The Old Akkadian Empire

During the Early Dynastic Period (c. 2900–c. 2350 BCE), southern Iraq was dominated by a series of mostly independent city states, each of which had its own local deity, identity, and system of administration. The city states were engaged in a web of conflicts and alliances, often leading some cities to dominate others, either directly or indirectly.

The conflicts thus led to a process of gradual political consolidation, which culminated under King Sargon of Akkad, Enheduana’s father, who united all Sumerian city states and conquered vast swathes of the surrounding territory, effectively creating the first known empire in world history. This state is known as the Old Akkadian Empire, after the version of the Akkadian language (Old Akkadian) that was spoken at the time.

The Old Akkadian Empire was characterized by great political turbulence; it is telling that both of Sargon’s sons and successors (and Enheduana’s brothers), Rimush and Manishtushu, were assassinated in court conspiracies. The former may have died childless, since the throne passed to his younger brother. Some ancient chronicles give their names in reverse order, making it uncertain which of them was the elder.

Afterwards, the throne passed to Sargon’s grandson Naram-Sîn, who brags in his inscriptions of having expanded the empire, quashed revolts, and had himself declared a living god (the first king to do so in the cuneiform cultures). A stele now in the Louvre depicts Naram-Sîn trampling on his defeated enemies and sporting horns, which were the traditional signs of divinity in Sumerian and Akkadian art.

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sîn, Wikimedia Commons.

The Old Akkadian period was a time of expansion, as far-away lands were brought into the orbit of the Sumerian cities through both expansion and trade; technological innovation, as the court’s craftsmen made great breakthroughs in metalworking and art; and radical reforms, as the kings attempted to standardize the administration of the cities they had conquered, reshaping the cuneiform script in the process.

However, it was also a time of deep conflict and instability. The new regime, which made sure to concentrate power and wealth tightly around the ruling family and their immediate retinue, was deeply unpopular among the previous power-holders of the Sumerian cities, and revolts were a fact of life in empire. Naram-Sîn bragged of having put down nine revolts in a single year, and one such revolt forms the narrative frame of the Exaltation. Eventually, the empire collapsed under or immediately after the rule of Naram-Sîn’s son, Shar-kali-sharri.

The Old Akkadian Empire was remembered for millennia in cuneiform cultures, in a role somewhat like that of the Middle Ages in Europe: as a time of great deeds, great drama, and black-and-white contrasts between heroes and villains. Sargon was remembered as the paragon of kingship, and Naram-Sîn as a tragic, hubristic king. Tellingly, the story of the revolts he had defeated was turned on its head, so that he was instead said to have lost nine revolts in a single year, because he failed to heed the gods.

Further reading

Foster, The Age of Agade.

Michalowski, “The Kingdom of Akkad.”

Westenholz, “Old Akkadian Period.”