Cambyses II of Persia

Cambyses II of Persia and the Battle of Pelusium: A Victory Won by Cats

Meeting Between Cambyses II and Psammetichus III, as imaginatively recreated by the French painter Adrien Guignet / Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The battle was won through a very unusual strategy on Cambyses II’s part: the use of animals as hostages and, especially, cats.

By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
Marist College

Ancient World History

Cambyses II was the eldest son of Cyrus II, the founder of the Achaemenid (or Persian) Empire, whose father was Cambyses I.

The exact date of his birth is not known but is estimated to be around 560 b.c.e., and he was said by the Greek writer Herodotus of Halicarnassus to be the eldest son of Cassandane, daughter of Pharnaspes, also a member of the Achaemenid ruling family.

Cyrus took control of Babylonia in 539 b.c.e. and returned to Ecbatana, one of the royal capitals, leaving his son Cambyses as his representative. Cambyses made his headquarters at Sippar, a town to the north of the city of Babylon.

However, following his father’s policy, he was active in taking part in the spring New Year ceremonies that took place in Babylon. For eight years, on behalf of his father, Cambyses took charge of the area of Babylonia, and the evidence we have suggests a prince hard at work in his routine duties.

In 530 b.c.e. his father, Cyrus, set off to solve problems on the northeastern border of his empire and, following Persian custom, appointed Cambyses his regent, at the same time giving him permission to be called king of Babylon.

News of his father’s death in action reached Cambyses in Babylonia in September 530 b.c.e., and he assumed the full title King of Babylon, King of Lands, and by local custom married his two sisters, Atossa and Roxana.

The most significant event of Cambyses’ reign was his invasion of Egypt, which began a few years after his accession. Most likely before he left Persia for the invasion Cambyses had his brother, variously called Bardiya or Smerdis, quietly killed as a precaution against his leading a rebellion in the king’s absence.

Cambyses crossed the Sinai desert, Egypt’s first line of defense, and met the Egyptian army under the command of Psamtik III, at Pelusium. The battle went the Persian way not least because of the treachery of Polycrates of Samos, whose navy Psamtik erroneously thought he had secured but who on the day of combat fought for Cambyses.

Heliopolis (the site of modern-day Cairo) was soon thereafter taken by siege, Psamtik fled across the river to Memphis, which early in 525 b.c.e. was also taken, and Cambyses was proclaimed the new pharaoh.

A year later Cambyses marched south down the Nile and occupied Thebes. From there he considered invading Ethiopia but decided to stop at the border, Ethiopia becoming a vassal state. There is much debate as to how Cambyses behaved toward the religion of the Egyptians.

Darius' account

Conquest of Egypt

It was quite natural that, after Cyrus had conquered the Middle East, Cambyses should undertake the conquest of Egypt, the only remaining independent state in that part of the world. The war took place in 525 BCE, when Amasis II had just been succeeded by his son Psamtik III. Cambyses had prepared for the march through the desert by an alliance with Arabian chieftains, who brought a large supply of water to the stations. King Amasis had hoped that Egypt would be able to withstand the threatened Persian attack by an alliance with the Greeks.

But this hope failed, as the Cypriot towns and the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, who possessed a large fleet, now preferred to join the Persians, and the commander of the Greek troops, Phanes of Halicarnassus, went over to them. In the decisive battle at Pelusium the Egyptian army was defeated, and shortly afterwards Memphis was taken. The captive king Psammetichus was executed, having attempted a rebellion. The Egyptian inscriptions show that Cambyses officially adopted the titles and the costume of the Pharaohs.

Attempts to conquer south and west of Egypt

From Egypt, Cambyses attempted the conquest of Kush, located in the modern Sudan. But his army was not able to cross the deserts and after heavy losses he was forced to return. In an inscription from Napata (in the Berlin museum) the Nubian king Nastasen relates that he had defeated the troops of "Kambasuten" and taken all his ships. This was once thought to refer to Cambyses II (H. Schafer, Die Aethiopische Königsinschrift des Berliner Museums, 1901) however, Nastasen lived far later and was likely referring to Khabash. Another expedition against the Siwa Oasis failed likewise, and the plan of attacking Carthage was frustrated by the refusal of the Phoenicians to operate against their kindred.

The death of Cambyses

According to most ancient historians, in Persia the throne was seized by a man posing as his brother Bardiya, who had really been killed by Cambyses a few years earlier. Some modern historians consider that this person really was Bardiya, the story that he was an impostor was created by Darius after he became monarch.

