Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeAnglophonia/Caliban29The Circulation of Ideas“As she had some good, so had she...

The Circulation of Ideas

As she had some good, so had she many bad parts”: Semiramis’ Transgressive Personas

Janice Valls-Russell
p. 103-118


Bâtisseuse de Babylone et d’autres cités, guerrière, impératrice et amante, Sémiramis inspira aux auteurs de l’Antiquité de nombreux récits contrastés de ses faits et gestes. Les Pères de l’Église, dont Saint Augustin, l’associaient à la cité de Babylone et, en prolongement, à la tour de Babel. Le présent article explore quelques facettes de la figure de Sémiramis telle qu’elle s’est recomposée dans des textes européens de la fin du Moyen Âge et de la première modernité, et d’étudier les représentations contrastées qui en découlèrent dans la littérature anglaise, grâce au matériau qui circulait dans les dictionnaires et les traductions. Il en ressort une figure plurielle, lieu d’interaction des traditions mythologique et biblique, qui invite à une exploration et réévaluation des codes de représentation de la femme et de l’homme.

Top of page

Full text

1Queen of Assyria and builder of cities and empires, wife, widow and incestuous mother, Semiramis defies categories. She belongs to a region where fact and legend intertwine, geographically located in Mesopotamia and centred on the city of Babylon. From the world-view of the authors of Antiquity, she was situated on the margins, on the Eastern borders of the Greco-Roman area of influence. Furthermore, Scripture identifies this region as hostile to the God of the Jewish people, from Nimrod, builder of the tower of Babel, which Biblical and early-Christian tradition locates in Babylon, to Nebuchadnezzar. It is the impact of this classical and Biblical intersection on the early modern perception of Semiramis that I wish to explore.

2This paper does not aim, therefore, to enter into the historical debate as to whether Semiramis may or may not have existed, may or may not have been the Assyrian queen Sammuramat. The challenges of historically pinning down a figure who is supposed, among so many other things, to be descended from a lake goddess and to have been transformed into a dove at her death, lie outside the scope of this paper. Rather, my intention here is to address the construction of her persona (or, indeed, personas) as influenced by attitudes to the region with which she is associated and conditioned by perceptions of gender-induced status, behaviour and exemplariness. The myth-building process, which began in Antiquity from the fifth century BC onwards, was relayed by Saint Augustine and transferred to a Biblical context, this twofold heritage being in turn refashioned by late-medieval and early modern authors to spread via the channels of dictionaries, translations and works of edification.

Classical fashioning of the legend of Semiramis

  • 1 See Anna Maria G. Campomacchia for a study of the classical sources, which she orders according to (...)
  • 2 "Diodorus does not present Ctesias’ version of the tale of Semiramis as if it were the only one" (B (...)
  • 3 There are conflicting accounts of the circumstances in which he died. According to some versions, S (...)

3Diodorus Siculus (ca.80-20 BC) acknowledges “conflicting accounts which may be found in the historians regarding the career of Semiramis”—perhaps because, he tells us, she was “the most renowned of all women of whom we have any record (Diodorus II, 20).1 In his Library of History, he provides the longest and most detailed account of the main stages of her life, drawing in part on the writings of Ctesias of Cnidus (fifth cent. BC).2 Semiramis was the daughter of the Syrian goddess Derceto and one of the latter’s votaries. In shame, Derceto exposed the child, who was reared by doves until taken care of by the keeper of the royal herds. She grew up into a beautiful young woman, with whom Onnes, an officer of king Ninus, fell in love. He married her, and was so infatuated with her that, when he was called away to war, he insisted on her joining him. She disguised herself in apparel that made it impossible to tell whether she was a woman or a man and, on arriving at the camp, displayed military skills that led to victory. Fascinated by her beauty and competence, Ninus asked Onnes to give him his wife, threatening to put his eyes out if he refused. In despair, her husband hanged himself. Ninus married Semiramis, who became queen. They had a son, Nynias, also known, confusingly, as Ninus, like his father, in some versions. After the king’s death,3 she built him a monumental mausoleum and founded or, in some versions, restored and expanded Babylon, where, Strabo claims, she established her royal residence.

