Eannatum: The First Conqueror? Part II


The city of Lagash was located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of the city Uruk. Lagash was a fertile area, with irrigation canals feeding its crops via the Shatt al-Gharraf channel that filtered in water from the rivers. Lagash grew bountiful crops due to fertile land and its location made it a prime economic powerhouse when it came to commerce, all due to the waterways. Commercial competition with other city-states was healthy. However, like all city-states, there comes a time when hostility rises and the need to settle disputes requires war.

Fragment of Eannatum's Stele of the Vultures

Fragment of Eannatum’s Stele of the Vultures (Sting/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Eannatum’s tour of Elam, Urua, and Umma paid off. He controlled provinces and regions rich with resources. He had metal to produce weapons and fertile fields to grow food—both of which were used to feed and arm his forces. Eannatum was far from finished. With an increase in resource-rich lands came an increase in manpower to replenish and increase the size of his ranks. Eannatum was drunk with power and looked west to quench his thirst.

With Eannatum’s eastern flank secured, the west was ripe for the taking.

Goddess Nisaba with an inscription of Entemena, ruler of Lagash (2430 BC)

Goddess Nisaba with an inscription of Entemena, ruler of Lagash (2430 BC) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Grabbing up Valuable Resources

The king led his forces to the city-state of Uruk. Uruk was important for a number of reasons – the first of which is that it sat along the Euphrates River and not far from the Persian Gulf, making it a valuable trading city by both land and sea. Second, Uruk’s population was rather large and prosperous, and surrounded by fertile fields, making it desirable in terms of supplying the army with food and swelling the ranks with additional troops.

With Uruk conquered, Ur came next and its armies were put to the sword. Ur was also a valuable trading center and offered a strategic location near the mouth of the Euphrates River that led into the Persian Gulf. Unlike the lands of Elam, the only thing put to the sword in both Uruk and Ur was the military forces sent out to oppose the armies of Lagash. Uruk and Ur were valuable, providing much for an army on the march.

Lugal-kisal-si, king of Uruk

Lugal-kisal-si, king of Uruk (Public Domain)

Uruk and Ur were also important for their strategic positions. To the east were the other various city-states like the one that just conquered them—Lagash; to the north were more city-states of various sizes, and to the south was the Persian Gulf which was used for importing and exporting resources. Imports that came up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and exports that flowed down the rivers and out to the sea made their way to far distant lands. To the west lay a great desert that in and of itself was a natural barrier against any unwanted intruders. Three natural barriers, the Zagros Mountains to the east, the desert to the west, and the Persian Gulf to the south, surrounded Eannatum’s empire. Eannatum’s only true threat came from the north.

The ancient cities of Sumer.

The ancient cities of Sumer. (CC BY 3.0)

Pushing into the North – Zuzu Fights Back

After the southern portion of Sumer was conquered, Eannatum began his march north. His campaign towards the north involved Elam again, as the city-state of Mishime was conquered. It is possible that the city of Mishime was conquered during his first campaign, and the reason may be due to rebellion, in hopes other Elamite city-states would join in the fight to break free from Lagash control. After Elam, Eannatum made his way north, eyeing a prize-worthy, religious target known as Kish.

However, before he could make his way to Kish, Zuzu, the king of Akshak, had had enough of Eannatum’s war-making and went out to confront the man who wished to own the world. Zuzu and his forces made their way towards Lagash, where Eannatum’s forces routed them. Zuzu was killed in combat and Akshak taken and incorporated into Eannatum’s ever increasing empire. With Akshak conquered, Eannatum marched into Kish with ease. Eannatum, confident in his power, decided to take the title “King of Kish.” The title King of Kish means much more than being the overlord of Kish, rather the title implies that whoever has the title is also King of Sumer.

Copper spearhead from lance, engraved with the image of a lion and inscribed ‘Lugal… King of Kish’. Between 2800 and 2600 BCE.

Copper spearhead from lance, engraved with the image of a lion and inscribed ‘Lugal… King of Kish’. Between 2800 and 2600 BCE. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

King of Kish, King of Sumer, King of the World

You would think that Eannatum would have been happy with his conquests since he was the king of Sumer. However, it is said war is the health of the state and it rang true for Eannatum. Soon after Eannatum had taken over and centralized all of Sumer under his sole authority, city-states outside the sphere of Sumer were looking rather pleasing for the taking, like Mari. Mari was located on the western bank of the Euphrates in what is today the country of Syria. However, Mari during the time of Eannatum was not entirely Sumerian, but a mix of Sumerians and Amorites. What made Mari pleasing to Eannatum’s eyes was the strategically important fact that Mari laid at the divide between the Sumerian cities of lower Mesopotamia and the northern cities of Syria. Remember, Sumer had not the abundance of building materials such as timber and stone as northern Syria did. Therefore, Mari could quench Sumer’s thirst for such materials, thus making it a prime target to be conquered and its positions confiscated—which Eannatum did soon after unifying Sumer.