Whoever this new monarch may have been, Cambyses attempted to march against him, but died shortly after under disputed circumstances. According to Darius, who was Cambyses' lance-bearer at the time, he decided that success was impossible, and died by his own hand in March 522 BCE. Herodotus and Ctesias ascribe his death to an accident. Ctesias writes that Cambyses, despodent from the loss of family members, stabbed himself in the thigh while working with a piece of wood. He died eleven days later from the wound. Herodotus' story is that while mounting his horse, the tip of Cambyses' scabbard broke and his sword pierced his thigh—Herodotus mentions it is the same place where he stabbed a sacred cow in Egypt. He then died of gangrene of the bone and mortification of the wound. Some modern historians suspect that Cambyses may have been assassinated, either by Darius as the first step to usurping the empire for himself, or by supporters of Bardiya. Α] According to Herodotus (3.64) he died in Ecbatana, i.e. Hamath Josephus (Antiquites xi. 2. 2) names Damascus Ctesias, Babylon, which is absolutely impossible. Β]

Cambyses was buried in Pasargadae. The remains of his tomb were identified in 2006. Γ]

First Ancient Egypt’s Persian Ruler: Cambyses II

In 525 BC the Persian emperor Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, who had already named his son as king of Babylon though Cambyses II resigned that position after only one year, invaded Egypt and successfully overthrew the native Egyptian pharaoh, Psamtek III, last ruler of Egypt’s 26th Dynasty to become the first ruler of Egypt’s 27th Persian Dynasty. His father had earlier attempted an invasion of Egypt against Psamtek III’s predecessor, Amasis, but Cyrus’ death in 529 BC put a halt to that expedition.

The statue recording the autobiography of Udjadhorresnet.

After capturing Egypt, king Cambyses II took the Throne name Mesut-i-re (Mesuti-Ra), meaning “Offspring of Re”. Though the Persians would rule Egypt for the next 193 years until Alexander the Great defeated Darius III and conquered Egypt in 332 BC, Cambyses II’s victory would bring to an end (for the most part) Egyptians truly ruling Egyptians until the mid 20th century, when Egypt finally shrugged off colonial rule.

We know very little about Cambyses II through contemporary texts, but his reputation as a mad tyrannical despot has come down to us in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus (440 BC) and a Jewish document from 407 BC known as ‘The Demotic Chronicle’ which speaks of the Persian king destroying all the temples of the Egyptian gods. However, it must be repeatedly noted that the Greeks shared no love for the Persians. Herodotus informs us that Cambyses II was a monster of cruelty and impiety.

Herodotus gives us three tales as to why the Persians invaded Egypt. In one, Cambyses II had requested an Egyptian princess for a wife, or actually a concubine, and was angered when he found that he had been sent a lady of second rate standing. In another, it turns out that he was the bastard son of Nitetis, daughter of the Saite (from Sais) king Apries, and therefore half Egyptian anyway, whereas the third story provides that Cambyses II, at the age of ten, made a promise to his mother (who is now Cassandane) that he would “turn Egypt upside down” to avenge a slight paid to her. However, Ctesias of Cnidus states that his mother was Amytis, the daughter of the last king of independent Media so we are really unsure of that side of his parentage. While even Herodotus doubts all of these stories, and given the fact that his father had already planned one invasion of Egypt, the stories do in fact reflect the later Greek bias towards his Persian dynasty.

Conquest of Egypt

It was quite natural that, after Cyrus had conquered the Middle East, Cambyses should undertake the conquest of Egypt, the only remaining independent state in that part of the world. Before he set out on his expedition, he killed his brother Bardiya (Smerdis), whom Cyrus had appointed governor of the eastern provinces. The date is given by Darius, whereas the Greek authors narrate the murder after the conquest of Egypt. The war took place in 525 BC, when Amasis II had just been succeeded by his son Psammetichus III. Cambyses had prepared for the march through the desert by an alliance with Arabian chieftains, who brought a large supply of water to the stations. King Amasis had hoped that Egypt would be able to withstand the threatened Persian attack by an alliance with the Greeks.

But this hope failed, as the Cypriot towns and the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, who possessed a large fleet, now preferred to join the Persians, and the commander of the Greek troops, Phanes of Halicarnassus, went over to them. In the decisive battle at Pelusium the Egyptian army was defeated, and shortly afterwards Memphis was taken. The captive king Psammetichus was executed, having attempted a rebellion. The Egyptian inscriptions show that Cambyses officially adopted the titles and the costume of the Pharaohs.

Attempts to Conquer South & West of Egypt

From Egypt Cambyses attempted the conquest of Kush, i.e. the kingdoms of Napata and Meroe, located in the modern Sudan. But his army was not able to cross the deserts and after heavy losses he was forced to return. In an inscription from Napata (in the Berlin museum) the Nubian king Nastesen relates that he had defeated the troops of “Kembasuden”, i.e. Cambyses, and taken all his ships. Another expedition against the Siwa Oasis failed likewise, and the plan of attacking Carthage was frustrated by the refusal of the Phoenicians to operate against their kindred.

The Death of Cambyses

Meanwhile in Persia the king’s brother Smerdis (Bardiya) rose against him and was acknowledged throughout Asia, although it was later claimed by Darius, after he had killed him and claimed the throne for himself, that this was not in fact the genuine Smerdis but an impostor, a Magian named Gaumata, Smerdis having been murdered some three years previously.

