The Epic Reign of Sargon of Akkad

From the Lecture Series: Between the Rivers — The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

By Alexis Q. Castor, PhD, Franklin & Marshall College

The rise of Sargon of Akkad, who ruled from 2334 to 2279 BC, is a story that tells of the creation of a new, powerful dynasty in Mesopotamian history.

Illustration from "The Legend of Sargon (The Goddess Ishtar Appears to Sargon, the Gardener's Lad)" By the contempoarary artist, Edwin J. Prittie.
The Goddess Ishtar Appears to young Sargon working as a gardener. “Under Ishtars guidance, the gardener’s boy rose to be the king of his own little city. Then he conquered other cities, and at length held all the land of Babylonia under his rule, being the first man to unite all the little warring cities into a single state.” (Image: By Internet Archive Book Images/Public domain)

Sargon’s Birth

While we have some contemporary sources for Sargon’s rule, the majority of our sources were written much later after Sargon had become a legendary figure worthy of emulation. These later sources claim to be copies of the original texts inscribed on Akkadian monuments, but later rulers likely embellished the accounts to serve their own purposes. Perhaps they were trying to control both the north and south and they wanted some historical precedent to justify their claim.

It is a challenge to sort out the facts of Sargon’s rule from these anachronistic sources, but they attest to the lingering influence of this era in Mesopotamian history.

One of the most striking stories about Sargon’s early life is his birth legend, reported in an 8th-century BC neo-Assyrian source. The legend reports that Sargon was the son of a priestess and an unknown father.

This is a transcript from the video series Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Photo of clay tablet inscribed with the Sumerian King List (made between 1827 and 1817 BC).
The Sumerian king list records Sargon’s birth and his rise to power. (Image: Photographed by 俞磊/Public domain)

The story claims: “My mother was a high priestess, I did not know my father … my mother conceived me, she bore me in secret, she placed me in a reed basket, she sealed my hatch with pitch. She left me to the river … the river carried me off, it brought me to Aqqi, drawer of water.” Aqqi, then, had Sargon work in an orchard. It was presumably a royal orchard because Sargon came into contact with the king.

The Sumerian king list records Sargon’s birth as well, describing him in different versions as the son of a gardener or as the cupbearer of Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish.

Sargon likely overthrew and probably assassinated Ur-Zababa to take the throne of Kish and, from there, expanded his rule. These early stories may seem familiar, especially the story of the baby bound in a reed basket floating along the river. Sargon’s story would have appeared before the legend of Moses was recorded in the Old Testament.

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An Agent of the Gods

Other stories of Sargon’s early life record that Sargon had a dream while he was still in the service of Ur-Zababa. According to the story, Sargon dreamt that the goddess Inanna killed Ur-Zababa, thus justifying the gods’ displeasure with the ruler.

Therefore, if Sargon did assassinate Ur-Zababa, he would just be the agent of the gods as predicted in his dream. There’s a great detail from this story that shows the importance of diplomatic secrecy.

The story reports: “In those days, writing on tablets did exist, but clay envelopes did not exist. King Ur-Zababa wrote a tablet for Sargon, a creature of the gods, which would cause his own death, and dispatched it to Lugalzagesi in Uruk.” Ur-Zababa may have felt some threat from Sargon and he wrote to a co-ruler in Uruk, Lugalzagesi, for help. Sargon saw it because it was not sealed in an envelope.

Learn more about Uruk, one of the most marvelous cities in the ancient world

Sargon’s Akkadian name, Sharru-Kin, means the true or legitimate king—an overstatement that suggests that he had no real claim to the throne. After coming to the throne of Kish, Sargon quickly attacked and defeated the powerful king of Uruk, Lugalzagesi, an ally of Ur-Zababa. Lugalzagesi led a coalition of 50 ensis, who were a kind of governor of a city.

Leading History’s First Recorded Army

Mask of Sargon of Akkad
Mask of Sargon of Akkad (Image: Photograph by: Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities – Encyclopedia Britannica Online/Public domain)

Sargon’s main accomplishments stemmed from his military achievements. These expeditions took him east to Iran, apparently as far west as Lebanon, to the north in Anatolia, and, finally, to the south of Mesopotamia, which allowed him to unite the two regions. Inscriptions contemporary to Sargon’s reign note that the god Dagan, the god of grain, gave him the upper Euphrates regions—including Ebla and Mari, trading cities in Syria—and that he controlled the land west to the Cedar Mountains, which would be Lebanon.

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Later stories about Sargon offer much more detailed descriptions of his campaigns. One of Sargon’s most memorable claims was that he washed his spear in the sea of the Persian Gulf. Later rulers—including his Assyrian namesake, Sargon II—emulated this act in direct imitation of Sargon’s success. Another intriguing text refers to Sargon eating bread with 5,400 men every day. This contemporary text is likely a reference to a standing army; if so, this is the first recorded army in history. Scholars debate whether Sargon’s Akkad was the first known empire.

A New City for a New Era

Sargon founded a new capital, Akkad or Agade, from which to rule his lands. This capital has not been discovered to date. It’s either near or maybe even under the city of Baghdad. It is somewhat surprising that a new city was being established in Mesopotamia, where old cities have such a rich history, and this may be the result of Sargon’s personal history as a person without a legitimate claim to the throne. Sargon could use a new city to invoke a new era, surrounding himself with temples and art that could celebrate him without any awkward references to earlier legitimate rulers that he overthrew. Later rulers would also establish new capital cities, always an important event.

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Sargon Names a New High Priestess

Stone carving of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad, circa 2300 BC.
To consolidate his power, Sargon installed his daughter Enheduanna as the high priestess of the moon god Nanna at Ur. (Image: By Mefman00/Public domain)

One of the most significant decisions that Sargon made to consolidate his power was to install his daughter Enheduanna as the high priestess of the moon god Nanna at Ur. This gave her control over the temple lands in Ur and also other property controlled by the cult in southern Mesopotamia. She may also have served some priestly function at Uruk, which could represent a unification of these powerful religious centers. Sargon was the military leader and his daughter became a very prominent religious leader.

While serving as high priestess, Enheduanna composed hymns to the goddess Inanna and many other deities, making her the first known author in history. Since Sargon had a close connection to Inanna, the goddess of love and war, it’s not surprising that his daughter would be focused on her cult. After Sargon, it became traditional that a ruler who claimed the allegiance of more than one city would also place his daughter in the cultic position.

Sargon ruled for 55 years and the length of his reign undoubtedly contributed to its success because it allowed him to ensure succession after establishing his control. But despite his success militarily, a later source describes that all of the lands revolted against him late in life, besieging him in Akkad. Sargon defeated this rebellion and traveled on campaigns to make sure that other rebellions were put down.

Immediately after Sargon’s death, there was another series of revolts. This is the first time where we have evidence for the period of a succession of a ruler trying to establish a dynasty.

Common Questions About Sargon of Akkad

Q: What do we know of Sargon of Akkad?

Sargon of Akkad was the Akkadian Empire’s first ruler. He conquered many Sumerian city states during the 24th to 23rd centuries BCE.

Q: What is the meaning of Sargon?

The name Sargon is a Hebrew rendering of the Akkadian name Sharru-ukin which means the “legitimate king.”

Q: When did Sargon of Akkad die?

Sargon of Akkad died in 2279 BCE.

Q: What killed Sargon of Akkad?

Sargon of Akkad was killed in a battle campaign against Gurdi the Kulummaean.

This article was updated on September 18, 2020

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