Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

War and Politics in Sumer and Akkad to the Time of Sargon

Steve Muhlberger

Most of the strictly historical records we have of early Sumer and Akkad consist of the stories of kings, their wars, and their dedications of the fruits of victory to the temples of the gods. But partly because kingship became so central in Mesopotamian society, its early history is obscure. Sumer seems to have gone through a period of experimentation, the details of which were forgotten later when kingship was uncontested, and are not quite recoverable now.

One question is, were early kings also high priests?    In early Uruk, the ruler was called an en, which elsewhere and later meant "high priest."  The great Royal Cemetary of Ur seems to be striking evidence for sacred kingship. It contains sixteen royal tombs dating from before the first recorded dynasty of Ur, before 2550. Kings and queens were buried here in magnificent style, and more to the point, with an entire retinue of soldiers and court ladies, who marched into the tomb and took poison or were otherwise quietly killed and were interred with their masters and mistresses.  This is all reminiscent of Egyptian beliefs about monarchy and the afterlife.

But this custom too is isolated, and may never have been observed outside of Ur, and only there for a short period. The normal arrangement was a strict separation between rulers and priests. Kings owed their power to the favor of the gods, were expected to give them offerings, to rebuild or improve their temples, but there were always living priests who did most of the holy work and controlled the temples and their property.

The normal Sumerian word for king was lugal, and the lugal was a ruler in a pretty secular sense of the word. Perhaps originally he was an elective war-leader, but very soon the position became hereditary and concerned with justice, too. He was a 'judge' in the Old Testament sense, a `righter of wrongs,' an ultimate authority to be appealed to. As we have seen, he acquired wealth to rival the temples. Later, he also regained a religious role, as intercessor with the gods for good weather and harvests.

Undoubtedly, war leadership was the key attribute of the king.Sumer was relatively crowded, with many major cities competing for arable land and access to water, and there were many disputes between them, some of which were settled by fighting. There was also the potential threat of nomadic raiders. Sumerian cities were therefore walled, and their citizens, at least at one point, obligated to fight. Time went on, kings became more powerful, wars more wide-ranging and more intense.

In their relations with the outside world, the Sumerians were as often enough the aggressors. They needed many resources from the outside world, most particularly timber and minerals. The timber came from the highlands all around Mesoptamia, and the minerals, including decorative lapis lazuli and the copper and tin needed to make bronze, from farther away, to the northeast. The Sumerians sometimes traded for these resources, but sometimes took them by force

A well-documented example of the latter method is the relations between the Sumerians and the mountaineers. The mountain people were considered barbaric, and were certainly less organized than the Sumerians. It was not considered easy or convenient, or perhaps necessary to trade with these hicks. So often when the timber that grew in their country was needed in the lowlands, the Sumerians mounted an expedition to take it away from them.

The Epic of Gilgamesh dramatizes one such operation. In it, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, the man credited in legend with building its great walls, decides to make his name by building a great temple. For this he needs timber. He tells his friend and servant Enkidu, "I have not established my name stamped on bricks [in other words he has not built anything worth remarking on]...therefore I will go to the country where the cedar is felled." Enkidu tries to discourage Gilgamesh by telling him about the ferocious giant Humbaba who controls the forest. But Gilgamesh gets divine approval for his ambitions, and makes the appropriate preparations: "He went to the forge and said, `I will give orders to the armorers; they shall cast us our weapons [out of bronze] while we watch them.'" The armorers proceed to make prodigious weapons.

With these and divine help, Gilgamesh beats Humbaba into submission. Humbaba then begs for mercy, saying he will send as much timber as Gilgamesh requires. But Gilgamesh does not trust him, and kills him, taking the timber home afterwards.

