The Akkadians

Map of the Akkadian Empire (brown) and the directions in which military campaigns were conducted (yellow arrows)

Summerian King Lugalzagasi of Umma succeeded in establishing his influence over all Sumer, although there is no evidence that he introduced any significant changes. Twenty-four years later, the empire of Lugalzagasi was destroyed by the armies of a Semitic prince from the northern city of Akkad, Sargon the Great (2325-? b. c. e.) All Sumer was now united under the control of the Akkadian king. Sargon bequeathed to the world the prototype of the military dictatorship. By force of arms Sargon conquered all the Sumerian city-states and the entire Tigris-Euphrates valley, bringing into being an empire that stretched from the Taurus Mountains to the Persian Gulf and, perhaps, even to the Mediterranean. In his fifty-year reign Sargon fought no fewer than thirty-four wars. One account suggests that his army numbered 5,400 men, soldiers called gurush in Akkadian. If that account is correct, Sargon’s army would have been the largest standing army of the period.

Sargon’s whole reign was spent in defending his empire from the mountain people who raided Mesopotamia and from rebellions: he had to mollify people who spoke different languages and lived in different cultures. At first, he tried not to offend the Sumerians-when he needed land, he purchased it-but in the end, in the face of continued rebellion, he took stronger action: he levelled city walls and eliminated centers of resistance, he garrisoned Sumer with Akkadian governors and Akkadian troops, and when still he had not pacified Sumer, he confiscated tracts of land, expelled the Sumerians, and resettled the land with Akkadians. Sargon had tried to treat the Sumerians fairly, but his concept of fairness was radically different from theirs-he believed that men appointed their rulers and men owned the land; Sumerians believed that the gods appointed rulers and the gods owned the land and, therefore, as they saw it, Sargon not only had no right to dismiss Sumerian rulers or to dispose of their land, but he was committing sacrilege when he did it.

Sargon discovered another limit to his conquests: although he led his armies to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, when he tried to march them north into Anatolia, they mutinied and he was forced to turn back. Sargon, like every ruler, depended upon the will of his army, and he accepted the limits of what it would allow him to do in order to preserve its loyalty. Because of the army’s loyalty Sargon was able to pass his empire on peacefully to his son Rimush. Rimush, however, had to suppress a Sumerian revolt and nine years after his accession he was assassinated. When his brother, the second son of Sargon, succeeded him, he, too, had to suppress a Sumerian revolt, and he, too, was assassinated. He was succeeded by his son, Naram-Sin.

Naram-Sin had to suppress a revolt by the Sumerians, the revolt spread to the whole empire, and the perilous situation encouraged the Gutians to invade Mesopotamia. Naram-Sin repulsed the Gutians, defeated the rebels, took the title “king of the four-quarters” (that is, king of the whole world), and announced to his subjects that he was a god. If the Mesopotamians, and particularly the Sumerians, had accepted his claim (a not impossible claim given that they believed that gods can grow old and die), then (in logic) they would have been compelled to accept his right to confiscate land and depose rulers. He failed, however, to convince them and never reconciled the Sumerians to Akkadian rule.

Towards the end of Naram-Sin’s thirty-seven-year reign he again had to stop a Gutian invasion, but this time he was unable to expel them from his empire. He died, and his son inherited the continuing war against the Gutians and, to compound his troubles, a new Sumerian revolt. The Sumerians regained their freedom, the empire crumbled, and the Akkadian was driven back to the confines of his home city, Agade. The Sumerians rejoiced in their freedom, but not for long, because they quarreled with each other, they overlooked the threat of the Gutians, and the Gutians invaded, conquered Sumeria, and held it for a hundred years. The empire of Sargon and his heirs was gone, but it left a legacy-all subsequent rulers in Mesopotamia dreamed of re-creating Sargon’s empire.

In the midst of the twenty-second century a Sumerian hero, the king of Uruk, drove the Gutians out of Mesopotamia and convinced the Sumerians-with the help of his victory-to put aside their differences and unite behind him. When he died in an accidental drowning, his successor, Ur-nammu, took control of Sumer in one campaign, subjugated Akkad, took the title “king of Sumer and Akkad” and characterized himself as “the son of a god.” With the powers this divine status gave him (the right to control the land and appoint the ensi’s), Ur-nammu dedicated himself to the restoration of a ravaged and depressed land: he encouraged the reconstruction of temples, city walls, roads, harbors, and, most important of all, the irrigation system. Sumer became prosperous once more.

That Sargon’s army would have been composed of professionals seems obvious in light of the almost constant state of war that characterized his reign. As in Sumer, military units appear to have been organized on the sexagesimal system. Sargon’s army comprised nine battalions of 600 men, each commanded by a gir.nita, or “colonel.” Other ranks of officer included the pa. pa/sha khattim, literally, “he of two staff s of office,” a title which indicated that this officer commanded two or more units of sixty. Below this rank were the nu.banda and ugala, ranks unchanged since Sumerian times. Even if they had begun as conscripts, within a short time Sargon’s soldiers would have become battle-experienced veterans. Equipping an army of this size required a high degree of military organization to run the weapons and logistics functions, to say nothing of the routine administration that was characteristic of a literate people who kept prodigious records. We know nothing definitive about these arrangements.