Cambyses attempted to march against him, but, seeing probably that success was impossible, died by his own hand (March 522). This is the account of Darius, Cambyses’ lance-bearer at the time, which certainly must be preferred to the traditions of Herodotus and Ctesias, which ascribe his death to an accident, although it has also been speculated that Cambyses may in fact have been murdered by Darius as the first step to usurping the empire for himself. According to Herodotus, he died in Ecbatana, i.e. Hamath Josephus (Antiquites xi. 2. 2) names Damascus Ctesias, Babylon, which is absolutely impossible.

Cambyses was buried in Pasargadae. The remains of his tomb were identified in 2006.

The Traditions of Cambyses

The traditions about Cambyses, preserved by the Greek authors, come from two different sources. The first, which forms the main part of the account of Herodotus, is of Egyptian origin. Here Cambyses is made the legitimate son of Cyrus and a daughter of Apries named Nitetis, whose death he avenges on the successor of the usurper Amasis. Nevertheless, the Persians corrected this tradition:

Cambyses wants to marry a daughter of Amasis, who sends him a daughter of Apries instead of his own daughter, and by her Cambyses is induced to begin the war. His great crime is the killing of the Apis bull, for which he is punished by madness, in which he commits many other crimes, kills his brother and his sister, and at last loses his empire and dies from a wound in the thigh, at the same place where he had wounded the sacred animal. Intermingled are some stories derived from the Greek mercenaries, especially about their leader Phanes of Halicarnassus, who betrayed Egypt to the Persians. In the Persian tradition the crime of Cambyses is the murder of his brother he is further accused of drunkenness, in which he commits many crimes, and thus accelerates his ruin.

These traditions are found in different passages of Herodotus, and in a later form, but with some trustworthy detail about his household, in the fragments of Ctesias. With the exception of Babylonian dated tablets and some Egyptian inscriptions, we possess no contemporary evidence about the reign of Cambyses but the short account of Darius in the Behistun Inscription. It is impossible from these sources to form a correct picture of Cambyses’ character but it seems certain that he was a wild despot and that he was led by drunkenness to many atrocious deeds.

Regardless of Cambyses II’s reason for his invasion of Egypt, Herodotus notes how the Persians easily entered Egypt across the desert. They were advised by the defecting mercenary general, Phanes of Halicarnassus, to employ the Bedouins as guides. However, Phanes had left his two sons in Egypt. We are told that for his treachery, as the armies of the Persians and the mercenary army of the Egyptians met, his sons were bought out in front of the Egyptian army where they could be seen by their father, and there throats were slit over a large bowl. Afterwards, Herodotus tells us that water and wine were added to the contents of the bowl and drunk by every man in the Egyptian force.

This did not stop the ensuing battle at Pelusium, Greek pelos, which was the gateway to Egypt. Its location on Egypt’s eastern boundary, meant that it was an important trading post was well and also of immense strategic importance. It was the starting point for Egyptian expeditions to Asia and an entry point for foreign invaders.

Here, the Egyptian forces were routed in the battle and fled back to Memphis. Apparently Psamtek III managed to escape the ensuing besiege of the Egyptian capital, only to be captured a short time afterwards and was carried off to Susa in chains. Herodotus goes on to tell us of all the outrages that Cambyses II then inflicted on the Egyptians, not only including the stabbing of a sacred Apis bull and his subsequent burial at the Serapeum in Saqqara, but also the desecration and deliberate burning of the embalmed body of Amasis (a story that has been partly evidenced by destruction of some of Amasis’ inscriptions) and the banishment of other Egyptian opponents.

The story of Cambyses II’s fit of jealousy towards the Apis bull, whether true or simply Greek propaganda, was intended to reflect his personal failures as a monarch and military leader. In the three short years of his rule over Egypt he personally led a disastrous campaign up the River Nile into Ethiopia. There, we are told, his ill-prepared mercenary army was so meagerly supplied with food that they were forced to eat the flesh of their own colleagues as their supplies ran out in the Nubian desert. The Persian army returned northwards in abject humiliation having failed even to encounter their enemy in battle.

Then, of course, there is also the mystery of his lost army, some fifty thousand strong, that vanished in the Western Desert on their way to the Siwa Oasis along with all their weapons and other equipment, never to be heard of again. King Cambyses II had also planned a military campaign against Carthage, but this too was aborted because, on this occasion, the king’s Phoenician sea captains refused to attack their kinfolk who had founded the Carthagian colony towards the end of the 8th century BC. In fact, the conquest of Egypt was Cambyses’ only spectacular military success in his seven years of troubled rule over the Persian empire.

