Semiramis, Queen of Assyria: Background information when reading The Dawn of Everything

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The Dawn of Everything

A New History of Humanity

by David Graeber, David Wengrow

The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber, David Wengrow X
The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber, David Wengrow
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2021, 704 pages

    Apr 2023, 704 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
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Semiramis, Queen of Assyria

This article relates to The Dawn of Everything

Print Review

18th-century black and white illustration of Semiramis Among the many fascinating anecdotes presented in David Graeber and David Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything, one stood out to me. This was the myth of Semiramis (also known as Sammu-ramat), a woman of low stature who rose to become queen of the empire of Assyria. Graeber and Wengrow mention her in a chapter discussing role reversals, using her as an example of the flexibility of hierarchies in earlier periods of human history. Behind the mythical Semiramis is a real woman who lived in the ninth century BC and is known for her keen intelligence and military prowess.

Semiramis's approximate five-year rule over the Assyrian Empire has inspired artists for centuries. She waged several successful military campaigns in Persia and North Africa. The only woman known to have ruled this empire independently (which she did as regent until her son came of age), she controlled an area that stretched from the Caucasus Mountains in modern-day Russia to Cyprus and Egypt in the west and the Persian Gulf in the east. She is widely considered to be a major force in the revitalization of Babylon, and the Ancient Greeks believed her to be the mastermind behind the city's world-famous Hanging Gardens (though there are many historical accounts that conflict with this belief).

A lack of historical evidence means that much of Semiramis's life is a mystery. Most of what is known about her comes to us through mythology. The first known written mention of her is by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus. It was at this point that her name was altered from Sammu-ramat (meaning "high heaven" in Aramaic) to the Hellenic version by which she is better known today. Though her regency is thought to have been from 811 to 806 BCE, Herodotus didn't write about her until the fifth century AD, meaning tales of her must have been passed down through the generations — possibly because female authority in those times was so rare. Another Ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, later expanded her biography, solidifying her glorified status.

Whatever truth there is in Diodorus's biographical writings is ensconced in the mythological traditions of Ancient Greece at that time. According to Diodorus, Semiramis was born in Ashkelon (modern-day Israel), the progeny of an affair between the goddess Derketo and a young mortal man. Embarrassed by the affair, Derketo abandoned Semiramis shortly after she was born, leaving her to be raised by doves. She was later found and adopted by a shepherd of the king, who named her and raised her for the rest of her youth. Semiramis blossomed into a beautiful young woman, eventually catching the eye of the governor of the province of Syria, Onnes. Onnes sought, and received, permission from Semiramis's adoptive father to marry her, and shortly thereafter the couple left for Nineveh.

It was during her marriage to Onnes that Semiramis first showed inklings of strategic prowess. Some time after their wedding, Onnes was sent out to siege the city of Bactria in central Asia. Semiramis joined him there, and led an assault on the acropolis of the city herself, resulting in Bactria's surrender.

Semiramis's hand in the defeat of Bactria was directly responsible for her ascendancy to the throne. Shortly after the siege, reports of her actions began to spread across the land, eventually catching the attention of King Ninus, then ruler of Assyria. Intrigued, he summoned her to visit him. As soon as he saw her, King Ninus fell madly in love. He demanded that Onnes give up his wife to him, offering one of his own daughters in exchange for her hand in marriage. Onnes refused, but later, under extreme duress from the lovestruck king's constant threats, he died by suicide. Semiramis then married Ninus, marking the beginning of her reign as queen of Assyria.

Within a few years of marriage, King Ninus, too, died. This left Semiramis in control of the Assyrian empire as regent to her young son — a highly unusual state of affairs. Now leader of one of the most powerful empires of all time, she used her tactical genius to conduct military campaigns that would shore up the position of her kingdom. She waged wars in Africa and the Middle East, managing to quash uprisings that threatened her regime. It was during this time that she apparently revitalized the city of Babylon, which won her widespread admiration. According to Diodorus, she was a popular and much-admired ruler amongst her people. However, an ill-fated campaign in India ended in catastrophe, leaving her injured and her army defeated.

The end of Semiramis's life varies depending on the version of the story. The Romans later took up and embellished Diodorus's biography, leading to alternative endings. However, all accounts agree that Semiramis's son, Ninias, eventually coveted his mother's throne. In one version, Semiramis decides that she will not fight her own son, and gracefully cedes power to him. In another, she dies by suicide. In a third, her son murders her and takes the crown.

Modern historians believe that parts of the Semiramis legend are apocryphal, but that she did indeed rule Assyria for a time, and it is likely that she was considered important and impressive by the people of her day. She was a stabilizing force for the empire, and her ability to take control despite her gender suggests that she was a powerful and respected person. Scholar Gwendolyn Leick has commented, "This woman achieved remarkable fame and power in her lifetime and beyond. According to contemporary records, she had considerable influence at the Assyrian court." Monuments to Semiramis from her lifetime have been found in the Assyrian region, including an obelisk — a structure reserved for only the most exalted members of the ruling class.

An 18th-century Italian sketch of Semiramis from the book Semmiramide Regina di Babillone

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Dawn of Everything. It originally ran in February 2022 and has been updated for the April 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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