I Am Ashurbanipal

A Guardian review of a major exhibit at the British Museum (hat tip: Bill Campbell):

‘Some of the most appalling images ever created’

Whether wrestling lions or skinning prisoners alive, the Assyrian king ran a murderously efficient empire. This is the art of war – and it’s terrifying

By Jonathan Jones

You have to hand it to the ancient Assyrians – they were honest. Their artistic propaganda relishes every detail of torture, massacre, battlefield executions and human displacement that made Assyria the dominant power of the Middle East from about 900 to 612BC. Assyrian art contains some of the most appalling images ever created. In one scene, tongues are being ripped from the mouths of prisoners. That will mute their screams when, in the next stage of their torture, they are flayed alive. In another relief a surrendering general is about to be beheaded and in a third prisoners have to grind their fathers’ bones before being executed in the streets of Nineveh.

These and many more episodes of calculated cruelty can be seen carved in gypsum in the British Museum’s blockbuster recreation of Assyria’s might. Assyrian art makes up in tough energy what it lacks in human tenderness. It is an art of war – all muscle, movement, impact. People and animals are portrayed as fierce cartoons of merciless force.

Yet behind the conquests these eye-blistering reliefs depict, lay an intricate system of bureaucracy and a passion for logistics. I Am Ashurbanipal is a portrait of the banality of empire. Just as Hannah Arendt argued that the Holocaust was perpetrated by characterless paper-pushers, not flamboyant sadists, so we find here that Assyrian atrocities – including the forced resettlement of thousands of Israelites – were not the product of random mayhem but diligent organisation.

Read the whole thing. One question is: did this art actually reflect reality, or was it just propaganda to scare people into submission? (I suppose it must have been real on some level; at some point your threats have to be backed up with actual violence.)

I’m glad we don’t have to live under such a regime.

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