Semiramis (/səˈmɪrəmɪs, sɪ-, sɛ-/;[1] Syriac: ܫܲܡܝܼܪܵܡŠammīrām, Greek: Σεμίραμις, Arabic: سميراميسSemíramis, Armenian: Շամիրամ Šamiram) was the mythological[2][3] Lydian-Babylonian[4][5] wife of Onnes and Ninus, succeeding the latter to the throne of Assyria,[6] as in the fables[7] of Movses Khorenatsi.

Semiramis depicted as an armed Amazon in an 18th-century Italian illustration

The legends narrated by Diodorus Siculus, who drew primarily from the works of Ctesias of Cnidus,[8][9] describe her and her relationships to Onnes and King Ninus, a mythical king of Assyria not attested in the far older and more comprehensive Assyrian King List.[10] Armenians and the Assyrians of Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey, and northwest Iran still use the Shamiram as a given name for girls.[11]

The real and historical Shammuramat (the original Akkadian and Aramaic form of the name) was the Assyrian wife of Shamshi-Adad V (ruled 824 BC–811 BC), ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and its regent for five years until her son Adad-nirari III came of age and took the reins of power.[12] She ruled at a time of political uncertainty, which is one of the possible explanations for why Assyrians may have accepted her rule (as normally a woman as ruler would have been unthinkable). It has been speculated that ruling successfully as a woman may have made the Assyrians regard her with particular reverence, and that the achievements of her reign (including stabilizing and strengthening the empire after a destructive civil war) were retold over the generations until she was turned into a mythical figure.[13]

The name of Semiramis came to be applied to various monuments in Western Asia and Anatolia, the origin of which was forgotten or unknown.[14] Various places in Upper Mesopotamia and throughout Mesopotamia as a whole, Media, Persia, the Levant, Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Caucasus bore the name of Semiramis, but slightly changed, even in the Middle Ages, and an old name of the Armenian city of Van was Shamiramagerd (in Armenian it means created by Semiramis). Nearly every stupendous work of antiquity by the Euphrates or in Iran seems to have ultimately been ascribed to her, even the Behistun Inscription of Darius.[15][16] Herodotus ascribes to her the artificial banks that confined the Euphrates[17] and knows her name as borne by a gate of Babylon.[18] She conquered much of Middle East and the Levant.

Historical figureEdit

Approximate area controlled by Assyria in 824 BC (darker green).

While the achievements of Semiramis are clearly in the realm of mythical Persian, Armenian and Greek historiography, the historical Shammuramat certainly existed. After her husband's death, she served as regent from 811 to 806 BC for her son, Adad-nirari III.[12] Shammuramat would have thus been briefly in control of the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC), which stretched from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to the Arabian Peninsula in the south, and western Iran in the east to Cyprus in the west. In the city of Aššur on the Tigris, she had an obelisk built and inscribed that read, "Stele of Shammuramat, queen of Shamshi-Adad, King of the Universe, King of Assyria, Mother of Adad Nirari, King of the Universe, King of Assyria, Daughter-in-Law of Shalmaneser, King of the Four Regions of the World."[13] Georges Roux speculated that the later Greek and Iranian-flavoured myths surrounding Semiramis stem from successful campaigns she waged against these peoples and the novelty of a woman ruling such an empire.[19]

Legend according to Diodorus SiculusEdit

The Shepherd finds the Babe Semiramis by Ernest Wallcousins (1915).

According to Diodorus, Semiramis was of noble parents, the daughter of the fish-goddess Derketo of Ascalon in Assyria and of a mortal. Derketo abandoned her at birth and drowned herself. Doves fed the child until Simmas, the royal shepherd, found her. Semiramis married Onnes or Menones, one of King Ninus' generals. Her advice led him to great successes, and at the Siege of Bactra, she personally led a party of soldiers to seize a key point in the defense, leading to the city's surrender. Ninus was so struck that he fell in love with her and tried to compel Onnes to give her to him as a wife, first offering his own daughter Sonanê in return and eventually threatening to put out his eyes as punishment. Onnes, out of fear of the king, and out of doomed passion for his wife, "fell into a kind of frenzy and madness" and hanged himself. Ninus then married her.[13][20]

