Herodotus on Cambyses

Herodotus mentions three theories explaining why the Persian king Cambyses (son of Cyrus) invaded Egypt. He suggests:

  1. Cambyses requested an Egyptian princess for a wife (or concubine) and was annoyed when he found that he had been sent a lady of second rate standing.
  2. He was the bastard son of Nitetis (daughter of the Saite king Apries).
  3. He promised his mother (Cassandane) when he was ten that he would avenge a slight paid to her by the Egyptians.

Even Herodotus is unconvinced by these stories. As his father had already planned an invasion of Egypt, Cambyses probably didn’t need much of an incentive to add Egypt to his empire.

According to Herodotus, a general from Halicarnassus named Phanes defected to the Persians and assisted them in their invasion. In retaliation, Egyptian and Greek mercenaries killed his sons within sight of the general and drank their blood mixed with wine! A battle ensued, and the Egyptians were eventually routed.

Herodotus was told that the bones of the Egyptians left on the field after the battle were hardy and near-unbreakable, while the bones of the Persians were brittle. He claims that this unlikely state of affairs resulted from the fact that the Egyptians shaved their heads exposing their skulls to the sun causing the skull to thicken. While the Persians always covered their heads and so their skulls remained weak!

The routed Egyptians fled to Memphis where they were besieged. On seeing the fate of the Egyptians the people of Libya, Barca, and Cyrene surrendered without a fight and sent their tribute to the Persians.

Memphis fell on the tenth day of the siege and the Persian took his revenge on the pharaoh by parading his daughter as a servant, but the king did not react. Then the Persian bound the pharaoh’s son (along with two thousand other young Egyptian men) and led him to be slaughtered. Still the king did not react. Finally, a poor old man who had been a companion of the king was led out before the pharaoh. At this, the pharaoh broke down and wept. The Persian demanded to know why the pharaoh did not react to the pain inflicted on his children, but did react to the abuse of the old man. The pharaoh answered that his private grief was too great to weep, but the unhappiness of his companion (who had been a great man, but was now an old and infirm beggar) deserved his tears. At this Croesus (who had accompanied the Persian to Egypt) and many of the Persian warriors wept.

The Persian relented and ordered that the pharaoh’s son should not be killed, but the order came too late. Instead the Persian promised the pharaoh that no harm would be done to him for the rest of his days and that he could remain as governor of Egypt. However, Psammenitus was caught inciting revolt among the Egyptians. When Cambyses heard of it, Psammenitus drank bull’s blood and died.

Cambyses reacted by digging up the body of the pharaoh Amasis (the father of Psammenitus) and desecrating the corpse in front of its tomb. He then ordered the body to be burned. This was a sacrilegious act to both the Egyptians and the Persians. However, the Egyptians claimed that it was not in fact the pharaoh who was cruelly defiled. Apparently, the king was warned by an oracle that this would happen, and arranged for a second corpse to be interred with him to take the punishment in his stead. Herodotus did not believe this story, which he feels was simply made up to make them feel better.

Cambyses planned a naval expedition against the Carchedonians (Carthaginians), but the Phoenicians refused to help the Persian transport his troops as the Carthaginians were of Phoenician descent. The Persian king decided not to force the Phoenicians to help as they had surrendered without a fight to him and were easily the best sailors of their time, so the Carthaginians managed to avoid being invaded by the Persians.

He sent spies from Elephantine (who are described as “fish-eaters”) to check out the Ethiopians under the guise of taking gifts to the Ethiopian king. However, the Ethiopian was not stupid, and rumbled their ploy. He gave the spies a huge bow and told them that the Persian should attack with overwhelming numbers when he could draw the huge bow back as far as the Ethiopian king could. Until then the Persian should “thank the gods who do not incite the sons of the Ethiopians to add other land to their own”. Weirdly, the spies and the king then have a protracted discussion about the gifts and food brought by the spies during which the Ethiopian stated that it is no wonder that the Persian kings only lived to the age of eighty since they ate dung!

When this was reported to Cambyses, he immediately sent an invasion force without bothering to prepare provisions for the march. He sent fifty thousand men to attack the Ammonians and burn the oracle of Zeus, and took the rest to Ethiopia. However, they ran out of food long before they arrived and resorted to eating the beasts of burden and then grass. The Persian feared they would turn to cannibalism, and so he ordered them to retreat to Thebes. Meanwhile, the expedition sent to the Ammonians were all killed during a violent sand storm.

When Cambyses returned to Thebes, the festival of the Apis was underway. He thought the Egyptians were mocking him in his defeat, so he bled the Apis to death in his temple and punished the priests and anyone he found celebrating. The Egyptians claimed that Cambyses was driven mad when he performed this sacrilegious act (although Herodotus notes that he was not exactly sane before this). His brother Smerdis was the only Persian able to draw the Ethiopian bow. Cambyses became convinced that he would steal the Persian throne and so he had him killed. He had married two of his sisters (which was against Persian custom) and he had the younger sister killed because she mentioned Smerdis (or because she criticised Cambyses).

Historical evidence suggests the story of the Apis was made up, as the Apis chronicle (which logged the births and deaths of each sacred animal) recorded that a bull died in 525 BC (before Cambyses) and the next died in 518 BC (after Cambyses). Herodotus would not have had access to the chronicle, and could not have read it anyway. Similarly, there is no evidence for the desecration of the body of Amasis.

Herodotus: Pharaohs

Copyright J Hill 2010