This is a statue (AO 33) in the Louvre Museum. It is labeled simply as the "head of a man". The statue was found in the city of Girsu and it's dated in the period of Gudea. For reasons that I will later explain, I suggest this is actually a portrait of Lugal-agrigzi, a scribe, and the son of Gudea.
You have to admit, he's not much to look at. With his rheumy eyes, rubbery lips, and his recessive chin, Lugal-agrigzi is a very homely man.
This is Ur-Ningirsu, Lugal-agrigzi's handsome older brother. Ur-Ningirsu succeeded Gudea as the ruler of Lagash.
In contrast to Lugal-agrigzi, Ur-Ningirsu is much better looking and he wears an expression of supreme self confidence.
[click on any image to enlarge it in a separate window]
Part of Lugal-agrigzi's unfortunate looks is his weak and recessive chin. Viewed in profile, he barely has a chin at all.
Gudea, the father of Lugal-agrigzi. One of Gudea's distinctive facial features is his chin. It is very strong and prominent when viewed from the front ...
... but his chin is slightly weak when viewed from the side. Gudea also has a slight overbite.
I believe this is another son of Gudea and a brother of Lugal-agrigzi. Notice the weak chin and the overbite. He is nonetheless a handsome man. His chin is nowhere near as weak, recessive, and "disfiguring" as the chin of Lugal-agrigzi.
Lugal-agrigzi was definitely the ugly ducking in the family.
There is only one artifact associated with Lugal-agrigzi.
It is a ceremonial mace head with the inscription: "(For) Gudea, the ruler
of Lagash, (from) Lugal-agrigzi, the scribe, his son."
That’s the sum total of everything we know
When I first learned of this, I thought, “A
scribe? He’s just a scribe?” Lugal-agrigzi was a royal prince. It seems
there were other more important jobs that he could do. He could be a sukkal-mah, which is the equivalent of a
cabinet minister. He could be a general in the army. He could also be a
treasurer, a government official, a diplomat, or a high priest. These are the jobs
most befitting for a royal prince. Lugal-agrigzi’s name can actually be
interpreted as “the king’s faithful superintendent”, meaning a high official, and
yet he is merely a scribe?
Many sons of the nobility were taught to read
and write so they could become the sukkal-mahs, the ambassadors, and the high
priests of the kingdom. Some noblemen became scribes in order to manage their
family’s correspondence and their business transactions. So it wasn’t unusual for a
nobleman to be a scribe; but Lugal-agrigzi wasn’t just a nobleman, he was a royal
prince. He was a member of the kingdom’s ruling family.
I thought it odd that Gudea didn't place his
trusted son in a high-powered job where he could do the most good for the
kingdom and for the family. Yes, a scribe is important, but this job could
easily be delegated to a low-ranking family relative. It could even be assigned
to a paid professional. I suggest that if there were any royal scribes, it's because they had married into the royal family rather than being born into it. A king had better uses for his own sons. Gudea had many scribes, but not so many royal sons. There were other more essential jobs that Lugal-agrigzi could do, so why did he become a scribe? There has to be a reason.
Ur-Ningirsu and Lugal-agrigzi are the only
two sons of Gudea that we know about, but there may have been others. There are
many statues from Girsu that are probably Gudea’s sons and his grandsons. Some of these statues are shown below:
In The Face of Ur-Ningirsu, I causally
mentioned that one of these statues is probably Lugal-agrigzi. That was two
years ago, but I didn’t give the remark a second thought because none of the
statues are labeled, so there was no way to know for certain which one was Lugal-agrigzi. Then again, perhaps none of them were, so I didn't even hazard a guess.
A few days ago I was sitting at my
computer. I was bored, very bored. I was idly scrolling through my website,
just spacing out, to tell the truth. Then I saw this picture of the statues. Needless to
say, I had seen the picture many times before. This time I thought, “Okay, if
one of the statues is indeed Lugal-agrigzi, then which one is it?” I had nothing
else better to do, so I decided I would try to figure it out. This would be my new project.
It didn’t take long. I took another close look at
the picture and I immediately knew exactly which one is Lugal-agrigzi. He's the one right there, in the middle of the second row.
When I identified the statues Gudea and Ur-Namma, there were many statues of them that I could use to compare their facial features.
With Ur-Ningirsu, there is only one statue, but one was enough. With Lugal-agrigzi, there are none. There are no known images of Lugal-agrigzi, so my identification of
this statue is somewhat speculative, based on the limited evidence available.
The face of Lugal-agrigzi
This is a realistic portrait of Lugal-agrigzi. The shape of the nose, the way the lips fit with the recessive chin, the contours of the face, the shape of the head – they are all done precisely. Two stylistic elements were also added. The joined eyebrows are generally considered to be symbolic of beauty (I have often repeated this on my website, but now I'm not so sure). The eyebrows are more prominent than on most other statues, suggesting that Lugal-agrigzi had bushy eyebrows, which would only add to his unfortunate looks.
The thick eyelids is another artistic device often used by the artists of Lagash to emphasize the eyes and to give the face a certain demeanor.
