When history professors speak about the Roman Empire, not much attention is usually given to the Syrian dynasty that ruled Rome from 193 to 235 AD. But researcher Dr. Semiramis Corsi Silva, a history professor at the Federal University of Santa Maria in Brazil, has a particular fascination with a young Syrian named Elagabalus from Emesa (the present-day city of Homs in Syria) who became emperor of Rome at the age of 14 and ruled for four years from 218 to 222 A.D. Coincidentally, Professor Semiramis’ own given name dates back to the ancient history and mythology of Syria as well.
Recently SYRIAWISE was able to speak with Professor Semiramis Corsi Silva about the origin of her name and the young Syrian emperor who is the subject of her study.
What is the story behind your name and where is it found in the history of civilization?
The name Semiramis refers to a character who transits between History and Mythology. This name is mentioned in texts by Greek and Latin writers such as Herodotus, Ctesias of Cnidus, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, and Cassius Dio. They all refer to Semiramis as a queen of ancient Mesopotamia.
The first to mention Semiramis is the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories), however, the most complete account of the queen is by Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC). According to Diodorus (Historical Library), Semiramis was the daughter of the goddess Derceto, from the Syrian city of Ascalon, with a mortal. This union was the result of the passion imposed on the Syrian goddess by Aphrodite. Thus, ashamed of having become pregnant by a mortal, the Syrian goddess killed him and abandoned her daughter in a deserted place, retreating to a lake and transforming herself into a fish.
Greco-Roman texts present Semiramis as a great queen of Assyria, of military genius, enormous beauty, and great ambition and intelligence. However, this is a legendary storyDr. Semiramis Corsi Silva
The child survived thanks to the doves that fed it until shepherds found the baby and, noticing its beauty, handed it over to the guardian of the royal flocks, Seamus. This one named the baby Semiramis, a name that would derive from the Syrian word used to refer to doves. As an adult, due to her beauty, she would have married the Assyrian king Nino. Before he died, the king left control of the Assyrian Empire to the queen as regent for their son. Semiramis would have, from then on, founded several cities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In general, Greco-Roman texts present Semiramis as a great queen of Assyria, of military genius, enormous beauty, and great ambition and intelligence. However, this is a legendary story.
In 1853 a statue was found in the temple of Nabû in Nimrud, whose inscription bore the name of the Assyrian queen Shamurramat, the same name found on an Assyrian stele (stelae are carved or inscribed stone slabs or pillars used for commemorative purposes) excavated in the city of Assur in 1909. In 1916 another stele was discovered in Sabaa, carrying the historians to believe that Shammuramat would have been the royal regent for five years. From these inscriptions, Shammuramat was associated with the legendary Semiramis. As the inscriptions describe, Shammuramat was the wife of King Shamshi-Adad V and the mother of Adad Nirari III. The Sabaa stele suggests that, with the death of her husband, she would have assumed the government of the Assyrian Empire from 811 to 806 BCE, an unusual fact for a woman, which may have stimulated the imagination of the Greco-Roman authors who wrote about her, naming her in Greek as Semiramis.
My interest in studying Elagabalus was due to the perception that there were few studies on this emperor compared to other Roman emperors and also because this study provided a perspective of the cultural plurality that formed the Roman EmpireDr. Semiramis Corsi Silva
What motivated you to do this research and conduct a personality study of the Roman emperors of Syrian origin?
I am currently carrying out research on a Roman emperor of Syrian origin known as Elagabalus. He was a member of the Severan dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire between 193 and 235 AD. Although known by tradition as Elagabalus, his birth name was Varius Avitus Basianus, but he was renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus after being acclaimed Roman Emperor. The Latinized name Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus) comes from a late tradition, as we see in the Vita Heliogabali, of the Historia Augusta, and refers to Elagabal, the solar god of his hometown, Emesa (present-day Homs), in Syria. There is also in the name Elagabalus a reinterpretation of Elagabal with Helios, a solar deity of Greek origin.
