Book III of Herodotus The Histories is titled: Persian Conquest of Egypt, Samos, King Dareios of Persia, and Herodotus covers a lot of ground here – continuing on his Egypt theme of Book II.
The mighty and great Persian king Cyrus, was killed battling on the northern frontiers of his empire and was succeeded by Cambyses II in 530 BC. Cambyses was no Cyrus. He was impulsive, nasty, and subject to fits of madness; not good qualities in a man, and certainly not good qualities in an absolute monarch like the king of Persia. You wouldn’t want to have to work for this guy!
By now the Persian empire controlled a huge land mass stretching from the Mediterranean shores of Asia Minor to the Indus Valley – it was the biggest empire so far historically speaking. Cambyses, in short, picks a fight with the Egyptians – send me a doctor, send me Pharaoh’s daughter and so forth. You know, the usual ancient world fight-talk. Here’s how the Herodotus describes the “Pharaoh’s daughter” episode:
- …urged Cambyses on, bidding him ask Amasis (the Egyptian Pharaoh) for his daughter, in order that he might either be grieved if he gave her, or if he refused to give her, might offend Cambyses. So Amasis, who was disturbed by the power of the Persians and afraid of it, knew neither how to give nor how to refuse: for he was well assured that Cambyses did not intend to have her as his wife, but as a concubine. So he did as follows: – there was a daughter of Apries the former Pharaoh, very tall and comely of form and the only person left of his house, and her name was Nitetis. This girl Amasis adorned with raiment and with gold, and sent her away to Persia as his own daughter: but after a time, when Cambyses saluted her calling her by the name of her father, the girl said to him: “O king, you do not perceive how you have been deceived by Amasis; for he adorned me with ornaments and sent me away giving me to you as his own daughter, wheras in truth I am the daughter of Apries against whom Amasis rose up with the Egyptians and murdered him, who was his lord and master.” These words uttered and this occasion having arisen, led Cambyses the son of Cyrus against Egypt, moved to very great anger.
Egypt had already been subjected to conquest by the Babylonians in 565 BC, but they pretty much left the Egyptians alone – let them continue their religion, let Pharaoh run things – you’d never know they were “conquered”. That was about to change at the hands of the tyrannical and half-mad Cambyses.
First, the Persians needed a way to cross the Sinai – a perennial problem since it’s really hot and dry and the dryness could play havoc with the invaders skin-care not to mention possible destroy them from thirst and exposure. Well, they made a cool deal with the Arabs to have water supplied to them en-route. Cambyses had also in the mean time busied himself with suppressing if not outright conquering the local Phoenicians; took over Cypress and took control of those peoples navies – necessary because up to now, Persia had no navy to speak of.
Amasis the Pharaoh died while this was going on leaving his capable son Psammenitos in charge of Egypt’s defense. Alas, his standing army was no match for the tough Persian forces and even though he was backed up by Greek and Carian mercenaries, he was resoundingly defeated and retreated behind the walls of ancient Memphis for a last stand.
The Persians sent in a ship of negotiators to arrange for an orderly surrender, but the fanatical Psammenitos would have nothing of it and killed, quite horribly, the diplomats. An already ugly situation was just made, well, uglier. Because you know the Persians reduced the city in no-time and now the atrocities began.
For every Persian diplomat killed, Cambyses rounded up ten noble Egyptians and executed them including Pharaoh’s son. At this point Herodotus points out that no matter how bad it seemed, if Pharaoh just would have chilled, Cambyses would have left him on the throne; it was generally how the Persian operated back then. But, Psammenitos kept scheming and soon was found out and forced to commit suicide.
It seemed like Cambyses had it made – but then he started to lose his mind. After Pharaoh killed himself, Cambyses went to the city of Saïs where the old Pharaoh was interred; removed his mummy and defiled it, and then burned it. Now, cremation was an abomination to both Egyptians and Persians; he wasn’t making any friends in Egypt. And to make matters worse, his planned invasions of Carthage, Ammonia, and Ethiopia turned out bad. Proof that life can suck even if you’re an all-powerful tyrant.
Unrelated to these events the Egyptians were having a big party celebrating the fact that one of their gods had made a rare appearance in the form of a holy cow called Apis. Yes, they had sacred cows like Hinduism, but in this case it was just one special cow. Cambyses naturally thought they were just celebrating his bad fortune, called the leaders of the party together and executed them; called the priests together and executed them after stabbing the sacred Apis cow in the thigh and letting it bleed to death. All bad stuff actually. Because according to Herodotus:
30. …as the Egyptians say, immediately after this evil deed Cambyses became absolutely mad, not having been really in his right senses even before.
Enter Cambyses’ right hand man, Prexaspes; “the man whom he honored most and who used to bear his messages…”. Cambyses became convinced through a weird prophetic dream (that ended up having a grain of truth…) that his popular, intelligent, and capable brother named Smerdis was out to get him. So he had Prexaspes murder him. Cambyses then murdered his sister too. Prexaspes answered a loaded question about Cambyses’ reputation as tactfully as he could, but Cambyses flew into a rage and shot Prexaspes’ young son through the heart with an arrow. He buried alive twelve excellent Persians for no real reason; he opened Egyptian tombs and defiled the contents – actions of an out-of-control madman; and Herodotus describes him thus:
38. It is clear to me therefore by every kind of proof that Cambyses was completely mad; for otherwise he would not have attempted to deride religious rites and customary observances. For if one should propose to all men a choice, bidding them select the best customs from all the customs that there are, each race of men, after examining them all, would select those of their own people; thus all think that their own customs are by far the best: and so it is not likely that any but a madman would joke about such things.
Persian religious head-men are called the Magians (remember the three wise men, the Magi from the Christmas tale…same guys just 500+ years earlier). One of them decides that Cambyses has completely lost his mind so conspires to put his own brother on the throne – his brother’s name just so happened to be Smerdis, same as Cambyses’ brother – they even looked alike. The old pretender to the throne routine. The loyal and intelligent Prexaspes unravels the plot though and Cambyses realized he has had the wrong Smerdis murdered! It would have been Smerdis the brother of the Magi; not his own blood brother that would go after the throne! On no! Cambyses realizes he has killed the wrong Smerdis. Oops.
Like any good madman, he loses it. He runs to jump on his horse to lead the army against the pretender, but the cap on his scabbard comes loose just then and he accidentally stabs himself in the thigh – just as he had stabbed the sacred Apis cow! The wound becomes infected and proves fatal. Cambyses had left no heir – no children male or female. So the pretender Smerdis actually looks like he is going to pull it off – for about seven months.
But his ploy eventually unravels with the following climax: The Magians are just about found out by the ruling nobility – if only Prexaspes would climb to the top of a tower on atop the palace walls and proclaim that phony Smerdis was the real Smerdis, then the usual gifts and power would be bestowed on him. Prexaspes agrees, climbs the tower, and according to Herodotus:
75. …he proceeded to declare the truth, saying that formerly he kept it secret, since it was not safe for him to tell what he had done, but at the present time he was compelled to make it known. He proceeded to say how he had himself slain Smerdis the son of Cyrus being compelled by Cambyses, and that the Magians were now ruling. Then he made imprecation of many evils on the Magians, and upon that he threw himself down from the tower headfirst. Thus Prexaspes ended his life, having been always a man of repute.
The Magians get whacked, and by clever ruse, Darius I also known as Darius the Great ascends the throne.
I’m surprised that this bloody and convoluted chapter in history hasn’t been made into a miniseries! Anyhow, we shall see how Darius I eventually invades Greece initiating a the long Persian-Greek war.