Early Life & Background
Sennacherib was the son of Sargon II and succeeded him as the second king of the Sargonid Dynasty of Assyria, in 705 B.C. His empire extended from Babylonia to southern Palestine and also included parts of Asia Minor.
Sennacherib was perhaps not the first son of his father, as his name implies he was a “compensation for dead brothers.” However, he was prepared for succession since a tender age.
Sources differ with regard to the exact year of his ascension, and it is possible he took to the throne in 705 B.C., 704 B.C., or 703 B.C.
Before ascending to the throne, he was a senior administrator and a diplomat in the north and northwest of the kingdom.
Assyria was originally a small kingdom that was destroyed by the end of the Bronze Age but was restored by the beginning of the Iron Age.
During the rule of Tiglath-Pileser III and his sons, Shalmaneser V and Sargon II, Assyria stretched to Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Syria-Palestine. Its capital, Nineveh, was one of the richest cities of that era.
Its neighboring kingdoms, Babylon, Elam, and Egypt, and many small kingdoms, such as Judah, started to grow envious of Assyria.
One fallout of this situation was the rebellion by the Babylonians. Crushing Babylon was one of Sennacherib's main campaigns.
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The Babylonian Question & the Siege of Jerusalem
Tiglath-Pileser III, Sennacherib's grandfather, unlike his predecessors who had made puppet kings in charge of the kingdom of Babylon, had declared himself the real ruler of Babylon. This gave rise to a dual monarchy, and the Babylonians had nominal independence.
Many local leaders, most importantly, Chaldean tribal chief Marduk-apla-iddina (Merodach-baladan in the ‘Bible’), did not accept this situation. Marduk-apla-iddina was ready to pay tribute to Tiglath-Pileser, but when Tiglath-Pileser's successor, Shalmaneser V, was defeated by Sennacherib's father, Sargon II, he made himself the king of Babylon.
Sargon was busy fighting the Cimmerians in Persia and Media. Rebellions continued for the next 30 years.
Sargon approached the Babylonians with a moderate mindset. Sennacherib, however, did not care much about their opinions.
Though Marduk-apal-iddina continued to receive military help from Elam, Sennacherib annexed northern Babylonia and installed a Babylonian puppet-ruler named Bel-ibni.
In 701 B.C., Sennacherib focused on the western part of his kingdom, where Hezekiah of Judah had rejected Assyria’s dominance, provoked by the rulers of Egypt and Marduk-apla-iddina. The rebellion involved states such as Sidon and Ashkelon and other regions such as Byblos, Ammon, Ashdod, Moab, and Edom, who then agreed to pay tribute without resistance. Ekron requested Egypt for help, but Egypt was already crushed by Assyria. Sennacherib annexed more than 46 cities.
Sennacherib soon focused on Jerusalem, the capital of Hezekiah. After besieging the city, he gave its neighboring towns to the vassals of Assyria in Ekron, Gaza and Ashdod. However, Hezekiah continued to rule as a vassal.
In 699 B.C., Bel-ibni was replaced by Ashur-nadin-shumi (or Ashur-nadin-shum). Sennacherib's eldest son. Marduk-apla-iddina continued to rebel with Elam’s assistance.
In 694 B.C., Sennacherib led some Phoenician ships on the Tigris River to crush the Elamite base at the Persian Gulf. However, the Elamites imprisoned Ashur-nadin-shumi and installed Nergal-ushezib, Marduk-apla-iddina’s son, as the new king of Babylon.
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In 693 B.C., Nergal-ushezib was imprisoned and taken to Nineveh. Sennacherib clashed with Elam again. The king of Elam escaped, and Sennacherib crushed his kingdom.
After his retreat, the Elamites went back to Babylon and put rebel leader Mushezib-Marduk on the throne.
In 689 B.C., Babylon finally fell to the Assyrian forces. Sennacherib destroyed southern Babylonia but did not touch the major Babylonian cities. He thus crushed Babylon after following up with six campaigns since 703.
Sennacherib destroyed all temples in Babylon but carried a statue of Marduk, the god-like creator of Babylon, to Assyria. This created issues in Assyria, too, as its people considered Babylon and its gods holy.
Sennacherib launched a religious campaign. He spread a myth that Marduk had been put on trial before Ashur, the god of Assyria. Marduk was replaced by Ashur in the New Year Festival, thus creating religious tension in his kingdom.
Sennacherib was part of many minor campaigns, too, but without any significant annexation. He launched numerous military campaigns toward the east of Assyria, in 702 B.C. and between 699 and 697 B.C.
Medes decided to pay tribute to him. He sent forces to Anatolia in 696 B.C. and 695 B.C., as many vassals had revolted after Sargon’s death.
He also launched a campaign in the deserts of northern Arabia in 690 B.C. Following this, he conquered Dumat al-Jandal, where the Arab queen had taken refuge.
The Assyrian kingdom was segmented into several provinces, with a governor in each province. The governors were in charge of the maintenance of the city.
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The kingdom deported or moved a huge number of people, for various reasons, such as punishments or repopulation of near-empty parts. It is assumed Sennacherib may have displaced 470,000 people.
Sennacherib’s capital, Nineveh, was built with the help of forced labor by people from Chaldea, the Mannai, the Araamaeans, and many others.
He wished to build a "palace without a rival” and made an elaborate plan for its construction. The foundation was made of limestone and mud bricks.
Back then, Nineveh spread up to 1,700 acres, with 15 great gates leading to it. About 18 canals supplied water to the capital, from the hills.
Parts of an elaborate aqueduct made by Sennacherib were found at Jerwan, about 65 km away. The area probably housed around 100,000 people, thus making it one of the largest settlements in the world.
Some assume that a garden adjacent to Sennacherib’s palace was the original “Hanging Gardens of Babylon.”
Family, Personal Life, & Death
It is believed Sennacherib had married twice, and his two wives were Naqī'ā (or Zakūtu) and Tašmētu-šarrat. Some sources claim that Tašmētu was probably his second wife or was part of a harem that also included Naqī'ā.
It is also believed by some scholars that Naqī'ā was one of the women sent to Sennacherib by Hezekiah in 701 B.C.
Naqī'ā and Sennacherib had a son, Esarhaddon, in 713 B.C. Following the murder of Sennacherib's eldest son, Ashur, in 694, Sennacherib waited for almost 11 years before he decided on another heir.
Finally, he named Esarhaddon, his youngest son, as his heir, thus disappointing his second-eldest son, Arda-Mulišši (or Arda-Mulissu, and Adrammelech in the ‘Bible’), who had expected the succession. Esarhaddon was the crown prince for 2 years but was eventually forced to flee.
In 681 B.C., Sennacherib was killed under mysterious circumstances. An inscription attributed to Esarhaddon explained how Esarhaddon heard his brothers were fighting in Nineveh, defeated them, and ascended to the throne.
The Babylonian chronicles and the ‘Bible’ both hint that Sennacherib was probably killed by one of his sons. Esarhaddon, however, did not comment on the issue.
Professor Simo Parpola believed Arda-Mulišši had killed the king in the hope of succeeding him.
Sennacherib was either stabbed by his son or was crushed while he prayed to Nisroch.