However, we are told that when the Persians at home received news of Cambyses’ several military disasters, some of the most influential nobles revolted, swearing allegiance to the king’s younger brother Bardiya. With their support, the pretender to the great throne of Cyrus seized power in July 522 BC as Cambyses II was returning home.

The story is told that, on hearing of this revolt, and in haste to mount his horse to swiftly finish the journey home, Cambyses II managed to stab himself in the thigh with his own dagger. At that moment, he began to recall an Egyptian prophecy told to him by the priests of Buto in which it was predicted that the king would die in Ecbatana. Cambyses II had thought that the Persian summer capital of Ecbatana had been meant and that he would therefore die in old age. But now he realized that the prophecy had been fulfilled in a very different way here in Syrian Ecbatana.

Still enveloped in his dark and disturbed mood, Cambyses II decided that his fate had been sealed and simply lay down to await his end. The wound soon became gangrenous and the king died in early August of 522 BC. However, it should be noted that other references tell us that Cambyses II had his brother murdered even prior to his expedition to Egypt, but apparently if it was not Bardiya (though there is speculation that Cambyses II’s servants perhaps did not kill his brother as ordered), there seems to have definitely been an usurper to the throne, perhaps claiming to be his brother, who we are told was killed secretly.

The Real Cambyses II

Modern Egyptologists believe that many of these accounts are rather biased, and that Cambyses II’s rule was perhaps not nearly so traumatic as Herodotus, who wrote his history only about 75 years after Cambyses II’s demise, would have us believe. In reality, the Saite dynasty had all but completely collapsed, and it is likely that with Psamtek III’s (Psammetichus III) capture by the Persians, Cambyses II simply took charge of the country. The Egyptians were particularly isolated at this time in their history, having seen there Greek allies defect, including not only Phanes, but Polycrates of Samos. In addition, many of Egypt’s minorities, such as the Jewish community at Elephantine and even certain elements within the Egyptian aristocracy, seem to have even welcomed Cambyses II’s rule.

The Egyptian evidence that we do have depicts a ruler anxious to avoid offending Egyptian susceptibilities who at least presented himself as an Egyptian king in all respects. It is even possible that the pillaging of Egyptian towns told to us by Greek sources never occurred at all. In an inscription on the statue of Udjadhorresnet, a Saite priest and doctor, as well as a former naval officer, we learn that Cambyses II was prepared to work with and promote native Egyptians to assist in government, and that he showed at least some respect for Egyptian religion. For example, regardless of the death of the Apris Bull, it should be noted that the animal’s burial was held with proper pomp, ceremony and respect. Udjahorresnet also tells us that:

“I let His Majesty know the greatness of Sais, that it is the seat of Neith-the-Great, mother who bore Re and inaugurated birth when birth had not yet been…I made a petition to the majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Cambyses, about all the foreigners who dwelled in the temple of Neith, in order to have them expelled from it, so as to let the temple of Neith be in all its splendor, as it had been before. His Majesty commanded to expel all the foreigners who dwelled in the temple of Neith, to demolish all their houses and all their unclean things that were in the temple.

When they had carried all their personal belongings outside the wall of the temple, His Majesty commanded to cleanse the temple of Neith and to return all its personnel to it…and the hour-priests of the temple. His Majesty commanded to give divine offerings to Neith-the-Great, the mother of god, and to the great gods of Sais, as it had been before. His Majesty knew the greatness of Sais, that it is a city of all the gods, who dwell there on their seats forever.”

Indeed, king Cambyses II continued Egyptian policy regarding sanctuaries and national cults, confirmed by his building work in the Wadi Hammamat and at a few other Egyptian temples.

Udjadhorresnet goes on to say in his autobiography written on a naophorous statue now in the Vatican collection at Rome, that he introduced Cambyses II to Egyptian culture so that he might take on the appearance of a traditional Egyptian Pharaoh.

However, even though Cambyses II had his name written in a kingly Egyptian cartouche, he did remained very Persian, and was buried at Takht-i-Rustam near Persepolis (Iran). It has been suggested that Cambyses II may have originally followed a traditional Persian policy of reconciliation in the footsteps of their conquests. In deed, it may be that Cambyses II’s rule began well enough, but with the his defeats and losses, his mood may very well have turned darker with time, along with his actions.

We do know that there was a short lived revolt which broke out in Egypt after Cambyses II died in 522 BC, but the independence was lost almost immediately to his successor, a distant relative and an officer in Cambyses II’s army, named Darius. The dynasty of Persian rulers who then ruled Egypt did so as absentee landlords from afar.

The Lost Army of Cambyses II

Within recent years all manner of artifacts and monuments have been discovered in Egypt’s Western Desert. Here and there, new discoveries of temples and tombs turn up, even in relatively inhabited areas where more modern structures are often difficult to distinguish from ancient ruins. It is a place where the shifting sands can uncover whole new archaeological worlds, and so vast that no more than very small regions are ever investigated systematically by Egyptologists. In fact, most discoveries if not almost all are made by accident, so Egypt antiquity officials must remain ever alert to those who bring them an inscribed stone unearthed beneath a house, or a textile fragment found in the sand.

