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Sargon of Akkad

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Sargon of Akkad

Sargon the Great
King of Akkad, King of Kish, Lagash, Umma, Uruk, overlord of Sumer, Elam, Mari, and Yarmuti
Bronze head of an Akkadian ruler, probably Sargon, Nineveh, c. 23rd – 22nd century BC. It might depict Sargon's grandson Naram-Sin
Reign c. 2334  BC – 2279  BC
Successor Rimush
Spouse Tashlultum
Issue Enheduanna, Rimush, Manishtushu, Ibarum, and Abaish-Takal
Full name
Šarru-kin ("the true King" or "the legitimate King")
House House of Sargon
Dynasty Akkadian dynasty
Father La'ibum (natural)
Akki (foster-)
Born Unknown
Died Unknown
Akkad, Mesopotamia
Burial Unknown

Sargon of Akkad, also known as Sargon the Great "the Great King" (Akkadian 𒈗𒁺 Šarru-kīnu, meaning "the true king" or "the king is legitimate"),[1] was a Semitic Akkadian emperor famous for his conquest of the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd and 22nd centuries BC. The founder of the Dynasty of Akkad, Sargon reigned during the last quarter of the third millennium BC. Cuneiform sources agree that he was cup-bearer (official in charge of wine) of king Ur-Zababa of Kish, and some later historians have speculated that he killed the king and usurped his throne before embarking on the quest to conquer Mesopotamia. He was originally referred to as Sargon I until records concerning an Assyrian king also named Sargon (now usually referred to as Sargon I) were unearthed.[2]

Sargon's vast empire is thought to have included large parts of Mesopotamia, and included parts of modern-day Iran, Asia Minor and Syria. He ruled from a new, but as yet archaeologically unidentified capital, Akkad, which the Sumerian king list claims he built (or possibly renovated).[3] He is sometimes regarded as the first person in recorded history to create a multiethnic, centrally ruled empire, although the Sumerians Lugal-anne-mundu and Lugal-zage-si also have a claim. His dynasty controlled Mesopotamia for around a century and a half (150 years).[4]

Origins and rise to power

The exact dates of Sargon's birth, death or even reign are unknown. According to the short chronology, he reigned from 2270 to 2215 BC (the Middle Chronology lists his reign as 2334 to 2279 BC). These dates are based on the Sumerian king list.[5] There is discussion among Assyriologists over whether or not the name Sargon was given at birth or a regnal name adopted later in life.[6][7]

The story of Sargon's birth and childhood is given in the "Sargon legend", a Sumerian text purporting to be Sargon's biography. The extant versions are incomplete, but the surviving fragments name Sargon's father as La'ibum. After a lacuna, the text skips to Ur-Zababa, king of Kish, who awakens after a dream, the contents of which are not revealed on the surviving portion of the tablet. For unknown reasons, Ur-Zababa appoints Sargon as his cup-bearer. Soon after this, Ur-Zababa invites Sargon to his chambers to discuss a dream of Sargon's, involving the favor of the goddess Inanna and the drowning of Ur-Zababa by the goddess. Deeply frightened, Ur-Zababa orders Sargon murdered by the hands of Beliš-tikal, the chief smith, but Inanna prevents it, demanding that Sargon stop at the gates because of his being "polluted with blood." When Sargon returns to Ur-Zababa, the king becomes frightened again, and decides to send Sargon to king Lugal-zage-si of Uruk with a message on a clay tablet asking him to slay Sargon.[8] The legend breaks off at this point; presumably, the missing sections described how Sargon becomes king.[9]

The Sumerian king list relates: "In Agade [Akkad], Sargon, whose father was a gardener, the cup-bearer of Ur-Zababa, became king, the king of Agade, who built Agade; he ruled for 56 years." There are several problems with this entry in the king list. Thorkild Jacobsen marked the clause about Sargon's father being a gardener as a lacuna, indicating his uncertainty about its meaning.[10] Ur-Zababa and Lugal-zage-si are both listed as kings, but separated by several additional named rulers of Kish, who seem to have been merely governors or vassals under the Akkadian Empire.[11] The claim that Sargon was the original founder of Akkad has come into question in recent years, with the discovery of an inscription mentioning the place and dated to the first year of Enshakushanna, who almost certainly preceded him.[12] The Weidner Chronicle (ABC 19:51) states that it was Sargon who built Babylon "in front of Akkad."[13][14] The Chronicle of Early Kings (ABC 20:18–19) likewise states that late in his reign, Sargon "dug up the soil of the pit of Babylon, and made a counterpart of Babylon next to Agade."[14][15] Van de Mieroop suggested that those two chronicles may in fact refer to the much later Assyrian king, Sargon II of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, rather than to Sargon of Akkad.[16]