4Semiramis built several other cities and led expeditions into several regions, visiting Egypt, Ethiopia and India. Herodotus (fifth cent. BC) acknowledges her contribution to the building of cities and, more especially, Babylon: “it was she who built dykes on the plain, a notable work; before that the whole plain was wont to be flooded by the river” (Histories, I, 184). Her name remained closely associated with the city:

Semiramis established Babylon, the Persians’ city, in such wise that it rose a soli mass with wall of brick, and two chariots might be sent to meet each other nor graze their sides with touching axles; and through the midst of the citadel which she founded she led Euphrates, and bade Bactra bow its head to her sway. (Propertius, b. 50 BC, Elegies, III, xi, 21-26)

5She is also credited with having used asphalt, which was supposedly plentiful in the region of Babylon, to consolidate the walls. Her attachment to the city was such that, Valerius Maximus (first cent. AD) tells us, learning while she was dressing her hair that the city had rebelled, she immediately set out to besiege the town, leaving half her hair unbraided until she had quelled the uprising (Factorum et dictorum memorabilium IX, iii, ext.4). This episode, Valerius Maximus writes, was commemorated by a statue, which was raised in Babylon, showing her with her hair in this way.

6Classical authors associated women rulers with the realms of myth and the Orient. “Women bear sway among the Medes and swift Sabaeans; half barbary is governed by martial queens, Claudian (active c. 395 BC-5) writes in Against Eutropius (I. 339-341). Nonetheless, Semiramis had to hide the fact that she was a woman to achieve so much. He alleges that she surrounded herself with eunuchs, and goes on to explain that this was a ploy to hide her own identity, but that she was vastly superior to the eunuchs around her:

Carthage, far-famed citadel, proud Babylon with her hundred gates, are both said to have been built by a woman’s hand. What noble deed did a eunuch ever do? What wars did such an one fight, what cities did he found? Moreover, nature created the former, the hand of man the latter, whether it was from fear of being betrayed by her shrill woman’s voice and her hairless cheeks that clever Semiramis, to disguise her sex from the Assyrians, first surrounded herself with beings like her… (Claudian, Against Eutropius I. 353-361)

  • 4 His effeminacy was attributed by some authors to Semiramis’ incestuous lust for him (Campomacchia 2 (...)

7While Claudian links Semiramis to Dido as builders of cities, Propertius lists her among powerful women and warriors, Cleopatra, Medea, Penthesilea and Omphale (III, xi). Herodotus associates her with Thamor, or Tomyris, who defeated Cyrus (I, 216). Dio Chrysostom (c.40-c.120) describes her as a “leader of Asia” and includes “Semiramis the queen” among the “women of distinction as well as men” to be found in “the days of old” (Discourses, LXIV, 2-3). But such compliments can be two-edged. Dido committed suicide after Aeneas left her to found an empire that eventually overcame hers; Penthesilea, queen of Amazons, accidentally killed her sister Hippolyta and was killed by Achilles during the Trojan war; Omphale and Cleopatra are remembered for reducing male heroes Hercules and Mark Antony to an effeminate dependence associated with Oriental decadent kings such as Semiramis’ son Ninyas4 and Sardanapalus, the last Assyrian king. And Dio Chrysostom unflatteringly describes Semiramis as an aging man-eater: “Furthermore, I know regarding a female tyrant, Semiramis, that, being advanced in years and lustful, she used to force men to lie with her” (XLVII, 24). Her urge to master empires, cities and men led her to fashion topography to her image. Diodorus tells how, during one of her military campaigns, Semiramis was so impressed by the landscape, a plateau topped by a rocky promontory rising above the plain where her armies lay encamped, that she had a park laid out and a palace built on the rock above:

In this place she passed a long time and enjoyed to the full every device that contributed to luxury; she was unwilling, however, to contract a lawful marriage, being afraid that she might be deprived of her supreme position, but choosing out the most handsome of the soldiers she consorted with them and then made away with all who had lain with her. (II, 13)

8Her son conspired against her: instead of punishing him, she turned over the kingdom to him and disappeared, Diodorus tells us, supposedly being turned into a dove. Other versions allege that he killed her because of her incestuous nature.

Semiramis revisited by Scripture

9The multiple, at times conflicting, versions of Semiramis’ life to be found in classical sources reached medieval and early modern authors through copies, translations and commentaries, thereby inspiring other texts that in turn reorganised the various episodes to create new traditions of reception. Drawing on this material, dictionaries played a significant part in attempting to define or stabilise her persona, as did other works that circulated in Europe in original versions and translations. Some aspects of her complex activities were privileged over others, justifications or condemnation of her actions were advanced, often in the light of the role ascribed to women, according to a given author’s viewpoint, which was generally coloured by social conventions, religious convictions and literary license. Consequently, this refashioning, operating from various perspectives on different levels of reception, took Semiramis into opposed, indeed antithetical directions, in the company of other mythological and Biblical figures, placing her at the crossroads of overlapping or contrasting webs of significance. I shall be focusing here on the way in which classical versions of the life of Semiramis were conflated with Biblical elements, and tracing the ensuing remodelling of her persona.

