THE MURDERER OF SENNACHERIB

By Professor Simo Parpola ©All rights reserved to author. Extrated from Death in Mesopotamia, XXVIeme Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, edited by Professor Bendt Alster, Akademisk Forlag, 1980. Text reproduced here for aid in research and studies purposes

 

The news of the murder of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, on 20 Tebet, 681, was received with mixed feelings but certainly with strong emotion alI over the ancient Near East. In Israel and Babylonia, it was hailed as godsent punishment for the "godless" deeds of a hated despot; in Assyria, the reaction must have been overwhelmingly horror and resentment. Not surprisingly, then, the event is relatively well reported or referred to in contemporary and later sources, both cuneiform and non-cuneiform, and has been the subject of considerable scholar]y debate as well. In spite of all this attention, however, the most central thing about the whole affair has remained an open question: the identity of the murderer.
While alI our sources agree that he was one of the king's own sons, his name js not known from any cunciform text, and the names offered by the Bible and Berossus, alI of them evidently textually corrupt, have not been satisfactorily explained and are accordingly looked at with understandable suspicion. A theory favored in the early days of Assyriology, according to which these names should be viewed as corruptions of Ardior Arad-Ninlil. a son of Scnnacherib known from a contemporary legal document, has gradually had to give way to an entirely different interpretatjon, according to which the murderer (or at least the mastermind behind the murder) was none but Sennacherib's heir-designate and successor to throne himself, Esarhaddon, who would have been forced to engineer the assassination in order to avoid being replaced by one of his brothers. The weakness of this theory is that it is in disagreement not only with Esarhaddon's own account of the course of events, which puts the blame on his brothers, but also with the traditions of the Bible and Berossus; it also involves a lot of reading between the lines. For these reasons, it has not been universally accepted either, and the case is largely viewed as unsolved for lack of clear-cut, conclusive evidence.

In this paper I hope to show that the available evidence is not at alI so elusive as is commonly thought, and actually suffices for determining the identity of the assassin with reasonable certainty. There is a Neo-Babylonian letter, published decades ago, which explicitly states the name of the murderer, and this name is not only known to have been borne by a son of Sennacherib but it also virtuaIIy agrees with the name forms found in the Bible and at Berossus. The text in question, R. Harper, Assyrian and Babylonian Letters (=ABL) XI no.1091 (Chicago 1911), has escaped attention because it was completely misunderstood and mistranslated by its editor, Leroy Waterman; the name has remained unidentified because its actual pronunciation has been obscured by its misleading logographic speIIing. In what foIIows, I shaII analyse both the letter and the name in detail and finaIIy integrate tile new evidence with the previously known facts in a brief reassessment of the murder and its prehistory.

The beginning of ABL 1091 is lost. The first three extant lines are fragmentary, but sufficiently much of them remains to suggest that they referred to certain "Babylonian brothers'. of the writer (or writers).lu From line 4' on the text can be foIIowed better. The persons just mentioned gain knowledge of a "treaty of rebeIIion", and subsequently one of them requests an audience with the king. The expression for this is "to say the king's word" which, as shown by J. N. Postgate years ago.l It implies that the person in question applied to the king as the supreme judge and should consequently have been sent directly to the Palace.
This, however, is not what happens in the present case. Two Assyrian officials appear and question the man. Having found whom his appeal concerns, they cover his face and take him away. This, in itself. is perhaps not significant, for ordinary people were not permitted to look at the king face to face. But what foIIows is startling. The man is not taken to the king but to Arad-Ninlil, the very person he wanted to talk about, and (his face stiII covered) is ordered to speak out. Clearly under the i]lusion that he is speaking to the king, he subsequently dec]ares: "Your son AradNinlil is going to kiII you. " Things now take a drastic course. The face of the man is uncovered: he is interrogated by Arad-Ninlil: and after that he is put to death along with his comrades mentioned in the beginning of the letter. The remaining seven lines are too fragmentary to be properly understood.

To bring home the significance of this letter, let me put together some basic facts. The first is that it was clearly the "treaty of rebellion" mentioned at the beginning of the text that induced the unfortunate man to appeal to the king; second, that his information concerned Arad-Ninlil; and third, that because of this information, he and alI his comrades knowing about the "treaty of rebellion " instantly got killed. Accordingly, we may conclude that the assertion "Your son Arad-Ninlil will kill you" was something Arad-Ninlil did not want to become publicly known; and since this statement was meant for the ears of the king, it is evident (1) that the person Arad-Ninlil intended to kill was the king himself and (2) that Arad-Ninlil himself was the king's own son. It follows that AradNinlil was involved in a conspiracy aiming at the murder of the king, and quite obviously was the leading figure in it.
Nowhere in the letter is the name Arad-Ninlil preserved completely; the last sign LÍL is broken away or damaged in alI instances. But no other Sargonid prince with a name beginning with the sign ARAD is known, so the restoration of the final element can be regarded as certain. Since Arad-Ninlil is only attested as a son of Sennacherib, the king referred to in the text can only be Sennacherib.

