Tiglath Pilese referred to himself as unrivalled king of the universe, king of the four quarters..
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Look at this bas-relief found at a palace in Nimrud…
…it depicts the humiliation of one man by another.
Some sources identify the prostrate figure as Hanunu, a king who ruled Gaza in the 8th Century BCE. Others simply identify him as a captured enemy.
Either way, the one thing everyone agrees on is that the foot placed upon his neck belongs to Tiglath-Pileser III (745 – 727 BCE), an Assyrian king who laid the groundwork for modern imperialism and began a long line of Assyria’s greatest kings.
Whooooooo Was He/Who-Who Who-Who?
Tiglath-Pileser III is the first king we’re covering at All Mesopotamia that has been mentioned on the Assyrian King List (as well as the first Assyrian king to be mentioned in the bible). Though his reign is nowhere near being the first to occur within the traditional (and disputed) timeline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (934 – 610 BCE or 912 – 612 BCE), some scholars believe this era began with Tiglath-Pileser III’s ascent to the throne in 745 BCE.
Being the third ruler in Assyria to carry the name Tiglath-Pileser—which is the Hebraic form of the Akkadian Tukulti-apil-Ešarra, which translates to “my trust/support is in the son of Esharra,” which refers to Ninurta, the god of war and hunting—you’d think he was related to at least one of the other two Tiglath-Pilesers. But he wasn’t. The first and second Tiglath-Pilesers ruled during what scholars have labeled the Middle-Assyrian period; one was during the 11th Century BCE, the other in the 10th Century BCE, respectively.
The gap grows wider and the direct relation is completely taken off the table when we remember that the third Tiglath-Pileser’s reign was in the 8th Century BCE.
Nonetheless, there is blood in this story.
Tiglath Pileser III shown in his chariot in this panel from his palace at Nimrud. (Source)
Of course, it’s not uncommon for unrelated kings to share a name, especially when the name is a nod to a deity (and truth be told, Tiglath-Pileser III never linked himself to his first two namesakes), but what makes TPIII’s choice so interesting is the inherent murkiness of his origins. (I will call him TPIII throughout the rest of this post.)
Though he presented himself as the son of Adad-nirari III (811 – 783 BCE), scholars question the truth of this relation, because there are three other guys between Adad-nirari III and TPIII on the Assyrian King List. Also, two of those guys are the actual sons of Adad-nirari III, with his grandson ruling in the gap between their reigns.
Oh, and another thing: in 1892, a stele was discovered that showed TPIII’s name imprinted over one of those three guys’ names. Add to that the scantiness of information about anyone mentioned here, including Adad-nirari III, and you’ve got yourself a fishy situation in some very murky (and bloody) waters.
The Assyrian Shady
An alabaster bas-relief depicting the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III. From the central palace, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), Mesopotamia, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian era, circa 728 BCE. (The British Museum, London)
So, how did such a shady character become one of the most powerful kings of Assyria?
Let’s start with the name Pulu.
Pulu (or Pul as he appears in the bible) was the governor of Kalhu (Nimrud), the capital of a stagnant and waning Assyrian empire, one that was dealing with regional rulers with too much power, serving (or not) under ineffectual kings who were hardly maintaining what their long-gone predecessors had built.
Meanwhile, Assyria’s army, known the ancient world over as the greatest, also began to lose its luster when in 754 BCE it met its match in the kingdom of Urartu‘s army…and lost.
This loss was a significant disaster for Assyria; it grew an already-existing fissure in the empire as its vassal states and allies began to undermine Assyria and look to Urartu as an alternative power to whom they would pledge allegiance. This shift in loyalties also affected Assyria’s coffers, which had been regularly filled with tributes from those very vassal states and allies now looking for other ways to “invest,” if you will. The ripple effect of this loss was long-lasting and reached as far as Babylonia in the south, where in 749 BCE forces were dispatched to protect Assyrian interests.
Needless to say, things just weren’t going well for Assyria during this time, and poor Ashur-nirari V (754 – 745 BCE) had not been king for long before he had to bear the brunt of a half century’s worth of failure and unrest. All this led to civil war, which broke out in 746 BCE and saw the royal family slaughtered, giving way to Tiglath-Pileser III, new king and former governor of Kalhu, aka Pulu.
Really, Machiavelli would’ve given Pulu a nod of approval for slaughtering his way to the top, and, more importantly, setting things up so that the same thing wouldn’t happen to him. Because as we will see, Pulu had a lot of work to do, and he wanted (and apparently needed) it done right.
First Things First
Since it takes one to know one, TPIII’s first order as king was to take power back from regional rulers.
He started by cutting up the larger, more rebellious provinces into little pieces. Over a period of seven years, TPIII had fashioned some 80 provinces through this technique. He then appointed eunuchs to govern all those provinces.
“Two court officials – who are beardless and, therefore, possibly identifiable as eunuchs – are shown marching toward the king. The second figure motions to the line of men that stood behind him to come forward toward the king.” (Source)
Of course, appointing eunuchs would get another Machiavellian nod, as according to Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat (and basic biology), eunuchs were a great way to maintain control over who occupies a position of power without the complication of heirs, much less a pedigree that mattered.
More, More, More
As I said before, TPIII is credited by some scholars with the founding of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which some historians believe is the world’s fir