Cambyses – The Crazy King?

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Apis the bull godHello, This is Bertie, and I’m here with an edition from my series based on the histories of Herodotus.

In the previous few episodes I talked about ancient Egypt.. It’s a subject that interests me a lot - I’m writing a novel about Lapis the cat set in ancient Egypt which I hope you will enjoy when I’ve finally completed it.

We are staying in Egypt for one last episode. I’m going to tell you how the ancient Kingdom was finally conquered and folded into the Persian Empire. We’ve already heard about a Persian king called Cyrus - who is still considered to this day to have been a wise and just ruler. After he died, his son Cambyses took over. He has a very different reputation. Herodotus thought he was mad, and that label has stuck through the centuries.

The Egyptian pharaoh, Amasis was friends with the Greeks and also tried to stay on the right side of the Persians. When he heard that their king, Cambyses, had problems with his eyesight, he sent an Egyptian eye doctor to help him out. This doctor really did not want to leave his family in Egypt and he was angry with Amasis. So when he arrived in Persia, he suggested that Cambsyses marry the daughter of Amasis. Often in the past, ruling families from different countries have married their children to one another in the spirit of peace. The theory runs that it’s harder to go to war against your own in-laws.

According to Herodotus, Amasis really did not want to part with this daughter and send her so far away. If she went to live in Persia, he would never see her again. And hasn't sure if Cambyses would treat her right. So he came up with a trick. There was a beautiful girl in his court who was the daughter of the previous pharaoh, Apries. Amasis had rebelled against Apries, kicked him off the throne, and taken his place. So he sent her to the court of Cambyses saying that she was his own daughter. But when she arrived, she told Cambyses the truth - that Amasis had tricked him. Cambyses flew into a rage and decided to conquer Egypt as a matter of revenge.

Cambyses' plans for war faced a great obstacle. The desert. He had to march his army across the hot sands where there was little or no water. He only succeeded because the Arabs of the desert helped him. Herodotus suggests they provided water in long pipes made of animal skins. So the Persian army marched across what Herodotus names the district of Syria, called Palestine. Today that would include Israel.

While the Persians were on the way, Amasis died and his son took over. HIs name was Psammetichus. Soon after Psammetichus became Pharaoh, an extraordinary weather event took place. It rained in the Egyptian city of Memphis where rain had never fallen before. Apparently this was a bad omen. An omen is a sign from the gods that something momentous is about to happen. And it did. The Persians succeeded in conquering Egypt and much of North Africa. It was the year 525 BC.

So now the Persian King Cambyses ruled Egypt. The first thing he did was to try and humiliate Psammetichus - something his more generous father, Cyrus, would never have done. He made Psammetichus watch a parade with his own daughter dressed as a slave girl carrying water. Psammetichus watched in silence and did not shed a tear. Then he made him watch the young noble boys of Egypt, including his own son being marched off to be executed. Still Psmmetrichus showed no emotion. Then an old friend, now reduced to poverty, came and begged Psammetichus for food. Finally the conquered Pharaoh shed some tears. Cambyses was intrigued and asked him why he had shed tears for a friend and not for his son and daughter - and Psammetichus replied that the first two events were so tragic that nothing - not even tears - could express how he felt. But the sight of an old comrade reduced to poverty was a fitting occasion to weep. Cambyses was impressed by this reply and allowed Psammetichus to live on in his court and would even have made him Governor of Egypt if he had not plotted a rebellion. This is exactly how his father, Cyrus, treated conquered rulers. So perhaps Cambyses was not completely insane yet.

Next he set his sights on conquering other parts of Africa, including Ethiopia. Ethiopia had an almost magical reputation. For example, it was known to have a place called the “Table of the Sun” where the gods made food appear every day to feed the poor. They were known as the tallest and most beautiful people in the world, and the way they chose their king was unique. They picked the tallest and strongest among them to be their ruler.

Cambyses was very intrigued by the tales of Ethiopia, and he sent spies to the country to gather information. The people he chose for the task were called The Fish Eaters. They came from the southernmost part of Egypt and spoke the same language as the Ethiopians. Cambyses sent the Fish Eaters with gifts for the Ethiopian king.

