The Rise and Fall of the Akkadian Empire

Founded by Sargon the Great, the Akkadian Empire lasted for two centuries until it collapsed.

Sep 28, 2023By Uriel Kantor, BA Liberal Arts & Humanities w/ History Concentration
akkadian empire rise fall


Located in Mesopotamia, the Akkadian Empire was the first long-lasting kingdom in history. Lasting between 2334 BCE and 2154, the Empire eventually collapsed due to internal strife, famine, and external pressures.


Mesopotamia Before the Akkadian Empire

gilgamesh taming lion
Gilgamesh Taming a Lion, circa 720 BCE, via Louvre Museum


Mesopotamia is considered one of the main cradles of civilization. Meaning literally between the rivers, its edges were the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in today’s Iraq. However, the Akkadian Empire, among other kingdoms, extended beyond these borders. The earliest known human occupation of Mesopotamia extends to the end of the Paleolithic era, or the Old Stone Age, around 10,000 BCE.


Over time, during the Neolithic Era, or the New Stone Age, humans began to cultivate animals and harvest crops, eventually settling in small communities and villages along the Mesopotamian rivers. Eventually, these communities grew to larger urban areas, and in the 4th century BCE, the Sumer civilization developed. Considered the first true civilization in history, the Sumer civilization founded one of the first forms of writing, cuneiform, and boasted enriched irrigation technologies and trade.


Sumerian history also includes the story of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest written tales in history. It was written in the form of a poem on stone tablets and describes the adventures of the hero-king, Gilgamesh, who sought eternal life.


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Within the geographical location of the Sumer civilization were situated numerous city-states. Each city-state had its own government and ruler, and often rival states would vie for territory and power. In other cases, city-states would form alliances when it was mutually beneficial for them.


While the city-state system was effective in promoting local autonomy, it greatly limited Mesopotamia’s ability to form a cohesive, unified state. Thus, the unification of Mesopotamia in the hands of Sargon of Akkad was a significant moment in history, wherein the first centralized empire was formed.


Sargon the Great: the King that Established the Akkadian Empire

sargon of akkad mask
Head of Sargon the Great, at Iraq Museum, Baghdad, via Wikimedia Commons


The exact chronology and dates of the Mesopotamian epoch of history are still debated, as sources vary and evidence is scarce or controversial. Yet it is generally agreed — with contesting opinions and research — that Sargon the Great of Akkad ruled between 2334 and 2279 BC. He was the first ruler of the Akkadian Empire, which is often considered the first empire in history.


According to primary sources, Sargon was born to a lowly mother who abandoned him. He was then found by a gardener, who raised him as his own. At some point, Sargon became the cupbearer to the king of Kish, one of the many city-states in Mesopotamia.


Once the king of Kish died, Sargon seized power and proceeded to expand his territory. He succeeded in conquering several important Mesopotamian city-states, including Akkad, which he established as his capital.


Sargon capitalized on the legend of his humble origins, appealing to a large number of lower and working-class supporters, who may have seen him as a liberator and reformer. As was the case in later ages and other societies, class inequality was rife, and the lower class developed a strong resentment for the upper class. Thus, Sargon had a powerful support base.


Once Sargon managed to establish his empire through his military skill and might, he turned to administrative concerns in maintaining his territory. He strategically allocated his most trusted followers to positions of power, wherein they oversaw the organization of over 65 cities.


Overall, the Akkadian Empire under Sargon’s rule saw an improvement in citizens’ lives, a tax system that was fair to all classes, increased trade, the building of roads and irrigation systems, and also the first postal system. His legacy would be remembered throughout Mesopotamia for the next 3000 years. Sargon reigned for 56 years, dying of natural causes, after which he was idolized as a nearly godly figure.


Political Structure of the Akkadian Empire

Impression of an Akkadian cylinder seal with inscription The Divine Sharkalisharri Prince of Akkad Ibni-Sharrum the Scribe his servant, circa 2000 BCE, via Louvre Museum


The Akkadian Empire was structured as a strong centralized government, and on its pedestal was the king. The Empire was divided into various sectors that stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. In order to maintain this vast territory, a systematic administration was founded.


The king was at the head of this political structure and held absolute power. The king was the supreme authority in all matters, such as law, justice, religion, and military affairs. Large bureaucratic strata of officials, administrators, and advisors would help the king in controlling his empire.


These bureaucrats were organized into different sectors of governance, such as taxation, justice, and public works. All of these officials were appointed by the king and directly followed his orders, and complete loyalty was expected of them.


The divided provinces of the Akkadian Empire were ruled by appointed governors or provincial administrators. Below them were local officials, such as mayors and city officials, who were responsible for the day-to-day administration of cities and towns. Their task included the maintenance of order, ensuring that the people were loyal and obedient to the empire.


