Sargon of Akkad Establishes the Akkadian Dynasty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Sargon of Akkad united the city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, forming the first empire in world history. This unity permitted a range of developments in art, writing, and technology.

Summary of Event

According to legend, Sargon of Akkad (Šarru-kēn) was born of humble origins. A text written in the 600’s b.c.e. tells of how his mother set him adrift on a river and that he was rescued by Akki, a man who was drawing water from the river. Sargon became a royal cup-bearer to Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish.

My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose not over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. . . . While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love. Sargon of Akkad

This child eventually would take over the land of his master and go on to found a new kingdom, the kingdom of Akkad. The people of the area would be known as Akkadians.

Originally, the term Mesopotamia (meso, “middle,” plus potamia, “rivers”) referred to a region of the Middle East that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. Because of its rich alluvial soil, people established successful farming communities here from about 3500 b.c.e. During the years of the third millennium, two types of people lived in the area: pastoralists or sheepherders and farmers who raised stock for their subsistence. The farmers were able to settle down near the rivers, but the pastoralists were nomads and are thought to have wandered between the settlements or to have come from the desert to the west or south, which could only be farmed with irrigation. The nomadic pastoralists spoke a Semitic language, whereas most (but not all) farmers spoke Sumerian, a language very different from the Semitic. It seems that before Sargon, Sumerian was the predominant language. However, archaeologists have been able to document a steady rise of the Semitic language and population from about 2300 b.c.e. It seems that the nomads might generally have lived outside the gates of the city with their sheep, whereas the more settled people lived inside. Over a period of about one thousand years, the nomads and the farmers began a process of infiltration and concourse with each other. The nomadic tribes may have even ransacked the towns and settled there themselves.

During the Early Dynastic period, sometimes referred to as pre-Sargonic (c. 2900-c. 2340 b.c.e.), people had begun to live in city-states, each of which had its own ruler and god or goddess, and included suburbs and satellite towns and villages, as well as gardens, palm groves, and fields of barley and wheat. The chief building in each city state was a ziggurat, a huge, many-tiered temple. From these temples, the priests would collect taxes in the form of crops.

Gradually, political power began to shift between the major cities. When the king of Kish, Ur-Zababa, was conquered in battle by Lugalzagesi of Uruk, Sargon moved to the city of Akkad, the exact location of which has never been determined. He defeated Lugalzagesi, and brought him in chains to Nippur. Sargon then began to extend his control to all of the city-states in the Mesopotamian area, which necessitated uniting the two ethnolinguistic groups. He was an indomitable soldier and powerful administrator, so much so that later monarchs modeled themselves after him. He seems to have destroyed a number of North Syrian cities. He controlled the waterways down to the head of the Persian Gulf. He may even have penetrated central Anatolia. On one stone fragment, Sargon is presented as a terrifying conqueror endowed with an awesome aura. On several fragments, he is compared to a lion.





His empire lasted for just about two hundred years. When Sargon died in 2279, general revolt broke out in Sumer and in Iran. His son and successor, Rimush, repressed it with extreme vigor, but his authority was challenged by his own servants, who killed him in 2270, after a reign of only nine years. Rimush was replaced by Manishtusu, who reigned from 2269 to 2255. Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sin, who reigned from 2254 to 2218, became the next hero of the Akkadian Empire. Naram-Sin’s reign was filled with military operations. He is commemorated by a rock sculpture and by a masterpiece of Mesopotamian sculpture, the famous stela found at Susa, which is now in the Louvre Museum. He is shown armed with a bow and with the horned tiara of the gods on his head, climbing a steep mountain and treading on the corpses of his enemies.


Sargon’s reign represents a turning point in the history of Mesopotamia. For the first time, one ruler took over an area that consisted of many small city-states. Civilization—that is, the formation of complex societies—is thought to have begun around 3500 b.c.e. Before Sargon, various peoples had banded together for self-protection or management. During this time there were wars between the city-states and at various times one or another of these would be dominant. Between 2400 and 2334, Sargon conquered these cities. He took over the civilizations of the river valleys and set up a unified empire, integrating all of them into one whole, and inaugurating an Akkadian supremacy. He called himself King of the Lands and King of the Four Quarters. He appointed Semites to high administrative offices and appointed his daughter Enheduanna as chief priestess of Nanna of Ur.

While this empire lasted, many developments took place in technology, art, and literature. Its most outstanding achievement was the invention of a type of writing which the Romans later called cuneiform, from the Latin word for “wedge.” Akkadian became the name of a language known for its literary prestige. Indeed, Sargon’s daughter Enheduanna is the first writer in the world whose name was preserved for posterity.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crawford, Harriet. Sumer and the Sumerians. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. This book attempts to document the changes that took place on the Mesopotamian plain in the fourth and third millennia b.c.e. It begins with specific aspects of the societies such as the physical environment and the historical background, and combines that with a more traditional, chronological account.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodnik, Joan. Legends of the Kings of Akkade: The Texts. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenhaus, 1997. Illustrates and translates original texts and fragments regarding Sargon and Naram-Sin, his grandson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawkes, Jacquetta. The Atlas of Early Man: 35000 b.c.-a.d. 500. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976. Contains pictures, diagrams, and archaeological findings of ancient civilizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iftikhar, Ahmad, Herbert Brodsky, Marylee Susan Crofts, and Elizabeth Gaynor Ellis. World Cultures: A Global Mosaic. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996. The authors here are concerned with the civilizations of the pre-Sargonic and Sargonic periods. They describe the emergence and operation of city-states, and also how archaeologists know what happened in these years through means other than writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, J. H. Prehistory and the First Civilizations. Volume 1 in The Illustrated History of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Describes armies and weapons, irrigation, flood control, and the building of temples in early southern Mesopotamia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. 3d ed. New York: Penguin Books. 1992. A good introduction for the general reader, covering both political and military history and the history of everyday life.
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