Sargon I

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Sargon I, also known as Sargon of Akkad or Sargon the Great (Akkadian: Šarukinu, "the true king") (reigned 2334 B.C.E. – 2279 B.C.E.), was the founder of the Akkadian Empire. He is only the third king in recorded history to have created an empire after the Sumerians Lugal-anne-mundu and Lugal-zage-si. He is the first to use it to try to conquer the known world; Alexander III of Macedon followed Sargon's example two thousand years later (336–323 B.C.E.)

Sargon's vast empire is known to have extended from Elam to the Mediterranean Sea, including Mesopotamia and possibly parts of Anatolia. He ruled from a new capital, Akkad, situated on the left bank of the Euphrates, possibly between Sippar and Kish. Some scholars identify Sargon I with the biblical Nimrod (see Genesis 10). Others dispute that he actually existed.[1] However, the large amount of legendary material associated with him almost certainly has a basis in history. His invasion of Asia appears to have been motivated by the desire to protect merchants from attack. Commerce was considered very important in Sumerian Civilization, so much so that literary records describe a sophisticated legal system designed to settle disputes and to ensure fair trade. Sumerian culture had a sense of justice and of moral virtue, which Sargon I tried to defend.

Origins and rise to power

Sargon made such an impression on Mesopotamia that his figure became associated with many legends. The Sumerian literature known as "the Sargon legend" is believed to be a text describing Sargon's life. However, most of the text is missing. The surviving fragments name Sargon's father as La'ibum. After a missing section, the text skips to Ur-Zababa, king of Kish, awake after a dream. For unknown reasons, Ur-Zababa then appoints Sargon as his cupbearer. Soon after this, king Ur-Zababa requested Sargon to his chambers to discuss a dream he felt Sargon had. Sargon's dream involved the favor of the goddess Inanna and the drowning of Ur-Zababa by the goddess. Deeply frightened, Ur-Zababa tries to get Sargon murdered by the hands of Belic-tikal, the chief smith, but Inanna prevents it, demanding that Sargon stop at the gates because of his being "polluted with blood."

When Sargon returned to Ur-Zababa, the king became frightened again, and decided to send Sargon to king Lugal-zage-si of Uruk with a message on a clay tablet about murdering Sargon (the legend appears to be lost at this point; presumably it describes how Sargon becomes king). From the Sumerian king list: "In Agade [Akkad], Sargon, whose father was a gardener, the cupbearer of Ur-Zababa, became king, the king of Agade, who built Agade; he ruled for 56 years." Confusingly, Ur-Zababa and Lugal-zage-si are both listed as kings, but several generations apart—perhaps Ur-Zababa is supposed to have lived on in the palace of Kish long after losing the kingship of Sumer.

The Assyrian king list calls him "Sargon the Assyrian," son of Ikunum, and reckons him as one of their empire's founders. A Neo-Assyrian text (seventh century B.C.E.) describes his birth and his early childhood:

My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not. The brothers of my father loved the hills. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My high priestessmother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and […] years I exercised kingship.[2]

Sargon's early life as castaway river baby predates (if Ussher chronology is used) the early story of biblical Moses, a theory of reflected story lines is probable. Sumerian legend also includes a great flood. Lists of Sumerian kings record whether they reigned before or after this event.

Rule over the Near East

While it is unknown exactly how Sargon came to power, he soon attacked Uruk, where reigned Lugal-zage-si of Umma. Lugal-zage-si, with fifty ensis under his command, was defeated, captured, brought to Kish "in a carcan" and exposed at Enlil’s gate. Sargon then attacked and crushed Ur, Lagash and Umma. He made a symbolic gesture, washing his hands in the "lower sea" (Persian Gulf), to show that he had conquered Sumer in its entirety.

The governors chosen by Sargon to administer the main city-states of Sumer were Akkadians, not Sumerians. Semitic Akkadian became the lingua franca, the official language, of inscriptions in all Mesopotamia and of great influence far beyond.

