Cambyses II: Son of Cyrus I



Cambyses was scarcely settled upon the throne before he grew jealous of his brother, and ordered him to be privately put to death. [See NOTE 1] His cruel orders were obeyed, and with so much secrecy that neither the mode of the death, nor even the fact, was known to more than a few. Smerdis was generally believed to be still alive; and thus an opportunity was presented for personation-a form of imposture very congenial to Orientals, and one which has often had very disastrous consequences. We shall find in the sequel this opportunity embraced, and results follow of a most stirring and exciting character.

 It required time, however, to bring to maturity the fruits of the crime so rashly committed. Cambyses, in the meanwhile, quite unconscious of danger, turned his attention to military matters, and determined on endeavoring to complete his father’s scheme of conquest by the reduction of Egypt. Desirous of obtaining a ground of quarrel less antiquated than the alliance, a quarter of a century earlier, between Amasis and Croesus, he demanded that a daughter of the Egyptian king should be sent to him as a secondary wife. Amasis, too timid to refuse, sent a damsel named Nitetis, who was not his daughter; and she, soon after her arrival, made Cambyses acquainted with the fraud. A ground of quarrel was thus secured, which might be put forward when it suited his purpose; and meanwhile every nerve was being strained to prepare effectually for the expedition. The difficulty of a war with Egypt lay in her inaccessibility. She was protected on all sides by seas or deserts; and, for a successful advance upon her from the direction of Asia, it was desirable both to obtain a quiet passage for a large army through the desert of El-Tij, and also to have the support of a powerful fleet in the Mediterranean. This latter was the paramount consideration. An army well supplied with camels might carry its provisions and water through the desert, and might intimidate or overpower the few Arab tribes which inhabited it; but, unless the command of the sea was gained and the navigation of the Nile closed, Memphis might successfully resist attack. Cambyses appears to have perceived with sufficient clearness the conditions on which victory depended, and to have applied himself at once to securing them. He made a treaty with the Arab Sheikh who had the chief influence over the tribes of the desert; and at the same time he set to work to procure the services of a powerful naval force. By menaces or negotiations he prevailed upon the Phoenicians to submit them-selves to his yoke, and having thus obtained a fleet superior to that of Egypt, he commenced hostilities by robbing her of a dependency which possessed considerable naval strength, in this way still further increasing the disparity between his own fleet and that of his enemy.

 Against the combined ships of Phoenicia, Cyprus, Ionia, and Æolis, Egypt was powerless, and her fleets seem to have quietly yielded the command of the sea. Cambyses was thus able to give his army the support of a naval force, as it marched along the coast, from Carmel probably to Pelusium; and when, having defeated the Egyptians at the last-named place, he proceeded against Memphis, he was able to take possession of the Nile, and to blockade the Egyptian capital both by land and water.

 It appears that four years were consumed by the Persian monarch in his preparations for his Egyptian expedition. It was not until B.C. 525 that he entered Egypt at the head of his troops, and fought the great battle which decided the fate of the country. The struggle was long and bloody. Psammenitus, who had succeeded his father Amasis, had the services, not only of his Egyptian subjects, but a large body of mercenaries besides, Greeks and Carians. These allies were zealous in his cause, and are said to have given him a horrible proof of their attachment. One of their body had deserted to the Persians some little time before the expedition, and was believed to have given important advice to the invader. [ Phanes of Halicarnass] He had left his children behind in Egypt; and these his former comrades now seized, and led out in front of their lines, where they slew them before their father’s eyes, and, having so done, mixed their blood in a bowl with water and wine, and drank, one and all, of the mixture. The battle followed immediately after; but, in spite of their courage and fanaticism, the Egyptian army was completely defeated.

