Sargon II, "King of the World"

He believed he had been endowed by the gods with an exceptional intelligence, superior to that of the previous kings, including the famous Sargon of Akkad himself. He was convinced that his gods approved his policies. He was a king of justice and, therefore, his wars were just. He was a warlord, who personally led numerous military campaigns, but sometimes delegated the command of an expedition to one of his generals, contrary to what is written. It was natural decorum for him to describe the atrocities as normal episodes in battle descriptions. He used intimidation tactics, a kind of "psychological" warfare in the modern sense of the term: for example, to demoralize the inhabitants of the city that he wanted to conquer, he would display decapitated or flayed victims. He was highly effective in terms of military intelligence and strategy in his quest for victory.

See Also: Sargon II, King of Assyria (SBL Press, 2017).

By Josette Elayi
Editor of Transeuphratène
Honorary researcher, CNRS
September 2017

Sargon II, king of Assyria, proclaimed himself "king of the world". He reigned over Assyria from 722 to 705 BCE (Elayi 2017). The real question as to whether he was a usurper or not has long been debated. The opinion in favor of usurpation is mainly based on the meaning of his name and on the silence of the sources over his origin. If the name "Sargon" (Sharrukîn) meant "the faithful king", it would be a means to legitimate his accession as in the case of the famous Sargon of Akkad (or Agade), who certainly was a usurper. His ascent to the throne, when he was already middle-aged, is far from clear (Vera Chamaza 1992). In any case, he was apparently not a usurper as he was a son of Tiglath-pileser III and a brother of Shalmaneser V, both kings of Assyria. It follows then that he was not the founder of a new dynasty, the so-called "dynasty of the Sargonids", but he wanted to stand apart from this dynasty. For reasons unknown, he had to face massive opposition in Assyria, which obliged him to secure his throne during his accession year (722 BCE) and his first year (721). He wanted to annihilate this period of inactivity, which was unacceptable for him because he was primarily a warrior king: therefore, he had the chronology of his campaigns falsified by the scribes. He was a megalomaniac conqueror, who dreamed of conquering the world in the footsteps of his distant predecessor Sargon of Akkad.

It ought to be possible to gain some sense of the physical portrait of Sargon because several representations exist on the wall reliefs of his palace of Khorsabad (Dûr-Sharrukîn) (Albenda 1986). In fact, these representations, which he himself chose, were intended to give an idealized image of how he wanted to be seen and not of how he was exactly in reality, which is something we shall never know (Sence 2007). Conversely, aspects of the personality of Sargon can be accessed through his inscriptions (Fuchs 1993). He believed he had been endowed by the gods with an exceptional intelligence, superior to that of the previous kings, including the famous Sargon of Akkad himself. He was convinced that his gods approved his policies. He was a king of justice and, therefore, his wars were just. He was a warlord, who personally led numerous military campaigns, but sometimes delegated the command of an expedition to one of his generals, contrary to what is written. It was natural decorum for him to describe the atrocities as normal episodes in battle descriptions. He used intimidation tactics, a kind of "psychological" warfare in the modern sense of the term: for example, to demoralize the inhabitants of the city that he wanted to conquer, he would display decapitated or flayed victims. He was highly effective in terms of military intelligence and strategy in his quest for victory. His policy of conquest did not exclude economic objectives. He extolled the role played by his gods, mainly Assur, "father of the gods", making extensive use of all possible religious means to guarantee supernatural support for his dangerous expeditions. Another characteristic of Sargon was that he was a builder king: he restored the palaces of the previous kings and the temples of the gods, in particular in Nimrud, Nineveh, Babylon and Uruk. His major work was the building of his new capital of Khorsabad. Even if he was basically a warlord, he was probably also a cultivated man, who participated in the enrichment of the royal libraries of Nimrud, Nineveh and Khorsabad, and possibly directed himself the edition of texts covering the exploits of Sargon of Akkad.

What was the state of the Assyrian Empire that Sargon II inherited? It had not significantly changed since the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, who is considered as the true founder of the empire. He passed from selective and limited raids to the conquest of new territories in order to extend the limits of the empire in all directions: all the Middle-Eastern regions were unified under a double Assyrian-Babylonian kingship. The military successes were made possible thanks to political and administrative innovations: he instituted the regency of the crown prince, reorganized the army, inaugurated a systematic policy of deportations, installed an administrative and military infrastructure, and developed the road network. However, this new imperial system had to be consolidated and optimized, in particular by overcoming the hubs of local resistances. Sargon exerted absolute power on his subjects. The only limit to his power was religious: he had to recognize the primacy of the gods, to attend all the religious ceremonies and to respect the exemption of any city which had a major sanctuary. He offered his protection to his subjects, not simply formally, but he could intervene militarily, for example by helping a vassal king against external enemies or internal factions. The "land of Assur" was the contemporary designation for Assyria, which was divided into several provinces of different sizes. The Assyrian heartland can be described as the Assur-Nineveh-Arbela triangle: Assur (modern Qalaat Sherqat) in the south, Nineveh (Mosul) in the north, and Arbela (Erbil) in the east (Radner 2011). After having dwelled in Nimrud, Sargon decided to build his new capital, Khorsabad, only 18 km from Nineveh.

