10 Most Famous Ancient Mesopotamian Kings

Popularly known as the cradle of human civilization, ancient Mesopotamia was a thriving region in the Middle East that grew around two very important rivers – Tigris and Euphrates. The region is credited with being the place where humans first gathered to form large towns, cities and then full-fledged empires such as Sumer, Akkadia, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia.

Ancient Mesopotamia was also the first-known place to invent writing and government. At the helm of those city-states and empires, were very powerful kings who in most cases were revered by their people as the embodiment of major ancient Mesopotamian gods.

From famous Akkadian rulers such as Naram-Sin and Sargon the Great to Babylonian kings such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar II, worldhistoryedu.com explores 10 most famous ancient Mesopotamian rulers.

HAMMURABI

Hammurabi receiving the Code of Hammurabi from Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice and truth

With a reign that spanned about four decades (from c. 1792 BCE to c. 1752 BCE), Hammurabi’s impact in the region was so huge that when we think of Mesopotamia his name often comes to mind. The sixth ruler of the famous city-state of Babylon, Hammurabi was famed for ushering in a golden age for his people.

Aside from the numerous socio-economic infrastructures that were built during his reign, Hammurabi is most known for coming out with the Hammurabi Code, a set of legal statues that regulated the social and economic environment of ancient Babylonians.

His death in the mid-18th century BCE resulted in the gradual demise of the First Babylonian Empire

NARAM-SIN

Kings of Mesopotamia

Similar to his grandfather, Sargon the Great, Naram-Sin of Akkad was a very influential ruler of the Akkadian Empire. He successfully steered the people of Akkad to reach heights never seen before.

Naram-Sin’s reign (c. 2254 – c. 2218 BCE) witnessed the conquests of places in Taurus (in southern Turkey) and Amanus Mountains (located in present-day Hatay Province, south-central Turkey). King Naram-Sin also defeated Satuni, the ruler of a number of tribes in the Zagros Mountains.

Above all, Naram-Sin is most famous for being the first Mesopotamian ruler to claim to be a god. As a result, he was given epithets like “God of Akkad”, “King of the Universe”, and “King of the Four Quarters”.

GILGAMESH

Gilgamesh

Was King Gilgamesh a mythical king or an actual figure in ancient Mesopotamian history? The verdict is still out there. One thing is for sure: To the ancient Mesopotamians, the great hero Gilgamesh was a very important figure in their culture and religion. He was undoubtedly the most famous king of the Sumer people.

According to ancient clay tablets discovered in the area, Gilgamesh (reign – c. 2900-2700 BCE)  was from the Sumerian city-state of Uruk – one of the first cities with a proper form of government. As a result of Gilgamesh’s immense contribution to the city, he was deified by the people Sumer.

According to one account of the myths, Gilgamesh once lent a helping hand to Inanna, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love, beauty and war. King Gilgamesh was described as the “Master of Animals” as he was credited with defeating the fierce giant Huwawa as well the Bull of Heaven. These and many more other stories of the hero Gilgamesh are contained in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Did you know: At the zenith of Uruk’s civilization (i.e. around the late 3rd millennium BCE), the Mesopotamian city could boast of close to 100,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in the world?

NEBUCHADNEZZAR II

Nebuchadnezzar II. Anton Nyström, 1901

King Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign lasted from c. 605 to 562 BCE. According to ancient historical texts, this king of Babylon was responsible for stretching the boundaries of the Babylonian Empire. A truly powerful king, Nebuchadnezzar II also conquered many cities in the region, including Judah and Jerusalem. His conquest of the city of Judah was so famous that it even appears a number of times in the Bible, in the Books of Chronicles and the Book of Jeremiah.

King Nebuchadnezzar II (born – c. 634; died – c. 562 BCE) inherited the throne from his father Nabopolassar, the founder of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

In 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II allied with King Cyaxeres of the Medes and drove out the Egyptians in Syria. Under Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign of about four decades, he steered Babylon to its peak in terms of culture and military conquests.

