THALIA 1 (Cambyses the Conquerer)
As we head into Book III of the Histories, THALIA, you may need to be reminded that Book II, EUTERPE, was a book-length digression off of the main narrative. Herodotus does this kind of thing a lot. Book III picks up where Book I left off, with the reign of Cambyses, son of Cyrus, Emperor of Persia, in the year 529 BCE.
Persia, under Cambyses, invaded Egypt at about this time. The reasons for this invasion are muddied by Herodotus. There’s the obvious ones, about Persia and Egypt being adjacent, and Persia being an expansionary military power, and Egypt being wealthy and torn by internal strife. But Herodotus tells a couple of different stories about the origin of the invasion, accepting as credible some unlikely assertions.
The version of the story that Herodotus doubts as true is that once upon a time Cyrus the Great, Cambyses’s father, took an Egyptian bride named Nitetis, daughter of Apries. Nitetis’s only child was Cambyses, and so Cambyses’s invasion was nothing more than the rightful heir avenging his father-in-law. Herodotus considers this super unlikely, inasmuch as the Persian establishment would never have accepted Cambyses as Cyrus’s sucessor if he had been half-Egyptian.
There’s a second variant that Herodotus also discounts. In this version, Nitetis was Cyrus’s bride, but one of many. Cassandane, the Persian noblewoman generally accepted as having been Cambyses’s mother, existed in this version, and she had Cambyses, but she wasn’t Cyrus’s primary wife. Cyrus favored Nitetis. Cambyses grew up resenting Nitetis for being more favored than his own mother, and took his vengeance out on Nitetis’s homeland.
Finally the third version, the one that Herodotus signs off on. Once upon a time Cyrus either had an eye infection or knew someone who did. He sent to Egypt, requesting a doctor be sent, and Amasis (then newly-installed on the throne) sent a particular unnamed ophthalmologist. This ophthalmologist was not interested in emigrating to Persia, but Amasis didn’t give him a choice. However the ophthalmologist successfully treated Cyrus (or whoever the patient was) and become the royal advisor on matters of ocular health. Thus he had the ear of Cambyses, when Cambyses ascended to the throne.
“You know what you should do,” the ophthalmologist told him. “You should demand an Egyptian princess for your wife! They make the best wives, and I’m not just saying that because I’m Egyptian. I’m saying it because I want Amasis, King of Egypt, to suffer the loss of his daughter.”
“Sounds good,” said Cambyses, and sent a politely-worded demand letter to Amasis’s palace in Saies.
Amasis read the letter, wasn’t happy about it. Then he had a clever idea: he’d send Cambyses the daughter of an Egyptian king, but not his daughter! Nitetis, daughter of Aperis, dwelled in the royal palace at the time, and she was (according to Herodotus) a) tall, b) unmarried, and c) smoking hot. So Amasis wrapped her up with a bow and shipped her off to what’s now Iran.
When Nitetis arrived, she immediately told Cambyses that he’d been had, that while she was technically an Egyptian princess, Amasis had weaseled out of handing over his own daughter.
“Screw that guy!” cried Cambyses. “Let’s invade Egypt!”
Herodotus likes this version, but later historians point out that if Nitetis existed and was the daughter of Apries (who died around 567 BC, at the beginning of Amasis’s reign), she would have had to have been forty years old, bare minimum, when Cambyses invaded Egypt (~529 BC, the end of Amasis’s reign). Maybe the story happened the way Herodotus tells it, with Nitetis simply a couple of decades older than H. claimed, and thus Cambyses all the more irritated to have been saddled with her. But more likely someone just made it all up, after the fact, to provide Cambyses with casus belli to attack Egypt.
Regardless, the joke was on Cambyses: Amasis died in his bed before the Persian army arrived, after forty-four years of peaceful, prosperous rule. His young son Psamtik III (so named despite him and Amasis not being related to the preceding Psamtik dynasty) led the army instead.