Sargon survives as a legendary figure into the Neo-Assyrian literature of the Early Iron Age. Tablets with fragments of a Sargon Birth Legend were found in the Library of Ashurbanipal from the 7th century BC.[17] According to this legend, Sargon was the illegitimate son of a priestess (older translations describe his mother as lowly). She brought him forth in secret and placed him in a basket of reeds on the river. He was found by Akki the irrigator who raised him as his own son.[18][19]

Formation of the Akkadian Empire

Map of the Akkadian Empire (brown) and the directions in which military campaigns were conducted (yellow arrows)

After coming to power in Kish, Sargon killed the king of Kish. After having the army of Kish follow him, Sargon soon attacked Uruk, which was ruled by Lugal-Zage-Si of Umma. He captured Uruk and dismantled its famous walls. The defenders seem to have fled the city, joining an army led by fifty ensis from the provinces. This Sumerian force fought two pitched battles against the Akkadians, as a result of which the remaining forces of Lugal-Zage-Si were routed.[20] Lugal-Zage-Si himself was captured and brought to Nippur; Sargon inscribed on the pedestal of a statue (preserved in a later tablet) that he brought Lugal-Zage-Si "in a dog collar to the gate of Enlil."[21] Sargon pursued his enemies to Ur before moving eastwards to Lagash, to the Persian Gulf, and thence to Umma. He made a symbolic gesture of washing his weapons in the "lower sea" (Persian Gulf) to show that he had conquered Sumer in its entirety.[21]

Another victory Sargon celebrated was over Kashtubila, king of Kazalla. According to one ancient source, Sargon laid the city of Kazalla to waste so effectively "that the birds could not find a place to perch away from the ground."[22]

To help limit the chance of revolt in Sumer he appointed a court of 5,400 men who he knew would stay loyal to "share his table" (i.e., to administer his empire).[23] These 5,400 men may have constituted Sargon's army.[24] The governors chosen by Sargon to administer the main city-states of Sumer were Akkadians, not Sumerians.[25] The Semitic Akkadian language became the Lingua Franca, the official language of inscriptions in all Mesopotamia, and of great influence far beyond. Sargon's empire maintained trade and diplomatic contacts with kingdoms around the Arabian Sea and elsewhere in the Near East. Sargon's inscriptions report that ships from Magan, Meluhha, and Dilmun, among other places, rode at anchor in his capital of Agade.[26] Sargon also knocked down every wall and destroyed all depictions of the previous kings.

The former religious institutions of Sumer, already well-known and emulated by the Semites, were respected. Sumerian remained, in large part, the language of religion and Sargon and his successors were patrons of the Sumerian cults. Sargon styled himself "anointed priest of Anu" and "great ensi of Enlil".[27] While Sargon is often credited with the first true empire, Lugal-Zage-Si preceded him; after coming to power in Umma he had conquered or otherwise come into possession of Ur, Uruk, Nippur, and Lagash. Lugal-Zage-Si claimed rulership over lands as far away as the Mediterranean.[28]

While various copies of the Sumerian king list credit Sargon with a 56, 55, or 54 year reign, dated documents have been found for only four different year-names of his actual reign. The names of these four years describe his campaigns against Elam, Mari, Simurrum (a Hurrian region), and Uru'a (an Elamite city-state).[29] His Akkadian dynasty continued another century after his reign.

Wars in the northwest and east

Shortly after securing Sumer, Sargon embarked on a series of campaigns to subjugate the entire Fertile Crescent. According to the Chronicle of Early Kings, a later Babylonian historiographical text:

Sargon captured Mari, Yarmuti, and Ebla as far as the Cedar Forest (Amanus) and the silver mountain (Taurus). The Akkadian Empire secured trade routes and supplies of wood and precious metals could be safely and freely floated down the Euphrates to Akkad.[5]

In the east, Sargon defeated an invasion by the four leaders of Elam, led by the king of Awan. Their cities were sacked; the governors, viceroys, and kings of Susa, Barhashe, and neighboring districts became vassals of Akkad, and the Akkadian language became the lingua franca of the entire region. During Sargon's reign, Akkadian was standardized and adapted for use with the cuneiform script previously used in the Sumerian language. A style of calligraphy developed in which text on clay tablets and cylinder seals was arranged amidst scenes of mythology and ritual.[30]


Sargon was known for being the first individual in recorded history to have an empire and keep a standing army with paid, full-time soldiers.

