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Art as Expression of Authority: Akkad and Assyria

Art as Expression of Authority: Akkad and Assyria

Author: Ian McConnell

Analyze the ways in which the rulers of Akkad and Assyria used art to express their authority

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about art as authority. As you watch the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you are going to learn today are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain some basic elements of the Steles of Naram-sin and Hammurabi, explain the role of the lammasu as protective figures, and describe the role of art in expressing the authority of the ruling class.

Key terms today, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is stele-- a slab of stone or terra-cotta, usually oblong, carved. Lamassu-- it's a deity of Sumerian origin, usually depicted with a bull's or lion's body, eagle's wings, and a human head. Hieratic scale is a system that represents sizes of things according to importance and based on fixed religious traditions.

Big idea for today is that Akkadian and Assyrian rulers used art to express their authority. Just a quick note. This lesson has required art work, which is listed in purple.

All right, let's take a look at our timeline for today. As usual, I have labeled 0 AD as a reference point. We'll be talking about two different empires today, separated by about 800 years or so-- the Akkadian Empire, which was founded around 2300 BC and dissolved around 2150 BC, and the Assyrian Empire, which rose to power around 1300 BC and dissolved around 612 BC. I've also pointed out the beginning of the Roman Republic as northern reference point.

Quick geography lesson. In addition to the Akkadian and Assyrian Empires, we'll be referring to another empire-- the Babylonian Empire, probably more familiar to you due to its frequent biblical references or perhaps the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. You should keep in mind that these borders were hardly set in stone and changed considerably over time.

We'll begin with modern day Iraq in dark green. Here's Mesopotamia. Modern day Iraq. Two rivers-- Tigris and Euphrates. And here's Mesopotamia.

Now, at one point or another, each of these empires was the dominant force of its day ruling over most of Mesopotamia. Here I'm showing you the origins of two of them-- Syria in the north and Babylonia in the south.

Let's take a look at one of our key terms a bit more in detail. This is a representation of an important guardian deity of Sumerian origin-- the lamassu. It was a potpourri of animal bits and pieces and typically featured the head of a human, the body of a lion or bull, and the wings of an eagle.

This is a relief figure of the lamassu from the palace of Sargon II, who was an Assyrian king, not be confused Sargon of Akkad, who you'll see in a few moments. Lamassu can be seen throughout the remains of his palace and are thought to serve as protective figures, like eternal guardians made of stone. Here you can see the body of a bull, the human head highlighted here, and the wings of an eagle highlighted here. Here it is. Also, notice the use of twisted perspective, for the head is facing the viewer, while the body is in profile.

Let's take another look at one of our key terms-- hieratic scale. Hieratic scale refers to the use of relative size to show relative importance, for the larger the figure, the more important it is. Now, let's look again, for example.

Let's say we have these three figures as part of the same composition. The larger figure would be the most important figure in the composition, such as a deity or king. The next largest would be someone of importance, but less so relative to the larger figures, let's say the son and heir of the king. And the smaller figures would be a people with the least amount of importance, perhaps enemies of the king or one of his slaves or servants.

The use of hieratic scale is frequent throughout ancient Mesopotamian art. And a great example is with the Stele of Naram-sin. Naram-sin was the grandson of Sargon of Akkad, as we'll see in just a moment. A stele is the slab of stone of terra-cotta. It was used as a tool for communication, as we'll see in our next example, as well as a commemoration of an important event, such as the victory of an important battle, as we see here with Naram-sin's conquest of the Lullubi people from Eastern Mesopotamia.

Now, Naram-sin is the most important figure in the composition and, therefore, is the largest figure as well. Now, some of his crew or soldiers can be seen directly beneath him, and they are the next largest figures in the composition. The smallest figures are the enemies of Naram-sin, like the gentleman with a spear-through throw in blue. I'll pull them out for comparison. And you can clearly see the relative size differences, as well as the relative importance.

Now, because we're talking about the importance of art and architecture as a means of demonstrating authority, let me take a moment to highlight another very important aspect of the stele. These rays of light here are thought to represent deities that were important to the Akkadians. Now, conquest under the careful observance and consent of a deity would serve to reinforce the legitimacy of Naram-sin's rule.

Now, this stele is called the Stele of Hammurabi, after the first king of the Babylonian Empire Hammurabi. The stele is depicting two important things. First is the depiction of Hammurabi on the left receiving the law or code of conduct for the Babylonian people from the god Shamash.

Now, this depiction serves to legitimize Hammurabi's code, which is inscribed below. So in addition to being an example of authority and legitimacy for Hammurabi, it also serves as a means of communicating the law to his citizens. The Code of Hammurabi as it's known is one of the longest examples of early writing, as well as one of the first set of codified laws and includes such hits as an eye for an eye or at least it's equivalent, and throwing an alleged adulterous in the water to see if she floated or sink. It's a bit of a catch-22, given that either way, you're dead.

Moving on. This next example is a bust of an Akkadian ruler, likely Sargon of Akkad, aka Sargon the Great. There he is.

It's a highly stylized bronze casting that was once attached to a body, which is now lost, and probably was more of a representation of royalty and authority than the actual appearance of Sargon himself. Portraying someone in an idealized form was a way of impressing observers and reinforcing their authority. The damage to the eye is thought to be intentional as a way of destroying the power of the image.

Now, the rooms in two palaces of ancient Akkadia and Assyria were decorated with reliefs depicting manly scenes, like hunting and battle. And these were intended as a means of impressing guests to the palace and, again, a way of displaying their authority.

Now, this is a famous relief titled the Dying Lioness. And she's shown as pierced with three arrows, dragging her legs, and moaning in pain. And not only would the slaughter of dangerous and powerful animals raised your, I guess, credibility in the eyes of others, but probably served as a source of amusement for the viewers as well. This particular relief is from the palace of Ashurbanipal, the last King of the Assyrian Empire in Ancient Nineveh in Northern Iraq.

Now scenes of battle with the home team winning, of course, were another popular subject for palace reliefs. Powerful rulers had powerful armies, after all. And rulers wanted to ensure that this was ingrained in the hearts and minds of their subjects and opponents.

This particular scene is from the Palace of Ashurbanipal in the ancient city of Nimrud, near the ancient city of Nineveh, and more north of the modern day city of Baghdad. It depicts archers firing upon enemies behind the protective shield of another soldier.

So now that we've reached the end of our lesson, let's look at our objectives again to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain some basic elements of the Steles of Naram-sin and Hammurabi? Can you explain the role of the lammasu as protective figures? And can you describe the role of art in expressing the authority of the ruling class?

Once again, the big idea for today is that Akkadian and Assyrian rulers used art to express their authority. And that's it. Thank you for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Terms to Know
Hieratic Scale

A system that represents sizes of things according to importance and based on fixed religious traditions.


A deity of Sumerian origin, usually depicted with a bull’s or lion’s body, eagle’s wings, and a human head.


A slab of stone or terra-cotta, usually oblong, carved.