The first campaign of Sargon, probably in 720, was directed against Babylonia, but contrary to what he claimed, he was not victorious and so he understood that he was not yet ready to expel Merodach-baladan from the throne of Babylon (Tadmor 1958). Therefore, he decided to campaign against the western coalition led by Iaûbidî of Hamath. The conquest of the West was a constant goal for the Assyrian kings, who were attracted by the wealthy western states, fascinated by the Mediterranean Sea and intended to make the Assyrian Empire also a maritime empire. The conquest of Egypt was another of their dreams. Sargon's reign had an immense impact on Palestine (Younger 2002). His predecessor Shalmaneser V had decided to subdue the rebellion of king Hoshea of Israel by besieging Samaria, his capital city, possibly from 725 to 723; he captured the city in 722, but died shortly after (Becking 1992). Sargon defeated the western Iaûbidî coalition in 720 and proceeded to recapture Samaria which had participated in the coalition. He rebuilt this city which had not been completely destroyed and turned the kingdom of Israel into an Assyrian province. After having conquered the kingdom of Israel and scattered its inhabitants through deportations (Naaman-Zadok 2000), he subdued the kingdom of Judah as an Assyrian vassal state, and he reduced most of the Philistine cities to subjugation, by suppressing the revolts of Gaza and Ashdod in spite of Egyptian support for the rebels. Syria was completely pacified when, in 717, the kingdom of Carchemish was turned into an Assyrian province. As long as the Phoenician cities accepted Sargon's rule, he had no reason to disrupt the trade of Phoenician products handicraft, and wood. However, he boasted of having seized Tyre, ruled by king Lulî. He probably anticipated the issue of the blockade of Tyre, which could have occurred between 709 and 705. Luckily for Lulî, the sudden death of Sargon released the blockade. Sargon was also interested in subjugating the island of Cyprus in order to provide a new original western frontier to his empire: he sent his officer to submit the island to the Assyrian tribute in 709. The Cyprian cities became vassals of the Assyrian Empire but, because of their insularity, they were probably not closely controlled nor required to pay tribute with regularity. Thus, Sargon positioned Assyria as the strongest power in the Levant, controlling the border of Egypt and all the western states.

The states northwest of the empire represented a peripheral goal for Sargon, because the riches of the Levantine coastal trade provided by the Phoenicians and the fabulous wealth of Egypt were far more substantial than the riches of Anatolia. However, he was obliged to take interest in them for some economic and strategic reasons. He wanted to exploit the forests of Amanus, the mineral resources of the Taurus and of Anatolia, and to use the Cilician fleets. For controlling the accesses to the inland riches, particularly via the Cilician and Amanus Gates, he expelled Phrygians and Ionians out of the plain of Que (Elayi-Cavigneaux 1979). He had to prevent an alliance, by preventing contacts, between two powers that were dangerous for Assyria: Phrygia and Urartu. He was satisfied with the submission of Midas of Phrygia in 709. The Neo-Hittite states remained uncontrolled, difficult to reach in the mountains, at times allied, and at times fiercely competitive: Sargon tried to adapt himself to the various situations. Tabal, Gurgum, Kammanu and finally Kummuhu were annexed as Assyrian provinces. These conquests meant that there were no more buffer states between Assyria and Urartu, but after the defeat of Urartu in 714, Sargon extended his empire in the northwest in order to prevent any remaining Urartian ambitions to control this area (Lanfranchi 1997).

The north of the Assyrian Empire was dominated by the powerful and concurrent kingdom of Urartu. The Assyrian capital Nineveh and the Urartian capital Turushpa were only about 240 km apart, but they were separated by the Oriental Taurus ridge culminating at more than 3,000 m, and by a strip of buffer states, kingdoms or provinces. Some of them were independent, others were under Assyrian or Urartian domination: Shubria, Amidi, Tushhan, Ukku, Kumme, the Mashennu and Rab-Shaqe provinces, Mannea, Hubushkia, Musasir and Mannea (Radner 2012). A frontal attack against Urartu would have been costly if not impossible. After having neutralized Urartu's influence on the northwestern front, the destruction of its power base north and northeast of Mannea ensured the political objective of stability in the central Zagros. The eighth campaign against Urartu was a monument to Sargon's military genius (Zimansky 1990). Although Urartu was not devastated, after 714, it ceased to challenge Assyria in the Zagros. The conflict between Assyria and Urartu seems to have ended without any formal peace treaty being concluded. From the Assyrian viewpoint, Urartu was the arch-enemy and an eternal temptation for its northern vassals, but it was also a mirror image in the mountains, similar to Assyria with its administrative structure, in this region of intersecting cultures.

