We join the scene already in progress: the Fish Eaters, diplomats/spies/envoys to Mythic Ethiopia, preparing to present the tallest man in Mythic Ethiopia (and therefore the king) with a series of gifts Cambyses thought would impress him. The lead Fish Eater cleared his throat nervously. “First up is this saucy little number, a cloak fashioned with the fabulous purple dye of the Phoenicians…”
“Fashioned with dye?” asked the tallest. “You mean it’s not really purple, it’s been colored?”
The Fish Eater laughed, nervously, then realized the tallest wasn’t joking. “Well, of course, my tallest. It’s not as though wool is naturally purple…”
The tallest clucked his tongue and took the cloak. “Mark this down,” he told a subordinate. “One cloak, counterfeit.”
“Moving on,” said the Fish Eater, “we have this fine golden jewelry…”
“Jewelry?” The tallest made a face. “You mean these items aren’t functional? I see a slave collar and some shackles, but they’re incredibly flimsy.”
“Well, they’re made of gold.”
“So what? Everything’s made of gold! It’s the single most common metal! I’m wearing a gold hat right now, and sitting on a gold throne, with my feet in some gold slippers!”
“Outside your nation, Mythic Ethiopia, gold is less common…” began the Fish Eater desperately.
“Bah! One set of slave shackles,” the tallest told his scribe. “Flimsy and poorly made.”
The scribe nodded and made a note.
“Then there’s this alabaster box,” said the Fish Eater, and braced himself.
“Looks like a fine box,” the tallest said. “What’s in it?”
“Myrrh!” Seeing the tallest’s blank expression, the Fish Eaters tried to explain how myrrh was a perfume that made things smell good.
“Make things smell like they didn’t smell like before?” the tallest repeated incredulously. “More of your Persian counterfeiting nonsense! Scribe, note this down as a fine alabaster coffer containing nothing but lies!”
“And finally wine,” said the lead Fish Eater, miserably.
“Wye-nuh?” repeated the tallest cautiously. “We have no such word in our language. What is it?” He uncorked the jug and took a swig. Then he took a longer swig.
“You like, my tallest?”
“Finally you spies present me with something worthwhile!” the tallest bellowed.
So the wine was a hit! Once liquored up, the tallest of the Ethiopians became much more friendly. He asked how the Persians lived, and the Fish Eaters lay out a few Quick Persian Facts:
Quick Persian Fact #1: they eat bread which is made from wheat!
Quick Persian Fact #2: they live no longer than eighty years at the outside, usually less due to disease or misadventure.
“No wonder,” mused the tallest, “if they eat bread. Bread is basically wheat and wheat is basically dung. It grows out of the ground. You fertilize it with dung; it’s dung. Probably they only live as long as they do because of this wine stuff.”
“Sure, okay,” said the Fish Eaters. Partly to make conversation, and partly because Cambyses had sent them to gather information, they asked the tallest about the long-lived Ethiopians and how they lived.
The tallest man in Mythic Ethiopia, who was also the king of Mythic Ethiopia, readily answered the Fish Eaters’ questions. Quick side note: the bit about the king of Ethiopia being whoever was tallest is, clearly, bunk. However, Nicolaus of Damascus (Augustan-Era historian and close personal friend of Herod the Great, Marc Anthony, and Cleopatra; he was a real Dick Cavett of the ancient world), wrote a mostly-lost tract on the subject of Ethiopia, about four hundred years later. I say mostly-lost, because two whole sentences survive. The second sentence is about how the Ethiopians leave their stuff sitting out and yet no one steals anything; it’s not relevant. The first sentence declares the laws of succession for the Ethiopian throne: when the king dies, his sister’s son takes the throne, rather than his own. If no nephew is suitable, then the best-looking aristocrat gets to become king. This is true! At least it’s true that Nicolaus of Damascus wrote it.
And of course, best-looking and tallest are synonymous terms.
Anyway, the tallest provided some quick facts of his own, to counter the Persian ones the Fish Eaters offered.
Quick Long-Lived Ethiopian Fact #1: they eat meat and dairy!
Quick Long-Lived Ethiopian Fact #2: they live an average of one hundred twenty years! Some more, some less!
“Wow,” said the Fish Eaters, wondering among themselves as to whether the tallest was just blowing smoke. “How on earth do you manage that?”
“First, milk and cheese are good for you. Second, magic water!” The tallest led the Fish Eaters to a magic cistern full of magic water. This magic water had the following properties:
* Bathing in the water smooths your skin, much like rubbing yourself down with olive oil.
