Sardanapalus

Sardanapalus, the last King of the Assyrian empire, lived as a woman. He spent his days with his concubines, in women’s activities, making women’s clothes in purple and soft wool. He dressed as a woman, and used makeup and unguents like a courtesan. So his body was more delicate than the most pampered woman’s. He made his voice like a woman’s, and held great feasts where he had sex with men and women.

This conduct caused the destruction of the Assyrian empire. Sardanapalus’s vassal Arbaces, general of the Medes, bribed his way into the king’s presence, and when he had seen how effeminate the king was he despised him, and conspired to revolt with the Persians.

Sardanapalus led his loyal troops into battle on the plain, defeating the rebels. He chased the remnant to a camp in the mountains, where he defeated them again, then retired to hold a great feast in his camp. But Arbaces persuaded the Bactrians to join the revolt, attacked the badly defended camp in the night, and pursued the remnant back to Nineveh. Sardanapalus appointed his sister’s husband general, and the rebels killed so many the rivers flowed red. All the subject nations now fought for their liberty, and laid siege to Nineveh. The city held out until the Euphrates flooded, breaking down its walls. Sardanapalus killed himself with his concubines and eunuchs in a great conflagration consuming all his gold, silver and rich fabrics.

This is the story told by Diodorus Siculus, in his “Library of History”, a history of the world written in the first century BCE. Diodorus was a Stoic, who made of this history a morality tale. He got the story from Ctesias, whose book is lost.

Nineveh fell in 612 BC under siege by the Medes and Babylonians, who had rebelled against Assyria, when Sinsharishkun was king. The siege took three months, not the three years Diodorus claimed. Sardanapalus may be a corruption of the name Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal ruled from 668 to 631 BCE, defeated Babylon and created the first systematic library in the world, a collection of over 30,000 clay tablets. He and Sinsharishkun are depicted like all Assyrian rulers with long, full beards, and there is no suggestion either was trans in contemporaneous sources. Ashurbanipal ruled the largest empire the world had ever seen, and Nineveh, with a population of about 120,000, was probably the largest city in the world.

The Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, relief sculptures from his palace, is in the British Museum. Lions were a symbol of the enemies of the people, and kings made ritual lion hunts.

Sinsharishkun probably died defending Nineveh, and was succeeded by his son. Ashur-uballit II ruled from Harran in modern Turkey, in alliance with Egypt, until 610 when the Babylonians seized that city. He attempted to retake the city in 609 but failed.

So, why the legend? Diodorus tells his story for our moral edification. Sensual indulgence is Bad. The steadfast man can recover from apparently crippling defeat. The man who celebrates prematurely loses. The historian shows men showing Stoic virtue winning, and men showing Epicurean vice losing.

The symbol of vice is dressing as a woman. It is the worst way to be unmanly, but also the clearest way to show unmanliness.

However, the moral lesson could be imparted merely by saying the King neglected his duties, and spent his time indulging his desires. Look at the detail. Sardanapalus has a woman’s voice, and makes his body soft like a woman’s. He paints his face and wears soft clothing. He spends his days with women, in women’s activities, and his nights feasting and having sex. It is a fantasy. Despite Diodorus’s reiterated contempt and condemnation, he finds it tempting, and knows some of his readers will too. He cannot bear to acknowledge it, but feminisation is his secret delight. The story has a 1400 word Wikipedia article which gets around 100 views a day: it has delighted readers ever since Diodorus, and continues to do so.

10 thoughts on “Sardanapalus

  1. The main reason I had to embark on a gender transition was that my desires were keeping me from fulfilling my duties. Attending to either, and doing so exclusive of each other, became unsustainable. My desire was to be a woman; my duty to be a productive human being. Sharing the time and energy it took to do both led to the obvious conclusion that I, as a woman, could be a productive human being. I had not the time and energy to devote to both separately.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. We sung this at school: Nineveh city was a city of Sin, the jazzin’ and the jiving made a terrible din and the Lord when he heard it said Bless my Soul, The people in the city danced night and day, no time to work no time to pray and the Lord when he saw it said This Ain’t Right.. l think it’s about Jonah who ran away from God’s command to attack the City with a righteous mob.

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    • Beat groups playin’ a Rock n Roll
      They went on dancing by day and night

      Why on Earth is that “ain’t right”??

      Added: Oh! It goes on!

      We let our hair down in plenty and boy we had the blues on the run
      But even though we have repented our dancin’ days ain’t done
      Dancin’ in praise of the Lord, singin’ his praises all night
      Spreadin’ the gospel word, everythin’s turned out right

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this interesting post, Clare. My specialism is ancient literature and any trans characters who happen to turn up in it. Funnily enough, I wrote about Roman emperor Elagabalus in my blog only last week. He was described by one ancient commentator as a Sardanapalus, one without the virile qualities supposedly required to be a proper and effective ruler. And yet throughout history we see the effects of virile rule: wars, oppression, hierarchy and callousness. High time for the feminine touch, methinks. Sue x

    Liked by 1 person

    • I saw your post. I felt mildly embarrassed, as my Elagabalus post took Gibbon’s account uncritically. Henry VI lost his forebears’ territories in France, but he founded Eton College, which at the time was an expansion of education where fathers could not afford tutors, King’s College Cambridge and All Souls College Oxford. So he has a better legacy and arguably better results for the people at the time than the warmongers. My comments on blogspots seem just to disappear, as if treated as spam.

      Yes, I write too much, but it is not all trans related, and this post might appeal to a different trans audience than my Johann Lamont post.

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