This is not a “prettified” portrait of Lugal-agrigzi,
that’s for sure. No one can say the sculptor was being too flattering to
his royal subject, since it’s difficult to imagine that Lugal-agrigzi could be even more homely in real life. So it is indeed an accurate portrait of Lugal-agrigzi’s
facial features. Though realistic, it is not life-like, such as the statues
of Ur-Ningirsu, Gudea, and Ur-Namma. It is also cruder than the statues of
Gudea’s other sons, lacking the detail and refinement of those statues. For
instance, the sculptor didn’t bother to etch in the hair of the eyebrows. It’s
as if he said, “Okay, no amount of artistry will make Lugal-agrigzi into a
You have to admit, it’s an unfortunate face. It's not just homely,
which is bad enough, but it is also insipid. A face like that would be a
distinct disadvantage for a royal prince.
This is not the face of a general who inspires
courage and confidence in his troops. Neither is it the face of an ambassador who projects the kingdom’s power abroad. Nor is it the face of a high priest who
edifies the common people with holy rituals.
Lugal-agrigzi’s appearance made him unsuitable
for high-profile public jobs. In modern parlance we would say, “He has
a face for radio.” It wasn't just his appearance that made him unsuitable for these jobs, it was also his character. I suggest that Lugal-agrigzi’s face would make him shy and
retiring, even in childhood. He would be very uncomfortable living in the
public view, amongst the “beautiful people” of the royal court. He may have even
been something of an embarrassment to his family; royals were expected to be
better looking and more god-like. So by his appearance, and by his own temperament, Lugal-agrigzi
was a “behind the scenes” kind of guy.
That is why he became a scribe.
Gudea and his wife Ninalla named him Lugal-agrigzi,
“the king’s faithful superintendent”, expecting him to serve in high office,
but as the shy and timid boy was growing up in a household of rambunctious
brothers, his parents decided he was better suited for the scribal life. It
seemed like the natural choice. After all, what else could he be?
There is something else we need to know about Lugal-agrigzi. Let's take another look at him and his brother:
The statues were made at the same time,
during the period of realistic human portraiture near the end of Gudea’s reign, so this is how they looked right before Ur-Ningirsu became the king. Ur-Ningirsu seems to be 21 years old, give or take a few years. In the picture, both men seem to be roughly the
same age, except Lugal-agrigzi actually looks a bit older than Ur-Ningirsu.
This raises the possibility that Lugal-agrigzi was in fact the eldest brother,
and that Gudea passed over Lugal-agrigzi to name Ur-Ningirsu as the
heir to the throne (perhaps with Lugal-agrigzi’s grateful acquiescence). That
would be a very interesting story. However, Lugal-agrigzi probably just looks
older because he is not as healthy and robust as Ur-Ningirsu. Since they
are about the same age, but Lugal-agrigzi is not the older brother, it means
that Lugal-agrigzi is the next-younger brother of Ur-Ningirsu. In other words, Lugal-agrigzi
is Gudea’s second son, and the heir to the throne after Ur-Ningirsu.
In all royal families, throughout all of history, the second son is always "Plan B", just in case something happened to the eldest son. Second sons were always trained for the possibility that they might someday become the king. "An heir and a spare," as they say.
This begs the question as to why Gudea's second son became a scribe rather than
being groomed for a more important job, suggesting there were very good reasons
for it, such as Lugal-agrigzi’s unfortunate appearance and his retiring
I assume that Gudea had more sons that we don't know about, but if he had only two sons, then it's even more surprising that his second son was merely a scribe. As I said before, there has to be a reason.
For Lugal-agrigzi, his face was his destiny.
As a boy, Lugal-agrigzi would be teased by
other children, perhaps by his own brothers. He would be marginalized, although
not intentionally (unlike Claudius of Rome, another unsightly prince, who was deliberately
hidden from public view). Lugal-agrigzi was always on the sidelines. He was
never the center of attention like his brother Ur-Ningirsu, the heir to the
throne. Did Lugal-agrigzi secretly resent his handsome older brother? In the bustling
royal household, he would grow up feeling withdrawn and insecure. Later,
as a young man, Lugal-agrigzi would feel timid around strong men and shy around
Young Claudius, because of his decidedly un-royal appearance, took refuge in academia. He later became a respected scholar and historian. Young Lugal-agrigzi became a scribe for the exact same reason.
Lugal-agrigzi seems to be rather sickly. Perhaps like Claudius he was prone to a variety of physical ailments, but without Claudius's severe handicaps. Perhaps Lugal-agrigzi's infirmity was another reason why he didn't seek a more active career.
A Sumerian princess. This is either Lugal-agrigzi's sister or his mother. I believe it's Ninalla, the wife of Gudea and the mother of Lugal-agrigzi..
The best thing that Lugal-agrigzi had going
for him was his family. Gudea was a kind and compassionate king, and judging by
the many portraits of his sons, he was also a devoted family man. Ur-Ningirsu also
looks like a kind man (perhaps too kind to be king). He would naturally be
protective of Lugal-agrigzi, like older brothers usually are. If that alone
were not enough, Gudea had already taught Ur-Ningirsu the first rule of
Sumerian kingship: to protect those who are weak and disadvantaged (see The Shepherd
Kings). I’m sure Ur-Ningirsu was devoted to Lugal-agrigzi. In return, Lugal-agrigzi adored his handsome older brother, in the same way that
Claudius adored his older brother Germanicus, the handsome war hero.