Semiramis and Ninus had a son named Ninyas. After King Ninus conquered Asia, including the Bactrians, he was fatally wounded by an arrow. Semiramis then masqueraded as her son and tricked her late husband's army into following her instructions because they thought these came from their new ruler. After Ninus' death she reigned as queen regnant for 42 years, conquering much of Asia. Semiramis restored ancient Babylon and protected it with a high brick wall that completely surrounded the city. She also built several palaces in Persia, including Ecbatana. Diodorus also attributes the Behistun Inscription to her, now known to have been produced by Darius the Great.[21][22][23] She not only ruled Asia effectively but also added Libya and Aethiopia to the empire. She then went to war with king Stabrobates (Satyavrata) of India, having her artisans build an army of false elephants by putting manipulated skins of dark-skinned buffaloes over her camels to deceive the Indians into thinking she had acquired real elephants. This ploy succeeded initially, but then she was wounded in the counterattack and her army mainly annihilated, forcing the surviving remnants to re-ford the Indus and retreat to the west.[24]

Diodorus' image of Semiramis is strongly influenced by the writings of Ctesias of Cnidus, but does not offer a one-to-one re-narration of Ctesias' remarks about Semiramis. Instead, as recent research has demonstrated, Diodorus follows his own agenda.[25]

In ancient traditionsEdit

Semiramis staring at the corpse of Ara the Beautiful, 1899, by Vardges Sureniants

Legends describing Semiramis have been recorded by about 80 ancient writers including Plutarch, Eusebius, Polyaenus, Valerius Maximus, Orosius and Justinus.[26] She was associated with Ishtar and Astarte since the time before Diodorus.[13] The association of the fish and dove is found at Hierapolis Bambyce (Mabbog, now Manbij), the great temple which, according to one legend, was founded by Semiramis,[27] where her statue was shown with a golden dove on her head.[28]

The name of Semiramis came to be applied to various monuments in Western Asia and Anatolia, the origin of which was forgotten or unknown.[14] Various places in Assyria and throughout Mesopotamia as a whole, Media, Persia, the Levant, Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Caucasus bore the name of Semiramis, but slightly changed, even in the Middle Ages. She is credited with founding the city of Van in order to have a summer residence, and the city may also be referred to as Shamiramagerd (city of Semiramis).[29] Strabo credits her with building earthworks and other structures "throughout almost the whole continent."[30] Nearly every stupendous work of antiquity by the Euphrates or in Iran seems to have ultimately been ascribed to her, even the Behistun Inscription of Darius.[15][16] Herodotus ascribes to her the artificial banks that confined the Euphrates[17] and knows her name as borne by a gate of Babylon.[18]

Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus credits her as the first person to castrate a male youth into eunuch-hood: "Semiramis, that ancient queen who was the first person to castrate male youths of tender age"[31]

Armenian tradition portrays Semiramis negatively, possibly because of a victorious military campaign she prosecuted against them.[13] One of the most popular legends in Armenian tradition involves Semiramis and an Armenian king, Ara the Handsome. According to the legend, Semiramis had fallen in love with the handsome Armenian king Ara and asked him to marry her. When he refused, in her passion she gathered the armies of Assyria and marched against Armenia. During the battle Semiramis was victorious, but Ara was slain despite her orders to capture him alive. To avoid continuous warfare with the Armenians, Semiramis, reputed to be a sorceress, took his body and prayed to the gods to raise Ara from the dead. When the Armenians advanced to avenge their leader, she disguised one of her lovers as Ara and spread the rumor that the gods had brought Ara back to life, convincing the Armenians not to continue the war.[32][29] In one persistent tradition, Semiramis' prayers are successful and Ara returns to life.[32][33] During the 19th century, it was also reported that a village called Lezk, near Van, traditionally held that it was Ara's place of resurrection.[32]

In later traditionsEdit

She is Semiramis, of whom we read
That she succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse;
She held the land which now the Sultan rules.”