There’s one other figure prominent in the story of Cambyses’s decision to invade Egypt: Phanes the traitor. This guy was notorious in his day, another idiom from Herodotus that shows up occasionally in classical texts. Phanes was one of the chiefs of Amasis’s bodyguards, until for reasons of his own he decided to defect to Persia. When he left, under somewhat of a cloud apparently, Amasis sent his best eunuch to chase him and bring him back. Phanes and the eunuch met, one captured the other, the other escaped, leading to more chasing, capture, drinking, et cetera, in a situation that sounds like the premise of a buddy comedy. Eventually, though, Phanes made it to Cambyses’s court in Pasargadae (near modern Shiraz in Iran), where he exhorted the Persians to conquer Egypt.
Cambyses had already made up his mind he wanted to conquer Egypt, by this point, but he had a serious problem: the desert. Specifically, the desert the World Wildlife Federation calls “Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian Xeric Shrublands Ecoregion” and at least one map I found online calls “the Syrian Desert.” It’s the same desert that gave Napoleon trouble in 1799. A band three days’ travel across, without water of any kind, separated Egypt and the Persian Empire.
Phanes knew the key to getting across this desert, however: teaming up with the Arabians who lived there. Cambyses made a treaty with the Arabian king (probably actually a coalition of affiliated tribal chiefs, according to historians), on Phanes’s advice. The Arabians loaded water onto camels and led the camels out into the desert, to set up water relief stations for the Persian army.
Herodotus goes on a brief digression at this point about the method Arabians use to swear oaths. It’s a complex rite involving a third party, bloodletting, prayer to tribal gods, and special arrangements of stones. Requiring a third-party mediator to an oath was apparently common in Arabia, Persia, India, etc. There’s a passage in the New Testament where “Paul” (some other guy signing Paul’s name probably) makes reference to it (Hebrews 6:8). He also gets oddly specific in identifying which parts of Palestine were friendly to Cambyses and which weren’t.
Somebody told Herodotus once that in fact the Arabians made conduits, that is, aqueducts and/or canals, lined with animal skins. Supposedly they routed water to waystations in the desert that way, but he doesn’t think it sounds very plausible. Many centuries later archaeologists would discover evidence of some really impressive irrigation canals cut through the desert, but that might have nothing to do with these so-called conduits. Herodotus doesn’t know about the archaeological record, of course.
He does, however, know this one thing, and man, is he ever proud to be able to let us in on this secret. “You know how,” Herodotus says excitedly, “you know how us Greeks sell jugs and jugs of wine to the Egyptians? Like, every year, twice a year, loads and loads of wine?”
“Let’s assume for the sake of argument I do,” I reply.
“So where do all those clay jugs go, after the Egyptians drink the wine?” Herodotus’s eyes shine. He’s so excited!
“They get smashed into clay and tossed into someone’s yard?”
“Nope! The Egyptians reduce, reuse, and recycle! There’s a government official whose job it is to collect empty jugs, and then they’re washed out, and filled with water, and carried out into the desert to supply water for the relief stations that caravans use crossing the desert! This very desert we’re talking about! I have seen this with my own eyes!”
Herodotus is a little hurt I’m not more impressed.
Cambyses’s army marched across the desert, making use of the camel-skins the Arabians had set up for them. They arrived in Egypt and Psamtik III led his army (composed, as had become tradition in Egypt by this point of Greek mercenaries) against the Persians, led by Cambyses and his general Phanes.
Phanes was especially loathed among the Greeks, as a traitor. According to Herodotus, when Phanes fled the country, he left behind a wife and kids. The night before the big battle, the Greeks got ahold of those kids, and one thing led to another and all the Greeks drank deeply of wine flavored with the blood of Phanes’s children.
I’ve read claims that while there are many very obvious differences, classical Greek culture was essentially similar to modern Western culture in key ways. The Greeks are closer to us than the Romans, whom (despite their being closer both temporally and geographically) we would find wholly alien. I’m not sure I buy it.
Anyway, the battle was fierce and swift, with massive casualties on both sides, but it was Cambyses who carried the day. Psamtik fled back to Memphis, where the Persians chased him and captured him (not until after Psamtik and his loyalists captured some Persian peace envoys and committed some nasty atrocities on them, though). Cambyses occupied the palace, and became ruler of Egypt, as well as Persia, Babylon, Syria, Lydia, and other places whose names I can’t recall right this second. Libya and the other Greek colonies near Egypt saw what had happened, and surrendered to Cambyses without a fight.
