c. 2334 BC – c. 2154 BC
We’re here, we’re at a big one, and we’re going to talk a lot about it. The Akkadian Empire is a state I have been mentioning since the start of the this series and though it was short-lived, as far as ancient states go, most of what we’ve covered so far has lasted at least a thousand years or at the very least a couple of centuries, stands out in history as potentially the first human empire. Now we could go on for quite a bit discussing the difference between kingdoms and empires and how Akkad managed it while we wouldn’t consider any of the Sumerian kings or the Old Egyptian kings to have done it so all I’ll say is that this claim is disputed and you could consider one of the early Sumerian kings (like Gilgamesh, because he’s the only Sumerian king we care about and he’s legendary, go read my Sumer or Elam article, I think they mention the names of a couple of other Sumerians off-hand
and then say very little about their meagre accomplishments) to have forged an empire, but let’s just go with making Sargon of Akkad the first emperor in history because it’s simpler, and for my money, the key reason is that Sargon conquered and subdued several other cultures utterly with a clear dominance of his local area. Just expect that it’s something that Akkadian/Sumerian scholars will argue about and write essays and arguments and research papers on the subject.
Now this is quite a trigger word for Akkadian scholars as it’s quite simple, they don’t know where Akkad was. It was an incredibly important city, as it (kind of, the language existed before the city) birthed the Akkadian language that would be used in Assyria and Babylon in some form over the next few millennia, and of course it was where the conquering Akkadians came from. But its location is not confirmed. It’s probably somewhere near modern Baghdad, somewhere near the location I’ve put on the map, somewhere close to the middle of the Sumerian cities where it could have conquered the others easily, although probably not right at the centre to allow for cultural differences. Possibly further north and most likely east of the Tigris, nearer to Assur as the Assyrians were one of the principle continuities of the Akkadians. But we aren’t sure on exactly where.
Once they got going they really conquered. And I mean really. They, or rather, Sargon, took control over all the nearby Sumerian cities, swept aside and mostly destroyed Mari, Nagar, Ebla and all of the other small Semitic cities, took Assur, may have reached the Syrian coast, sent expeditions down the Persian Gulf into Elam and Arabia, they dominated their local area. It was short-lived, but that map shows it at its height, so now we go into how it started up and how it fell.
Timeline and Personalities (Sargon of Akkad)
I feel obliged to tackle these sections together as the achievement of the Akkadians is almost entirely down to one man, at least in the way the story has come down to us, and that man was Sargon of Akkad. Which is a far catchier name than many of the Eblaite, Mariote and Sumerian king names I’ve been regaling you with lately, and that’s probably because Sargon is a simplified form, thanks to the Bible, who mentions a later ruler with the same name in Isaiah, of the Akkadian Šarru-ukīn (keep in mind that this of course was in the highly different Akkadian writing system), which essentially means ‘legitimate king’. Which leads me to believe that that wasn’t actually his birth name unless his parents were very foresighted but a name he took upon ascending to the position. Nevertheless, it’s a memorable one and one that would be revered through the Assyrian and Babylonian traditions.
The legend of Sargon holds out that he started out as a gardener or a cup-bearer of Kish and at some point, overthrew the king of Uruk, then made himself king of his home city AND Uruk. And Kish. And all of the cities he could get his hands on, capturing Ur, laying waste to Lagash and many others. He had a long reign, so plenty of time to make all of the other kings bow the knee. His soldiers were originally his former underlings, possibly, but soon that would be supplemented with all of the other soldiers from the cities. He then invaded Ebla, Mari, Canaan, each time burning more cities and bringing more land under the effective control of Akkad, replacing local sources with trustworthy Akkadian citizens. Hittite sources say he fought them in the mountains of Turkey, he went eastwards to Elam, and we have tablets supporting the dates of his campaigns. He must have been an incredible general and ruler, to do what only a few people in history have managed, to bring huge swathes of land, essentially most of the known world, bar Egypt, at that time, under his rule, although it’s possible some of his exploits have become exaggerated in the oral tradition.
Naturally, there was unrest. Sargon, in his later years, and his sons, Rimush and Manishtushu, I had better have spelt those right, had a lot of rebellions, revolts and rival rulers springing up that they had to put down and his sons eventually just got assassinated before they could have long reigns like their father. Except for Naram-Sin, Sargon’s grandson, although sometimes referred to as a son, which is something that happened last time in Mari too, an issue of prestige I imagine, who conquered Ebla again, and built a Syrian residence for the Akkadian emperors at the site of Nagar, a strategic location for that part of the world. This briefly solidified Sargon’s conquests, but merely one ruler after Naram-Sin, after the death of his son Shar-Kali-Sharri, the empire collapsed into an anarchy as different people vied for the throne. A man named Dudu eventually brought it back into reasonable stability, but by then it was too late and Gutian tribes from the north were invading, outer regions of the empire like Mari and Ebla were falling back under independent rulers again, and Sargon’s dynasty could not hold onto power. They were replaced by a period of Gutian rulership, some call that an early Dark Age, which leads eventually to a Neo-Sumerian empire, then Babylon and Assyria, who were states speaking Akkadian or variants of it, but not in a united sense like Sargon had managed.