 —Dante's Divine Comedy, Canto V, lines 60 to 62

Semiramis was generally viewed positively before the rise of Christianity,[13] although negative portrayals did exist.[34] During the Middle Ages, she was associated with promiscuity and lustfulness. One story claimed that she had an incestuous relationship with her son, justifying it by passing a law to legitimize parent-child marriages, and inventing the chastity belt to deter any romantic rivals before he eventually killed her.[35][36] This was likely popularized in the 5th century by Orosius' Universal History (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans), which has been described as an "anti-pagan polemic."[35] In the Divine Comedy, Dante sees Semiramis among the souls of the lustful in the Second Circle of Hell. She appears in Petrarch's Triumph Of Love, canto III, verse 76. She is one of three women (the other two being Byblis and Myrrha) exemplifying "evil love". She is remembered in De Mulieribus Claris, a collection of biographies of historical and mythological women by the Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio, composed in 1361–62. It is notable as the first collection devoted exclusively to biographies of women in Western literature.[37] However, she was also admired for her martial and political achievements, and it has been suggested that her reputation partly recovered in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. She was included in Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies (finished by 1405), and starting in the 14th century she was commonly found on female lists of the Nine Worthies.[35][36]

[...]Here are other three
   Whose love was evil: and Semiramis,
Byblis and Myrrha are oppressed with shame
For their unlawful and distorted love.”

 —Petrarch's Triumphs, Canto III, lines 75 to 78

Semiramis appears in many plays and operas, such as Voltaire's tragedy Semiramis, and in multiple separate operas with the title Semiramide by Domenico Cimarosa, Marcos Portugal, Josef Mysliveček, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Gioachino Rossini. Arthur Honegger composed music for Paul Valéry's eponymous 'ballet-pantomime' in 1934 that was only revived in 1992 after many years of neglect. In Eugène Ionesco's play The Chairs, the Old Woman is referred to as Semiramis. She was mentioned by Chaucer in his compilation The Craft of Lovers, as "Queene of Babilon,"[38] as well as by Shakespeare in Act 2 Scene 1 of Titus Andronicus and Scene 2 of the Introduction in The Taming of the Shrew. Semiramis' portrayal has been used as a metaphor for female rulership and sometimes reflected political disputes in relation to female rulers, both as an unfavorable comparison (for example, against Elizabeth I of England) and as an example of a female ruler who governed well.[34] Powerful female monarchs Margaret I of Denmark and Catherine the Great were given the designation Semiramis of the North.[39][40]

In the 20th century, she has also appeared in several sword and sandal films, including the 1954 film Queen of Babylon in which she was played by Rhonda Fleming, and the 1963 film I am Semiramis in which she was played by Yvonne Furneaux. In John Myers Myers's novel Silverlock, Semiramis appears as a lustful, commanding queen, who stops her procession to try to seduce young Lucius (who has been transformed into a donkey).[41]

The Two BabylonsEdit

Semiramis hearing of the insurrection at Babylon by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1624 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The book The Two Babylons (1853), by the Christian minister Alexander Hislop, was particularly influential in characterizing of Semiramis as associated with the Whore of Babylon despite a lack of supporting evidence in the Bible.[13] Hislop claimed that Semiramis invented polytheism and, with it, goddess worship.[42] He also claimed that the head of the Catholic Church inherited and continued to propagate a millennia-old secret conspiracy founded by Semiramis and the Biblical king Nimrod to propagate the pagan religion of ancient Babylon.[43] Grabbe and others have rejected the book's arguments as based on a flawed understanding of the texts,[43][44] but variations of them are accepted among some groups of evangelical Protestants.[43][44]

Hislop believed that Semiramis was a queen consort and the mother of Nimrod, builder of the Bible's Tower of Babel. He said that Semiramis and Nimrod's incestuous male offspring was the Akkadian deity Tammuz, and that all divine pairings in religions were retellings of this story.[43] These claims are still circulated among some groups of evangelical Protestants,[43][44] in the form of Jack Chick tracts,[45] comic books, and related media.

