Although the origin of the term is unknown, Akkadians refers to a Semitic-speaking people living in northern Babylonia in about 2400–2100 BCE. The term may derive from a city and its surrounding territory, for which the earliest spellings are Agade or Aggide, later Akkade or Akkad. By the end of the third millennium, the land of Akkad meant northern Babylonia, from north of Nippur to Sippar. However, during the early second millennium BCE, the name Akkadians broadened to mean the indigenous population of all of Babylonia, as opposed to Amorites. By the first millennium BCE, Akkad had become a literary synonym for Babylonia. Modern scholars call the language of the Akkadians Old Akkadian, to distinguish it from Akkadian, the ancient name, used from the early second millennium onward, for the Semitic language of Assyria and Babylonia and its numerous dialects. The term Akkadian period usually refers to the 150 years (c. 2334–2193 BCE) defined by the reign of five kings of the Akkadian, or Sargonic, dynasty (hence also called the Sargonic period). Some scholars add another fifty years to this to include later kings of the city Agade (Akkade), thus overlapping the Late Akkadian and Post-Akkadian, or Gutian, periods. The broader meanings of Akkad and Akkadian were consequences of political and military expansion of the Sargonic dynasty. Babylonian and Assyrian expanded from local to regional terms, with their respective empires, are later examples of the same process.

Prior to the Sargonic dynasty, northern Babylonia was part of a larger Semitic-speaking cultural horizon that stretched west into northern Syria from its Mesopotamian center at Kish, perhaps as early as the Early Dynastic I period. The Akkadians may have been an eastern group of this population, perhaps centered around the confluence of the Diyala and the Tigris Rivers. This is only a hypothesis, for, according to surface surveys, the Diyala region was only sparsely populated in the Akkadian period. The relationship between the Akkadians and the earlier, more widely distributed Semitic-speaking population of greater northern Mesopotamia remains obscure.

In the absence of epigraphic data, Akkadian period sites are often difficult to distinguish from those of earlier or later periods; as a result, analysis of settlement patterns may be based on sketchy evidence. Archaeological surveys suggest that during the Akkadian period the population of northern Babylonian cities and towns increased at the expense of villages. These findings could imply centralization of government and production. In contrast, the central Euphrates floodplain witnessed a decline in the number and size of large urban centers but an increase in the number and size of medium-sized towns and smaller villages (Robert McC. Adams, Heartland of Cities, Chicago, 1981, p. 139). Although this can be viewed as a long-term natural development, a contributing factor could have been aggression by the Akkadian dynasty against the older city states in this region, with the creation of extraurban administrative centers. The resulting pattern—centralization of rural landscapes and decentralization of potentially competitive urban landscapes—needs verification.

Topographic lists of northern Babylonian settlements permit reconstruction of nine important waterways branching southward from the area of Sippar, between the modern courses of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, with a string of towns along each and a sparsely populated hinterland between (Douglas Frayne, The Early Dynastic List of Geographical Names, American Oriental Series; vol. 74, New Haven, 1992). Communication northwest followed the Euphrates upstream; one route east led to the Iranian plateau through the Hamrin Valley, where extensive remains of the Akkadian period have been found.

Northern Babylonia depended on a mixed economy of agriculture and husbandry. During the Akkadian period there is substantial epigraphic evidence for control of production through local centers of collection, preparation, and redistribution of food for workers; production, storage, and distribution of implements; and coordination of agriculture. Fields were allocated to plowing teams; seed and feed used for draft animals and the collection, distribution, and transport of the harvest, locally and to the capital, were recorded; and flocks and herds were maintained (shearing, culling, counting, fattening).

The history and culture of the Akkadians are mostly associated with the Sargonic Empire, a military, political, and cultural unification of Mesopotamia and North Syria that is often considered the first of the great empires or territorial states in Mesopotamian history. The founder of the dynasty was Sargon (Sharrukin) of Akkad (so called to distinguish him from the two later Assyrian kings referred to as Sargon I and II). According to one legendary account, he was cupbearer to a king of Kish. Thwarting a murder plot by his master, Sargon made himself king, taking the title “king of Kish,” which implied suzerainty over northern Babylonia and perhaps beyond. He defeated the principal ruler in Sumer, Lugalzagesi king of Uruk, and thereby united Babylonia under one rule. He invaded southwestern Iran in several campaigns and turned north and northwest to Syria and Anatolia, stating in his inscriptions that Mari and Ebla became subordinate to him. He is credited with building up a capital city, Akkade (often spelled Agade in modern books, to distinguish it from the region of Akkad). The city's location has not been identified, but it may lie east of the confluence of the Tigris and Diyala Rivers, although a location near Kish has been proposed. In an inscription he boasts that he made Akkadians governors throughout his conquered lands. Sargon's life, reign, and exploits became the subjects of a richly embroidered literary tradition in later Mesopotamia, including epic poetry and a tale that he was born in secret to a priestess and set adrift in a basket. A stela, now in the Louvre, is the major surviving monument of his reign; his commemorative inscriptions are best known from copies prepared by Babylonian scholars centuries after his death. Sargon was remembered in later ages as the archtypical successful warrior-king; it is for him that the dynasty is named Sargonic (to be distinguished from Sargonid, referring to Sargon II of Assyria and his successors).