 According to Ctesias, fifty thousand fell on the vanquished side, while the victors lost no more than seven thousand. Psammenitus, after his defeat, threw himself into Memphis, but, being blockaded by land and prevented from receiving supplies from the sea, after a stout resistance, he surrendered. The captive monarch received the respectful treatment which Persian clemency usually accorded to fallen sovereigns. Herodotus even goes so far as to intimate that, if he had abstained from conspiracy, he would probably have been allowed to continue ruler of Egypt, exchanging, of course, his independent sovereignty for a delegated kingship held at the pleasure of the Lord of Asia.

 The conquest of Egypt was immediately followed by the submission of the neighboring tribes. The Libyans of the desert tract which borders the Nile valley to the west, and even the Greeks of the more remote Barca and Cyrene, sent gifts to the conqueror and consented to become his tributaries. But Cambyses placed little value on such petty accessions to his power. Inheriting the grandeur of view which had characterized his father, he was no sooner master of Egypt than he conceived the idea of a magnificent series of conquests in this quarter, whereby he hoped to become Lord of Africa no less than of Asia, or at any rate to leave himself without a rival of any importance on the vast continent which his victorious arms had now opened to him. Apart from Egypt, Africa possessed but two powers capable, by their political organization and their military strength, of offering him serious resistance. These were Ethiopia and Carthage-the one the great power of the South, the equal, if not even the superior, of Egypt-the other the great power of the West–remote, little known, but looming larger for, the obscurity in which she was shrouded, and attractive from her reputed wealth. The views of Cambyses comprised the reduction of both these powers, and also the conquest of the oasis of Ammon. As a good Zoroastrian, he was naturally anxious to exhibit the superiority of Ormazd to all the “gods of the nations;” and, as the temple of Ammon in the oasis had the greatest repute of all the African shrines, this design would be best accomplished by its pillage and destruction. It is probable that he further looked to the subjugation of all the tribes on the north coast between the Nile valley and the Carthaginian territory; for he would undoubtedly have sent an army along the shore to act in concert with his fleet, had he decided ultimately on making the expedition. An unexpected obstacle, however, arose to prevent him. The Phoenicians, who formed the main strength of his navy, declined to take any part in an attack on Carthage, since the Carthaginians were their colonists, and the relations between the two people had always been friendly. Cambyses did not like to force their inclinations, on account of their recent voluntary submission; and as, without their aid, his navy was manifestly unequal to the proposed service, he felt obliged to desist from the undertaking.

 While the Carthaginian scheme was thus nipped in the bud, the enterprises which Cambyses attempted to carry out led to nothing but disaster. An army, fifty thousand strong, despatched from Thebes against Ammon, perished to a man amid the sands of the Libyan desert. A still more numerous force, led by Cambyses himself towards the Ethiopian frontier, found itself short of supplies on its march across Nubia, and was forced to return, without glory, after suffering considerable loss.

 It became evident that the abilities of the Persian monarch were not equal to his ambition-that he insufficiently appreciated the difficulties and dangers of enterprises-while a fatal obstinacy prevented him from acknowledging and retrieving an error while retrieval was possible. The Persians, we may be sure, grew dispirited under such a leader; and the Egyptians naturally took heart. It seems to have been shortly after the return of Cambyses from his abortive expedition against Ethiopia that symptoms of an intention to revolt began to manifest themselves in Egypt. The priests declared an incarnation of Apis, and the whole country burst out into rejoicings. It was probably now that Psammenitus, who had hitherto been kindly treated by his captor, was detected in treasonable intrigues, condemned to death, and executed. At the same time, the native officers who had been left in charge of the city of Memphis were apprehended and capitally punished.

 Such stringent measures had all the effect that was expected from them; they wholly crushed the nascent rebellion; they left, however, behind them a soreness, felt alike by the conqueror and the conquered, which prevented the establishment of a good understanding between the Great King and his new subjects. Cambyses knew that he had been severe, and that his severity had made him many enemies; he suspected the people, and still more suspected the priests, their natural leaders; he soon persuaded himself that policy required in Egypt a departure from the principles of toleration which were ordinarily observed towards their subjects by the Persians, and a sustained effort on the part of the civil power to bring the religion, and its priests, into contempt.

