His name meant “true king,” and Sargon of Akkad (unknown–2279 B.C.) took advantage of that presumed legitimacy to establish the world’s first empire around 2330 B.C. in Mesopotamia, the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. He and his successors bequeathed to the world a concept of power that involved more than military strength. They commanded obedience not simply by winning battles and striking fear in their foes, but also by imposing order, dispensing justice, and serving as earthly representatives of gods their subjects dreaded and revered.
According to legend, Sargon of Akkad was born in secret to a priestess mother who set him adrift on a river, where he was found by the common laborer who raised him. In his youth, Sargon was visited by Ishtar—goddess of desire, fertility, storms, and warfare—who loved him. Inspired by her, he rose from obscurity and took the world by storm. The story seems clearly intended to show that Sargon was entitled to rule Mesopotamia, however humble his origins. (Who was the most powerful woman in ancient history?)
Akkadians had long been understudies of the Sumerians, whose civilization just south of Akkad in Mesopotamia had been thriving for a millennium. They learned much from the Sumerians before emerging first as their rivals and ultimately as their rulers. That process, in which ambitious people at the margins of an established society became its masters, would be repeated throughout history by great empire builders, including the Romans who conquered Greece and the Mongols who overran China.
Before Sargon took power, the prominent Sumerian city-states of Ur and Uruk contended with Kish to their north, in Akkad, near modern-day Baghdad. Sargon began his rise as a cupbearer to the king of Kish, whom he eventually overthrew. He then led troops against the great rival ruler to the south, Lugalzagesi, who commanded all of Sumer. Animosities among Sumerian city-states may have hampered Lugalzagesi in his fight against Sargon, who captured him and placed a yoke around his neck. A celebratory inscription later boasted that Sargon triumphed in 34 battles on his march to the Persian Gulf, where he “washed his weapons in the sea.” (See how the royal tombs of Ur reveal Mesopotamia's golden splendor.)
Creation of an empire
Sargon sent Akkadian governors to rule Sumerian cities and tear down defensive walls. He left the Sumerian religion in place but made Akkadian the official language of all Mesopotamia. By lowering physical and linguistic barriers and unifying his realm, he promoted commerce both within Mesopotamia and well beyond. A thriving trade with India brought pearls, ivory, and other treasures to Mesopotamia in exchange for goods such as wool and olive oil. Precious metals including copper and silver served as currency for the traders. Societies had not yet devised coinage; instead, the metal was weighed on a scale to determine its value. Sargon used taxes he collected from the merchants to pay his soldiers and support royal artists and scribes, who glorified his deeds in sculptures and inscriptions. (Who was Hammurabi?)
King Sargon ruled for more than half a century and founded a dynasty that held firm through the reign of his grandson, Naram-Sin. Sargon’s legacy endured far longer, as a string of later emperors emulated his example.
This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.