Sargon's son and successor, Rimush, devoted much of his nine-year reign to suppressing revolts in Sumerian cities. His inscriptions claim the execution and enslavement of tens of thousands of people. Fragmentary stelae showing marching soldiers, parading and killing captives may date to this reign or later (e.g., the Victory Stela from Telloh at the Louvre, a fragment at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Nasiriyyah stela, the last perhaps commemorating an Anatolian campaign by a later king). Rimush was murdered in a palace conspiracy and succeeded by his brother, Manishtushu.


Akkadian Empire

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Manishtushu restored his father's control over southwestern Iran, where an expansionist state, Parahše (Marhaši), had established itself. He also launched a naval campaign in the Gulf, among the results of which was the importation of blocks of diorite. A group of statues from his reign carved in this hard medium marks the emergence of what is called the Akkadian style in sculpture: life-sized or larger naturalistic, but idealized portraits of the ruler that convey a sense of serene muscular strength and unchallenged power. The style and medium were imitated for centuries thereafter. Another important monument of his reign, called the Obelisk of Manishtushu, records the king's purchase of large tracts of land from families in western Babylonia, presumably for redistribution to his officers and household in return for their service. He too was murdered in a palace conspiracy after a reign of fifteen years, to be succeeded by his son, Naram-Sin.

Like Sargon, Naram-Sin became the subject of legendary and monitory literature after his death, so that the events of his thirty-seven(?)-year reign are difficult to interpret. He was a successful warrior-king whose conquests established his hegemony over the upper Gulf, southwestern Iran, Assyria, the Upper Euphrates and Tigris into Anatolia, and North Syria to the Mediterranean coast. In his inscriptions he claims to be the first to destroy Ebla and Armanum, the latter a heavily fortified city in the same region, perhaps modern Aleppo. Major religious and administrative structures of this period at Tell Brak in the Khabur region show that his policy was one of direct rule in this area, perhaps intending to develop its agricultural potential. Mass production of standardized pottery at Tell Leilan, also in the Khabur, suggests the use of a rationed labor force or garrison there at about this time; changes in local settlement patterns could be the result of enforced centralization. [See Brak, Tell; Leilan, Tell.]

Throughout his reign, Naram-Sin faced important rebellions and external attacks, some on a scale that gained supernatural character in later literature. One was led by a Sumerian city, the name of which is uncertain, and included Amorite tribesmen and perhaps the land of Magan (Oman and the Iranian coastline opposite); it thus seemed a world-wide event to Mesopotamian contemporaries. Another rebellion was centered on a pretender at Kish, with support at Nippur, Uruk, and elsewhere. In nine battles, Naram-Sin defeated a coalition of foreign rulers and Mesopotamian allies. These dramatic events were retold as cautionary tales in later literature, while in his own lifetime they resulted in his deification as savior of his city, Agade. He led an expedition to the sources of the Tigris and reconquered Susiana, imposing a treaty on the ruler there. His reign marks the apogee of the Sargonic state. A standardized bureaucracy spread throughout Mesopotamia, where former city-states were reorganized as provinces and Naram-Sin's progeny served as governors and priestesses. His rebuilding of the Temple of Enlil at Nippur may have inspired a Sumerian narrative poem called the Curse of Agade, which attributes the later fall of the empire to Naram-Sin's hubris and falsely projects it to his reign.


AKKADIANS. Figure 1. Bronze head from Nineveh. Iraq Museum, Baghdad. (Scala/Art Resource, NY)

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The art of this period is exemplified by a stela of Naram-Sin, now also in the Louvre, that shows the deified king invading a mountainous region. Its brilliant design and execution make it one of the most significant works of art of its millennium to have survived. [See Stelae.] This and various other rock reliefs projected the authority of the ruler and the death and enslavement in store for his enemies. Cylinder seals used by courtiers were exquisitely engraved with combat scenes and representations of wild beasts in heraldic poses. A mutilated nude male figure, found at Bassetki, was cast in more than 160 kg of copper, proof of the extraordinary artistic and technical achievements of the period, further exemplified by a bronze head of an Akkadian ruler found at Nineveh (see figure 1). A later poetic narrative speaks of the treasures accumulated in the capital; the wealth and resources available to the royal establishment are reflected in administrative documents of the period as well, some of which list magnificent gifts to the royal family.

