Ctesias of Cnidus was a Greek physician and historian who found work in the Achaemenid Empire of Persia during the late 5th century BCE. He was known to have provided his medical services to Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE) and Artaxerxes II (r. 404-359/358 BCE). While working in the royal courts, Ctesias had access to Persian archives, records, and oral history. Unfortunately, Ctesias is not thought to have put these resources to good use. Instead of writing a detailed narrative of trustworthy Persian history, he created a dubious collection of folktales and did little to distinguish what came from an official record and what derived from random hearsay. Therefore, while Herodotus’ older account of Persia survived intact, Ctesias’ record was torn apart by the next generation of scholars, with them only quoting a few sections, here and there, that were deemed valuable or entertaining. One such legend from Ctesias’ work that was preserved through history involved a nomadic queen named Zarinaia (also called Zarinaea or Zarina). Her tale, derived from Ctesias’ lost history, was preserved by scholars such as Diodorus Siculus and Nicholas of Damascus, who both flourished in the 1st century BCE.
As the story goes, Zarinaia was a queen from the 7th or 6th century BCE who ruled a portion of the sprawling nomadic people known as the Saka or Sacae—eastern relatives of the similar Scythians that Herodotus identified nearer to Greece. Zarinaia’s territory would have been around the Caspian Sea region, for she was said to have interacted with the Parthians and Medes. According to legend, Zarinaia and the Sacae warriors tried to help the Parthians resist the growing dominance of the Medes, igniting a war that would have, if true, occurred sometime around the year 600 BCE. Despite Zarinaia allegedly being a great fighter, the war ground down to a stalemate. In the end, a peace deal was struck, where Zarinaia pledged to stop backing the Parthians in the war. When this was done, she and the Medes parted from the negotiations as friends. In the ways of war, Zarinaia’s brush with the Medes was not the queen’s only military campaign. She was said to have also been an accomplished conqueror, bringing several neighboring tribes under her control. Yet, these more personal wars of conquest were not given much specificity or elaboration in the legends about her.
Despite being queen of a nomadic people, Zarinaia curiously was also remembered as a bringer of settlement and civilization. As the story goes, she had her tribe build several cities and encouraged the study of engineering and architecture to the extent that her particular tribe of Saka or Sacae people could build monuments to match that of ancient Egypt. In keeping with this, Diodorus Siculus claimed that when she died, Queen Zarinaia was given an elaborate Egyptian-esque send-off, complete with a huge pyramid and colossal statues. His account on her life and burial read as follows:
“[The Sacae] people, in general, have courageous women who share with their husbands the dangers of war, but she, it is said, was the most conspicuous of them all for her beauty and remarkable as well in respect to both her designs and whatever she undertook. For she subdued such of the neighboring barbarian peoples…and into much of her own realm she introduced civilized life, founded not a few cities, and, in a word, made the life of her people happier. Consequently her countrymen after her death, in gratitude for her benefactions and in remembrance of her virtues, built her a tomb which was far the largest of any in their land; for they erected a triangular pyramid, making the length of each side three stades and the height of one stade…and on the tomb they also placed a colossal gilded statue of her and accorded her the honours belonging to heroes…” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, II.34).
So as to not repeat the mistakes of Ctesias, it should be noted that the tales of Queen Zarinaia are legend and myth, with no solid historical evidence—as of yet—to corroborate the narrative. Who or what exactly inspired this tale that Ctesias heard in the courts of ancient Persia, we may never know. Yet, behind the distortions and embellishments of legend and folklore, there are often grains of truth to be found.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Triumph of the Amazons, Painted By Claude Déruet (c. 1588–1660), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).