Herodotus: The Egyptians and the Greeks
Image of a secluded beach in Samos by Adobe Stock
Hello, this is Bertie, and I’m here with another story from Herodotus. In this episode, I’m going to be talking about the Egyptian Pharaoh known as Amasis and his friendship with various powerful Greeks of the time. I’ll include a famous story about the Greek ruler, Polycrates of Samos, and his golden ring.
If you are lucky enough to have visited Greece, you will have probably seen that it is partly made up of beautiful islands in the Mediterranean sea. One of the most fashionable and exclusive islands is called Santorini, which in ancient times went by the name of Thera. It’s a place where the rich and famous like to be seen and photographed. Ordinary people - called the Hoi Polloi in Greek - go there too. Around 2 million tourists visit the island in a busy year.
Thera had an active volcano, which blew up in Minoan times, - that’s the time when, according to legend, King Minos ruled the island of Crete and the bull god, the Minotaur, lived in the labyrinth. Well, the people of Thera had strong connections with Crete, but their civilization was destroyed by the volcano. Eventually, the islanders recovered and began to prosper once more.
As the Greeks became better at growing food, the population grew. The island of Thera was becoming overcrowded. Perhaps not quite as overcrowded as it is in the summer these days - but nonetheless the people of rocky Thera were running out of land to grow their food on.
Herodotus tells us that the fortune-telling oracle, the Pythia, had prophesied that the people of Thera would found a new city in Libya in North Africa. One year, when a terrible drought caused the trees to wither, and the crops to fail, a group of Islanders from Thera decided to fulfill the prophecy.
They sailed across the mediterranean sea to Libya, Egypt’s neighbour in North Africa. Eventually, in the year 631 BCE, they settled in a lush green valley in the mountains, which was ideal for farming. They named their new city, Cyrene, and its ruins remain to this day, including its temples to the Greek gods, Apolo, Zeus, and Demeter. The first king of Cyrene took the name Battus and he ruled for 40 years. In Greek Battus meant “stammer”, because he spoke with a speech impediment, and in the local language of Libya, the name meant “king”.
As Cyrene grew ever more rich and powerful - the local people, the Africans of Libya and nearby Egypt began to fear that the Greek settlers were gaining too much power over them. The Libyans invited the Egyptian Pharaoh, Apries, to join them, and to help fight the Greeks and push them out of Africa.
The Egyptians already knew that the Greeks made formidable opponents in battle. Apries himself was guarded by Greek mercenaries - soldiers who work for pay, not patriotism. Nonetheless, he probably thought that an Egyptian army combined with Libyans would be strong enough to defeat the Greeks of Cyrene. If so, he was soon proved wrong. The Greeks crushed the African army. The defeated Egyptian soldiers were now furious. They thought that Apries had deliberately sent them on a suicide mission so that he could get them killed by the Greeks, and rule more freely with his own Greek mercenaries. They accused their own pharaoh of being a traitor to Egypt.
So they now rebelled against him Apries responded by sending his most smooth-talking general, a man called Amasis, to persuade the rebels to calm down. Amasis stood before the army, and while he was making his speech, one of the rebel soldiers stood behind him and placed a helmet on his head, as if he was crowning him. The army proclaimed that Amasis, not Apries was now their Pharaoh. Amasis accepted and became their leader.
So Apries sent a second messenger, one of his most respected courtiers called Patarbemis. Patarbemis arrived at the rebel camp and asked to speak to Amasis, who rode up to him on his horse. When Patarbemis requested a message to take back to the Pharaoh, Amasis, and I am quoting from the original here, “rose up on his horse, and farted, saying, ‘take that back to him.’”
Pwah! Well, don’t blame me - it’s history!
Partarbemis took this message back to Apries. I’m not quite sure how he delivered it, but I do know that Apries was furious and punished him cruelly. The Egyptians were now even more angry to see a respected courtier treated so badly, and they all rose up against Apries. It was not long before Amasis was Pharaoh in his place.
Amasis ruled Egypt from 570 BCE to the year 526, about a 100 years before Herodotus wrote his histories. He says it was one of the richest periods in Egypt’s history. The Crops around the Nile provided ample food. Amasis built temples and shrines. And he was very careful to stay on good terms with the Greeks.
When the temple of the Greek oracle at Delphi burned down accidentally, Amasis sent them 1000 talents in money to help rebuild it.
He also made a treaty of friendship with the people of Cyrene and married a Greek noblewoman from there, probably the daughter of King Battus. He gave the Greeks their own trading port called Naucratis in the delta of the river Nile. And he sent statues to various temples in the Greek world.
In particular, this Pharaoh, Amasis, made friends with a powerful Greek leader called Polycrates, who ruled the island of Samos, just off the coast of Asia. And this is a famous story, a little like a fairytale, that Herodotus tells us about the two leaders, one from Egypt, and the other from Greece.
Polycrates had remarkably good fortune in everything he did. He took over Samos with his two brothers and soon got rid of them so that he could rule alone. He carried out many remarkable building works, including digging a long tunnel to carry water. He built a spectacular temple, to which Amasis contributed funds. Then, he built a navy of 100 ships and recruited a 1000 archers. He used this force to conquer other islands, including the sacred Greek island of Delos. When he attacked the Greek city of Miletus on the Asian mainland, the large island of Lesbos sent its powerful navy against him, but he easily defeated it. Then he sent his soldiers to conquer other cities and spread his power far and wide.
