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The Akkadians

[This is a lecture written for the course 'HIST 262: History of the Ancient Near East,' taught Fall 2023 at God's Bible School and College, a regionally accredited College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bibliographical material will be posted under Research on this site.]


As southern Mesopotamia continued through the 3rd millennium, two major changes occurred. First, the climate changed. The postglacial maximum sea level, around 3000 B.C., placed the Persian Gulf about 200 km into Mesopotamia, bringing the waters up to the city of Ur, and in fact flooding the city and causing devastation (Mörner 2015: 29). From about that point onward, the above mentioned drying phase occurred which forced the Persian Gulf, over the course of around a thousand years, some 200 km down until it reached its present position around 2000 B.C. (Ur 2015: 75). Second, this caused changes in the way cities survived as the changing landscape meant that city resources had shifted. In fact, cities in southern Mesopotamia, from the Early Dynastic period until the Akkadian period, lost around 14.5% of their population (Ur 2012: 544), many people preferring to leave the urban life in favor of village life where life was, at least, more consistent.

The Northern Rise 

Northern Mesopotamia did not have the same troubles as the south. In the south, issues arose that caused the southern culture to innovate ways to mitigate their problems, but as the northern cultures had no need to organize, the north found no need to urbanize. By the dawn of Early Dynastic III, when kingship arose in the south and long distance trade was reestablished after centuries of isolation (Weiss 1993: 135), the northern culture of Mesopotamia would adapt southern ways, including those technological and political novelties. Thus, from around 2600 B.C., northern urban areas began to emerge, forming a political complexity that rivaled that of the south (Ristvet 2011: 1).

While southern Mesopotamia was incurring more and more problems, including conflict likely caused by the changing environment, the cities of the north, although effected by the decline in southern culture, began to stabilize and experience their own urbanization process (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 115). This was partly due to the rain-fed production of agricultural goods over the wide plains (Cullen et al. 2000: 379), as opposed to irrigation-fed crops that were constantly being effected by the drying environment, which gave the northern cities an aspect of economic control. Cities in northern Mesopotamia would create monumental places and their own temple complexes, creating their own political landscape (Ristvet 2011: 1).

Semitic Peoples

It should also be noted that the people of northern Mesopotamia were a different people group altogether. This is not to say that the emerging Akkadian empire was some sort of Semitic revolution or an invasion of Semitic peoples (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 139). In fact, the first Akkadian king of both the north and the south claimed kingship by appealing to the Sumerian people that the patron god, Enlil, of a Sumerian city gave him the victory, of which the city priesthood agreed (Gregory 2016: 449). Instead, this is to point out that the northern culture of Mesopotamia spoke a different language, a Semitic one, now known as Akkadian. 

Semites had already lived in the land for quite some time (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 139). In the southern cities, Semites had dwelt, mixed with Sumerians in marriage, and worked or fought alongside the people without issue long before the Akkadian empire was established (Adamo and Al-Ansari 2020: 18). When the Akkadians eventually took rulership of the land, becoming the Akkadian empire, the Semites retained a great respect for the Sumerians, their religion, and their language; although the administrative language became Akkadian, local scribal traditions remained Sumerian (Snell 1997: 33), and Sumerian temples continued the worship of Sumerian gods.  Although there was a cultural separation, after some time, the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures became so intertwined that scholars now have difficulty separating the two (Bodine 1998: 33-34). 

Even with this respect for Sumerian culture and tradition, the Semitic leadership did advance a Semitic culture (Adamo and Al-Ansari 2020: 32), even replacing subordinate leadership with Semitic officials and establishing the king’s daughter as the high priestess of a Sumerian god (Bodine 1998: 33). Another key change includes the ownership of property. Whereas throughout the Early Dynastic period the southern cities were overpowered by temple authority (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 139) and eventually secular kings of prestige and influence (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 107), Akkadian social structures were still centered on kinship (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 139), much like the Sumerian culture before urbanization (Ur 2012: 539). Thus, changes were made.

Sargon the Great

The military and administrative genius who made this all happen (Adamo and Al-Ansari 2020: 32), Sargon, would eventually be titled Sargon the Great. Historical records suggest that the birth of Sargon was somewhat exceptional, paralleling the story of Moses, as he came from a poor family, was set adrift on the river, discovered by someone and raised in the court, and then rose to power; other stories suggest that his mother was a High Priestess, no doubt a claim to kingship (Gregory 2016: 448). Later records describe Sargon’s position as the cupbearer of the king of Kish (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 133) and how Sargon replaced this Sumerian king (Adamo and Al-Ansari 2020: 18). Multiple other stories exist concerning Sargon’s move to power, most establishing Sargon as legitimized by differing gods, but perhaps his throne-name, Sharru-kin which translates as “the king is legitimate,” suggests a more valid reason: he usurped the king of Kish before ultimately founding the city of Akkad (Gregory 2016: 448). 

Being headquartered at Kish, a city both between the two rivers and between the north and south, Sargon was able to campaign against the north and the south militarily, conquering as he went (Gregory 2016: 448). Royal inscriptions describe campaigns and both the capture and destruction of differing cities (Ur 2009: 33), beginning with conquering his economic foe, Lugalzaggisi, who had previously conquered several cities including Umma, Ur, Larsa, and Nippur (Gregory 2016: 449). Sargon continued to fight, conquering the northern, Semitic cities (Diakonoff 1991: 85). His southern campaign specifically lead to the colonization of the southern cities of Sumer (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 139). He may have campaigned into Lebanon (Forrest, Evans, and Gibbons 2011: 22) and even as far as into Anatolia (Roaf 1990: 97). From conquered Sumer, where Sargon had placed Akkadian governors, he campaigned into Elam, sacking several cities but leaving their kings as vassals in order to continue trade (Gregory 2016: 449). For the first time ever, both the northern and southern cities were joined together under one head, thus establishing the first empire (NOAA 2021: 1).

