French and then by the British. It was the latter who made the greatest discoveries, under the direction of Austen Henry Layard and his local-born assistant Hormuzd Rassam, and as a result many of the best finds are now in the British Museum. On my last visit there I bought a book called Assyrian Sculpture. The picture on the cover shows one of numerous wall carvings found by Rassam at Nineveh, in the palace of Ashurbanipal – the Assyrian king from 669 to 631 BC. Although he wasn’t the last king of Assyria (and he wasn’t a drunken hedonist who committed suicide, but a great warrior who died a natural death), Ashurbanipal is generally believed to be the historical figure on which the legend of Sardanapalus was based.

The picture on the cover of the book is one of many in the British Museum depicting a favourite pastime of Assyrian kings, usually referred to as a “lion hunt”. It wasn’t really a lion hunt, though, but the ritualized slaying of a captured lion. At first sight the picture looks rather comical, due to Ashurbanipal’s rigidly upright posture as he runs the lion through with his sword. To some extent this is artistic licence – the Assyrians usually depicted kings and other dignified individuals in highly formalized poses. But more importantly, the lion is already dead – it wouldn’t have got near the king if it wasn’t! It’s got an arrow through its head, and Ashurbanipal is holding it up but the neck as he runs it through. You might think the lion looks unrealistically small, but this would have been an Asiatic Lion, not the much larger African lion seen in zoos today.

The book also includes a comic-strip style wall carving showing the sequence of events leading up to the slaying of the lion (this has to be read from right to left, like a Japanese manga comic). On the right, a small boy releases the lion from its cage. The boy is inside a little cage of his own, in case the lion is smart enough to turn round and try to eat him. But instead the lion runs leftwards towards Ashurbanipal, getting a first arrow in his back in the process. It then leaps up towards the king, who is protected by a soldier holding a shield and spear while Ashurbanipal fires point-blank at the hapless lion.
The contrast between the historical Ashurbanipal and the legendary Sardanapalus could hardly be greater – the first indulging in warlike bloodsports (and fighting human foes, as depicted in other sculptures) while the latter spent his life shagging the opposite sex in the comfort of his palace. From a moral point of view both are equally reprehensible, but the first is more consistent with the leader of a militaristic empire, while the latter only makes sense in the cosily decadent imaginations of poets and artists!

Looking back, I see that I mentioned the Ashurbanipal-Sardanapalus link once before, in Art and Archaeology. The ancient Assyrians also featured in The Bible's Excluded Middle and The Siege of Lachish.

I also spotted this small-scale sketch of The Death of Sardanapalus in another room in the Louvre – I assume it was a trial version that Delacroix painted before embarking on the full-scale one. The woman in the foreground who is having her throat slit in the final version looks like she is being decapitated in this one!

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