Perhaps the greatest feat of Nebuchadnezzar II known to modern historians is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon that he built for his wife Queen Amytis. According to written accounts, the magnificent structure was built in order to give Amytis a semblance of greenery of her homeland Medes (present-day Iran).

Did you know: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?

SARGON THE GREAT

Sargon of Akkad on his victory stele

It would be a great injustice were this list not to include the Mesopotamian king Sargon of Akkad, also known as Sargon the Great. First of all, the Akkadian king is credited with establishing the world’s first known empire, the Akkadian Empire. He accomplished this feat by bringing numerous Sumerian city-states under his control.

As the first ruler of the Akkadian Empire, Sargon the Great founded what historians like to call the Sargonic dynasty (“Old Akkadian” dynasty). In total, Sargon and his descendants ruled large parts of Mesopotamia for more than a century.

During Sargon of Akkad’s reign (c. 2 334–2284 BCE), the Akkadian language became the dominant language in all of Mesopotamia, replacing the Sumerian language. Also the city of Akkad was the center of not just Akkadian civilization but the cultural hub of the entire region.

ASHURBANIPAL

Ashurbanipal was not just the builder of temples, he was a fierce conqueror, famously destroying Elam in 647/646 BCE | Image: British Museum

With epithets such as “Ashur has beget a son-heir”, Ashurbanipal was the famous Mesopotamian king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. His reign, which lasted from c. 668-627 BCE, is considered by many historians as the last great period of the Assyrian Empire.

The fourth king to hail from Sargonid dynasty, Ashurbanipal reigned over the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which was the largest known-empire in the world at the time. He transformed the capital city Nineveh into the hub of culture and religious excellence. In addition to being the largest city in the world, Nineveh hosted a number of magnificent structures built by Ashurbanipal. Some examples of those buildings include the famous ancient Library of Ashurbanipal which contained over 30,000 clay tablets. Kind courtesy to many of those clay tablets, modern historians have gained deeper understanding of the culture and religion of ancient Mesopotamia.

In the four decades that Ashurbanipal sat on the throne, he fought several times against Elam, ultimately completely destroying them in 647/646 BCE. He also had to fend off a rebellion from his elder brother Shamash-shum-ukin, the ruler of Babylon. The elder brother of Ashurbanipal and his alliance of enemies of the Assyrian people were defeated by Ashurbanipal around 648 BCE.

NABOPOLASSAR

Likely born in the famous Mesopotamian city of Uruk, Nabopolassar is revered as the founder and first king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He rose to the throne after capitalizing on the political instability that plagued the Neo-Assyrian Empire under the leadership of King Sinsharishkun. Nabopolassar led an uprising against the Neo-Assyrian Empire that had ruled Babylon for more than hundred years. Assisting him in this 10-year rebellion were the Medes.

By 614 BCE, Nabopolassar and his alliance of Medes fighters had sacked the city of Assur, the cultural and religious hub of Assyrian people. Two years later, Nabopolassar marched into Nineveh – capital of the Assyrians – and sacked the city. Several women and children were slaughtered before the city was razed to the ground. Many historians believe that the Assyrian king Sinharishkun probably died during the sack of Nineveh.

During his reign over the Second Babylonian Empire, Nabopolassar also fought very hard against the Eygyptians (led by Pharaoh Necho II) who wanted to restore Assyrian rule over Babylon. Around 605 BCE, the same year that he died, the Egyptians were defeated at the Battle of Carchemish.

Did you know: Many Babylonian authors in the Hellenistic period associated Nabopolassar with the Babylonian god Marduk?

