With this poem Lord Byron departed, as the Romantic poets had wont, from literary tradition. Whilst depicting a biblical event, The Destruction of Sennacherib was penned after one of the century's first archaeologists, young British adventurer Austen Henry Layard, explored the ruins of Nineveh in 1847 and rediscovered the lost palace of Sennacherib across the Tigris River from modern Mosul in northern Iraq. Layard's find corroborated an event that went unrecorded save for its (rather fantastic and supernatural) depiction in the Bible. Romantic lore has it that Lord Byron was inspired by accounts of the discovery in the newspaper, and did something unusual for his time that has since become commonplace - he wrote about current events. The Destruction of Sennacherib thus stands as a brilliant example of how the Romantics brought literature into the modern age.

The event was originally recorded in II Kings 18:19, a passage which reports that Sennacherib's invincible army was laid low by the angel of the Lord, after which Sennacherib returned to Nineveh where he was murdered by his sons. Nineveh itself fell to the medes and Babylonians in 612 BC, its splendour buried under the shifting dust of northern Mesopotamia.

Inscribed in cuneiform on the colossal sculptures in the doorway of its throne room was Sennacherib's own account of the siege of Jerusalem. It differed in detail from the biblical one, but confirmed that Sennacherib did not capture the city. This find generated an excitement that is difficult to imagine today, because amid the increasing religious doubt and scriptural revisionism of the mid-nineteenth century, it gave Christian fundamentalists an independent eyewitness corroboration of a biblical event, written in the doorway of the very room where Sennacherib may have issued his order to attack.

John Malcolm Russell, The Modern Sack of Nineveh and Nimrud, Culture without Context: The Newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, Issue 1, Autumn 1997, Cambridge, UK. This and more archaeological info at http://www-mcdonald.arch.cam.ac.uk/IARC/CWOC/Issue1/Nineveh.htm.

The Destruction of Sennacherib

THE Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

George Gordon, a.k.a. Lord Byron (1788-1824), 1815

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