* The water has a distinctive odor, allegedly similar to violets.
* The specific gravity of the water is low enough that wood sinks in it.
Herodotus doesn’t make any assertions as to the reality of this magic spring, but guesses that if someone were to make magical longevity water, it would probably have such a bizarre selection of traits. I’d draw upon my doctorate in bioinorganic chemistry (yes, I have a doctorate in bioinorganic chemistry, that’s why I operate a novelty blog about Herodotus obviously what else are you going to do with a doctorate in bioinorganic chemistry) and guess that what’s being described is acetone, aka nail polish remover, which has more or less all of these traits. Except, of course, for three obvious problems: a) acetone isn’t something you’d want to drink, b) a spring of acetone makes no sense; a pool of it would evaporate swiftly, and c) we’re pretty familiar with acetone in the modern world and if bathing in it added forty years to your lifespan someone would have noticed by now. More likely, given the historical record, the Merotic Empire measured time in units of six months instead of twelve (equinox to equinox?), and somewhere along the line this gave rise to translation errors and confusion.
The tallest also showed the Fish Eaters a whole dungeon full of prisoners in golden chains, to demonstrate that the Ethiopians could make much heftier golden shackles than the puny ones the Fish Eaters had presented. Then he showed them the Table of the Sun (as described previously), and an Ethiopian funeral.
In an Ethiopian funeral, says Herodotus, the dead body is first embalmed, then shellacked, and then placed in a cylinder of some kind of leaded glass crystal. For a year, the transparent cylinder containing the body is kept in the home of the deceased’s relatives, and they treat it as though it were still alive, and then at the end of the year they dump the cylinder in a vacant lot.
“So this is all very nice,” the Fish Eaters said afterwards. “But we really should be getting back to Egypt. Cambyses is waiting for us, you know.”
“Sure, sure,” said the tallest. “Remember to tell Cambyses I said he was an idiot and a jackass and too puny to string a proper Ethiopian bow!”
So imagine for a moment that you’re Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, Emperor of Persia, ruler of Syria, Lydia, Babylon, Egypt, Libya, Palestine, Arabia, Bactria, et cetera, et cetera. You’ve sent envoys to the long-lived Mythic Ethiopians, and they’ve sent back word that their tallest thinks you’re a worthless putz. Also they sent you a bow that’s impossible to draw, and told you that the reason you can’t draw it is because you’re a worthless putz. You’ve tried to draw the bow, all your generals have tried, and the only one of y’all that can even slightly bend it is your brother Smerdis. What do you do?
I don’t know what you would do, in those circumstances, but I can tell you what Cambyses did. In a fit of manic excitement he mobilized his armies from Egypt and started marching them to Mythic Ethiopia, without planning ahead for things like food and water and knowing where Mythic Ethiopia was and so forth. A few hundred thousand Egyptian and Persian troops (the Greek mercenaries had another project) marched up the Nile, until they ran out of supplies about a fifth of the way there. When their supply wagons emptied out, the soldiers abandoned the wagons and slaughtered and ate the draft animals. When the draft animals ran out, they ate grass. When the grass proved insufficient, they held a lottery and ten percent of the army was killed and eaten by the other ninety percent.
Cambyses hadn’t worried overmuch about the supply situation, thinking it was a problem that would fix itself, but when he heard that his army was literally eating itself, he had a flash of sanity. “Back to Thebes!” he commanded, and the army spun around and returned home. By the time they had come full circle, the grand army of the Persians was in tatters. All Cambyses had to show for this ruinous expedition was a little stretch of Actual Ethiopia on the southern border of Egypt, which wasn’t even mysterious and mythic and awesome, it was just a dry country full of poverty-stricken Ethiopians.
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, a miracle had occurred! This particular miracle was one that happened every so often: a bull calf was born to a cow allegedly unable to conceive, and the calf was all black except for a while triangle on his forehead and a white splotch in the shape of an eagle on his back. Also a double-thick tail and a knotty tongue.
Whenever a calf with this particular combination of attributes was born, the Egyptians declared it to be an incarnation of their god Apis. They celebrated a lengthy feast of Apis, with dancing in the streets, parades, drinking, the whole nine yards.
In the midst of such a celebration, Cambyses returned to Thebes. He was not happy. “My army was slaughtered and you people are treating it like Mardi Gras!” he cried. “Everybody line up to get executed!”
