In this lesson, we will explore the culture and history of the ancient Akkadians. We will also examine the first empire in history created by the Akkadian ruler Sargon of Akkad, or Sargon the Great.
Sargon the Great
Have you ever wondered who created the first empire in history? The Egyptians may come to mind, but historians actually believe that the Akkadian Empire was the first empire in recorded history. They also believe that Sargon the Great was the founder of the Akkadian Empire and started the empire in the Fertile Crescent region of Mesopotamia, approximately 2300 B.
Background on Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a Greek word meaning ‘between the rivers,’ and refers to the region between the Tigris-Euphrates river systems, an area which is today Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In ancient times, this region encompassed numerous distinct cultures and spanned a period from about 10,000 B.C.E.
to the 6th century B.C.E.Although the Mesopotamian region was the setting for such famous stories as the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel, it was also one of the places where civilization emerged independently. People formed increasingly complex societies, with central governments, intensive agriculture, writing, organized religion, and extensive urban areas.
Mesopotamian Political Structure
Prior to Sargon’s time, people in the Mesopotamian region lived within city-states, which were independent states that controlled not only life within the city walls, but also the affairs of the surrounding agricultural regions. Although the rulers of these city-states were able to maintain order and stability within their territories, conflicts over water and agricultural land often led to war between city-states.
One result of this was that several powerful regional empires emerged.
One of these regional kingdoms was in the Eastern area of Mesopotamia, not far from modern Baghdad. It was founded by a Semitic people known as the Akkadians, so named because they established their kingdom at a capital city called Akkad.
The Akkadians went on to conquer many of the other existing Mesopotamian city-states and even southwestern Iran and northern Syria. This then became the first empire in history, having a heartland, provinces and an absolute ruler, an emperor. As with succeeding empires, the Akkadian Empire had many different peoples, languages, cultures, and ecological zones, all under one ruler.The creator of this empire was Sargon, from 2370-2315 B.C.E. He controlled and taxed trade so that he could maintain a professional military and transform his capital into the wealthiest and most powerful city in the world.
Although many scholars believe Sargon’s empire represented a grand historical experiment, gradually the Akkadian Empire collapsed, partly because of internal rebellions of resentful city-states, and partly because of foreign invaders hoping to loot some of the fabled Mesopotamian wealth. Although most of the actual remains of the Akkadian Empire disappeared with the sands of time, the memory of Sargon’s deeds, recorded in legend and actual historical chronicles, inspired future conquerors to model themselves upon him.
Sargon and Akkadian Culture
One component of a civilization is the evidence of a writing system. We know that the main written and spoken language of the empire was the Semitic language of Akkad. Throughout the far-flung empire, governmental officials dispensed laws and edicts in it, and merchants conducted their business in it.As many historians have noted, conquest was crucial in spreading the Mesopotamian culture, and Sargon is a prime example of this axiom.
He learned from the societies he conquered, adopted crucial components of these cultures, such as the Sumerian calendar and computational methods, and then introduced these ideas to other regions within the Akkadian Empire. We refer to this process as acculturation, which is the exchange of cultural features in which the patterns of either or both groups may be altered.Another example of this acculturation is the Mesopotamian religious views.
Similar to most peoples in the Fertile Crescent, the Akkadian religion was polytheistic and anthropomorphic (the gods took human form). However, in contrast to the Egyptians, who thought of the afterlife as a happy place that would be a continuation of this life, the Akkadians thought the spirits of the dead went to a disagreeable afterlife where they capriciously affected the living. It meant that these spirits, and the huge array of gods, had to be obeyed and feared, not loved and respected.Many scholars argue that the Akkadian Empire was one of the most influential in the ancient world, so it is surprising that few artifacts have survived from this time period. One of the only objects we have is the bronze head of an Akkadian man that many assume is Sargon himself, but we have no proof of who this powerful and majestic person is.
The head is all that survives of what was a life-size statue that was destroyed millennia ago.
The Akkadian Empire, the first empire in recorded history, dominated Mesopotamia for only 150 years from its founding, around 2300 B.C.
E. It was populated by the Akkadians, a Semitic people who established the kingdom in the city of Akkad, relatively close to modern Baghdad. It was one of the many city-states , which were independent states that controlled not only life within the city walls, but also the affairs of the surrounding agricultural regions in the region.For the next 400 years, many regional rulers attempted to duplicate what Sargon the Great, the founder of the Akkadian Empire, had done, usually through conquering and acculturation, which is the exchange of cultural features in which the patterns of either or both groups may be altered. But it was not until 1792 B.C.
E. that Hammurabi of Babylon succeeded in uniting the Mesopotamian region.