The very first (documented) empire in world history was conquered by Sargon, king of Agade, around 2350 BC. After Lugalzagesi had reunited some southern city-states under one rule, Sargon seized control of the whole region of Sumer (the south of Babylonia) and Akkad (the north). By implementing a strongly unifying political, cultural and economic policy, he managed to gain control over an empire that included parts of Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia and modern Iran. (NB: in modern scholarship, “Agade” is used to denote the city and “Akkad” to name the region; this is purely modern convention, because the same word was used for both in Akkadian)
Sargon and his sons
About Sargon “the Great” we do not know much. His name literally means “the legitimate ruler” and as history teaches, kings who emphasize their legitimacy are rarely the rightful ruler. Two accounts about Sargon’s descent were created many centuries after he lived. The oldest one tells how Sargon’s father was a date-grower with connections to the court of the king of Kish. In an unspecified way Sargon became the cupbearer of the king, who then died. Sargon seized this opportunity and established his reign. A much younger story is the so-called Birth Legend of Sargon, a “rags to riches” account of how Sargon was conceived by a priestess and an unknown man, after which he was put in a basket on the river Euphrates (sound familiar, doesn’t it?). He was found by the royal water-drawer Aqqi, who adopted him and installed him as royal gardener when he had reached the appropriate age. Sargon was then noticed by the goddess Ishtar and managed to become king with the gods’ help:
Sargon, mighty king, king of Agade am I; My mother was a priestess, my father I knew not; My father’s brothers dwell in the mountains; My city is Azupiranu, situated on the banks of the Euphrates; My mother, the priestess, conceived me, in secret she bore me; She placed me in a basket of rushes, she sealed the lid with bitumen; She cast me into the river which did not rise over me; The river bore me up and carried me to Aqqi, the water-drawer; Aqqi, the water-drawer, lifted me out as he dipped his ewer; Aqqi, the water-drawer, adopted me, brought me up; Aqqi, the water-drawer, set me up as his gardener; As a gardener, Ishtar loved me; For 56 years I exercised kingship. (Birth Legend of Sargon)
Sargon reigned for 56 years and conquered a huge empire. To ensure the goodwill of the gods, he installed his daughter Enheduanna as high priestess of the moon god Nanna in Ur. Her main task was to pray for the life of her father the king, but she also engaged in writing literary works. Enheduanna is the first author known by name in world history (making her very popular in modern feminist discourse). A corpus of temple-hymns has been ascribed to her:
My lady, the great Anuna gods fly from you to the ruin mounds like scudding bats. they dare not stand before your terrible gaze. They dare not confront your terrible countenance. Who can cool your raging heart? Your malevolent anger is too great to cool. Lady, can your mood be soothed? Lady, can your heart be gladdened? Eldest daughter of Suen, your rage cannot be cooled! (Exaltation of Inanna)
Rimush, Sargon’s eldest son, succeeded his father and had no problems with re-establishing control over the empire with his “bloody policies”: in his royal inscriptions, he gives the exact count of dead in battle, a novelty that would remain in use for quite some time. Rimush reigned for less than a decennium, for he was killed by courtiers – legend has it that they used cylinder seals which were worn around the neck (strangling) and contained sharp pieces (stabbing).
His brother Manishtushu replaced him on the throne – his fifteen year-long reign is considered to be a period of consolidation and peace. An important innovation was the use of diorite for the creation of royal inscriptions. It was obtained in the regions along the Gulf Coast, indicating that Manishtushu conquered territory there.
Whereas Sargon entered Mesopotamian history as the ultimate successful ruler, his grandson Naram-Sin was portrayed as a haughty king who was led by hybris. It is true that Naram-Sin is the first Mesopotamian ruler to deify himself during his lifetime. That was done by adding the cuneiform sign for god (“dingir”) before his name in written documents. However, it seems that his reign was far from unsuccessful.
He begot more than ten children: the boys were appointed in strategic political functions, and the daughters were installed as high priestesses in the most important cult centres of the empire or married off to secure positive diplomatic relations. Naram-Sin was also a good strategic ruler: his most famous campaigns include the one to the source of the Tigris-river in Anatolia, and the one against the Lullubi, pictured on his “Victory Stele”.
Under Naram-Sin’s rule several reforms were introduced that led to a higher level of standardization. The most prominent were on the level of language and writing. For non-literary texts, a new tablet-format, which was thinner and square/rectangular rather than roundee, was used (see the photo’s below). The script became more regular and systematic. Most importantly, Akkadian was now used for most written documents, instead of Sumerian as in previous periods. The spread of the language was accompanied by the idea of an Akkadian identity and culture: people who lived in Akkad and/or spoke Akkadian called themselves “Akkadian”; objects coming from that region were “Akkadian” as well. Further steps towards standardization included the introduction of a standard Akkadian measuring system.
Sharkalisharri and the end of the Akkadian empire
In Mesopotamian tradition, the Akkadian empire ended after Naram-Sin’s death. The fact that Sharkalisharri reigned for twenty-five years after that, contests that idea however. It is unclear whether the empire collapsed under his reign or that he managed to maintain it and that it only did so when his rule ended. It is nonetheless certain that enemies attacked from all sides; especially the Gutians in the north were very persistent. After the death of Sharkalisharri, a period of anarchy broke out – the Sumerian King List accurately notes “Who was king? Who was not king?”
Two more kings – Dudu and Shudurul – ruled over Akkad, but the empire was at that time confined to a small state around the city of Agade. Especially in Sumer, independent city-states arose once more. Gudea of Lagash was one of those persons who profited from the lack of power experienced by the Akkadians. I have written a blog post about him before. After Shudurul’s death, the empire of Akkad vanished. The city continued to exist until the Hellenistic period – it has, however, never been found by modern archaeologists.
- Foster, Benjamin. The Age of Agade: inventing empire in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: 2016.