Semiramis’ campaign against the Indians

But after Semiramis had put in order the affairs of Ethiopia and Egypt she returned with her force to Bactra in Asia. And since she had great forces and had been at peace for some time she became eager to achieve some brilliant exploit in war.

And when she was informed that the Indian nation was the largest one in the world and likewise possessed both the most extensive and the fairest country, she purposed to make a campaign into India. Stabrobates at that time was king of the country and had a multitude of soldiers without number; and many elephants were also at his disposal, fitted out in an exceedingly splendid fashion with such things as would strike terror in war.


For India is a land of unusual beauty, and since it is traversed by many rivers it is supplied with water over its whole area and yields two harvests each year; consequently it has such an abundance of the necessities of life that at all times it favours its inhabitants with a bounteous enjoyment of them. And it is said that because of the favourable climate in those parts the country has never experienced a famine or a destruction of crops.

It also has an unbelievable number of elephants, which both in courage and in strength of body far surpass those of Libya, and likewise gold, silver, iron, and copper; furthermore, within its borders are to be found great quantities of precious stones of every kind and of practically all other things which contribute to luxury and wealth.

When Semiramis had received a detailed account of these facts she was led to begin her war against the Indians, although she had been done no injury by them.

[NovoScriptorium: Here we have a very interesting description of ancient India. Not only it is presented as a very wealthy land, but a very populated one, too. Diodorus clearly accuses Semiramis for making this war because of greed. Philosophers, starting with Homer, were condemning as ‘unnaceptable’ the practice of waging war against people that never harmed you. Diodorus seems to agree with this stance]

And realizing that she needed an exceedingly great force in addition to what she had, she despatched messengers to all the satrapies, commanding the governors to enrol the bravest of the young men and setting their quota in accordance with the size of each nation; and she further ordered them all to make new suits of armour and to be at hand, brilliantly equipped in every other respect, at Bactra on the third year thereafter.

She also summoned shipwrights from Phoenicia, Syria, Cyprus, and the rest of the lands along the sea, and shipping thither an abundance of timber she ordered them to build river boats which could be taken to pieces.

[NovoScriptorium: We are reading here of massive preparations. Three years time is quite a long time; and at so many different places!]

For the Indus river, by reason of its being the largest in that region and the boundary of her kingdom, required many boats, some for the passage across and others from which to defend the former from the Indians; and since there was no timber near the river the boats had to be brought from Bactriana by land.

[NovoScriptorium: Indus river had been the eastern border of the Assyrian Empire at the time of Semiramis, according to Diodorus. The fact that the Assyrians managed to carry -thousands of- boats by land implies that the Assyrians possessed transport capabilities and logistics organization]

Observing that she was greatly inferior because of her lack of elephants, Semiramis conceived the plan of making dummies 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 sewed together and stuffed with straw, and thus made dummies, copying in every detail the natural appearance of these animals. 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 animal.

And the artisans who were engaged in making these dummies for her worked at their task 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 no one from outside could come in to them. This she did in order that no one from the outside might see what was taking place and that no report about the dummies might escape to the Indians.

[NovoScriptorium: The art of deception can be proved crucial in a war. Espionage, too. The Assyrians of Semiramis are presented to have been well aware of this reality]

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. And the multitude of the army which was assembled, as Ctesias of Cnidus has recorded, 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. And river boats which could be taken apart she built to the number of two thousand, and she had collected camels to carry the vessels overland. Camels also bore the dummies of the elephants, as has been mentioned; and the soldiers, by bringing their horses up to these camels, accustomed them not to fear the savage nature of the beasts.

[NovoScriptorium: The numbers Diodorus presents are quite big! If we attempt a  comparison with e.g. the Roman Empire, that never reached the total of 1,000,000 soldiers, we must assume that the Assyrian Empire had been far more populous than the Roman Empire, or alternatively, that the people in more ancient times participated more easily in wars, either by will either by force]

A similar thing was also done many years later by Perseus, the king of the Macedonians, before his decisive conflict with the Romans who had elephants from Libya. But neither in his case did it turn out that the zeal and ingenuity displayed in such matters had any effect on the conflict, nor in that of Semiramis, as will be shown more precisely in our further account.

When Stabrobates, the king of the Indians, heard of the immensity of the forces mentioned and of the exceedingly great preparations which had been made for the war, he was anxious to surpass Semiramis in every respect.

First of all, then, he made four thousand river boats out of reeds; for along its rivers and marshy places India produces a great abundance of reeds, so large in diameter that a man cannot easily put his arms about them; and it is said, furthermore, that ships built of these are exceedingly serviceable, since this wood does not rot.

