Foreign groom in a tributary procession
Not on view
Soon after taking the throne, the Assyrian king Sargon II (r. 721–705 B.C.) founded a new capital city, Dur-Sharrukin (literally "fortress of Sargon"), at a site known today as Khorsabad. Sargon took the throne in a coup against his brother, Shalmaneser V (r. 726–722 B.C.), and it is possible that by moving to a new capital he hoped to consolidate his regime. Sargon, meaning "true king," was a throne name, and referred to a very ancient king, Sargon of Akkad, who by the Neo-Assyrian period was remembered as a legendary hero. Building work at Dur-Sharrukin continued throughout Sargon’s reign, with not only a main palace but also a constellation of other palaces and temples, as well as the infrastructure of the city itself. However, the immense project was abandoned in 705 B.C. with the king’s death. His son Sennacherib would move the capital once again, to Nineveh, and there embark on a new monumental building program.
This relief fragment comes from the main palace at Khorsabad, and shows a groom leading two horses. The horses’ elaborate harness appears to be Assyrian, with the common motif of rosettes on the cheek-pieces, tassels, and large crests rising from the headpieces. The non-Assyrian hairstyle and clothing of the groom, however, make it clear that he is a foreigner, and this fragment originally formed part of a much larger scene showing a foreign delegation bringing tribute to Assyria. In this case the horses themselves are the tribute. The main sources of horses for the Assyrians were regions to the east and north of Assyria, and it is likely that the groom comes from one of these areas.
Horses were extremely valuable to Assyria, not least as part of the empire’s formidable military, in which cavalry and fast, light two-wheeled chariots played a significant role. Depictions of horses occur frequently on reliefs showing Assyrian military campaigns, and sometimes in other media: wall paintings show that they were originally colored either a chestnut brown or a pale electric blue. The reliefs have lost almost all of their original pigment but it is likely that a similar palette was used. Some traces of color do survive, including small quantities of red ochre visible on parts of the horse harness at the lower right of this relief fragment.
Reliefs from Khorsabad are notable for their sometimes extremely large scale and their frequent use of high relief. Here the relief projects further from the background surface and takes on a more rounded, modeled form than is typical in the reliefs of Sargon’s predecessors or successors.