British Museum

Adding a macabre note in a peaceful scene, the head of a defeated Elamite king hangs from the tree next to the harpist at left in the scene, while King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (668–627 B.C.E.) and his wife enjoy a meal in their palace garden. This relief decorates Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh, where every wall is covered with scenes of the king’s prowess in battle and in the hunt. Early in Ashurbanipal’s rule, the Assyrian empire reached its largest extent, only to decline after 650 B.C.E.

In the scene shown here, the landscaped formal garden, complete with lawn furniture, attentive servants (supplying music, food and air-conditioning) and battle trophy (the dangling head), gave evidence that Ashurbanipal’s power extended not only over the natural world but over human enemies as well. In this Eden of his own making, the king reclines on an elevated couch and sips his wine with the world at his feet.