Babylonian and Egyptian Nitocris

by Kiko Matsing

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

from Herodotus, The History, 1.184-187
(Translation: David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)

There were many kings of this city of Babylon, of whom I shall make mention in my Assyrian account, who further adorned the fortifications and temples; and among the sovereigns there were two women. The first ruled five generations before the second; her name was Semiramis, and she built those dikes on the plain that are so remarkable to see; before that, the river used to run all over the plain and flood it.

The second of these queens was called Nitocris, and she was a wiser woman than the first. She left as a memorial the works I shall shortly tell you of and, besides, took certain measures of precaution, as best she could, for what was to come; for she saw that the empire of the Medes was great and never at rest and that cities belonging to the Assyrians had already been destroyed by it, among them even Nineveh. First, then, as to the Euphrates, which flows right through the middle of the city of Babylon. Formerly it was straight, but she made it so crooked, by digging canals above the city, that the river in its course comes three times to one of the Assyrian villages. The name of this village to which the Euphrates comes is Ardericca. So now those who travel from our sea to Babylon, as they sail down the Euphrates, come thrice to this same village, and on three several days. This is what she did, and she built an embankment along either shore of the river that is, in greatness and height, very wonderful in its dimensions. Far above Babylon she dug a basin for a lake, stretching it by the side of the river and a little away from it, and in depth she dug it always down to find water, and in breadth she made the circuit of the lake to be fifty-two and a half miles. The spoil of this basin she used up by heaping it up along the banks of the river. When it was all dug, she brought stones and formed them in a coping all along the basin. She did both of these things–the making the river crooked and turning the basin into a marsh–so that the river might be slower, as it was broken by the many bends, and that the courses into Babylon itself might be crooked, and that then, after this, should come the long circuit of the lake. These works were built at precisely the point of her country where were the passes of entry and the shortcuts from the road out of Media, so that the Medes might not get into contact with her people and learn of her affairs.

With these defenses she surrounded her city, but she added another work that grew out of them. The city has two divisions, the river being in the middle, and, in the time of former monarchs, when anyone wished to cross from one division to the other, he must use a boat, which, I suppose, was vexatious. Against this, too, the queen took measures. For when she had dug the basin of the lake, she left this other memorial out of this same work. She had huge stones cut, and when the stones were ready and the basin had been dug, she turned the entire stream of the river into the place that was dug. While it was filling, the old riverbed dried out; and she bricked with baked bricks, in fashion like to the walls, the banks of the river in the city and the descents from the gates leading down to the river; and as near as possible to the middle of the city she built a bridge with the stones she had dug, binding the stones together with iron and lead. On this bridge she stretched, each morning, square hewn planks on which the people of Babylon could cross. By night the planks were withdrawn, so that the inhabitants might not keep crossing at night and steal from one another. When the dug part had become a lake, filled by the river, and her arrangements about the bridge were complete, she turned the Euphrates into its old course, out of the lake, and so the dug part, it would seem, served her purpose in becoming a swamp–and there! The citizens had a bridge ready built for them.

This same queen contrived the following cheat: she had a tomb made for herself right above the gate of the city where there was the most traffic of people. She had writing graven on the tomb which read: “Of those that after me are kings of Babylon, should any lack money, let him open this tomb and take what he will. But if he does not truly lack, let him not open it; it were better not.” This tomb was undisturbed until the reign of Darius. But Darius found it strange that he should never use this gate and that the money should lie there inviting him and he should not take it. He never used this gate because, then, a dead body would be above his head as he passed through. He had the tomb opened and found no money but a dead body and an inscription, which read: “If you were not insatiate of money, and set on gain, however base, you would not have opened the coffin of the dead.” This is the sort of woman this queen is said to have been.

The Pyramids of Giza

from Herodotus, The History, 2.100
(Translation: David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)

After him, the priests, from their papyrus lists, told me the names of three hundred and thirty kings. Among so many generations of mankind there were eighteen Ethiopian kings and one woman, native to the country; all the rest were men and Egyptians. The name of the woman who became a sovereign was Nitocris–the same name as her of Babylon. They say that this queen had a brother who was king of Egypt, whom the Egyptians killed when he was their king and they turned over the sovereignty to her, and she, to avenge him, contrived to destroy many of the Egyptians by craft. She had a long underground chamber made and said she would handsel it, but it was far other thoughts she had in her mind. She invited those of the Egyptians whom she had known as being most concerned in her brother’s death, and when they were at their feasting she turned the river in upon them through a great secret channel. That is all the priests have to say about her, save that, so that her deed might not itself be revenged, she, after the deed was done, hurled herself into a cellar full of hot ashes.

Marginal Notes:

Two queens of the same name are mentioned in The History, both of whom have doubtful historical authenticity, but portrayed as vivid characters by Herodotus.

Babylonian Nitocris undertook building projects, not as vanity pieces, but, with the foresight of the rising power of the Persians (Medes), to muster the defense of her city. It was ambitious engineering, which involved re-routing the Euphrates that ran through the center of Babylon and draining it into an artificial basin. Only Xerxes’ canal dug through the isthmus of Athos for the passage of his navy matched the scale of this enterprise. Even in her arrangements for the afterlife, she remained stoic. Instead of building an opulent burial chamber as pharaoh’s did to commemorate the glories of their rule, she contrived a final test of virtue to the kingdom’s future rulers. Darius, the Persian who conquered Babylon, fell for the ruse and was found wanting.

The brief story of Egyptian Nitocris seems like a précis for an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. But the English might thicken the plot by adding an incest angle between brother and sister, or make the revenge exacted more grisly, like serving the murderers their own children (e.g., Shakespear’s Titus Andronicus). Actually, it is the revenge plays of the English Renaissance (esp. those that involve cooking children) that take their tropes from classical literature. Ovid’s Procne, for example, fed Tereus their children for his rape/mutilation of her sister Philomela. This is how she worked herself up to the gruesome task:

This is no time for tears, but for the sword, for something stronger than sword, if you have such weapon on you. I am prepared for any crime, my sister, to burn the palace, and into the flaming ruin hurl Tereus, the author of our evils. I would cut out his tongue, his eyes, cut off the parts which brought you shame, inflict a thousand wounds on his guilty soul. I am prepared for some great act of boldness, but what it is I do not know, I wish I did.

(Trans. Rolfe Humphries)

Some fighting words! Nitocris, though as determined, is not quite as horrific. (Well, not if you discount the hurling of herself into a cellar full of hot ashes to preempt Egyptian vengeance upon her.) And the method of her payback looks more in line with blaxploitation’s Pam Grier than Euripides’ Medea. But Pam Grier is equally bad ass.