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Ancient Egypt: Herodotus on Cambyses
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Cambyses reigned over Egypt from 525 to 522 BCE

Herodotus on Cambyses

The Levant [3.7.1] Now as soon as the Persians took possession of Egypt, they became the caretakers of the entryway into it, having it provisioned with water in the way I have described. [3.7.2] But at this time there was as yet no ready supply of water; and so Cambyses, hearing what was said by the stranger from Halicarnassus, sent messengers to the Arabian and asked and obtained safe conduct, giving to him and receiving from him pledges.

[3.8.1] There are no men who respect pledges more than the Arabians. This is how they give them: a man stands between the two pledging parties, and with a sharp stone cuts the palms of their hands, near the thumb; then he takes a piece of wood from the cloak of each and smears with their blood seven stones that lie between them, meanwhile calling on Dionysus and the Heavenly Aphrodite; [3.8.2] after this is done, the one who has given his pledge commends the stranger (or his countryman if the other be one) to his friends, and his friends hold themselves bound to honor the pledge. [3.8.3] They believe in no other gods except Dionysus and the Heavenly Aphrodite; and they say that they wear their hair as Dionysus does his, cutting it round the head and shaving the temples. They call Dionysus, Orotalt; and Aphrodite, Alilat.

[3.9.1] When, then, the Arabian had made the pledge to the messengers who had come from Cambyses, he devised the following expedient: he filled camel-skins with water and loaded all his camels with these; then he drove them into the waterless land and there awaited Cambyses' army. [3.9.2] This is the most credible of the stories told; but I must relate the less credible tale also, since they tell it. There is a great river in Arabia called Corys, emptying into the sea called Red. [3.9.3] From this river (it is said) the king of the Arabians brought water by an aqueduct made of sewn oxhides and other hides and extensive enough to reach to the dry country; and he had great tanks dug in that country to try to receive and keep the water. [3.9.4] It is a twelve days' journey from the river to that desert. By three aqueducts (they say) he brought the water to three different places.

[3.10.1] Psammenitus, son of Amasis, was encamped by the mouth of the Nile called Pelusian, awaiting Cambyses. [3.10.2] For when Cambyses marched against Egypt, he found Amasis no longer alive; he had died after reigning forty-four years, during which he had suffered no great misfortune; and being dead he was embalmed and laid in the burial-place built for him in the temple. [3.10.3] While his son Psammenitus was king of Egypt, the people saw an extraordinary thing, namely, rain at Thebes of Egypt, where, as the Thebans themselves say, there had never been rain before, nor since to my lifetime; for indeed there is no rain at all in the upper parts of Egypt; but at that time a drizzle of rain fell at Thebes.1

[3.11.1] When the Persians had crossed the waterless country and encamped near the Egyptians intending to engage them, the Egyptian mercenaries, Greeks and Carians, devised a plan to punish Phanes, angered at him for leading a foreign army into Egypt. [3.11.2] Phanes had left sons in Egypt; these they brought to the camp, into their father's sight, and set a great bowl between the two armies; then they brought the sons one by one and cut their throats over the bowl. [3.11.3] When all the sons had been slaughtered, they poured wine and water into the bowl, and the mercenaries drank this and then gave battle. The fighting was fierce, and many of both armies fell; but at last the Egyptians were routed.

[3.12.1] I saw a strange thing on the site of the battle, of which the people of the country had told me. The bones of those killed on either side in this fight lying scattered separately (for the Persian bones lay in one place and the Egyptian in another, where the armies had first separately stood), the skulls of the Persians are so brittle that if you throw no more than a pebble it will pierce them, but the Egyptian skulls are so strong that a blow of a stone will hardly crack them. [3.12.2] And this, the people said (which for my own part I readily believed), is the explanation of it: the Egyptians shave their heads from childhood, and the bone thickens by exposure to the sun. [3.12.3] This also is the reason why they do not grow bald; for nowhere can one see so few bald heads as in Egypt. [3.12.4] Their skulls then are strong for this reason; while the Persian skulls are weak because they cover their heads throughout their lives with the felt hats (called tiaras) which they wear. Such is the truth of the matter. I saw too the skulls of those Persians at Papremis who were killed with Darius' son Achaemenes by Inaros the Libyan, and they were like the others.

