The True Story of Semiramis, Legendary Queen of Babylon

The only woman ever to have ruled the mighty Assyrian Empire, Semiramis titillated writers and painters from the Roman period to the 19th century.

Queen Semiramis surveys the building of Babylon, of which she is the legendary founder. Edgar Degas’s mysterious, otherworldly 1861 painting at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, reveals how the Semiramis myth had lost none of its power.
BRIDGEMAN/ACI

Female rulers in ancient Mesopotamia were rare. But those who did rule made their mark on history. In the Neo-Assyrian regime of the ninth century B.C., one woman commanded an entire empire stretching from Asia Minor to what is today western Iran. She was Sammu-ramat, thought to mean “high heaven.” Her five-year rule, while brief, appears to have inspired long-lasting respect among her subjects and the world.

Centuries after her reign, Greek writers, and historians focused on Sammu-ramat and her achievements. They hellenized her name to Semiramis. From here, the Assyrian queen passed from the world of facts into the realm of legend. Some cast her as a beautiful femme fatale in a tragic love story. Classical authors attributed great accomplishments to Semiramis: commander of armies, and builder of the walls of Babylon and monuments throughout her empire.

Her allure did not diminish with time. She later inspired the Italian medieval poet Dante, who placed her in his Inferno where she is punished for her “sensual vices.” The French Enlightenment writer Voltaire wrote a tragedy about her, which was later made into Rossini’s 1823 opera, Semiramide.

Read This Next

Haitians reflect on the past while confronting the future

Chunk of an ancient supercontinent discovered under New Zealand

These mystery stories solve crimes and spark travel

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet