The Death of Sardanopalus by Delacroix appears in Eloise in Paris which is where I first saw it back when I was in single digits. Fascinating stuff to a nine year old. Who on earth were these people and what in heaven’s name was going on here? The fellow in back looked annoyed but passive, the woman stoic and resigned- why? That other woman draped over the bed, was she alive or just unconscious? And what on earth was that horse doing there in the bedroom? What was the matter with these people?
The story of Sardanapalus was to the 1820s what vampires are to us, largely because the poet Byron had written a play (Sardanapalus – A Tragedy) that pulled this obscure name out of classical scholarship and into the lime light.* The painting was 1827. Berlioz did a cantata 1830. The poet Edwin Atherstone incorporated it in his 1830 “The Fall of Nineveh” (thirty books, the last of them in 1868), concerning which the critic of the Dublin Literary Gazette, perhaps irritated by the whole thing, wrote ”Sardanapalus has late become a singular favorite among the poets, for what reason they best can tell.”
Well, for Delacroix at least, it seems a bold new way of putting forth naked ladies – always a popular subject, at least for the French.** All very dramatic and revolutionary, this, not the charming decadence of a Boucher or Fragonard where the only thing in the picture was good old sex.
But the question remains, who was he?
According to the the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus, Sardanapalus was the last, and probably the least, king of the Assyrians, an example of why you do not want to hand down unlimited power to your children. Comfortably settled in the capital of Nineveh, he “exceeded all his predecessors in sloth and luxury; for besides that he was seen of none out of his family, he led a most effeminate life: for, wallowing in pleasure and wanton dalliances, he clothed himself in women’s attire, and spun fine wool and purple amongst the throngs of his whores and concubines. He painted likewise his face, and decked his whole body with other allurements like a strumpet, and was more lascivious than the most wanton courtesan. He imitated, likewise, a woman’s voice, and not only daily inured himself to such meat and drink as might incite and stir up his lascivious lusts, but gratified them by filthy Catamites, as well as whores and strumpets, and without any sense of modesty, abusing both sexes, slighted shame, the concomitant of filthy and impure actions.”
And so forth.
Of course, you can’t live a life like that and not wind up in a bad way. Rumors of his situation spread abroad and his less enervated enemies the Medes started gathering at the edge of the empire and then came on down.
Sardanapalus was complacent. Ancient prophesy held that Nineveh would not fall so long as the enemy were on the far side of the Euphrates. Which, for two years and against all logic, they did. On the third year, however, the Euphrates rose over her banks and began lapping at the colossal city wall. These would have been mud brick, which do not do well against water. A significant part of the wall, twenty furlongs worth, collapsed, which simplified the Medes’ task as well as fulfilling the prophecy. Sardanapalus, rather than fall into the ungenerous hands of his enemy, gathered all his silver and gold and sexual playmates into a single room, locked the doors and set it and everything in it (himself included), on fire. So ends the sad tale of Sardanapalus, and the Assyrian empire.
So, at least, according to Diodorus Siculus and Byron and Delacroix.
Another version, not quite so spectacular, comes from Athenaius Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 12.38:
“Arbaces, a Mede by birth, and one of the generals of his realm, entered into an intrigue with a eunuch named Sparameizes to obtain a view of Sardanapalus, and the king reluctantly giving his consent, an audience was permitted him; when the Mede entered he saw the king with his face covered with white lead and bejewelled like a woman, combing purple wool in the company of his concubines and sitting among them with knees uplifted, his eyebrows blackened, wearing a woman’s dress and having his beard shaved close and his face rubbed with pumice (he was even whiter than milk, and his eyelids were painted), and when he looked upon Arbaces he rolled the whites of his eyes; most authorities, including also Duris, record that Arbakes, outraged to think that such a person should be their king, stabbed him to death.”
One more ancient historian has to weigh in, Justin, who claims:
“The last king that reigned over [the Assyrians] was Sardanapalus, a man more effeminate than a woman…. War [was] raised against Sardanapalus; who, hearing of what had occurred, and acting, not like a man that would defend his kingdom, but as women are wont to do under fear of death, first looked about for a hiding-place, but afterwards marched into the field with a few ill-disciplined troops. Being conquered in battle, he withdrew into his palace, and, having raised and set fire to a pile of combustibles, threw himself and his riches into the flames, in this respect only acting like a man.”
So we’ve got two effeminate cowards, and one effeminate but unfortunate would-be general. It’s hard to keep the story straight when you’re dealing with material this ancient, and all three of these historians were writing centuries after the fact, and that prophesy story, really, is just a little too good to be true, isn’t it? What if any of this is legitimate, how much is malarkey?
Approaching the question from the other end, that is, other accounts of the final years of the Assyrian empire, we come across the decidedly better affirmed figure King Assurbanipal, noted in the Old Testament as “the great and noble Asenappar”. The lion-hunt reliefs from Nineveh were done on his watch (that’s him on the horse with the drawn bow). He was proud of his literacy and was responsible for the so-called Library of Ashurbanipal, the 22,000 clay tablets of which remain to this day and give evidence of a literate culture (not just tax receipts and tallies, but a creation myth and a good deal of scientific material). * Empires don’t just happen, even in those days.
He inherited war from his father and rose to the occasion. He recovered a rebellious Egypt (and lost it a few years later, though the two countries maintained trade) only to have his half-brother Shamash-Shum-ukin, ruling in Babylon, declare independence from Nineveh. Giving in to this would be sending out the wrong message. Assurbanipal marched out and besieged Babylon for – two years. At the end of which time, the palace burned with Shamash-Shum-ukin, now dead of suicide, inside it. Sounds like a little conflation of stories here, maybe?
Assurbanipal died in 608 BC, his final years being blessedly quiet. Two of his sons ruled after him, briefly, though not much is known about them. Within a few years, the armies of the Babylonians and the Medes invaded and cut up the empire between them. The city of Nineveh took a few centuries to fall to the utter wrack and ruin it is today (the Sassanid Persinas beat the Byzantine Romans here in 627 AD) and between faulty memory and the natural human taste for ripping yarns, the stories got a little confused. The likeliest story is that Sardanapalus was an unholy composite of the final rulers of Assyria, leaving out anything that would make them respectable.
But then again, when have the tabloids of any time not preferred scandal over mere competence and good governance?
POST SCRIPT – By chance I just ran across a comment by Napoleon in which he likens his useless brother Joseph to Sardanapalus. Not a primary source, alas, so if anyone can pin this down better, I would be most grateful.
*(Granted, those who were better read back then were better read than the better read of today, but I’m going guess he was just as obscure then as he is now, and that no one was going to be so naive as to admit they’d never heard of the guy.)
**The English take on the fall of Nineveh by John Martin is, as you can see, somewhat more restrained.
*** He was forthright about his brutality, though: “Their dismembered bodies I fed to the dogs, swine, wolves, and eagles, to the birds of heaven and the fish in the deep…. What was left of the feast of the dogs and swine, of their members which blocked the streets and filled the squares, I ordered them to remove from Babylon, Kutha and Sippar, and to cast them upon heaps….
“Their men young and old I took prisoners. Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a marinet. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire.”