The former religious institutions of Sumer, already well-known and emulated by the Semites, were respected; his daughter Enheduanna, the author of several Akkadian hymns, was made priestess of Nanna the moon-god of Ur. He also called himself "anointed priest of Anu" and "great ensi of Enlil."

Wars in the east

Sargon defeated the four leaders of Elam, led by the king of Awan. Their cities were sacked; the governors, viceroys and kings of Susa, Barhashe, and neighboring districts became vassals of Akkad, and the Akkadian language made official. In fact, it began, consciously or not, the Semitization of Sumer that finally brought about the end of the Sumerian people, at least as an identifiable political and ethnic entity.

Wars in the west

Sargon captured Mari, Yarmuti and Ebla as far as the Cedar Forest (Amanus) and the silver mountain (Taurus). Commerce routes were secured, and supplies of wood and precious metals could be safely and freely floated down the Euphrates to Akkad.

The text known as "Epic of the King of the Battle" depicts Sargon advancing deep into the heart of Asia Minor to protect merchants from the exactions of the king of Burushanda (Purshahanda). It is also mentioned that Sargon crossed the Sea of the West (Mediterranean Sea) and ended up in Cyprus. Ancient writers saw Sargon as the king who had said: “Now, any king who wants to call himself my equal, wherever I went, let him go.”[3]

Late period

A late Babylonian chronicle says:

In his old age, all lands revolted against him, and they besieged Akkad. But Sargon went forth to battle and defeated them; he knocked them over and destroyed their vast army. Later, Subartu in their might attacked, but they submitted to his arms, and Sargon settled their habitations, and he smote them grievously.[4]

Sargon was succeeded by his sons, Rimush and Manishtushu.


The many legends associated with Sargon I ensured that his memory has been preserved. On the one hand, he is remembered for his military exploits. On the other, he appears to have wanted to protect a settled way of life that valued commerce and trade and a society that also protected the weak. It is said that no one in Sumer had to beg for food and that "widows and orphans were protected."[5] The evidence contained in Sumerian records is that the Sumerians negotiated peace treaties when this was possible. Indeed, "The oldest known treaty, preserved in an inscription on a stone monument, is a peace treaty between two Sumerian city-states, dating from about 3100 [B.C.E.]."[6]


  1. Jim A. Cornwell, "Sargon: Did he exist?" in The Alpha and the Omega. Retrieved August 24, 2007.
  2. L. W. King, Chronicles Concerning Early Babylonian Kings (London: Luzac and Co., 1907), 87-96.
  3. J. Nougayrol, Revue Archeologique 45 (1951): 169.
  4. King, 3.
  5. Sumerian Civilization, Crystalinks. Retrieved August 24, 2007.
  6. David Carliner and Stefan A. Reisenfeld, International Law, Encyclopedia (from Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, 2006 edition).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allotte de la Fuye, François Maurice. Documents présargoniques. Paris: E. Leroux, 1908.
  • Biggs, R. D. Inscriptions from Tell Abu Salabikh. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1974. ISBN 978-0226622026
  • Deimel, A. Die Inschriften von Fara. Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs'sche Buchhandlung, 1922-1924.
  • Diakonov, Igor. “On the area and population of the Sumerian city-State.” VDI 2 (1950): 77-93.
  • King, L. W. Chronicles Concerning Early Babylonian Kings. London: Luzac and Co., 1907.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.
  • Nougayrol, J. Revue Archeologique 45 (1951): 169 ff.
  • Parrot, André. Mari, Capitale Fabuleuse. Paris, 1974. ISBN 978-2228114509
  • Parrot, André. Le temple d'Ishtar. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1956.
  • Parrot, André, Georges Dossin, and Lucienne Laroche. Les temples d'Ishtarat et de Ninni-zaza. Paris: P. Geuthner, 1967.
  • Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. Cleveland: World Pub. Co., 1965.
  • Sollberger, Edmond. Corpus des inscriptions "royales" présargoniques de Lagaš. Geneva: E. Droz, 1956.


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