Moreover, he 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.

[NovoScriptorium: The ancient Greek writers always named the Asian continent as ‘πολυάνθρωπος’, i.e. as having many men, as being very populated – obviously in comparison with the Greek World. Diodorus writes that the Indians gathered an even greater number of warriors than the Assyrians! Another interesting thing is that the whole of India is presented here as one and only Kingdom. We do not know of any such unified Indian Kingdom in known ancient History (obviously, we are looking for dates BC, and, moreover, before 800 BC). Therefore, we must conclude that either Diodorus (or Ctesias, his primary source) made this story up (something which we do not support at all for a variety of reasons), either that the story is a very ancient one, belonging to the ‘Mythological era’, or that the story has a historical core but the description and numbers lack accuracy]


Furthermore, holding a hunt of the wild elephants and multiplying many times the number already at his disposal, he fitted them all out splendidly with such things as would strike terror in war; and the consequence was that when they advanced to the attack the multitude of them as well as the towers upon their backs made them appear like a thing beyond the power of human nature to understand.

When he had made all his preparations for the war he despatched messengers to Semiramis, who was already on the road, accusing her of being the aggressor in the war although she had been injured in no respect; then, in the course of his letter, after saying many slanderous things against her as being a strumpet and calling upon the gods as witnesses, he threatened her with crucifixion when he had defeated her.

Semiramis, however, on reading his letter dismissed his statements with laughter and remarked, “It will be in deeds that the Indian will make trial of my valour.” And when her advance brought her with her force to the Indus river she found the boats of the enemy ready for battle.

[NovoScriptorium: Greed matched with arrogance. A guaranteed ‘failure mix’ of all  Time]

Consequently she on her side, hastily putting together her boats and manning them with her best marines, 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 boats, taking also not a few men prisoners.

Elated now by her victory, she reduced to slavery the islands in the river and the cities on them and gathered in more than one hundred thousand captives.

After these events the king of the Indians 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, now that her undertakings were prosperous as she wished, spanned the river with a costly and large bridge, by means of which she got all her forces across; and then she left sixty thousand men to guard the pontoon bridge, while with the rest of her army she advanced in pursuit of the Indians, the dummy elephants leading the way in order that the king’s spies might report to the king the 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 multitude of elephants among the enemy, they were all at a loss to discover from where such a multitude of beasts as accompanied her could have come.

However, the deception did not remain a secret for long; for 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, the king of the Indians, after informing his army about the dummies, 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.

But 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 horses of the Indians shied at them.

For whereas at a distance the dummies looked like the actual animals with which the horses of the Indians were acquainted and therefore charged upon them boldly enough, yet on nearer contact the odour which reached the horses was unfamiliar, and then the other differences, which taken all together were very great, threw them into utter confusion. Consequently some of the Indians were thrown to the ground, while others, whence their horses would not obey the rein, were carried with their mounts pell-mell into the midst of the enemy.

Then 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 the 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.

And since the rest of the elephants followed his example, the army of Semiramis withstood but a short time the attack of the beasts; for the animals, by virtue of their extraordinary courage and the confidence which they felt in their power, easily destroyed everyone who tried to withstand them.

Consequently there was a great slaughter, which was effected in various ways, some being trampled beneath their feet, 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.

Now when the entire multitude turned in flight the king of the Indians pressed his attack upon Semiramis herself. And first he let fly an arrow and struck her on the arm, and then with his javelin he pierced the back of the queen, but only with a glancing blow; and since for this reason Semiramis was not seriously injured she rode swiftly away, the pursuing beast being much inferior in speed.

But since all were fleeing to the pontoon bridge and so great a multitude was forcing its way into a single narrow space, some of the queen’s soldiers perished by being trampled upon by one another and by cavalry and foot-soldiers being thrown together in unnatural confusion, and when the Indians pressed hard upon them a violent crowding took place on the bridge because their terror, so that many were pushed to either side of the bridge and fell into the river.

As for Semiramis, when the largest part of the survivors of the battle had found safety by putting the river behind them, she cut the fastenings which held the bridge together; and when these were loosened the pontoon bridge, having been broken apart at many points and bearing great numbers of pursuing Indians, was carried down in haphazard fashion by the violence of the current and caused the death of many of the Indians, but for Semiramis it was the means of complete safety, the enemy now being prevented from crossing over against her.

After these events the king of the Indians remained inactive, since heavenly omens appeared to him which his seers interpreted to mean that he must not cross the river, and Semiramis, after exchanging prisoners, made her way back to Bactra with the loss of two-thirds of her force.

(Source: “The Library of History”, Book II, by Diodorus Siculus, Loeb Classical Library)


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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