Rulership, Technology and Foreign Policy
The Akkadian supremacy saw the Akkadian language become the lingua franca, the dominant language throughout the empire, although there were a lot of people speaking both language, the trend was that of reducing Sumerian to a language of liturgical use and this would be a trend that continued after Akkad had fallen. The effects of Akkad were long-lasting. Sargon saw the first point in Mesopotamian history when the kings were not subservient to priestly rulers but incorporated power from both parts of that in one. Instead of the traditional king, he preferred the title ‘Lord of the Universe’, disclaimer: am completely serious, look it up. But it just indicates how much he felt he had conquered everything there was to conquer, so merely ‘king’ wasn’t enough for him and no one really had conception of what an ’emperor’ was yet. This would lead to not only divinity upon death as was already common in this part of the world but divinity in life as well for some of the later Akkadian kings. I would say that this increased the risk of revolt in the provinces of the Akkadian Empire, if the concept of blasphemy was a thing and I’m not certain if it was, this is just my speculation. For the priests, or ensi they remained as rulers of lesser power or governors, and Sargon and his descendants often preferred to put some of their numerous sons and daughters in these positions as high priests and priestesses, as well as political marriages. This government was notable, people would follow the basic model and compare it to this period in Assyria and Babylon for the next millennium and more.
Militarily, what’s new about Sargon is that he may have been the first man to initiate a large naval invasion of somewhere, possibly Bahrain and Cyprus, we’re less sure on the latter. Which meant that the shipbuilding skills of the Akkadians, despite only having small bits of coastline and sea tradition, was not bad. I see very little evidence for advancing from spears and the like but one non-military technology we have a tablet for is that Rimush son of Sargon made a lead statue of himself, no one having made out of that material before. It’s not the best material to make a statue out of, perhaps that’s why no one had done so before.
Agricultural hegemony was the order of the day, the empire had to order in exports for stone, wood and metal in order to build things, trading away their food surplus instead. There’s even some cool reports of local nomads paying a tax to summer in the fertile riverlands away from the droughty outskirts to the north and south.
There was a messenger network moving through the vast Akkadian lands, necessary for controlling such vast territories. We have records of the names of the governors of local areas in some of the old archives, what could have been a library of Sargon, with a few other miscellania like astronomical observations. Likely nothing on the libraries of later eras but a form of storing writing nevertheless.
There are a number of nation states mentioned in the Akkadian records that Sargon or his successors may have sent expeditions to or traded with and we just don’t know anything about them aside from these mentions. There’s Magan in Oman, which Sargon may have ruled, there’s Marhashi (to the east), Subartu (possibly a name for Assyria), Meluha, Hamazi, Kaptara (maybe Cyprus), who are names, some from the Sumerian period, others from now, that the Akkadians had contacts with and may have conquered, but we have no written records enough to tell us anything about these cities or nations or whatever they were. There’s a bigger world out there than we know, I mean, much of the world would have been tribes like the Gutians and so some of these nations might have been also but we can’t say for certain. Yay, that phrase again. Let’s move on.
Culture and Religion
The kings of Sargon’s dynasty as I’ve said above, were revered highly throughout the centre of the empire at least, and along with the continuation of Sumerian art, we see lots of art relating to the power of the kings, seals and such, along with a scholar called Frankfort emphasising a bit more of a gloomy tone than the Sumerian art that had preceded them.
Enhedanna, the daughter of Sargon, was high priestess of the moon god Nanna and also an accomplished poet, being the first known poet in history (she even states that she knows what she created was something no one ever created before), which is very exciting to archaeologists and literature enthusiasts because her surviving works give us extra ability to understand the language and the culture. She composed mainly hymns, it would seem, including one devoted to the goddess Inanna (which you can find in translated form here, that, ETCSL, is a great site if you want to follow up this educational session by searching up any Sumerian or Akkadian documents), a different one to Nanna, I’ve checked, Nanna is the moon god, Inanna is a fertility goddess. Modern historian/writers have actually combined all of her works into one epic which could be taken as a single Akkadian epic, albeit mostly to their gods.
Some religious groups, after Naram-Sin attacked Nippur, withdrew their support of him and composed a work called the Curse of Akkad which detailed how Akkad would fall. Whether that came to pass is a matter of debate, the curse describes the usual stuff like famines and it’s possible that that was what weakened the Akkadians enough that the Gutians could come in and wipe them out….
And that, was the first huge empire of history. It lasted merely two hundred years but it left a big impact on the surroundings. Following this I’m going to spiral away from the Middle East for a bit and cover some lands in different areas of the world but I’m going to need to come back here soon, the Akkadians left the world in turmoil and states rose out of that very quickly…
See also in History Of A Nation: Iraq
See also in History Of A Nation: Syria
See also in History Of A Nation: Kuwait