Herodotus got to tour the main battlefield personally, and reports that he saw a great number of human bones strewn about, as though the battle had taken place recently rather than eighty years or so before his visit. He also reports something scholars have been arguing about for thousands of years, ever since: that he could easily distinguish the bones of the Egyptians from the bones of the Persians.
“Egyptian skulls are thick and their bones are hardy,” says Herodotus. “It’s because of the heat of the sun, and they shave their heads, don’t you know. By contrast the Persians all have long hair and they put their babies in these little wool hats? So naturally their skulls come out paper-thin and brittle. You can stick your finger right in, break one. Can’t do that with an Egyptian skull.”
Actual Classical scholar Rosalind Thomas, in her 2002 book Herodotus in Context, argues that the salient lesson to draw from this account isn’t that Herodotus is crazy-wrong about human physiology, or that he makes stuff up for fun. It’s that Herodotus is eager to convince us of two things. Firstly, he’s a guy who pays attention, sees things firsthand, and draws reasonable conclusions. He’s not just scribbling down whatever he overhears in taverns (the first part of Book II notwithstanding); he’s a philosopher-scientist, the Father of History. Secondly, it’s Herodotus’s thesis that humanity is shaped by environment. Egyptians are unlike Greeks because Egypt is a different place than Greece, with a hotter climate, et cetera. We’re shaped, too, by our customs: the Egyptians have thicker skulls because they shave their heads; Persians have thinner skulls because they make their babies wear hats. So this is just an example of that.
So Cambyses was master of as large an empire as anyone in history had assembled, up to that point. His first order of business was to humiliate and destroy Psamtik III, whom he had captured.
He did this by setting Psamtik outside the city, in chains, and making him watch a series of processions. First, all the young girls of Memphis, led by Psamtik’s own ten-year-old daughter, whipped and dressed in rags. Most of the Egyptians who saw this wailed, but Psammetichus made no reaction.
Second, all the young boys of Memphis, led by Psamtik’s own son, naked and made to wear bits and bridles, like animals. A certain number of these boys, Psamtik’s son included, were led away from the main group — ten boys for each of the peace envoys the Egyptians had murdered. These were executed, as punishment for the attack on the delegates. All Memphis wept, but Psamtik made no reaction.
While Cambyses tried to think of something else horrible to make Psamtik witness, a man wandered past the chained former king. This was one of the old king Amasis’s drinking buddies, whom Psamtik had known as a boy, now a beggar after the Persians seized all his estates.
When Psamtik saw this old beggar, he broke down sobbing, crying for the loss the man had experienced. Cambyses was astounded, and asked how it was that Psamtik had been so unmoved by his own children’s suffering, yet wept for this man.
“The pains my own children suffer are too vast for me to imagine,” said Psamtik. “It is a loss greater than I can bear, and my mind refuses to assimilate it. But this man’s suffering is just small enough for me to understand and appreciate it.”
“What a loon!” said Cambyses.
Croesus, who was still alive, by the way, and also still Cambyses’s best advisor-slave, cleared his throat. “I disagree,” he said, “I think that’s a very moving sentiment.” And he wept for Psamtik III, and all of Cambyses’s court wept with him.
“I mean, of course it’s very sad,” Cambyses said hastily. “I’m crying myself, see? Wah! Wah! In fact, you know what would make us all feel better? Let’s get Psamtik’s son back from the death-pit, and spare his life! Everyone would like that, right? I’m a good and wise king, aren’t I?”
Unfortunately by the time Cambyses made this decision Psamtik’s son was already dead. So Cambyses did the next best thing, which was take on Psamtik as a slave-advisor, like his father had done with Croesus.
“Just don’t plot against me!” he warned Psamtik.
BUT THEN LIKE A WEEK LATER
“Oooh! You plotted against me, you sly dog,” Cambyses said to Psamtik, wagging his finger.
“Death to the Persians!” cried Psamtik, and drank a whole thing of poison.
