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.