In the late 24th century BC Sargon of Akkad conquered all Sumerian city states and established his Semitic kinsmen as governors over them, thus creating the first multiethnic state. Sargon then set out on a series of conquest that would bring him to the edges of the known world and win him the reputation of an unrivaled world conquering hero. Although his empire was shortlived, Sargon established the Akkadian language and culture as a dominant presence in the Near East for millennia to come and Near Eastern kings up until the time of Alexander the Great tried to emulate his conquests. Although Sargon started a new imperial tradition, he did not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, let us look at the historical context and see which factors gave rise to the phenomenon known as the Akkadian Empire.
Sumerian Origins of Kingship: the En
The Sumerians were among the world’s earliest urbanized civilizations. They lived in various sovereign city states that were each centered around the temple of the city’s patron god. This temple was not only a religious building, but also an administrative center with a mandate to demand taxes and redistribute these among the population. Needless to say, the mightiest man in such a city state was the high priest of the temple, the en (lord). Because he was seen as a mediator between gods and men, he had the mandate to act as a judge as well. During the Uruk period (4000-3200 BC) this priestly ideal of kingship became prominent. In this period the city of Uruk, with a population of over 40.000 people, dominated Mesopotamia culturally and economically. Although the en had a lot of power, he usually was not the most capable military leader. To this end a lugal (big man) was elected. The lugal led the troops of a city state in battle, but besides this his power was limited.
Sumerian Origins of Kingship: the Lugal
During the Jemdet Nasr period (3200-2900 BC) the power of Uruk waned and somewhere around 2900 BC a flash flood swept over the lowlands of Sumer, leaving the infrastructure devastated and leaving the country vulnerable to Elamite raids. Elam, a kingdom situated on the plains of Khuzestan adjacent to Sumer, was among the first unified states in world history, unlike the Sumerians, who remained divided. The anarchy that followed the Flood and the threat of Elamite raids required a new, more aggressive kind of leadership. During this period the position of the lugals grew stronger and they started taking over the ceremonial and judiciary tasks that were originally restricted to the ens. Between 2900 and 2700 BC the lugals of Kish dominated Sumer, but around 2700 BC Uruk started to assert its power again under the rule of the legendary king Gilgamesh. Between 2700 and 2300 BC political power over Sumer regularly shifted between city states. During this period the city of Nippur, a religious center respected by all Sumerian city states, became very important. Whichever lugal ruled over Nippur and protected the temple of its god Enlil was seen as the one true representative elected by the gods to rule over mankind. Thus, the concept of kingship became religiously sanctioned.
When Sumer flourished during the Uruk period (4000-3200 BC) another civilization flourished in the Levant. These people spoke a language that was to be the ancestor of all Semitic languages. These proto-Semites were mainly agriculturalists, although some of them may have been semi-nomadic pastoralists roaming the steppes at the edges of the Syrian and Arabian deserts. Around 3750 BC the proto-Semitic language split into a western and an eastern branch. The Western Semites probably stayed close to the Mediterranean Coast, whereas the Eastern Semites ventured further into the Syrian steppes, where they founded the city of Ebla around 3500 BC. Ebla grew into a powerful trade hub that dominated the trade routes between the Mediterranean Coast, Mesopotamia and the Taurus Mountains and was able to exert a significant amount of control over the ancient Syrian cities in the region. Ebla continued to dominate what we now call Syria until it was destroyed around 2300 BC, probably by Sargon of Akkad. Other Eastern Semites settled along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers around 2900 BC, where they eventually came to dominate northern city states like Mari, Nagar and even Kish in northern Sumer. Some of Kish’s early lugals may in fact have been Semites. The Semites of northern Sumer took over many aspects of Sumerian culture, but they kept their own language.
Sargon’s Rise to Power
Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279) was a Semitic inhabitant of Kish. According to the Sumerian King’s List he was the son of a gardener and the cupbearer of king Ur-Zababa of Kish. The cupbearer was more than an ordinary butler. He was the king’s most trusted attendant who could exert great control over the king, much like the later grand viziers. Moreover, gardeners were held in high regard in the arid region of Mesopotamia, since they had the skill to make the desert bloom. Although his profession and that of his father may have seemed trivial, it really wasn’t to his contemporaries. According to early legends, that are unfortunately only preserved in fragmentary form, Ur-Zababa had ominous dreams about Sargon and feared that he would depose him. After several attempts of murdering Sargon, it was Ur-Zababa who ended up dead. He was probably murdered by, or at the instigation of, Sargon – as I said, we do not have the full text – and a legend was invented to justify this fact. Later on, during the early first millennium BC, a more elaborate legend was invented in which Sargon, the son of a priestess and an unknown father, was put in a basket and set afloat on the Euphrates as a baby, until he was discovered and raised by a gardener and eventually rose to prominence. Sargon’s birth legend may have been the ultimate inspiration behind the majority of birth legends throughout the ancient world.