 Accordingly, he commenced a serious of acts calculated to have this effect. He stabbed the sacred calf, believed to be incarnate Apis; he ordered the body of priests who had the animal in charge to be publicly scourged; he stopped the Apis festival by making participation in it a capital offence; he opened the receptacles of the dead, and curiously examined the bodies contained in them, he intruded himself into the chief sanctuary at Memphis, and publicly scoffed at the grotesque image of Phtha; finally, not content with outraging in the same way the inviolable temple of the Cabeiri, he wound up his insults by ordering that their images should be burnt. These injuries and indignities rankled in the minds of the Egyptians, and probably had a large share in producing that bitter hatred of the Persian yoke which shows itself in the later history on so many occasions; but for the time the policy was successful: crushed beneath the iron heel of the conqueror-their faith in the power of their gods shaken, their spirits cowed, their hopes shattered–the Egyptian subjects of Cambyses made up their minds to submission. The Oriental will generally kiss the hand that smites him, if it only smite hard enough. Egypt became now for a full generation the obsequious slave of Persia, and gave no more trouble to her subjugator than the weakest or the most contented of the provinces.

 The work of subjection completed, Cambyses, having been absent from his capital longer than was at all prudent, prepared to return home. He had proceeded on his way as far as Syria, when intelligence reached him of a most unexpected nature. A herald suddenly entered his camp and proclaimed, in the hearing of the whole army, that Cambyses, son of Cyrus, had ceased to reign, and that the allegiance of all Persian subjects was henceforth to be paid to Smerdis, son of Cyrus.[see NOTE 2] At first, it is said, Cambyses thought that his instrument had played him false, and that his brother was alive and had actually seized the throne; but the assurances of the suspected person, and a suggestion which he made, convinced him of the contrary, and gave him a clue to the real solution of the mystery. Prexaspes, the nobleman inculpated, knew that the so-called Smerdis must be an impostor, and suggested his identity with a certain Magus, whose brother had been entrusted by Cambyses with the general direction of his household and the care of the palace. He was probably led to make the suggestion by his knowledge of the resemblance borne by this person to the murdered prince, which was sufficiently close to make personation possible. Cambyses was thus enabled to appreciate the gravity of the crisis, and to consider whether he could successfully contend with it or no. Apparently, he decided in the negative. Believing that he could not triumph over the conspiracy which had decreed his downfall, and unwilling to descend to a private station–perhaps even uncertain whether his enemies would spare his life; he resolved to fly to the last refuge of a dethroned king, and to end all by suicide. Drawing his short sword from its sheath, he gave himself a wound, of which he died in a few days. [See NOTE 3]

 It is certainly surprising that the king formed this resolution. He was at the head of an army, returning from an expedition, which, if not wholly successful, had at any rate, added to the empire an important province. His father’s name was a tower of strength; and if he could only have exposed the imposture that had been practiced on them, he might have counted confidently on rallying the great mass of the Persians to his cause. How was it that he did not advance on the capital, and at least strike one blow for empire? No clear and decided response can be made to this inquiry; but we may indistinctly discern a number of causes which may have combined to produce in the monarch’s mind the feeling of despondency whereto he gave way. Although he returned from Egypt a substantial conqueror, his laurel wreath was tarnished by ill-success; his army, weakened by its losses, and dispirited by its failures, was out of heart; it had no trust in his capacity as a commander, and could not be expected to fight with enthusiasm on his behalf. There is also reason to believe that he was generally unpopular on account of his haughty and tyrannical temper, and his contempt of law and usage, where they interfered with the gratification of his desires. Though we should do wrong to accept as true all the crimes laid to his charge by the Egyptians, who detested his memory, we cannot doubt the fact of his incestuous marriage with his sister, Atossa, which was wholly repugnant to the religious feelings of his nation. Nor can we well imagine that there was no foundation at all for the stories of the escape of Croesus, the murder of the son of Prexaspes, and the execution in Egypt on a trivial charge of twelve noble Persians. His own people called Cambyses a “despot” or “master,” in contrast with Cyrus, whom they regarded as a “father,” because, as Herodotus says, he was “harsh and reckless,” whereas his father was mild and beneficent. Further, there was the religious aspect of the revolution, which had taken place, in the background. Cambyses may have known that in the ranks of his army there was much sympathy with Magism, and may have doubted whether, if the whole conspiracy were laid bare, he could count on anything like a general adhesion of his troops to the Zoroastrian cause. These various grounds, taken together, go far towards accounting for a suicide which at first sight strikes us as extraordinary, and is indeed almost unparalleled.