(Specifically ox blood, which supposedly coagulates in your throat and suffocates you.)
Cambyses was really bummed by this, and even exhuming Amasis from his tomb and defiling his corpse in a series of escalating desecrations didn’t make him feel better. Herodotus isn’t actually sure that Cambyses exhumed Amasis, actually. There was an urban legend going around that said that Amasis had foreseen Cambyses’s tomb-raiding, and set up a false tomb near the entrance, with his real body buried safely deep below and a homeless man of about Amasis’s age and build in the false tomb’s sarcophagus. Herodotus doubts that this actually happened; it’s just part and parcel of the Egyptian lionizing of Amasis. Also supposedly Amasis’s whole family had their tombs robbed, bodies exhumed, and the bodies burned up, but the British Museum today contains a pristine mummy attributed to Amasis’s wife, so maybe not.
So the interesting thing about this part of the story isn’t the part where Cambyses tries to push further south into Africa, to invade Ethiopia, and due to his mismanagement the campaign goes catastrophically badly and he descends into madness. Actually that sounds reasonably interesting. But I was going to say, the interesting thing here is that while back in EUTERPE Herodotus went on for pages and pages (and pages!) about the geography of Africa, the source of the Nile, the Merotic Empire, Kush, et cetera, at this point Herodotus’s understanding of what lay up the Nile from Thebes seems very murky. Historians theorize that he wrote EUTERPE after he’d finished all the rest of the Histories, that it’s best seen as a sort of appendix, and that he calls on informational sources that were unavailable to him while he was writing the rest of the story.
Thus, rather than tell the story of Cambyses failing to conquer Kush, an actual human nation, Herodotus here tells the tale of Cambyses failing to conquer the long-lived Ethiopians, a mythic nation where the only metal anyone used for anything was gold, and Poseidon was all the time showing up for Sunday dinner. According to legend, the king of the long-lived Ethiopians was whoever was tallest (!).
Cambyses was concerned that the long-lived Ethiopians would prove to be an invincible nation of atomic supermen, so sent spies to check the country out first, specifically a cadre of Fish Eaters, a mysterious and poorly-described ethnic group from the vicinity of modern-day Eritrea, perhaps. They spoke Ethiopian, is the reason Cambyses picked them.
“Go, and bring them presents, and tell them I want to be friends with them,” Cambyses instructed the Fish Eaters. “And be on the lookout for the Table of the Sun!”
Herodotus explains that the Table of the Sun was a popular myth about Ethiopia, that they had a field at the edge of their capital city which was piled high with all kinds of barbecue, free for the taking, and every night the field’s heaps of barbecue were magically replenished. (This is probably a warped version of an actual rite practiced in the area, that involved laying out meat for wild animals to eat.)
The Fish Eaters brought the following presents into Ethiopia, and presented them to the Ethiopian king:
1) One cloak, dyed with the expensive and lush Phoenician purple dye
2) One gold necklace made of twisted wire
3) One pair of golden armlets
4) One alabaster box containing one measure of myrrh
5) One jar of palm wine
“Greetings, my tallest,” said the Fish Eaters. “Our lord Cambyses proffers these gifts, and a promise of friendship. You’ll note they are all legit nice things, like you’d give a Persian nobleman.”
The tallest scoffed. “Shyeah right! Cambyses is a jerk and a jackass. You can tell, because he invaded and conquered Egypt. Jerk move! He just wants to conquer us, now. But let me show you something. Bow!”
Someone handed the tallest of Ethiopia a bow.
“You see this bow? See how it’s much larger than any Persian bow? It’s so big because us Ethiopians are huge. Take this bow with you, that’s yours to keep, and bring it back to your master Cambyses. Tell him than when he finds someone who can draw this bow, that’s when he should invade, and not a moment before.”
The Fish Eaters exchanged glances. They really hadn’t planned for this. “Well, can we walk you through our presents?” asked one.
“We had a whole presentation prepared,” said another.
“Fine, whatever.” The tallest leaned back and tented his fingers. “Wow me.”
Will the Fish Eaters wow the tallest? Tune in next week to find out!
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