Sennacherib (Akkadian: Sîn-ahhī-erība "Sîn has replaced (lost) brothers for me"; Aramaic: ܣܝܼܢ ܐܵܗܝܼ ܐܹܪܝܼܒܵܐ) was the son of Sargon II, whom he succeeded on the throne of Assyria (704 – 681 BC).
Rise to power
As the crown prince, Sennacherib was placed in charge of the Assyrian Empire while his father, Sargon II, was on campaign. Unlike his predecessors, Sennacherib's reign was not largely marked by military campaigns, but mainly by architectural renovations, constructions, and expansions. After the violent death of his father, Sennacherib encountered numerous problems in establishing his power and faced threats to his domain. However, he was able to overcome these power struggles and ultimately carry out his building projects. During his reign, he moved the empire's capital from his father's newly-constructed city of Dur-Sharrukin to the old city and former capital of Nineveh. It is considered striking that Sennacherib not only left his father's city, but also doesn’t name him in any official inscription during his reign.
War with Babylon
Assyrian warriors armed with slings from the palace of Sennacherib, 7th century BCE
During his reign Sennacherib encountered various problems with Babylonia. His first campaign took place in 703 BC against Marduk-apla-iddina II who had seized the throne of Babylon and gathered an alliance supported by Chaldeans, Aramaeans, and Elamites. We can date the visit of Babylonian ambassadors to Hezekiah of Judah in this period. The allies wanted to make use of the unrest that arose at the accession of Sennacherib. Sennacherib split his army and had one part attack the stationed enemy at Kish while he and the rest of the army proceeded to capture the city Cutha. After that was done the king returned swiftly to aid the rest of his army. The rebellion was defeated and Marduk-apla-iddina II fled. Babylon was taken, and its palace plundered but its citizens were left unharmed. The Assyrians searched for Marduk-apla-iddina II, especially in the southern marshes, but he was not found. The rebellion forces in the Babylonian cities were wiped out and a Babylonian named Bel-ibni who was raised at the Assyrian court was placed on the throne. When the Assyrians left, Marduk-apla-iddina II started to prepare another rebellion. In 700 BC the Assyrian army returned to fight the rebels in the marshes again. Not surprisingly, Marduk-apla-iddina II fled again to Elam and died there.
Bel-Ibni proved to be disloyal to Assyria and was taken back a prisoner. Sennacherib tried to solve the problem of the Babylonian rebellion by placing someone loyal to him on the throne, namely his son Ashur-nadin-shumi. It didn’t help. Another campaign was led six years later, in 694 BC, to destroy the Elamite base on the shore of the Persian Gulf. To accomplish this, Sennacherib had obtained Phoenician and Syrian boats which sailed with the rest of his army down the Tigris to the sea. The Phoenicians were not used to the tide of the Persian Gulf which caused a delay. The Assyrians battled the Chaldeans at the river Ulaya and won the day. While the Assyrians were busy at the Persian Gulf, the Elamites invaded northern Babylonia in a complete surprise. Sennacherib's son was captured and taken to Elam and his throne was taken over by Nergal-Ushezib. The Assyrians fought their way back north and captured various cities, in the meanwhile a year had passed as it was now 693 BC.
A large battle was fought against the Babylonian rebels at Nippur, their king was captured and in turn taken to Nineveh. For the loss of his son Sennacherib launched another campaign into Elam where his army started to plunder cities. The Elamite king fled to the mountains and Sennacherib was forced to return home because of the coming winter. Another rebellion leader, named Mushezib-Marduk claimed the Babylonian throne and was supported by Elam. The last great battle was fought in 691 BC with an uncertain result which enabled Mushezib-Marduk to remain on the throne for another two years. This was only a brief respite because shortly afterwards Babylon was besieged which led to its fall in 689 BC. Sennacherib claimed to have destroyed the city and indeed the city was unoccupied for several years.
War with Judah
In 701 BC, a rebellion backed by Egypt and Babylonia broke out in Judah, led by King Hezekiah. In response Sennacherib sacked a number of cities in Judah. He laid siege to Jerusalem, but soon returned to Nineveh, with Jerusalem not having been sacked, in order to put down an attempted coup. This event was recorded by Sennacherib himself, by Herodotus, and by several Biblical writers.