The Egyptian priests assured Cambyses that the party was not in celebration of Cambyses’s humiliating defeat at the hands of logistics, but for Apis. “Apis doesn’t come around every day,” explained one.
“Just every few years,” agreed another. “So naturally we have to hold a festival!”
Cambyses wasn’t eager to hear it, but the priests told him the good news about the bull calf being a god, and so on. He responded by demanding to meet this bull-god for himself, and since he was the king, the Egyptians agreed. They marched the bull straight in to Cambyses’s throne room. “See? A god!” declared a priest.
Cambyses took one look at the bull calf and broke in raucous, insane laughter. “You fools!” he shouted. “This is no god! This is just meat!” He drew a blade and advanced on the calf. “I don’t know whether this is some elaborate joke or whether you people are really this stupid, but this is not a god! I’ll prove it!” And then he lunged at the calf, to slit its belly open, but he slipped and stabbed it in the thigh. “Good enough!” he cried, as the calf began crying and blood spurted everywhere. “Gods don’t bleed!”
Cambyses threw the blade down dramatically as the Egyptians all murmured among themselves about how unseemly this was. “New rule!” he cried. “Any Egyptian caught worshipping veal gets whipped to death!”
Around this time, says Herodotus, Cambyses went mad. He might have been crazy already, our boy Herodotus admits. But after the thing with Apis, he really stepped up his game and got some full-sized crazy going. There’s a pillar in the Louvre, dated back to the reign of Cambyses in Egypt, that shows Cambyses adoring Apis, or so I’m told. I’ve never seen it. Some historians theorize that the Egyptian clerics screwed up their ritual slaughter of Apis, and later pinned the crime on the incredibly unpopular pharaoh Cambyses, but then again, Plutarch describes Cambyses as mutilating Apis’s corpse and feeding it to dogs. To further muddy the waters, Cambyses’s successor commissioned a second pillar, also in the Louvre, showing Cambyses and Apis not getting along at all.
Anyway, as I was saying, after the Apis incident Cambyses went totally insane. For instance, he grew jealous of his brother Smerdis, who had been able to draw the bow of the tallest of the Mythic Ethiopians (just a little bit, but still) and exiled him from Egypt. Which sounds fairly coherent, until you find out that he exiled Smerdis from Egypt, to Persepolis, the empire’s actual capital, in Persia. It was like if the president had taken up residence in Texas, and got frustrated with the vice-president, and sent him to Washington, DC, with the intention of undercutting him.
Second, Cambyses decided that just exiling Smerdis wasn’t enough. He had a prophetic dream, in which Smerdis sat on the royal throne back in Persia. “Dammit,” he said, “I shouldn’t have sent him home to Persepolis. Dumb move!” He called in his most trusted henchman, Prexaspes. “I want you to go to Persepolis and murder my brother Smerdis,” Cambyses told him. And Prexaspes knew which side his bread was buttered on, so did just that.
Third, Cambyses married two of his three sisters. He would have married all three, but the youngest, Artystone, was still underage, so he had to content himself with Roxanne and Atossa. The story goes that Cambyses lusted after Atossa, and decided to marry her. Incestuous brother-sister marriages were not unheard of among the Egyptians, but it was about as abhorrent to the Persians as it is to us. So Cambyses sent for the royal judges. These guys were apolitical professional bureaucrats and magistrates, renowned for their impartiality. The Old Testament has a section about how immutable Persian law of the era was, around Daniel 6:8; the impeccable objectivity of Persian royal judges was literally proverbial. Cambyses asked them whether it was allowed, by the laws, for him to marry his sister.
The royal judges convened a panel and discussed among themselves for a while, and finally presented Cambyses with a real Marbury v. Madison of an answer. “There’s no law specifically permitting the king to marry his sister,” they said. “However, there is a law that says that if the king does it, it’s not illegal. So go nuts.”
And go nuts he did! Which is to say he married not only his sister Atossa, but also his sister Roxanne.
Fourth, Cambyses murdered Roxanne. She’d found out, somehow, that Cambyses had sent an assassin after Smerdis, and spent all her time harping on it. Brothers should cooperate with one another, not murder one another. The family tree is more attractive when it hasn’t been denuded of its leaves by careless fratricide. That sort of thing. Cambyses couldn’t take it any more, and one day he just up and stabbed Roxanne right in her pregnant belly…
“Did I mention she was pregnant with Cambyses’s child?” Herodotus asks.
