Sargon the Great: History, Facts & Achievements
Sargon of Akkad, also known as Sargon the Great, was arguably the greatest conqueror in Babylonian history. With his reign lasting from around 2335 to 2280 BC, he is most known for expanding the boundaries of the Akkadian Empire to heights never achieved by any ruler up until then. He, thus, became the first ruler in history to preside over a multi-national empire.
Born out of wedlock to a priestess of Innana, Sargon of Akkad was abandoned by his mother only to be raised by the King of Kish’s gardener. He would then steadily make his way up the political structure before becoming the legendary conqueror that he is so famed for.
Below World History Edu delves into the birth story, family, conquests and other major achievements of Sargon the Great, one of the greatest rulers of ancient Mesopotamia.
Quick facts about Sargon of Akkad
Children: Manishtushu, Rimush, Enheduanna, Ibarum, Abaish-Takal
Reign: c. 2335 to 2280 BC
Succeeded by: Rimush
Grandson: King Naram-sin (c. 2275 BC)
Dynasty: Akkadian (also known as Sargonic Dynasty)
Epithet: “the king is legitimate”
Most notable achievements: founder of the Akkadian Empire; foreign trade relations; defeated Lugalzagesi of Uruk; destroyed Ebla
Other names: Sargon of Akkad, Shar-Gani-Sharri, Sarru-Kan, Sharru-kin
Epithets and other names
Considering the fact that he was seen by his people as the representative of the Mesopotamian gods on earth, Sargon of Akkad went by a number of names and titles. One of his names was Sarru-Kan, which means “True King” or “Rightful King” in Akkadian language. Another frequently used name of Sargon was Shar-Gani-Sharri.
It must be noted that “Sargon” was not his birth name. The name ‘Sargon’ is the name he selected upon becoming ruler of Akkad.
Birth story and family
Sargon was said to have been the son of a temple priestess of the goddess Innana. He was considered an illegitimate son as he did not know his father.
In the Sargon Legend, circumstances beyond his mother’s control forced her to place the baby Sargon in a basket, leaving the basket floating on the Euphrates River. Hearing the cries of the baby, an orchardman/gardener from the Sumerian city of Kish came to the rescue of the baby. The gardener, named Akki, worked for Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish.
How did Sargon the Great rise to power?
The baby Sargon was raised by his adoptive father Akki. Over time, his reputation in the king’s court grew and he went on to work as the king’s cup bearer. It’s been said that being a cup bearer in ancient Mesopotamia was a very distinguished position. Some scholars even state that the cup bearer was the second-in-command to the king. Steadily, Sargon became the king’s most trusted official.
During Sargon’s time as King Ur-Zababa’s right hand man, a powerful king named Lugalzegesi of Umma was bringing the various Sumerian city-states to their knees. Lugalzegesi’s military conquest was so efficient that he was able to bring large parts of ancient Sumer under his control.
Fearing that his city was next in line to be absorbed by the conqueror Lugalzegesi, King Ur-Zababa sent Sargon as a sign of diplomacy. Unbeknownst to Sargon, Ur-Zababa had written in a letter to Lugalzegesi, asking for the city of Kish to be spared in exchange for the life of Sargon. Lugalzegesi declined the peace offering; instead, he let Sargon live. However, Lugalzegesi sought to punish Ur-Zababa’s betrayal of Sargon. Lugalzegesi joined forces with Sargon and then invaded the city of Kish. Ur-Zababa fled the falling city and was never seen again.
After a brief period, Lugalzegesi and Sargon’s friendship deteriorated. Some accounts say that Sargon had a romantic affair with the wife of Lugalzegesi. Regardless of the story, the two men simply could not see eye to eye again. Over time Sargon had amassed a sizable army of his own, even going on conquests all by himself. In a lead up to face off against Lugalzegesi, Sargon captured the city of Uruk, further strenghting his army and the resources available to him.
When Sargon and Lugalzegesi finally met, Sargon, a former cup bearer to a Sumerian city-state king, emerged the victor. It’s said that Sargon completely humiliated Lugalzegesi. He tied a rope around the neck of the defeated king and then made him trek to the shrine of the god Enlil in the city of Nippur.
