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From The Archives - Semiramis Forms an "Elephant Corps"

An ancient tradition for which little historical evidence can be found, holds that the Assyrians were once ruled by a redoubtable warrior queen named Semiramis, who, centuries before Alexander the Great, built an empire at least as sprawling as that which he put together. Although some feminist scholars work hard at marshalling “evidence” that this extraordinary woman actually existed, there is little evidence to support the tale. It seems likely that the legendary queen may have been based on Shammuramat, a definite historical figure of quite impressive attainments, though not a world conqueror. A Babylonian woman, she was the wife of Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad V (r. 824-811 BC). When he died, Shammuramat reigned for several years (811- 808 BC) as regent for her son, King Adad-nirari III (811-783 BC), a task that would have required enormous skill at statecraft.

But back to the legend. Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian Greek historian who wrote in the middle of the last century before the Christian Era, tell us that, having conquered Egypt and Ethiopia, Semiramis decided to invade India. She accumulated information about the enemy, to learn everything possible about India and Indian armies. Based on this information, she laid her plans, which required two years’ to mature, since she had to accumulate troops and supplies, manufacture weapons and boats to cope with the great Indus River, and solve the problem of elephants. Diodorus tells us what happened next.


Observing that she was greatly inferior because of her lack of elephants, Semiramis conceived the plan of making puppets like these animals, in the hope that the Indians would be struck with terror because of their belief that no elephants ever existed at all apart from those found in India. Accordingly she chose out three hundred thousand black oxen and distributed their meat among her artisans and the men who had been assigned to the task of making the figures, but the hides she had sewed together and stuffed with straw, and thus made dummies, copying in every detail the natural appearance of elephants. Each dummy had within it a man to take care of it and a camel and, when it was moved by the latter, to those who saw it from a distance it looked like an actual elephant. The artisans who were engaged in making these dummies for her worked in a certain court which had been surrounded by a wall and had gates which were carefully guarded, so that no worker within could pass out nor anyone from outside could come in. This she did in order that no one from the outside might see what was taking place and that no report about the puppets might escape to the Indians.

When the boats and the beasts had been prepared in the two allotted years, on the third she summoned her forces from everywhere to Bactriana. The multitude which was assembled . . . was three million foot-soldiers, two hundred thousand cavalry, and one hundred thousand chariots. There were also men mounted on camels, carrying swords four cubits long, as many in number as the chariots. Of boats which could be taken apart she built two thousand, and she had collected camels to carry the vessels overland. Camels also bore the elephant puppets, while the soldiers, by bringing their horses close to the puppets, accustomed them not to fear the savage nature of the beasts. . . .

When King Stabrobates of the Indians heard of the immensity of her forces and of the exceedingly great preparations she had made for the war, he was anxious to surpass Semiramis in every respect. Stabrobates . . . gave great care to the preparation of his arms and by visiting all India gathered a far greater force than that which had been collected by Semiramis. Furthermore, by gathering in wild elephants he was able to add many times to the number already at his disposal. He fitted them all out splendidly with such things as would strike terror in war, so that when they advanced to the attack their multitude and the towers upon their backs made them appear like a thing beyond the power of human nature to understand. . . . 

. . . when her advance brought her with her force to the Indus River, Semiramis found the boats of the enemy ready for battle.  Consequently, hastily putting together her boats and manning them with her best marines, she joined battle on the river, while the foot-soldiers which were drawn up along the banks also participated eagerly in the contest.  The struggle raged for a long time and both sides fought spiritedly, but finally Semiramis was victorious and destroyed about a thousand of the Indian boats, taking not a few men prisoners.  Elated by her victory, she reduced to the islands in the river and the cities on them and gathered in more than one hundred thousand captives. 

After these events King Stabrobates withdrew his force from the river, giving the appearance of retreating in fear but actually with the intention of enticing the enemy to cross the river.  Thereupon Semiramis, seeing that her endeavors were prospering as she wished, spanned the river with a costly and large bridge, by means of which she got all her forces across. Leaving sixty thousand men to guard the pontoon bridge, with the rest of her army she advanced in pursuit of the Indians, with the dummy elephants leading the way in order that the king's spies might report the great multitude of these animals in her army.  Nor was she deceived in this hope; on the contrary, when those who had been despatched to spy her out reported to the Indians the numbers of elephants in her ranks, they were all at a loss to discover from where such a multitude of beasts could have come.  

However, the deception did not remain a secret for long. Some of Semiramis' troops were caught neglecting their night watches in the camp, and these, in fear of the consequent punishment, deserted to the enemy and pointed out to them their mistake regarding the nature of the elephants. Encouraged by this information, King Stabrobates, after informing his army about the deception, set his forces in array and turned about to face the Assyrians.

Semiramis likewise marshalled her forces, and as the two armies neared each other Stabrobates, the king of the Indians, despatched his cavalry and chariots far in advance of the main body.  The queen stoutly withstood the attack of the cavalry, and since the elephants which she had fabricated had been stationed at equal intervals in front of the main body of troops, it came about that the Indian horses shied at them. Initially, since the puppets looked like real elephants at a distance, the Indian horses, trained to cope with the beasts, charged upon them boldly enough. But on coming closer, the horses were confused by the smell of the “elephants” and other peculiarities. This threw the attackng horses into utter confusion. Consequently some of the Indians were thrown to the ground, while others, were carried away when their horses would not obey the rein, and fled pell-mell, some into the midst of the enemy.  

Semiramis, who was in the battle with a select band of soldiers, made skilful use of her advantage and put the Indians to flight.  But although these fled towards the battle-line, King Stabrobates, undismayed, advanced the ranks of his foot-soldiers, keeping his elephants in front, while he himself, taking his position on the right wing and fighting from the most powerful of the beasts, charged in terrifying fashion upon the Queen, whom chance had placed opposite him. Since the rest of the Indian elephants followed his example, the Semiramis’ army could bear the attack of the beasts for but a short time, as the Indian elephants, by virtue of their extraordinary courage and the confidence which they felt their power, easily destroyed everyone who tried to withstand them. 

Consequently there was a great slaughter, which was effected in various ways upon Semiramis’ troops, some being trampled beneath the feet of Stabrobates’ elephans, others ripped up by their tusks, and a number tossed into the air by their trunks. And since a great multitude of corpses lay piled one upon the other and the danger aroused terrible consternation and fear in those who witnessed the sight, not a man had the courage to hold his position any longer.


Oddly, Diodorus doesn’t tell us what happened when Stabrobates’ real elephants encountered Semirmais’ bogus ones . . . perhaps they bellowed in pachydermacious laughter as they stomped them into the ground.

As noted in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, When the myth becomes larger than the truth, print the myth!,” tales of Semiramis and her exploits are definitely worth recounting, even if they aren’t true.


Note: Those interested in learning more about the use of the elephant in war should have a look at War Elephants by John M. Kistler (Lincoln, Nb.: Bison/University of Nebraska Press, 2007). 

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