An Akkadian innovation introduced by Sargon was the niskum, a class of soldiers probably equivalent to the old aga-ush lugai, or “royal soldiers.” The niskum held plots of land by favor of the king and received allotments of fish and salt every three months. The idea was to create a corps of loyal military professionals along the later model of Republican Rome. Thutmose I of Egypt, too, introduced a similar system as a way of producing a caste of families who held their land as long as they continued to provide a son for the officer corps. The Akkadian system worked to provide significant numbers of loyal, trained soldiers who could be used in war or to suppress local revolts. Along with the professionals, militia, and these royal soldiers, the army of Sargon contained light troops or skirmishers called nim soldiers. Nim literally means “flies,” a name which suggests the employment of these troops in spread formation accompanied by rapid movement.

During the Sargon period the Sumerians/Akkadians contributed yet another major innovation in weaponry: the composite bow. The introduction of this lethal and revolutionary weapon may have occurred during the reign of Naram Sin (2254-2218 b. c. e.), Sargon’s grandson. Like his grandfather, Naram Sin fought continuous wars of conquest against foreign enemies. His victory over Lullubi is commemorated in a rock sculpture that shows Naram Sin armed with a composite bow. This sculpture marks the first appearance of the composite bow in history and strongly suggests that it was of Sumerian/Akkadian origin. The fact that the bow appears in the hand of the warrior king himself suggests that it was a major weapon of the time, even though there is no surviving evidence that the Sumerian army had previously used even the simple bow.

The composite bow was a major military innovation. While the simple bow could kill at ranges from 50 to 100 yards, it would not penetrate even simple leather armor at these ranges. The composite bow, with a pull of at least twice that of the simple bow, could easily penetrate leather armor and, perhaps, even the early prototypes of bronze armor that were emerging at this time. In the hands of even untrained peasant militia the composite bow could bring the enemy under a hail of arrows from twice the distance of the simple bow. So important was this weapon that it became a basic implement of war of all armies of the Near East for the next 1,500 years.

The use of battle cars seems to have declined considerably during the Akkadian period. Any number of reasons suggest themselves. Such vehicles were very expensive. In Sumer a powerful king could commandeer the cars of his vassals, which they maintained at their expense. But with the centralization of political authority under Sargon these vassals disappeared, making the cost of these cars a royal expense. The professionalization of the army resulted in an infantry-heavy force which under most circumstances would have required few battle cars beyond those needed to transport the king and his generals. Finally, the Akkadian kings fought wars far from home in the mountains of Elam and against the Guti farther north. These were lightly armed, highly mobile enemies fighting in mountains and heavily wooded glens. The chariot had come into being to fight wars between rival city-states on relatively even terrain. Their use in rough terrain at considerable distances from home probably revealed the battle car’s obvious deficiencies under these conditions, leading to a decline in its military usefulness. They seem to have remained in use by couriers and messengers at least within the imperial borders, where they traveled regular routes known as chariot roads.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.

The the most famous Akkadian martial monument, 24 this stele shows the king and his army ascending into the Zagros Mountains and defeating the Lullubu highlanders. This scene is the first in the history of Mesopotamian martial art to attempt to depict the natural terrain of the battlefield in a single scene rather than in stylized panels. The terrain shows a number of ridges covered with trees and a high mountain peak in the background. The inscription reads in part, “Satuni, the king of the highlanders of Lullubum assembled together . . . [for] battle.. . . [Naram-Sin defeated them and] heaped up a burial mound over them . . . [and] dedicated [this object, the stele] to the god [who granted victory]” (R2:144). The Lullubu soldiers, with their distinctive long braided ponytails, are shown in an utter rout. Several lie dead; one has an arrow or javelin protruding from his neck. Another falls from the mountain. Two more run away, one with a broken pike. The Lullubi king Satuni stands before Naram-Sin, begging for his life. The Akkadian army, on the other hand, marches boldly forward in good order. All six of the Akkadian soldiers wear kilts and helmets, broadly similar to those shown in the earlier Sumerian Standard of Ur and Stele of the Vultures. They all also have narrow-bladed axes for melees. Two carry war banners, two hold 2.5-meter pikes at the butt, resting the shaft on the shoulder like a rifle on the parade-ground. The fifth Akkadian has a bow, while the sixth seems to have an axe. The heroic Naram-Sin leads his army into battle on the crest of the mountain, standing twice as tall as anyone else, and stepping on the bodies of fallen enemies. He has a similar kilt, but has a thick beard and long hair, and wears a horned crown symbolic of his divinity. In his hand he carries an axe, a bow, and an arrow. His bow is often said to be the earliest representation of a composite bow.

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