Sammuramat (fl. 8th c. BCE)
Sammuramat (fl. 8th c. bce)
Queen of Assyria, either the wife or mother of King Adadnirari III (r. 811–783 bce), who appears from the legends that have grown up around her to have been one of the most remarkable women of the preclassical world. Name variations: (Assyrian) Sammuramat; (Greek) Semiramis or Sémiramis, also Semiramide; (Armenian) Shamiram. Pronunciation: sam-mu-RA-mat; semi-RAM-is; Sem-EE-rham-i-day; shah-mi-RAM. Flourished around the 8th century bce; either the wife or mother of King Adadnirari III (r. 811–783 bce).
Queen Sammuramat's name has been preserved in an inscription on the back of a statue of the Babylonian god Nabu which was set up in the great temple at Calah by the Assyrian monarch Adadnirari III (r. 811–783 bce). The inscription reads: "For the life of Adadnirari, king of Assyria, its lord, and for the life of Sammuramat, the lady of the palace and its mistress." And this is all that is known for certain of Sammuramat.
From the description of her as the mistress of the palace, it is clear that she was queen, but whether she came to the throne as the wife of Adadnirari or as his mother has been debated. As his mother, she would have been the widow of Shamshiadad, serving as regent during Adadnirari's minority. Regardless, it seems to be beyond question that she was the historical figure behind the legends of an Assyrian queen known to the Greeks and Romans as Semiramis and to the Armenians as Shamiram. While only generalities may be inferred about Sammuramat from stories of the legendary Semiramis, the latter served as an important player on the pages of ancient accounts which ascribed to her no end of extraordinary accomplishments. The Greek historian of the 2nd century bce Diodorus of Sicily calls Semiramis "the most renowned woman of whom we have any record."
Our earliest firm date in ancient history is June 15, 763 bce. On that day, the Assyrian text called the Eponymous Chronicle records a total eclipse of the sun from which all the reigns cited in the Chronicle can be precisely dated, spanning the years 910–648 bce. The events described in the Chronicle can then be expanded by drawing upon the more ample information provided by the Assyrian Annals. From what we can tell from these records, which for the reign of Shamshiadad are rather fragmentary, he was a most warlike ruler who made many campaigns and military expeditions to the west (against the Hittites and Israelis), the northeast (against the Medes, where he became the first Assyrian king to carry his arms to the Caspian Sea), and the south (against the Babylonians). At the time of his son Adadnirari's accession to the throne in 811 bce, Assyria was the largest state the world had ever known.
Under Adadnirari's vigorous and aggressive rule, Assyria grew even larger and was, moreover, the world's first true empire. Warlike, ferocious and bloodthirsty as they are known to have been, the Assyrians were also the first to perfect the technique of permanent occupation of a conquered country. With their panoply of provinces, governors, and garrison troops, as well as their system of taxation, they may well be said to have originated the very concept of empire, a particular form of government whereby one mighty military power conquered its neighbors and then ruled them on a permanent basis. Such a conquest guaranteed those conquered a modicum of internal peace and prosperity and a certain protection against foreign invasion in return for their continued submission. Not until 1991 did the chain of related empires that began with Assyria—Persian, Median, Alexandrian, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman, Sassanian, Byzantine, Arab, Safavid, Ottoman, Russian and Soviet—come to an end.
The chief source for the legends surrounding the name Semiramis is Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek doctor who served as court physician to King Artaxerxes II (404–359 bce) of Persia. While the history of Persia written by Ctesias, known as the Persica, did not survive, a great deal of the information it contained was preserved by Diodorus, who incorporated large sections of the Persica into his own historical work.
