THE name of Semiramis is associated with the story of Nineveh’s glory, and the building of the mighty city of Babylon. And though historians differ widely regarding the time of her famous reign, and some even express doubts whether she ever really existed, holding that her story was a mythological legend, her name is too illustrious to be passed over in silence, and her deeds too remarkable to be ignored, if she did in truth live; and if the story is a mere legend, it is, moreover, so interwoven with historical records as to deserve mention.
The date we have chosen from among many, covering more than a thousand years, is the date of the founding of Nineveh by Ninus, who was said to be the son of the mighty Nimrod, whom some say founded this great city; his son only embellishing it. Rollin states that Nimrod was probably the famous Belus of the Babylonians, afterwards deified by the people and worshipped under the name of Baal.
The birth of Semiramis, the celebrated queen of Assyria, is shrouded in mystery. Legends say that she was born at Ascalon, a city of Syria, and that she was the daughter of the goddess Derceto, and that her father was an Assyrian youth of striking beauty. Being deserted by her mother, she was fed by doves in the desert; and when she was about a year old, a shepherd named Simmas found the infant in a rocky place, and he adopted the foundling as his child, calling her Semiramis.
When she had grown to maidenhood, she was remarkable for her great beauty, and was also possessed of an unusual intelligence. Menones, the governor of Nineveh, having on one occasion been sent by King Ninus to inspect his Syrian flocks, beheld this beautiful maiden at the shepherd’s dwelling, and being intensely pleased by her marvellous beauty, made her his wife. So great a power did Semiramis obtain over her husband Menones, that he was soon completely subject to her wishes, and so much did he respect her judgment that he sought her advice upon every project. King Ninus previously to this time had subjugated in seventeen years all the nations of Asia, with the exception of the Indians and the Bactrians. He had conquered Babylonia, Armenia, Media, Egypt, Phœnicia, Cœle Syria, Cilicia, Lycia, Lydia, Mysia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and reduced the nations on the Pontus as far as the Tanais. Then he made himself master of the land of the Cadusians and Tapyrians, of the Hyrcanians, Drangians, Derbiccians, Carmanians, Chorasmians, Barcians, and Parthians. He also conquered Persia, Susiana, and Caspiana. Ninus then determined to build a mighty city, and so he founded Nineveh, or finished the work which his father had begun.
This city was built on the bank of the river Tigris. The circumference of the city was sixty miles, and it was surrounded by walls one hundred feet high, and so broad that three chariots might ride abreast upon the top. The walls were fortified with fifteen hundred towers, each two hundred feet high. When this great city was completed, King Ninus determined to march against the Bactrians, who yet withstood his power. According to the accounts of Ctesias and Diodorus, his army numbered 1,700,000 foot-soldiers, 210,000 cavalry, and about 10,600 chariots of war. The narrowness of the passes which protect the entrance to Bactria forced Ninus to divide his forces. The king of the Bactrians met him with 400,000 men. The Assyrians were successful in forcing their way into the country, but they suffered great loss. At length all of the cities were captured except Bactria, the chief city, where was the palace of the king. Ninus now besieged this city, and Menones, who was one of the chief counsellors of the king, sent for his wife Semiramis to come to the camp. Semiramis seized this favorable opportunity to display her power. She clothed herself in peculiar garments, so that it could not be ascertained whether she was a man or a woman; and this style of robe at a later day became the costume of the Medes and Persians. When she arrived in the camp, she perceived that the attack was directed chiefly against that part of the city lying in the plain, and not against the citadel; and she also perceived that this caused the Bactrians to guard their fortifications with less vigilance. She thereupon made selection of a body of troops who were accustomed to climbing, and led them in person to the attack of the citadel. This she captured, and then signalled to the army below in the plains. The Bactrians, perceiving that their citadel was taken, made weak resistance, and the city was conquered. King Ninus so admired the daring courage of this beautiful woman who had gained for him such a victory, that he determined to make her his wife, and offered his own daughter to Menones, in exchange for his wife Semiramis. But Menones was too much attached to his wife to relinquish her to another, and then Ninus threatened to put out the eyes of Menones unless he would consent to this arrangement. The unhappy Menones, overcome with jealous love and fear, hung himself in despair, and King Ninus then married Semiramis. Accounts differ regarding the death of Ninus, which placed Semiramis upon this powerful throne. According to some, Ninus died after reigning fifty-two years, and bequeathed to her the sovereign power, their young son, Ninyas, being too young to reign. Others state that Ninus, at the request of Semiramis, granted to his young and beautiful wife the absolute sovereignty of his empire for five days. The young queen of twenty was seated upon the royal throne, the signet ring was placed upon her finger, and all the provinces of the realm were commanded to do her reverence, and obey implicitly her decrees.
Semiramis, having thus secured supreme authority, made most ungrateful and wicked use of her power. She thereupon commanded her husband to be imprisoned, and afterwards put to death; and then declared herself his successor, and reigned alone during the remainder of her life. Whether she killed her husband or not, she is said to have erected for him a magnificent tomb adjoining the famous Tower of Belus, and adorned it with statues of massive gold.
She now resolved to immortalize her name by the erection of marvellous monuments, and undertaking mighty and difficult enterprises. She determined to surpass the fame of Ninus; and accordingly undertook the founding, or embellishment, of the great city of Babylon, in which work she is said to have employed two millions of men.
