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.