Assyrians: Trogus on the achievements of Ninos and Semiramis and on the extreme effeminacy of Sardanapalus (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Assyrians: Trogus on the achievements of Ninos and Semiramis and on the extreme effeminacy of Sardanapalus (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2024,

Ancient authors: Pompeius Trogus (first century BCE) as cited by Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 1.1-3 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: As ethnographic descriptions of Assyrians are few and far between, this passage summarizing Pompeius Trogus’ account is noteworthy. Justin’s summary suggests that Trogus characterized Assyrians as the first imperial power to subjugate surrounding peoples, in contrast to more ambitious and far-off conquests by the likes of the Egyptian Sesostris. The legendary royals Ninos and Semiramis are in some ways used to characterize Assyrians. Trogus touches on the specific dress of Assyrians. In an odd turn, Trogus has Zoroaster as a king of the Baktrians but nonetheless the same Zoroaster who introduced Magian ways. He also taps into common Greek and Roman gender stereotypes regarding easterners, casting a king called Sardanapalus as extremely effeminate. Once again there is the paradoxical notion that far-off peoples turn things upside down, with Semiramis being manly and Sardanapalus being womanly.


[Introduction to kings and control of peoples]

(1.1-3) Originally, the control of descent groups (gentes) and peoples (nationes) was in the hands of kings. Kings were elevated to the height of this dignity not by their flattery of the people, but by their discretion, as commended by the prudent. The people were not bound by any laws at that time. The wills of their princes were in the place of laws. It was their custom to defend, rather than advance, the boundaries of their empire. The dominions of each were confined within his own country.

[Ninos’ achievements and subjugation of surrounding peoples]

The first of all princes who, from an extravagant desire of ruling, changed this old and, as it were, hereditary custom, was Ninos (or: Ninus) [i.e. namesake of Ninevah], king of the Assyrians. It was he who first engaged in war with his neighbours and subdued the descent groups who were still too barbarous to resist him as far as the frontiers of Libya. Sesostris [or: Sesoosis, Senwosret], king of Egypt, and Tanaus, king of Scythia, were indeed prior to him in time; the one of whom advanced into the Pontos and the other as far as Egypt. However, these princes engaged in distant wars, not in struggles with their neighbours. They did not seek dominion for themselves, but glory for their people. As they were content with victory, they declined to govern those whom they subdued.

[Ninos’ conquest of Zoroaster, king of the Baktrians, with reference to Magians]

But Ninos established the greatness of his acquired dominion by immediately taking possession of the conquered countries. Overcoming the nearest people and advancing against others with great strength, with each successive victory becoming the instrument of one to follow, he subjugated the population (populus) of the whole east. Ninos’ last war was with Zoroaster, king of the Baktrians. Zoroaster is said to have been the first that invented Magian skills and to have investigated, with great attention, the origin of the world and the motions of the stars. After killing Zoroaster, Ninos himself died, leaving a son called Ninyas, still a minor, and a wife, whose name was Semiramis.

[Semiramis’ achievements and Assyrian customs of dress]

Since Semiramis was not daring enough to entrust control to a youth or to openly take it on herself (as so many great descent groups would scarcely submit to one man, much less to a woman), she pretended that she was the son of Ninos instead of his wife, a man instead of a woman. The stature of both mother and son was low, their voice alike weak, and the cast of their features similar. Consequently, she wore long garments on her arms and legs and decked her head with a turban. In order to avoid appearing to conceal anything by this new outfit, she ordered her subjects also to wear the same apparel. This is a fashion which the entire descent group has since retained. After disguising her gender at the commencement of her reign, she was believed to be a man. She afterwards performed many noble achievements. When she thought envy was overcome by the greatness of her achievements, she acknowledged who she was and whom she had impersonated. Nor did this confession detract from her authority as a sovereign. Instead, this increased admiration for her, since she, being a woman, surpassed not only women, but men, in heroism.

[Semiramis’ construction of Babylon and campaigns against Ethiopia and India]

It was Semiramis that built Babylon and constructed a wall of burned brick around the city. They used bitumen, a substance which everywhere oozes from the ground in those parts, being spread between the bricks instead of mortar. Many other famous achievements were performed by this queen as well. Not content with preserving the territories acquired by her husband, she also added Ethiopia to her empire; and she even made war upon India, into which no prince, except her and Alexander the Great, ever penetrated. At last, conceiving a criminal passion for her son, she was killed by him, after holding the kingdom forty-two years from the death of Ninos.

Her son Ninyas, content with the empire acquired by his parents, laid aside the pursuits of war, and, as if he had changed sexes with his mother, was seldom seen by men, but grew old in the company of his women. His successors also followed his example by giving answers to their people through their ministers. The Assyrians, who were afterwards called “Syrians,” held their empire thirteen hundred years.

[Sardanapallus and his supposed extreme effeminacy]

The last king that reigned over them was Sardanapalus [perhaps a corruption of Ashurbanipal, though not the last king of Assyria], a man more effeminate than a woman. One of his satraps, named Arbakes, governor of the Medes, obtained (with great difficulty and after much solicitation) admission to visit him. Arbakes found Sardanapalus among crowds of concubines and dressed like a woman, spinning purple wool with a spindle and distributing tasks to girls. He surpassed all the women in his effeminacy and in the sexuality of his appearance. When Arbakes saw this, he felt indignant that so many men would be subject to someone so much like a woman and that those who bore swords and weapons would obey one that worked with wool. So he proceeded to his companions and told them what he had seen, protesting that he could not submit to a prince who would rather be a woman than a man. A conspiracy was consequently formed and war raised against Sardanapalus. When Sardanapalus heard what had occurred, he did not act like a man that would defend his kingdom but like women, who are used to looking around for a hiding place when faced with the fear of death. Nonetheless, afterwards he marched into the field with a few poorly trained troops. Being conquered in battle, he withdrew into his palace. After raising and setting fire to a pile of combustibles, he threw himself and his riches into the flames. It was only in this respect that he acted like a man. After him Arbakes, who was the occasion of Sardanapalus’ death, and who had been governor of the Medes, was made king, and transferred the empire from the Assyrians to the Medes.


Source of the translation: J.S. Watson, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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