Once upon a time a few generations prior to the Persian Wars, Anysis died without an heir and what with one thing and another, there was no king in Egypt. The Egyptians couldn’t stand the inherent uncertainty of this situation, so twelve of the most prominent aristocrats got together and agreed to carve Egypt up into twelve fiefdoms.
To commemorate this agreement, the twelve kings constructed a great labyrinthine memorial palace, which Herodotus got to take a tour of part of, and which was the single most impressive building he’d ever seen before or since. Herodotus describes a crazy maze of galleries and chambers, and indicates the whole thing was full of gorgeous stonework. There was also this cool lake that Herodotus totally misunderstood the geology of.
This was all after the reign of Sabacos, a fact relevant because one of the kings, Psamtik, had lost a father to Sabacos’s executioners. Psamtik fled the country and grew up on the lam, in Syria. He didn’t come back until he was an adult, well after Sabacos fled. Somehow he went from that, to being one of the twelve most powerful aristocrats in Egypt.
At the time, for some reason, there was a prophecy. Whatever man poured wine from a bronze vessel during the rites of Hephaestus, that man would become king of all of Egypt. Years after the twelve kings made their agreement, they got together for an annual Hephaestus-related rite. Normally you’d use a glass vessel for this rite, but the priest miscounted and brought the twelve kings only eleven glass vessels.
Psamtik, without thinking, pulled off his bronze helmet and used it for the rite. When the other kings realized what he’d done, boy, they were mad. They accused him of cheating fate somehow, and chased him off into the marshes where Anysis had hidden. Psamtik quickly tired of living in a swamp, and asked a helpful oracle for advice.
“Don’t worry,” said the oracle. “You’re the rightful king of Egypt on account of the hat thing. Soon the gods will intervene on your behalf, by sending an army of bronze automata-soldiers up from the ocean’s floor.”
“Did I stutter?”
“It just doesn’t seem very plausible,” said Psamtik.
But! Meanwhile, out in the Aegean Sea, a troop of Greek mercenaries decided to use their ships and their heavy bronze armor to raid the Egyptian coast. Long story short, Psamtik hired them to help him claim the throne, and then he claimed the throne.
Psamtik thanked the gods for their intervention by building a temple to a magic cow. This was a different magic cow than the one that Mycerinus honored. The Egyptians had a whole bunch of different magic/holy cows, apparently.
He thanked the Greek mercenaries by keeping them on as his personal army, and encouraging them to settle in a special enclave set aside for them. Did the king of Egypt’s power derive from foreign mercenaries? Yes. But was this a problem? Not for Psamtik! Nor for his son or grandson. But his great-grandson, Apries? Hoo boy.
However, before we skip ahead to civil war, let’s take a good hard look at Psamtik! Herodotus has a fair bit to say about this guy, good and bad. He’s been mentioned a couple of times already: he bribed the Scythians into attacking the Mede Empire instead of Egypt, and he was the pharaoh who suffered the mass desertion of 240 000 soldiers and their defection to Kush. Psamtik is remembered as something of a scientist; he conducted several experiments over the course of his reign.
The first experiment resulted from a survey Psamtik commissioned. He called together all the Egyptian scholars and the scholars of other, lesser nations, in hopes of proving that Egypt was the oldest nation. Or, failing that, proving that it was the second-oldest and the Phrygians were the oldest. Don’t ask about the Phrygians, you don’t even want to know. Midas, the golden touch guy? Phrygian. Gordias, the knot guy? Phrygian.
So Psamtik figured either the Phrygians or the Egyptians were the oldest race, and he proved which it was with science!
Psamtik’S SCIENCE EXPERIMENT: A LAB REPORT
Hypothesis: a baby raised in isolation will speak the language which comes naturally to humanity, which is the language of our oldest culture.
Introduction: For many ages scientists have wondered which came first, the Egyptian or the Phrygian. Now science can show us the truth, with babies.
Materials: Two babies; herd of goats; goat-herder; several women; a sharp knife.
Methods: The women had their tongues cut out. The two babies were placed among the goats and entrusted to the goat-herder and the women. The goat-herder was forbidden from speaking in the presence of the babies. The babies were fed goat milk by she-goats from the herd and cared for by the women.