Critics dismissed Hislop's speculations as based on misunderstandings.[43][44] Lester L. Grabbe has claimed Hislop's argument, particularly his association of Ninus with Nimrod, is based on a misunderstanding of historical Babylon and its religion.[43] Grabbe criticized Hislop for portraying Semiramis as Nimrod's consort, despite that she has not been found in a single text associated with him,[43] and for portraying her as the "mother of harlots", even though this is not how she is depicted in any of the texts where she is mentioned.[43] Ralph Woodrow has stated that Alexander Hislop "picked, chose and mixed" portions of various myths from different cultures.[46]

In modern cultureEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, ISBN 9781405881180
  2. ^ "Semiramis was an invention of the Greek legend only" observes Robin Lane Fox (Fox, Travelling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer, 2008:176)
  3. ^ Kühne, Hartmut (2008). "Sexgender, Power And Sammuramat: A View From The Syrian Steppe". Fundstellen: gesammelte Schriften zur Ärchäologie und Geschichte Altvorderasiens; ad honorem Hartmut Kühne. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 352. ISBN 978-3-447-05770-7.
  4. ^ Creighton M.A. L.L.D., Rev. Mandell (1888). The Historical Review. 3. London & New York: Longmans, Green, And Co. p. 112.
  5. ^ Yehoshua, Avram (June 7, 2011). The Lifting of the Veil: Acts 15:20-21. Trafford Publishing. p. 58. ISBN 978-1426972034.
  6. ^ Bernbeck 2008, p. 353.
  7. ^ "Fables are always called araspel, from which the verb araspelabanel ( “ to tell fables ” ) is derived." Moses, Of Khoren, and Robert W Thomson. History of the Armenians. Ann Arbor, Caravan Books, 2006, p. 10.
  8. ^ Diodorus Siculus: The Library of History, Book II, Chapters 1-22
  9. ^ Muntz, Charles Edward (2017). Diodorus Siculus and the world of the late Roman republic. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 23. ISBN 9780190498726.
  10. ^ "The Assyrian Kings List". Retrieved 2020-08-24.
  11. ^ "Assyrian Names and Meanings for Boys and Girls". Retrieved 2020-08-24.
  12. ^ a b "Sammu-ramat (queen of Assyria)". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g "Sammu-Ramat and Semiramis: The Inspiration and the Myth". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016-04-13.
  14. ^ a b See Strabo xvi. I. 2
  15. ^ a b Diodorus Siculus ii. 3
  16. ^ a b Reade, Julian (2000). "Alexander the Great and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon". Iraq. 62: 195. doi:10.2307/4200490. ISSN 0021-0889.
  17. ^ a b i. 184
  18. ^ a b iii. 155
  19. ^ Georges Roux - Ancient Iraq
  20. ^ The Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, Vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library, 1933. Retrieved on 2015-03-08 from*.html.
  21. ^ Diodorus Bibliotheke 2.13.2
  22. ^ Visscher, Marijn (2020). Beyond Alexandria : literature and empire in the Seleucid world. New York. p. 73. ISBN 9780190059088.
  23. ^ Bichler, Reinhold; Rollinger, Robert (2018-01-02), "Universale Weltherrschaft und die Monumente an ihren Grenzen.", Die Sicht auf die Welt zwischen Ost und West (750 v. Chr. - 550 n. Chr.). Looking at the World from the East and the West (750 BCE - 550 CE), Harrassowitz, O, pp. 1–30, ISBN 978-3-447-19363-4, retrieved 2021-04-06
  24. ^ Diod. 2.16.
  25. ^ Sabine Comploi: Die Darstellung der Semiramis bei Diodorus Siculus. In: Robert Rollinger, Christoph Ulf (eds.): Geschlechterrollen und Frauenbild in der Perspektive antiker Autoren. Studien-Verlag, Innsbruck et al. 2000, ISBN 3-7065-1409-5, pp. 223–244; Kerstin Droß-Krüpe: Semiramis, de qua innumerabilia narrantur. Rezeption und Verargumentierung der Königin von Babylon von der Antike bis in die opera seria des Barock, Wiesbaden 2021, pp. 26–40.
