For a brief period (c. 811-808 BC), Sammu-ramāt ruled one of the greatest empires in the ancient world. She was the first and last female regent of Assyria, reigning in the name of her young son Adad-Nirari III, whose rule lasted until 783 BC.
This historical character may have inspired the myths about Queen Semiramis, whose fame grew rapidly. Greeks started writing about Semiramis from the fifth century BC onwards. The Romans used the same name form (or variants ‘Samiramis’ and ‘Simiramis’), whereas Armenian literature named her ‘Shamiram’.
Semiramis in life and legend
The earliest Greek histories provide mythical accounts of Semiramis’ life. Semiramis was the daughter of a nymph Derceto from Ascalon in Syria, and doves raised her until she was found by shepherds.
Semiramis married Onnes, a general in the Syrian army. Soon the mighty king Ninus of Nineveh called upon them to support his campaign to Bactria (Central Asia).
Ninus fell in love with Semiramis because of her beauty and military stratagems. Upon discovery of their affair, the husband Onnes committed suicide.
Not long after, Ninus also died, but from old age. This was however, not until after Semiramis had given birth to their son, Ninyas.
The sole ruler of Assyria and the great city of Babylon, Semiramis began an ambitious building programme. She built the mighty walls and gates, which some considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Semiramis also waged war against faraway places, such as Egypt, Ethiopia and India.
Upon her triumphant return, a eunuch and the sons of Onnes conspired with Ninyas to kill Semiramis. Their plot was unsuccessful as she discovered it beforehand, and the queen then disappeared by transforming herself into a dove. Her reign lasted 42 years.
This most complete surviving account of Semiramis’ legend comes from Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian flourishing in the time of Julius Caesar.
Diodorus based it on the Persian History by Ctesias of Cnidus, a fourth-century physician working at the court of Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358 BC) and notorious teller of tall tales.
Queen and general
Ctesias was not the only source of these stories. Diodorus tells a rival tale of Semiramis’ ascension. In this version, Semiramis was a beautiful courtesan who seduced King Ninus. He granted her every wish, and she requested that she should rule for five days. Her first act was to kill the king and claim the throne.
Diodorus recounts the exploits of Semiramis in Egypt and India as if she had walked in the footsteps of Alexander, the great Macedonian commander. For example, they visit the same oracle in Libya, capture the same areas in India and make a disastrous retreat from that place.
According to one story by Nearchus of Crete, Alexander tried to invade India through the desert (a catastrophic decision) because he wanted to outdo Semiramis.
It was common to compare Alexander and Semiramis as generals. In the time of Caesar Augustus, the Roman historian Pompeius Trogus referred to Alexander and Semiramis as the sole conquerors of India. In both works, Assyrian history comes first, which means that the Queen features at the dawn of history.
East, west, Babylon’s best?
Semiramis’ building programme in Babylon made the city impressive. An ancient author refers to the city as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Many sources also credit Semiramis with the foundation of Babylon.
In reality, Babylon was not part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under Sammu-ramat. Her empire prided itself on grand palaces and cities, such as Aššur and Nineveh, while expanding its territory ever further into the Near East.
But, under western eyes, Babylon could be the foundation of ‘Semiramis’, and she could be a warrior queen at the same level as Alexander. Her tale could also be spun as one of seduction and deception in the Greek imagination. Who was Semiramis of Assyria? She was a legend.
Christian Thrue Djurslev is a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark. His project investigates the history and legends of Semiramis, Nebuchadnezzar, and Cyrus the Great.