The first gift they gave to the Ethiopian King was a gold bracelet. He was very surprised because he thought it was a chain to hold a prisoner. Fortunately they soon discovered the source of the misunderstanding. The Ethiopians were so rich that they used gold to chain prisoners.

Then they gave him some expensive perfume called Myrrh. The Ethiopian King was not at all impressed. He showed them a spring of delicate water that smelled of lavender. All the Ethiopians washed daily in that spring and it made them sweet smelling and shiny skinned.

Next the Fish Eaters gave the Ethiopian king some wine. He tried some and said, “Well at least this stuff is good.”

The Ethiopian king realised that the gifts were not a sincere sign of friendship. “The Persian King sent you here as spies,” he declared. And then he asked the Fish Eaters about the Persians. “How tall are they? How long do they live?” What do they eat? They replied that the Persians ate bread and lived up to 80 years. “Ha, that’s pathetic.” replied the Ethiopian King. “We eat far better and live for 120 years.”

He sent them back with a huge bow and arrow saying, “When your Persians can draw this bow and fire an arrow from it - only then - should they even think about making war against a people who are far stronger and better than they are.”

The fish Easters reported all this to Cambyses who was - quite predictably - furious and decided to attack the Ethiopians right away. He took his army and started to march South through the Sahara desert. Not a good idea. They soon ran out of food and water and began to eat each other. Cambyses gave up and turned back to Egypt.

When he returned to Memphis, the festival of the bull god Apis was taking place. During this time the Egyptian priests dressed up a bull and led him through the streets. It was a special bull - mostly black, but with a white diamond on its forehead, the mark of an Eagle on its back, and the mark of a beetle on its tongue. They believed that he was an incarnation of the god, Apis, himself.

Cambyses heard all the wild partying and noise and thought that the Egyptians were celebrating his failure against the Ethiopians. He was so angry that he threw a spear at the bull god, and wounded it. Eventually it died.

According to the Egyptians, the gods punished Cambyses by sending him mad. But Herodotus says that he was already somewhat mad before he killed Apis the bull god.

After that incident, he became even crueler, and even crazier. For example, he ordered his soldiers to take the mummy of the Pharaoh Amasis out of his tomb. They tried to break the mummy, but it was too strong, so they burned it. In another incident he shot the son of one of his courtiers with an arrow - just for fun.

Everyone was terrified of the mad king, and very few people tried to advice him to calm down. The first who tried was his sister. One day at dinner, she peeled all the leaves off a lettuce and sat staring at the bald husk. Cambyses asked her why she was not eating, and she said, “This Lettuce resembles our family. You’ve torn off all the leaves and made it bare.”

Cambyses flew into a rage and killed her.

The next person who tried to calm him down with wise words was Croesus. He had formerly been the wealthy king of Lydia. Cyrus had conquered him, but kept him on as an adviser who travelled with the court wherever it went - even as far as Egypt. Croesus said:

“Your majesty. I promised your father that I would always give you good advice, even words that you do not want to hear. Your behaviour is becoming more and more wild, and you are killing innocent people. No good will come from this. You must calm your temper.”

Cambyses was anything but calm and ordered Croesus to be executed. But the guards realised he would change his mind later, so they just hid Croesus in the meantime.

Herodotus concludes

I say it is proved that Cambyses was quite insane; or he would never have mocked the Egyptians’ religion and custom. People naturally believe that their own customs are the best, but they should respect the customs of others.

He goes on to claim that some people bury their dead parents, and others eat them. Nothing could make those people swap their customs - and they would be horrified if you asked them to do so. We must do what we do, but at the same time respect what other people do.

That is why Herodotus thought Cambyses was insane - mainly because he failed to appreciate the ancient land of Egypt and its customs. The Egyptians did strange things like worshipping bulls and making their dead pharaohs into mummies - and Cambyses could not respect the way they did that. He not only invaded the ancient country of Egypt - and it was ancient even back then. He tried to stop them following their own customs.