Sargon appears to have been the first king to have established a standing army, around 5400 troops, and he nourished a bond with these soldiers by having a daily meal with them (Cserkits 2022: 11), and his humble beginnings may have established him as a man of the people (Diakonoff 1991: 85). Sargon also stationed soldiers in some of the cities that he had conquered, ensuring the safety of the Akkadian governors that he had appointed (Gregory 2016: 449). Interestingly, Sargon appears to have created a new theology of war, justifying his military campaigns as reflections of actions within the pantheon (Cserkits 2022: 10).

Trade was important to Sargon, and by the end of his campaigns, he had created trade networks from the northern Levant and the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia to the Persian Gulf (Gregory 2016: 449), and even the Indus Valley; he also introduced a uniform system of weights and measures (Diakonoff 1991: 86). Unfortunately, this wide empire was difficult to maintain, and trade quickly broke down (Gregory 2016: 449). 


After reigning the Akkadian empire for fifty-six years, Sargon died of natural causes (Gregory 2016: 450), leaving his empire to his son, Rimush, who continued the military campaigns of his father (Roaf 1990: 97). Before too long, Rimush was obligated to quell several rebellions, including at Ur, Lagash, Umma, and Kazallu (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 135). This was not necessarily new, even Sargon had to deal with periodic revolts (Gregory 2016: 450), but after Rimush had slaughtered thousands, including the entire populations of certain cities, Rimush may had been assassinated by his own dignitaries (Roaf 1990: 87). 

Manishtusu, the second son of Sargon, took the throne after his brother’s death, and he successfully campaigned southward, gaining access to both silver and diorite (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 135), stone used to make statues in Akkad. Some of these statues have been discovered at Susa, Ashur, and Ninevah (Roaf 1990: 98). Unfortunately, he continued an economic expansion of state resources by forcing private citizens to sell to the state their own personal lands, recording the transactions on an obelisk (Roaf 1990: 87). 

Naram-Sin, the grandson of Sargon, would become the most important king of the Akkadian empire, militarily campaigning in all four cardinal directions (Studevent-Hickman and Morgan 2006: 29). After a series of rebellions, he retraced Sargon’s campaigns, reconquering Akkadians lands (Gregory 2016: 450). 

Both Sargon and his successors had altered warfare by replacing the traditionally few heavy armored units with very many lightly armored units, who were fast and mobile, and by introducing the use of archers on the battlefield (Diakonoff 1991: 84). These tactics made it possible to expand and maintain the empire for as long as they did. Unfortunately, battlefield victories appear to have made an overly positive impression upon Naram-Sin as he claimed himself as a living god (Studevent-Hickman and Morgan 2006: 29). This claim was not a replacement of the traditional deities but rather he elevated himself above his humanly counterparts so that he became equal to the gods as a kind of protective deity (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 137). Ultimately, the theology of war that Sargon had established, that is, believing that the actions of the king were reflected within the pantheon, came to a climax under Naram-Sin as several stelae equate his military accomplishments with the actions of the gods, themselves (Cserkits 2022: 10). These aspects of the hero-king caused both ideological and religious concerns for the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia, particularly as the actions of the Akkadian kings were seen as impious and arrogant (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 137). 

In addition to military accomplishments, Naram-Sin also engaged in building projects, such as the massive imperial palace at Tell Brak which contained mud bricks stamped with the name of this king, and in ambassadorial achievements, such as the diplomatic marriage of his daughter (Ur 2009: 33-34). Unfortunately, none of this would save the empire from destruction as both rebellion and invasion brought the one hundred and fifty year reign of the Akkadians to an end (Gregory 2016: 450).


Although Naram-Sin appears to have been the last true emperor of the Akkadian empire, the empire did continue for a short time in a rather decreased size under Shar-Kali-Sharri, son of Naram-Sin who attempted war but ultimately failed. In reality, the Akkadian empire ends with the invasion of the Gutians (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 137) and the destruction of Akkad by Gutian hands (Adamo and Al-Ansari 2020: 32).

The Gutians, a people believed to have originated from the Zagros region (Adamo and Al-Ansari 2020: 20), attacked Mesopotamia and Elam, devastating the regions (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 142-43). It is likely that the Gutians took advantage of the Akkadian decline (Mieroop 2002: 409) by raiding the area for resources (Frayne 1993: 186). Unfortunately for the illiterate and nomadic Gutians, rulership in Mesopotamia was difficult, as they were not akin to the agricultural lifestyle (Adamo and Al-Ansari 2020: 20). Sumerian cities from Lagash to Uruk rebelled against the Gutian invaders, and ultimately Utu-hegal of Uruk defeated them in combat (Mieroop 2002: 409), restoring Sumerian dominance though with obvious Akkadian influence. 

After the defeat of the Gutians, Utu-hegal of Uruk established a short-lived hegemonic power over the rest of the Mesopotamian cities; this was quickly replaced when Ur-Nammu, king of Ur, took power of the region, establishing the Ur III empire (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 156). Thus, the Akkadian and Ur III governments successfully united the southern Mesopotamian regions under one rule, but neither of them lasted very long (Paulette 2012: 179).


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