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Ancient Near East - The Akkadian Empire

Updated: Jun 19, 2021


Sargon the Great

Born a commoner, according to the Sumerian King List, Sargon rose to power in the city of Kish as a cup-bearer to the king, Ur-Zababa. The royal cup-bearer at this time was in fact a prominent political position, close to the king and with various high level responsibilities not suggested by the title of the position itself. He eventually usurped the throne and moved the center of his rule to Akkad, either an entirely new city, as later sources state, or a place previously of little importance. Although its location is unknown, it certainly was in the very north of Babylonia, perhaps underneath modern Baghdad. This geographical position provided full dominance of the Babylonian heartland and an extensive presence throughout the wider Near East.

Akkad's prominence was attained through its military power. He possibly established a standing army for it was said that “daily 5400 men ate at his presence”. While this does not seem to be the kind of professional army later created by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III, (as it seems it was neither year-round nor kept in a near constant state of mobilization), it was a great advance over previous armies. Sargon focused his first conquests in the south of Babylonia, where the city-states of the late Early Dynastic Period had been partly united. He first conquered King Lugal-zagesi, who controlled Uruk, Umma, and several other cities that gave him final control over the entire region. Sargon then set out to build an empire that stretched beyond Mesopotamia. He crossed the Tigris River and defeated the Elamites and then fought his way north to Mari. After conquering this city, he pushed further into the land of the Amorites, taking the city of Ashur, which was only a small location up to this point. Sargon would go on to capture Nineveh before possibly invading Asia Minor and Cyprus. As a gesture of total conquest, he washed his weapons in the sea, thus marking it as a boundary of his realm. This act would be repeated by later conquerors.

During this time, Sargon instituted military practices of combining different types of fighting forces in looser formations (to enable greater mobility and adaptability on the field) which became standard down through the time of Alexander the Great.

In order to maintain power, Sargon placed his best and most trusted men in positions of power throughout the region. The historian author Susan Bauer noted, “In this kingdom, the Sumerians rapidly found themselves living as foreigners in their own cities... When Sargon took over a city, it became an Akkadian stronghold, staffed with Akkadian officials and garrisoned with Akkadian troops.”

The stability provided by the Akkadian Empire gave rise to the construction of roads, improved irrigation, a wider sphere of influence in trade, as well as developments in the arts and sciences. Sargon standardized weights and measurements for use in trade and daily commerce. He also initiated a system of taxation, in which part of the income of each region was siphoned off and sent to the capital or used to support the local Akkadian administration.

Even with these improvements to the lives of the citizens of Mesopotamia, the people still rebelled against Akkadian rule. Throughout his life, Sargon would continue to encounter uprisings as city-states asserted their autonomy and rose against the empire. Even in his old age, Sargon fought back and won:

“In my old age of 55, all the lands revolted against me, and they besieged me in Agade, but the old lion still had teeth and claws. I went forth to battle and defeated them. I knocked them over and destroyed their vast army. Now any king who wants to call himself my equal, wherever I went, let him go!”

According to the Sumerian King List, Sargon reigned for 56 years and died in old age of natural causes. If he had seemed larger than life to his people during his reign, he assumed an almost god-like status in death.

Rimush and Manishtushu

The difficulties experienced by Sargon toward the end of his reign broke out again during the nine year reign of his son Rimush, who fought hard to retain the empire, and was successful until he was assassinated by some of his own courtiers.

Rimush was succeeded by his elder brother, Manishtushu, who led a fleet of ships down the Persian Gulf where thirty-two kings allied to fight him. Manishtushu was victorious and consequently looted their cities and silver mines. During his reign, he also sailed a fleet down the Tigris River and traded with thirty-seven different nations. Like his brother, he too was assassinated by members of his own court and was succeeded by his son, Naram-Sin.


Once in power, Naram-Sin expanded the Akkadian Empire by defeating the northern hill tribes in the Zagros, Taurus, and Amanus Mountains, thus stretching his boundaries up to the Mediterranean Sea and Armenia. This far-reaching influence of the dynasty had a great effect on how the kings perceived themselves. Already under Sargon, the traditional title “King of Kish” came to mean “King of the World”. Naram-Sin took such self-glorification to an extreme. First, he introduced a new title, “King of the Four Corners (of the Universe)”. Then, after crushing a major rebellion in Babylonia, which included even Kish, he took the unprecedented step in Mesopotamian history of making himself a god. Earlier Kings had been offered a cult after death, but Naram-Sin received one while still alive.


The Decline and Fall of the Akkadian Empire

Opposition to Akkad in Babylonia was a consistent feature of the period, and it may have been the main cause for its failure. The most elaborate description of an uprising was during the reign of Naram-Sin when he was confronted by two coalitions of Babylonian cities: a northern group led by the King of Kish and a southern group led by the King of Uruk. The idea of centralized rule was so intolerable that even the region near the capital participated in the opposition to Akkad. The number of rebel cities was great, not a single major city was absent. Naram-Sin claimed victory, however, in a quick succession of battles.

The real threat to the Akkadian Empire began during the reign of Naram-Sin's son, Sharkalisharri. This came from the mountain people in the east, known as the Gutians, whose homeland was most likely in the Zagros Mountains. In Sharkalisharri's time, they appeared in increasing numbers in Babylonia as settlers, necessitating the appointment of a Gutian interpreter in Adab. While they primarily seem to have entered Babylonia in the process of migration, their arrival there was not always peaceful. Sharkalisharri fought them in an unknown location, and we have at least one letter where they are accused of cattle-rustling.

The combination of internal and external pressures led to a rapid collapse of the Akkadian state during Sharkalisharri's reign. The entire Near East reverted to a system of independent states, some of them now governed by new populations. In Babylonia, the Gutians took over several city-states and presented themselves as the heirs to the Akkadian dynasty. They did not supplant Akkad, however, as several independent city-rulers existed alongside them. Best known is the city of Lagash, where a local dynasty left numerous statues and inscriptions of a king called Gudea, whose images are among the masterpieces of third-millennium Mesopotamian art. In the city of Akkad itself, a local dynasty continued to rule. The situation was so confused that the Sumerian King List exclaims: “Who was king? Who was not king?”

Little is known about the Gutian period. Cuneiform sources from this dark age suggest that the Gutians showed little concern for maintaining agriculture, written records, or public safety. They released all the farm animals to roam about Mesopotamia freely, and soon brought about famine and soaring grain prices.

The return to centralized rule was most likely begun about 40 years after the death of King Sharkalisharri. The governor of Uruk, Utu-hengal, led the cities of Sumer against the last Gutian king, Tirigan. After defeating and expelling the Gutians from southern Babylonia, he established himself as king of Sumer and instantly became one of the greatest heroes of the Sumerian people. He ruled for about seven years until he tragically died in an accident while inspecting a dam. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, Ur-Nammu, the governor of Uruk, who would establish the Third Dynasty of Ur, The Neo-Sumerian Empire.


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