The Standard of Ur mosaic is made of red limestone, bitumen, lapis lazuli, and shell, depicts peacetime, from the royal tombs of Ur. (Public Domain)

What is Seen and What is Unseen: The Illusory Economy

Eannatum’s rise to power was anything but peaceful. One could say it all started with Lagash’s neighbor Umma over a property dispute dealing with the Shatt al-Gharraf waterway and the fertile fields of Guedena long before Eannatum’s rise to power. What turned out deadly was decided peacefully. Of course, there was a bit of religious bias as whom the gods favored the most between the belligerent cities. Even though a god-inspired deal did stop the war and promote peace for the time being, it also allowed the Umma to rest and eventually take up the sword again.

When Eannatum came to power, Umma was on his mind and evidently much more. He must have known for a fact through military intelligence that Umma and Elam were weak. With such information, he quickly assembled and likely increased the rank and file of his forces. Eannatum thrust his forces into a series of bloody conflicts. With each battle came conquest and confiscation of the various city-states. Money, resources, and people poured into Eannatum’s coffers, ever increasing with further conquests. War was good business for Eannatum, for war engulfed his economy. His war economy, you could argue, was “military Keynesianism” in which Lagash used military spending to increase economic growth. In other words, every city conquered and the property confiscated allowed Eannatum to increase military spending, thus giving the impression that his empire was economically strong due to the amount of resources he controlled.

Many of the resources needed during the time of war were likely allocated from private use to military use, which caused a chain reaction of ills, such as higher taxes to pay for the bloated war deficits, which in turn increased conscription and affected many lives. Also, consider the destruction of property via conscription. In other words, many of the young and middle-aged men conscripted would have to leave their property. The loss of labor was a loss in products and revenue. With both losses came the possibility of losing the property by way of state confiscation. In addition, consider the trade restriction throughout the war. City-states that enjoyed a healthy trade relationship with other city-states were severed from gaining or delivering the resources needed or desired between the two.

Eannatum: The Father of the War economy and Globalization?

Another aspect to consider is that when Eannatum was on his “conquest of the known world tour” he may have started what we term today as “globalization.” The economic dimension he created by way of war took various city-state economies, which were different to various degrees, and centralized them under his rule. How much of a negative impact it had after his grand adventure is unknown, but prosperity likely increased after a while.

The political dimension under Eannatum’s rule seems to have somewhat stayed the same among the city-states except for one aspect, Sumer was now united for the first time, and under a king. The cultural dimension was unaffected for the most part, unless you were from Elam I would suppose, since Elam was hated by Sumer. The Elamites may have been frowned upon while they lived under Sumerian/Lagash rule, but their resources were loved.

Battle formations on a fragment of the Stele of the Vultures

Battle formations on a fragment of the Stele of the Vultures (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This leads us to the ideological dimension. What was once normal, (as in being a collection of free city-states who worked together in a loose confederation) was now under a ‘new normal’ of unification through force under a single ruler. From a military perspective, Eannatum’s conquest likely had an impact on the future of warfare. Consider that with each conquest, Eannatum and his officers and men learned new methods of warfare given city-states sacked and those, like the Elamites they conquered. With each new city-state or foreign nation placed under their thumb, new military resources were acquired like additional weapons and information pertaining to those even farther away.

Furthermore, by acquiring tin to go along with the rich copper mines, weapons could be produced on a greater scale, especially the number of artisans, such as blacksmiths who could produce such weapons of war, which were not always easy to come by, since blacksmithing was not exactly widespread profession on a massive scale. By controlling the Mesopotamian region and Elam, Eannatum could draw on the professions of the many craftsmen throughout his empire to produce arms and armor and to improve upon technology. However, Eannatum’s effect on Mesopotamia did have a drawback; when Eannatum’s empire fell apart a new one would arise. Those who held power, like Sargon of Akkad much later, saw the possibility of controlling Mesopotamia and took it upon themselves to proclaim the region as theirs.

Therefore, what is seen is a man who conquered and united Sumer into a single powerhouse—but what is unseen is the amount the war cost in lives and property, not to mention that Eannatum’s actions also changed the military and political landscape along with the future of authority to come. While it is tempting to suggest that Eannatum was indeed the father of the war economy and globalization, he is not. Rather, he was just the first to unite the two using force on a grand scale. Yes, many leaders before him who held considerably less power also used the economy to support wars. But Eannatum introduced and took advantage of this demon by centralizing his power on all fronts to ensure victory through forceful servitude.

Top Image: ‘Mask of Warka’, marble head from Uruk, ancient city of Sumer  (Public Domain) and battle formations on a fragment of the Stele of the Vultures (CC BY-SA 3.0);Deriv.

By Cam Rea


Quincy Wright, A Study of War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965)

Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963)

Richard A. Gabriel, The Culture of War: Invention and Early Development (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990)

Jane McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia: New Perspectives (Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2005)

Martin Sicker, The Pre-Islamic Middle East (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2000)

Jack M. Sasson, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2006)

Amnon Altman, Tracing the Earliest Recorded Concepts of International Law: The Ancient Near East 2500-330 BCE (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2012)

Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995)

S. H. Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology (New York: Penguin Books, 1963)

Jeremy A. Black, The literature of ancient Sumer (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2004)

Sing C. Chew, World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation 3000 B.C. – 2000 A.D. (Walnut Greek: AltaMira Press, 2001)

Lloyd Weeks, “Metallurgy,” in A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, ed.

Leave a Reply