According to the Bible, the siege failed because the angel of YHWH went forth and struck down 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp (2 Kings 19:35).
Some of the Assyrian chronicles, such as the baked-clay Taylor prism now preserved in the British Museum, and the similar Sennacherib prism, preserved in the Oriental Institute, Chicago, date from very close to the time. (see also: Military history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire) (The Taylor Prism itself bears the date "the month of Tammuz; eponym of Galihu, governor of Hatarikka" which is Tammuz in the year 689 BC, according to the Assyrian Eponym List). Assyrian accounts do not treat it as a disaster, but a great victory - they maintain that the siege was so successful that Hezekiah was forced to give a monetary tribute, and the Assyrians left victoriously, without losses of thousands of men, and without sacking Jerusalem. Part of this is indeed confirmed in the Biblical account, but it is still debated fiercely by historians. In the Taylor Prism, Sennacherib states that he had shut up Hezekiah the Judahite within Jerusalem, his own royal city, like a caged bird.
An artist's impression of Sennacherib's army battling in Lachish against Judea
Sennacherib first recounts several of his previous victories, and how his enemies had become overwhelmed by his presence. He was able to do this to Great Sidon, Little Sidon, Bit-Zitti, Zaribtu, Mahalliba, Ushu, Akzib and Akko. After taking each of these cities, Sennacherib installed a puppet leader named Ethbaal as ruler over the entire region. Sennacherib then turned his attention to Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banai-Barqa, and Azjuru, cities that were ruled by Sidqia and also fell to Sennacherib.
Egypt and Nubia then came to the aid of the stricken cities. Sennacherib defeated the Egyptians and, by his own account, single-handedly captured the Egyptian and Nubian charioteers. Sennacherib captured and sacked several other cities, including Lachish (the second most-strongly fortified city in the Kingdom of Judah). He punished the "criminal" citizens of the cities, and he reinstalled Padi, their leader, who had been held as a hostage in Jerusalem.
After this, Sennacherib turned to King Hezekiah of Judah, who refused to submit to him. Forty-six of Hezekiah's cities (cities 1st millennium BC terms ranged in size from large modern-day towns to villages) were conquered by Sennacherib, but Jerusalem did not fall. His own account of this invasion, as given in the Taylor prism, is as follows:
" Because Hezekiah, king of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took 46 of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude; and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates, so as to prevent escape... Then upon Hezekiah there fell the fear of the power of my arms, and he sent out to me the chiefs and the elders of Jerusalem with 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, and diverse treasures, a rich and immense booty... All these things were brought to me at Nineveh, the seat of my government. "
The Biblical account of Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem begins with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria. This is how the ten northern tribes came to be known as the Ten Lost Tribes, because as recorded in II Kings 17, they were carried off and settled with other peoples as was the Assyrian policy. II Kings 18-19 (and parallel passage II Chronicles 32:1-23) details Sennacherib's attack on Judah and capital Jerusalem. Hezekiah had rebelled against the Assyrians, so they had captured all of the towns in Judah. Hezekiah realized his error and sent great tribute to Sennacherib. But the Assyrians nevertheless marched toward Jerusalem. Sennacherib sent his supreme commander with an army to besiege Jerusalem while he himself went to fight with the Egyptians. The supreme commander met with Hezekiah's officials and threatened them to surrender; while hailing insults so the people of the city could hear, blaspheming Judah and particularly YHWH. When the King Hezekiah heard of this, he tore his clothes (as was the custom of the day for displaying deep anguish) and prayed to YHWH in the Temple. Isaiah the prophet told the king that YHWH would take care of the whole matter and that he would return to his own lands. That night, the angel of YHWH killed 185,000 Assyrian troops. Jewish tradition maintains that archangel Gabriel (along with Michael in the Targum's version) was the angel sent to destroy the Assyrian troops, and that the destruction occurred on Passover night. Sennacherib soon returned to Nineveh in disgrace. Some years later, while Sennacherib was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisroch, two of his sons killed him and fled. Some[who?] suggest that Psalm 46 was composed as a Song of Deliverance that was led by the Korahite Levitical singers and accompanied by the Alamoth (maidens with tambourines) and sung by the inhabitants of Jerusalem after their successful defense of the city from the siege.
