King Cambyses

In 530 BCE Cambyses inherited a vast empire, far larger than any previous, and one that had been formulated in just twenty years. Cambyses’ royal pursuits are hard to gauge, however, because the record is even thinner for his reign. Cambyses’ first order of business would have been arrangements for Cyrus’ burial at his tomb in Pasargadae. An incomplete structure found near Persepolis has been identified as an intentional replica of Cyrus’ tomb, and it was naturally assumed to have been for Cambyses. But some documentary evidence suggests that Cambyses’ tomb lay elsewhere, southeast of Persepolis near modern Niriz, and the evidence pointing there indicates a royally sponsored cult, similar to that associated with Cyrus’ tomb.

Cambyses eventually turned his attention westward, where the main power was Egypt. Amasis (reigned 570–526 BCE) had conquered Cyprus and formed an alliance with the Greek ruler Polycrates of Samos, an island off the coast of Ionia. By the 520s Polycrates had become dominant in the Aegean Sea region. This alliance was fractured sometime after Cambyses’ accession, and Polycrates offered ships to Cambyses for the Egyptian expedition. Reasons for the switch may only be guessed. Perhaps the intensifying Persian hold on Ionia in conjunction with inducements (or threats?) swayed Polycrates toward Persia. Cambyses’ efforts to develop a royal navy, mainly through his Phoenician and Ionian subjects, were no doubt intended for the western front and a planned Egyptian campaign. The territories of the Levant, geographically at the crossroads between Greater Mesopotamia and Egypt, had been a point of contention between rulers of those regions for centuries. Persian control of that region was bound to inflame tensions with Egypt. With an eye on Persian expansionism, Amasis had cultivated good relations with many city-states and sanctuaries in the Aegean world. In 526 Amasis was succeeded by his son Psammetichus III, whose rule was to prove quite short.

Cambyses’ Invasion of Egypt

There is no narrative record of the preparations for the Persian invasion of Egypt in 525 BCE, but they were no doubt extensive. As part of these preparations, Cambyses fostered relations with the king of the Arabs, who controlled the desert route across the Sinai peninsula and could thus enable the successful crossing. The first engagement occurred at the easternmost branch of the Nile delta, the so-called Pelusiac mouth. The Persians put the Egyptians to flight, invaded the Nile Valley, and besieged Psammetichus in his capital, Memphis. There he was protected by fortifications named “the White Wall,” which could only be taken with support from a fleet. The city was eventually taken and Psammetichus captured. But he was spared and treated well, as per the pattern of kings previously defeated by the Persians. Herodotus even claims that if Psammetichus had comported himself appropriately he would have been made governor of Egypt (3.15). But Psammetichus subsequently plotted rebellion and was put to death.

Once Egypt was secure, Cambyses intended further military actions both west and south, following the paths of many Egyptian pharaohs. The Libyan oases offered control over strategic western trade routes. Beyond the First Cataract in the south, the kingdom of Kush had always been coveted for its gold. The installation of a Persian garrison at Elephantine – an island in the Nile near modern Aswan – reveals the strategic importance of this area at Egypt’s southern boundary. This garrison was one of several similar that were stationed at strategic points throughout the Empire.

Additional Persian expeditions against the oasis of Ammon in the west and against Nubia and Ethiopia in the south ended badly. The particulars may seem far-fetched, but the historicity of these campaigns, including an aborted expedition against the Carthaginians (modern Tunisia), need not be rejected out of hand. The limits of Persian imperialism had not yet been reached. It made sense to secure those borderlands that had been problems for previous Egyptian rulers for centuries. If Herodotus may be believed, the army dispatched to Libya was swallowed in a sandstorm. Cambyses himself led the expedition against Nubia and Ethiopia, but it was abandoned en route: desperate straits culminated in cannibalism among the troops. These misadventures, replete with divine portents and human warnings that Cambyses was going too far, serve as case studies for Herodotus’ portrayal of the “mad Cambyses” – more a literary exercise than a historical one. Herodotus records a litany of Cambyses’ outrages, overreach, and arrogance – directed not only at Egyptians but also at Persians and even his own family – the paradigmatic example of a stereotypical oriental despot.

Herodotus’ “mad Cambyses” shows first of all that the Father of History relied on a negative tradition of Cambyses current in Egypt when Herodotus visited in the mid-fifth century BCE. Herodotus devotes portions of his Book 3 to Cambyses’ increasing instability. Cambyses purportedly ordered Amasis’ mummy to be disinterred, abused, and finally burned – an insult, to both Persian and Egyptian religions (3.16). Other tombs were opened and cult statues mocked, particularly in the temple of Ptah, an Egyptian creator god whose sacred city was Memphis. The greatest outrage to the Egyptians was the slaying of the Apis bull (3.27–29), a sacred calf that was considered the earthly embodiment of Ptah. The Egyptian king was a central part of the Apis cult, which in turn was directly connected to the office of kingship.

