Ashurnasirpal II is the epitome of everything you would ever want out of a psychotically deranged vengeance-sucking ancient conquest-mongering megalomaniac who drove his jet-fuel-powered chariot across a road paved with corpses so he could kill a lion with his fists. A man who responded to the slightest protest against his power by epically crushing his enemy into bonemeal, ferociously grinding their powdery remains into glass with his massive iron fists, and then using that skullforged-glass to make a stylish designer necklace for whichever Goddess he was currently boning. An unflinching, white-knuckled hardass who lived in an opulent gem-encrusted palace and literally used the broken bodies of his enemies to build towering monuments to his eternal might, this old-school Biblical-style murder-lord was one of the first true continent-spanning conquerors in human history and seriously not the kind of guy you wanted to see standing across from you on a dusty Mesopotamian battlefield.
He’s also one of the first military commanders in history to use cavalry on the battlefield, a tactic he utilized personally when he hunted lions in his spare time.
Although Ashurnasirpal II probably didn’t kill them by walking right up to them without flinching, grabbing them mid-pounce with his bare hands, and then choking them the fuck out one-handed while planting a sword in their hearts and making unblinking steady eye contact so that the last thing that passed through the once-mighty predator’s mind was the iron-clad reminder that he was no longer the Apex Predator of the bare-knuckle food chain.
Of course, that didn’t stop the King of Assyria from having badass ancient comic book artists draw pictures of him doing that very thing.
Or then going home after manually asphyxiating 600-pound multi-clawed beasts with teeth the size of steak knives and getting a nice relaxing back rub from a weird eagle-headed god who apparently had nothing better to do with his time.
In fact, there wasn’t a whole lot Ashurnasirpal II didn’t have himself illustrated doing.
Ascending to the throne of Assyria in 883 BC, Ashurnashirpal II inherited a once-mighty Mesopotamian Empire that was in a sad state of decline. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq, the Assyrians were a tough group of motherfuckers, but even though its name kind of sounds like a trendy hipster bakery life in the Fertile Crescent wasn’t exactly a relaxing afternoon sipping sextuple raspberry frappalattes back in the 8th century BC, a time when basically every asshole king with a decent collection of sharp sticks had delusions of grandeur about being the son of some god nobody’s ever heard of before.
Ashurnasirpal’s dad had done a good job of building up the Assyrian War Machine into a powerhouse capable of brutal world domination, but he died before he could do much with it and it was up to Ash to step in and make sure everyone in Mesopotamia was shouting hail to the king, baby. He consolidated his holdings, assembled his troops, and then launched his armies on 14 epic military campaigns in 24 years, crushing all before him with a sea of infantry, cavalry, and chariots and turning his Kingdom into one of the ancient world’s first true Empires.
Assyria city walls and Illraiseyoua FOOT UP THE ASS
Utilizing massed heavy cavalry to shatter enemy formations like a ninja with a huge fucking beard spin-kicking a wooden board at a mall food court karate demonstration and traveling with heavy, surprisingly-mobile iron-headed battering rams capable of demolishing their way through city walls and gates (this was a pretty forward-thinking concept at this time), Ashurnasirpal swept his foes before him in a sea of splinters and iron-plated scrotal annihilation. Towns that opposed him – or those that rebelled against him – were shown the sort of extreme over-the-top brutality that makes even hardcore 1970s exploitation escape from women’s prison movies look like the Hallmark Channel TV edit of a 1990s Cinemax Shannon Tweed movie.
The concept was simple – ensure compliance through extreme brutality. Be warm, kind, and accepting to cities that surrender to you, and make an example out of one town that resists – and make that example so fucked-up that nobody would ever dare think about opposing your godlike might again. It’s a concept that Ashurnasirpal helped institute, and guys like Genghis Khan and Tamerlane would utilize to force entire civilizations into capitulation.
Ashurnasirpal determining what to do with a captured enemy town.
