Sargon of Akkad: The Orphan Who Founded an Empire

Sargon of Akkad would begin as an orphaned cupbearer and would die a legendary king. After founding the Akkadian empire, Sargon would reform almost every aspect of Mesopotamian society.

Mar 4, 2022By Deianira Morris, BA Anthropology w/ Archaeology Concentration

sargon akkad helmet tablet cuneiform


Sargon of Akkad, also known as Sargon the Great, is one of the most well-known Mesopotamian kings in history and the founder of the Akkadian empire. Having ruled in the Fertile Crescent over four thousand years ago, Sargon of Akkad is particularly famous for his ability to successfully conquer and unify all of Mesopotamia as well as many kingdoms outside of the region. As a result, he is known as one of the first people in recorded history to rule over an empire. Adding to this already impressive achievement, the story of his origin constitutes the inspiring tale of a poor commoner who rose to be a great king through his own efforts.


Sargon of Akkad: A King’s Humble Origins

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Copper head believed to depict Sargon of Akkad, ca. 2250-2200 BCE, via Research Gate


One of the primary sources on Sargon of Akkad’s early life is a cuneiform tablet titled “The Legend of Sargon”. This tablet was found in the library of King Ashurbanipal, who ruled from 669 BCE – 631 BCE. According to this tablet, Sargon’s mother was a priestess of Ishtar who gave birth to him in secret and then set him adrift on the Euphrates River. Carried by the current, the newborn was eventually found and adopted by a gardener who lived in the Mesopotamian city of Kish. As a young man, Sargon would come to serve as the cup-bearer for the king of Kish, Ur-Zababa. Because his role as the cup-bearer also put him in close proximity to Ur-Zababa, Sargon would often act as a close advisor to the king as well.


At this time, the dominant society in Mesopotamia was the Sumerian civilization. Within Sumerian society, however, many of the individual cities acted as independent city-states with their own culture and governments. During this period, Ur-Zababa was in conflict with King Lugal-zage-si of Umma, another Sumerian city-state, who was in the process of amassing a large kingdom by conquering the other cities in Sumer. As a result, Sargon’s role as a trusted advisor to the king in a time of war allowed him to accumulate power and influence that went far beyond what the ordinary son of a gardener would have.


Sargon’s Dream

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Illustration depicting Ishtar coming to Sargon in a dream, via The Great Courses Daily


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One day, Sargon had a dream in which the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, Ishtar (also known as Inanna), came and gave him her favor while drowning King Ur-Zababa.


When the king heard about Sargon’s dream, he became frightened of his cup-bearer and decided to have him assassinated. After trying and failing to have his own people assassinate Sargon, Ur-Zababa decided to send his cupbearer to King Lugal-zage-si under the pretext of a diplomatic meeting. In actuality, Ur-Zababa sent Sargon to his rival with a clay tablet asking Lugal-zage-si to assassinate his cup-bearer. However, Sargon convinced Lugal-zage-si to spare his life and the two of them allied against Ur-Zababa. Using Lugal-zage-si’s military might and Sargon’s knowledge as a former advisor to Ur-Zababa, the two of them were able to overthrow their mutual enemy and conquer the city of Kish.


The Founding of the Akkadian Empire

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Cylinder seal found in the ruins of Kish, ca. 2250 – 2150 BCE?, via The Field Museum, Chicago


For unknown reasons, the alliance between Lugal-zage-si and Sargon of Akkad eventually dissolved into a competition for the throne. Sargon emerged victorious from this conflict after a decisive battle in which he destroyed the walls of Uruk, the stronghold of Lugal-zage-si’s kingdom, and captured the rival king. Because Lugal-zage-si had already conquered much of Sumer by then, Sargon’s victory gave him authority over a number of Sumerian principalities, including Kish, Uruk, and Umma. Soon after, Sargon initiated a large military conquest to continue expanding the kingdom seized from Lugal-zage-si. He would eventually annex almost every society in the Mesopotamian region, including Elam, Mari, and Ashur. Over time, his campaign extended beyond the Fertile Crescent to add parts of Syria, Lebanon, and Anatolia to his ever-growing empire.


At the end of his campaign, Sargon had amassed an empire of unified cultures that spanned roughly 250,000 square miles (30,000 km) and stretched from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea. Following his military expansion, he decided to build a new city that would become the capital of his empire. This city is recorded in Mesopotamian texts as located to the east of the Tigris River and was originally referred to as “Agade”. Over time, the city would come to be known as “Akkad”.


