The first great empire builder known to history was Sargon of Akkad who founded the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. Dates are always uncertain in ancient times, but the best guess for the reign of Sargon seems to be from 2334 to 2279 BC, though some accounts have his death at 2215. He lived in the Sumerian city of Kish, though he was not a Sumerian but a member of the Semitic people later known as Akkadians. Sargon’s actual name, or title, was Sarru-kinu meaning true or legitimate king in the Semitic language he spoke. This name that he apparently adopted, his birth name is unknown, is a good indication that he was not the legitimate king but a usurper, which is indeed the case. According to legends, Sargon was the cup-bearer to King Ur-Zababa of King, also a Semite. Sargon apparently led a coup against Ur-Zababa, with the support of the goddess Inanna, or Ishtar as she was later known, and deposed and killed him.
Once secure in power at Kish, Sargon began a series of military campaigns against the other Sumerian city-states, eventually uniting all of Mesopotamia. He led his armies North, East, and West until he had conquered parts of Syria, Iran, and Asia Minor. Not content to rule from Kish, Sargon founded his own city, Akkad or Agade to be the new capital or his new empire. Thus his people came to be known as Akkadians and his empire the Akkadian Empire. The Akkadian Empire lasted a little under two centuries and then fell rather abruptly around 2154. A semi-nomadic and uncivilized people from the Zagros Mountains known as the Gutians invaded and conquered Mesopotamia, ending the Akkadian Empire and disrupting the economy and culture of the region in a century long dark age.
This account of the fall of the Akkadian Empire to barbarian invaders seems straightforward enough, but there must be more to the story. Why were the Gutians able to overcome their more advanced and civilized neighbors so easily? The Sumerians and Akkadians had been able to hold them off before. Why did the Gutians decide to leave their homes in the mountains and move to Mesopotamia instead of simply being content with raiding?
Archaeologists have discovered that the soil deposited in this period was dry and sandy, lacking traces of the activity of earthworms. It seems likely that there was a change in climate in the twenty-second century BC causing the entire region to become more arid. Agriculture failed due to the long lasting drought causing famine. The cities were overpopulated by famine and Mesopotamian civilization broke down under the strain. Meanwhile, the Gutians also suffered from the drought and left their homes to seek food and water in Mesopotamia. This change in climate probably affected much of West Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean region. It was during this period that the Old Kingdom in Egypt ended with Egypt falling into chaos.
We like to believe that we human beings are the masters of our destiny both as individuals and as nations. Most historical accounts of the rise and fall of empires attribute the fate of nations largely to human elements, what this or that king or statesman did, or these or those economic and social conditions. They do not like to give credit to nature for its contribution, yet nature in the form of changes of climate and epidemics has surely played a greater role in the course of history than many kings.
About a thousand years after the fall of the Akkadian Empire, around 1200 BC, there was another prolonged period of drought throughout Western Asia and North Africa, causing the collapse of every civilization in the area and vast movements of people. The Hittite Empire in Asia Minor, the Egyptian New Kingdom, the Mycenaean Greeks and others were swept away in the chaos. Assyria and Babylon in Mesopotamia survived but were weakened for more than a century. We perhaps retain dim memories of these dire years in Homer’s poems about the Trojan War and the Biblical accounts from Exodus to Judges.
Plague destroyed Athens’s chance of winning the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Climate change may have been a leading factor in the decline of the Roman Empire in the West while also explaining the movements of Germans and Huns into Roman territories. Plague and short term climate change, perhaps caused by a volcanic eruption in the tropics during the reign of Justinian made his dream of reconquering the Western Empire impossible. The prosperous period known as the High Middle Ages coincided with the Medieval Warm Period. When the climate cooled and the Black Death appeared, the High Middle Ages ended.
This is part of the reason why I cannot take the warnings and alarmism of the environmentalists too seriously. The Greens seem to believe that nature has been in a state of perfect equilibrium for eons only to be disturbed by the coming of Homo sapiens. Human beings, and only human beings are responsible for any changes in climate or the environment. We are responsible for the degradation of the planet and only we can save the planet. This is all nonsense. The planet Earth has been around long before we appeared on the scene and will be around after we are extinct. The Earth doesn’t need us to save it. The effects of nature on the climate and the environment dwarf anything we could ever dream of doing. It really wouldn’t take much of a change in climate to bring our advanced civilization crashing down just like the Akkadian Empire and we would no more be able to stop it than they were.
That is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the damage we do to our environment. It is never wise to foul one’s own nest, but let’s not deceive ourselves into believing we have more impact than we actually do.