According to the legend passed on by Ctesias and preserved for us by Diodorus, Semiramis was a demi-goddess, the daughter of the Syrian deity Derceto and a handsome mortal youth. The legend relates that the goddess Aphrodite was offended in some way by Derceto and inspired her with love for this mortal, but after bearing the child, Derceto, out of shame and regret, killed her lover and exposed their baby to die. The infant was nurtured by doves, however, which fed her with milk and, when she was old enough to need more nourishing food, cheese stolen from local cowherds. After the cowherds discovered the child, they gave her to Simmas, the keeper of the royal herds of the Assyrian king Ninus. Simmas named her Semiramis, from the Syrian word for "dove." Eventually, Semiramis grew up to be a beautiful girl. One day, she was seen by a royal officer named Onnes, who had been sent to inspect the royal herds. He fell in love with her and secured Simmas' permission to marry her. Two sons were born of this union, Hyapates and Hydaspes, about whom the legend curiously has nothing more to say. Not long afterwards, Onnes was with King Ninus campaigning in Bactriana (Afghanistan). Unable to live without his beautiful wife, he sent for her to join him. We are told that while on the long, hot journey from Syria to Bactriana Semiramis devised the all-enveloping robe worn thereafter by women in the East (the chador), both to hide her beauty from the gaze of men and to protect the delicate whiteness of her skin from the sun.
When she arrived in Bactriana, Semiramis observed the siege of a local city. Perceiving that the siege was not going well, and that no one dared attack the acropolis (the fortified high place inside the city) because of its great strength, she also observed that the defenders of the acropolis, secure in its strength, did not hesitate to leave it unguarded from time to time. Semiramis took a number of troops skilled in climbing and seized the fortification, whereupon the city fell. While no explanation is given for her sudden interest in military matters, nor for the origin of her own skill in climbing, without saying so explicitly Diodorus (or Ctesias) seems to indicate that the soldiers, unable to see Semiramis because of her concealing robe, took her to be a man.
King Ninus naturally marveled at the achievement of this woman and quickly became enamored of her. He thus asked Onnes to yield her to him, offering his own daughter Sosane in return. After Onnes' refusal, the king threatened him with blinding if he did not cooperate. So unwilling was Onnes to live without Semiramis, and so fearful was he of the king's rage, that he escaped his dilemma by hanging himself. Ninus then married Semiramis and made her his queen. In time, she had a son, Ninyas. Soon after, the king died and Semiramis, now 20, became ruler in her own right. Nothing is said in the legend about a regency; it is taken for granted that she either had the right to rule in her husband's place or that, owing possibly to her remarkable qualities, no one in a position of authority cared to press the issue.
Semiramis, we are told, began her reign by erecting a great tomb for her late husband some nine stadia (c. 5,460.75 ft.) high and ten stadia (c. 6,067.5 ft.) wide. Eager to achieve great exploits, she then decided to found a great city in Mesopotamia, to be called Babylon. According to the legend, she gathered no less that two-million men to labor on the city which was built on both sides of the River Euphrates, surrounded by walls around 335 feet in height and strengthened by 250 towers. The circumference of these walls (which were built of baked brick [adobe] and sealed with locally available bitumen) came to some 360 stadia (about 40 miles). Outside the wall, the city was protected by a natural defense of impenetrable swamps. Between the wall and the first row of houses within it ran a circumferential roadway.
To link the two halves of the city, Semiramis ordered the construction of a bridge, five stadia (c. 3,033.75 ft.) long, at the narrowest point of the river. The piers of this bridge were set 12 feet apart and it was floored by heavy beams of cypress, cedar and palm logs. An extensive quay was then erected along the river. On either side of the bridge, Semiramis had two lavish palaces constructed, each with its own separate inner and outer circumferential walls. Within the walls of the first palace was built a walled acropolis, and here the queen set up colossal bronze statues of Ninus, herself and the great god of Babylonia, Zeus-Belus (Ba'al). In the center of the city, she erected a great temple to Zeus-Belus, the details of which were lost to Ctesias as the temple was in ruins during his day. He recalled, however, that at the top of the temple there had stood statues of Zeus-Belus and of two Babylonian goddesses to whom he gave the names of the Greek goddesses Hera and Rhea. The walls of these buildings were faced with glazed and painted tiles of the brightest hues, depicting scenes of hunts and battles. Ctesias recalled the great Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but admits that these were built later by Nebuchadnezzar II, another king of Babylon, for his Median wife Amyntis , who in the flatlands of Mesopotamia missed the mountains of her native land in northwest Iran. Outside the city, at the lowest point in Babylonia, Semiramis is said to have constructed a square reservoir of baked bricks, 300 stadia (c. 182,025 ft.) long on each side and 35 feet deep.