After capturing one city, Ashurnasirpal built a huge pillar describing how he fucking just owned the assholes that lived there. Then he publicly flayed the bodies of the town leaders, covered the pillar with their dried skin, and placed impaled bodies around the walls in decorative patterns just to drive the point home (wow, I didn’t intend for that to be a pun when I wrote it) in case anybody was curious whether or not it might have been a good idea to fucking start shit with Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria. In another town he cut off his prisoners’ noses, arms, ears, and/or eyes, put everything in a pile, and then set them on fire. One time he had a governor dragged out in the street and tortured to death for disobeying him, then had that guy’s body hung outside the front door of the city as a warning to the populace. In yet another conquered town, Ashurnasirpal built a minaret out of human heads, another pile out of severed ears, and then set the entire town on fire with everyone still in it.
Like I said, the Fertile Crescent wasn’t really the best place to sit quietly with a pretty girl, a cup of coffee, and a ham-and-cheese croissant and quietly discuss iPhone apps and shitty obscure bands nobody likes.
As you can probably imagine, most of the Mesopotamian tribes really really weren’t interested in having their skinless corpses turned into art by macabre interior decorators, and one by one the cities and towns of the Fertile Crescent fell before the might of the revitalized Assyrian Empire. Ashurnasirpal face-speared his father’s hated rivals in the North, massacred rebels in the West, and drove his chariots east, through Phoenicia, impaling and burninating his way from roughly present-day Baghdad until his warriors ceremoniously washed the blood from their spears by dipping them in the Mediterranean Sea. Kings from across the lands brought him tribute – ebony, silver, gold, tin, copper, linen, cedar, and monkeys (both large and small… Ashurnasirpal makes a point of noting this in his autobiography, which, as you saw, is fucking chiseled into rocks the size of refrigerators).
To his credit, Ashurnasirpal used this treasure to dramatically improve the living conditions in the Assyrian Empire. He built roads, temples, and shrines across the land, enlarged already-impressive buildings and structures, built walls around undefended cities, and encouraged noble things like art, trade, and culture. He unified the tribes under his rule by bringing in administrators from across the Empire, taking great care to build political and governmental infrastructure in the kingdoms he’d just finished torching into ash and cinders and making sure that everyone in his empire had food, water, and protection under his rule. Which is something.
The Assyrian city of Kalakh.
The crowning achievement of Ashurnasirpal’s non-massacratory rule was when he rebuilt the ancient Assyrian capital at Kalakh, which had been burned down by enemies in 1260 BC. Ashurnasirpal, flush with riches from his epic conquests, built himself a palace worthy of a guy that shanks lions to death, creating a sprawling city with towering temples, a botanical garden, a zoo of exotic animals, and a supply of fresh water thanks to a canal he had slaves dig from the Zab River into the middle of town. When he finally opened the city, he threw a fucking insane 10-day-long rager keg party that, according to him, was attended by almost 70,000 people. Basically it was Assyrian Ozzfest, right down to the creepy bearded guys with spikes and judicious over-placement of human skulls.
At the center of Kalakh was Ashurnasirpal’s palas – a 269,000 square foot sprawling mansion fit for the sort of king who goes around having peoples’ skin cut off and then set on fire. Situated on six acres of land, he decorated his insane palace with gold doors, white limestone sculptures of ferocious wild beasts, and hundreds of file-cabinet-sized limestone slabs carved with pictures of himself either banging fertility goddesses or killing people with his bare hands.
There was so much shit in his palace like this that when archaeologists unearthed it in 1845 they needed an entire wing of the British Museum to house it, and all of the hand-chisled evidence pointed to one thing: Don’t fuck with Ashurnasirpal.
Atac, Mehmet-Ali. The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.
Bryce, Trevor. The Routledge Handbook of People and Places in Western Asia. Routledge, 2013.
Kuiper, Kathleen. Mesopotamia: The World’s Earliest Civilization. Rosen, 2010.
Mountjoy, Shane. Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Infobase, 2005.