Sargon the Great was one of the world's earliest empire builders. From roughly 2334 to 2279 BCE, he ruled a civilization called the Akkadian Empire, consisting largely of ancient Mesopotamia, after conquering all of Sumer (southern Mesopotamia) as well as parts of Syria, Anatolia (Turkey), and Elam (western Iran). His empire was the first political entity to have an extensive, efficient, large-scale bureaucracy to administer his far-flung lands and their culturally diverse people.
Fast Facts: Sargon the Great
- Known For: Creating an empire in Mesopotamia
- Also Known As: Sargon of Akkad, Shar-Gani-Sharri, Sarru-Kan ("True King" or "Legitimate King") Sargon of Agade, King of Agade, King of Kish, King of the Land
- Died: c. 2279 BCE
Almost nothing is known of Sargon's early life. There is no birth date; the dates of his reign are approximate; and the end of his reign, 2279, is only presumably the year of his death. His name at birth also is unknown; he adopted Sargon later.
Although his name was among the most famous in antiquity, the modern world knew nothing of him until 1870 CE, when Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British army officer and scholar of the Orient, published the "Legend of Sargon," which he had found in the library of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria while excavating the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nineveh in 1867.
The Legend of Sargon, engraved in cuneiform on a clay tablet, supposedly represented his biography, though it's often described as folklore. It reads, in part:
"My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not… My mother conceived me in secret, she gave birth to me in concealment. She set me in a basket of rushes, She sealed the lid with tar. She cast me into the river… The water carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. He lifted me out as he dipped his jar into the river, He took me as his son, he raised me, He made me his gardener."
Sargon's mother, said to have been a priestess in a town on the Euphrates River and perhaps one of an order of sacred prostitutes, couldn't keep the child. She hit upon an option strikingly similar to one involving Moses, although her baby supposedly floated down the Euphrates instead of the Nile. The future founder of the Akkadian Empire was discovered by a gardener who served Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish, a massive subterranean city on the island of Kish off the coast of Iran.
Rise to Power
Sargon eventually became Ur-Zababa's cup-bearer, a servant who brought a king's wine but also served as a trusted adviser. For unknown reasons, the king felt threatened by Sargon and tried to get rid of him: When Lugal-zage-si, the king of Umma who had conquered and consolidated many city-states in Sumer, came to conquer Kish next, Ur-Zababa sent Sargon to deliver a clay tablet to the king, supposedly offering peace.
The tablet, however, contained a message requesting that Lugal-zage-si kill Sargon. Somehow the conspiracy was thwarted, and the Sumerian king asked Sargon to join his campaign against the city.
They conquered Kish and Ur-Zababa was deposed. But soon Sargon and Lugal-zage-si had a falling out. Some accounts say Sargon had an affair with Lugal-zage-si's wife. At any rate, Sargon captured Uruk, an ancient land in southern Mesopotamia on the Euphrates River, from Lugal-zage-si and then defeated him in battle at Kish.
Expanding His Realm
A large part of Sumer had been controlled by Uruk, so with both Ur-Zababa and Lugalzagesi out of the way, Sargon was the new ruler of an area from which to launch military campaigns and expand his empire. But Sargon also wanted to maintain the lands under his control, so he established an efficient bureaucracy by placing trusted men in each Sumerian city to rule in his name.
Meanwhile, Sargon expanded his empire, defeating the Elamites to the East, who inhabited what is today western Iran. To the West, Sargon conquered parts of Syria and Anatolia. He established his capital at Akkad, near Kish, becoming the first king of the Akkadian Dynasty. The city, which lent its name to the empire, has never been found.
He conquered the nearby city-states of Ur, Umma, and Lagash and developed a commercial trade-based empire, with unifying roads and a postal system.
Sargon made his daughter Enheduanna a high priestess of Nanna, Ur's moon god. She was also a poet and is considered the world's first author known by name, credited with creating the paradigms of poetry, psalms, and prayers used throughout the ancient world that led to genres recognized in the present day.
Sargon the Great is said to have died of natural causes around 2279 BCE and was succeeded by his son Rimush.
Sargon Akkadian Empire lasted a century and a half, ending when it was displaced by the Gutian dynasty of Sumer during the 22nd century BCE. One of the results of Sargon's conquests was the facilitation of trade. Sargon controlled the cedar forests of Lebanon and the silver mines of Anatolia, which provided valuable raw materials for trade in the Indus Valley, as well as in civilizations in Oman and along the Gulf.
The Akkadian Empire was the first political entity to make extensive use of bureaucracy and administration on a large scale, setting the standard for future rulers and kingdoms. The Akkadians developed the first postal system, constructed roads, improved irrigation systems, and advanced the arts and sciences.
Sargon also is remembered for creating a society where the weak were protected. Stories say that during his reign, no one in Sumer had to beg for food, and widows and orphans were protected. Rebellions were common during his reign, though he reportedly said his enemies faced a “lion with teeth and claws.” Sargon the Great wasn't regarded as a hero from humble beginnings who gained power to save his people, but his empire was considered a Golden Age compared to those that followed.
- Zettler, Richard L. "Reconstructing the World of Ancient Mesopotamia: Divided Beginnings and Holistic History." Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 2003.
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- "Sargon: Ruler of Mesopotamia." Encyclopaedia Britannica.