Friday, November 30, 2018

Who was Cambyses II?

Cambyses II invoke division when it came to his legacy as ruler of Persia. Under his rule from 530 and 522 BCE, he expanded the Persian Empire eastward, towards the rich and fertile lands of Egypt.
Cambyses II capturing Pharaoh Psamtik III

Early Life

Cambyses II came as a son of King Cyrus II the Great and Cassandane. However, according to Herodotus, Cambyses came from Egypt and adopted by Cyrus the Great. After his father Cyrus captured Babylon, Cambyses took the post of Satrap or governor of the city.
Cyrus the Great
As satrap of the newly conquered territory, Cambyses had to pacify the Babylonian people while his father fought in the east. He followed his father’s policy of tolerance and demonstrated it through performance of rituals of Babylonian deities in 538 BCE and took the title of King of Babylon.

When Cyrus went to a campaign beyond the Syr Darya River, Cambyses became co-ruler of the Persian Empire. Ultimately, Cambyses became the sole ruler of the Empire when Cyrus the Great fell in battle.

Reign of Cambyses II

Cambyses II followed in the foot step of his late father by becoming a warrior king working to expand and defend the territory of the Persian Empire. With his father taking the rich regions of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, Cambyses set his eyes on another wealthy land to add in his domnion – Egypt. However, Herodotus claimed that the war with Egypt began when the Egyptian ruler Amasis sent an imposter posing as an Egyptian princess to be married to Cambyses. When Cambyses discovered the treachery Amasis did, he mobilized against Egypt.

In 525 BCE, Cambyses II set out for Egypt. Before reaching Egypt, however, Amasis passed away, leaving Cambyses II to fight his successor Psamtik III. The campaign went smoothly with successes in diplomacy, intrigue, and intelligence. Cambyses succeeded in turning against Psamtik III the ruler of Samos Polycrates, who initially supported Egypt. He also succeeded in getting intelligence and an ally within the Egyptian army in the form of the Greek General named Phanes. Finally, his forces successfully obtained supplies and guide from local Arabs during their arduous trek over the scorching and agonizing sands of the Sinai Desert.

Cambyses still met stiff resistance from Psamtik III. The 2 sides fought in the Battle of Pelusium. According to Polyaenus, Cambyses II won the battle by sending in the frontline animals sacred to the Egyptians – cats, dogs, and sheep. Superstitious Egyptians hesitated in attacking and the battle ended in favor of Cambyses. After victory on Pelusium, major Egyptian cities fell like Heliopolis and Memphis. Cambyses II captured Psamtik III and sent off the deposed Pharaoh back to Susa only to commit suicide.

The fall of Egypt opened Africa to Persian conquest. Cambyses planned invasions of Ethiopia in the south, the Oasis of Amon in the west and Carthage. But the plans failed to materialize due to different circumstances. The invasion of Ethiopia failed due overstretched supply lines after a quick dash to the south. Next, the invasion of Amon went disastrously when his 50,000 men army became legendary for disappearing in the desert, most probably due to sandstorms. Finally, the plan to invade Carthage ended when the Phoenicians, who manned the Persian navy, opposed the plan arguing they cannot fight their own kind (Carthage founded by Phoenicians in 814 BCE).
Lost army of Cambyses II, 19th century engraving
With his expansion dead on its track, Cambyses instead consolidated his hold of Egypt. He secured hold of the Kingdom by establishing 3 garrisons: (1) In Daphnae (Tahpanhes), (2) Memphis, and (3) Elephantine with the help of Jewish mercenaries.

Controversy and Contradiction

Cambyses rule of Egypt garnered different narratives. Herodotus, the mostly used source in Persian history, painted a dark and brutal picture of Cambyses’ regime. According to him, Cambyses had ordered the execution of thousands of children of Egyptian nobles. He also claimed Cambyses antagonized the Egyptian people and clergy by killing with his own hands the sacred and highly revered Apis Bull. Depiction of Cambyses II continued to be vicious when the Father of British Egyptology Sir John Gardner Wilkinson stating the following in his work Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians:
“…Egypt, when invaded by the Persian monarch, was treated with unusual barbarity.”

He continued further writing:
“Temples and public buildings were destroyed; tombs were violated, and the bodies burnt; religion was insulted, private property pillaged or destroyed, and everything which could tempt the avarice, or reward the labour, of the spoiler, was seized and appropriated either by the chief or his troops. Gold and silver statues and other objects of value were sent to Persia and it appears that numerous Egyptian captives were also transported to that country.”

On the other, there existed sources that painted a different picture of Cambyses. One that showed him as a tolerant and respectful ruler. Udjahorresne, an Egyptian called by some as a collaborator, claimed Cambyses respected local customs and gods, stating:
“He made a great prostration before her majesty, as every king has done. He made presents to the almighty goddess of all good things…”

He also testified that Cambyses had ordered the cleaning of the Temple of the Egyptian deity Neith of all foreigners, even if it meant him leaving the area. He also returned the revenue that belonged to the temples and celebrated local religious festivals. He also allowed local to manage affairs, including Udjahorresne, thus being labelled as collaborators.

Decline and Fall 

The later years of Cambyses’ reign turned sour. In 522 BCE, while in Egypt, he received news that in Susa, his brother Bardiya took power. However, as Herodotus and even Darius, claimed that Cambyses had put to death his brother Bardiya during the time he spent in Egypt, thus, an imposter sat in the throne. Darius later testified that a magi named Gaumata pretended to be Bardiya. Bardiya gained local support by instituting populist policy of ceasing taxation and conscription for 3 years. Cambyses quickly marched back to Susa. However, halfway to Susa, in Syria, Cambyses passed away, leaving his throne to a pretender and a divided perception of his reign between a tolerant respectful conqueror and a brutally mad despot.

See also:
Cyrus II the Great
Rise and Fall of the Persian Empire

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Cambyses II.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on September 30, 2018. URL:

Ghirshman, Roman et. al. “Ancient Iran.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on September 30, 2018. URL:

The inscription of Udjahorresne. Accessed on September 30, 2018. URL: 

General References:

“Cambyses II.” In The Persian Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Mehrdad Kia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2016.

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