From Orphan to King 

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Fragment of an Akkadian bowl with cuneiform, ca. 2500 -2000 BCE, Via The British Museum, London


The remainder of Sargon’s life was dedicated to maintaining and defending his newly founded empire. Soon after taking over Lugal-zage-si’s throne, Sargon solidified his authority over the various Sumerian city-states by installing his supporters in every government under his control. He would continue to apply this pattern of governance with the other kingdoms that were annexed into his empire. On certain occasions, Sargon would also install his supporters or family members in positions of religious significance. One famous example was when he sent his daughter, Enheduanna, to become the high priestess of Ishtar. This method of governance proved to be effective as it allowed him to manage the politics, religions, and social structures of the various peoples under his rule eAkkadian Empire that he was able to make several reforms to Mesopotamian society for which he is still known.


The New World of Sargon


The Akkadian empire was one of the first civilizations to apply a bureaucratic form of governance. Before Sargon of Akkad, Mesopotamian societies were primarily ruled by monarchies who in turn answered to the religious authority of that culture, most often a high priest of a Mesopotamian deity. Under the new system, religious figures still retained a significant amount of political authority. However, major administrative decisions were made by state officials appointed by the monarchy. At the inception of the Akkadian empire, the primary language spoken language was Sumerian, and the dominant form of writing was cuneiform. Over time, the Akkadian empire would develop its own language, which would become the dominant language of the new kingdom, replacing both spoken Sumerian and written cuneiform.


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Cylinder seal of Enheduanna, made form lapis lazuli, ca. 2400 -2200 BCE, via The British Museum, London


Corresponding to its linguistic development, the most dominant religion in the early Akkadian empire would be Sumerian. The worship of the early Mesopotamian pantheon would spread outside of the Fertile Crescent as Sargon’s empire expanded. The king showed particular favor to Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of love and war, and one of the primary deities in the pantheon. Having identified with the goddess early on in his rise to power, Sargon promoted the worship of this deity throughout the empire. This is why the widespread worship of Ishtar is often attributed to Sargon’s influence. However, similar to the transformation of the Greek gods under the Romans, the Akkadians would give new names to the Sumerian gods. Deities such as Inanna, Dumuzi, and Utu would come to be known by the Akkadian names of Ishtar, Tammuz, and Shamash. While the deities would normally retain the primary roles they held in Sumer, their spheres of influence would expand to include new attributes.


In addition to restructuring government and religion in Mesopotamia, Sargon of Akkad dedicated a significant amount of attention to improving his empire’s practical aspects. One of his primary achievements in this respect was the establishment of a massive trade network that spanned the entire empire. The region of Mesopotamia, where the Akkadian empire began, was rich in agriculture but lacked other valuable resources, such as metal and wood. Sargon noted that other regions in his empire, such as Lebanon, had an abundance of these resources and established an extensive trade network that allowed the separate regions to exchange resources. To facilitate this trade network, Sargon invested in his empire’s infrastructure and agricultural systems, building extensive roads and irrigation canals. He also established the first postal system and standing army in human history, significantly improving communication systems and military standards in Mesopotamia.


Sargon Crushes a Rebellion

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Akkadian frog amulet made from banded agate, ca. 2400 -2200 BCE, via The British Museum


Although his reign brought a number of benefits to Mesopotamia, Sargon would have to contend with consistent challenges to his authority throughout the rest of his life. Mesopotamian texts record that a particularly large rebellion of “all the lands” occurred near the end of Sargon’s reign, forcing him to defend the city of Akkad when a massive army besieged it. However, the great Mesopotamian king was able to defeat his enemies once again. He is believed to have died of natural causes around 2279 BCE.


The Akkadian empire would last for about 150 years and reach its greatest heights under the rule of Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin. The empire would collapse around 2154 BCE following an invasion from a group known as the Gutians, who scholars believe originally came from the Zagros mountains.


The Long Reach of the Akkadian Empire

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Babylonian Relief of Ishtar, ca. 19th – 18th century BCE, via The British Museum, London


The Akkadian empire had a significant influence on all the Mesopotamian cultures that came after and, arguably, the rest of history. Thanks to the Akkadian empire, the worship of the Sumerian pantheon continued across Mesopotamia until the fall of the Persian empire around 330 BCE. One particular effect the Akkadian empire had on Mesopotamian religion is that later Mesopotamian kings would follow the example of Sargon of Akkad and associate themselves with Ishtar to legitimize their rule. Many of the subsequent Mesopotamian societies continued to refer to the deities by their Akkadian names as well.


The Akkadian language also had a lasting effect on both the history of Mesopotamia and general human history. Many Mesopotamian languages that developed after the Akkadian empire, such as Assyrian and Babylonian, originated from the Akkadian language. Additionally, scholars believe the Akkadian language to be the distant predecessor of many modern Semetic languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, that are still in use today. As such, Akkadian is often hailed by scholars as the first recorded Semetic language.


