Historical Figures


Semiramis was a historical Assyrian queen of Babylonian birth, who lived and reigned around 800 B.C.E. By the 18th century the legends associated with her life had eclipsed her actual accomplishments as queen, notably due to the popularity of Voltaire's eponymous play, written in 1748. His version of her life centered on palace intrigue, notably the beautiful queen's affair with Assur, and her plot to have him poison her husband, the king. As he dies, the king implores a trusted friend to take his son, Ninias, away from the palace to save his life.

Although Semiramis ruled Babylon well for fifteen years, during that time she was stricken with guilt over the murder of her husband and the loss of her son. Her lover Assur, however, plots Semiramis' death after she refuses to marry him and install him as king. To foil his plans, she arranges to marry a young warrior, who is in fact her son, whom she mistakenly believes to be dead. Ninias is warned away from this incestuous marriage by his father's ghost, who then demands that his son avenge his murder. Led by the ghost, Ninias stabs and kills a form he believes is Assur, but is, in fact, Semiramis.

Voltaire's play inspired Gioacchino Rossini's 1822 operatic version of the story, Semiramide, long considered among the composer's greatest achievements. William Wetmore Story relied on these dramatized accounts when he created a monumental, marble portrait of the queen in 1872 (1999.117.A-B).

Excerpt from

Eleanor Jones Harvey, DMA Acquisition Proposal (1999.117.A-B), April 1999.