Over the preceding years the fortunes of individual cities had waxed and waned. As one and then another gained a dominance over the others. However one mark of this era seems to have been that even if beaten in battle, the city states remained independent and although tribute and concessions may have been the price of defeat it seems that rarely was the independence of a city forfeited. They had the concept of over-king or King of Kings but each city-state remained an independent viable entity, but all of that was about to change.
The situation in the eastern fertile crescent started to change around the year 2340 BCE when the Akkadian Empire began to take shape and grow. It takes its name from the region and city of Akkad, both of which were localised in the general confluence area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Its policy showed a marked change from the preceding era as the Akkadians under their leader Sargon began to take direct control over a number of the city states in the Sumerian region. We know little about Sargon’s background. He is referenced in the Sumerian King List and in much later Assyrian documents which were discovered in the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. In fact his name in Akkadian was Sarru-ukin or Sarru-ken. The name Sargon comes from the Hebrew or Aramaic version of the name of a much later Assyrian King, Sargon the second, who was named after his predecessor. The Akkadian name means ‘the established King’ or ‘the king who has established stability’ and is unlikely to have been his real name. As with many ancient regal names they seem to be more descriptions of kingly roles or titles than actual personal names. But for the purpose of this paper I will continue to use the name we are familiar with.
Sargon, according to the available sources, was born the son of a gardener, La’ibum and according to one 7th century Assyrian document, his mother was a priestess. He became the cupbearer to Ur-Zababa, the King of Kish, one of the Sumerian city states. Details of his early story are rather sparse – One Sumerian source records that after he had grown he went to Kish and Ur-Zababa appointed Sargon as his cup-bearer. One night Ur-Zababa invited Sargon to his chambers to discuss a dream of Sargon’s, involving the favour of the goddess Inanna and a vision of the drowning of Ur-Zababa by the goddess. Deeply frightened by the portents of this dream, Ur-Zababa orders Sargon murdered, but the Goddess Inanna prevented it. When Sargon returned to Ur-Zababa, the king became even more frightened and decided to send Sargon to the king of Uruk with a message on a clay tablet asking him to slay Sargon. Unfortunately, the next section of the story which describes how Sargon came to be the ruler of Kish is missing, but from other sources it seems at some point he assassinated his master, recruited an army of Akkadians and proceeded to start to conquer the other cities of Sumer. He also had a liking for collecting titles: some were fairly straightforward – King of Kish; King of Sumer; King of Akkad, but others represented his connection to the gods: Ensi of Enlil, the God of winds or appointed of Auo, God of the heavens or Lord of the Universe.
At some date during his reign of around 55 years he moved the capital of his empire from Kish to the city of Akkad. There has been much discussion about where this city actually was and whether or not it pre-dated the arrival of Sargon or whether it was a new city built by Sargon. If it was a pre-existing city was it originally called Akkad or was it renamed. These are all questions to which there is no definite answer. The only clues are inscriptions that have been found claim that Sargon ‘built Babylon in front of Akkad’ or that Sargon ‘dug up the soil in the pit of Babylon and made a counterpart next to Agade’ but these were written much later in the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Although the location of the city of Akkad has not yet been identified, it is known from various textual sources. Among these is at least one text predating the reign of Sargon. This together with the fact that the name Akkad is of non-Akkadian origin, may suggest that the city of Akkad was already occupied in pre-Sargonic times.
Contemporary sources are rare. Two inscriptions can be seen in the Louve in Paris which are considered contemporary. In these, he is referred to as ‘ King of Akkad, overseer of Innana, King of Kish, anointed of Anu, King of the land, Governor of Enlil’. This description is also found on an inscription found at Nippur which celebrates the conquest of Uruk and the defeat of King Lugal-zagesi, whom Sargon, it informs us brought in a collar to the gate of Enlil. This is believed to have been one of the earliest victories as Sargon’s forces enlarged the boundaries of his new empire.
Sargon’s forces went on to conquer the city states of Ur, Ninmar, Umma, Mari and Elam. Ancient records claim he conquered more than 34 cities. A group of four Babylonian texts, known as the “Sargon Epos” show Sargon as a military commander asking the advice of a number of subordinates before going on campaign. The narrative of Sargon, the Conquering Hero is set at Sargon’s court, in a situation of crisis. Sargon addresses his warriors, praising the virtue of heroism, and a lecture by a courtier on the glory achieved by a champion of the army, a narrative relating a campaign of Sargon and a concluding oration by Sargon listing his conquests.
The narrative of King of Battle relates Sargon’s campaign, or perhaps a raid, against the Anatolian city of Purushanda in order to protect the rights of Akkadian merchants. Interestingly versions of this narrative have been found in both Hittite and Akkadian script. The narrative is anachronistic however, portraying Sargon in a 19th-century setting. The same text mentions that Sargon crossed the Sea of the West (most likely the Mediterranian) and ended up in Kuppara, which some authors have interpreted as the Akkadian word for Keftiu, an ancient locale usually associated with Crete or Cyprus.
The Chronicle of Early Kings, which dates from around 1500 BCE tells us that:
He had neither rival nor equal. His splendour, over the lands it diffused. He crossed the sea in the east. In the eleventh year he conquered the western land to its farthest point. He brought it under one authority. He set up his statues there and ferried the west’s body across on barges. He stationed his court officials at intervals of five double hours and ruled in unity the tribes of the lands. He marched to Kazallu and turned Kazallu into a ruin heap, so that there was not even a perch for a bird left.
We know that his queen was called Tashlultum and he had a number of children including his son’s Rimush and Manishtushu, who would in turn inherit his throne and his daughter, Enheduannaa who became an important priestess
However, there was a flip side to the hero-myths of Sargon’s conquest, it also seems that this was not an easy empire to control. The Chronicle of Early Kings tells us ‘Afterward in his old age all the lands revolted against him, and they besieged him in Akkad; and Sargon went onward to battle and defeated them; he accomplished their overthrow, and their wide spreading host he destroyed. Afterward he attacked the land of Subartu in his might, and they submitted to his arms, and Sargon settled that revolt, and defeated them; he accomplished their overthrow, and their wide spreading host he destroyed, and he brought their possessions into Akkad. The soil from the trenches of Babylon he removed, and the boundaries of Akkad he made like those of Babylon. But because of the evil which he had committed, the great lord Marduk was angry, and he destroyed his people by famine. From the rising of the sun unto the setting of the sun they opposed him and gave him no rest.