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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.