[3.13.1] After their rout in the battle the Egyptians fled in disorder; and when they had been overtaken in Memphis, Cambyses sent a Persian herald up the river aboard a Mytilenean boat to invite the Egyptians to an accord. [3.13.2] But when they saw the boat coming to Memphis, they sallied out all together from their walls, destroyed the boat, dismembered the crew (like butchers) and carried them within the walls. [3.13.3] So the Egyptians were besieged, and after a long while surrendered; but the neighboring Libyans, frightened by what had happened in Egypt, surrendered without a fight, laying tribute on themselves and sending gifts; and so too did the people of Cyrene and Barca, frightened like the Libyans. [3.13.4] Cambyses received in all kindness the gifts of the Libyans; but he seized what came from Cyrene and, displeased, I think, because it was so little--for the Cyrenaeans had sent five hundred silver minae--cast it with his own hands among his army.

[3.14.1] On the tenth day after the surrender of the walled city of Memphis, Cambyses took Psammenitus king of Egypt, who had reigned for six months, and confined him in the outer part of the city with other Egyptians, to insult him; having confined him there, he tried Psammenitus' spirit, as I shall show. [3.14.2] He dressed the daughter of the king as a slave and sent her out with a pitcher to fetch water, together with other girls from the families of the leading men, dressed like the daughter of the king. [3.14.3] So when the girls went out before their fathers' eyes crying and lamenting, all the rest answered with cries and weeping, seeing their children abused; but Psammenitus, having seen with his own eyes and learned all, bowed himself to the ground. [3.14.4] After the water-carriers had passed by, Cambyses next made Psammenitus' son go out before him with two thousand Egyptians of the same age, all with ropes bound round their necks and bridle-bits in their mouths; [3.14.5] they were led out to be punished for those Mytileneans who had perished with their boat at Memphis; for such was the judgment of the royal judges, that every man's death be paid for by the deaths of ten noble Egyptians. [3.14.6] When Psammenitus saw them passing and perceived that his son was being led out to die, and all the Egyptians who sat with him wept and showed their affliction, he did as he had done at the sight of his daughter. [3.14.7] After these too had gone out, it happened that there was one of his companions, a man past his prime, who had lost all his possessions, and had only what a poor man might have, and begged of the army; this man now went out before Psammenitus son of Amasis and the Egyptians confined in the outer part of the city. When Psammenitus saw him, he broke into loud weeping, striking his head and calling on his companion by name. [3.14.8] Now there were men set to watch Psammenitus, who told Cambyses all that he did as each went forth. Wondering at what the king did, Cambyses made this inquiry of him by a messenger: [3.14.9] "Psammenitus, Lord Cambyses wants to know why, seeing your daughter abused and your son going to his death, you did not cry out or weep, yet you showed such feeling for the beggar, who (as Cambyses learns from others) is not one of your kindred?" So the messenger inquired. Psammenitus answered: [3.14.10] "Son of Cyrus, my private grief was too great for weeping; but the unhappiness of my companion deserves tears--a man fallen from abundance and prosperity to beggary come to the threshold of old age." When the messenger reported this, Cambyses and his court, it is said, thought the answer good. [3.14.11] And, the Egyptians say, Croesus wept (for it happened that he too had come with Cambyses to Egypt) and the Persians that were there wept; Cambyses himself felt some pity, and he ordered that Psammenitus' son be spared from those that were to be executed, and that Psammenitus himself be brought in from the outer part of the city and brought before him.

[3.15.1] Those that went for him found that the son was no longer alive, but had been the first to be slaughtered; but they brought Psammenitus up and led him to Cambyses; and there he lived, and no violence was done him for the rest of his life. [3.15.2] And if he had known how to mind his own business, he would have regained Egypt to govern; for the Persians are inclined to honor kings' sons; even though kings revolt from them, they give back to their sons the sovereign power. [3.15.3] There are many instances showing that it is their custom so to do, and notably the giving back of his father's sovereign power to Thannyras son of Inaros, and also to Pausiris son of Amyrtaeus; yet none ever did the Persians more harm than Inaros and Amyrtaeus.1 [3.15.4] But as it was, Psammenitus plotted evil and got his reward; for he was caught raising a revolt among the Egyptians; and when Cambyses heard of it, Psammenitus drank bull's blood and died. Such was his end.