CYRUS THE GREAT

To the ancient Greeks, Cyrus II of Persia was known as Cyrus the Elder, the ancient Mesopotamian ruler who founded the first Persian Empire (also known as the Achaemenid Empire).  To many historians, however, he is simply known as Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus journey to power began after he succeeded his father, Cambyses I of Anshan, in 559 BCE. However, his father’s kingdom of Anshan had for years been under the control of Median rulers. Owing to a series of disagreements between Cyrus and the Median king Astyages (Cyrus’ grandfather), Cyrus decided to revolt against the Medians. After about three years of conflict, Cyrus emerged victorious around 550 BCE. In an act of kindness, Cyrus spared the life of his grandfather and then married his daughter Amytis, according to famed Greek historian Herodotus. Subsequently, Cyrus went on to establish the first Persian Empire with the help a Harpagus, a former general of Asyages.

In 547 BCE, Cyrus defeated King Croesus of Lydia who wanted to avenge the overthrow of his political ally Astyages. In 539, Cyrus took control of the city of Babylon and allowed the Jewish people move back to Israel. In addition to granting religious freedoms to the people that he conquered, he was also known for promoting human rights.

After Cyrus the Great’s death in 530 BCE, he was succeeded by his children Cambyses II and Bardiya (also known as Smerdis).

Some examples of Cyrus the Great’s epithets are “King of Kings”, “King of the World”, and “King of the Four Corners of the World”.

SHAMSHI-ADAD I

Commonly believed to be an Amorite, Shamshi-Adad I was a famous Mesopotamian ruler and conqueror. His military campaigns took him on a conquest of places in Syria, Anatolia, and Upper Mesopotamia. The good thing was that he allowed some of the conquered places to keep their religious practices. He even rebuilt the temple of Ishtar at Nineveh.

According to the Assyrian King List, his reign lasted from c. 1809 BCE to c. 1776 BCE, having succeeded his father King Ila-kabkabu. During his reign, Šubat-Enlil, which means “the residence of the god Enlil” in the Akkadian language, served as the capital.

Known for his abilities in organizing the affairs of the kingdom, Shamshi-Adad I had successful military campaigns against many rulers in Lower Mesopotamia, including King Naram-Sin of Eshnunnu, a descendant of Naram-Sin. Often times, he used his spies to infiltrate his enemies.

Towards the latter part of his reign other kingdoms like Yamkhad and Eshnunna started encroaching into some parts of his territory. His successors struggled to keep the empire from falling into the hands of another great Mesopotamian ruler in the person of Hammurabi of Babylon.

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XERXES I (Xerxes the Great)

Known as the fourth king of Persia or the fourth King of Kings, Xerxes the Great (born – c. 518 BCE; died – 465 BCE) reigned over the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 BCE. Xerxes came from a long line of famous and powerful Persian kings. He was born to Darius the Great and Atossa, one of the daughters of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire.

Xerses ranks up there as one of the most famous ancient Mesopotamian rulers because of his military invasion (the Second Persian invasion of Greece) of ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE. Xerxes marched into a number of Greek city-states in a bid to avenge Persia’s defeat by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE).

Beginning in the spring of 480 BCE, Xerxes marched his army to Thessaly (through Thrace and Macedon). In spite of the fierce resistance mounted by an elite force under the leadership of King Leonidas I of Sparta, Xerxes was able to secure victory.

In a fierce 3-day clash with a Greek alliance at the Battle of Thermopylae, Xerxes also emerged the victor. This allowed Xerxes to briefly take Greek cities like Euboea, Phocis, Attica, and Athens. The latter city was severely destroyed by Xerxes forces.

After falling back to Salamis following the famous Battle of Salamis, the Greek alliance was able to regroup and raise a superior force to ultimately defeat Xerxes I’s Persian army (at the Battle of Plataea) by 479 BCE. That defeat marked the end of the Second Persian invasion of Greece. Xerxes returned to Persia and committed himself to building some very amazing structures including, the Gate of All Nations, the Susa Gate, and a palace in Susa.

In 465 BCE, Xerxes was assassinated by one of his most trusted bodyguard Artabanus, who had carried out the regicide with the assistance of a eunuch called Aspamitres. Xerxes was succeeded by his third son Artaxerxes I. According to Aristotle, Artaxerxes I avenged his father’s death by killing Artabanus and his seven sons.

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