Sargon, king of Akkad, reigned from 2334 to 2279 B.C. From humble beginnings, he rose to great power, conquering Mesopotamia and parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria. Not only did he found an empire, but he kept it operating smoothly with the innovative use (at the time) of Akkadian bureaucrats installed in every conquered city. Akkadians, who spoke a Semitic language, originated in northern Mesopotamia, while Sumerians held the south. Sargon became the first person in history to create an empire, ruling over a multi-ethnic people. Sargon became a legendary figure; for thousands of years, Mesopotamians told heroic, epic tales of Sargon the Great and the Akkadian golden age.
Sargon was born to an unknown mother and father, but in his purported biography, Sargon describes his mother as a temple priestess, perhaps one of the order of sacred prostitutes. His mother, unable to keep the infant, put him in a reed basket in the Euphrates and sent it down the river. Sargon was found and raised by a gardener to the King of Kish, Ur-Zababa. Later, Sargon became cup-bearer to the king. A cup-bearer brought the king’s wine, but also served as a trusted adviser.
Lugalzagesi, king of Umma, came to conquer Kish. Ur-Zababa, mistrusting Sargon, sent him to Lugalzagesi with a message, seeming to sue for peace. In reality, the message asked Umma’s king to kill Sargon. Lugalzagesi instead asked Sargon to join his military campaign. He did, and they conquered Kish, while Ur-Zababa fled. Soon after, Sargon fell out with Lugalzagesi and they fought.
Lugalzagesi had already united the many cities of Sumer under his own control. When Sargon captured him in battle, he gained Sumeria. Sargon installed a cadre of his own trusted men in each Sumerian city to rule in his name, while he continued building his empire. He set out to conquer ever more territory, extending his power into Elam (Iran) then went on to Mari and Ashur, and parts of Syria, Lebanon, Anatolia (Turkey) and perhaps even Cyprus.
After conquering all of Mesopotamia, Sargon built his own city, Akkad, on the bank of the Euphrates. Sargon, however, fought not for the glory of Akkad, but for his own glory and power, establishing a powerful dynasty that would rule for the next 150 years.
Sargon maintained his empire by strategically placing men he trusted into each conquered city or region. He garrisoned troops and put his people into positions of power. He appointed his daughter, Enheduanna as high priestess of Inanna in Ur, where she influenced religious and political affairs for the next 40 years. When Sumerians rebelled, the Akkadians in power ruthlessly crushed the rebel leaders.
Sargon’s reign provided stability. He built roads and irrigation canals, extended trade routes and encouraged science and the arts. Sargon created a postal system, ensuring privacy of the mail by innovating the use of clay envelopes for the tablets. His taxes were fair for rich and poor.
Sargon fought many battles, but managed to die of natural causes and old age. After his death, Sargon’s legends grew and all of Mesopotamia revered him almost as a god.
This article is part of our larger resource on Mesopotamian culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on ancient Mesopotamia.