Sargon of Akkad

Statue of Sargon of Akkad

Paper for History and Culture of Ancient Mesopotamia by Darci Clark


Sargon of Akkad is known as the first ruler of a territorial state in history. He unified the northern and southern Mesopotamian city-states in 2334 BCE and ruled for fifty-five years. To maintain control, Sargon was known to appoint members of his family to key positions throughout his territory. Sargon may have kept the first standing army in history and was considered a great military leader. Even though Sargon’s empire only lasted for several generations, he brought peace and prosperity to the Mesopotamian city-states which had long been in a constant fight for supremacy.

Sargon’s incredible story begins with the legend of his birth which has certain parallels to the birth story of Moses from the Old Testament. The story tells of his mother, a priestess, who was forbidden to raise a child:

“Sargon, the strong king, the king of Akkad, am I. My mother was a high priestess, my father I do not know. My paternal kin inhabit the mountain region (and) my home city is Azupiranu (“Saffron City”), which lies on the bank of the Euphrates River. My mother, a high priestess, conceived me (and) bore me in secret. She placed me in a reed basket and caulked my hatch with pitch, (then) she abandoned me to the river, from which I could not escape. The river carried me along (and) brought me to Aqqi, the water drawer.”

The story goes on to say Aqqi raised him as a gardener. The Sumerian King List was a document composed in the early second millennium BCE which was designed to show how kingship routinely changed among city-states. The King List describes Sargon as, “In Akkad, Sargon—his [(foster)-father?] was a date-grower—the cupbearer of Ur Zababa [of Kish], the king of Akkad, the one who built Akkad, became king and reigned fifty-six years.” The reference to the “cupbearer of Ur Zababa” means he was an advisor to Ur Zababa, the King of Kish. One narrative called “The Rise of Sargon,” implies his successes were guided by the goddess Ishtar. The reality is Sargon may have assassinated Ur Zababa and taken the throne of Kish. His name in Akkadian, Sharru-ken, meaning “legitimate” king, but he may not have had an actual legitimate claim to the throne at all.

Another theory states that Ur Zababa was assassinated by Lugalzagesi, the king of Uruk. It may never be known whether Sargon or Lugalzagesi assassinated Ur Zababa, but what is known is that Sargon seized the opportunity to attack and conquer Uruk. After this success he embarked on a series of military campaigns where he conquered all of southern Sumeria. The following narrative praises his military successes:

“(S1) Sargon, king of Agade, bailiff of Ishtar, anointed priest of Anu, lord of the land, chief governor for Enlil, conquered the city of Uruk and destroyed its walls. He was victorious in the campaign against Uruk, conquered the city, captured Lugalzagesi, king of Uruk, in the campaign, and brought him to the gate of Enlil in a neckstock.
(S2) Sargon, king of Agade, was victorious in the campaign against Ur and conquered the city and destroyed its walls. He conquered Eninmar and destroyed its walls, and conquered its territory from Lagash all the way to the sea. He washed his weapons in the sea. He was victorious in the campaign against Umma and conquered the city and destroyed its walls.
(S3) Sargon, king of the land: Enlil gave him no rival! Enlil gave him the Upper Sea and the Lower Sea, all the way from the Lower Sea to the Upper Sea men of Agade hold governorships. Mari and Elam stand stand (in service) before Sargon, king of the land.
(S4) Sargon, king of the land, changed the two locations of Kish. He made the two occupy one city.
(S5)Whosoever shall do away with this inscription, may Shamash tear out his foundation and pluck up his offspring.”

The passage mentions the “men of Agade hold governorships.” Sargon appointed Akkadian citizens as governors, or ensis, of his conquered cities. He also placed family members in key political positions. One of his most influential appointments was his daughter, Enheduanna, as the high priestess of the moon god Sin in Ur. As high priestess, she controlled all the lucrative temple lands and property. Enheduanna’s role gave religious legitimacy to Sargon’s rule. She may have been responsible for priestly duties in Uruk, which would have helped consolidate Sargon’s power base there as well. Enheduanna is memorable in her own right as the first known female author in history since she wrote many hymns in praise of Inanna and the other gods. Future rulers continued the practice of appointing a daughter as Ur’s high priestess so they too could benefit from the temple’s wealth and prestige.

The next narrative refers to the possibility that Sargon commanded a standing army:

“(S1) Sargon, king of Kish, was victorious in thirty-four battles. He destroyed city walls all the way to the shore of the sea. He moored ships of Meluhha, Magan, and Dilmun at the quay of Agade.
(S2) Sargon, the king, prostrated and prayed to Dagan. He gave him the Upper Land: Mari, Yarmuti, Ebla, all the way to the cedar forest and the silver mountains.
(S3) Sargon, the king, Enlil gave him no rival! 5400 men eat every day before him.”

The line “5400 men eat every day before him” has been assumed to mean Sargon kept a standing army. If so, this was the first recorded army of its kind in history. Sargon’s military skill was legendary and future Assyrian rulers were greatly influenced by his exploits. They even practiced a symbolic imitation of Sargon’s famous claim that he washed his spear in the sea of the Persian Gulf. Sargon probably financed his army by plundering the cities he conquered. He may have guaranteed his soldier’s loyalty by making them dependent on him for money and food. Their livelihoods were totally dependent on his success.

Map of Sargon’s Territory

Sargon founded his own capital city named Akkad, also called Agade. Archaeologists have not discovered the ruins of Akkad which may be beneath the modern city of Baghdad. Since we have been unable to study Sargon’s city, it is difficult to theorize about his motives for building a new capital instead of ruling from an established city such as Ur. If Sargon was an illegitimate ruler, a new city that had no memory of a former ruler may have helped Sargon’s perception of legitimacy and the creation of a new era.

Sargon ruled until 2279 BCE and was succeeded by his son Rimush who ruled over an empire that was plagued by revolts until 2270 BCE. His brother Manishtushu ruled until 2255 BCE and, like Rimush, was assassinated by members of his court. Manishtushu’s son, Naram-Sin, was a successful military leader, but the empire eventually collapsed when a barbaric tribe called the Gutians invaded Akkad around 2190 BCE.

Sargon’s military and political achievements changed Mesopotamian history. He succeeded in uniting the city-states who had fought for centuries. His rule influenced future Assyrian leaders and set political precedents that would continue for many years. Although his empire only lasted for about one hundred years, the legends of Sargon of Akkad are still alive four millennia later.

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