[3.16.1] From Memphis Cambyses went to the city Sais, anxious to do exactly what he did do. Entering the house of Amasis, he had the body of Amasis carried outside from its place of burial; and when this had been done, he gave orders to scourge it and pull out the hair and pierce it with goads, and to desecrate it in every way. [3.16.2] When they were weary of doing this (for the body, being embalmed, remained whole and did not fall to pieces), Cambyses gave orders to burn it, a sacrilegious command; for the Persians hold fire to be a god; [3.16.3] therefore neither nation thinks it right to burn the dead, the Persians for the reason given, as they say it is wrong to give the dead body of a man to a god; while the Egyptians believe fire to be a living beast that devours all that it catches, and when sated with its meal dies together with that on which it feeds. [3.16.4] Now it is by no means their custom to give the dead to beasts; and this is why they embalm the corpse, that it may not lie and feed worms. Thus what Cambyses commanded was contrary to the custom of both peoples. [3.16.5] The Egyptians say, however, that it was not Amasis to whom this was done, but another Egyptian of the same age as Amasis, whom the Persians abused thinking that they were abusing Amasis. [3.16.6] For their story is that Amasis learned from an oracle what was to be done to him after his death, and so to escape this fate buried this dead man, the one that was scourged, near the door inside his own vault, and ordered his son that he himself should be laid in the farthest corner of the vault. [3.16.7] I think that these commands of Amasis, regarding the burial-place and the man, were never given at all, and that the Egyptians believe in them in vain.

[3.17.1] After this Cambyses planned three expeditions, against the Carchedonians (Carthaginians), against the Ammonians, and against the "long-lived" Ethiopians, who inhabit that part of Libya that is on the southern sea. [3.17.2] He decided after consideration to send his fleet against the Carthaginians and a part of his land army against the Ammonians; to Ethiopia he would first send spies, to see what truth there was in the story of a Table of the Sun in that country, and to spy out all else besides, under the pretext of bringing gifts for the Ethiopian king.

[3.19.1] When Cambyses determined to send the spies, he sent for those Fish-eaters from the city of Elephantine who understood the Ethiopian language. [3.19.2] While they were fetching them, he ordered his fleet to sail against Carthage. But the Phoenicians said they would not do it; for they were bound, they said, by strong oaths, and if they sailed against their own progeny they would be doing an impious thing; and the Phoenicians being unwilling, the rest were inadequate fighters. [3.19.3] Thus the Carthaginians escaped being enslaved by the Persians; for Cambyses would not use force with the Phoenicians, seeing that they had willingly surrendered to the Persians, and the whole fleet drew its strength from them. The Cyprians too had come of their own accord to aid the Persians against Egypt.

[3.20.1] When the Fish-eaters arrived from Elephantine at Cambyses' summons, he sent them to Ethiopia, with orders what to say, and bearing as gifts a red cloak and a twisted gold necklace and bracelets and an alabaster box of incense and an earthenware jar of palm wine. These Ethiopians, to whom Cambyses sent them, are said to be the tallest and most handsome of all men. [3.20.2] Their way of choosing kings is different from that of all others, as (it is said) are all their laws; they consider that man worthy to be their king whom they judge to be tallest and to have strength proportional to his stature.

[3.21.1] When the Fish-eaters arrived among these men, they gave the gifts to their king and said: "Cambyses, the king of the Persians, wishing to become your friend and ally, sent us with orders to address ourselves to you; and he offers you as gifts these things which he enjoys using himself." [3.21.2] But the Ethiopian, perceiving that they had come as spies, spoke thus to them: "It is not because he values my friendship that the Persian King sends you with gifts, nor do you speak the truth (for you have come to spy on my realm), nor is that man just; for were he just, he would not have coveted a land other than his own, nor would he try to lead into slavery men by whom he has not been injured. Now, give him this bow, and this message: [3.21.3] 'The King of the Ethiopians advises the King of the Persians to bring overwhelming odds to attack the long-lived Ethiopians when the Persians can draw a bow of this length as easily as I do; but until then, to thank the gods who do not incite the sons of the Ethiopians to add other land to their own.'"

[3.22.1] So speaking he unstrung the bow and gave it to the men who had come. Then, taking the red cloak, he asked what it was and how it was made; and when the Fish-eaters told him the truth about the color and the process of dyeing, he said that both the men and their garments were full of deceit. [3.22.2] Next he inquired about the twisted gold necklace and the bracelets; and when the Fish-eaters told him how they were made, the king smiled, and, thinking them to be fetters, said: "We have stronger chains than these." [3.22.3] Thirdly he inquired about the incense; and when they described making and applying it, he made the same reply as about the cloak. But when he came to the wine and asked about its making, he was vastly pleased with the drink, and asked further what food their king ate, and what was the greatest age to which a Persian lived. [3.22.4] They told him their king ate bread, showing him how wheat grew; and said that the full age to which a man might hope to live was eighty years. Then, said the Ethiopian, it was no wonder that they lived so few years, if they ate dung;1 they would not even have been able to live that many unless they were refreshed by the drink--signifying to the Fish-eaters the wine--for in this, he said, the Persians excelled the Ethiopians.

[3.25.1] Having seen everything, the spies departed again. When they reported all this, Cambyses was angry, and marched at once against the Ethiopians, neither giving directions for any provision of food nor considering that he was about to lead his army to the ends of the earth; [3.25.2] being not in his right mind but mad, however, he marched at once on hearing from the Fish-eaters, ordering the Greeks who were with him to await him where they were, and taking with him all his land army. [3.25.3] When he came in his march to Thebes, he detached about fifty thousand men from his army, and directed them to enslave the Ammonians and burn the oracle of Zeus; and he himself went on towards Ethiopia with the rest of his host. [3.25.4] But before his army had accomplished the fifth part of their journey they had come to an end of all there was in the way of provision, and after the food was gone, they ate the beasts of burden until there was none of these left either. [3.25.5] Now had Cambyses, when he perceived this, changed his mind and led his army back again, he would have been a wise man at last after his first fault; but as it was, he went ever forward, taking account of nothing. [3.25.6] While his soldiers could get anything from the earth, they kept themselves alive by eating grass; but when they came to the sandy desert, some did a terrible thing, taking by lot one man out of ten and eating him. [3.25.7] Hearing this, Cambyses feared their becoming cannibals, and so gave up his expedition against the Ethiopians and marched back to Thebes, with the loss of many of his army; from Thebes he came down to Memphis, and sent the Greeks to sail away.

[3.26.1] So fared the expedition against Ethiopia. As for those who were sent to march against the Ammonians, they set out and journeyed from Thebes with guides; and it is known that they came to the city of Oasis, inhabited by Samians said to be of the Aeschrionian tribe, seven days' march from Thebes across sandy desert; this place is called, in the Greek language, Islands of the Blest. [3.26.2] Thus far, it is said, the army came; after that, except for the Ammonians themselves and those who heard from them, no man can say anything of them; for they neither reached the Ammonians nor returned back. [3.26.3] But this is what the Ammonians themselves say: when the Persians were crossing the sand from Oasis (probably the oasis of Kargeh) to attack them, and were about midway between their country and Oasis, while they were breakfasting a great and violent south wind arose, which buried them in the masses of sand which it bore; and so they disappeared from sight. Such is the Ammonian tale about this army.

[3.27.1] When Cambyses was back at Memphis, there appeared in Egypt that Apis whom the Greeks call Epaphus; at whose epiphany the Egyptians put on their best clothing and held a festival. [3.27.2] Seeing the Egyptians so doing, Cambyses was fully persuaded that these signs of joy were for his misfortunes, and summoned the rulers of Memphis; when they came before him, he asked them why the Egyptians behaved so at the moment he returned with so many of his army lost, though they had done nothing like it when he was before at Memphis. [3.27.3] The rulers told him that a god, wont to appear after long intervals of time, had now appeared to them; and that all Egypt rejoiced and made holiday whenever he so appeared. At this Cambyses said that they lied, and he punished them with death for their lie.

[3.28.1] Having put them to death, he next summoned the priests before him. When they gave him the same account, he said that if a tame god had come to the Egyptians he would know it; and with no more words he bade the priests bring Apis. So they went to fetch and bring him. [3.28.2] This Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow that can never conceive again. By what the Egyptians say, the cow is made pregnant by a light from heaven, and thereafter gives birth to Apis. [3.28.3] The marks of this calf called Apis are these: he is black, and has on his forehead a three-cornered white spot, and the likeness of an eagle on his back; the hairs of the tail are double, and there is a knot under the tongue.

[3.29.1] When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses--for he was all but mad--drew his dagger and, meaning to stab the calf in the belly, stuck the thigh; then laughing he said to the priests: [3.29.2] "Simpletons, are these your gods, creatures of flesh and blood that can feel weapons of iron? That is a god worthy of the Egyptians. But for you, you shall suffer for making me your laughing-stock." So saying he bade those, whose business it was, to scourge the priests well, and to kill any other Egyptian whom they found holiday-making. [3.29.3] So the Egyptian festival ended, and the priests were punished, and Apis lay in the temple and died of the wound in the thigh. When he was dead of the wound, the priests buried him without Cambyses' knowledge.

[3.30.1] But Cambyses, the Egyptians say, owing to this wrongful act immediately went mad, although even before he had not been sensible. His first evil act was to destroy his full brother Smerdis, whom he had sent away from Egypt to Persia out of jealousy, because Smerdis alone could draw the bow brought from the Ethiopian by the Fish-eaters as far as two fingerbreadths, but no other Persian could draw it. [3.30.2] Smerdis having gone to Persia, Cambyses saw in a dream a vision, in which it seemed to him that a messenger came from Persia and told him that Smerdis sitting on the royal throne touched heaven with his head. [3.30.3] Fearing therefore for himself, lest his brother might slay him and so be king, he sent Prexaspes, the most trusted of his Persians, to Persia to kill him. Prexaspes went up to Susa and killed Smerdis; some say that he took Smerdis out hunting, others that he brought him to the Red Sea (the Persian Gulf) and there drowned him.

[3.31.1] This, they say, was the first of Cambyses' evil acts; next, he destroyed his full sister, who had come with him to Egypt, and whom he had taken to wife. [3.31.2] He married her in this way (for before this, it had by no means been customary for Persians to marry their sisters): Cambyses was infatuated with one of his sisters and when he wanted to marry her, because his intention was contrary to usage, he summoned the royal judges (a standing body of seven) and inquired whether there were any law enjoining one, that so desired, to marry his sister. [3.31.3] These royal judges are men chosen out from the Persians to function until they die or are detected in some injustice; it is they who decide suits in Persia and interpret the laws of the land; all matters are referred to them. [3.31.4] These then replied to Cambyses with an answer which was both just and prudent, namely, that they could find no law enjoining a brother to marry his sister; but that they had found a law permitting the King of Persia to do whatever he liked. [3.31.5] Thus, although they feared Cambyses they did not break the law, and, to save themselves from death for keeping it, they found another law abetting one who wished to marry sisters. [3.31.6] So Cambyses married the object of his desire; yet not long afterwards he took another sister as well. It was the younger of these who had come with him to Egypt, and whom he now killed.

[3.32.1] There are two tales of her death, as there are of the death of Smerdis. The Greeks say that Cambyses had set a lion cub to fight a puppy, and that this woman was watching too; and that as the puppy was losing, its brother broke its leash and came to help, and the two dogs together got the better of the cub. [3.32.2] Cambyses, they say, was pleased with the sight, but the woman wept as she sat by. Cambyses perceiving it asked why she wept, and she said that when she saw the puppy help its brother she had wept, recalling Smerdis and knowing that there would be no avenger for him. [3.32.3] For saying this, according to the Greek story, she was killed by Cambyses. But the Egyptian tale is that as the two sat at table the woman took a lettuce and plucked off the leaves, then asked her husband whether he preferred the look of it with or without leaves. "With the leaves," he said; whereupon she answered: [3.32.4] "Yet you have stripped Cyrus' house as bare as this lettuce." Angered at this, they say, he sprang upon her, who was great with child, and she miscarried and died of the hurt he gave her.

[3.33.1] Such were Cambyses' mad acts to his own household, whether they were done because of Apis or grew from some of the many troubles that are wont to beset men; for indeed he is said to have been afflicted from his birth with that grievous disease which some call "sacred." (Epilepsy) It is not unlikely then that when his body was grievously afflicted his mind too should be diseased.


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