 Of the general character of Cambyses little more need be said. He was brave, active, and energetic, like his father: but he lacked his father’s strategic genius, his prudence, and his fertility in resources. Born in the purple, he was proud and haughty, careless of the feelings of others, and impatient of admonition or remonstrance. His pride made him obstinate in error; and his contempt of others led on naturally to harshness, and perhaps even to cruelty. He is accused of “habitual drunkenness,” and was probably not free from the intemperance which was a common Persian failing; but there is not sufficient ground for believing that his indulgence was excessive, much less that it proceeded to the extent of affecting his reason. The “madness of Cambyses,” reported to and believed in by Herodotus, was a fiction of the Egyptian priests, who wished it to be thought that their gods had in this way punished his impiety. The Persians had no such tradition, but merely regarded him as unduly severe and selfish. A dispassionate consideration of all the evidence on the subject leads to the conclusion that Cambyses lived and died in the possession of his reason, having neither destroyed it through inebriety nor lost it by the judgment of Heaven.

 The death of Cambyses (B.C. 522) left the conspirators, who had possession of the capital, at liberty to develop their projects, and to take such steps as they thought best for the consolidation and perpetuation of their power. The position which they occupied was one of peculiar delicacy. On the one hand, the impostor had to guard against acting in any way which would throw suspicion on his being really Smerdis, the son of Cyrus. On the other, he had to satisfy the Magian priests, to whom he was well known, and on whom he mainly depended for support, if his imposture should be detected. These priests must have desired a change of the national religion, and to affect this must have been the true aim and object of the revolution. But it was necessary to proceed with the utmost caution. An open proclamation that Magism was to supersede Zoroastrianism would have seemed a strange act in an Achaemenian prince, and could scarcely have failed to arouse doubts which might easily terminate in discovery. The Magian brothers shrank from affronting this peril, and resolved, before approaching it, to obtain for the new government an amount of general popularity which would make its overthrow in fair fight difficult. Accordingly the new reign was inaugurated by a general remission of tribute and military service for the space of three years-a measure which was certain to give satisfaction to all the tribes and nations of the Empire, except the Persians. Persia Proper was at all times exempt from tribute, and was thus, so far, unaffected by the boon granted, while military service was no doubt popular with the ruling nation, for whose benefit the various conquests were effected. Still Persia could scarcely take umbrage at an inactivity which was to last only three years, while to the rest of the Empire the twofold grace accorded must have been thoroughly acceptable.

 Further to confirm his uncertain hold upon the throne, the Pseudo-Smerdis took to wife all the widows of his predecessor. This is a practice common in the East; and there can be no doubt that it gives a new monarch a certain prestige in the eyes of his people. In the present case, however, it involved a danger. The wives of the late king were likely to be acquainted with the person of the king’s brother; Atossa, at any rate, could not fail to know him intimately. If the Magus allowed them to associate together freely, according to the ordinary practice, they would detect his imposture and probably find a way to divulge it. He therefore introduced a new system into the seraglio. Instead of the free intercourse one with another which the royal consorts had enjoyed previously, he established at once the principle of complete isolation.

