She was a Man-Eater

“And now there came an Amazon, the great-hearted daughter of man-slaying Ares.”

—Homer, The Iliad

I might as well be hunting SheSquatch. Queen Shamiram of Assyria is nimble and elusive, yet enormously powerful. Like her sisters of blood-legend, Zenobia, Jezebel, or Cleopatra, it is hard to know where truth ends and fiction begins. What is beyond doubt is that these femmes fatales were ambitious women whose legacies challenge gender stereotypes and continue to shape history. Consider the example of Shamiram.

One tough gal from the “Dance of Apis” (about 1910). Artist unknown. Image from here.  

As reported in Lost Love, Lost Kingdom, the memory of Shamiram is remembered in fifth century (AD) lore. Moses of Khoren, a kind of Armenian “Herodotus,” recounts how Queen Shamiram was delighted by the beauty of the highlands of Eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) and founded a city on the shore of Lake Van (Kurdish, Wanê). This city of wide boulevards and colored stone preserved and projected her name. It is Shamiramakert or the “town of Shamiram.” But what else of this queen, beyond her fair city and her unrequited love? 

Two other names offer paths of pursuit. Both lead still deeper into the shadows. The first name surfaces in Greco-Roman literature. The second name is retrieved from drier Mesopotamian dust. Of course, all of this assumes that these three names somehow connect to a single person of history, a possibility best left for campfire stories.

Three faces, three names for Shamiram. Original image from here.

In the Greco-Roman world, Shamiram is connected with the name Semiramis (Σεμίραμις).

This mention alone raises goosebumps, especially for readers of Bibliotheca Historica (The Library of History) by Diodorus of Sicily. Diodorus was an historian who viewed the world at the dawn of the Roman Empire. A contemporary of Julius Caesar and Augustus, he offers his readers a few sober narratives. But between them are imaginary stretches that establish Diodorus as a real yarn spinner. Here, we discover the camelopard: a dangerous beast that is half-camel and half-leopard! We discover other gods and humans whose deviancies would make Jerry Springer blush. In the end, it all stacks up as pure entertainment, first century (BC) style!

If Diodorus had visited the American West, he would have loved our proud Jackalope. Image from here.

For Diodorus, the story of Semiramis hails from the earliest age and must be sorted carefully as there are many contradictory accounts. Seeming to favor a work now lost (that of Ctesias of Cnidus), Diodorus preserves the fullest portrait of her life known in the classical world (Library of History II.4-20). Three moments are of interest here. Each sprouts a theme that will be developed by later writers, especially Christian moralists (and these, incidentally, offer good grist for future bloggishness by this Bible Lands Explorer).

Semiramis drives a mean chariot. Image from here.

One theme of Diodorus focuses on the military prowess of Semiramis. Her exploits on the field of battle are breathtaking. From the fortress of Bactra where she breaks a siege by leading a commando raid, to the plains of India where she campaigns against war-elephants, she is presented as a warrior without peer. Even Alexander the Great was a fan (Strabo, Geography XV.1.5). He knew of her and longed to match her exploits in his own march to India.

An illustration of her mettle may serve our purpose. At the end of her Eastern campaign, she is defeated beyond the Indus. But even in defeat, she is worthy of admiration. Twice wounded -- an arrow in her arm and a javelin in her back -- she managed to lead her forces in retreat. The enemy pursued hotly; Semiramis crossed a pontoon bridge. Before the enemy could follow, she hacked the ropes, loosed the bridge, and saved the remnant of her army!

Semiramis receives a messenger. Image from here.

A second theme of Diodorus’s Semiramis accents her sexual prowess. Again, a single example must suffice. On her Median campaign, she finds a high plateau. The march stalls. There Semiramis erects a park with a pleasure palace in the middle. Of that time, Diodorus says little, save for the fact that she made a habit of sleeping with the handsomest soldiers from her army. After each night of rapture, she executed her lover. Later traditions suggested that she buried these men alive. The mystery of the lusty Oriental despot and his/her pleasure palaces ever tantalized Western curiosity.

A third theme the narrative of Semiramis offered by Diodorus gives attention her building projects. Perhaps the most famous of these is the city of Babylon itself. Diodorus recounts its construction under her watch and includes such details as the engineering required to shift the course of the Euphrates and bridge it. This final legacy may be the most potent. To this day, the ruins of great constructions from Syria to Iran are traditionally associated with her hand.

The story of Semiramis as warrior, lover, and builder is masterfully told by Diodorus. His record prompted no less a historian than A. T. Olmstead to describe her as “the most beautiful, most cruel, most powerful, and most lustful of Oriental queens” (History of Assyria 1951: 158).