Akkadian Conquest of Sumer
After his coup against Ur-Zababa of Kish, Sargon moved his capital to the city of Akkad. He declared war on Lugal-Zagesi, the lugal of the city of Umma who had united most Sumerian city states into one coalition. Although he was from the city of Umma, his power base was in the great walled city of Uruk. Sargon managed to conquer Uruk, destroy its famous walls that were attributed to the legendary king Gilgamesh, and capture Lugal-Zagesi. After the fall of Uruk, he could easily conquer the other Sumerian city states. Upon reaching the Persian Gulf, he washed his weapons in the sea. This symbolic statement was meant to assert Akkadian control over all the lands up to the Lower Sea of the Rising Sun, a poetic term that indicates that this sea was seen as one of the edges of the civilized world. Sargon then installed Akkadian speaking governors over the Sumerian city states, thus asserting the ethnic dominance of the Akkadians over Sumer and reducing the Sumerian city states to a subordinate position.
Sargon’s Other Conquests
Since the concept of kingship had assumed a more militaristic nature during the Dynastic Period (2900-2300 BC), kings were expected to keep fighting their enemies all the time. Sargon’s conquest of all Sumerian city states was not enough. He therefore created a professional army of 5400 elite soldiers and turned his attention to the northwest, perhaps in a conscious attempt to subjugate his Eastern Semitic kinsmen furhter up the Euphrates river. For unknown reasons he destroyed the city of Kazallu, he subjugated Mari, he may have been the one who destroyed Ebla and he is said to have reached the Silver Mountains (Taurus Mountains), the Cedar Forests (Lebanon) and the island of Kuppara (Cyprus). The goals of these campaigns were probably to gain prestige as a world conquering hero and to control the trade in certain important resources, like cedar wood, silver and copper. Most of these campaigns were probably not much more than raids, but Sargon did manage to establish permanent control over the Upper Euphrates. Beside his western campaigns, Sargon is also said to have subjugated the Elamites tot the east and to have established trade relations with Dilmun (Bahrain), Magan (Oman) and Meluhha (the Indus Valley).
The Akkadian Empire after Sargon
Despite his impressive conquests, Sargon’s control over his subjects was weak. At the end of his rule, it is said that all of the lands revolted against him and besieged him in the city of Akkad. These revolts may have been little more than peasant uprisings, which were nonetheless pretty dangerous to a king who had to rely on these peasants for food. Sargon managed to put down these revolts and pass on his empire to his sons Rimush and Manishtushu, whose accomplishments didn’t come close to those of their father. Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sin (r. 2254-2218 BC) did manage to campaign beyond the empires borders again. He is also one of the few Akkadian kings who called himself a god. His life story may have inspired the legend of Nimrod as known from the Bible (Genesis 10:8-12). After his death, however, the Akkadian Empire soon collapsed due to long droughts and raids by the Gutians, a coalition of tribes from the Zagros Mountains. Mesopotamia descended into anarchy once more, until the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004 BC) managed to unite much of Mesopotamia under Sumerian hegemony for one last time. Despite this, however, the Akkadian language and culture had grown so dominant that the Sumerian language died out soon after the fall of this dynasty. This left many Akkadian speaking kings, including those of Babylon and Ashur, vying for power. They all attempted to recreate Sargon’s Empire and this ambition continued to inspire kings up to the time of Alexander the Great.
Mainly because of the lack of sources, there are very few books dealing exclusively with Sargon of Akkad. One good and recent example of a book dealing exclusively with the Akkadian Empire is Foster’s The Age of Agade (2015). To learn more about the Sumerians, or early Mesopotamian history in general, Kramer’s The Sumerians (1971) and Van de Mieroop’s A History of the Ancient Near East (2006) are good books to start with. For an elaborate discussion of Sargon’s birth legend and its relation to other birth legends, read Lewis’s The Sargon Legend (1980).