In Rossini’s opera about her, Queen Semiramide of Assyria walks onstage right into a problem: The aristocratic politician who helped her poison her husband and usurp his throne wants her to fulfill her end of the bargain and nominate him to rule the nation. Payment due!
This is a fanciful story, but the Assyrian queen Shammu-Ramat was a real and extraordinary woman. We know that she ruled Assyria as her underage son’s regent between 811 and 806 BC. There was no precedent for female rulers in Assyria, an empire where women could be sold as slaves or kept as concubines. Seizing and holding power must have required both strength and stealth of hand. When Renaissance artists portray Shammu-Ramat, she is handsome and authoritative, and her mien suggests a cool, calculating mind constantly busy with assessment. One thinks of Hillary Clinton.
What facts do we know? Shammu-Ramat’s husband was Shamshi-Adad V, her son Adad Nirari III. According to the historian Stephen Bertman, she accompanied the king on a military excursion, a scandalous venture for a female, and continued to lead military campaigns after his death. When her son reached his majority, she ceded the throne to him. Her achievements as his regent were so significant that the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian imaginations spun myths about her. Diodorus Siculus, Herodotus, Strabo, Plato, Polyaenus, Plutarch, and others mentioned her in their writings. Most interesting are Polyaenus’s comments on her building projects and the fact that when she became regent, she stabilized a nation shaken and weakened by civil war. People came to believe she was semi-divine, the daughter of the goddess Derceto. Later she was associated with Astarte, whose connection with erotic love reflected back on the queen. There is one sculpture of her in her Astarte aspect—nude, with wings and talons.
Rossini’s opera about her reflects the legends of her licentiousness: His Semiramide falls in lust with a young general half her age and decides to take him as her prince consort, only to discover that he is actually her long-lost son! This probably says nothing about the historical Shammu-Ramat, but plenty about the nineteenth century’s yen for outrageous plots.
Did Shammu-Ramat actually assume male privilege and take male concubines, as her deceased husband probably collected female ones? Or choose a husband like an expert rider buying a horse? One hopes so. It makes a spicy story. One frustration, with really ancient history, is that authentic licentious details and other quirks of personality are lost, and we can’t authenticate the kind of delicious History Lite facts we know about Elizabeth I of England, for instance. The capsule plots are in the inscriptions, on the stelae and obelisks. It’s up to art and imagination to supply the rest.