She is also credited with founding other cities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, all equipped with emporia, and is said to have set up an obelisk 130 feet long and 25 feet wide and thick which was cut from a single block of stone quarried in Armenia and brought to Babylon. The Greek historian Herodotus adds that Semiramis built numerous dikes in the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for flood control, and he states that one of the gates of Babylon was named for her.
Diodorus, still drawing upon Ctesias, tells us that after leaving Babylonia Semiramis journeyed to Media to a great mountain called Bagistana. There she laid out a park which was watered by a spring. Moving on in Media, she came to the city of Chauon, where on a high plateau she found a striking rock. Upon the rock, she erected costly buildings and at its foot laid out another park. Semiramis was so enchanted by the scenery and view at Chauon that she spent a long time there. Unwilling to take a lawful husband for fear of losing her royal power to him, she is said to have passed her nights in pleasure with soldiers drawn from her elite guard. Her achievements in the way of constructions did not end there. We are told that she cut a road through the Zercaeus (Zagros) Mountains, built a palace in the Median capital of Ecbatana, and ordered the construction of a long tunnel to bring water to the city from a distant lake. Next, visiting every other province of her realm, Semiramis cut roads through the mountains and made high mounds in the plains to mark the tombs of generals, even building towns on some of these. She next visited Egypt, where, conquering Libya, she is said to have made a journey to the famed oracle at the oasis of Zeus-Ammon in the Libyan desert. There it was prophesied to Semiramis that her son Ninyas would conspire against her, at which time she would disappear, receiving eternal honors. Journeying south to Ethiopia, she toured the country and saw its wonders but shortly gave up the idea of conquering it.
The queen, having put the affairs of Egypt and Ethiopia in order, then journeyed east to the city of Bactra (now Balkh), capital of Bactriana, where, seeking military glory to augment the fame of her building activities, she decided to conquer India. Two years were spent in preparations for waging war on India's ruler King Stabrobates. During this time, Semiramis gathered detailed information regarding the country's wealth in gold, silver, iron, copper and precious stones, and she amassed a gigantic army consisting of 3 million infantry, 200,000 cavalry, 100,000 chariots, and numerous men on camels, as well as 3,000 riverboats that could be dismantled and carried over land. When the invasion was launched, a great war ensued, the course of which is given in great detail by Ctesias. Victorious, Semiramis returned to Babylon where she is said to have died after a reign of 40 years.
According to Diodorus, other historians, such as Athenaeus, laid down far different accounts of Semiramis than Ctesias. In other versions of her story, she came to her power as a courtesan who was beloved by King Ninus because of her great beauty. At first, Semiramis is said to have obtained only a modest position in the palace harem but was later proclaimed a royal wife. She then persuaded the king to give her royal power for five days. Once Semiramis had the scepter and royal robes, she held a great
festival. At a huge banquet given by her during the festival, she convinced the king's miliary commanders and his greatest dignitaries to cooperate in a coup whereby she would seize his throne. On the second day of the festival, Semiramis had the king arrested and thrown into prison, whereupon she proclaimed herself queen and commenced to rule in her own right. While this story may seem a bit more plausible than the one recounted by Ctesias—which made Semiramis the daughter of a goddess—it is actually only another far-fetched tale. The origin of this legend was the memory of a certain Babylonian festival, a sort of new year's celebration, the most prominent feature of which was the placement of a criminal upon the throne for five days; after that five-day reign, during which the criminal was permitted to issue decrees and use the king's concubines, the criminal was whipped and executed.
Yet another source for stories about Semiramis is the Greek geographer Strabo of Amasia, who died about 20 ce and whose vast Geography is a treasure trove of information gathered from innumerable sources otherwise long lost. Strabo confirms the supposed founding of Babylon by Queen Semiramis and of Nineveh, which became the Assyrian capital, by her son Ninus (sic). He tells us that Alexander wished to invade India because he had heard that Semiramis and later Cyrus the Great of Persia had both failed to conquer it. In addition, Strabo records that there were mounds in the Middle East called "mounds of Semiramis"—including those upon which the eastern Anatolian towns of Zela and Tyana were situated—and that canals, walls, roads and bridges were all attributed to her, as well as fortifications equipped with aqueducts, reservoirs, and rock-cut staircases in mountainsides.