  • 5 On the equation of Babel and Babylon, see Andrew P. Scheil.
  • 6 "And Cush [son of Ham who was a son of Noah] begate Nimrod, who began to be mighty in the earth. He (...)

10A starting-point in this process is provided by the association of Semiramis and Babylon. In The City of God, Saint Augustine explains that Babel and Babylon are one and the same place.5 Starting from Genesis 10:8-10 and 10:9,6 he writes:

This city now which was called “confusion” is that Babylon, whose wonderfulbuilding is admired even in profane histories: for Babylon is interpreted ‘confusion’. Whence we gather that Nimrod the giant was (as we said before) the builder of it; the scripture saying: “The beginning of his kingdom was Babylon”. This was the metropolitan city of the realm, the king’s residence, and the chief of all the rest, though it were never brought to that strange perfection that the wicked and the proud would have it be, for it was built too high, being, it was said, “up to heaven”, whether this was the fault of some one tower which they wrought more upon than all the rest, or whether all were named under one. (XVI, iv)

  • 7 James Strong’s The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Nashville: Abingdon, 1890, indicates, for t (...)

11This identification of Babel with Babylon proved lasting. It is materialised in The Geneva Bible (1560), where Babel is listed in “A brief table of the interpretation of the proper names”, with Babylon indicated alongside in a corresponding marginalia.7 The further association of Babel-cum-Babylon with Semiramis is also enduring, again in the wake of Saint Augustine, who turns away from the Bible to reach for his classical sources: “Some think she built Babylon. Indeed, she might have repaired it (XVIII, ii). In his Dictionarium Historicum & Poeticum propria locorum & Personarum vocabula breviter complectens (1565), Thomas Cooper has the following entry for Babylon:

Babylon. A great citie in Chaldie, and signifieth confusion or translation, where was a towre builded by Nemroth, in height v. miles 170. paces. Afterward being enlarged by Semiramis, it conteined in compasse 60. miles. The walles were in height 300. feete, in thickenesse or breadth 75. feete, & had 100 gates of brasse. There ran through the midle of it, the famous ryver Euphrates.

12This, like so many of Cooper’s entries, follows almost word for word The Dictionary of syr Thomas Elyot knyght (1538), which, in addition to the link between the classical texts and the Bible provided by the association of Nimrod and Semiramis, offers a further link with biblical topography: “the noble and moste famous river Euphrates, whyche is oone of the ryvers, whereof the sprynge or hedde is in Paradyse”. More than a century later, Thomas Blount, in his Glossographia or a Dictionary (1656), insists, in his entry on Babel, that the destruction of the tower did not impede progress on the city itself: “The City Babel or Babylon (howsever the Tower was hindred) went forward and was finished an. mun. 1960. The out-walls were built by Q. Semiramis”.

  • 8 For a close reading of Boccaccio and Pisan’s treatment of Semiramis, see Dulac and Holderness, who (...)

13The identification of Babel and Babylon implies the inscription of Semiramis’ role in the continuity of the Biblical figure Nimrod, as Boccaccio notes in his portrait of her in De Claris Mulieribus (1374), which Henry Parker, Lord Morley, translated in part in 1534-1547, around the time when Elyot’s dictionary was published: “Babilon, the olde, auncyent cyte of Nemrots, whiche he began in the feeldes of Sennaar, by age decayed, she instoryde agayne and compassyd it with walles of bryke, of hight and greatenes and compass mervelous to se (Parker 13). Christine de Pisan (ca.1364-ca.1431) followed Boccaccio’s text in Cité des dames,8 translated by Brian Anslay (1521): “This Semyramys enforced & made against ye cyte of Babylone whiche was founded by Nembroche and the gyauntes and was set in the felde of Semyaar grete and of mervayllous strengthe and cyrcuyte and lete make aboute large and depe dykes” (Christine sig.Gg.i.r). As if Semiramis’ genealogy were not complex enough, Boccaccio and Christine de Pisan added yet another mythological layer, trying to pull her into the Olympian orbit: the former claims that “the aunsyent historyens wryteth hyr to be the doughter of Neptunus, whiche was the sonne of Saturne” (Parker 11), while the latter sees her as “syster unto the grete god Jupyter and doughter to the auncyent god Saturnus” (Christine []).