Lately, there has been considerable petroleum excavation in the Western Desert. Anyone traveling the main route between the near oasis will see this activity, but the exploration for oil stretched much deeper into the Western Desert. It is not surprising that they have come upon a few archaeological finds, and it is not unlikely that they will come across others. Very recently, when a geological team from the Helwan University geologists found themselves walking through dunes littered with fragments of textiles, daggers, arrow-heads, and the bleached bones of the men to whom all these trappings belonged, they reported the discovery to the antiquity service.

Mohammed al-Saghir of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) now believes that this accidental find may very well be at least remnants of the mysterious Lost Army of Cambyses II, and he is now organizing a mission to investigate the site more thoroughly. If he is successful and the discovery is that of Cambyses II’s 50,000 strong lost army, than it will not only answer some ancient mysteries, but will probably also provide us with a rich source of information on the Persian military of that time, and maybe even expand our knowledge of Cambyses II himself. The Persian armed forces consisted of many elements, including companies of foreign mercenaries such as Greeks, Phoenicians, Carians, Cilicians, Medes and Syrians. Hence, if this is not another false lead, we may expect excellent preservation of helmets, leather corselets, cloth garments, spears, bows, swords and daggers – a veritable treasure trove of military memorabilia. The rations and support equipment will all be there, ready for detailed analysis.

However, it should be noted that some Egyptologists question the very existence of such an army, rather believing that the whole affair was simply a fable told by a very prejudiced Greek.

Yet if true, Cambyses II probably sent his army to Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert to seek (or seize) legitimization of his rule from the oracle of Amun, much as Alexander the Great would do in the 4th century BC. However, the army was overtaken by a sandstorm and buried. For centuries adventurers and archaeologists have tried to find the lost army, and at times, tantalizing, though usually false glues have been discovered.

Legitimizing his rule does not fully explain the need for taking such a large army to the Siwa Oasis. Accounts and other resources provide that the priests of the oracle were perhaps posing a danger to Cambyses II’s rule, probably encouraging revolt among the native Egyptians. Perhaps the priests felt slighted that Cambyses II had not immediately sought their approval as Alexander the Great would do almost upon his arrival in Egypt. Therefore, it is likely that Cambyses II intended to forces their legitimization of his rule. In fact, some sources believe that his intent was to simply destroy the Oasis completely for their treachery, while it is also know that the army was to continue on after Siwa in order to attack the Libyans.

Yet the Siwa Oasis, the western most of Egypt’s Oasis, is much deeper into the desert than others, such as Bahariya, and apparently, like many of Cambyses II’s military operations, this one too was ill conceived. Why he so easily entered Egypt with the help of the Bedouins, and than sent such a large force into the desert only to be lost is a mystery.

We know that the army was dispatched from the holy city of Thebes, supported by a great train of pack animals. After a seven day march, it reached the Kharga Oasis and moved on to the last of the near Oasis, the Bahariya, before turning towards the 325 kilometers of desert that separated it from the Siwa Oasis. It would have been a 30 day march through burning heat with no additional sources of water or shade.

According to Herodotus (as later reported to him by the inhabitants of Siwa), after many days of struggle through the soft sand, the troops were resting one morning when calamity struck without warning. “As they were at their breakfast, a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which buried the troops and caused them utterly to disappear.” Overwhelmed by the powerful sandstorm, men and animals alike were asphyxiated as they huddled together, gradually being enveloped in a sea of drift-sand.

It was after learning of the loss of his army that, having witnessed the reverence with which the Egyptians regarded the sacred Apis bull of Memphis in a ceremony and believing he was being mocked, he fell into a rage, drew his dagger and plunged it into the bull-calf. However, it seems that he must have latter regretted this action, for the Bull was buried with due reverence.


Can 50,000 troops really vanish into the sands of the Sahara? The Lost Army of Cambyses is one of the most puzzling mysteries of the ancient world, with many researchers continuing to put stock into the only account available on the tragedy of the Persian army, whose mission according to ancient historian Herodotus was to lay siege to the Siwa Oasis located far across the western Sea of Sand. However, the army would never reach its destination, nor would any of the troops make their way back across the desolate landscape to report on the fate of their fellow Persians. The inaugural episode of Into the Portal dives into the quagmire of ambiguity surrounding the Lost Persian Army, exploring all the juicy details surrounding the Persian king Cambyses and his various attempts at conquering the northeastern tip of Africa including Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia. Hosts Amber Rae and Andrew McKay then turn to examine the many avenues of research taken by modern academia, journalists and venture capitalists to piece together the many fragments of this fascinating mystery.