Later reign

The Epic of the King of the Battle is known from an Akkadian-language tablet in the Amarna archives; translations have since been discovered in Hittite and Hurrian.[31] It depicts Sargon advancing deep into the heart of Anatolia to protect Akkadian and other Mesopotamian merchants from the exactions of the King of Purushanda (Purshahanda). It is anachronistic, however, portraying the 23rd-century Sargon in a 19th-century milieu; the story is thus probably fictional, though it may have some basis in historical fact.[32] The same text mentions that Sargon crossed the Sea of the West (Mediterranean Sea) 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.[33]

Famine and war threatened Sargon's empire during the latter years of his reign. The Chronicle of Early Kings reports that revolts broke out throughout the area under the last years of his overlordship:

However, A. Leo Oppenheim translates the last sentence as "From the East to the West he [i.e. Marduk] alienated (them) from him and inflicted upon (him as punishment) that he could not rest (in his grave)."[22]

Later literature proposes that the rebellions and other troubles of Sargon's later reign were the result of sacrilegious acts committed by the king. Modern consensus is that the veracity of these claims are impossible to determine, as disasters were virtually always attributed to sacrilege inspiring divine wrath in ancient Mesopotamian literature.[30]


Family tree of Sargon of Akkad

Sargon died, according to the short chronology, around 2215 BC. His empire immediately revolted upon hearing of the king's death. Most of the revolts were put down by his son and successor Rimush, who reigned for nine years and was followed by another of Sargon's sons, Manishtushu (who reigned for 15 years).[35] Sargon was regarded as a model by Mesopotamian kings for some two millennia after his death. The Assyrian and Babylonian kings who based their empires in Mesopotamia saw themselves as the heirs of Sargon's empire. Kings such as Nabonidus (r. 556–539 BC) showed great interest in the history of the Sargonid dynasty, and even conducted excavations of Sargon's palaces and those of his successors.[36] Indeed, such later rulers may have been inspired by the king's conquests to embark on their own campaigns throughout the Middle East. The Neo-Assyrian Sargon text challenges his successors thus:

Another source attributed to Sargon the challenge "now, any king who wants to call himself my equal, wherever I went [conquered], let him go."[38]


The name of Sargon's main wife, Queen Tashlultum,[39][40] and those of a number of his children are known to us. His daughter Enheduanna, who flourished during the late 24th and early 23rd centuries BC, was a priestess who composed ritual hymns.[41] Many of her works, including her Exaltation of Inanna, were in use for centuries thereafter.[42] Sargon was succeeded by his son Rimush; after Rimush's death another son, Manishtushu, became king. Manishtushu would be succeeded by his own son, Naram-Sin. Two other sons, Shu-Enlil (Ibarum) and Ilaba'is-takal (Abaish-Takal), are known.[43]

In comparative mythology

Similarities between the Neo-Assyrian Sargon Birth Legend and other infant birth exposures in ancient literature, including Moses, Karna, and Oedipus, were noted by Otto Rank in 1909.[44] The legend was also studied in detail by Brian Lewis, and compared with a number of different examples of the infant birth exposure motif found in European and Asian folk tales. He discusses a possible archetype form, giving particular attention to the Sargon legend and the account of the birth of Moses.[17] Joseph Campbell has also made such comparisons.[45]

Sargon is also one of the many suggestions for the identity or inspiration for the biblical Nimrod, the most comprehensive argumentation for which was offered by Douglas Petrovich (2013).[46] Ewing William (1910) suggested Sargon based on his unification of the Babylonians and the Neo-Assyrian birth legend.[47] Yigal Levin (2002) suggested that Nimrod was a recollection of Sargon and of his grandson Naram-Sin, with the name "Nimrod" derived from the latter.[48]

