Semiramis (/səˈmɪrəmɪs, sɪ-, sɛ-/;[1] Syriac: ܫܲܡܝܼܪܵܡ Šammīrām, Greek: Σεμίραμις, Arabic: سميراميس Samīrāmīs, Armenian: Շամիրամ Šamiram) was the semi-legendary[2][3] Lydian-Babylonian[4][5] wife of Onnes and Ninus, who succeeded the latter to the throne of Assyria,[6] according to Movses Khorenatsi.[7] 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.

Semiramis (a legendary figure based on the life of Shammuramat) depicted as an armed Amazon in an eighteenth-century Italian illustration

Armenians and the Assyrians of Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey, and northwest Iran still use Shamiram as a given name for girls.[10]

The real and historical Shammuramat (the original Akkadian form of the name) was the Assyrian wife of Shamshi-Adad V (ruled 824 BC–811 BC). She was the ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire as its regent for five years before her son Adad-nirari III came of age and took the reins of power.[11] She ruled at a time of political uncertainty, which is one of the possible explanations for why Assyrians may have accepted the rule of a woman when it was not allowed by the cultural tradition. She conquered much of the Middle East and the Levant and stabilized and strengthened the empire after a destructive civil war. It has been speculated that being a woman who ruled successfully may have made the Assyrians regard her with particular reverence and that her achievements may have been retold over the generations until she was turned into that legendary figure.[12]

The name of Semiramis came to be applied to various monuments in Western Asia and Anatolia whose origins had been forgotten or unknown,[13] even the Behistun Inscription of Darius.[14][15] Herodotus ascribes to her the artificial banks that confined the Euphrates[16] and he knew her name because it was inscribed on a gate of Babylon.[17] Various places in Mesopotamia, Media, Persia, the Levant, Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Caucasus received names recalling Semiramis.

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 might have served as regent for her son, Adad-nirari III.[11] Thus, during that time Shammuramat could have been 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 from 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."[12]

Legend according to Diodorus SiculusEdit

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

According to Diodorus, a first century BC Greek historian, Semiramis was of noble parents, the daughter of the fish-goddess Derketo of Ascalon in Assyria and of a mortal. He related that Derketo abandoned her at birth and drowned herself and that doves fed the child until Simmas, the royal shepherd, found her. Semiramis married Onnes or Menones, a general under King Ninus, and she became an advisor to king. Her advice led him to great successes and, at the Siege of Bactra, she personally led a party of soldiers to seize a key defensive point, leading to the capture of the city. 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. Out of fear of the king, and out of doomed passion for his wife, Onnes "fell into a kind of frenzy and madness" and hanged himself. Ninus then married Semiramis.[12][18]

Diodorus related that after their marriage, Semiramis and Ninus had a son named Ninyas. After King Ninus conquered Asia, including the Bactrians, he was fatally wounded by an arrow and Semiramis disguised herself as her son so the army would follow her instructions, thinking they came from their new ruler. He wrote that her reign lasted for 42 years and that she conquered much of Asia and achieved many feats: she restored ancient Babylon and protected it with a high brick wall that completely surrounded the city; she built several palaces in Persia, including Ecbatana; she not only ruled Asia effectively but also added Libya and Aethiopia to the empire; and 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.[19]

Diodorus mistakenly attributed the Behistun Inscription to her, now known to have been produced by Darius the Great.[20][21][22] The writings of Diodorus about Semiramis are strongly influenced by the writings of Ctesias of Cnidus, but recent research suggests that his writings about Semiramis do not always follow those by Ctesias.[23]

Other ancient traditionsEdit

[...]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

Legends describing Semiramis have been recorded by approximately 80 ancient writers including Plutarch, Eusebius, Polyaenus, Valerius Maximus, Orosius, and Justinus.[24] She was associated with Ishtar and Astarte since the time before Diodorus.[12] The association of the fish and dove is found at Hierapolis Bambyce (Mabbog, now Manbij), the great temple that according to one legend, was founded by Semiramis,[25] where her statue was shown with a golden dove on her head.[26]

The name of Semiramis came to be applied to various monuments in Western Asia and Anatolia, the origins of which ancient writers sometimes asserted had been forgotten or unknown.[13] 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 in slightly changed forms, even some named during the Middle Ages. She is credited with founding the city of Van in Turkey in order to have a summer residence and that city may be found referred to as Shamiramagerd (city of Semiramis).[27]