Is it too fanciful to see this as a reflection of the city people stealing from their wilder neighbors? Well, there is less ambiguous evidence. The Sumerian words for male and female slaves were compounds of the word "mountain" with the words "man" and "woman." This underlines the point that war in Sumerian times paid, at least it paid for the winners. The Sumerians recognized this and their kings were not shy of boasting about it: the one thing we know about the first authenticated king, Mebaragesi, is that "he carried away as spoil the weapons of Elam [that is, Susa]"

What kind of armies fought the Sumerian wars? This was before the real advent of the most colorful war weapon of Mesopotamian antiquity, the chariot, and the horse was not ridden in Sumer. Thus infantry, bearing bronze weapons and wearing at least bronze helmets, made up the bulk of the army. Note the necessary connection between long-distance exchange and kingship right here: all the raw materials for weaponry had to be imported. We have a few illustrations from the period of what the soldiers and their equipment looked like.  (Illustrations will be shown in class.)

Some of the best recorded wars were not with outsiders, but within Sumer and Akkad themselves. These wars, which may have begun as border skirmishes over water rights, became in the course of the Early Dynastic period (roughly 2700 to 2300) wars for hegemony of one city over another, even wars of conquest. A political structure evolved, with certain titles becoming valued prizes:  King  of Kish, recognition by the priest of Nippur.

As the Early Dynastic period progressed, we find kings ruling more than one city, though all such empires were unstable. The last of the early dynastic kings was a man called Lugal-zagesi, who began as ensi, or governor of Umma, but who, if you believe his own inscriptions, ended up as the greatest conqueror yet known, ruling everything "from the Lower Sea [i.e. the Persian Gulf] along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the Upper Sea [the Mediterranean]."

Whether Lugal-zagesi accomplished this or not, a similar empire was certainly constructed by Sargon of Akkad or Agade between 2334 and 2279. His success was so astonishing to contemporaries that he became the subject of legend for centuries.

There are several interesting things about Sargon.

He was one of the first rulers to have a Semitic name, and he actively promoted the use of the Akkadian language, even in official and religious contexts. Akkadian had long been displacing Sumerian in daily usage, even among the people of Sumer.

Second, he was not content with the age-old title of King of Kish, though he had it. He preferred to add to his glory by building a capital, Agade, a city that has never been found, perhaps because it was later swallowed up by Babylon.

Finally, Sargon was a full-time conqueror and warrior. He kept a huge military establishment around him all the time. In the words of one inscription: "To Sargon, the king, the hand of Enlil permitted no rival. Fifty-four hundred men daily eat food in his presence" {McNeill, 2, rephrased}. Fifty-four hundred warriors or even 5400 members of his palace staff - - the inscription is ambiguous -- could not be supported by any Mesopotamian city by itself. The maintenance of such an establishment required that his soldiers be put to work.

Sargon kept them busy. He first seized all the cities of Sumer and Akkad, assuring their submission by levelling their walls. Then he went further afield, constructing an empire that reached, as Lugal-zagesi's had, from Lower to Upper Sea.

His interest in farther countries was closely connected with the valuable resources that they produced.  Sargon had a conscious policy of directing as much trade as possible through his new capital. Many ships from India and Arabia docked there. This trade became more important as Sargon's northern neighbors, upset at his attacks, boycotted him.

The monopoly of trade was a key factor in Sargon's power, but so was loot. One type of loot that was particularly important was human loot. Big-time wars created big-time slavery. Slaves had been fairly rare in Sumer and Akkad, and few passed into private hands even now. But Sargon and his descendents acquired thousands. His son Rimush took 4000 prisoners on a single campaign, and except for six whom he gave to the god Enlil, kept the rest as state slaves. This is the documented beginning of a practice that continued throughout antiquity -- defeated peoples in war were condemned to labor for the victors, and especially the war-lords themselves.

Whatever Lugal-zagesi may have accomplished earlier, Sargon was more successful in one respect: Sargon founded a dynasty that lasted for more than a century. This was despite the fact that the peoples he had conquered earlier often revolted. According to legend, "in his old age, all lands revolted against him, and they besieged him in Agade. But he went forth to battle and defeated them; he knocked them over and destroyed their vast army." His son Rimush held on to the empire, until his officials in a palace revolt "killed him with their [clay] tablets."