14Semiramis’ role as a builder or restorer of Babylon was compounded with the military skills recorded in the classical sources, giving her an unusual and exceptional status. Boccaccio tells us she achieved “many noble ande wonderfull actes that many a stronge man couldenot have brought to passe (Parker 12-13), which Christine de Pisan confirms by choosing her for the “fyrst stone set in the foundement of our cyte” (Christine sig. Gg.ii.r): “This quene founded and edyfyed of newe dyvers cytees & stronge places & accomplysshed many other grete dedes so moche yt there was never wryten of no man of so grete courage ne of more mervaylous werkes worthy to had in myde” (Christine sig. Gg.i.v) One hears an echo of Dio Chrysostom’s “Who would have expected […] that a woman would become leader of Asia”—but then he goes on, or “that a tunic and a woman would cause the death of Heracles” (LXIV, 19-20). Behind the wonder lies an intimation of transgression and decline. Which may be why Semiramis’ story—whether compressed into a few sentences as in a dictionary, or more developed, as in a portrait by Boccaccio—is frequently told in two phases, the first building up her achievements, the second tracing her moral and physical fall: “la femme s’élève pour mieux retomber” (Dulac 319).

  • 9 These Chronicles, of which there were several versions, cover the history of the world, from the cr (...)

15This process underscores the instability of Semiramis’ figure—to the extent that an anonymous text, published in 1485, Here begynnys a schort & breue tabull on thes Cronicles,9 presents Semiramis as “the thrid king of Babulon”, who led an army into India and thus expanded the kingdom of the Assyrians. The text also credits this “king” Semiramis with building a wall about the city of Babylon. The author goes on to explain that “this Semyramis had a wyff & he forsoke hiir. & it is wreten that sche wos slain of hiir sone Ninus. because sche p[ro]vokit him to the unleful concupicens” (biv); he attributes this latter information to The City of God, where, indeed, we may read: “Ninus, the son of Ninus, ruled there after his mother Semiramis, whom they say he slew because she bore an incestuous lust towards him” (XVIII, ii). In a sense, this author attributes Semiramis’ feats to a male alter ego, but taking care to displace the sins associated with the name onto a female figure. A near-identical version published in 1502 under the title Tabula. The Chronicles of England and attributed to Ranulf Higden (d. 1364) lists “Semiramis kynge of Babylon” and completes the above comments about “his” wife with the following claim, that further blurs gender and genealogical boundaries: “And the mayster in his storyes sayth yt she wedded her owne sone & he gate a childe on her, the whiche ordened Babylon to be the heed of all his reame” (avv).

16Other authors (Boccaccio, Cooper) provide rationales for the fact that she ruled the kingdom and wore unsexuated apparel, extending the elements given in the classical sources to explain that her son was young and it seemed to her easier to rule in the guise of a man than a woman. The multiple, simultaneous and oscillating facets of Semiramis are wonderfully summed up in a single sentence by Boccaccio—

… et sic Nyni olim conjunx filium et femina puerum simulans, mira cum diligentia majestatem regiam adepta, eam militaremque disciplinam servavit et, mentita sexum, grandia multa et robustissimis viris egregia operata est. (Parker 12)

—which Parker translates as:

And thus the wyfe of the sumtyme noble Nynus, faynynge hyr bothe his wyfe and his chylde, with a mervelouse diligence maynteyned the kyngly dignyte and the knyghtly chevalry, and faynynge a contrarye sexe, eschewyde many noble ande wonderfull actes that many a stronge man couldenot have brought to passe. (Parker 12-13)

17Cooper not only advances an explanation, he also seeks to exonerate her by telling his reader how she revealed her true identity after having achieved control of the empire. So doing, he invites sympathy for her while also providing a lead into the story told by Valerius Maximus, whereby she left her hair half unbraided to go and regain Babylon:

…being loth on the tone part to committe the charge of so great an empire to the governement of his yonge sonne, and on the tother fearing that the fierce people would be loth to be governed by a woman, altered hir apparayle somewhat to the facion of men, and tooke on hir the person of hir sonne, to whom she was both in stature and favour very like. But when by many noble enterprices and valiaunt actes she had so much confirmed and inlarged her empire, as she myght seeme to have passed the compasse of envie, she disclosed what she was, and why she hadde so dooen. Whiche thyng knowen did not onely nothing appaire hir authoritie, but stirred greater admiration towarde hir.