Conflicts occurred from Antiquity between the states of the Iranian plateau and those of the plain of Mesopotamia. Among the polities of central Zagros, there were some vassals of Assyria and five Assyrian provinces, two of them created by Sargon. The precise status of Media is still in debate: was it a powerful state or made of various small polities? Ellipi was a kingdom southwards in Zagros, and still further south, Elam was a powerful state, dangerous for Assyria when it allied with Babylonia. The rulers of the Zagros polities were not designated by the title of "king", but by "city lord" (Lanfranchi 2003). The eastern states formed a heterogeneous conglomerate, very difficult to handle and to control, and Sargon tried to adapt his strategy towards each of them. He spared the polities of central Zagros and Media by allowing the city lords to continue to rule, even after having been integrated into Assyrian provinces. His aim was to neutralize them in the case of conflicts with Urartu or Elam, and to establish there military bases ready to intervene. He protected Taltâ, king of Ellipi, his most loyal vassal in this eastern part of the Assyrian Empire. Although he tried to prevent any alliance between Elam and Babylonia, he never took the risk of attacking Elam elsewhere other than on the borders of the Iranian plateau, and in the end he did not succeed in defeating this powerful state.

In the south, the Assyrian Empire was dominated by the powerful and concurrent kingdom of Babylonia, the main traditional enemy of Assyria during its entire history. However, the situation was more complicated than if there had been only one enemy state, even though powerful. In addition to the city of Babylon and all the ancient Sumerian cities, the tribes, from the stage of nomadism to various stages of sedentary life, played an important role. These tribes were heterogeneous groups: Aramean tribes, Chaldean tribes, and Arab tribes who were positioned both inside and outside the kingdom of Arabia (Qedar). Dilmun (probably Failaka Island) was presented as the southeastern border of the Assyrian empire. Finally, the south of the Empire appears to have been the most difficult region for Sargon to deal with because of its complexity and recurring problems. He was obliged to wait ten years before being able to conquer Babylonia, a difficult task because it offered a combination of enemies: Chaldean, Aramean and Arab tribes, Elamite allies and anti-Assyrian Babylonians. Finally, he succeeded in 710, but could not capture Merodach-baladan, whose city of Dûr-Yakin was besieged and destroyed in 707 (Van der Spek 1978). He managed to extend his domination over the multiple and moving tribal powers, which needed permanent efforts to maintain control. He committed the political error of annexing Babylonia as an ordinary province: after his death, the problem became identical, as if he had done nothing.

If we compare the extension of the empire that Sargon inherited in 722 and that of the empire which he left to Sennacherib in 705, it is clear that quite a substantial expansion occurred during the 17 years of Sargon's reign, a relatively short period. Several external ruling classes understood where lay their interest and were disposed to give up their local independence in order to be integrated in the Assyrian Empire and to support the expansion of a supranational structure. However, Babylonia was the only great enemy power to have been conquered by Sargon. Others such as Egypt, Mushki, Urartu and Elam were not, even if he had gained some advantages in collecting booty or receiving occasional tributes. The Assyrian Empire bequeathed by Sargon had become more stable and stronger, but not easy to control, as shown by the fact that Sennacherib had to face some major upheavals in the recently annexed areas. Besides the noteworthy expansion of the Assyrian Empire, Sargon's reign was characterized by many achievements, several of them being innovations. He operated important administrative reforms, in order to re-balance the long-established power of the offices of the main dignitaries, which sometimes restrained the power of the king. Thus, he changed the order of the eponym officials, introduced new offices, and promoted the scribal elite, the court scholars. He was the first of the Neo-Assyrian kings to arrange the imperial postal communications, for a rapid transmission of royal messages which facilitated the government of the empire. He carried out the reforms of the army initiated by Tiglath-pileser III (Saggs 1963). He implemented important fiscal measures with obvious immediate advantages deriving from tax exemptions or reductions, in particular for all the temples of Assyria. Agricultural development was important for Sargon, as is illustrated by the cultivation of barren lands, achieved by the local population or deportees. He had major cultivation projects in the steppe and large scale gardening plans. He supplemented rain-fed irrigation with artificial irrigation by means of wells and canals, such as the canal between Babylon and Borsippa. By distributing state-owned land, he prevented the emergence of powerful independent landowners who would have endangered his absolute authority.

