If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Rise of Empires — Akkadians and Assyrians

The Akkadian and Assyrian empires were two of the world’s first empires. Their conquests reshaped Mesopotamia. The many empires that would follow, worldwide, had much in common with these originals.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why was ancient Mesopotamia a hard place to live?
  2. Why did so many different empires conquer Mesopotamia?
  3. What was one innovation that allowed Sargon to conquer the world’s first empire?
  4. Give one example of a method that the Assyrian Empire used to establish control and authority over conquered peoples.
  5. What was life like for women in ancient Mesopotamia?
  6. What are some possible reasons the author gives for the fall of the Akkadian and Assyrian Empires?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. This article talks a little about how the Mesopotamian empires made trade networks over long distances possible. But empire building also requires a lot of wars, which can make trade hard. Do you agree with the author’s reasoning? Do empires create trade networks or do trade networks create empires?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Rise of Empires: Akkadians and Assyrians

A painted scene of an elaborate city along a body of water. There are ornate, large buildings lining the water, and people in boats on the water. On the other side, three men sit with several farm animals surrounded by trees.
By Bennett Sherry
The Akkadian and Assyrian empires were two of the world’s first empires. Their conquests reshaped Mesopotamia. The many empires that would follow, worldwide, had much in common with these originals.

The land between the rivers

Mesopotamia is the land between and around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (in present-day Iraq). There are some river valleys like the Nile that flood predictably, making it easy to live and farm near them. The Mesopotamian rivers are not the Nile. The currents are more violent, and people living there had to work harder to produce food. To make matters worse, resources like wood were scarce. This meant that societies in Mesopotamia had to trade or fight with each other to get the resources they needed.
Map shows the area that was Mesopotamia, which included parts of modern-day Iraq and Syria
Map of Mesopotamia.By Goren tek-en, CC BY-SA 4.0.
In 3000 BCE, Mesopotamia was a land of city-states1. Most people lived in walled cities under the rule of a king. Dozens of city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates fought with each other in a struggle for power and limited resources. Around 2334 BCE, one city grew powerful enough to start conquering the others.

5,000 year-old text messages

Before 3000 BCE, the cities of Mesopotamia were predominately Sumerian. Sumerian was the dominant language of Mesopotamia until this time, and it was the first written language. The Sumerians developed a system of writing called cuneiform that became the basis of several later written languages. Around 3000 BCE, a new people migrated into northern Mesopotamia. They spoke a Semitic language2 . We call them Akkadians after the city they built, Akkad. The Akkadians ruled history's first empire.
As you've read, an empire is a political organization with a dominant core state that controls weaker states around that core. Empires have flexible borders and a core culture that exerts control over other cultures. A bunch of different ancient empires rose in Mesopotamia because it was pretty easy to get to. The Nile river valley, by contrast, was surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert and quite hard to reach. This is why Mesopotamia was home to the first empires: it was a bunch of separate city-states in an agriculturally rich land that was easy to march an army across. Many foreign invaders did just that, building new empires and destroying old ones.
A photo of the Tigris river and surrounding land.
The Tigris River outside Mosul, Iraq. By Matthew Glennon, public domain.

The Akkadians

In 2334 BCE, Sargon of Akkad launched a series of conquests from his city on the Euphrates River. The empire he conquered extended from the Persian Gulf, up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as far as Anatolia (modern Turkey). To support his wars, Sargon created the world's first permanent army. Other states in this era only had armies during war, but not in times of peace. Sargon's professional army allowed him to build the world's first empire. With 5,400 soldiers, Sargon quickly extended Akkad's control over several weaker city-states in the region.
The Akkadian Empire did not last long after Sargon's death. In just a few generations, it collapsed, and Mesopotamia returned to a collection of warring city-states. However, the region would not be long without an empire.
Map showing the extent of the Akkadian Empire.
Map showing the extent of the Akkadian Empire.

The Assyrians

They might not have been the first, but the Assyrian Empire was much longer-lived than the Akkadian, and its influence was much larger. The empire lasted from 2025 to 609 BCE, though it was interrupted a few times. Historians divide the Assyrian empire into three parts: "Old Kingdom," "Middle Empire," and "Neo-Assyrian Empire"3 . For about 1,400 years, the Assyrian Empire dominated Mesopotamia.
The Assyrians were originally a group of pastoralists who spoke the Akkadian language and migrated south into Mesopotamia. The Assyrian Empire began modestly, with its city of Asur originally ruled by Akkad. After the Akkadian empire collapsed, Asur dominated several nearby cities like Nineveh, which later became the Assyrian capital. By the seventh century BCE, they ruled an empire stretching from Egypt to Iran.
Map showing the extent of the Assyrian Empire, which covered the area between the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea, as well as part of Egypt.
Map showing the extent of the Assyrian Empire.

