Mesopotamian Monday: Shalmaneser in Ararat

Shalmaneser III (c. 858 – 824 BCE) was a Neo-Assyrian king, known for his military incursions into Syria, Anatolia, and (possibly) the Urartian kingdom. The Urartian kingdom is possible because one of the texts contains records of his incursion into Urartu. This text is traditionally titled Shalmaneser in Ararat.

This text describes the campaign of an Assyrian king into Urartu. Lambert, Grayson, Foster, and others take this Assyrian king to be Shalmaneser III [2]. Identification of the Assyrian king as Shalmaneser III, though, is not necessarily obvious. After providing discussion of the historical issues surrounding this campaign, Reade comments: “Clearly the date and the historical validity of the campaign described in STT 43,” namely Shalmaneser in Ararat, “remain arguable” [2].

The historical validity of the text is problematic, in particular, because the text is a poetic account. As a poetic account, it is first-and-foremost literature, not historical documentation. So, in what follows, I will describe the text while paying close attention to the literary structure of it.

Following Foster’s division, the text may be divided into five sections. First, a narrator invokes Aššur, Ištar, Anu, and a few other deities, who are said to approve of Shalmaneser III. Subsequently, brief reference is made to Shalmaneser III’s success concerning his incursion into northern Syria (lines 7-10). By referencing this incursion as having happened, it may strengthen the legitimacy of Shalmaneser’s speech/actions or provide a historical time-frame for the time at which the poetic account takes place (or perhaps both).

Second, lines 11-24 contain a speech by Shalmaneser III to his general and officers.

Third, the people of Assyria ‘shout’ something, providing encouragement to the king [3]. What we have thus far, then, is an interesting development within the first half of the text:

Shalmaneser III / His general (11-16)
Shalmaneser III / His officers (17-25)
Assyrian people / Shalmaneser III (26-30)

This brief overview suggests that the text moves from a specific individual to a broader group. Only after this does the text transition into battle (lines 31-32 mark the transition; lines 33-60 describe the battle), which is the fourth section.

Now, description of the battle is spoken by Shalmaneser III, the most drawn out, uninterrupted speech in Shalmaneser in Ararat. Its length, at least in comparison to the short speeches in lines 11-30, suggests that it is the most central aspect to the poem. This is reinforced by the fact that it is narrated in the style of Assyrian royal inscriptions.

Thus, what appears to happen is a sort of crescendo in terms of the amount of people. Shalmaneser III speaks to a specific individual, to a small group of important military leaders, and then Assyrian people revere Shalmaneser III. In each case, though, Shalmaneser III is the central character in the text. Moreover, the shift to Assyrian people revering Shalmaneser III is significant because it is in the very center of the text, making for a nice structure wherein the Assyrian praise marks a shift from Shalamaneser III preparing to Shalmaneser III going on the campaign.

Finally, the fifth section suggests a festival for Ištar of Arbela upon Shalmaneser III’s return to Aššur after the campaign. 

What is readily apparent in this text, then, is the centrality of Shalmaneser’s speech and actions. For, each section either features a past action of, speech by, or speech revering Shalmaneser III:

Speech about (lines 1-9)
Speech by (lines 10-25)
Speech revering (lines 26-32)
Speech by (lines 33-60)
Speech about (lines 61-65)

In short, this poetic account of an alleged incursion by Shalmaneser III fronts Shalmaneser’s speech as a way of legitimizing his role as the king of Assyria. Although the historical validity of the text is questionable, it is, nonetheless, reflective of an era wherein Mesopotamian kings enjoyed bragging about their exploits in order to strengthen their legitimacy as divinely ordained kings.


[1] W. G. Lambert, “The Sultantepe Tablets, VIII. Shalmaneser in Ararat,” in AnSt 11 (1961), 143-158; Kirk Grayson, RIMA 3, 84; Foster, Before the Muses, 3rd Edition (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pg. 779.

[2] Julian Reade, “Shalmaneser or Ashurnasirpal in Ararat,” in SAAB 3 (1989), 97.

[3] The text in these lines is unclear. Grayson, RIMA 3, 84, suggests shouted, whereas Foster, pg. 780, suggests heard. On the basis of the genre, ‘shouted’ is preferable. This will be explained below.