I seldom give advice, the taste of others being so very different from my own, but I strongly advise anyone who is in London before Feb. 24 to visit the British Museum’s wonderful exhibition I Am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria. If your imagination is not stirred by it I will do as Ozymandias commanded:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Ashurbanipal, for those who can’t tell their Ninevehs from their Tyres or their Medes from their Persians, was the last king of Assyria before it was overrun by the Babylonians. He came to the throne in 669 BC and died in mysterious circumstances, whether of illness or murder nobody actually knows; but in his time, he was the head of the most powerful empire in the Middle East and perhaps the world.
The Tyranny of Good In... Best Price: $6.96 Buy New $8.95 (as of 07:10 EST - Details) To judge from the magnificent carved gypsum wall panels of Ashurbanipal’s palace on display at the exhibition, the king seems to have spent a great deal of time and effort in killing lions, whose habitat in those days extended to what is now Iraq. To prove his prowess, he killed them by his own hand. One panel has him pulling a lion by its tail and clubbing it over the head. Others he shot with arrows, or by ramming spears down their throats. One of the most affecting of the wall panels, at least to a modern sensibility, is that of a lion on its haunches with a spear between its shoulders, spewing blood very shortly before it expired. No doubt the emotion we feel on looking at it is very different from the emotion an Assyrian would have felt on looking at it, pity for lions being a measure of our effeteness.
Actually, Ashurbanipal didn’t really hunt lions in the sense of going out into the wilderness and stalking them himself. He killed captured lions that were let out of their cages in controlled circumstances, surrounded as he was by guards and soldiers who were ready to intervene should the released lions become too frisky and threaten the king. No doubt he was not as well protected as the actor Victor Mature, who once played a part in a film in which he wrestled with a lion, after which he said he had been in danger of being gummed to death, the lion’s teeth having been drawn; but the killing of lions by Ashurbanipal was more of a symbolic or propagandistic nature.
There is one panel in which four dead lions lie at the king’s feet. He is pouring a libation of wine over them, much in the way that English judges used to ask God to have mercy on the soul of those they had just condemned to death.
Now, a man with four dead lions at his feet whom he has just killed is clearly a man of some strength, prowess, power, and importance; and I have to admit that my first thought when I saw the lions thus arrayed and set before Ashurbanipal was of the later Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.