See also


  1. ^ Chavalas 2006
  2. ^ Bromiley 1996
  3. ^ Kramer 1963: 60–61
  4. ^ Van de Mieroop 2006: 63
  5. ^ a b Kramer 1963
  6. ^ Lewis 1984: 277–292
  7. ^ Sallaberger & Westenholz 1999: 34
  8. ^ The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature."The Sargon Legend." Oxford University, 2006
  9. ^ Cooper & Heimpel 1983: 67–82
  10. ^ Jacobsen 1939: 111
  11. ^ Kish at The History Files
  12. ^ Van de Mieroop 1999: 74–75
  13. ^ Grayson 1975: 19:51
  14. ^ a b c Chronicle of Early Kings at Translation adapted from Grayson 1975 and Glassner 2004
  15. ^ Grayson 1975: 20:18–19
  16. ^ Dalley 2005
  17. ^ a b Westenholz, Joan Goodnick (January 1984). "Review of The Sargon Legend: A Study of the Akkadian Text and the Tale of the Hero Who Was Exposed at Birth by Brian Lewis". Journal of Near Eastern Studies 43 (1). 
  18. ^ Brian Edric Colless. "The Empire of Sargon". Retrieved 2013-05-25. 
  19. ^  
  20. ^ Kramer 1963: 61; Van de Mieroop 2006: 64–66
  21. ^ a b Oppenheim 1969: 267
  22. ^ a b Oppenheim 1969: 266
  23. ^ Kramer 1963: 61
  24. ^ Frayne 1993: 31
  25. ^ Van de Mieroop 2006: 62–68
  26. ^ Kramer 1963: 62, 289–291
  27. ^ Van de Mieroop 2006: 67–68
  28. ^ Beaulieu 2005: 43
  29. ^ Sargon's year-names
  30. ^ a b Britannica
  31. ^ Postgate 1994: 216
  32. ^ Studevent-Hickman & Morgan 2006
  33. ^ Wainright 1952: 197–212; Strange 1982: 395–396; Vandersleyen 2003: 209
  34. ^ Botsforth 1912: 27–28
  35. ^ Kramer 1963: 61–63; Roux 1980: 155
  36. ^ Oates 1979: 162.
  37. ^ Barton 310, as modernized by J. S. Arkenberg
  38. ^ Nougayrol 1951: 169
  39. ^ Tetlow 2004
  40. ^ Roaf 1992
  41. ^ Schomp 2005: 81
  42. ^ Schomp 2005: 81; Kramer 1981: 351; Hallo & Van Dijk 1968
  43. ^ Frayne 1993: 3637
  44. ^ Otto Rank (1914). The myth of the birth of the hero: a psychological interpretation of mythology. English translation by Drs. F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe. 
  45. ^ Campbell, Joseph (1964). The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology. p. 127. 
  46. ^ Petrovich, Douglas (2013). "Identifying Nimrod of Genesis 10 with Sargon of Akkad by Exegetical and Archaeological Means". JETS 56/2: 273–305. 
  47. ^ Ewing, William (1910). The Temple Dictionary of the Bible. p. 514. 
  48. ^ Levin, Yigal (2002). "Nimrod the Mighty, King of Kish, King of Sumer and Akkad". Vetus Testementum 52: 350–356.  


Further reading

  • Albright, W. F., A Babylonian Geographical Treatise on Sargon of Akkad's Empire, Journal of the American Oriental Society (1925).
  • Alotte De La Fuye, M. Documents présargoniques, Paris, 1908–20.
  • Biggs, R.D. Inscriptions from Tell Abu Salabikh, Chicago, 1974.
  • Deimel, A. Die Inschriften von Fara, Leipzig, 1922–24.
  • Gadd, C.J. "The Dynasty of Agade and the Gutian Invasion." Cambridge Ancient History, rev. ed., vol. 1, ch. 19. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1963.
  • Jestin, R. Tablettes Sumériennes de Shuruppak, Paris, 1937.
  • Luckenbill, D. D., On the Opening Lines of the Legend of Sargon, The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures (1917).
  • Sollberger, E. Corpus des Inscriptions 'Royales' Présargoniques de Lagash, Paris, 1956.
Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Kish
? – 2270 BC (short)
Succeeded by
Preceded by
King of Uruk, Lagash, and Umma
ca. 2270–2215 BC (short)
New title King of Akkad
ca. 2270–2215 BC (short)
Preceded by
Luh-ishan of Awan
Overlord of Elam
ca. 2270–2215 BC (short)
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