18As if regretfully, Cooper records her ultimate “fall” in just one final sentence, at the end of a substantial entry: “At the last, falling from noblenesse to sensuall luste, she desired the companie of hir owne sonne, and of him was slayne”. The ascending and descending narrative pattern was to some extent already present in the classical texts. An imbalance between praise and criticism suggests where the author’s heart may have lain: Cooper’s text indicates overall sympathy. Elsewhere, the ascending and declining curve is rhetorically more evenly balanced, as in Boccaccio, who follows the pattern he uses for Eve with whom he opens his gallery of portraits, Semiramis coming next: “in his view, even the brightest women can fall prey to their carnal natures, and indeed he frames his history of women as a series of falls from grace” (Holderness 98). The pedagogic vein is evident: Semiramis may have been a great leader, but she was not highly commendable.

19What emerges is a sense, already perceptible in some of the classical sources, that, as a woman, she usurped her role, hence the temptation to think she was a man. Her career is emblematic of multiple transgressions: that of a woman moving and acting in a world of men as military strategist, ruler and builder, but also that of a woman behaving as a man and reversing the usual codes: not only did she deal with her subjects as a male ruler might, but she is also made to appear as dealing with men as a ruler or patriarch might with his concubines, in a self-centred and ruthless manner. This transgression is further compounded by allegations that she concealed the fact that she was a woman, either dressing as a man, or favouring androgynous apparel, which is all the more threatening in that it blurs gendered differences and undermines male identity. This is in turn extended into the fact that she disguised herself as her son to rule the kingdom after her husband’s death, thereby overstepping generational differences. From here to suspecting her of crossing the boundaries between the human and animal worlds, placing her in the company of Pasiphae, there was only one step, made explicit in the commentary to John Harington’s translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, where Fiordispina, who thinks she loves another woman, lists other forms of desire that, to her sense, are less unnatural than hers:

The wife of Nynus had a strange desire,
To joyne in copulation with her sonne:
Myrrha was by her father made a mother,
And made Adonis, both her sonne and brother.

Pasyphae, except it be a tale,
Was buld inclosed in a wodden cow;
Yet in all these the female sought the male,
But nature doth my fansie disallow;
(XXV, 30-31)

The examples that Fiordispina recites of other womens unlawfull lusts, preferring them before her owne, for their possibilitie (hers being unpossible) are confirmed by divers authors, as of Nynus wife Symeramis; that lusted after a horse: Mynos wife after a bull, and other such tales, though I thinke untrue, or rather cullerd by such names: as in that of Pasiphae, it is thought she loved one that was called Taurus (to say bull)…(“Historie, notes of the xxv. booke”, 20[4])

20Once again, codes are reversed, since it is more usually a male god, namely Jupiter, who assumes the guise of a beast to seduce women. These forms of transgression interweave with the god-defying and arrogant history of Babel/Babylon, and the cruelty and depravity associated with rulers of the city, to present Semiramis’ career as leading to a fall.

21Behind the mixture of wonder and condemnation lies, furthermore, an intimation, or a fear, of masculine decline. Condemnation of Semiramis, underscored by a misogynist outlook, combines with a classical contempt of effeminate men, over whom Juvenal considered her and Cleopatra to be superior (Satires II, 108). Boccaccio follows a classical tradition that presents Semiramis’ son Ninyas as effeminate, attributing this to her incestuous lust—omitted, interestingly, by Parker: “uti mutasset cum matre sexum, in thalamis marcebat ocio, ubi hec adversus hostes sudabat in armis” [as if he had changed sex with his mother, he languished idly in his apartments, while she hotly fought the enemy in her armour].

22Oriental rulers were associated with depravity, the most noteworthy example being Sardanapalus, who lost the throne and was associated with the downfall of the Assyrian empire, “this degenerate, spinning purple wool among his concubines [being] the very opposite of the kind of character Diodorus admires” (Bigwood 203). In Book V of La Judit (1574), “Englished” as The historie of Judith by Thomas Hudson (1584, 1608), Du Bartas brings together Semiramis and Sardanapalus in the tapestries that hang in Holofernes’ tent:

Then went she to his tent where she espied,
the gorgious tappestries on everie side,
Of Persian Kings, of Meds, and Syrian stories,
How Nin’ first (prict forth with great vainglories)
Subdewde the East then next in order came
(disguisd in kinde) his wife Quene Semirame:
who tooke the Scepter and with tourrets hye
great Babylon erected to the skye,
Lo, how a Prince with fingers white and fine
In womans weede the tender twist doth twine,
Who bare a Rock in sted of Royall mace,
And for a man with woman changeth grace
… (Bartas sig. Fvv)

23The arrogance of Semiramis, erecting “tourrets hye” to reach the sky, recalls the presumptuous behaviour of Nimrod building the tower of Babel; simultaneously, she is linked here with Sardanapalus in that each one shunned the garments and behaviour associated with his or her gender. The allegorical dimension of these “figurs vain” (Bartas sig. [G1r]) is intended to be opposed to the ekphrasis of virtuous figures such as Susan and Joseph, which Judith creates in her embroidery in Book IV.