  26. ^ for an overview of the sources cf. DROSS-KRÜPE, K. 2020. Semiramis, de qua innumerabilia narrantur. Rezeption und Verargumentierung der Königin von Babylon von der Antike bis in die opera seria des Barock Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 588-596.
  27. ^ Lucian, De dea Syria, 14
  28. ^ Lucian, De dea Syria, 33, 39
  29. ^ a b Louis A. Boettiger (1918). "2". Studies in the Social Sciences: Armenian Legends and Festivals. 14. The University of Minnesota. pp. 10–11.
  30. ^ Smith, W. Robertson (1887). "CTESIAS AMD THE SEMIRAMIS LEGEND". The English Historical Review. II (VI): 303–317. doi:10.1093/ehr/II.VI.303. ISSN 0013-8266.
  31. ^ Lib. XIV.
  32. ^ a b c Agop Jack Hacikyan (2000). The Heritage of Armenian Literature: From the oral tradition to the Golden Age. Wayne State University Press. pp. 37–8. ISBN 0-8143-2815-6.
  33. ^ M. Chahin (2001). The Kingdom of Armenia: A History. Psychology Press. pp. 74–5. ISBN 978-0-7007-1452-0.
  34. ^ a b Julia M. Asher-Greve (2006). "From 'Semiramis of Babylon' to 'Semiramis of Hammersmith'". In Steven Winford Holloway (ed.). Orientalism, Assyriology and the Bible. Sheffield Phoenix Press. ISBN 978-1-905048-37-3.
  35. ^ a b c Elizabeth Archibald (24 May 2001). Incest and the Medieval Imagination. OUP Oxford. pp. 91–93. ISBN 978-0-19-154085-1.
  36. ^ a b Glenda McLeod (1991). Virtue and Venom: Catalogs of Women from Antiquity to the Renaissance. University of Michigan Press. p. 66. ISBN 0-472-10206-0.
  37. ^ Boccaccio, Giovanni (2003). Famous Women. I Tatti Renaissance Library. 1. Translated by Virginia Brown. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. xi. ISBN 0-674-01130-9.
  38. ^ Chaucer (1793). A Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain. 1. Robert Anderson (editor). John and Arthur Arch. p. 584.
  39. ^ Martin E Malia Russia under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum. Harvard University Press, Jun 30, 2009 pg. 47
  40. ^ William Russell and Charles Coote The History of Modern Europe. A. Small, 1822 pg.379
  41. ^ Tracking the Wild Allusions in Silverlock: The Way of Choice. Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  42. ^ Hislop, Alexander. "The Two Babylons". Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  43. ^ a b c d e f g h i Grabbe, Lester L. (1997). Mein, Andrew; Camp, Claudia V. (eds.). Can a 'History of Israel' Be Written?. London, England: Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 27–28. ISBN 978-0567043207.
  44. ^ a b c d McIlhenny, Albert (2012). This Is the Sun?: Zeitgeist and Religion (Volume I: Comparative Religion). p. 7. ISBN 978-1-105-33967-7.
  45. ^ "Man in Black ©2003 by Jack T. Chick LLC". Retrieved 2014-08-11.
  46. ^ Ralph Woodrow "THE TWO BABYLONS: A Case Study in Poor Methodology", in Christian Research Journal volume 22, number 2 (2000) of the (Article DC187)
  47. ^ W. H. Thompson (1964) [1953]. Sixty Minutes with Winston Churchill. p. 9.


Primary sourcesEdit

  • Paulinus Minorita, Compendium
  • Eusebius, Chronicon 20.13-17, 19-26 ( Schoene pp.53-63 )
  • Orosius, Historiae adversus paganos i.4, ii.2.5, 6.7
  • Justinus, Epitome Historiarum philippicarum Pompei Trogi i.2
  • Valerius Maximus, Factorum et dictorum memorabilium libri ix.3, ext 4

Secondary sourcesEdit

BERINGER, A. 2016. The Sight of Semiramis: Medieval and Early Modern Narratives of the Babylonian Queen. Tempe: Arizona State University Press.

DROSS-KRÜPE, K. 2020. Semiramis, de qua innumerabilia narrantur. Rezeption und Verargumentierung der Königin von Babylon von der Antike bis in die opera seria des Barock Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

External linksEdit