Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria (744-727 BC)

Assyria's territories were greatly enlarged during the reign of Tiglath-pileser (or Tiglatpileser) III who annexed regions to the west of the Euphrates river and to the east of the Zagros main ridge. In 729 BC, this Assyrian king also seized the crown of Babylon. He seems to have died peacefully of old age and was succeeded by his son and chosen heir, Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC).

This stele shows the storm god who was the principal deity of most of northern Syria, including Arpad PGP . Standing atop his sacred animal, the bull, he is brandishing lightning bolts in both hands. The stele dates to the period of Tiglath-pileser III and was excavated in the Assyrian city of Hadattu PGP  (modern Arslan Tash in Syria). Louvre, AO 13092; photo by Karen Radner. View large image.

Assyria's waning hegemony over the Middle East

In the first half of the 8th century BC, Assyria found itself in a precarious situation. With the rise of Urartu in eastern Anatolia, Assyrian supremacy was no longer automatically accepted by its western neighbours, the smaller kingdoms in Syria and Anatolia. The treaties binding these states to Assyria and guaranteeing their tribute for the Assyrian treasury were vulnerable as long as swearing allegiance to Urartu was a realistic alternative.

At that time, Urartu's army was certainly Assyria's equal and in 754 BC, just as Aššur-nerari V (754-745 BC) had ascended to the Assyrian throne, Sarduri II, king of Urartu, defeated the Assyrian army in Arpad PGP , an Assyrian vassal state in northern Syria. This glorious achievement was celebrated in Sarduri's inscriptions and was quite clearly a disaster for Assyria: in the succeeding years, Assyrian troops did not leave the borders of Assyria. Only in 749 BC was a new expedition mounted - not against Urartu but instead to the border with Babylonia where Assyrian interests were now endangered as well.

Tiglath-pileser's rise to power

Stone panel showing king Tiglath-pileser standing on his chariot during a victory procession
The detail of a stone panel decorating Tiglath-pileser's Central Palace at Kalhu shows the king standing on his chariot, with his right hand raised in a greeting gesture during a victory procession. Note the ornate case for the king's bow hanging above the richly decorated horses' backs. Photo © British Museum, ME 118908. View large image on the British Museum's website [http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_image.aspx?image=ps239269.jpg&retpage=18998].

In 746 BC, a rebellion took place in Kalhu, the main royal residence, and in the following year, Tiglath-pileser III seized the throne. He had certainly supported the revolt against Aššur-nerari V, as had the governors of Assur and Kalhu who were among the very few high officials who remained in power after the coup: the insurrection had clearly started at the very centre of Assyria, with the backing of some of the most senior officials. Many other governors and magnates were replaced, however, probably following their execution after Tiglath-pileser's faction prevailed against those who remained loyal to Aššur-nerari V.

As we have very few archival texts from the reigns of Tiglath-pileser III's immediate predecessors, we do not know under which name he was known before he became king and, crucially, whether he had been the crown prince. But it is certainly significant that Tiglath-pileser never mentions his father in his royal inscriptions even though the ancestor's name is typically invoked in this context in order to stress the king's legitimate claim to the throne. The omission is especially odd as, according to the Assyrian King List [http://www.livius.org/k/kinglist/assyrian.html], Tiglath-pileser was the son of his predecessor Aššur-nerari V. Today, it is therefore generally assumed that, although of royal blood, he was a usurper who took the Assyrian crown by force after engineering a coup against his ineffective predecessor.

As king of Assyria, he adopted the throne name Tukulti-apil-Ešarra, meaning "my trust belongs to the son of the Ešarra temple". This name refers to Ninurta, the son and heir of Aššur, the head of the Assyrian pantheon. The significance of the name is obscured by the fact that we use "Tiglath-pileser" (or "Tiglatpileser"), a distorted Biblical form of the name, as is always the case when an Assyrian king is mentioned in the Bible: this was, after all, how the knowledge of these rulers survived when the cuneiform script was no longer in use and the memory of the Assyrian empire had faded.

Creating an empire

King Tiglath-pileser in a segment cut from one of the stone panels decorating his Central Palace at Kalhu. British Museum, ME 118900; photo by Karen Radner. View large image.

Having established himself on the Assyrian throne, Tiglath-pileser first took the army to the south and decided the situation at the Babylonian frontier in his favour. In 744 BC, he founded two new provinces in the region controlled by the Medes, situated along the important trade route which we know today as the Silk Route: Bit-Hamban PGP , at the headwaters of the Diyala river PGP , and Parsua PGP , further to the east in the Zagros Mountains PGP . The news from Assyria indicated a dramatic shift in the formerly ailing state's fortunes and brought the Urartian army, still under the command of the celebrated Sarduri, back to the Euphrates border: in 743 BC, Assyria and Urartu met once again in battle in Arpad. This time, however, the Assyrian troops were victorious and pursued the Urartian army all the way back to the capital, Turušpa.