After a few more conquests, Sargon proclaimed himself supreme ruler of Kish. He also became the ruler of all the territories that belonged to defeated King Lugalzegesi.
Reign and military conquests
From his base in the city of Kish, Sargon set out to bring the various disunited Sumerian city-states together under his rule. Stories of him coming from very humble beginnings were well received by the people that he conquered, particularly the lower and working-class people who saw not as a conqueror but as a savior or liberator.
One of the greatest achievements of Sargon came in the elevating of Akkad, a city on the banks of the Euphrates River, to the status of capital of the empire. Going against established norms, he did not conquer to enrich his home city of Kish; instead he devoted the resources he obtained in building or improving upon new cities.
His goal was to see his empire go beyond the Mesopotamian region, well into Asia Minor and places along the Mediterranean Sea. In one ancient tablet, Sargon is said to have fought and won thirty-four battles. He defeated the likes of the Elamites who were across the Tigris River. He also defeated the Mesopotamian city of Mari, as well as number of Semitic tribes and nomadic groups. The Amorites and the rulers of Ashur also capitulated to the might of Sargon. At its peak, Sargon the Great’s empire reached the edges of Asia Minor.
How Sargon the Great kept the Akkadian Empire going
Having acquired vast territories, Sargon the Great had the herculean task of keeping his empire intact and united. He instituted very sound administrative practices and filled his government with very capable officials in more than 60 cities. His magnetic attitude and leadership skills allowed him to gain the trust of those officials, who were called “Citizens of Akkad” or “Sons of Akkad”.
Sargon also tried to create a homogeneous culture with Akkadian religious beliefs and customs at the center. Once a city fell to his might, he’d quickly place Akkadian officials at the helm of affairs. Answering only to Sargon the Great, those officials were tasked with replacing the conquered city’s culture with an Akkadian one.
Once he had obtained the compliance of the city’s inhabitants, he took to keeping the peace by building roads and improving the existing irrigation system of the city. Not only did he encourage trade among the city-states under his rule, he also established trading relations with cities and towns in the Indus Valley region, the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, and other places along the Mediterranean. Those trading relationships in turn boosted the economic fortunes of the Akkadian Empire.
Sargon of Akkad and his daughter Priestess Enheduanna
In the city of Ur, Sargon the Great elevated one of his favorite daughters, Enheduanna, to the high priestess of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. This was just one of the strategic tools Sargon used to keep his empire united. Aside from holding the title of history’s first known writer, the Priestess Enheduanna proved herself a very skilled administrator of the city of Ur. She worked hard and carried out her father’s vision diligently.
As a priestess of such an important god like Nanna, Enheduanna wielded a significant amount of power in the Akkadian Empire. She would use this influence to consolidate her father’s reign over the empire. It was not uncommon for ancient rulers to use religion to exercise strong control over their empires. Sargon was no different, and Enheduanna’s extensive knowledge of religious practice of the time proved very useful.
Sargon of Akkad and the goddess Ishtar
Sargon of Akkad credited his numerous successful conquests and battle wins to Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of war, love, and sexuality. Ishtar’s equivalent in the Sumerian pantheon is the goddess Inanna.
How long was his reign?
The Sumerian King List states that Sargon of Akkad ruled over his empire for 56 years. He is said to have died at an old age. Sargon the Great is said to have died of natural causes.
Even while alive, he was seen as a ruler chosen by the gods to rule the empire on their behalf. His fame as a god-king on earth skyrocketed centuries after his death.
The copper head of Sargon the Great
In 1931, archaeologist made a startling discovery of a copper head of Sargon the Great at the ancient city of Nineveh (in present-day Iraq). To this day, the head ranks up there as one of the greatest Mesopotamian art works unearthed. Scholars estimate that the copper head was made during the age of the Assyrian Empire (around the 7th century BCE). It is significant in the sense that it shows modern day scholars just how much reverence was given to him by the various civilizations that emerged after the demise of the Akkadian Empire.
Sargon’s birth story and the story of Moses in the Bible
One cannot help but notice the parallels between Sargon’s birth story the story of Moses in the Hebrew scripture. It is very likely that the author of the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew scripture took a page from Sargon’s life story.