On the Armenian side, the late 7th-or early 8th-century Armenian historian Moses of Khoren (Movses Khorenats'i) has much to say about Semiramis, and his account is an excellent example of the growth of her legend in the East. Moses, reluctant to abandon the tales of divinities handed down from the Armenian past, converted pagan deities into heroes of old; thus stories of the goddess Ishtar reached Armenia as the deeds of "Queen Shamiram of Asorestan." In connecting Semiramis with the Armenian town of Van (often called Shamiramakert in Armenian, "built by Semiramis"), Moses became an Armenian witness to the connection between the deeds of Semiramis and the inscriptions on the cliff overlooking the town which had been referred to by Ctesias so long before as "Chauon." The Greek authors—with no "v" in their alphabet in ancient times—even got the name of the town with reasonable accuracy, translating "Van" as "Chauon."
Moses' account of Semiramis is as follows. Voluptuous and lascivious, Semiramis was the wife of the Assyrian monarch King Ninos. She had long heard of the handsomeness of Ara the Fair, who was the son and successor of her husband's vassal King Aram of Armenia. Ara came to the throne, but while her husband was still alive Semiramis was unable to arrange a meeting with him to see his handsomeness for herself. After the death of King Ninos, however, she sent Ara lavish gifts. She commanded him to come to her in Nineveh, giving him the choice of marrying her and becoming her consort or, if he were unwilling to remain in Assyria, simply visiting her and satisfying her lust. Ara, however was devoted to his own queen, Nvart, and refused her repeated offers. Angered, Semiramis marched into Armenia with a large army, hoping thus to impress Ara and bend him to her will. Although she specifically gave orders that he be taken alive if at all possible, Ara was killed in the ensuing battle. The central Armenian plain where he died thereafter bore his name: the Plain of Ayrarat. Semiramis took the body of the fallen king. With all her magic arts, she tried to bring him back to life by having his corpse licked by the life-giving gods called the Aralez. The gods failed at this attempt. The determined Semiramis—after having Ara's decaying corpse thrown into a ditch and buried—dressed someone else as Ara and had it proclaimed far and wide that the gods had answered her prayers.
Once the war had come to an end, Semiramis found herself unable to leave the beauty of the Armenian countryside and decided to build a royal residence there to escape the summer heat of Assyria. According to Moses, the site chosen for this residence was a high hill overlooking a plain on the shores of a salt lake (Lake Van). After studying the site carefully, Semiramis is said to have assembled 42,000 skilled workers from all over her empire and 6,000 artisans versed in the handling of wood, stone, bronze, and iron. First a great aqueduct was constructed to bring water to the site of the projected city, then the city itself, with its palaces and gardens, was carefully laid out. Most significant in Moses' account is his following description on the cliff overlooking the town of Van in his own time:
On the side of the rock facing the sun, where today no one can scratch a line with an iron point—so hard is the surface—[she had carved out] various temples, chambers, treasure stores and wide caverns; no one knows how she created such works. And over the entire face of the rock, smoothing it like wax, she inscribed as with a stylus, many texts, the very sight of which would make one marvel.
This description clearly refers to the rock caves and inscriptions that even now, some 12 centuries after Moses, can still be seen on the cliff above the town of Van. These could not have originated, however, with Semiramis. In fact, these inscriptions, while indeed carved in Assyrian cuneiform, are not in the Assyrian language. They are rather in the language of the people of Biainele (or Urartu in Assyrian; Ararat in Hebrew), a local kingdom that flourished in the 9th–6th centuries bce, and so have nothing to do with any Assyrian queen. By Moses' time, in the late 7th or early 8th century ce, the Persian legends of Semiramis recorded by Ctesias and Diodorus of Sicily centuries before would have become widely known in Armenia. It is interesting to note, however, that the legend attributing to Semiramis constructions and inscriptions so far to the north had arisen as early as the time of Ctesias. Moses also goes on to attribute to Semiramis the many other cuneiform inscriptions discovered throughout the Armenian Plateau over the past century or more, and which must have been much more numerous in his time; these too have nothing to do with the Assyrian queen.