Results: The babies grew up not speaking any language. After two years one of the babies said “bekos” at mealtime, and said it again persistently.
Discussion and Conclusion: Bekos is the Phrygian word for bread. Therefore the Phrygian language is the language which comes naturally to babies raised in isolation, which means Phrygians must possess the oldest culture.
Herodotus actually denies the bit about Psamtik ordering the women’s tongues be cut out; he insists that in fact Psamtik merely instructed the goat-herder and women to keep totally silent at all times. Either Herodotus is an Egypt-lover and chooses blindly to believe the less brutal version of the story, or else Herodotus’s contemporaries (mostly Hecataeus, the geographer, with whom Herodotus explicitly disagrees on many points) were led down a garden path by their anti-Egypt prejudice.
Psamtik also, supposedly, took soundings of the depth of the Nile, tracing it up to its source between Mount Crophi and Mount Mophi. All for science.
Psamtik’s son, Necos, tried to dig the Suez Canal, but quit when an oracle warned him that the main beneficiaries of a Suez Canal would be foreign invaders. Then he conquered Syria for a while. It didn’t take.
Necos’s son was named Psammis, and his main claim to fame was his refusal to participate in the Olympics.
Basically this is what happened: an envoy of Olympic officials from Elea (the city where the Olympics took place) arrived in Egypt, inviting them to come play, basically. Psammis had to get the Olympics explained to him, and then, once he understood the concept, refused.
“What? Why?” asked the Eleans.
“You guys, the citizens of Elea, you do all the judging, right?”
“Well, hell, obviously you’ll be biased in favor of your countrymen.”
The Eleans had no answer to that (suck it, Olympics! Herodotus is right there with a STDH story about how corrupt you are!). Sad trombone noises!
Herodotus doesn’t mention this, but thanks to archaeology we know Psammis died while still a child. How it was he came to have the son Herodotus credits him with is thus a mystery. But Psammis was succeeded by Apries, whom Herodotus declares to have been Psamtik’s great-grandson.
Apries reigned from 588-569 BC, putting him at about a hundred and fifty years prior to Herodotus’s writing. He went to war against Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon, which gets him some coverage, albeit indirectly, in the Old Testament. The war ultimately went badly for Apries: he pressed into Greek colonies to the west of Egypt, in modern-day Libya, using native Egyptian troops rather than the Greek mercenaries that had served his dynasty for generations. The war went very badly for the Egyptians, who decided that Apries had sent them off to die while holding back his Greek personal guard. The country rose in revolt, and Apries sent his right-hand man Amasis to deal with the rebel leaders.
“So what’s it going to take to end this rebellion?” Amasis asked the rebel leaders.
Their response was to put a crown on Amasis’s head. “We’re not anti-monarch,” they said. “We just want Apries out.”
Amasis liked the idea of becoming king, so threw in with the rebels. When Apries heard about this, his first thought was that the rebels had taken Amasis prisoner. He sent a courier, Patarbemis, to entreat the rebels to release Amasis.
Patarbemis’s interactions with the rebels was fraught. At one point in negotiations Amasis farted in Patarbemis’s face and told Patarbemis to bear that message back to Apries. Herodotus wants us to know that when Apries had Patarbemis killed, it wasn’t because Patarbemis farted in Apries’s face. Apries executed him as soon as the general negative drift of Amasis’s message became clear; when he told the story of his negotiations to Apries, Patarbemis got executed long before the part where he would have farted in Apries’s face.
Apries’s execution of Patarbemis convinced everybody who heard about it and who had been on the fence that Apries wasn’t a suitable king, so Amasis amassed a sizable army of disgruntled Egyptians. Apries responded by doubling down on his army of Greek mercenaries! The two armies met at Momemphis!
(Around this point in the story, Herodotus goes off on a tangent for several pages about the Egyptian caste system and tax structure, which I feel confident in skipping, except to observe that one caste was the interpreter caste, made up of part-Greek halfbreeds raised among the mercenaries.)