When Cambyses returned to Memphis after the disastrous Ethiopian expedition, he found the Egyptians of Memphis celebrating the birth of a new Apis calf: a new beginning, their god again made manifest. Cambyses snapped. He saw their festival as an expression of joy at his misfortune, and he reacted: stabbing the Apis bull with a knife to the thigh and flogging or slaying many priests. Herodotus subsequently catalogs a cascade of misfortune and misery that brought Cambyses to his own end and shook the entire Empire to its core – the result of Cambyses’ impiety. The slaying of the Apis bull makes compelling drama, but it is mostly exaggerated if not fabricated. We have some Egyptian evidence that seems to refute Herodotus’ portrayal. Contrary to Herodotus’ assertion that the Egyptian priests buried the Apis bull without Cambyses’ knowledge, a sarcophagus from a bull buried during Cambyses’ reign is engraved with Cambyses’ own inscription in traditional Egyptian format:

The Horus Sma-Towy, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesuti-Re, born of Re, Cambyses, may he live forever! He has made this fine monument, a great sarcophagus of granite, for his father Apis-Osiris, dedicated by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesuti-Re, son of Re, Cambyses, may he be granted long life, prosperity in perpetuity, health and joy, appearing as King of Upper and Lower Egypt eternally.

This inscription states that Cambyses, acting as a typical Egyptian pharaoh, took responsibility for the proper care and burial of the deceased Apis, which is understood to have died during Cambyses’ fifth regnal year. If only it were so simple. There are significant problems with our understanding of this sequence: the death and burial of the Apis bull during Cambyses’ reign, and the overlap between the birth of a successor bull and the death of the current Apis. Other inscriptions further complicate matters.

Although the initial inclination is to reject any suggestion that Cambyses killed the Apis, it cannot be excluded that Cambyses may have killed a younger calf (the Apis successor) before the death of the one buried in the sarcophagus. The Egyptian evidence reminds us not to take Herodotus at face value. Some of the changes Cambyses wrought in the aftermath of the Persian victory must have been unwelcome, perhaps even unprecedented. For example, a reduction in support for some Egyptian temples could easily have given rise to negative stories about Cambyses.

The inscription of Udjahorresnet, a naval commander under Amasis and Psammetichus III who defected to the Persians, also provides some balance to Herodotus’ account. Udjahorresnet’s hieroglyphic inscription is carved on his votive statue from Sais, in the western Delta. The statue holds a small shrine for Osiris, god of the underworld. The autobiographical inscription chronicles Udjahorresnet’s career, with special emphasis on his service to both Cambyses and Darius I. It is invaluable as a window on how one of the Egyptian nobility secured a place for himself in the new order.

Udjahorresnet’s inscription provides the only surviving royal titles for Cambyses beyond Babylonian administrative documents. Cambyses adopted Egyptian titles (e.g., “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”) as would be expected from a new ruler seeking to place himself in an age-old tradition. Udjahorresnet himself would have been keen to trumpet his own titles and achievements – typical in this sort of inscription – and also to justify his collaboration with the Persians. Udjahorresnet’s inscription, and Cambyses’ titles therein, indicate that Cambyses behaved as did previous kings by restoring order and respecting religious sanctuaries. Udjahorresnet’s version is no doubt slanted as well, but the picture it provides runs directly counter to Herodotus’. It would not be surprising to discover that the respect Cambyses showed for sanctuaries included those with which Udjahorresnet had been involved, those in and near Sais, but that is unverifiable. That the Persians presented themselves as pharaohs in the traditional Egpytian manner is not surprising. Successful integration into Egyptian tradition would make Persian rule much smoother. As evidenced by subsequent Egyptian revolts, however, this integration was not always smooth.

The Death of Cambyses and the Crisis of 522 BCE

The length of Cambyses’ Egyptian campaign is uncertain, but various sources indicate that Cambyses was returning to Persia in 522 when he died. He had been away for at least three years. Babylonian economic documents reveal that Cambyses died sometime in April and was succeeded by his brother Bardiya. Bardiya ruled for six months, until he was supplanted by Darius. Darius conversely related that Cambyses had killed Bardiya sometime previously and that a look-alike double, whom Darius called Gaumata, rebelled against Cambyses in March of 522. The crisis of 522 was of epic proportions, and the stability of the fledgling Empire was at stake. Various ancient sources relay a story of fratricide; an elaborate cover-up; a body double and impostor on the throne; and a small group of heroes who discover the truth, slay the pretender, and set Persia to rights once again. Despite the fundamental interpretive problems that persist in evaluating the sources, it is clear that the Persian Empire faced a decisive moment. Darius I’s eventual, and by no means easy, victory was monumental in its own right and had lasting consequences for the durability of the Empire. The testimonies for this turbulent time are confusing and often contradictory. Separate overviews of the main ones – Darius’ Bisitun Inscription and Herodotus’ account – are warranted before any attempt at reconciliation.


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