Moses goes on to record that while away from Nineveh on her annual summer vacations in Armenia, Semiramis left the government of her empire to the magus Zoroaster, chief of the Medes. Meanwhile, reproached by her sons for her vicious mode of life, she executed them all except Ninyas (Ninuas), the youngest. Moses then notes that Semiramis had a falling out with Zoroaster whom she feared was planning to assume control over her empire. She waged a war against him, which she lost. Fleeing the Mede, Semiramis came to Armenia, where she was killed by the one son she had spared, Ninyas. Moses then concludes his account with a confused recollection of how Semiramis is supposed to have thrown a talisman, apparently made of pearls, into the sea (Lake Van), and he thus explains the Armenian saying: "the pearls of Semiramis into the sea," i.e., "as lost as [?]," or perhaps "as worthless as," "the pearls of Semiramis [cast?] into the sea."
As told by Moses, the story of Ara and Semiramis curiously echoes a tale in Plato's Republic which tells of "Er son of Armenios" (Ara, son of Aram in Moses), who, having been slain in battle like Ara, was returned to life after a sojourn in the underworld. This tale parallels the story of the Syrian youth Tammuz the Beautiful. After Tammuz is slain by a boar, the goddess Ishtar (Astarte, i.e. Semiramis) descends into the underworld to bring him back to the realm of the living. Moses' story of Semiramis and Ara goes back to the Sumerians, as the name of the Armenian Aralez referred to by him is derived from the Sumerian Arallu, the land from which none return. In the Assyrian History of Ctesias, Ara/Aralez/Arallu turn up as the Assyrian kings Arios and Arialos. These kings are successors of the sun god who was known also as Ninyas the Ninevite, son of Semiramis. The identification of Semiramis with Ishtar accounts for the way in which the legends circulating around the goddess became interwoven with the exploits attributed to the Assyrian queen. Notes Antonia Fraser :
It was this identification with the mysterious and seductive goddesses of the East, such as Astarte (or Ishtar), who first prowled along the edges of the Classical world and then invaded it, which was probably most important in preserving her story. In this manner it was thrillingly carried away from the small patch of historical ground in which it had originally been rooted.
The events described by Moses of Khoren are not the only remnants of the Semiramis story to be found in Armenia. South of Bitlis a 22-foot-high tunnel carved through a spur of rock that would otherwise block the road through the Bitlis Pass is known as the tunnel of Semiramis, just to cite one example.
It has always been difficult to believe that where there is so much legendary smoke there is not some amount of historical fire. But while it is clear that Sammuramat was the actual person around whom the legends of Semiramis grew, we unfortunately can find nothing in the few facts we know about Sammuramat and the period in which she lived that could give rise to the fantastic exploits credited to Semiramis.
An examination of the nature of kingship in Assyria, which paralleled that of kingship in many other parts of the ancient world, may provide the ultimate source for our understanding of the origins of the legends surrounding Semiramis. The strength of the Assyrian monarchy lay primarily in the well-established monarchical tradition of the Orient which prevented the population, high and low, from imagining any other form of government. The strength of the individual ruler, however, depended only partly on his position within the royal family, and a king could even emerge from outside the main dynasty. The overriding factor in establishing the legitimacy of the monarch was the concept of the divinely appointed king: whoever acquired the throne was ipso facto the chosen representative of Ashur, the chief god of the Assyrian pantheon. The kingship in Assyria, while hereditary in the Sargonid Dynasty, might see the patrilineal succession modified by the decision of the reigning king or tempered by a usurpation which, if successful, endowed the usurper with, again ipso facto, the requisite divine legitimation: Ashur had spoken.
As the king was the viceroy of Ashur, he not only had to rule but also to conduct the sacred cult which made him de facto the High Priest of the state religion. Among his dignities were those of "King of the Four Regions" and "King of the World," both cosmocratic titles that represented the ultimate jurisdiction of the god of whom the king was the representative on earth. While the king himself might not actually own the world, Ashur certainly did, and this rendered the king, ex officio, a cosmocratic ruler by proxy. Although not regarded as a god himself, as was the king of Egypt, Adadnirari was the "light of Ashur" and was expected to possess the twin divine attributes of wisdom and prowess at arms. His education, conducted by tutors, thus would have placed emphasis on military affairs and the handling of weapons (bow and arrow; sword and spear) as well as hunting and falconry; and at least in the case of some Assyrian rulers, the king's education would have involved considerable academic training (Ashur is all-wise, so the king too must be wise).