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Babylonian tablet depicting a map of the world, ca. 6th century BCE, via The British Museum


The Akkadian empire’s influence was not restricted to language and religion, however. Sargon’s kingdom would eventually give rise to later Mesopotamian cultures that would become dominant powers in their own right. Two examples of this are Assyria and Babylonia, both of which began as small societies that spoke the Akkadian language and eventually became some of the most dominant Mesopotamian dynasties that rose to power after the Akkadian empire. Sargon’s method of government became the model for later Mesopotamian empires, including the infamous Persian empire. The use of a postal service to facilitate widespread communication and trade is a practice that continues to this day.


Although the Akkadian empire played an essential role in Mesopotamian history, a crucial piece of information about the city of Akkad remains unknown: its location. Although archaeologists have tried to locate its ruins over the years, they have not been able to definitely identify the ancient metropolis.


Legend and Legacy of a Great King

sargon tablet ashurbanipal library
Tablet found in the Library of King Ashurbanipal that describes the legend of Sargon, ca. 630 BCE, via The British Museum, London


Similar to the legacy of his empire, Sargon of Akkad himself had an indelible and lasting effect on Mesopotamian society. During his life and long after his death, Sargon of Akkad was often referred to as the “King of the Universe” because his empire was so vast. His reputation continued to grow long after his death until he became the legendary model of a king that subsequent rulers would look up to for the next 2,000 years. The Mesopotamian text detailing his legend also challenges future kings to “go where he [Sargon] has gone…if they wish to consider themselves great”. Many Assyrian and Babylonian kings would take on this challenge. Sargon of Akkad was so revered among later Mesopotamian societies that, in addition to applying his style of governance, later kings would name themselves “Sargon” to honor and emulate the Akkadian king.


It is possible that some of the hero-worship directed toward Sargon was the result of the Gutian rule after the collapse of the Akkadian empire, as scholars describe this period as a “Dark Age” fraught with famine and conflict. However, surviving accounts depict Sargon as a man driven by determination and gifted in strategics. His consistent victories on the battlefield and structured government demonstrated proficiency in both military and political tactics. This aspect is further supported by the story of his alliance with Lugal-zage-si to overthrow Ur-Zababa, which demonstrated the classic tactic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.


The innovations that Sargon made to Mesopotamian society indicate that he did not limit his intellect to war but also applied his tactical mindset to the improvement of the empire. Furthermore, it depicts that even though he was ruthless to his enemies, he cared for his subjects as their leader. Further supporting this, it is said that Sargon implemented social programs for widows, orphans, and beggars. While he may not have been the transcendent figure portrayed after his death, accounts of Sargon’s rise to power and reign depict a dynamic, resolute king who looked after his people and crushed his enemies.


Sargon of Akkad: What We Don’t Know

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Akkadian cylinder seal depicting warriors fighting a lion and a water buffalo, ca. 2250–2150 BCE, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Similar to how his city of Akkad remains unlocated, there is much about the Mesopotamian king that remains unknown. Sargon of Akkad is known by the name that he gave to himself after he ascended the throne. His original name remains unknown. Similarly, scholars are uncertain of how much accuracy there is in his origin story. The tablets that record this tale were likely written well after his death and were clearly meant to portray him as an awe-inspiring figure. Scholars have pointed out that his origin story, that of a commoner, also had political benefits for the king. It likely would have given him more appeal with the working-class citizens in the cities and kingdoms that he conquered.


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Akkadian Cylinder Seal depicting Ishtar, via The Oriental Institute, Chicago


Correspondingly, the story of Sargon’s dream, where Ishtar comes to him and grants him her favor, also had clear strategic advantages. By associating himself with a prominent deity like Ishtar, Sargon claimed the throne through “divine favor” that was arguably comparable to Ur-Zababa’s birthright. Sargon would also use a similar tactic against Lugal-zage-si after defeating him at Uruk. After capturing Lugal-zage-si, he led the beaten king to the temple of the god Enlil, who Lugal-zage-si had claimed as his protector deity, and forced him to kneel there in chains. In doing so, Sargon effectively demonstrated that he was the favored contender. However, because these stories were likely written long after his death, it’s unclear what the original intent was. Despite the mysteries that remain, Sargon the Great’s effect on Mesopotamian society, as well as the appeal of his legend, is undeniable.

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By Deianira MorrisBA Anthropology w/ Archaeology ConcentrationDeianira is an archaeologist and museum enthusiast with a love for studying the ancient past. She holds a BA in Anthropology with a concentration on Archaeology from the University of Arizona, during which she also attained a Minor in Psychology. Her research focuses on how past societies used images and symbols to demonstrate communal identities and cultural worldviews. Deianira also has a passion for ensuring the preservation of cultural heritage and is pursuing a career as a museum professional. As a writer, Deianira’s goal is to make information about ancient history more accessible and interesting to the public.