Masculinities in the State Arts of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

On 23 January 2020, Omar N’Shea from the University of Malta presented his research on ancient masculinities at the Ancient and Medieval Middle East Seminar.

Recent analyses of international political figures have shown that gender expressions, especially in representation across a number of media platforms, plays a significant role in how the public perceives them and their discourse. If gender could be a tool for individuals, institutions, kingdoms, nations, and imperial formations to negotiate or legitimate a place within a social or political order, then masculinities have certainly been at the forefront of these battles for power and prestige. And if media writers and artists employ gendered images and discourses to convey intended messages to their target audience today, then this insight might help researchers working on political formations in antiquity to pose new questions to their source materials. Is gender a legitimate category of analysis for pre-classical antiquity, and if so, how was masculinity constructed and to what ends?

In my talk, I looked closely at the imperial formation in ancient northern Iraq known as the Neo-Assyrian empire, a kingdom that ruled over a large swathe of territory from Iran to Lebanon, and from Turkey to the Arabian Gulf, from the 9th to the late 7th centuries BC. In these centuries, a massive project of cultural production was undertaken by the sovereigns and their scholars, scribes, and craftsmen, to establish a world-centre of written and visual culture befitting of the ‘king of the four quarters’. Of the 13 monarchs that ruled in the name of the god Assur in this period, the visual and artistic legacy of 7 of them is available to us in the form of figural bas-reliefs on limestone orthostats that lined some of walls in the public and residential quarters of their palaces (sometimes also including cuneiform summaries of their legacies or epigraphs), bronze repoussé bands for city gates, polychromatic wall paintings, and glazed brickwork. Among the other state arts, we find royal inscriptions and archival documents like letters, queries to the sungod Shamash seeking advice on domestic and foreign policy, prophecies, literary compositions, and oracular reports. These written sources are now available to researchers in up-to-date translations and standard editions.

When brought together, these sources allow one to reconsider the image of Assyrian kingship borne out of the sources available before the publication of these corpora, that is, those representations of the Assyrian king as coercive despot whose ideological imperative is to expand the territorial mass of Assyria under the divine command of the gods, to build unrivaled palaces and decorate them with exquisite craftsmanship, to worship the deities appropriately and effectively, and to hunt for the establishment of both real and symbolic order out of chaos. By cross-examining the data sets, my research aims to show that gender in general, and masculinity in particular, were central to Assyrian royal ideology and its discursive regimes, and that for each individual king, the self-image as hegemonic male at the top of the state hierarchy is configured differently depending on the intended message, target audience, authorial agency, collective decision-making, scholarly advice, and the affordance of the medium itself on which the image was displayed figuratively or in writing.

By looking semiotically (vertically and horizontally) at the Neo-Assyrian sequence of royal representation, I show that in the textual media, the king’s masculinity foregrounds his physical prowess in the battlefield, with our without what Jack Halberstam calls the prosthetic scaffolding of masculinity (that is, the blessed weapons of war). In the visual messages, however, Neo-Assyrian kings could not be shown in direct combat with other men. Perhaps due to visual decorum, or as a matter of the differences in visual and textual ideologies, or even as a result of the conceptual differences in the affordances of written and figurative messages, Assyrian kings performed and displayed their masculinities differently not only from one reign to the next, but also within the same one.

Furthermore, I argue that Neo-Assyrian kings had a penchant for cross-species identification, frequently referring to themselves as lions, bulls, eagles, or as natural phenomena like thunder. Through the linguistic tropes of metaphor and simile, the inchoate identity of sovereignty was masculinised and shaped for credibility in the arena of ‘international’ politics and diplomatic affairs. On the other hand, the very contradictory nature of masculinity opens the space for the undoing of this symbiotic relationship between man and beast, as manifested in the violent encounter between the two in the official royal seal, the hunting narratives in the royal inscriptions, and in the combat and hunting scenes on the bas-reliefs.

I finished my talk with theoretical detour into necropolitics and biopower as they intersect with constructions of masculinities as proposed by Beatriz Paul Preciado. In this way, I attempt to make sense of the emergence of a new identity at the Assyrian court, that of the eunuch. I argue that eunuchs represent both an effective tool of imperial administration as provincial governors, and also as a form of necropolitical biopower whose manhood and procreative abilities are hijacked and re-engineered by the state.

To conclude, therefore, I came back to the methodological issue of studying gender in the Neo-Assyrian period. Investigating the many, and sometimes contradictory, ways of being hegemonically masculine in the primary sources at our disposal reveals that universal notions of masculinity in representation do not hold water, and that shifts are meaningful reflections as well as foundations for the construction of identity.