Manistusu, his brother, lived longer and waged some impressive wars. Having inherited Sargon's nose for loot and the domination of trade, he took a naval expedition over the commercial routes in the Persian Gulf to Oman or perhaps the coast opposite, defeating 32 kings and seizing the whole country "as far as the silver mines." He, too, died in a palace revolt, making way for his own son, Naram-sin.

Naram-sin's career echoes Sargon's, since he fought in many of the same places, shoring up his dynasty's control. Ruthless as any of his predecessors, he destroyed Ebla when it seemed to threaten Agadian control of the north. Naram-sin was so impressed with himself that he added the title of "god" to his official signature and had himself depicted in the horned helmets usually worn by gods in Mesopotamian art. In some ways, his reign was the high point of the Sargonid dynasty. Wealth had been pouring into Agade for a long time, and with it the best practitioners of all the luxury trades. Some amazing art work was produced there in Naram-sin's time, including this bronze head of either Sargon or himself, a statue that was later mutilated by another ruler.

The empire lasted one more generation, to 2193, and then fell apart into anarchy caused by internal revolts and external invasions. The Sumerian king-list puts it this way: "Who was king? Who was not king?"

When the dust had settled, a group of invaders from the northeast, the Guti, had established themselves in at least part of Sumer and Akkad. Their hegemony lasted until the kings of Ur, who as rulers of the southernmost port, had access to the imported wealth of the East, established one last native Sumerian empire.

But back to the fall of Sargon's dynasty. Georges Roux has put it this way: "The rise and fall of the Akkadian empire offers a perfect preview of the rise and fall of all subsequent Mesopotamian empires: rapid expansion followed by ceaseless rebellions, palace revolutions, constant wars on the frontiers, and in the end, the coup de grâce given by the highlanders: Guti now, Elamites, Kassites, Medes or Persians tomorrow {152}."

I think that Roux is right, the history of his empire is part of a larger pattern, though not quite the one Roux prefers. I think all empires are to a great degree pyramid schemes built on loot. A conqueror like Sargon gains followers with the promise of loot stolen from other people. Once victory is won, the benefits are quickly dispersed. Some must be reinvested in further war, which is waged in part by the people just conquered; some must be distributed to deputies, generals, and vassals. Only continuous conquest keeps the system moving, and even that is not sufficient: once paid off, vassals and officials start pursuing their own ambitions and become less biddable. Even the most successful conquerors, or their descendents, eventually reach one limit or another: the limit of successful campaigning, the limit of loot to buy loyalty, the limit of resources, which are being ground up in unproductive warfare. Somewhere the system breaks down, and some new group of thieves, unconquered barbarians or renegade imperial deputies, start carving out new kingdoms from the old.

Sargon's career, and those of his offspring, illustrate the process in a raw form. The great Naram-sin spent almost all of his time reconquering and relooting territory Sargon had already taken. People who worship power will tell you how thrilling this all is; but really the Sargonids, like all autocrats, were parasitic on a system of economic relations that had grown up independently of them, and which they did little but loot.

The conquests are useful in showing the limits of the known commercial world. It is pretty impressive in extent. By 2100, commerce with Anatolia, Syria, Iran, northeastern Arabia, India were very well developed. The importance of all these places was clear to Sargon and family, who did their best to control as much of it as possible. Legends of Sargon in Cyprus may indicate something that is probably true: the commercial world was actually even bigger. Cretan civilization was already developing, and of course there was Egypt, beyond the reach of Sargon's armies, but already an old state.

In our next lecture we will look at Sumerian civilization from a different angle. What did the Sumerians think about life? They are the oldest people to have left us a literature -- what does it tell us about them?


William H. McNeill, Pursuit of Power
Joan Oates, Babylon
Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq
H.W.F. Saggs, Civilization Before Greece and Rome
This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.