The Akkadian Empire also boasted a complex legal system that was managed by judges and lawyers. The legislation was based on a code of laws known as the Akkadian Laws. This codex covered a variety of topics, including marriage, divorce, property rights, and criminal offenses. The aim of the legal system was to ensure justice and protect the rights of individuals.


The Akkadian Empire was certainly characterized by top-down administration, in which the king was the absolute rule of law. Underneath him, a large supporting network of officials and administrators would maintain order and loyalty in all the numerous territories and provinces that fell under the empire.


Culture: Art, Religion, Literature, Science, and Technology

Calcite Disc of Enheduanna, Daughter of Sargon of Kish, circa 2340-2200 BCE, via Penn Museum


The Akkadian Empire consisted of a wide range of ethnic and linguistic groups, which helped contribute to a vibrant cultural exchange and artistic production.


One of the most important aspects of Akkadian culture was art, expressed in a variety of forms, such as sculpture, painting, and pottery. Often art was characterized by its realism and attention to detail, depicting many scenes of daily life and mythological and religious themes.


Religion was a central concern of Akkadian culture. The colorful and diverse array of cultures in the empire consisted of many religious beliefs and practices. The Akkadian pantheon included many gods and goddesses, such as Anu, Enlil, and Inanna, who were worshipped through elaborate rituals and offerings. Religious culture played a vital part in the daily lives of the people.


Many forms of literature were also significant to Akkadian culture. Myths, epics, and hymns formed the surplus of literary works that were written during the history of the Akkadian Empire. The most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, which, as mentioned above, tells the story of a legendary king who embarks on a quest for immortality. Other works include the Atrahasis Epic, which details the infamous flood that destroys humanity. This story was also central to the Hebrew myth of Noah and his Ark.


Furthermore, the Akkadians revolutionized science and technology. They developed a sophisticated system of irrigation that allowed for crop cultivation in arid regions. The wheel and the plow were also Akkadian inventions. Apart from these physical technological innovations, the empire included many skilled astronomers and mathematicians.


The Mesopotamian scientific achievements and cultural creativity contributed vitally to the development of the ancient world. This history left an impact that can still be felt today.


How Did the Akkadian Empire Fall? 

the gutians capturing babylonian city
The Gutians Capturing a Babylonian City, as Akkadians Are Making a Stand Outside Their City, 1915, by H.L.Bacon via Wikipedia Commons


Despite its many impressive achievements, the Akkadian Empire eventually declined and collapsed in 2154 BCE.


It is generally acknowledged by historians that one of the main reasons for the fall of the empire was environmental degradation. The founding of the empire took place during a period of relatively mild climate that was vital for agricultural growth and expansions of settlements.


However, by the 22nd century BCE, the climate became much drier, and the land was plagued by droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. This natural shift to a drier climate affected the empire significantly, as crop yields declined, water sources dried up, and disease spread. Ultimately, the Akkadian Empire found it increasingly difficult to sustain itself in these conditions.


Apart from natural conditions, the empire began to experience increasing internal political instability. While Sargon the Great established an adamant centralized government, his successors found it difficult to maintain his level of control and loyalty. Eventually, the empire became fragmented, and various regions and city-states vied for power and influence. This weakened the centrality of the government and created a situation where the empire could not respond to external threats, such as invasion and rebellion.


akkadian empire map
Map of Akkadian Empire, World History Encyclopedia


As the empire became internally weakened, external threats of invasion became increasingly difficult to repel. Specifically, the invasion of the Gutians, a nomadic people to the east of Mesopotamia, became the empire’s most significant problem. In the 22nd century BCE, the Gutians launched a full-scale invasion that toppled the empire.


Furthermore, regional powers, such as the Elamites, the Amorites, and the Babylonians, had risen in influence. These nations had previously been subjected by the Akkadians but eventually gained independence.


The fall of the Akkadian Empire, the first of its kind in history, was the result of a complex interplay of environmental, political, and external factors. Generally weakened by changing environmental conditions and internal political instability rendered it vulnerable to external invasions, which eventually completely overthrew the powerful Mesopotamian empire.

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By Uriel KantorBA Liberal Arts & Humanities w/ History ConcentrationUriel has been writing creatively and academically for about ten years, with a keen interest in the humanities. Particularly passionate about ancient history, he believes that the past is not merely a story but a formative identity that should not be ignored. Aiming to illuminate the colorfulness of history, Uriel wishes to help people breach narrow-minded approaches to history and hopes to bring about awareness of the diversity inherent in humanity’s story.