It is reasonable to surmise that the love and
support of Lugal-agrigzi’s family prevented him from developing the psychological
problems usually associated with extreme homeliness. The same cannot be said
for poor Claudius. He had many psychological issues because his family was basically a
bunch of psychopaths.
Royal inscriptions on a statue of Gudea.
Lugal-agrigzi, the royal scribe
We know that Lugal-agrigzi was highly intelligent.
He’d have to be, to become a scribe. Cuneiform writing was very difficult and complex,
and it required many years of study to master it. We also know that Lugal-grigzi was highly educated. Not only were scribes able to read and write, they were also instructed in math,
science, business, and literature, so they could write of these things
intelligently. Scribes were the most highly educated men in Sumer (and in the world). Beneath Lugal-agrigzi's homely exterior there was a keen mind.
From the inscription on the ceremonial mace head we know that Lugal-agrigzi had already graduated from scribal school and
he was officially a scribe while his father was still alive. We know this because Gudea's name is not preceded by the sign diĝir, which denoted Gudea's divinity after his death, when he was worshiped as a god. However, we don’t
know how long Lugal-agrigzi served as the royal scribe before his father’s untimely death.
Gudea died in the twentieth year of his reign. At the time, Lugal-agrigzi was a mature young
man, so he had several good years as the royal scribe before his father passed away.
Ur-Ningirsu succeeded Gudea as the new ruler
of Lagash. It’s reasonable to assume that Lugal-agrigzi continued as the family
scribe during the reign of his brother. After all, Lugal-agrigzi had plenty of experience and he was already on the job. Thus, for Lugal-agrigzi, things continued much the same
as they did before.
As a family scribe, Lugal-agrigzi managed his
family’s correspondence. As a royal scribe, he managed Ur-Ningirsu’s royal
correspondence as well. He would also be in charge of Ur-Ningirsu’s royal
inscriptions, the kind carved on statues, monuments, and votive tablets. He wrote the
compositions according to Ur-Ningirsu’s wishes, and then later inspected them
to make sure they were carved correctly. Ur-Ningirsu also knew how to write, but Sumerian writing is a difficult and time consuming task, so naturally he left the matter to Lugal-agrigzi. After all, Ur-Ningirsu had other things to do. Lugal-agrigzi probably also
supervised the numerous scribes who maintained all of the government records, so there
was plenty of work to keep him busy.
Lugal-agrigzi, three-quarter view. He looks best from this angle. Here he looks very professorial, very scribal. Sometimes homely men can have their own charisma.
This must have been a happy time for Lugal-agrigzi.
He was taking care of his family and he was helping his brother manage
the kingdom. Surely at this time of his life, Lugal-agrigzi was truly content.
He was working comfortably behind the scenes and doing an important job for his family. This is what he was meant to do.
It would not last for long. Ur-Ningirsu died
after a short reign of only seven years. It was a crushing blow for Lugal-agrigzi. It’s
not known for certain how Ur-Ningirsu died, but he was still quite young (see a brief history of Ur-Ningirsu). In the seven years following his death there
were five different rulers of Lagash, a sure sign of political upheaval. Then
Lagash fell under the suzerainty of Ur-Namma, the king of Ur, who became the king of all of Sumer. Lagash was no longer a city-state, now it was just a city, one of many in the nation of Sumer.
The death of Ur-Ningirsu was the end of Gudea's dynasty. It was also the end of Lagash's artistic renaissance, the end of its preeminence in Sumerian affairs, and the end of its independence.
We don't know what happened to Lugal-agrigzi (assuming he did not predecease Ur-Ningirsu).
Hopefully his inconspicuous life saved him from the bloody mayhem that followed the death of Ur-Ningirsu, just as the inconspicuous life of Claudius saved him from the murderous world of Roman politics, which took the lives of most of his extended family, including his beloved brother Germanicus. However, there is one big difference between Lugal-agrigzi and Claudius. Lugal-agrigzi did not become a king.
He was still a young man when Ur-Ningirsu died. I like to imagine he finally
retired to the quiet and peaceful life that he always craved. He would be
honored and respected as a surviving son of Gudea’s dynasty, but he was no
longer caught up in the hustle and bustle of the royal court. He was probably
financially secure, but even if he wasn’t, he could always make a good
living being a scribe. Hopefully he married a kind hearted woman who loved him
for who he was, despite his looks, and not just for his social position. I'm sure he wrote praise poems for his beloved father and brother, recalling the glory days of Lagash. He lived in a house cluttered with clay tablets and he surrounded himself with beautiful mementos from his previous life (statues, artwork, and commemorative plaques). He would have a
small circle of close friends, like-minded men who saw past his homeliness and
his high rank. They'd sit around the table, discuss history and literature,
and reminisce about the Golden Age of Gudea.