Elagabalus came to power in 218 after a possible plot known by the sources to have been organized by his grandmother, Julia Mesa, with the help of the Legio III Gallica, stationed in Syria. Julia Mesa was the sister of Julia Domna, a Syrian aristocrat who became a Roman empress by her marriage to Septimius Severus, a Roman general and emperor of African origins. After Septimius Severus, his sons Caracalla and Geta ruled as emperors, the power of the Syro-African family having been usurped in 217 by the prefect of the praetorium Macrinus and then recovered by the plot I mentioned above, with the rise of the young Elagabalus.
My interest in studying Elagabalus was due to the perception that there were few studies on this emperor compared to other Roman emperors and also because this study provided a perspective of the cultural plurality that formed the Roman Empire. The Severan dynasty was a landmark of Syrian power in Rome and, in my view, this needs to be further explored by historiography. Furthermore, the Severi were a dynasty with a strong presence of Syrian women in power in Rome, which is extremely important to study.
Do you feel that you have done them more justice with your opinions, and possibly corrected erroneous information recorded by biased historians in the past?
I believe that my research can contribute to rethinking elements about this strongly negative image of Elagabalus in ancient texts, which was repeated for a long time by a historiography that was not critical of past sourcesDr. Semiramis Corsi Silva
Elagabalus is a character whose ancient texts built a rather negative image. I believe that part of this negative image around him is due to his very strong Syrian customs, the rise of several men of Syrian origin in the power of the Roman Empire, and his preference of these same men as his advisors, to the detriment of the more traditional senators of Rome. I believe that my research can contribute to rethinking elements about this strongly negative image of Elagabalus in ancient texts, which was repeated for a long time by a historiography that was not critical of past sources. There is a need to revise elements of his policy and even the aversion that the common people of Rome may have had for him. The texts from the Roman context that have reached us about Elagabalus are the result of a vision based on the values of the more traditional senators and, therefore, constitute representations that need to be questioned by historical research.
Furthermore, I believe that it is possible today to explore Elagabalus’ religious practices, such as his worship of the Syrian god Elagabal, through other documents, questioning the negative view of Greco-Roman texts about him.
Have you conducted any other studies on the Canaanite and Aramaic civilizations?
Due to the location of Emesa, the hometown of Elagabalus in the Levant, I have currently been doing readings on Canaanite and Aramaic culture. My first readings, beyond the tradition of classical Greco-Roman authors, were the Cycle of Baal (set of poems found in the Syrian city of Ugarit, written approximately between the 14th and 12th centuries BCE) and the Old Testament. There is much material in these texts that can be used to reflect on elements of the cults practiced by the emperor I study.
I recently supervised a scientific initiation work on the goddess Asherah, identified as the consort of the Sumerian god Anu and the Ugaritic El, the oldest deities of their respective pantheons.
“This [SYRIAN] situation should be of urgent concern to the entire international community“Dr. Semiramis Corsi Silva
With so many Syrian refugees who have resettled in Brazil you must be aware of what has been happening in Syria since the uprising began in 2011. How do you see what is happening in Syria now as an outsider and as a historian?
The current conflicts in Syria have lasted for many years, with many deaths, torture, forced immigration, impoverishment, starvation of the population, and destruction of cities and historical heritage. This situation should be of urgent concern to the entire international community.
“It’s necessary to find a political solution, not a war one so that this horror stops destroying the Syrian people and territory”Dr. Semiramis Corsi Silva
I see this conflict with great sadness, it is a true humanitarian crisis. We watched from afar, but with enormous pain, as much of Syria’s rich cultural heritage was destroyed, as the deliberate explosions of parts of the ancient city of Palmyra. I personally met Syrians who came as refugees to Brazil, some of them with high academic degrees and great skills, but not finding jobs in our country that valued their knowledge. It’s necessary to find a political solution, not a war one so that this horror stops destroying the Syrian people and territory.
Syria has beauties of great value, not only from ancient times but also from Arab culture and all of our contemporaneityDr. Semiramis Corsi Silva
If peace eventually prevails in Syria, would you accept an invitation to come and live beautiful days getting to know more about the Syrian civilization?
Of course. Ever since I started studying Emperor Elagabalus in 2015, I’ve been dreaming about this day. Syria has beauties of great value, not only from ancient times but also from Arab culture and all of our contemporaneity. I believe that when that happens, my first destination will be Homs and then Palmyra. But I also dream of visiting Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and so many other Syrian places of inestimable historical and cultural value.