“You did not,” I say. “Thanks for that.
…and she miscarried and died.
“Prexapses,” Cambyses said one day, after a morning of lolling about drinking wine, “what do the Persian people say about me? Do they think I’m a good king, or a great king?”
“Oh, a great king, definitely,” said Prexaspes.
“Good.” Cambyses considered this for a bit. “Any constructive criticism?”
“Come on, it’s me,” Cambyses told him. “You can tell me anything.”
“Well, there’s a small faction among the Persians who think you drink too much.”
“What?!” Cambyses was outraged. “Drink too much? Me? Get them in here!”
So Prexaspes marched in some random Persians, and Cambyses put it to them — did he drink too much?
“Think before you answer,” Cambyses warned them. In the hand that wasn’t holding a wine glass, he had his peasant-slaughtering blade, and he waggled both blade and glass intimidatingly.
“Definitely you don’t drink too much,” the Persians chorused. “You’re a great and wonderful king, far better than your father Cyrus!”
“Well, that settles that,” said Cambyses. “You people can go now. Or, no, you were saying nasty things about me before. Prexaspes, see to it they’re all executed… let’s see, what haven’t we done lately… bury them alive up to their heads, will you?”
As the unhappy Persians shuffled out of the throne room, old Croesus, onetime king of Lydia and advisor first to Cyrus and then to Cambyses, cleared his throat. “I have to say I disagree with the opinions you’ve been offered,” he rumbled. “I promised your father I’d give you good counsel.”
“You dare disagree?” roared Cambyses, waving around his sword some more.
Croesus winced. “Shoot, I forgot you still had that sword. What I meant was,” he said slowly, “you aren’t the equal of your father Cyrus the Great, because… because he had a really terrific son, you, and at the moment you have zero sons.”
“Oh, all right,” Cambyses said, mollified. “I won’t have you killed after all. But, hm, something still troubles me.”
When Prexaspes returned, Cambyses asked him whether he thought the Persians had been lying when they’d claimed he drank too much, or that they’d been lying when they’d claimed he was a better king than his father. “It’s got to be one or the other, right?”
Prexaspes was at a loss for words. He looked to Croesus for help, but Croesus just shook his head.
“I know!” cried Cambyses. “Here’s what we do. I take your son, and I stand him in this doorway here, and I stand over at the other end of the room, and I shoot him with this bow and arrow! If I hit him, then the Persians were lying when they said I was a drunk! That makes sense, doesn’t it? Could a drunkard make this shot? I think not!”
Prexaspes and Croesus watched, helpless, as Cambyses placed Prexaspes’s son in the doorway, took up a bow and arrow, and shot him, just as he’d said he would. Thunk! And Prexaspes’s son collapsed, dead! It was a marvelous example of poetic justice, as Prexaspes had murdered Cyrus’s son Smerdis!
“There!” Cambyses cried, delighted. “You see? You see? Right in the heart! Could a drunkard have done that?”
“No,” whispered Prexaspes.
“I daresay my father couldn’t have made that shot! Because he’s dead and can’t draw back the bow!” Cambyses cackled.
“Ha ha,” Prexapes said quietly. “I’m sure Cyrus wouldn’t have done that. I don’t think Mithras would have made that shot.”
Croesus couldn’t keep silent at this. He rose, and began bawling Cambyses out with harsh invective. Don’t kill people for no reason, he said. Don’t terrorize your own citizens, he said. If you do the Persians will revolt against you, he said.
“Shut up! Shut up shut up!” screamed Cambyses. “You’re just like Roxanne!” And he tried to shoot Croesus with the bow and arrow, but Croesus (unlike Prexaspes’s son) wasn’t willing to just stand there and get shot. He trotted out of the throne room and around a corner.
“Dammit!” shouted Cambyses. “Someone get him! Get him and kill him!”
Around the corner, one of Cambyses’s attendants comforted Croesus with a glass of water while another one declared that they’d totally chased Croesus out a window and he’d fallen to his death.
“No need to see such a grisly sight with your own eyes, sire!” called the attendant.
“Well, that’s all right then,” grumbled Cambyses. The attendants led Croesus away to a wing of the palace that Cambyses never visited, and let him stay there.
Later, Cambyses missed Croesus, the only advisor who was willing to call him on his bullshit. “If only Croesus were still alive!” he was heard to say.
The two attendants who had conspired to fake Croesus’s death then presented him. “We figured you would want Croesus alive again later, sire,” said one.