Empire and power, violence and management

The Assyrians were really good at war. They're remembered in particular for their ruthlessness. They demolished cities that resisted and executed people in horrific ways. One of their tactics when conquering a new people was to steal statues and religious symbols from temples and bring them home. This practice of "godnapping" was intended to lower the morale of conquered peoples. The Assyrians also probably believed that taking the statues would prevent the gods of the conquered from hearing their prayers. But the Assyrians didn't just deport gods. They also moved conquered people around their empire. Relocating conquered peoples made cities less unified, less likely to organize a rebellion, and easier to rule over.
In addition to their fearsome abilities at warfare, the Assyrians were also very good administrators. While the Akkadian Empire had taken a more hands-off approach, the Assyrians micromanaged the areas they conquered. They appointed Assyrian governors and officials to run conquered cities and maintain political control. The power of the Assyrian military rested on the control of its periphery (outlying areas) and a hierarchy that increased production.
An image carved in stone: People stand on top of buildings with axes, knocking them down. In the bottom-right corner, people are fleeing.
Stone relief showing the destruction of the city of Susa by the Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal in 647 BCE. By Zereshk, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Production, women, and enslavement

Mesopotamian (including Akkadian and Assyrian) society was patriarchal, but women played important public roles. They could act as witnesses in legal and financial matters and own property. Generally, women were employed in the home, in food production, or textile weaving. But women sometimes worked in typically male jobs and vice versa. Women also wielded political power. At least one woman ruled the Assyrian Empire, and female officials known as sakintus acted as palace administrators.
Conditions for Mesopotamian women declined over time. By the end of the Assyrian period, they were more restricted in job opportunities and public life. One Assyrian law divided women based on whether a man controlled them. The law declared that "a wife-of-a-man" and any "daughters-of-a-man" were to wear veils while in public, which signaled a higher status. Women who were on their own, enslaved women, and women who worked as prostitutes could not wear a veil in public. Adultery was punishable by death, and many other restrictions were placed on women's bodies and sexuality.
Women weren't the only people who were restricted in this society. The use of forced labor was central to production and distribution in Mesopotamia. Agricultural work was difficult and dangerous on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Both the Akkadians and Assyrians enslaved their prisoners of war. Enslaved women were forced into textile production or housekeeping for elites, and men worked in agriculture, mines, and construction. The Assyrians administered a nearly industrial level of textile weaving with the labor of enslaved men and women. They used these textiles to trade for silver from the west, and could spend that on luxuries from the east.
Carved rock depiction of a very large man stomping on much smaller people.
A rock relief showing Akkadian emperor Naram-Sin trampling on conquered people. By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0.

Trade networks

The Akkadians and Assyrians came to Mesopotamia as foreign invaders. Both empires started because their rulers wanted to control more trade routes. Both Akkad and Asur were inland cities, far away from the ports of the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. They began their conquests with the goal of seizing important trading centers and getting access to the sea. The conquests of both empires united the divided city-states of Mesopotamia, enabling them to trade peacefully with each other and with distant regions. Beginning with Akkad, strong empires made it possible for merchants to create trade networks between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.
The fun of buying nice things didn't begin with the modern shopping mall. The Mesopotamian empires often traded with distant societies for luxury goods. They traded with the Indus River valley cities by sea, and overland routes connected them as far west as Egypt and as far east as Afghanistan. As luxury goods moved along these networks, so did ideas and new technology. Assyrian advances in chariot warfare and ironworking spread through trade and conquest, as did Mesopotamian gods and cuneiform. The Assyrians extended regional networks across their empire and beyond. Assyrian roads and a postal system connected the region internally and improved trade. As one of the first empires to adopt iron in weapon making, the Assyrian conquests spread new iron technology across their conquered lands.
6 rock panels carved with script.
A cuneiform letter between Assyrian merchants concerning trade in precious metals. Itur-ili, the senior partner, offers wise words of advice to Ennam-Ashur: "This is important; no dishonest man must cheat you! So do not succumb to drink!" Good advice in any era. By Itur-ili, public domain.

Conclusion: The land between the empires

You're going to read a lot about empires in this class. They've been a really popular way to organize human communities ever since Sargon declared himself the "True King." One thing you'll notice is that all empires eventually collapse. They might last for 100 years or 1,000. They might decline or fall to invasion or become something new. But they all end.
The Akkadian Empire lasted for somewhere between 100 and 200 years. Why did it collapse so quickly? Archaeologists now believe they have identified the small but powerful culprit: dust. Several centuries of dry and dusty conditions—caused by climate change and over-farming—crippled the mighty Akkadian empire. As dust and drought choked Mesopotamian agriculture, whole cities disappeared from the archeological record. By contrast, the Assyrian Empire, like many empires since, collapsed because it depended on military expansion. Dust they could handle, but this expansion was expensive and made a lot of enemies. The financial and administrative burden of running the empire made it crumble from within and gave enemy armies an easier target. Though these two empires collapsed, they were inspirations and lessons for later empires. The Assyrians replaced the Akkadians with an even larger, more powerful empire. The Assyrians were in turn replaced by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which were replaced by… well you get the idea.
Photo shows an immense cloud of dust covering the Persian Gulf.
Satellite image of a dust storm over the Persian Gulf in 2009. Similar storms likely led to the collapse of the world’s first empire. NASA, Jeff Schmaltz, public domain.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

Want to join the conversation?