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

Herodotus, an ancient Greek writer, geographer, and historian living from c. 484 to 425 BC, ascribes to Semiramis the artificial banks that confined the Euphrates[16] and knows her name as borne by a gate of Babylon.[17] Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian who lived in Asia Minor during 64 or 63 BC to 24 AD, credits her with building earthworks and other structures "throughout almost the whole continent".[28] Nearly every stupendous work of antiquity by the Euphrates or in Iran seems to have ultimately been ascribed to Semiramis, even the Behistun Inscription of Darius.[14][15]

Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (born c. 330, died c. 391 – 400), who wrote the penultimate major historical account surviving from antiquity, 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".[29]

Armenian tradition portrays Semiramis negatively, possibly because of a victorious military campaign she waged against them.[12] One of the most popular legends in Armenian tradition involves Semiramis and an Armenian king, Ara the Handsome. According to that 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. This legend continues that to avoid continuous warfare with the Armenians, Semiramis, who they alleged was a sorceress, took his body and prayed to deities 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 deities had brought Ara back to life, reportedly, convincing the Armenians not to continue the war.[30][27]

In one persistent tradition in this vein, the prayers of Semiramis are successful and Ara returns to life.[30][31] During the nineteenth century, it was reported that a village called Lezk, near Van in Turkey, traditionally held that it was the location of the resurrection of Ara.[30]

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

Although negative portrayals did exist, generally, Semiramis was viewed positively before the rise of Christianity.[12][32] During the Middle Ages, she became 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.[33][34] This was likely popularized in the fifth century by Orosius in his universal history, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, which has been described as an "anti-pagan polemic".[33] In the Divine Comedy, Dante places 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 exemplifying "evil love" (the other two being Byblis and Myrrha). She is included in De Mulieribus Claris, a collection of biographies of historical and mythological women by the Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio that was composed in 1361–1362. It is notable as the first collection devoted exclusively to biographies of women in Western literature.[35] However, Semiramis always was admired for her martial and political achievements.

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 fourteenth century, she was commonly found on the Nine Worthies list for women.[33][34]

Literary referencesEdit

Semiramis appears in many plays, such as Voltaire's tragedy Sémiramis and Pedro Calderón de la Barca's drama La hija del aire, and in multiple separate operas by dozens of composers[36] such as Antonio Vivaldi, Christoph Willibald Gluck Domenico Cimarosa, Josef Mysliveček, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Gioachino Rossini. Arthur Honegger composed music for Paul Valéry's eponymous 'ballet-pantomime' in 1934 that was revived in 1992 after many years of neglect. In Eugène Ionesco's play The Chairs, the Old Woman character is referred to as Semiramis. It has been suggested that the poem Semiramis, possibly written in 1017 by Warner of Rouen at the court of Emma of Normandy's brother, Richard, Duke of Normandy, and dedicated to her brother, Archbishop Robert, is a contemporary satire ridiculing Emma's relation with her husband King Cnut.

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

She was mentioned by William Shakespeare in Act 2 Scene 1 of Titus Andronicus and Scene 2 of the Induction in The Taming of the Shrew. Portrayal of Semiramis has been used as a metaphor for female rulership. Sometimes she is referenced during political disputes regarding rule by women, both as an unfavorable comparison (for example, against Elizabeth I of England) and as an example of a woman who governed well.[32] Powerful female monarchs Margaret I of Denmark and Catherine the Great were given the designation Semiramis of the North.[37][38]

In the twentieth century, Semiramis has 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).[39]

The Two BabylonsEdit

Despite a lack of supporting evidence in the Bible, the book The Two Babylons (1853), by the Christian minister Alexander Hislop, was particularly influential in characterizing her as the Whore of Babylon.[12] Hislop claimed that Semiramis invented polytheism and, with it, goddess worship.[40] 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.[41] Grabbe and others have rejected the allegations in this book as based on a flawed understanding of the texts,[41] but variations of them are accepted among some groups of evangelical Protestants.[41]

Hislop asserted 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.[41] These claims are still circulated among some groups of evangelical Protestants,[41] in the form of Jack Chick tracts,[42] comic books, and related media.