Naram-Sin was succeeded by his son, Sharkalisharri, the events of whose twenty-five-year reign are obscure. He may have faced a rebellion at his accession. As crown prince he directed the reconstruction of the Temple of Enlil at Nippur, whose work he may have completed as king. His territories shrank, although he claimed victory over the Elamites in the Diyala region. Sargonic administrators must have left Susiana by this time and the former governor of the area, Epir-mupi, may have set up an independent kingdom. Sharkalisharri also fought the Amorites near Jebel Bishri, as well as the Gutians, a people of uncertain origin whom the Mesopotamians considered barbarians. The picture is of an embattled state falling back toward its capital. Its final collapse may have been the result of internal weaknesses, rebellion, and foreign attack, especially, according to Sumerian tradition, by the Gutians. Dessication and abandonment of former Akkadian centers in the Khabur, such as Tell Leilan, may also have been a significant factor (Harvey Weiss et al., “The Genesis and Collapse of Third Millennium North Mesopotamian Civilization,” Science 261 [1993]: 995–1004).

There followed a short interregnum: a letter, apparently from a ruler of this period, asserts “There is a king in Agade,” whereas the Sumerian King List says “Who was king, who was not king?” A local dynasty was established at Agade that ruled for about forty years. One of its kings, Dudu, campaigned against Umma and Susa, but Agade was thereafter an unimportant place, although attested into the Achaemenid period.

One major legacy of the Sargonic dynasty to Mesopotamia was the realization of the political and economic possibilities of a territorial state, transcending the city-state pattern typical of Sumer previously. Along with this came political vocabulary, military and management strategies, and a grandiose ideology of the ruler that were to be emulated, denounced, and admired for fifteen hundred years. Prior to the Sargonic dynasty, the Akkadians presumably shared the religious convictions of the Semites of northern Mesopotamia and Syria, which often accorded special veneration to the sun (Shamash), the moon (Sin), and the planet Venus (Ishtar), especially as “lady of combat” (Annunitum). The inclusion of Sumer in the Sargonic state brought with it the Sumerian city-states' pantheon, including Enlil, chief god of Sumer, thereafter used as a term for “supreme deity.” Sumerian Inanna, a goddess of reproduction and fertility, was fused with Ishtar to create a complex, contradictory persona. Some deities important in North Syria, such as Adad (the thunder god) and Dagan (popular in the Upper Euphrates region) were less important in northern Babylonia, suggesting greater Sumerian than Syrian influence there. A deity referred to simply as God (Il or Ilum) is sometimes compared to the western El or the later Babylonian Ilum, in the sense of “personal god.” Local deities in northern Babylonia included Zababa (at Kish); Ilaba, a patron deity of the dynasty; and Nergal (at Cutha). Save for Nergal, little or no mythology is known of these figures.

The most important religious compositions of the period are attributed to Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon and high priestess of the moon god Sin at Ur. These include a cycle of Sumerian hymns in honor of important Sumerian sanctuaries, perhaps with the intent of promoting Sumero-Akkadian syncretism. Among her other works is a narrative poem describing her personal humiliation at the hands of a local pretender and her appeal to Ishtar, who reinstates her and destroys her enemies. This is but one example of many where Ishtar is regarded as holding the royal family in special favor: both Sargon and Naram-Sin are said to have been loved by Ishtar, and the Sargonic dynasty is sometimes referred to in later sources as Ishtar's period of ascendancy.

Mesopotamian religious architecture of this period is poorly known, and, where identified, shows no significant changes in plan from previous phases of established temples. A religious structure at Tell Brak contained a large courtyard that may have been used for some important public event. Naram-Sin introduced religious veneration of the living ruler by proclaiming himself god of his city, Agade.

Secular architecture is also poorly known, for various buildings formerly considered Sargonic in date, such as the northern palace at Tell Asmar, the palace at Tell al-Wilayah, and the Old Palace at Aššur, are now generally dated to earlier or later periods. A large building at Tell Brak, which incorporated some bricks stamped with the name of Naram-Sin, remains the most securely dated building of the Akkadian period. Tell Taya is a town-sized settlement of this period, allowing the reconstruction of house and street plans and a group of administrative buildings.

Akkadian society may originally have been articulated by extended families reckoning their descent from a common male ancestor and holding large areas of arable land in communal ownership, with shares allotted to individuals and nuclear families. An innovation of the Sargonic dynasty was the creation of royal estates and their distribution to members of the royal family and ruling elite. These elites in turn leased and subleased parcels for rental payments in cash and kind. Akkadian estates have been identified at Gasur (Nuzi), in Akkad (Umm el-Jir), in Sumer (Mesag Estate, near Umma), and Susa. An Akkadian stela from Girsu (Telloh) records distribution of an immense area of land to Sargonic officials, including towns and villages.