24Semiramis, it might be implied, was thus cast as an allegory of female arrogance and immorality, a warning to virtuous women and weak men. Procopius had already mentioned “the licentious life of Semiramis” (Anecdotes, I, 9). Gower associated her with prostitution in Confessio Amantis (V, 1430-1436), and Lavinia refers to her to indicate Tamora’s lust and ruthlessness in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (II.3.118). Chaucer combines this with godlessness in “The Man of Law’s Tale”, where he compares the mother of the Sowdan, “welle of vices” (322), to Semiramis when she decides to feign conversion to Christendom:

O Sowdanesse, roote of iniquitee!
Virago, thou Semyrame the secounde!
O serpent under femynynytee,
Lik to the serpent depe in helle ybounde!
O feyned womman, al that may confounde
Vertu and innocence, thurgh thy malice,
Is bred in thee, as nest of every vice! (358-364)

Nothing, it seems, can save Semiramis from universal reprobation.

  • 10 The author of this anonymous text may have been a monk, Conrad of Hirsau. On the question of author (...)

25Semiramis, however, is resilient. Just as she resisted being pinned down to a single role or set of attributes in classical literature, so she turns around those that are coloured by Christian moralisation to emerge as a figure worthy of praise and an example for, paradoxical though it might seem, high-minded Christian women. An early example of this is to be found in the Speculum Virginum, or Mirror of Virgins (ca. 1140),10 which is a dialogue between a religious mentor, Peregrinus, and a nun, Theodora. Peregrinus guides her and, by extension, a female readership, along the path of Christian humility, charity and virtue, turning to classical literature and Scripture for exemplary figures and choosing strong-willed women, “all of whom overcame tyrants and ruled their realms with great discipline” (Bailey 279): they include Judith, Semiramis, Thamar, queen of the Scythians, and Amazons, whom Theodora welcomes for “adding by words and examples strength of a virile spirit to women’s hearts” (quoted in Mews 25). They culminate with Mary, “leader of the virtuous” [princeps virginum] as a focus of devotion“ (Mews 25).

26The Amazons and Thamar also belong with Semiramis to a single group of exemplary women in Cité des dames. The group is introduced by Semiramis, whose description begins: ”a woman of right grete vertue in dede of grete and vyctoryous courage“ (Christine sig. After listing her many achievements, Christine de Pisan addresses the issue of Semiramis’ questionable reputation, which she attempts to explain away:

It is trouthe that many blameth her & so she ought of ryght yf she had ben of our lawe of that yt she toke her owne sone to housbande yt she had goten of Nynus her lorde but the causes that moved her to that were pryncypally that one that she wolde not have had in her Empyre none other lady crowned save onely herselfe […] that other cause was that her semed no man worthy to have her to his wife save onely her owne sone, yet was this cause ye gretter thrughe whiche she was somewhat excused in yt that she was not of our lawe for ye peole lyved after ye lawe of nature where one durste doo to another without mysse takynge that whiche his herte perceyved or desyred. For it is no doubte that if she had thought that it had ben evyll or that ony blame sholde fall to her therof but that she had so grete and soo hyghe courage and loved so moche worshyp she wolde never have done it. (Christine sig. Gg.i.v-Gg.ii.r)

27The cluster comprising Semiramis, Thamor and the Amazons, following upon another cluster in which Semiramis is grouped with Athaliah, the queen of Judah, Candace, queen of Ethiopia, and the queen of Sheba, is also to be found in Agrippa von Nettesheim’s Latin treatise, which he wrote for Margaret of Austria (1509). The treatise was published in England, in a translation by David Clapam (A treatise of the nobilitie and excellencye of woman kinde, 1542) and another by Edward Fleetwood (The glory of women: or, A treatise declaring the excellency and preheminence of women above man…, 1652). As the titles indicate, the purpose of the treatise is to reinstate women by drawing upon examples of figures from Antiquity and Scripture who proved to be outstanding in different fields. Semiramis is here given as an example of a ruler, but also of a wise judge:

It is read in the History of the Kings, that Attalia the Queen reigned and Judged seven yeares in Jerusalem; and Semiramis after the death of Ninus the King, judged the People forty yeares, and all the Candaces, Queens of Æthiopia, Reigned being most wife, and potent; concerning whom mention is made in the Acts of the Apostles.… Adde hereunto Nicaula, the Queene of Sheba …Furthermore, in the invention of matters, Isis, Minerva, Nycostrata are examples. And in modelling Governments and Cities, Semiramis holding the Monarchy of the whole world, Dido, and the Amazones. In Wars, Thomiris Queene of the Massagetans, which conquered Cyrus the Monarch of the Persians. (Fleetwood 24-25)