The king was held to be in his glory under three distinct sets of circumstances: war, wherein he acted in Ashur's capacity as master of the world; the hunt, during which he represented the deity as lord of nature; and the banquet, at which he represented Ashur as the one who bestows all largesse. This oriental concept of kingship was extremely influential. It was passed from the Assyrians to the Persians, and through the vast Persian Empire to countless other peoples of the Middle East, until the coming of Christianity and Islam altered the manner in which kingship was viewed. The real question in regard to the reality behind the legend of Semiramis is whether or not the Assyrians would have countenanced the kingship passing into the hands of a woman. Since Ashur, for example, was a war god, presumably the king must be able to lead his armies into battle. Theoretically, given the nature of ancient warfare, a woman could not do so and this is why no woman was ever allowed to hold the throne of the Roman Empire. Yet the impression one gets from the legends of Semiramis is that the woman behind the legend, likely Sammuramat, did in fact hold the throne and may even have taken part in battles to justify her holding it.
The wonder of a woman leading warriors in battle, going out on the hunt, and undertaking extraordinary building projects normally considered the province of kings, may very well have sparked the legends to begin with. Once the queen held the throne, legends would naturally arise to justify her having been able to do so. Such legends could preserve the notion that women could not rule by asserting that Sammuramat was an exception—she was no ordinary woman. We may assume then that Sammuramat exercised a certain extraordinary authority, hitherto impossible for an Assyrian queen to wield, and that certain military campaigns were launched by her and constructions accomplished by her order that together made her name a byword. In any case, it is beyond question that it soon became customary to attribute any remarkable construction, of which the builder's name had been forgotten, to the by now semi-legendary Assyrian queen.
In addition to being known for her constructions and battles, Semiramis has long been associated with female sensuality and voluptuousness. Fraser notes:
Her voracious sexual appetites were, like the Queen herself, legendary; the most stalwart soldiers under her command were regularly called into a different kind of service; ungratefully if practically, Semiramis was in the habit of putting her lovers to death immediately after a night of love lest the tale of the Empress' desires should be spread abroad. Even more licentious, as well as unnatural, was the passion that Semiramis was supposed to have nourished for her son Ninyas.
Voltaire's play Semiramis (first performed in 1748) dealt with this theme of the love of Semiramis for her son, but placed her feelings in the realm of tragic love, for Voltaire's Semiramis does not know that Arsaces is her son. Other works about Semiramis include the play Semiramide by Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782), master of the melodrama, and an opera also entitled Semiramide by Gioacchino Rossini (1792–1868) which was based on Voltaire's play and first staged in Venice in 1823. As a vehicle for the American singer Mary Garden , Rossini's work was performed well into the 20th century, usually staged with grandiose pseudo-oriental sets and bizarre, lavish costuming.
It is interesting that from the data given by Diodorus it is possible to determine the approximate period in which Semiramis is supposed to have reigned according to the Persians from whom Ctesias had his information. Diodorus tells us that the fall of Nineveh (612 bce) took place 30 reigns after the reign of Semiramis' son Ninyas. Allowing the standard genealogical span of 30 years per generation, this would put Ninyas' death some 900 years before the fall of Nineveh, in 1512 bce. Moving back another 30 years from the death of Ninyas brings us to 1542 which would mark the death of his mother Semiramis after a reign of 40 years (c. 1582–1542 bce). But so far as we can reconstruct the chronology for so early a period, at that time there was no kingdom of Assyria.
Diodorus of Sicily (Diodorus Siculus). The History. Loeb Classical Library ed.
Herodotus. The Histories. Loeb Classical Library ed.
Fraser, Antonia. The Warrior Queens. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Moses Khorenats'i. History of the Armenians. Engl. trans. by R.W. Thomson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Strabo. Geography. Loeb Classical Library ed.
The Cambridge Ancient History.
Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey