Cambyses II and the Conquest of Egypt

It’s not always easy being the son of a man who some consider to be the father of your nation, a messiah and basically the most powerful man on Earth. All that pressure can really make one go mad. This is essentially what, at least according to some ancient writers, happened to Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great. But was this true or were Greek and Roman writers simply tarnishing his name? Let’s take a look at who Cambyses, the second emperor of the Achaemenid Empire, really was.

Big Shoes to Fill

The death of Cyrus the Great in 530 BCE was a pretty big deal. According to most sources, he died a warrior’s death attempting to pacify and bring the tribes of the Central Asian steppes underneath his banner. But before this, he had brought a relatively poor and unknown group of people, the Persians, unto the world stage by creating the largest empire of that time and conquering the most powerful kingdoms in the region, save Egypt. Of course he did this with a strong military machine whose construction he had overseen, but his manner of conquest was in stark contrast to the rulers who came before him. Cyrus didn’t sack cities for sport or to punish his enemies. Once he took them over, the cities and kingdoms that he conquered were more or less left to live life like they always had, save for paying their share of taxes to the Persian crown.
Release of the Jews from Babylon
As far as we know, Cyrus never forcibly resettled peoples or enslaved them. On the contrary, we know of several instances, the most famous being the Hebrew Bible, where Cyrus freed slaves and allowed them to return to their lands of origin. Even the Greeks of his day and for centuries afterward lavished praise on Cyrus. This is extremely interesting because for the most part, Greeks more or less hated the Persians and all that they thought they stood for. Cyrus was the one notable exception, so he must have been someone great indeed. Cambyses though was portrayed as the exact opposite of Cyrus. Let’s see why this may or may not be so.

The Life of Cambyses II, Cyrus’ Son and Successor

Upon Cyrus’ death, his eldest son Cambyses became the new King of Kings. It seems that Cyrus had been grooming Cambyses for the position since he made him satrap (little king or governor) of Babylonia, then the wealthiest conquered territory of the Persian Empire. According to the Nabonidus chronicle, Cambyses appeared jointly with Cyrus and Cambyses in 538 BCE at the Babylonian New Year festival, the most important and auspicious celebration in Mesopotamia. Many scholars think that this was an early indication of Cyrus’ intention to name Cambyses as his successor. Not only this, but when Cyrus went back to Persia, he named Cambyses as his regent in Babylon. This was symbolically important because Babylonia was at that time not only the newest satrapy (or province) of the empire, but also the wealthiest and possibly even the largest. This was in a sense a preparation for the day when Cambyses would take over the entire realm as the Persian King of Kings.

Cambyses in Babylon

By most accounts, Cambyses seems to have done well in his new position. Cuneiform tablets and other records that have been discovered indicate that Cambyses was in Babylonia for 8 years, though instead of residing in the city of Babylon, he stayed in Sippar, a town to the north. Like Cyrus, the new king retained the great majority of the previous regime’s staff and continued he father’s tolerant policies. In fact, it seems that Cambyses was relatively well liked during his tenure ruling Babylonia.

The Campaign to Conquer Egypt

Painting of Persians conquering Egypt. One story (most likely untrue) is that Persian soldiers attacked by throwing cats, who were considered sacred, at the Egyptians.
Cambyses also completed the conquest of the areas in the east that his father had tried to before he was presumably killed in battle. After returning to the Persian heartland, he then prepared to go forward with another of Cyrus’ ambitious plans, namely the conquest of Egypt.
Cambyses in Egypt
It is believed that preparations for the invasion took four years. Egypt, given its location and reputation as the region’s only other remaining superpower, was not a place that one could simply walk into unopposed. Unlike the Babylonians who had surrendered their capital without a fight, the Egyptians would not be so easy to subdue. In order to give his army the greatest chance of success, Cambyses’ Persian and Median soldiers trained extra hard to get used to the terrain in Egypt and also hired some of the best Greek mercenaries to join them. His men made contacts with the Arab and other tribes who lived in or close to the Sinai in order to provide his troops with necessities such as food and water to cross the parched deserts of the peninsula.
Painting of Cambyses in Egypt
Not only did he work with the peoples and tribes outside of Egypt, but also those from within. Similar to the case with Babylon before Cyrus took over the city, the priests of Egypt were also at odds with their pharaoh, Amasis II. Cambyses took advantage of this and launched a propaganda campaign against Amasis, eventually gaining the support of many important priests and nobles within Egyptian society. He also convinced Polycrates of Samos, who was initially an ally of Amasis, to switch sides and join him instead. However, just before Cambyses launched his invasion, Amasis died. His son Psamtik III took over the throne, but he was unprepared for the advancing Persian-led army.
4th century seal of Cambyses II capturing or killing Pharaoh Psamtik III;
At the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE, the Egyptian army was decisively defeated and eventually Psamtik III was captured. According to Herodotus he was put under a sort of house arrest but later on attempted to stage a revolt against Persian rule. When Cambyses found out about the plot, he had Psamtik executed.

Other Campaigns

Destruction of Cambyses’ Army by a Sandstorm; source Wikicommons
After consolidating his hold on Egypt, Cambyses marched south along the Nile River. This campaign however proved to be extremely costly. The Persians ran out of supplies and failed to accomplish their intended goal of conquering the Kingdom of Kush in what is today Ethiopia. Things got so bad that after running out of food, many Persians are said to have resorted to cannibalism. It seems though that Cambyses did leave a garrison there and was able to collect tribute from them. On another expedition to take the holy Oasis of Siwa, a massive sandstorm is said to have swooped in and swallowed up one of his armies. The Persians though are reported to have taken Libya relatively easily.

It must be noted here that our source for these stories is primarily the Greek historian Herodotus. He himself lived about 80 years afterward and merely collected stories that he’d heard from others. Being that by his day the Persians were intensely hated by both the Greeks and the Egyptians, chances are that the results of such campaigns were a bit if not totally exaggerated.

Cambyses’ Reputation

Cambyses supposedly killing the holy Apis bull
As mentioned earlier, much of the information that we historically have about Cambyses comes from Greek sources, practically all of them not very complimentary to the king or Persians in general. In fact, he is described as being extremely ruthless and downright mad. Herodotus for example has written about several of Cambyses’ reprehensible acts while in Egypt including mocking their religious customs, desecrating their temples, killing their priests and most notorious of all, personally stabbing the sacred bull, Apis, who many Egyptians worshiped as a god, to death. Other tales tell of Cambyses shooting a young boy through the heart because he was mad at his father and also that he murdered one of his wives.
Ancient Egyptian depiction of the Apis bull
Much of this though could simply be slander. The tales written down by Greek and Roman writers were all that we previously knew of Cambyses for centuries until new sources appeared, many of them Egyptian and Babylonian inscriptions and records. These seem to give a more balanced account of Cambyses’ rule in Egypt. For example, one of things that Cambysss did was to lower the amount of taxes collected to support Egyptian priests and their temples. Naturally the priests would find fault with the foreign king, though such a measure probably benefited the common people since they were the ones who actually paid for the tax.
Wait, is that an inscription of depicting Cambyses wearing Egyptian clothes and worshiping the Apis bull? OMG it is!
Other sources state that Cambyses actually worshipped Egyptian gods and made the proper offerings as was his duty as Pharaoh of Egypt. In terms of the Apis bull, Cambyses’ indefensible crime, historians have found records in Egyptian archives that say the holy animal died while the king was campaigning in Ethiopia. There is even a limestone slab that has been found of Cambyses wearing Egyptian royal dress and worshiping the bull. At one point when Greek mercenaries had violated and occupied Egypt’s holy temples, Cambyses ordered them to be thrown out and restored the temples to their former state.

When you think about it, this is in line with the actions and general tolerance that both he and his father Cyrus showed in Babylon and other parts of the empire. It seems unlikely that Cambyses would have simply changed such a successful policy. It’s also likely that such slander was contrived by Egypt’s priests who lost some of their income and influence under Cambyses along with later Greek writers who vilified the king in order to spread anti-Persian propaganda.

Crisis on the Homefront

With all this talk of Egypt, it’s easy to forget that Cambyses was not just the Pharaoh but also the King of Persia and their newly created empire. Thus, the longer he stayed away from the empire’s core (meaning Persia, Media, Elam and Babylonia), the less tenable his grip on power would be. This actually turned out to be the case and led to possibly the first of many fatal sibling rivalries that would plague the Achaemenid Empire from then on until its demise. Basically, it’s a real life ancient version of Game of Thrones.

More on that coming soon in future posts.

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