28A few lines further on, Agrippa von Nettesheim pursues with examples of ”other most famous women, which restored safety to their Nation“ (Fleetwood 25), namely Judith:

Whom Jeremy extolleth in these words, saying, Receive ye Judith the widow, an example of chastity, with triumph, perpetuate her never-dying memory with praises; he giveth her out not only to be imitated by women, but by men, because being an example & rewarder of chastity, such were her vertues, that she overcame the invincible, and excelled the most excellent. (Fleetwood 25)

29Far from being opposed to Judith, as in Du Bartas, Semiramis is associated with her here, as in the medieval Speculum Virginum.

30In dedicating the treatise to the Austrian queen, Agrippa von Nettesheim declares “the eminency of women above men”, which he justifies as follows in his opening “Speech and Declamation”: the fact that God created woman after having created man is a sure sign of her superiority since God worked “by ascending through every degree of dignity, from the more vile, proceeding to the perfection of the Universe”: “Since, then, Woman is the last of all Creatures, the end, and complement of all the works of God, and the perfection of the Universe it selfe, who will deny her to be most worthy of preheminence?” (Fleetwood B1r-v). Furthermore, worthiness is also reinforced by the region one comes from: “For the more worthye place, that any thing is born or brought up in, the more noble it is judged. Wherfore Isaac commanded his sonne Jacob, that he shoulde not take a wyfe of the lande of Canaan, but of Mesopotamie in Syria, beynge of better estimation” (B1r-v). Just as the perception of Semiramis and other figures is turned around to reveal only qualities, topography is here reversed in terms of the values attached to it.

31Neither an Olympian divinity nor a Biblical figure, Semiramis was associated with a distant East that was a source of fascination, fear and rejection for classical and early-Christian authors alike. These mixed feelings were intertwined and reworked by late medieval and early modern European authors to construct a figure that transgressed gender and genealogical boundaries and illustrated the lack of clear-cut divide between mythology and Scripture. Perceptions of her oscillated between two opposed, morally connoted poles. Medieval and early modern authors found her just as difficult to pin down as Diodorus did, and, perhaps, even more so. Hence, perhaps, Robert Burton’s laconic comment in The Anatomy of Melancholy: ”As she had some good, so had she many bad parts“—the ”good“ and the ”bad“ being in themselves, like the unravelling of ”conflicting accounts", a matter of focus, viewpoints and agendas.

Top of page


Agrippa of Nettesheim, Heinrich Cornelius, The glory of women: or, A treatise declaring the excellency and preheminence of woman above man, Fleetwood, Edward transl., London: Robert Ibbitson, 1652.

Anon., Here begynnys a schort & breue tabull on thes Cronicles [Sanctus albanus, 1485], STC (2nd ed. / 9995).

Ariosto, Ludovico, Orlando Furioso In English Heroical Verse, John Harington transl., London: Richard Field, 1591.

Bailey, Elizabeth, ”Judith, Jael, and Humilitas in the Speculum Virginum“, The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across Disciplines, Brine, Kevin R., Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann eds., Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2010, 276-290.

Bigwood, J. M., “Diodorus and Ctesias”, Phoenix, 3 (34), Autumn 1980, 195-207.

Blount, Thomas, Glossographia or a Dictionary, interpreting all such hard words whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Teutonick, Belgick, British or Saxon; as are now used in our refined English tongue…, London: Tho. Newcomb, 1656.

Campomacchia, Anna Maria G., Semiramis una femminilità ribaltata, Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1986

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Riverside Chaucer, Cannon, Christopher ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 (1987).

Christine, de Pisan, Here begynneth the boke of the cyte of ladyes, Anslay, Brian, transl., London: Henry Pepwell, 1521.

Claudian, 2 vols., vol. 1, Platnauer, M. transl., Loeb Classical History, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1922.

Cooper, Thomas, Dictionarium historicum & poeticum propria vocabula virorum, mulierum, sectarum, populorum, urbium, montium, & caeterorum locorum complectens [follows his Thesaurus linguae Romanae & Britannicae in the same volume], London: Berthelet, 1565.

Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 37-60, vol. 4, Crosby, H. Lamar transl., Loeb Classical History, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1946.

-----, Discourses 61-80. Fragments. Letters, vol. 5, Crosby, H. Lamar transl., Loeb Classical History, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1951.