Disaster in Egypt according to Herodotus
The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote his Histories ca. 450 BC, speaks of a divinely-appointed disaster destroying an army of Sennacherib (2:141):
" when Sanacharib, king of the Arabians and Assyrians, marched his vast army into Egypt, the warriors one and all refused to come to his (i.e., the Pharaoh Sethos) aid. On this the monarch, greatly distressed, entered into the inner sanctuary, and, before the image of the god, bewailed the fate which impended over him. As he wept he fell asleep, and dreamed that the god came and stood at his side, bidding him be of good cheer, and go boldly forth to meet the Arabian host, which would do him no hurt, as he himself would send those who should help him. Sethos, then, relying on the dream, collected such of the Egyptians as were willing to follow him, who were none of them warriors, but traders, artisans, and market people; and with these marched to Pelusium, which commands the entrance into Egypt, and there pitched his camp. As the two armies lay here opposite one another, there came in the night, a multitude of field-mice, which devoured all the quivers and bowstrings of the enemy, and ate the thongs by which they managed their shields. Next morning they commenced their fight, and great multitudes fell, as they had no arms with which to defend themselves. There stands to this day in the temple of Vulcan, a stone statue of Sethos, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect - 'Look on me, and learn to reverence the gods.' "
According to F. Ll. Griffith, an attractive hypothesis is to identify the Pharaoh as Taharqa before his succession, and Sethos as his Memphitic priestly title, "supposing that he was then governor of Lower Egypt and high-priest of Ptah, and that in his office of governor he prepared to move on the defensive against a threatened attack by Sennacherib. While Taharqa was still in the neighbourhood of Pelusium, some unexpected disaster may have befallen the Assyrian host on the borders of Palestine and arrested their march on Egypt." (Stories of the High Priests of Memphis: The Sethon of Herodotus and the Demotic Tales of Khamuas (1900), p. 11.
During Sennacherib's reign, Nineveh evolved into the leading Metropolis of the empire. His building projects started almost as soon as he became king. Already in 703 BC he had built a palace complete with park and artificial irrigation he called his new home ‘The palace without rival’. For this ambitious project an old palace was torn down to make more room. In addition to his own large gardens, several small gardens were made for the citizens of Nineveh. He also constructed the first ever aqueduct, at Jerwan in 690 BCE, which supplied the large demand of water in Nineveh. The narrow alleys and squares of Nineveh were cleaned up and enlarged, and a royal road and avenue were constructed, which crossed a bridge on its approach to the park gate and which was lined on both sides with stelae. Temples were restored and built during his reign, as is the duty of the king. Most notable is his work on the Assur (god) and the new year (Akitu) temples. He also expanded the city defences which included a moat surrounding the city walls. Some of his city walls have been restored and can still be seen nowadays. The labour for his giant building project was performed by people of Que, Cilicia, Philistia, Tyre, and Chaldeans, Aramaeans, and Mannaeans who were there involuntarily.
Sennacherib has been credited with the invention of the Archimedes screw for the purpose of irrigation, although evidence for this is contentious.
Sennacherib was killed by two of his sons for his desecration of Babylon.  One story tells of one of Sennacherib's sons toppling a giant lammasu onto him, crushing him to death. He was ultimately succeeded by another son Esarhaddon.
In popular culture
A 1813 poem by Lord Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib, commemorates Sennacherib's campaign in Judea from the Hebrew point of view. Written in anapestic tetrameter, the poem was popular in school recitations.
In the 1992 Virgin New Adventures novel Doctor Who: Love and War by Paul Cornell, the human space-ship captain - Shiranka Hall - who discovers the planet Heaven at first briefly considers naming the planet Sennacherib (spelt in the novel "Senacharib") after a character in a book (presumably the Bible) he had read a long time ago. He eventually rejects the idea because the name would be a private joke.