Semiramis (Sammu-Ramat): Woman Ruler of Assyria
There weren’t that many female rulers in ancient Mesopotamia. However, the few that did rule the empire certainly made an impact on world history. One such powerful woman was Sammu-Ramat, whose reign in the 9th century BC over most of southwest Asia to modern-day Iran led her to command the respect of her subjects and the world.
For hundreds of years after her reign, many Greek historians and writers researched extensively the Assyrian queen and her accomplishments. Her name was Hellenized to Semiramis and her story transitioned from one that was purely factual into myth. In some accounts, she was known to be a beautiful woman in a tragic love story whereas, in other classical accounts, she was known for her achievements, including commanding the Assyrian army and building the Babylonian walls and monuments during her reign.
Semiramis continued to inspire many in the centuries after her reign. Italian poet Dante Alighieri mentioned her in his famous poem “Divine Comedy”, where she suffered for her sensual sins. She was also the source of inspiration for the renowned French writer Voltaire, whose tragedy about her was later made into an opera entitled “Semiramide.”
So, who was Semiramis? And why did she have so much power to reign over the Assyrian Empire at a time when women rulers were rare? World History Edu explores the life, reign and major achievements of Queen Semiramis, also known as Sammu-Ramat.
Birth & Early Life
According to the 1st-century BC historian Diodorus Siculus, Semiramis was born to noble parents. Her mother was the Mesopotamian fish goddess Derketo of Ascalon and her father was a mortal. Following her birth, Derketo abandoned her newborn daughter and drowned herself. Semiramis was reportedly fed and taken care of by doves until she was found by Simmas, who was a royal shepherd.
Semiramis grew up to become an extremely beautiful woman. She met Onnes, who was a general in the Syrian army that had come to inspect the royal flock. He sought Simmas’ permission to marry his adoptive daughter. Shortly after their marriage, the couple was called upon to assist King Ninus of Nineveh in the Siege of Bactra. Semiramis became an advisor to King Ninus, and with her advice, the king went on to have a very successful reign. At the Siege of Bactra, Semiramis led soldiers in a successful plot to capture the city.
King Ninus was reportedly struck by her beauty and war strategy. Head over heals, the king attempted to force his general Onnes to give Semiramis to him as his wife. He initially tried to give his daughter, Sonanê to Onnes for Semiramis. When that didn’t work, he threatened to take the army general’s eyes out. Onnes, paralyzed by fear, went mad and committed suicide by hanging himself. Ninus was then free to take Semiramis as his wife.
Reign and Accomplishments of Assyrian Queen Semiramis
After her marriage to King Ninus, they welcomed a son called Ninyas. After her new husband had successfully conquered most of Asia, he was killed by arrow and Semiramis disguised herself as Ninyas so the army would follow her instructions.
According to the historian Diodorus, Semiramis ruled for 42 years, expanding the Assyrian Empire into Asia and into Libya and ancient Ethiopia. She was responsible for the restoration of ancient Babylon and protected the city with a high brick wall that surrounded the city. Some ancient authors and historians even credit the queen, although with very little evidence, with building the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
In some accounts, she is said to have constructed a number of marvelous temples and religious sites in honor of Mesopotamian deities, including Marduk, one of the chief gods of the time.
During the development of Babylon, the Assyrian queen also launched military campaigns in Persia and Libya to suppress uprisings that were springing up. Semiramis also famously went to war with King Stabrobates of India. During that war, she had her artisans craft a fake army of elephants by using the skins of buffaloes to cover her camels to deceive the Indians into believing she had real elephants. Her plot succeeded at first, but Semiramis was wounded following a counterattack and with most of her army crushed, she was forced to retreat back home.
The Assyrian queen also embarked on a campaign to Africa, stopping briefly in Egypt to seek the counsel of the oracle of Amun, the ancient Egyptian god of the sun. In her consultation, Amun, who is known as “Revealed One” or the “Exposed One”, told Semiramis that her son, Ninyas, would partake in a conspiracy plot against her, resulting in her death. The prophecy came to pass after Semiramis’ defeat in India. Though she was aware, she decided against fighting her son. Instead, she conceded power to him.
However, there are varying accounts of how her reign ended. According to the Roman author Gauis Hyginus, the queen killed herself by throwing herself into the fire. Another Roman historian, Justin believed that Ninyas’ plot to kill his mother was successful.
Influence Over Later Traditions
The story of Semiramis was believed to have been recorded by over 75 writers of ancient times, including Eusebius, Valerius Maximus, and Orosius. She was also linked to the Mesopotamian deities such as Ishtar and Astarte. The former is the goddess of love, war, and fertility.
Numerous Monuments in Her Name
Her name, Semiramis was linked to various monuments scattered across Western Asia. Many places in Assyria, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Caucasus had different variations of Semiramis. It is believed that Semiramis founded the city of Van, Turkey, which served as her abode during the summer months. The city was originally called Shamiramagerd, which was loosely translated as “city of Semiramis.”
First Person to Castrate a Male
Semiramis was considered as being the first person to castrate a male young adult in eunuch-hood.
Legacy in Armenia
The legend of Semiramis in Armenia is often portrayed negatively, partly due to the war that she waged against the nation. According to popular Armenia legends, Semiramis became enamored with the Armenian king, Ara the Handsome. When he refused her marriage proposal, she gathered the Assyrian army and marched against Armenia in a passion-filled rage. She emerged victorious in her battle, but despite her orders to only capture Ara, he was killed.
According to one legend, in a bid not to further infuriate the Armenians, who were already calling her a sorceress, Semiramis prayed to the gods to bring Ara back from the dead. When the Armenians embarked on a revenge mission, she disguised one of her lovers as Ara and convinced them to discontinue the war.
Another legend says that Semiramis’ prayers were successful and the king was brought back from the dead.
The figure for Promiscuity & Lustfulness
During the Middle Ages, Semiramis was often linked to sexuality, lustfulness, and promiscuity. She was reportedly in an incestuous relationship with her son, Ninyas and justified this act by legitimizing parent-child marriages. She was reported to have invented the chastity belt to prevent him from having any other romantic interests.
In Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, Semiramis was part of the lustful souls living in hell and punished for her promiscuous ways. She was also portrayed as one of the women that personified “evil love” in Francesco Petrarch’s “Triumph of Love.”
Her reputation was semi-restored in later eras, such as the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. She appeared in “The Book of the City of Ladies”, written by Christine de Pizan. In the 14th century, she also appeared on the “Nine Worthies.”
Semiramis in Modern Popular Culture
The Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel located in Cairo, Egypt was named after her. It served as the location for the Cairo Conference of 1921, where British and Middle Eastern officials discussed issues in the Middle East. The conference was presided over by then-British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
The Assyrian queen also appeared in the Japanese anime series “Fate/Apocrypha.” She also appeared in the video game under the same franchise, “Fate/Grand Order.”
The Italian rock band, Semiramis got its name after the famous queen of ancient Mesopotamia.
Read More: Most Famous Ancient Mesopotamian Deities
Did you know?
- Her name Sammu-ramat is said to mean “high heaven”.
- In some accounts, it’s said that her husband King Shamshi-Adad V was a descendant of the very powerful Mesopotamian ruler Ashurnasirpal II.