 Each wife was assigned her own portion of the palace; and no visiting of one wife by another was permitted. Access to them from without was altogether forbidden, even to their nearest relations; and the wives were thus cut off wholly from the external world, unless they could manage to communicate with it by means of secret messages. But precautions of this kind, though necessary, were in themselves suspicious; they naturally suggested an inquiry into their cause and object. It was a possible explanation of them that they proceeded from an extreme and morbid jealousy; but the thought could not fail to occur to some that they might be occasioned by the fear of detection.

 However, as time went on, and no discovery was actually made, the Magus grew bolder, and ventured to commence that reformation of religion which he and his order had so much at heart. He destroyed the Zoroastrian temples in various places, and seems to have put down the old worship, with its hymns in praise of the Zoroastrian deities. He instituted Magian rites in lieu of the old ceremonies, and established his brother Magians as the priest-caste of the Persian nation. The changes introduced were no doubt satisfactory to the Medes, and to many of the subject races throughout the Empire. They were even agreeable to a portion of the Persian people, who leant towards a more material worship and a more gorgeous ceremonial than had contented their ancestors. If the faithful worshippers of Ormazd saw them with dismay, they were too timid to resist, and tacitly acquiesced in the religious revolution.

 In one remote province the change gave a fresh impulse to a religious struggle which was there going on, adding strength to the side of intolerance. The Jews had now been engaged for fifteen or sixteen years in the restoration of their temple, according to the permission granted them by Cyrus. Their enterprise was distasteful to the neighboring Samaritans, who strained every nerve to prevent its being brought to a successful issue, and as each new king mounted the Persian throne, made a fresh effort to have the work stopped by authority. Their representations had had no effect upon Cambyses; but when they were repeated on the accession of the Pseudo-Smerdis, the result was different. An edict was at once sent down to Palestine, reversing the decree of Cyrus, and authorizing the inhabitants of Samaria to interfere forcibly in the matter, and compel the Jews to desist from building. Armed with this decree, the Samaritan authorities hastened to Jerusalem, and “made the Jews to cease by force and power.”

 These revelations of a leaning towards a creed diverse from that of the Achaemenian princes, combined with the system of seclusion adopted in the palace-a system not limited to the seraglio, but extending also to the person of the monarch, who neither quitted the palace precincts himself, nor allowed any of the Persian nobles to enter them-must have turned the suspicions previously existing into a general belief and conviction that the monarch seated on the throne was not Smerdis the son of Cyrus, but an impostor. Yet still there was for a while no outbreak. It mattered nothing to the provincials who ruled them, provided that order was maintained, and that the boons granted them at the opening of the new reign were not revoked or modified. Their wishes were no doubt in favor of the prince who had remitted their burthens; and in Media a peculiar sympathy would exist towards one who had exalted Magism. Such discontent as was felt would be confined to Persia, or to Persia and a few provinces of the north-east, where the Zoroastrian faith may have maintained itself. 


TITLE: Great Monarchies of The Ancient Eastern World

AUTHOR: George Rawlinson

CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

 NOTE 1: Histories of Herodotus (Book III Chapter30)….The first of his outrages was the slaying of Smerdis, his full brother, whom he had sent back to Persia from Egypt out of envy, because he drew the bow from the Ethiopians…Cambyses had a vision in his sleep…that Smerdis sat upon the royal throne and with his head touched the heavens…thinking it likely his brother would have him killed and rule in his stead, Cambyses sent into Persia Prexaspes… bidding him put Smerdis to death….

 NOTE 2: Histories of Herodotus (Book III Chapter 61) While Cambyses, son of Cyrus, after losing his senses, still lingered in Egypt, two Magi, brothers, revolted against him. One of them {Patizeithes} had been left in Persia by Cambyses as comptroller of his household; and it was he who began the revolt.

 NOTE 3: C. M. “Darius I was the Cup Bearer to the King, its seems odd  at least to me, that the King would do himself in, in this manner. Could there be more to this? As Darius was soon to become king.”


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