“And here he is!” declared the other.
“Hmm. On the one hand, I’m very glad to see Croesus alive. On the other, you lied to me. So go report for execution, but tell the royal executioner to use one of the less painful methods.”
Meanwhile, as Cambyses was crazying it up in Egypt, the rest of the Persian Empire continued to exist. Since Smerdis, Cambyses’s brother, had died under highly suspicious circumstances, two Magi were de facto running the empire.
These two Magi were brothers, named Patzeithes and Smerdis.
“Smerdis was not an uncommon name,” explains Herodotus.
“Okay,” I say. “Also, historians are pretty sure that by Patzeithes, you mean Padishah, which is a title rather than a name. Like in EUTERPE, when you said there was a pharaoh literally named Pharaoh.”
For sake of clarity, we’ll call the two Smerdises Smerdis-magus and Smerdis-prince. Smerdis-magus also bore a close resemblance to the late Smerdis-prince; from a distance they looked the same, and they were alike in manner and bearing.
“Kind of suspicious,” I say.
“Are you impugning my sources?” asks Herodotus.
“Not at all, boss. I’m just saying that yeah, most later historians agree that Smerdis-magus didn’t exist and that Smerdis-prince hadn’t really died,” says I.
Herodotus harrumphs at me. “I suppose that’s possible. But for political reasons it was really vital to Cambyses’s successor that the official story be that Cambyses had killed his brother. You’ll see.”
Anyway, the one major distinction between Smerdis-magus and Smerdis-prince was that Smerdis-magus had no ears. Cambyses had, before leaving Pasargadae for Egypt, had Smerdis-magus’s ears burned off, just for funsies.
Patzeithes and Smerdis-magus heard about Cambyses’s descent into madness, out in Egypt, and decided the time had come to seize power. Smerdis-magus masqueraded as Smerdis-prince (whom no one knew was dead) and drafted a series of proclamations declaring that as Cambyses was unfit to rule, he, Smerdis-prince, was stepping up.
Cambyses, then on his way back to Persepolis from Thebes, intercepted one of these proclamations.
“Prexaspes, can you explain this?” he asked his henchman, whom he had sent to murder Smerdis-prince in the first place.
Prexaspes thought quickly. “It must be that Smerdis-magus, whom you left in charge, has decided to seize power from you, sire! After all, in this ancient era without rapid communication, photography, recordings, fingerprinting, or any other technology that might foil it, it’s all too easy to impersonate a prince!”
“I knew it!” roared Cambyses. “I had a dream in which Smerdis rebelled against my rule — little did I know it was Smerdis the magus, not Smerdis the prince! We killed my brother for no reason! Oh well, hindsight is 20/20.”
Then… I swear I am not making this up, this is what Herodotus recorded… Then Cambyses slipped and fell on his sword, which stabbed him in the exact same place as he’d stabbed Apis the calf-god. “Whoops!” he said, as the wound became gangrenous. “Smerdis is an impostor, everybody!” he shouted, and died. It’s worth noting that other sources assert Cambyses killed himself in a fit of madness, but still: according to Herodotus, it was an accident slash divine judgement.
“Whoa,” said all Cambyses’s courtiers. “We’d better hightail it back to Persepolis!”
“Yeah, definitely,” said Prexaspes.
“What was that he was saying about Smerdis being an impostor, I wonder…”
Prexaspes considered this for a moment. “It’s still illegal to murder the king’s brother, right?”
“An odd question,” said a handy royal judge. “But yes, unless of course the king pardons you for your crime.”
“And could he do that, like, privately? Like, Cambyses pardoned somebody in secret and it only now comes to light?”
“Oh no, no, no.” The royal judge clucked his tongue. “There would need to be witnesses, a notary, all that stuff. And anyway Cambyses is dead, so he’s not about to pardon anyone. I suppose Smerdis is king now. Perhaps he’ll issue pardons. But what’s the cause of your sudden interest in pardons, Prexaspes?”
“Oh, no reason,” said Prexaspes. He told no one that Smerdis-magus wasn’t really Smerdis-prince.
And that was the reign of Cambyses! We’ll get to his successor eventually, but first there are a few side stories that Herodotus thinks now is a fine time to unload.
Did you enjoy this? Tell someone! Like Primary Sources on Facebook! Follow Primary Sources on Twitter! Follow Primary Sources on Tumblr! Spread the word! If you want to, I mean, I’m not going to force you.