Records of internal commerce show the free circulation of silver in private hands and government establishments and its use as a standard of valuation and medium of exchange. Commodities bought and sold included foodstuffs, slaves, real estate, aromatics, metals, and finished products such as wagons and boats. There are hints of international venture trade by commercial families that took advantage of the Sargonic occupation of such entrepôts as Susa to purchase foreign commodities such as copper, tin, and semiprecious stones. Sargonic weights and measures spread, with the empire, to Syria and Anatolia. Foreign trade is known to Dilmun, Magan, and Meluḫḫa.

Extensive archival remains from all parts of Mesopotamia and from Susa illuminate management and recordkeeping techniques, using a distinctive calligraphy for official purposes. These archives shed light on such subjects as labor, animal husbandry, fishing, agriculture, and production (sometimes on a gigantic scale); on commodities such as pottery; and on comestibles such as bread and beer. These archives mostly date to the reigns of Naram-Sin and Sharkalisharri and include records of Akkadian estates, as well as urban and regional administrative centers. Family and private archives include records of buying, selling, and leasing land; making loans at interest; depositing valuables; managing livestock; and contracting to carry out government services. Sargonic letters make requests and orders for goods and services, bring news, and make complaints and petitions.

The Akkadian rulers drew from their northern environment traditions of statecraft dating to the earliest kings of Kish. These they introduced to Sumer, along with Akkadian ideas of nobility, land tenure, and military organization. On the other hand, much of Akkadian literate and scholastic tradition was drawn from Sumer, either directly through conquest, or indirectly through long-standing Sumerian cultural influence in the north. This means that a north–south influence went in both directions over many centuries.

The Akkadian achievement was to be an important ideological concern in later Mesopotamia. The rulers of the successor state of the third dynasty of Ur distanced themselves from it, although they adopted its management techniques, whereas the dynasty of Eshnunna adopted Sargonic royal names. To the Mesopotamians, the Sargonic, or Akkadian, period was a turning point in their history.

[See also Akkade; Diyala; Ebla; Kish; Mari; Mesopotamia; article on Mesopotamia; Nippur; Taya, Tell; Ur; and Uruk-Warka.]


  • Amiet, Pierre. L'art d'Agadé au Musée du Louvre. Paris, 1976. Detailed study of the large collection of Sargonic sculpture in the Louvre.
  • Boehmer, Rainer Michael. Die Entwicklung der Glyptic während der Akkad-Zeit. Berlin, 1965. Major publication and study of cylinder seals of the Akkadian period.
  • Cooper, Jerrold S. The Curse of Agade. Baltimore, 1983. Edition of a Sumerian narrative poem about the destruction of the Sargonic empire, with a discussion of the historical background.
  • Foster, Benjamin R. “Archives and Empire in Sargonic Mesopotamia.” In Cuneiform Archives and Libraries, edited by Klaas R. Veenhof, pp. 46–52. Leiden, 1986. Survey of historical uses of administrative documents of the Akkadian period; with a bibliography.
  • Foster, Benjamin R. “Select Bibliography of the Sargonic Period.” In Akkad, the First World Empire: Structure, Ideology, Traditions, edited by Mario Liverani, pp. 171–182. Padua, 1993. Annotated bibliography for archaeology, art, language, literature, and archival and inscriptional sources for the Akkadian period, as well as studies of the history and economy of the Sargonic Empire.
  • Frayne, Douglas. The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Early Periods, vol. 2, Sargonic and Gutian Periods, 2334–2113 BC. Toronto, 1993. Commemorative inscriptions of the Akkadian period, with historical commentary.
  • Glassner, J.-J. La chute d'Akkadé: L'événement et sa mémoire. Berliner Beiträge zum Vorderen Orient, 5. Berlin, 1986. Historical survey of the period, with a bibliography.
  • Hallor, William W., and J.J.A. Van Dijk. The Exaltation of Inama. Yale Near Eastern Researchers, 3. New Haven, 1968. Edition and Commentary on a poem by Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon.
  • Liverani, Mario, ed. Akkad, the First World Empire. Padua, 1993. Essays on the history, archaeology, administration, and tradition of the Akkadian Empire.
  • Nissen, Hans J. “‘Sumerian’ vs. ‘Akkadian’ Art: Art and Politics in Babylonia of the Mid-Third Millennium B.C.” In Insight through Images: Studies in Honor of Edith Porada, edited by Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati, pp. 189–196. Malibu, 1986.
  • Porada, Edith. “The Period of Akkad.” In Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, vol. 1, edited by Robert W. Ehrich, pp. 113–116. 3d ed. Chicago, 1992. Archaeological evidence for Akkadian chronology.
  • Westenholz, Aage. “The Sargonic Period.” In Circulation of Goods in Non-Palatial Context in the Ancient Near East, edited by Alfonso Archi, pp. 17–30. Incunabula Graeca, 82. Rome, 1984. Surveys records of commercial activity.

Benjamin R. Foster