The foundation of Babylon had already been commenced by the builders of the famous Tower of Babel. Among the works in Babylon attributed to Semiramis, are the walls and towers and citadels; the bridge over the Euphrates, the temple of Belus, and the excavation of the lake to draw off the waters of the Euphrates. She is said to have founded other cities on the Euphrates and Tigris. She built huge aqueducts, connected various cities by roads and highways, in the construction of which she was forced to level mountains and fill up valleys. She is said to have marched with a large army to Media, and planted the garden near Mount Bagistanon. This mountain is more than ten thousand feet high, and she caused its steep face to be smoothed, and on it her picture was cut, surrounded by one hundred guards. She afterwards made another large garden near the city of Chauon, in Media, and in the midst of it, upon a high rock, she erected a splendid palace, in which she remained for a long time. In Ecbatana she also built a magnificent palace; and in order to provide the city with water, she caused a tunnel to be cut through the base of the lofty mountain Orontes, to a lake lying upon its further side. The following is one of the many inscriptions she caused to be carved upon the monuments of her power and surprising greatness.
“Nature bestowed on me the form of a woman; my actions have surpassed those of the most valiant of men. I ruled the empire of Ninus, which stretched eastward as far as the river Hyhanam, southward to the land of incense and of myrrh, and northward to the country of the Scythians and Sogdians. Before me, no Assyrian had seen the great sea. I beheld with my own eyes four seas, and their shores acknowledged my power. I constrained the mighty rivers to flow according to my will, and I led their waters to fertilize lands that had been before barren and without inhabitants. I raised impregnable towers; I constructed paved roads in ways hitherto untrodden but by the beast of the forests; and in the midst of these mighty works I found time for pleasure and for friendship.”
Semiramis was very vigilant and daring in the administration of her government. It is related that one morning, when she was making her toilet, it was reported to her that a revolt had broken out among a portion of the citizens. She immediately rushed forth, half-attired, with hair floating in disorder, and bravely faced the tumultuous crowd of rioters. Her presence and eloquence quickly appeased their fury, and then she returned and calmly finished her toilet.
At length she determined to subjugate India. For two years she made preparations for this expedition. Her army consisted of 3,000,000 foot-soldiers, 500,000 horsemen, and 100,000 chariots. As the Indians were famous for their vast numbers of elephants which they used in battle, which were considered almost invincible, Semiramis determined to endeavor to overcome this obstacle by stratagem. She accordingly ordered 100,000 camels to be covered with the sewn skins of black oxen, in imitation of elephants; and each animal was mounted by a warrior. For crossing the Indus, 2,000 ships were built, and then taken to pieces and strapped on the backs of camels, while travelling on land. Stabrobates, the king of the Indians, had raised a mighty force to meet her. As Semiramis approached his realm, he sent messengers to her to inquire why she was making war upon him, and demanding to know who she was who thus dared to invade his kingdom. The haughty Assyrian queen replied, “Go to your king, and tell him I will myself inform him who I am and why I am come hither.”
In the first contest Semiramis was victorious, and she took 100,000 prisoners; a thousand ships of the Indians were sunk in the Indus. But the Indian king, pretending flight, led the army of Semiramis after him. Having caused a large bridge to be built over the Indus, Semiramis landed her entire army on the other side, and with her mock elephants in front of her forces, she pursued the retreating Indians. At first the Indians were alarmed by these false elephants; but finding out the stratagem, the king of India turned, and attacking Semiramis with his real elephants, her troops were put to flight, and she herself was wounded by an arrow and javelin thrown by the Indian king, who was mounted on his largest elephant. Semiramis and the remnant of her army hastened across the Indus; and as Stabrobates had been warned by seers not to cross the river, they came to terms of capitulation, and exchanged prisoners. Then Semiramis returned to Assyria with only one-third of her army left.
When she arrived again within the borders of her own kingdom, she was informed that her son Ninyas had conspired against her. As the oracle in the temple of Jupiter Ammon had previously declared that when her son should conspire against her, she would disappear from the sight of mortals and be received among the immortals, this news occasioned no resentment against Ninyas; but she immediately abdicated the throne and transferred the kingdom to him, and is said to have put herself to death, as though according to the oracle she had raised herself to the gods. Others relate that she was reported to have been changed into a dove, and thereupon flew out of the palace with a flock of doves. Wherefore, the Assyrians regard Semiramis as an immortal, and the dove as sacred to divinity. She was sixty-two years of age, having reigned forty-two years.
The following is one of the inscriptions in which she gives her own genealogy, claiming celestial origin. She is said to have inscribed her name and praises of her own greatness upon many of the monuments she erected to immortalize herself.
MY GRANDFATHER, BABYLONIAN SATURN;
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER, ETHIOPIAN SATURN;
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER’S FATHER, EGYPTIAN SATURN;
AND MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER’S GRANDFATHER, PHŒNIX
This amusing catalogue of high-sounding ancestors may not seem so very ridiculous in view of the supposition that she never did exist as a mortal, but that her name and exploits have come down through the legends of poetry. For it is stated by some authorities that the story of Semiramis, as related by Ctesias, from which source Diodorus takes his account, was founded upon Medo-Persian poems sung by the minstrels of Media and Persia, and that these poems represent the Assyrians as worshipping a female deity, who was called Istar-Bilit, the war-goddess, and also goddess of love. Istar of Arbela was the goddess of battle, and Istar of Nineveh was the goddess of love. Doves were sacred to her, and in the temples of Syria there were statues of this goddess with a golden dove on her head. She was invoked there under the name of Semiramis, a word meaning “high name.” Thus the Medo-Persian minstrels have changed the legend of an Assyrian goddess into a heroine, and made her the founder of the Assyrian empire, just as Greek poets represent their heroes as children of the Immortals of Olympus.
Whether the story of Semiramis is a fabulous legend, or whether she is really a historical character, is rather difficult to determine; but her supposed exploits are so interwoven with Assyrian and Babylonian history that most authorities give her a prominent historical place; and if half of her marvellous deeds are true, she must without doubt hold an illustrious place amongst the famous queens of ancient history.
Categories: English Literature