In this blog post for Episode One: The Legend of the Lost Persian Army of Cambyses II we will explore the details of the legend as it is written in Herodotus’ account, its basis of legitimacy, and some of the other juicy tidbits The Histories has to offer. The Legend of the Lost Persian Army is sourced from The Histories, written by ancient historian Herodotus between 434-425BCE. The account reads as follows:

“The force which was sent against the Ammonians started from Thebes with guides, and can be traced as far as the town of Oasis, which belongs to Samians supposed to be of the Aeschrionian tribe, and is seven days’ journey across the sand from Thebes. The place is known in Greek as the Islands of the Blessed. General report has it that the army got as far as this, but of its subsequent fate there is no news whatsoever. It never reached the Ammonians and it never returned to Thebes. There is, however, a story told by the Ammonians themselves and by others who heard it from them, that when the men had left Oasis, and in their march across the desert had reached a point about mid-way between the town and the Ammonian border, a southerly wind of extreme violence drove the sands over them in heaps as they were taking their mid-day meal, so that they disappeared forever.”

- (The Histories, Book III, 26-27 page 181-182 Penguin Classics 2003 ed.)

Much has been said regarding the vague nature of the account and the credibility of Herodotus as a Greek historian writing about Egypt and Persian occupation. The main points of contention revolve around The Histories reliance on second, third and fourth hand accounts sourced from lower tiered Egyptian priests, the fact that Herodotus wrote the account over 75 years after the event itself amidst a tumultuous time in Egyptian history characterized by Persian occupation, as well as his tendency to exaggerate in other areas of the text (note the story about the horde of field mice chasing away an entire army). However, the nature of the account including its ‘casual’ placement within the text, as well as the attribution to Ammonian sources all arguably point to the idea that there was very little purpose for its falsification on the part of Herodotus.


Some researchers, such as Dr. Olaf Kaper, argue that King Darius I of Persia doctored the account of his predecessor to save the embarrassment (which is more embarrassing, losing an army in a foreign desert deemed the Sea of Sand or having them all slaughtered by Egyptian forces?). However to some this idea does not hold up to scrutiny as Herodotus was not receiving this particular information from the Persian king, and it could be argued that the falsified story would not have stuck in Egyptian history presumably someone someplace would have had a different account of the army being defeated at Dahkla Oasis as theorized by Kaper.

My biggest question, if Kaper’s theory is correct, is why the rebel king Petubastis IV wouldn't’ have taken credit? Kaper basis his idea of a battle between the 50,000 Persians and Egyptians at Dahkla on the evidence of massive construction of temples and other buildings that the rebel king Petubastis IV had erected in the area. However, it should be noted that it remains a point of contention amongst Egyptologists as to which Petubastis was responsible for the construction, as there are at least four sprinkled throughout the vast history of the ancient Egyptians. Despite efforts at reconstruction at the Dahkla site (which was repeatedly destroyed in ancient times) ambiguity remains as to which Petubastis was responsible, though Kaper remains convinced that he has the right king in the right era to assert his theories regarding the fate of the Lost Army (see Kaper’s TedX talk: )

But this reasoning lacks a direct correlation, only proving that this King Petubastis IV, whom very little is known, ruled long enough to have temples built with his inscription. This leaves irritating gaps in Kaper’s tidy conclusions, and further adds to the endless mystery of the Lost Army. My only supportive thoughts on this perspective come from the idea that perhaps if the Persian hold over Egypt were strong enough at the time to obliterate all other voices and accounts, the myth of the sandstorm would be all that is left for Herodotus at the time of his writing, however unlikely this may be…


One of my favorite aspects to The Histories was Herodotus’ insistence on the “mad Cambyses” narrative. Herodotus repeatedly points to “a serious physical malady” called the “sacred sickness” (The Histories, Book III, 33-35) that drove the decisions at home and on the Egyptian campaign – most notably being the decision to send poorly equipped troops west and south to their eminent demise. Some other anecdotes Herodotus uses to support his theory of the “mad Cambyses” include the murder of his brother Smerdis after a dream messenger ‘revealed’ to Cambyses “Smerdis […] sitting on the royal throne and that his head touched the sky” (The Histories Book III, 30-31) Others include reference to Cambyses marrying two of his sisters (both of which he would eventually have put to death) despite the fact that this was not a custom in either Persia or Egypt at the time. (The Histories, Book III, 31-32)

Also of note is the story in which Cambyses interrogated one of his closest friends and advisors, Prexaspes, about the Persian peoples opinion on their ruler. The tale goes that Prexaspes replied to the king that he was highly praised, with the only point of criticism relating to Cambyses’ love of wine (Book III, 33-35). The enraged king turned his spite on Prexaspes, shooting his son through the heart with a bow with the logic that if the arrow pierced the boy’s heart, Prexaspes spoke truth and would be forgiven (Book III, 35-36). It would appear that in Herodotus’ account of the Persian king, there was no real way to win with this guy! Whether or not Herodotus’ portrayal of Cambyses was entirely accurate, it is notable that this is not a positive image of the Persian king – and yet is not something that Darius attempted to squash. This contradicts the notion that The Histories and the account of the desert sandstorm was ultimately influenced by Persia so as to cast a false positive light on rulers such as Cambyses II, as argued by Dr. Kaper.