Herodotus says that Amasis watched all this from afar, and had a very Greek type of thought. If a mortal only enjoys great success and good fortune, eventually the gods grow envious and bring this human to a bad end. This is a recurring theme in Herodotus. Do you remember Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, who was eventually conquered by the Persians? The gods punish too much good luck. The pattern is called Hubris, which means big headedness, followed by Nemesis, which means Destruction.
So Amasis wrote to his friend Polycrates. He told him to throw away his dearest possession. Polycrates saw that this was good advice. He thought long and hard about which of his treasures he would hate to lose the most. Eventually, he realised that it would truly grieve his heart to lose his signet ring. It was gold with and set with an emerald, the work of a famous craftsman and he always wore it on his hand. Polycrates sailed to sea and forced himself to pull the precious ring from his finger and to cast it into the waves. He then returned home and mourned his loss.
About a week later, a fisherman caught a large and beautiful fish. He brought this fish to the palace as a gift for the ruler. Polycrates not only accepted the gift but invited the fisherman to dinner that evening. But when the servants in the kitchen opened up the fish to cook it, they found the gold signet ring inside the fish. Polycrates was amazed by the discovery, and wrote down all that had happened, and sent it off in a letter to Amasis.
When Amasis read the letter in Egypt, he wrote back saying that it was impossible for him to continue his friendship with Polycrates, because someone who enjoyed such unrelenting good fortune was certain to come to a terrible end.
Not long after the friendship between Amasis and Polycrates broke down, the Persian King, Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, decided to attack Egypt. Polycrates secretly wrote to Cambyses and said, “Demand that I help you with your invasion plans.” Camybses quite happily sent a letter to Polycrates demanding help, and Polycrates responded by sending 40 boats. He crewed those boats with all the most rebellious Samians who were annoying him all the time and whom he most wanted to get rid of.
But these rebellious Samians turned round at sea and came back to attack Polycrates. Although the rebels won a sea battle, they were not strong enough to conquer Samos.
So they sailed away to the part of Greece called the Peloponnese. They visited the city of Sparta, the capital of the Lacedaemonians who were a hard tough warrior race, the most ‘non-nonsense” of the Greeks. Famously, the Lacedaemonians did not like long speeches. And in English, we have a word, Laconic, which means using few words. It comes from the Lacedaemonians. And we have another word, “Spartan”, which is named after their capital, Sparta, which means lacking any kind of luxury or comfort.
The Samian exiles did not seem to know an awful lot about the Lacedaemonians. They made an eloquent speech pleading for help to fight Polycrates. The Lacedaemonians looked bored. The next night, they made a more effective plea. They came into the assembly hall and threw an empty sack onto the ground. All they said was:
“This sack needs grain.” The Lacedaemonians replied that they did not need to use the word “sack” - presumably, they could have said, “this needs grain.” but nonetheless they understood that the Samians needed help They agreed to send an army against Polycrates.
The Lacedaemonians, together with an army from the Corinthians, and the Samian rebels, laid siege to the capital of Samons, a walled city with high towers. After 40 days of fighting, they were unable to capture the city, and they gave up and returned home. Herodotus tells us that there is a story, that Polycrates bribed the Lacedaemonians to go home with a trick - he gave them coins that looked like they were made of gold, but were actually copper on the inside and only covered with a thin layer of gold leaf. Herodotus himself does not believe the story, possibly because he thinks the Lacedaemonians would not be so stupid as to fall for such a trick. But whatever, the truth, Polycrates luck, held up even when he was attacked by the most feared force in all of Greece. The gods had not yet seen fit to destroy him.
Next, a Persian called Oroetus, who ruled the city of Sardis, that once belonged to Croesus, wrote to Polycrates offering to pay him a large sum of money. He said that he feared that the emperor, Cambyses, wanted to kill him, and he offered the money in return for protection. Herodotus says that Polycrates was extremely fond of money and was eager to accept, but his daughter had a bad dream and warned her father not to go.
She followed him down to his ship, pleading with him, “Father, do not go to Sardis.” He turned around and said that if she did not stop bothering him, he would never allow her to marry. She said, “fine, would rather go without a husband than lose her father.
He took no notice and traveled to Sardis. The offer turned out to be a cruel trick. Polycrates was captured and killed. In this way, the warning of Amasis proved right. For all his run of incredible good fortune throughout his life, Polycrates met a horrible end - because the gods are envious when a human enjoys too much good luck.
I think there is a kind of logic to this Greek belief. Some of the most mega-successful people in life are big risk-takers. They tend to gamble and win, time, and time again. But unfortunately, they only have to lose once, to lose everything. This is why too often the day comes on when mega-successful people fall from a great height.
And that is the story, from Herodotus, of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis, and his friendship with the Greeks. Next time I will tell you more about the Egyptians and the Persians.
And if you like Herodotus, I’m pretty sure you will enjoy my new book, Undercover Robot, my first year as a human, which I wrote together with a philosopher David Edmonds.
Here’s one little note we received about it:
My 9-year-old daughter is absolutely LOVING your robot book! She is howling with laughter and totally gripped. And of course, I’m loving the opportunity to have philosophical discussions with her.
If you live in the USA, the best way to get the book is on Amazon. In the UK, it’s stocked by Waterstones as well as Amazon. I think it’s available in Australia too - let us know.
And if you have time to leave a review on Amazon, that’s always super helpful.