Exclusive Cover Reveal + Q&A: Costanza Casati’s Babylonia Brings the Story of Semiramis to Life

Books Features Costanza Casati
Exclusive Cover Reveal + Q&A: Costanza Casati’s Babylonia Brings the Story of Semiramis to Life

Costanza Casati’s debut novel Clytemnestra is a fierce, feminist Greek mythology retelling that asks its readers to rethink their preconceived ideas about the frequently reviled queen (and murderer) who appears in everything from Homer to Aeschylus to Sophocles. (Spoiler alert: It’s great, and spends most of its time digging into the aspects of Clytemnestra’s story that aren’t as familiar to modern readers.) Now, Casati’s latest book, titled Babylonia, aims to shift its focus to another often misunderstood woman from ancient history and legend: Semiramis. 

Don’t know much about Semiramis? Well, you’re likely not alone. The Assyrian Empire’s only female ruler, the legendary queen held the throne in her own right while she waited for her young son, Adad Nirari III, to come of age. This is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which being that, historically speaking, women were not allowed to hold positions of power or authority in the Assyrian Empire. So how Semiramis rose to become queen—and, perhaps more importantly, how she held on to that power and what ways she chose to wield it—are themes and questions that Babylonia will undoubtedly explore. 

Here’s how the publisher describes the story. 

When kings fall, queens rise. 

Nothing about Semiramis’s upbringing could have foretold her legacy or the power she would come to wield. A female ruler, once an orphan raised on the outskirts of an empire – certainly no one in Ancient Assyria would bend to her command willingly. Semiramis was a woman who knew if she wanted power, she would have to claim it. 

There are whispers of her fame in Mesopotamian myth—Semiramis was a queen, an ambitious warrior, a commander whose reputation reaches the majestic proportions of Alexander the Great. Historical record, on the other hand, falls eerily quiet. 

In her second novel, Costanza Casati brilliantly weaves myth and ancient history together to give Semiramis a voice, charting her captivating ascent to a throne no one promised her. The world Casati expertly builds is rich with dazzling detail and will transport her readers to the heat of the Assyrian Empire and a world long gone.

Babylonia won’t hit shelves until January 14, 2025, but we’re thrilled to be able to bring you a first look at its (gorgeous!) cover right now. 

Babylonia cover

We also had the chance to sit down with Casati herself to talk about her second novel, what researching Semiramis’s story involved, and lots more. 

Paste Magazine: Tell us a little bit about Babylonia! What can readers expect from the story?

 Costanza Casati: Babylonia is set in the world of Ancient Mesopotamia, ‘the land between the two rivers’, and it tells the story of orphan Semiramis and the infamous love triangle that made her the only female ruler of the empire of Ancient Assyria. Semiramis is a legendary figure, based on the real-life historical queen Sammuramat, who, in the 9th century BCE, ruled an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean coast in Syria to present-day Western Iran. 

Babylonia is partly myth retelling, partly historical fiction and it is a novel about female power, desire and ambition, love in the face of loss, the tragic consequences of war, and the quest for immortality.

Paste: Your most recent novel, Clytemnestra, was about one of the most well-known women from Greek mythology. What made you want to tell the story of Semiramis next, who is a figure that I suspect is much less familiar to modern readers?

Casati: I discovered the figure of Semiramis while reading a collection of women’s biographies from the ancient world. She was a queen, warrior, and commander who rose from humble beginnings to rule one of the most powerful empires in the world. According to the myth, she built monumental cities and campaigned as far as India—she is depicted almost a female Alexander the Great. 

What really fascinated me was her extraordinary rise to power: Semiramis was an orphan raised in the outskirts of the empire. When a governor named Onnes, the most trusted advisor and friend to king Ninus, visited her village, she caught his attention, and he brought her with him to the Assyrian capital. Here, her story unfolds in a tragic cycle of ambition, desire, and betrayal.

Paste: How was doing the research for Babylonia different from that for Clytemnestra? Particularly since there are so few historical sources versus your previous book (not that I know if Aeschylus particularly counts as a historical source haha!)

Casati: The research process was very different for Babylonia. When I wrote Clytemnestra, I was already familiar with the Greek myths, plays, and epics. While I knew who Semiramis was and knew a little bit about the world of Ancient Mesopotamia, it wasn’t enough to write a whole book about it. 

Interestingly, there are far more historical sources on Ancient Assyria than on Bronze Age Greece. I did a lot of research into the myths surrounding Semiramis, into Ancient Mesopotamian literature—which is incredibly rich, considering this is the place where writing was invented and where the first epic was written, a thousand years before The Iliad and The Odyssey—and into the history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Just like with Clytemnestra, my research focused on both the cultural aspect of this world—-their perception of love and death, their proverbs and superstitions, the role of ghosts and spirits etc.—and the more practical aspect—-the structure of the palaces and temples, the bas-reliefs that covered every wall, the food, the war tactics and so on. 

I discovered a fascinating world where beauty and brutality coexisted. At some point in my novel, Ninus, King of Assyria, says, ‘My father believed brutality made things beautiful’. This is the Assyrian world in a nutshell: a luxurious, but dangerous place where my characters fight to survive. 

Paste: Did you learn anything about Semiramis’ life or legend that surprised you or that you’re particularly excited to bring to readers? 

Casati: For me, the choice of a story always comes from having a strong emotional reaction to a particular scene or moment from myth or history. In the case of Semiramis’ legend, it was the love triangle between her, the governor and the king that caught my attention and made me obsessed with the story. 

According to the myth, after Semiramis joins Onnes and Ninus on a campaign to the faraway land of Bactria, the king falls in love with her. But this isn’t a traditional love triangle. In Babylonia, the three main characters are, at different points in the novel, all involved with one another. So rather than having two characters fight over a third, as often happens with love triangles in fiction, here all three characters desire one another, live for one another, cannot feel whole without each other.

 Paste: Mythological retellings and reimaginings that focus on the often forgotten or unfairly maligned women of history are such a popular subgenre in publishing right now. What do you think it is about these sorts of stories that are so appealing to readers?

 Casati: I think readers love to see that women in power have always existed, no matter how much history tried to erase them. 

Retellings can be either about bringing a lesser-known character to the spotlight and retelling a myth through her perspective, or casting an infamous character in a new light. My writing focuses on the latter. Both Clytemnestra and Semiramis were incredibly powerful in the original myths, but then, because of centuries of reading these stories through the patriarchal lenses, they have been reduced to stereotypes: in the case of Clytemnestra, she has been cast as the archetype of the ‘bad wife’, while Semiramis has become the embodiment of ‘lust and evil.’ 

But if we look at the original stories, in the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus, Clytemnestra is a woman in power, eloquent and unapologetic, a ruler who is not influenced by other people’s opinions of her. Similarly, Semiramis in the myth as recounted by ancient historian Diodorus Siculus is called “the most renowned of all women of whom we have any record”. She is skilled, intelligent, and resourceful, a survivor who fought against all the tragedies that befell her.

Babylonia will be released on January 14, 2025, but you can pre-order it right now. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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