It's Not Easy Being King

The ancient Near East produced several rulers whose names are still known: Sargon, Nebuchadnezzar, Shalmaneser. However, as kingdoms grew, holding onto power was difficult. Rebellions and droughts were frequent, and dynasties fell out of power as quickly as they appeared. Rulers began huge building projects and promoted their skills as military and political leaders in attempts to unify their kingdoms. Still, local rulers retained significant power of their own.


Statue of Gudea

Gudea, Ensi of Lagish
Kings in the ancient Near East often ruled large areas, but they did not rule directly. In many cases, rulers of small areas reigned under new kings of larger empires. One example of this arrangement is the ensi, a governor or “city-prince.”

Archaeologists rarely know much about individual people in the ancient world, but Gudea’s name appears again and again in the historical record. Gudea was the well-known ensi of Lagish who ruled under King Ur-Nammu in 2050 BCE. He was responsible for temple celebrations and laments, but he was best known for the complex hymns he composed and for restoring the Eninnu Temple.

Assyrian Seal

Assyrian Seal

Tree of Life Seal

Tree of Life Seal

Making a Mark
Ancient people used cylinder seals like these for identification and authentication in everyday transactions, much like a signature today. Kings had their own seals to conduct royal business, but ordinary merchants and bureaucrats used them too. The loss of an amulet was taken seriously, not only because of their legal purposes, but because they were also used as personal amulets.

In addition to a name, cylinder seals could represent scenes or stories. The Tree of Life shown on the second seal was a popular image throughout the Near East. Because the images had to be made in reverse, seal-cutting was a specialized trade that required skill and training.

Brick from the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar

Brick from the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar
605-562 BCE

Power of the Gods, Power of the King
During his reign as king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt the Temple of Esagila, where this brick comes from. The temple was dedicated to the Babylonian god Marduk. In addition to the golden shrine in his honor, Babylonians believed that the temple was the literal home of Marduk himself.

However, the Temple of Esagila was not only dedicated to the power of the gods. It was also a monument to Nebuchadnezzar’s power as king. The inscription on this brick reads, “I am Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, the Restorer of the temples of Esagila and Zida, the eldest son of Naboplasar, king of Babylon…”

Shalmaneser's Black Obelisk

Shalmaneser's Black Obelisk
859-824 BCE

Unity and War
In addition to temples and religious hymns, rulers showed their power through public monuments, like this limestone obelisk. The images show rulers of defeated kingdoms, including the Israelite king Jehu, bringing taxes and tribute to the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. 

At first, this seems like typical Assyrian public art. The Assyrians had a reputation as fierce fighters and conquerors, and kings throughout Mesopotamia were interested to show their military power. However, when this stele originally stood in a public square in Calah, Assyria was in the midst of a civil war. The obelisk was a reminder of the king’s present power as well as past military victory.