Apries and the Greek mercenaries lost this civil war: they were just too badly outnumbered. Amasis took Apries prisoner and held him in the royal palace in Sais for a while, but the Egyptian people demanded a public execution, and got it.
Amasis was, at this point, the undisputed king of Egypt, reigning from 569 to 525 BC (so he was a contemporary of Croesus’s). Herodotus has a fair amount of say about Amasis, because he was remembered quite fondly circa 430 BC, kind of like how Americans will readily tell tales about the legendary honesty, eloquence, and rail-splitting prowess of Abraham Lincoln.
Lowly born, Amasis suffered somewhat as the stodgy Egyptian aristocrats didn’t like bowing and scraping before him. Eventually he won them over with his general charm and cunning. For instance, he had this foot-pan. “Amasis’s foot-pan” became a common cultural idiom among the Greeks, after Herodotus. Aristotle mentions it in passing. The standard Egyptian foot-pan was a tub for scrubbing your feet in, going to the bathroom in, vomiting in, washing your dog, whatever you needed a big tub for. Amasis’s foot-pan was made of gold, because it was the king’s, but it was still a very lowly and utilitarian piece of furniture.
Amasis had his foot-pan melted down and recast as an idol, which he placed prominently in his palace. Then whenever he saw his aristocrat lackeys worshipping it, he’d laugh and point out that they were basically worshipping a vomit/feces container. Was that so much better than giving him the honors appropriate his kingly station?
Amazingly, this won him the admiration of the nobility and common people alike, rather than inspiring bitterness, resentment, and the hiring of assassins.
Also, Amasis was in the habit of getting up early and working hard at being king for several hours: judging disputes, sitting in the high seat, et cetera. But around lunchtime he’d get drunk and take off for the rest of the day to go partying and joking with friends.
“Boss,” his underlings said to him, “you’ve got to start acting more kingly!”
“Listen here,” he told them. “A bowstring that’s kept taut all the time breaks. I work hard and I party hard. When there’s a crisis I deal with it. But if I focus on the minutiae every minute of the day I’ll make myself crazy.”
Also, Amasis shoplifted for fun.
Back during Apries’s reign, when Amasis was merely a rich aristocrat, sometimes the shopkeepers would prosecute him for the crime, and then sometimes he’d have to go before an oracle to be judged of his guilt (I don’t know why an oracle instead of a secular judge, just go with me here). Sometimes the oracles convicted him and made him pay a fine, and sometimes they left him off the hook for lack of evidence and/or reluctance to prosecute a rich man.
Once he was king, Amasis had all the oracles who had found in his favor rounded up and soundly mocked. If they’d been genuinely in touch with the gods, he said, they’d have known he was guilty. Then he stopped the government from tithing to them, and diverted additional tithes to those oracles who had judged him more harshly.
For serious, Amasis sounds like a pretty good guy. He ruled Egypt during a time of expanding trade and prosperity, so he was remembered fondly in Herodotus’s time. He was also a patron of the Greek mercenary-colonists, though they’d been on the other side in the civil war, and allotted them space in many cities.
Further, and this is kind of an odd story I admit, Amasis took a Greek wife named Ladice. She was a princess of the same Libyan/Greek colony which had given Apries so much trouble in his wars. To his chagrin, though, Amasis was impotent whenever he tried to sleep with her. He could sleep with his various concubines no problem, but with Ladice, no, and not for lack of desire. He accused her of witchcraft, which Ladice denied. Supposedly she prayed to Aphrodite for intervention. Aphrodite intervened, apparently, because their sex life really took off after that. Hence the massive temple to Aphrodite that Ladice and Amasis had built in Ladice’s hometown.
And now that Herodotus has spent an entire volume of the Histories describing Egypt, he’s ready to pick back up the main narrative, and cover Cyrus’s son Cambyses, king of the Persians, and his invasion of Amasis’s Egypt.
Farewell, Euterpe! Farewell, Muse of Lyric Poetry, Giver of Delight, Rejoicer! We turn our attention now to Thalia! Thalia, the Verdant! Thalia, Muse of Idyll and Comedy! Thalia, whom every growing thing praises! Entwined in ivy and wearing a comic mask, she’s a mash-up of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn.
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