As academics continue to struggle over this enduring historical mystery, it becomes less and less clear if we will ever have the answers we seek.

Cambyses II of Persia - History

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Some 2,500 years ago, an ancient army disappeared without a trace. Will the mystery of what happened to this huge army of the ancient world ever be solved?

Destruction of Cambyses’ Army by a sandstorm

It is indeed one of the ancient world’s great mysteries. According to the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE), the Persian king Cambyses II who was the son of Cyrus the Great ordered an army to cross the desert in 525 BCE.

They were on a mission to attack and destroy a temple whose priest had refused to recognize the Persian king’s claim to Egypt. They never reached the temple however and Herodotus then speculates that the army was probably hit by a disastrous sandstorm and was buried alive.

The disastrous sandstorm would have hit the Sahara Desert circa 2,500 years ago and surprised the army of 50,000 Persian soldiers with disastrous consequences of complete and utter destruction.

And although many Egyptologists regard the story of Herodotus as a myth, many expeditions have indeed searched for the army, but every one of them without success.

That is until 2009 when two Italian archaeologists, Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, announced the discovery of what they believed is the remains of the army. After ten years of excavations near the oasis of Siwa in Egypt, they had found bronze weapons, earrings and immense collections of human bones. The earrings are very similar to the jewelry recognized from Persian reliefs.

The archaeologists, therefore, assumed that if they continue their excavations they will find the rest of the army in the surrounding area. They then turned to the Egyptian authorities for permission to continue their excavations but was turned down.

The Secretary-General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, said in a press release that media reports of this “are unfounded and misleading” and that “The Castiglioni brothers have not been granted permission by the SCA to excavate in Egypt, so anything they claim to find is not to be believed.”

The discovery was presented at the International Conference of the ERC project BABYLON held in Leiden, the Netherlands. But the Italian archaeologists presented their discoveries on film rather than as a scientific journal, which raised doubts about the authenticity of their findings.

Then recently in 2014, Olaf Kaper who is an archaeologist at the University of Leiden announced that he found an inscription by Petubastis III, who was later to become a Pharaoh.

In this inscription, Petubastis claims to have ambushed and defeated a Persian army. Kaper, therefore, postulates that the sandstorm scenario was a cover-up by Cambyses’ successor Darius I.

The question to what happened to the ancient army remains a mystery. But perhaps future archaeology will discover its ancient history.

Hit this link for a video by the Discovery Channel on the findings made by the Italian archaeologists in 2009.

Persia and Persepolis, Part II

George Woodcock outlines how, by about 515 B.C., architects, sculptors, goldsmiths and silversmiths were assembled from all quarters of the Persian Empire to build a new capital, Parsa, which the Greeks called Persepolis.

Cambyses II died in 522 on his way back from successful campaigns in Egypt to unsettled conditions in Media, where the standard of revolt had been successfully raised by a man claiming to be his brother Bardiya. The causes of Cambyses’ death are as obscure as the other circumstances of these troubled times he may have died by accident, or suicide, or even murder.

Darius, a remote cousin of Cambyses and grandson of the deposed Arsames of Parsa, was at this time a commander of the Ten Thousand Immortals. Supported by a group of young Persian noblemen, he led the army back to Media, and within two months he had captured and quickly executed the self-styled Bardiya, after which he proclaimed himself the legitimate heir of Cambyses.

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Cambyses II (2)

Cambyses: second king of the ancient Achaemenid Empire (ruled 530-522). In 525, he conquered Egypt.

The madness of Cambyses

Although Cambyses had reduced the temple taxes, he did his best to behave as an Egyptian pharaoh. This is proven by the autobiography of Wedjahor-Resne, one of the few contemporary documents. He also made a wise decision when he appointed Aryandes as satrap of Egypt. This man ruled the country for more than twenty years, and possible almost thirty.

The Greek researcher Herodotus, living almost a century after the conquest of Egypt, offers a completely different picture. In his view, Cambyses' behavior is almost criminal. He gives a complete catalogue of evildoings. In Sais, he had violated the corpse of Amasis:

According to Herodotus, this happened almost immediately after the conquest of Egypt, in the summer of 525. A new sacrilege was committed after the expedition to Upper Egypt: Cambyses killed the Apis bull. This was a manifestation of the god Ptah and therefore a sacred animal. After the death of the Apis bull, the priests started to search for a new Apis, and when they had found it, every Egyptian joined the celebrations.

After the execution, Cambyses called the priests and the sacred bull into his presence.

