A Piece of Propaganda


Just as Sargon's sculptures were carved to impress, so were the tales of his exploits. 

Part of the issue of interpreting Sargon’s letter to Assur is the purpose it was designed to serve: as seen from the text, it was not meant to be a historical record of the campaign itself. The letter was clearly written with the intent to circulate it throughout Assyria, at least verbally, to speak of Sargon’s greatness. It was, in its essence, a piece of propaganda created by Sargon’s scribes (while Sargon himself clearly did not write the letter, for sake of ease, I shall speak as though he did in this section). The letter was clearly designed with a duality of purpose in this regard: to on the one hand stress Sargon’s humility to the gods, and on the other, his ability to humiliate his enemies.

The religious aspect is clear: the very text was addressed as a letter to the god Assur, “father of the gods” (line 1). Sargon spends the first three lines exhausting the gods, and in the forth declares that all is “exceedingly well with Sargon, high priest, the servant who fears your great divinity” (line 4). Sargon goes on to invoke the gods before each major engagement he faces. For example, before his battle with Metatti of Zikirt, Sargon appeals “to Assur, king of all the great gods, lord of the lands, creator of (prophetic) vision, king of the totality of the great gods, who illuminates the regions of the earth, the all-powerful lord of Assur, who in the fury of his great anger humbled the princes of the regions (of the world) and made the ignoble their equal” (line 116-117). From the very beginning of the letter, and all the way through, Sargon portrays himself as reverent and respectful.

While Sargon goes to great lengths to emphasis his own power, a matter that will be discussed below, he is sure to always give credit to the gods. Having entered Mannean territory, Sargon thanks the “wide knowledge” given to him by Ea and the mistress of the gods, which “enabled me to destroy the land of my enemy (line 23). Indeed, after a victory in Mannea, Sargon describes how “to Nergal, Adad and Ishtar, the lords of battle, to the gods who inhabit heaven and earth and to the gods who dwell in Assyria” he “offered enormous numbers of pure sacrificial animals… came before them with prostrations and prayers, …extolled their divinity” (lines 160-161). Sargon is sure to offer proper sacrifice and prayer for his victory on the battlefield.

On the converse, Sargon warns of the consequences that come with not respecting the gods. For, he “who does not fear his name, trusting in his own might, despising the greatness of his divinity, and boasting, (Assur) metes out, in his anger, swift punishment in battle, shattering his arms and scattering to the wind his forces and equipment” (lines 119-120). However, he “who causes to walk at his side him who observes the law of the gods, who trusts in the gracious justice of Shamash, and fears the godhead of Assur and Enlil, who does not despise the weak, he makes him to stand in triumph upon his foes and enemies” (lines 121-122). By showing his reverence for the gods, Sargon sets the example for those throughout Assyria, and would have believed he secured himself good fortune for future campaigns.

More than anything, however, Sargon uses the letter to assert his dominance and stress his power. Sargon utilizes a repetitive structure resembling that of epic poetry when describing his conquests, hinting perhaps that this letter was memorized and recounted as epic poetry was. While there are many examples, it would be pointless here to list them all. Instead, I shall present one example from later in the letter.

Having left Armiarali, Sargon lists all the cities he encounters and raises in the region all “30 of its strong cities, which line the shore of the terrible sea, at the foot of great mountains, and all stand out like boundary stones” (line 286). In typical fashion here, Sargon stresses the difficulty of the challenge that lay ahead of him, referring to “Argishtiuna, Kallania, its strong fortresses, erected among them, shining above Mount Arsidu and Mount Mahunnia, like stars, —their foundation walls were visible to a height of 240 cubits” (line 287-288). Within these walls Sargon describes the soldiers of the local ruler, “his warriors, his picked troops, powerful in battle, bearing shield and lance, the defense of his land, were stationed therein” (289). These troops were of course no match for his own, and had heard of his successes. Indeed, according to Sargon, “they saw the overthrow of Armarialî, their neighboring province, and their legs trembled” (line 290). Having debased the enemy troops, Sargon would then methodically describe the siege, but more often than not, he describes how the enemy forces “abandoned their cities with their possessions and fled like birds into the midst of those fortresses” (line 291). He then goes on to boast of his accomplishments, saying how in this case his troops “carried off large quantities of their property, their goods. Their strong walls, together with 87 cities of their neighborhood, I destroyed, I leveled to the ground” (line 292-3). Sargon often revels in the description of the destruction. Here, he tells how “I set fire to the houses within them, and made the beams of their roofs like flame. Their heaped-up granaries I opened and let my army devour unmeasured quantities of barley. Their orchards I cut down, their forests I felled; all their tree trunks I gathered together and set them on fire” (line 294-6). Note the use of I here at the end of the tale: Sargon often stresses his own personal agency in the success of his operations.

Sargon’s use of the letter as propaganda was likely twofold: to both celebrate and scare. His long description of the bounty taken from Musasir, lasting no less than 52 lines, was clearly meant to be a celebration of all that his campaign had gained. His claim at the end of the letter that over the course of the campaign only “1 charioteer, 2 riders and 3 infantry were killed,” while clearly untrue, was designed to celebrate Assyrian dominance over those other civilizations around them. However, such a strong description of his military might, and his ruthlessness in pursuing and killing any enemy that flees, was most likely meant also as a warning to his people and those around him: revolt and rise up if you dare.

Sargon’s boastings cause their own problems for our attempts to plot his route. It’s often hard to break through his hyperbole to see what is true, and what is not. When every fortress is described as the strongest in the kingdom, it makes tracing any ruins found back to the text difficult. One tangible instance is his description when crossing the mountains into Mannea. Sargon claims that the the mountain they traversed, Simirriu, was “the highest peak of the mountains which lunges up like the point of a spear, raising its head above the mountains, the dwelling of the mistress of the gods” (line 18). While he may have been honestly reporting the events, he may also have been exaggerating to make greater his own achievements.