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, vol. 1, Oldfather, C. H. transl., Loeb Classical History, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1933.

Du Bartas, Salluste, The historie of Judith, Hudson, Thomas transl., Edinburgh: Thomas Vautroullier, 1584.

Dulac, Liliane, “Un mythe didactique chez Christine de Pizan: Sémiramis ou la veuve héroïque (du De Mulieribus claris de Boccace à La Cité des Dames)”, Mélanges de philologie romane offerts à Charles Camproux, Montpellier, Centre d’Etudes occitanes, 1978, 2 vols., vol. 1, 315-343.

Elyot, Thomas, The Dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght, London: Berthelet, 1538.

Gower, John, Confessio amantis, Macaulay, G.C. ed., 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1969 (1900-1901).

Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Godley, A. D. transl., 4 vols., vol. 1, Loeb Classical History, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1920.

Higden, Ranulf, Tabula, London: Wynkyn de Worde, [1502], STC (2nd ed.)/9997.

Holderness, Julia Simms, Feminism and the Fall: Boccaccio, Christine de Pizan, and Louise Labé, Essays in Medieval Studies 21, 2004, 97-108.

Marlowe, Christopher, Tamburlaine the Great, Cunningham, J. S., ed., Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981.

Mews, Constant J. ed., Listen, Daughter: The Speculum Virginum and the Formation of Religious Women in the Middle Ages, New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Parker, Henry, Lord Morley, Forty-six Lives translated from Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus, Wright, Henry G., ed., The Early English Text Society, London: Oxford University Press, 1943, 1970.

Procopius, The Anecdota or Secret History, Dewing, H. B. transl., Loeb Classical History, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1935.

Propertius, Elegies, Goold, G. P. ed. and transl., Loeb Classical History, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1990.

Saint Augustine, The City of God, Healey, John transl. (1610), Tasker, R. V. G. ed., Barker, Sir Ernest intr., 2 vols., London: Everyman, 1945 (1967).

Scheil, Andrew P., “Babylon and Anglo-Saxon England”, Studies in the Literary Imagination 36, 1, March 2003, 37-58.

Shakespeare, The Complete Works, Wells, Stanley and Gary Taylor eds., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 (1988).

Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Shackleton Bailey, D.R. ed. and transl., 2 vols., Loeb Classical History, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2000.

Top of page


1 See Anna Maria G. Campomacchia for a study of the classical sources, which she orders according to the main stages of Semiramis’ life: birth, childhood, marriage, children, reign (builder and military leadership) and death.

2 "Diodorus does not present Ctesias’ version of the tale of Semiramis as if it were the only one" (Bigwood 202).

3 There are conflicting accounts of the circumstances in which he died. According to some versions, Semiramis, soon after their marriage, persuaded Ninus to allow her to rule in his stead for five days, then seized power (Diodorus II 20, 3-5).

4 His effeminacy was attributed by some authors to Semiramis’ incestuous lust for him (Campomacchia 27); Ninyas in effect provides a further link between Semiramis and Sardanapalus.

5 On the equation of Babel and Babylon, see Andrew P. Scheil.

6 "And Cush [son of Ham who was a son of Noah] begate Nimrod, who began to be mighty in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. wherfore it is said, As Nimrod ye mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdome was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. … Therfore the name of it was called ‘Babel’, because the Lord did there confounde the language of all the earth: from thence did the Lord scater them upon all the earth." Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture is quoted from The Geneva Bible, 1560 (My comments in square brackets).

7 James Strong’s The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Nashville: Abingdon, 1890, indicates, for the entry Babel, "see also Babylon".

8 For a close reading of Boccaccio and Pisan’s treatment of Semiramis, see Dulac and Holderness, who also proposes a comparison with Louise Labé.

9 These Chronicles, of which there were several versions, cover the history of the world, from the creation of the world through episodes of the Old Testament and Antiquity, to the author’s time, in some cases. Some of these chronicles were copied and updated by later authors.

10 The author of this anonymous text may have been a monk, Conrad of Hirsau. On the question of authorship, see Mews 16-20.

Top of page


Bibliographical reference

Janice Valls-Russell, « As she had some good, so had she many bad parts”: Semiramis’ Transgressive Personas », Caliban, 29 | 2011, 103-118.

Electronic reference

Janice Valls-Russell, « As she had some good, so had she many bad parts”: Semiramis’ Transgressive Personas », Caliban [Online], 29 | 2011, Online since 15 May 2015, connection on 29 November 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Top of page

About the author

Janice Valls-Russell

CNRS, IRCL, Montpellier

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo Presses universitaires du Midi
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search