It can be argued that it was the decade-long experience of Assyrian vulnerability and impotence, when it was eclipsed and threatened by Urartu and had lost its hold over Syria and Babylonia, that caused Tiglath-pileser and his army to initiate the military campaigns in the west which marked the beginning of Assyria's expansion to the Mediterranean coast, deep into Anatolia and the Zagros mountain range and to the Persian Gulf. Only under Tiglath-pileser did Assyria outgrow its traditional boundaries and was it transformed into what we today call the Assyrian empire.

After defeating the Urartian troops in Arpad, Tiglath-pileser went on to punish this kingdom for providing Urartu with access to Syria and to Assyria's frontier. His army waged war in Arpad for three years until all resistance was crushed in 740 BC; Arpad's forces had been assisted not only by the Urartian army but also the troops of all its Syrian neighbours. When Arpad was ultimately defeated, the Assyrian army did not leave, as in previous centuries: instead, the country was turned into two provinces and transformed into a permanent part of Assyria.

This scene from the stone decoration of Tiglath-pileser's so-called Central Palace at Kalhu shows his army, consisting of Assyrian and mercenary troops (note the different helmets), conquering a fortified city situated in a mountainous landscape; it is identified by a brief and unfortunately damaged cuneiform inscription as the city of U[...] and should be sought either in Anatolia or possibly in western Iran where Tiglath-pileser campaigned extensively. Photo © British Museum, ME 115634 and ME 118903. View large image on the British Museum's website [http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_image.aspx?image=ps098844.jpg&retpage=18997].

The dogged resistance encountered in Arpad meant that the war could not end if the new Assyrian holdings were to be protected. Although the anti-Assyrian alliance had been driven out of Arpad, it remained in existence and was a powerful adversary. Arpad's neighbour to the west was therefore next in line: its close ally, the influential kingdom of Hamat PGP  on the Orontes river. Hamat's troops were first defeated in 738 BC and its north-western parts, reaching the Mediterranean Sea, were turned into Assyrian provinces. During this same campaign, Hamat's northern neighbour on the Mediterranean coast, the Neo-Hittite kingdom of Unqu, was conquered and incorporated into Assyria. But the state of Hamat did not collapse and the fight for its independence continued, assisted by its allies Damascus PGP  and Israel. This war was decided in Assyria's favour only six years later, in 732 BC, when the troops of Hamat and Damascus were defeated, their countries invaded and permanently annexed; at the same time, Israel was subjugated and the northern half of the kingdom integrated as the Assyrian province of Megiddo.

Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria and king of Babylon

During the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, the Assyrian army was transformed into a professional army, with specialised soldiers largely replacing the conscripts who provided military service during the summer months, when the agricultural calendar permitted the absence of farm workers. Soldiers from the defeated kingdoms of Arpad, Unqu, Hamat, Damascus and Israel swelled the ranks of the Assyrian army, supplemented by mercenaries from Anatolia, the Zagros Mountains and Babylonia.

The stone tablet with the funerary inscription of Tiglath-pileser's queen Yaba, as found in Tomb 2 in Kalhu's Northwest Palace. The text invokes the gods of the netherworld in order to protect Yaba's last resting place, singling out future queens or other royal consorts and concubines as potential usurpers of her tomb and its grave goods. 
Photo taken from Aina.org [http://www.aina.org/aol/nimrud/tablet.jpg].

From the beginning of his reign, the Assyrian king had been active in Babylonia: he came to be the archrival of Mukin-zeri, chief of the tribe of Bit-Amukani, who attempted to unite the politically fragmented region under his leadership and assumed the kingship of Babylon in 731 BC. Tiglath-pileser saw this as a provocation and a challenge to Assyria's primacy in the region. He repeatedly led the Assyrian army against Mukin-zeri and ultimately defeated him, taking the crown of Babylon for himself in 729 BC. For the remainder of his reign, Tiglath-pileser ruled both as the king of Assyria and the king of Babylon.

It would seem that most of the income provided by Tiglath-pileser's conquests was invested in the establishment of the professional army and the maintenance of the new provinces. He certainly did not spend his revenue in central Assyria, where he contented himself with building only a new palace in Kalhu, the so-called Central Palace. The decorated stone slabs which served as the wainscoting for the state quarters of this building provide us with Tiglath-pileser's accounts of his conquests. Kalhu was also the burial place of Tiglath-pileser's queen Yaba, whose tomb was discovered underneath the private wing of the ancient Northwest Palace by a team of Iraqi archaeologists in 1988; she was 30-35 years old when she died and was buried with exquisite funerary goods.

Further reading

Content last modified: 8 Aug 2012.

Karen Radner

Karen Radner, 'Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria (744-727 BC)', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 [http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/essentials/kings/tiglatpileseriii/]

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