Egyptologists have refuted Herodotus' story. It is a fact that an Apis bull died in September 524, but he received a normal burial in the Serapeum at Saqqara (near Memphis). The funeral monument shows Cambyses worshipping the divine bull.

The next crime on Herodotus' list is the killing of his brother Smerdis. We have already seen above that this happened before Cambyses went to Egypt. Herodotus' claims that Cambyses' next victim was the son of one of his courtiers, Prexaspes. Twelve Persian noblemen were buried alive, courtiers were executed, statues of Egyptian gods were ridiculed. Herodotus concludes with a remark that this last crime shows that Cambyses was completely out of his mind, because only a madman would mock the ancient laws and customs of a foreign country (text).


This conclusion tells a lot about Herodotus, who had great respect for foreign cultures. The question is what its says about Cambyses, and the answer is: nothing. Herodotus is interested in the moral aspect of his story and did not check his spokesmen, the Egyptian priests who had, as we have already seen above, every reason to hate the Persian king.

However, it is too easy to conclude that Cambyses' behavior was completely normal and Herodotus is simply mistaken. The Apis was buried comparatively late, which may suggest that something unusual had happened. Many inscriptions mentioning Amasis were damaged, and although we do not know why and when, it certainly makes sense if we assume that Cambyses wanted to eradicate Amasis' reign. We simply do and cannot know what happened in Egypt between 525 and 522.


Herodotus and the Behistun inscription agree that Cambyses' stay in Egypt was interrupted in the spring of 522 by the news that a Magian named Gaumâta had seized power in the Achaemenid empire, claiming to be Smerdis. (Gaumâta could do this, because the real Smerdis had been killed secretly.) According to the Behistun inscription:

The word uvamaršiyuš means "his own death". Nobody knows how to understand this: some scholars have argued that Cambyses died of natural causes, others maintain that it means suicide. The first alternative appears to be the better one.

Herodotus offers no real help. He tells that Cambyses, on hearing the news of the rebellion, rushed back to Persia. But when he jumped into the saddle of his horse, the cap fell of the sheath of his sword and exposed the blade, which pierced his thigh. The Greek historian does not fail to stress that this was just the spot where Cambyses had wounded the Apis. According to Herodotus, the Persian king died not much later. This is clearly a fairy tale.


The last letter that is dated to Cambyses' reign was written on 18 April 522. It was found in Babylon, and it merely proves that Gaumâta was recognized as king in April or May. Cambyses probably was still alive. He may have died in July. The court official with the title of arštibara, "lance carrier", must have replaced him as commander. His name was Darius son of Hystaspes.

According to both Herodotus and the Behistun inscription, Darius and six noblemen killed the Magian Gaumâta on 29 September 522. The first regnal year of the new king saw nineteen battles in an intense civil war, but at the end of that long but single year, Darius was victorious and was recognized as the true successor of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses.

There has been some speculation whether the stone structure at Takht-e Rostam was Cambyses' tomb. However, from the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, we know that he was venerated in Pasargadae. In a press release dated 13 December 2006, the Iranian Heritage Organization announced that the entrance to the tomb of Cambyses had indeed been identified near Pasargadae.

Cambyses II of Persia - History

Iran is a land of extraordinary diversity, geographically, climatically and ethnically. To many Europeans the word Persia is evocative of beautiful works of art- carpets, tiles, fine ceramics, miniatures and metal-work. Or they might think of Persian poets such as Hafez, Saadi or Omar Khayyam, who are often quoted in translation. Yet these artistic and literary accomplishments all date from the Islamic era. Much less well known, but no less fascinating, are the art and history of ancient Persia, or Iran.

Towards the end of Darius' reign, intense struggle with Greece began which ended the superiority of the Persians. Xerxes , son of Darius, was king of Persia at this time. In the early part of his reign there were revolts in Egypt and Babylonia to deal with, but six years later he was ready to turn his attention toward Greece. Xerxes tried to attack Athens but all he accomplished was destroying the deserted city and burning the temples on the Acropolis, while the Athenians were waiting for him at Salamis. Xerxes believed that in order for him to gain control of the Peloponnese he would have to win this battle. The Greek and Persian fleets fought at Salamis, under Themistocles, in 480 B.C. The Greeks won a convincing victory. Later, the Achaemenid (Persian) attempt to overrun Greece was ended. In 465 BC, Xerxes was killed in his palace and his successor Artaxerxes continued building work at Persepolis. It was completed during the reign of Artaxerxes III, around 338 BC. In 334 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian armies of the third Darius. He marched into Iran and, once there, he turned his attention to Persepolis, and that magnificent complex of buildings was burnt down. This act of destruction for revenge of the Acropolis, was surprising from one who prided himself on being a pupil of Aristotle. This was the end of the Persian Empire.

Median names are followed by their Greek transcriptions, as those are generally better recognized.

Watch the video: Β Τσιτσάνης αφιέρωμα Χρ Λέκκας πιάνο (January 2022).