Ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) was the birthplace of three of the great civilizations of the ancient world. Babylon and Assyria, the later two, drew heavily on the influence of Sumeria, the earliest great civilization of Mesopotamia, and quite possibly the entire world. Sumeria was the first culture to develop writing and centralized administration. In the 23rd century BC, Sumeria was conquered by a Semetic Akkadian called Sargon. His conquests would eventually lead to the creation of the largest empire the world had yet seen, covering most of what today is Iraq, Syria, and Iran, as well as parts of modern day Turkey. In this brief biographical overview, we will look at the achievements of one of history's earliest kings.
Birth through rise to power in Kish
Historically verifiable facts about Sargon's early life are very few and far between. Various legends of his birth and rise to power exist, but it is doubtful that any of them have much historical truth behind them. One rare point of convergence to these myths is that in many versions, his father (or in some cases, adoptive father) is portrayed as a gardener. One cuneiform tablet, dating from the much later Neo-Assyrian empire, details his mother as a priestess, who conceived him illegitimately and placed him in a reed basket to float him down an unnamed river. Whatever the case may be, the facts remain largely ambiguous until the time of his first post in a royal court. This seems to have been as the cup bearer to the king of Kish, Ur-Zababa. The exact circumstances are unclear, but after being appointed to this post, Sargon apparently seized power from Ur-Zababa, likely through the use a military coup. With Ur-Zababa gone, Sargon assumed the throne of the city.
Creation of the Akkadian Empire
After becoming the king of Kish, Sargon set his eyes on the larger prize: the entirety of Sumeria. The world's greatest civilization at that time, kingship over the combined city-states of Sumeria would have given Sargon unimaginable power in the region, as well as the largest empire the world had yet seen. The task was daunting, as each city-state was ruled by its own king, each with an army at his command. To take control of the region, Sargon built an army that eventually reached 5,400 strong (small by today's standards, but a massive force for the time). This is believed by many scholars to be the world's first regular standing army, as most armies at the time were conscripted to combat a specific threat and then disbanded when their task had been accomplished. He also employed military tactics such as siege warfare to get around the fortified walls possessed by the larger city-states such as Uruk. After his conquest of the whole of Sumeria and the ousting of his predecessor as empire builder Lugal-Zage-si (the king of Umma who had ruled over most of southern Iraq prior to being defeated by Sargon), he continued to press military campaigns into the regions north and east of Sumeria, eventually resulting in the creation of the Akkadian empire, as well as the subjugation of Elam, the other significant power in the Fertile Crescent region at that time.
It was also during this time that Sargon began his most ambitious building project. While the exact dates of construction are unknown, it is detailed in several tablets that this period saw the building, or more likely rebuilding, or Sargon's imperial capital at Akkad. While some tablets seem to indicate that it was Sargon who originally built the now lost city, other give its name during the period prior to Sargon's rise to power in Kish. This means that it was most likely a renovation of an older city. Nevertheless, the result of this building project was a city that would be a major influence until nearly the end of the Sumerian culture, and would also serve as capital of the Akkadian empire until its eventual breakdown.
Later Rule and Death
Having secured all of Sumeria, as well as most of the surrounding lands, Sargon presided over a period of relative stability for many years. At one point late in his reign, a general revolt arose out of the Sumerian city-states, most likely due to the effects of a famine that plagued the region during the later years of Sargon's rule. Impressively enough, the emperor, by then an incredibly old man for his time, successfully quelled the revolt and once more took control of his lands. During this time, he also began to construct temples and monuments dedicated to him which would ensure his name would live on into history. Minor wars with northern tribes are described in some tablets, but they seem to suggest that the last years of Sargon's reign (after the ending of the Sumerian revolt) were fairly peaceful. The precise details and date of Sargon's death are unknown, but it is extremely likely that the cause was simply old age. Depending on the source tablet, Sargon ruled between 54 and 57 years, a reign that was longer than many people even lived at the time. The dynasty then passed into the hands of his son, Rimush.
Legacy and Historical Impact
While the Akkadian empire was only to survive Sargon by 100 years before falling apart under his descendents, his historical impact is unquestionable. While other Sumerian kings had created empires before him, Sargon developed many of the ideas and innovations of centralized government and military power that became commonplace later in history. He was also responsible for the rise of the city of Akkad, which had far reaching influence even into the later Babylonian empire. His name also found its way into the myth and legend of the region, as evidenced by the fact that cuneiform tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal, dating from some 1500 years later, still bear his name and relate his legend.
Sargon was a ruler who rose from a modest position in the court of the city-state of Kish to rule what would become the Akkadian empire. He pressed his military campaigns into new lands, and undertook a massive building project to renovate his capital city at Akkad, which would become a long lasting influence even into the days of the later Babylonian empire. While little known today, his accomplishments stand as remarkable even nearly 42 centuries after his death. He was a great innovator in the execution of centralized government over large land areas, and one of the earliest models for the creating of empires containing multiple ethnic and linguistic groups.