How Sargon of Akkad Created the World’s First Empire

In the late 24th century BCE, Ancient Mesopotamia was embroiled in a constant war over who would unify the region. Out of the ashes came Sargon of Akkad, who united many city-states in Mesopotamia and is credited with founding the first empire in recorded history. In tribute to his life and legacy, future generations referred to him as Sargon the Great.

The Early Life of Sargon of Akkad

Sargon was the illegitimate son of an unknown father from the village of Azupiranu and a Sumerian priestess of the goddess of love. His illegitimate status was an issue for his mother, who set him adrift on the Euphrates River in a basket.

Sargon was found on the river by a gardener named Akki, who worked for King of Kish, Ur-Zababa. Akki adopted Sargon, and over the years, Sargon worked his way up through Ur-Zababa’s court until he became the king’s cup-bearer.

Though it might now sound like the most prestigious job, cup-bearers were particularly important. Poisonings were common in this period, so the cup-bearer required the king’s absolute trust. This prestigious position would help catapult Sargon to power.

Usurping Ur-Zababa and Conquering Kish

Around this time, the King of Umma, Lugalzagesi, was beginning to conquer many city-states of Sumer. Eventually, he set his sights on Sargon’s home of Kish.

King Ur-Zababa’s trust towards Sargon came into play, and he was sent to parley with Lugalzagesi. However, instead of negotiating peace, Lugalzagesi and Sargon conspired and overthrew the city of Kish.

After several years of co-rulership of Kish, the relationship between Sargon and Lugalzagesi fell apart after Sargon supposedly had an affair with Lugalzagesi’s wife.

This break resulted in a civil war where Sargon emerged victorious after a decisive battle. Lugalzagesi was paraded through the streets of Kish, tortured, then executed. Sargon was now officially the King of Kish and set his sites on finishing the conquest of Sumer that Lugalzagesi had started.

Forming the First Empire

The work his predecessor had put in uniting Sumer paid dividends, and Sargon quickly conquered the rest of Sumer. From there, he went on to conquer Assyria and Elam. Eventually, he controlled the majority of the Fertile Crescent, an achievement no other ruler could dream of.

Sargon was a highly innovative military leader, leveraging new inventions and tactics to win 34 battles over his lifetime (there are no real records of any losses). A big one was adopting the composite bow, which could shoot twice as far and three times as hard as the traditional bow.

Tactically, he pioneered new tactics like the phalanx formation. Tightly packed groups of soldiers with spears and large shields had a significant advantage over the loose formations of his opponents. Nearly 2,000 years later, Alexander the Great would use this tactic to great effect in his conquests.

Sargon founded the city of Akkad and established it as his capital, and later founded the city of Babylon, which would be a significant seat of power in Mesopotamia during Hammurabi’s reign.

Administrating the First Empire

Conquest is easy. The real problem for the first strongmen trying to carve out large kingdoms was administrating them.

Sargon addressed this problem by appointing only his most trusted men to administrate the 65 cities he controlled. Another way he consolidated power was by naming his daughter Enheduanna as a high priestess of one of the region’s most important deities, the god of wisdom.

These moves allowed Sargon to maintain influence in the empire and stop it from breaking apart, like many predecessors who tried to do the same.

Writing from this period shows that Sargon claimed to be the emperor of the “four corners of the universe,” which stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.

The Akkadian Empire also built the world’s first postal service, wielding its bureaucracy on a scale never seen before in human history. In addition, they undertook massive infrastructure improvements, paving roads and creating massive irrigation systems.

Additionally, Sargon created a 5,400 person full-time, standing army stationed in the city of Akkad. Just this alone gave him a massive advantage over his subjects.

Despite these remarkable achievements, the Akkadian Empire faced the same issues that even the most well-developed empires like Rome faced. Under Sargon, the people still rebelled, resulting in Sargon brutally suppressing many uprisings.

Sargon ruled for 56 years, dying of natural causes in 2,279 BC. The throne passed to his son Rimush, who ruled for nine years before passing it on to his brother Manishtushu. The Akkadian Empire lasted for another century, before 2,150 BC, when the Gutians conquered Sumer.

Despite the short-lived empire, Sargon’s name would be passed down from generation to generation, with the Assyrians and Babylonians cementing his status as a legendary emperor.

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