On the other hand. it is clear that the letter itself cannot have been addressed to Sennacherib. Had the writer wanted to warn the king of a threatening assassination, he would have expressed himself differently. Hence, one must conclude that the letter was written after the murder had already taken place, and therefore probably was addressed to Esarhaddon. As this king must. from the beginning, have been reasonably well informed about his father's murder, it would be absurd to assume that the purpose of the writer was simply to inform the king about the identity of the murderer. His aim was certainly different. If we consider the text more closely. it is easy to see that the writer took the leading role of Arad-Ninlil in the conspiracy as generally known: but what he is trying to make clear is that the two officials mentioned in the letter were responsible for the death of the informer and therefore by implication also involved in the conspiracy.Both men. Nabu-sum-iskun and Sillâ. are w.ell known as officials of Sennacherib who continued in their offices through the early years of Esarhaddon: the Kuyunjik letter archiye contains many denunciations against the latter. The present letter clearly is in the same category. and by using as an argument against Sillâ his role in silencing the informer, it actually implies that the prediction "your son Arad-Ninlil will kill you" had become a fact meanwhile.

Thus, the letter just discussed powerfully supports the position of the scholars who have seen in Arad-Ninlil the likeliest candidate for the murderer of Sennacherib. and in fact makes it a matter of yirtual certainty. We may hence pass on to a serious reconsideration of the problem of how to satisfactorily relate the name Arad-Ninlil to the names of the murderer (Adrammelech/Adramelos/Ardumuzan) given in the Bible and the BerossuS excerpts.

Actually, there is hardly any problem here at all. We are now in a position to show that the traditional reading of the (logographically spelled) Assyrian name, on which the earlier comparisons were based (and which has also been used here for convenience) is incorrect and should be abolished. In particular, the theophoric element at the end of the name (d-NIN.LÍL) has to be read [Mulissu] or [Mullêsu], not *Ninlil. This reading, first tentatively suggested by E. Reiner twelve years ago and since then increasingly well documented, represents the Neo-Assyrian form of the Akkadian name of the goddess Ninlil, attested as Mulliltum in an Old-Babylonian god list. It appears to have been very wide-spread in the first millennium, and is actually attested in syllabic spellings of the very name under consideration. On the other hand, the reading of the first element (ARAD) can be determined as [ arda] or [ ardi] on the basis of occasional syllabic spellings in contemporary and earlier Assyrian texts. And once the reading Arda-Mulissi has been established, the names of the murderer found in the non-cuneiform sources become relatively easy to explain. The Biblical Adrammelech differs from the Assyrian name only in two respects: the metathesis or r and d, and the replacement of shin at the end of the name by kaph. The former point is negligible since r and d were virtually homographic and therefore easy to confuse in early Hebrew and Aramaic script;26 the second can be explained as a scribal error. It is not difficult to imagine a scribe correcting a seemingly nonsensical "meles" to "melek", a frequent final element in North-West Semitic personal names. The Berossian name forms show an even better match. The form Adramelos found in the Abydenos excerpt is virtually identical with Arda-Mulissi save for the already discussed metathesis of r and d (which may have been influenced by the familiarity of Eusebius with the Biblical form). The name Ardumuzan agrees with Arda-Mulissi up to its last syllable which can only be due to textual corruption. It is important to note that in this name, the metathesis of r and d does not take place.

In sum, it can be stated that all three names can be relatively easily traced back to Arda-Mulissi; and "then one comes to think about it. it would be very hard if not impossible to find another Assyrian name "which could provide as satisfactory an explanation for them as this one does. The identification of Arad-Ninliu Arda-Mulissi as the murderer of Sennacherib can thus be considered doubly assured. But "what were his motives, and how did he end up doing what he did? My reconstruction of the course of events is as follows:
In 694, Sennacherib eldest son and heir-designate Assur-nãdin-sumi is captured by Babylonians and carried off to Elam; he is no more heard of. The second-eldest son, Arda-Mulissi, now has every reason to expect to be the next crown prince; however, he is outmaneuvered from this position in favor of Esarhaddon, another son of Sennacherib. This one is younger than Arda-Mulissi but becomes the favorite son of Sennacherib thanks to his mother Naqia, who is not the mother of ArdaMulissi. Eventually, Esarhaddon is officially proclaimed crown prince, and all Assyria is made to swear allegiance to him. However, ArdaMulissi enjoys considerable popularity among certain circles who would like to see him as their future king rather than sickly Esarhaddon. As years pass, the opposition to Esarhaddon grows, while at the same time Arda-Mulissi and his brother(s) gain in popularity. This political development leads to a turn of events, but not to the one hoped for by ArdaMulissi and his supporters. Foreseeing trouble, Sennacherib sends Esarhaddon away from the capital to the western provinces; yet he does not revise the order of succession. In this situation, Arda-Mulissi and his borther(s) soon find themselves in a stalemate. On the one hand, they are at their political zenith while their rival brother has to languish in exile; on the other hand, the latter remains the crown prince, and there is nothing his brothers can do about it since the position of Sennacherib remains unchanged and Esarhaddon himself is out of reach in the provinces. Supposing he were able to score military victories, his popularity would undoubtedly rise while that of his brothers might easily start to sink. The only way for them to make good of the situation, it seems, is to act swiftly and take over the kingship by force. A "treaty of rebellion" is concluded; and probably not much later, Sennacherib is stabbed to death by Arda-Mulissi or, perhaps, crushed alive under a winged bull colossus guarding the temple where he had been praying at the time of the murder .This reconstruction closely follows Esarhaddon's own account of the events. and similar interpretations have been presented earlier by others.

I believe, however. that the story now rests on a firmer ground than before. Surely we are now in a position to finally acquit the harassed king of the murder charge he does not deserve. and convict the man to whom all the evidence points (and who in his lifetime escaped punishment by fleeing to the .'land of Ararat").

 

 

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