One of the most fascinating personages of ancient Near Eastern history is a man who became known in folk tales as the greatest king who ever lived, at least up until the time of Alexander the Great. Here are some tidbits about Sargon of Akkad (who reigned around the 24th and 23rd centuries BCE) that any ancient history enthusiast is wise to know:
- Sargon was likely of common birth. Most of our information about Sargon comes from later sources (second millennium BCE), so it is difficult to determine the reality, but indications are that Sargon’s father was a date An early story called The Birth Legend of Sargon suggests that his father was a water-drawer, though it claims that the water-drawer was only his adopted father. The same legend says that his mother was a highborn priestess, but this is probably an attempt to legitimize Sargon by giving him noble birth. There is probably some validity to the claim made in another source that he rose to the position of cupbearer (vizier) of Urzababa, the King of Kish, and then organized a revolt against his master to become king in his place.
- Sargon was a Semite. Today the word “Semite” is often used to refer narrowly to Jewish people, but technically it’s a linguistic term. The ancestral tongue for the Semitic language family may have originated in northern Africa, or perhaps only as far as southern Syria, but it developed into subfamilies (West Semitic, East Semitic, South Semitic), each containing one or more different languages, as its speakers moved to different parts of western Asia. Akkadian, the language that Sargon spoke, is East Semitic, the language of the Semites who first settled in Mesopotamia. They were the northern neighbors of the Sumerians. In due course, the Akkadian speakers modified the Sumerian cuneiform writing system to record their own language.
- Sargon probably was not his actual name. “Sargon” is an English corruption of the Hebrew version of the king’s name found in one place in the Bible (Isaiah 20:1). In his native tongue (Akkadian) it was “Sharru-ken” of “Sharrum-ken.” However, although it is possible that this was his birth name, it is more likely the name he took when he ascended the throne. Sharru-ken means either “the king is established” or “the king has established.” No one today knows his personal name.
- He created the first known empire in history. Of course, it all depends on how you define empire, but if you mean a state that encompassed a significant amount of territory outside the ruler’s homeland, this is it. Lugalzagesi was the major power in Mesopotamia prior to Sargon. He ruled the city of Uruk and some 50 others, but they were mostly just in southern Mesopotamia. Sargon opposed and defeated Lugalzagesi and took his domains, replacing most of the rulers who had opposed him with governors who were citizens of Akkad and probably Akkadian-speakers like himself. Sargon then invaded and took control of the land of Elam to the east. Soon thereafter he led his army up the Euphrates River, conquering several cities, including the important states of Mari and Sources say he made it as far as “the Cedar Forest and the Silver Mountain” (probably the Amanus and Taurus mountain ranges). He may even have gone into Asia Minor.
- The location of his capital city is unknown. Depending on what map you are looking at, or what book you are reading, you’ll get a different spelling for the name of Sargon’s capital. Traditionally it has been spelled “Akkad” in English, but “Akkade” is more accurate. In Sumerian it is sometimes written as Agade. We’re not sure if he built the city before his war with Lugalzagesi or later. It was likely in the neighborhood of Kish and Babylon, but you should know that when modern mapmakers place it on a map, they are just guessing.
- His daughter is the first named author in history. Sargon installed his daughter Enheduanna as priestess of the moon god Nanna in Ur and priestess of the sky god An in Uruk. She took her religious responsibilities seriously and tried to systematize the religion of Mesopotamia, while maintaining the Sumerian traditions. No work prior to her time has a name on it, but hers appears on a few works. She thus is the first known author in history. Her most famous composition was a beautiful hymn to the goddess Inanna (The Exaltation of Inanna), but she wrote a whole a collection of temple hymns. One poetic composition is even autobiographical.
- He and his successors were responsible for the establishment of Akkadian as the common language of Mesopotamia for 1,500 years. Probably the longest lasting and most significant change Sargon and his descendants introduced was the use of Akkadian as the official language of government and The clay tablets the scribes wrote upon became more refined and attractive in appearance than previously, and even though the Sumerian language continued to be used, especially for religious hymns and ceremonies, and scribes continued to study it, few people spoke it anymore. Instead, Akkadian, which was used for governmental decrees and trade during Sargon’s time, and the presence of Akkadian-speaking governors throughout the realm, resulted in Akkadian becoming the common spoken language throughout most of Mesopotamia. It will later develop into northern and southern dialects (Assyrian and Babylonian), but will not be displaced until Aramaic supersedes it beginning in the 8th century BCE.
- He was regarded as a model for Mesopotamian kings for 2,000 years. Because the Akkadian Empire was the first in Mesopotamia to govern an extensive area for more than just a decade or two, later empires often copied its organization and administrative procedures. Assyrian kings legitimized their military campaigns by appealing to the Sargonic tradition. An Assyrian text quotes Sargon as commissioning later kings to create the same empire that he did: “Whatsoever king shall be exalted after me … Let him rule, let him govern the black-headed peoples [Mesopotamians]; mighty mountains with axes of bronze let him destroy; let him ascend the upper mountains, let him break through the lower mountains; the country of the sea let him besiege three times; Dilmun let him capture; To great Dur-ilu let him go up.”
He was the subject of many legends of later times. It did not take long for the story of Sargon to become embellished. The Curse of Akkade (Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2112-2004 BCE) was written less than a century after the time of Sargon and contains considerable fiction. By the time of the Old Babylonian Period (c. 1830-1431 BCE), hundreds of legends were in circulation. Some of those partly extant are I, Sargon, The Sargon Birth Legend, The Sumerian Sargon Legend, The Old Assyrian Sargon Legend, Sargon the Conquering Hero, Sargon in Foreign Lands, Sargon the Lion, and Sargon, King of Battle. The Neo-Babylonian text, Chronicle of the Early Kings, also recounts Sargon’s conquests.
- He may be one and the same as Nimrod mentioned in the Bible. An account that has been connected with Sargon from the Bible is in Genesis 10:8-12, concerning the great conqueror Nimrod. His is said to be “the first on earth to become a mighty warrior,” and his exploits are quite similar to those of Sargon. Starting at Babel (Babylon), Erech (Uruk), and Accad (Akkad) in the land of Shinar (Sumer), he is said to have advanced into Assyria. This sounds too close to Sargon to be a coincidence. Only the name throws us off. It may be based on the name of Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sin, or it is a form of Sargon’s name the origins of which we do not know.