Like Sargon, Moses was placed in basket and his life placed in the hand of fate only for him to be rescued by a member of city’s nobility. Moses too grew up to be an influential leader among his people, leading them out of centuries’ old servitude to the Egyptians.
Sargon the Great was succeeded to the throne by his son Rimush who faced an even greater number of rebellions than the ones his father had to contend with. After the death of Rimush, the Akkadian throne was inherited by one of his son Manishtusu. Rimush and Manishtusu ruled for a combined period of about fifteen years.
About two decades after his death, Naram-Sin, Sargon’s grandson, is said to have taken the Akkadian Empire to heights never seen before. Sadly Naram-Sin’s successors failed to build upon the progress that was made, causing Akkadian influence in the region to decline. Unable to deal with the combined problem of rebellions and the Guitan Invasion, Shar-Kali-Sarri, Naram-Sin’s son had to settle for an increasingly smaller empire, until the empire finally collapsed under the weight of the Guitans.
There have been some scholars that opine that Shar-Kali-Sarri and his successors struggled to keep the empire together due to a severe famine that occurred around that period.
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Major achievements of Sargon the Great
In addition to being the first known ruler in history to establish an empire, Sargon of Akkad chalked some of the following feats:
Sargon of Akkad was probably the first major ruler to develop a military strategy around different types of soldiers who then operated in lose formations. Such a military technique accrued many benefits in terms of flexibility and mobility. This in turn gave him more impetus to conquer more territories. The military practice and battle fighting techniques he developed remained relevant for several centuries all the way down to Alexander the Great’s era.
It was probably during Sargon’s reign that the empire was able to build the first postal service using the cuneiform script on clay tablets. The postal system was facilitated by the vast network of roads that Sargon had built across the empire.
Another significant achievement of Sargon the Great came in the form of his standardized measurement system. The ancient ruler realized that trade could not flourish if the weights and measures varied from one city to another. Therefore, Sargon introduced a standardized system of measurement throughout the empire.
With trade and commerce flourishing, he could easily raise revenue through taxes. It’s been said that all classes of the Akkadian society were taxed in a fair manner. Those revenues were in turn channeled into Sargon’s numerous building projects in the empire.
As the economy of the Akkadian Empire developed so did the military prowess improve. Sargon the Great invested a great deal of resources into his army, training them and making sure that they had the best fighting equipment of the time. With such a strong army, he could march upon cities and crush uprisings easily.
More Sargon of Akkad facts
- Research and archaeological findings have shown that the name ‘Sargon’ was not this ruler’s birth name. Instead the name is his regnal name of Semitic origin.
- Apart from the fact that he was born to a single mother and later abandoned, not much is known of Sargon the Great’s early childhood.
- Modern scholars and archaeologists did not know of his name until around the mid-19th And it was kind courtesy to the 1870 book the Legend of Sargon published by Sir Henry Rawlinson. The English archaeologist stumbled upon the book in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal. In ancient times, however, his name was frequently mentioned.
- To this day, Sargon’s capital city, the city of Akkad (also known as Agade), remains hidden from archaeologists.
- Sargon the Great is sometimes confused with Sargon I (reign- 1920 BC-c. 1881 BC), the king of Old Assyrian Empire. Due to Sargon of Akkad’s acclaim, Assyrian King Sargon I tried to identify himself with the Dynasty of Akkad (i.e. the Old Sargonic Dynasty).
Sargon the Great and his Akkadian Empire
The following are some other notable achievements of Sargon of Akkad:
- He is widely regarded as the first in world history to set up an efficient bureaucratic governance system.
- Subsequent empires and rulers took a page from the rule book of the Akkadian emperor.
- With an almost semi-divine status, Sargon of Akkad was one of the greatest persons to hail from Mesopotamia.
- He had a tremendous impact across Mesopotamia. His name was evoked for millennia, even down through the Persian Empire (6th century BC – 4th century BC).
- Considered the patron of subsequent empires in the region, Many rulers tried to link their ancestry to him, including Assyrian Emperor Sargon I of the 20th century BC.
- Sargon is credited with establishing a military tradition that was used by successive civilizations in the region and beyond.
Bauer, S. W. The History of the Ancient World. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007
Leick, G. Mesopotamia. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2003
Ancient Mesopotamia and the Sumerians Accessed 25 Oct 2021