Sargon restored and built several edifices in his empire, and the building of the new capital Khorsabad provides evidence of several innovations. The place chosen, in the middle of nowhere, was unprecedented, and it was the first capital entirely conceived and built by an Assyrian king. Sargon made the preparations for its magnificent inauguration, a most awaited moment for him. The first part of the inauguration was the settling of the gods in the temples of the new capital, in 707. The second part took place in 706, when he officially took up residence, with all his administration, in his new palace where he offered a magnificent banquet. In his new city, he wished to exalt the role of Assyrian aristocracy in the management of his empire, and to unify the vast diversity of his subjects in the language, culture, and religion of Assyria, convinced that it would create happy conditions for all of them.

Sargon's prayer to Assur to live happy and old in his new capital was not answered. Even if the sources for the end of his reign are almost completely missing, we know that he started a campaign against Tabal in 705, with his well-trained army. He was killed during the battle against Gurdî, the ruler of Kulummâ, before the Assyrian camp fell prey to the hostile troops. The king's body was not retrieved for burial and funeral cult. Such an ignominious death was considered as an enormous tragedy and a true malediction because the unburied dead became ghosts who came back and haunted the living. Sargon was considered to have met an infamous death. He was the first and only Assyrian king to fall on the battlefield and not to receive a burial suitable for a king. It was thought that he had committed some sin in order for the gods to have abandoned him so completely. What was finally considered as the sin of Sargon (Tadmor-Landsberger-Parpola 1989)? Maybe the fact that he placed the Assyrian god Assur and other Assyrian gods above the Babylonian god Marduk. Or the possible existence of a prior agreement between Sargon and the Babylonian priests of Marduk who preferred to be ruled by an Assyrian rather than by a Chaldean king. How did his son and successor Sennacherib react after his father's death? He was shocked by the ignominious death of Sargon and attempted to avoid a similar fate. It can be supposed that he tried to find his father's body and endeavored to avenge his death, maybe by the campaign of 704 against the Kulummeans.

Reference list

P. Albenda, The palace of Sargon king of Assyria: monumental wall reliefs at Dur-Sharrukin, from original drawings made at the time of their discovery in 1843-1844 by Botta and Flandin (Paris: Éditions Recherches sur les Civilisations, 1986).

B. Becking, The Fall of Samaria: An Historical and Archaeological Study (Leiden: Brill, 1992).

J. Elayi and A. Cavigneaux, "Sargon II et les Ioniens", OA 18 (1979): 59-68.

J. Elayi, Sargon II, King of Assyria (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017).

A. Fuchs, Die Inschriften Sargons II. aus Khorsabad (Göttingen: Cuvillier, 1993).

G.B. Lanfranchi, "Consensus to Empire: Some Aspects of Sargon II's Foreign Policy", in Assyrien im Wandel der Zeiten, ed. H. Waetzoldt and H. Hauptmann, RAI 39 (Heidelberg, 1997), 81-87.

G.B. Lanfranchi, "The Assyrian expansion in the Zagros and the local ruling elites", in Continuity of Empire (?). Assyria, Media, Persia, ed. G.B. Lanfranchi et al. (Padova, 2003), 79-118.

N. Naaman and R. Zadok, "Assyrian Deportations to the Province of Samerina in the Light of Two Cuneiform Tablets from Tel Hadid", TA 27 (2000): 159-188.

K. Radner, "The Ashur-Nineveh-Arbela Triangle", in Between the Cultures. The Central Tigris region from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BC, ed. P.A. Miglus and S. Mühl (Heidelberg, 2011), 321-329.

K. Radner, "Between a rock and a hard place: Muṣaṣir, Kumme, Ukku and Šubria - the buffer states between Assyria and Urarṭu", in Biainili-Urartu, ed. S. Kroll et al. (Leuven: Peeters, 2012), 243-264.

H.W.F. Saggs, "Assyrian warfare in the Sargonic period", Iraq 25 (1963): 145-154.

G. Sence, "Dur-Sharrukin: Le portrait de Sargon II. Essai d'analyse structuraliste des bas-relie du palais découvert à Khorsabad", REA 109 (2007): 439-447.

H. Tadmor, "The Campaigns of Sargon II of Assur: A Chronological-Historical Study", JCS 12 (1958): 22-40; 77-100.

H. Tadmor, B. Landsberger and S. Parpola, "The sin of Sargon and Sennacherib's last will", SAAB 3/1 (1989): 3-51.

P.J. van der Spek, "The Struggle of King Sargon II of Assyria against the Chaldean Merodach-baladan", JEOL 25 (1978): 56-66.

G.W. Vera Chamaza, "Sargon II's Ascent to the throne: The political situation", SAAB 6/1 (1992): 21-33.

K.L. Younger, "Recent Study on Sargon II, King of Assyria: Implications for Biblical Studies", in Mesopotamia and the Bible. Comparative explorations, ed. M.W. Chavalas and K.L. Younger (Sheffield, 2002), 319.

P. Zimansky, "Urartian geography and Sargon's eight campaign", JNES 49 (1990), 1-21.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.