Critics have dismissed the speculations by Hislop as based on misunderstandings.[41][43]

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.[41] Grabbe criticized Hislop for portraying Semiramis as Nimrod's consort, despite that she has not been found in a single text associated with him,[41] and for portraying her as the "mother of harlots", even though this is not how she is depicted in any of the historical texts where she is mentioned.[41]

Ralph Woodrow also has been critical of this interpretation and has stated that Alexander Hislop "picked, chose and mixed" portions of various myths from different cultures.[44]

In modern cultureEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, ISBN 9781405881180
  2. ^ Robin Lane Fox (4 September 2008). Travelling Heroes: Greeks and their myths in the epic age of Homer. Penguin UK. ISBN 978-0-14-188986-3. OCLC 1004570108. Semiramis was an invention of the Greek legend only
  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. Vol. 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. ^ Moses (of Khoren) (2006). History of the Armenians. Caravan Books. ISBN 978-0-88206-111-5. OCLC 1011412893.
  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. ^ "Assyrian Names and Meanings for Boys and Girls". Retrieved 2020-08-24.
  11. ^ a b "Sammu-ramat (queen of Assyria)". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g "Sammu-Ramat and Semiramis: The Inspiration and the Myth". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016-04-13.
  13. ^ a b See Strabo xvi. I. 2
  14. ^ a b Diodorus Siculus ii. 3
  15. ^ a b Reade, Julian (2000). "Alexander the Great and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon". Iraq. 62: 195–217. doi:10.2307/4200490. ISSN 0021-0889. JSTOR 4200490. S2CID 194130782.
  16. ^ a b i. 184
  17. ^ a b iii. 155
  18. ^ The Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, Vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library, 1933. Retrieved on 2015-03-08 from*.html.
  19. ^ Diod. 2.16.
  20. ^ Diodorus Bibliotheke 2.13.2
  21. ^ Visscher, Marijn (2020). Beyond Alexandria : literature and empire in the Seleucid world. New York. p. 73. ISBN 9780190059088.
  22. ^ 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, doi:10.2307/j.ctvc2rmq3.4, ISBN 978-3-447-19363-4, retrieved 2021-04-06
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Lucian, De dea Syria, 14
  26. ^ Lucian, De dea Syria, 33, 39
  27. ^ a b Louis A. Boettiger (1918). "2". Studies in the Social Sciences: Armenian Legends and Festivals. Vol. 14. The University of Minnesota. pp. 10–11.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ Lib. XIV.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ M. Chahin (2001). The Kingdom of Armenia: A History. Psychology Press. pp. 74–5. ISBN 978-0-7007-1452-0.
  32. ^ 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.
  33. ^ a b c Elizabeth Archibald (24 May 2001). Incest and the Medieval Imagination. OUP Oxford. pp. 91–93. ISBN 978-0-19-154085-1.
  34. ^ 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.
  35. ^ Boccaccio, Giovanni (2003). Famous Women. I Tatti Renaissance Library. Vol. 1. Translated by Virginia Brown. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. xi. ISBN 0-674-01130-9.
  36. ^ Frassoni, Edilio (1980). "Imperatrice di molte favelle". In Ufficio Stampa dell'E.A. (ed.). L'Opera di Genova. Stagione Lirica 1980–81. Teatro Margherita (in Italian). E.A. Teatro Comunale dell'Opera di Genova. p. 101: "Il lungo cammino di Semiramide nel melodramma". Professor Frassoni lists 77 settings of the story of Semiramis, from Antonio Cesti’s La Semirami (Vienna, 1662), to Costantino Dall’Argine’s ballet La Semiramide del Nord (Milan, La Scala, 1869). To be precise, the list also contains 5 pasticcios. 3 ballets and 6 works by unknown authors, but does not include subsequent revisions and rewrites by the same composer. It does not claim to be exhaustive: for instance, just referring to the 20th century, Ottorino Respighi’s tragic poem Semirâma (Bologna, 1910) and Arthur Honegger’s ballet-melodrama Sémiramis mentioned below, are not included.
  37. ^ Martin E Malia Russia under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum. Harvard University Press, Jun 30, 2009 pg. 47
  38. ^ William Russell and Charles Coote The History of Modern Europe. A. Small, 1822 pg.379
  39. ^ Tracking the Wild Allusions in Silverlock: The Way of Choice. Retrieved 2011-12-16.
  40. ^ Hislop, Alexander. "The Two Babylons". Archived from the original on 2014-03-28. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
  41. ^ 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.
  42. ^ "Man in Black ©2003 by Jack T. Chick LLC". Retrieved 2014-08-11.
  43. ^ McIlhenny, Albert (2012). This Is the Sun?: Zeitgeist and Religion (Volume I: Comparative Religion). p. 7. ISBN 978-1-105-33967-7.
  44. ^ Ralph Woodrow "THE TWO BABYLONS: A Case Study in Poor Methodology", in Christian Research Journal volume 22, number 2 (2000) of the (Article DC187)
  45. ^ 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

  •   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Semīramis". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 617.
  • 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.