Cambyses II

gigatos | November 14, 2021


Kambis II (Kambӯdzija) was the second shahinshah of the Achaemenid Empire from 530 to 522 B.C. He was the son and successor of Cyrus the Great (ruled 550-530 B.C.) and his mother was Kassandana.

We know of the reign of Kambis from the accounts of Greek historians and from Egyptian inscriptions dating back to the time of the conquest of Egypt by the Persians.

Kambis the King of Babylon

Even after conquering Babylon, Cyrus appointed his son Kambis to be king of Babylon. The coronation of Kambis took place on Nisan 4 (March 27), 538 B.C., according to the traditional ancient ritual, on the holiday of the “new year,” with all the formalities (Kambis received power “from the hands of Marduk”). After Kambis” appointment as king of Babylon, documents appear dating Kambis and his father”s name, sometimes together, but this lasted only eight months; already in December the dating goes to one Cyrus. We do not know what prompted Cyrus to appoint his son as king, and a temporary one at that; it is possible that he did so because of an impending retreat for new wars.

From the fourth year of Cyrus” reign in Babylon, a document has come down to us in which Cambyses is simply named as a prince and owner of the capital deposited in the bank of Egibi in Babylon; he conducted his business through an attorney, and therefore he could not live in Babylon himself.

Cambyses ascends the Persian throne. Rebellions of the conquered peoples

If we believe Herodotus, even as he set out on his fateful campaign, Cyrus made Kambis, his eldest son by the queen Cassandana, daughter of Farnaspas of the Achaemenid family, his co-ruler.

After his father was killed in a battle with the Massagets in July 530 B.C., Cambyses took the Persian throne. However, when he came to the throne, the country was in turmoil. The individual countries and peoples conquered by Cyrus, but economically very little connected with Persia, were not yet organically part of the Persian state. They remembered their former independence and, naturally, took advantage of the death of the conqueror and rebelled to regain their freedom. It is possible that the second son of Cyrus, who is called Bardius in the Bechistun inscription and Smerdis in the work of Herodotus, was also involved in these revolts. If Ctesias is to be believed, he was appointed ruler of Bactria, and may well have revolted the eastern peoples against his brother. According to Xenophon, after the death of Cyrus, “immediately a commotion began among his children, cities and nations were laid aside, and everything tended to the worst.”

The Murder of Bardia”s Brother

Cambyses had to spend a great deal of effort suppressing rebellions. Apparently, in order to consolidate his position as the sovereign king of the Persian empire, Cambyses killed his brother Bardiya, and, as the Bechistun inscription says, “when Cambodius killed Bardiya, the people did not know that Bardiya had been killed. It appears that the death of Bardiya, who was popular and of known merit, remained unknown even to most of the king”s cronies and relatives.

Herodotus reports that Bardias (Smerdis) participated in the Egyptian campaign and was removed from Egypt to Susa on suspicion and then secretly killed by a hired assassin, but the Bechistun inscription clearly states that the murder occurred even before the Egyptian campaign.

Characteristics of Cambyses

In the person of Kambis to the throne of the new empire entered the sovereign, who had witnessed and participated in the conquest of Asia, the fall of the ancient thrones, the extraordinary upheavals that occurred through the Persian arms. He himself, as a young man, even had to sit on the oldest and most glorious throne of the capital of the world – Babylon. It is quite understandable that he was imbued with a consciousness of the greatness of Persia and its king; he was a natural-born sovereign and lord, in contrast to his father, who still remembered the traditional patriarchy of the court of a small national Persia. This change was especially noticed by the Greeks, sensitive to autocracy, and aptly summed up by Herodotus: “Cambyses looked upon the Ionians and Aeolians as slaves received by inheritance. But the Persians themselves felt the difference, and the same Herodotus puts into their mouths the name of Cambyses as “despot” (Greek δεσποτης) as opposed to Cyrus, who was called “father” for his humanity, fatherly care and love for the Persians.

Plans of Cambyses

In this mood, the policy of Cambyses was quite certain, especially since its course had already been charted by his father or, better said, by history itself. The empire of Cyrus occupied a space, on the one hand, larger than the Assyro-Babylonian one, including Lydia, but at the same time smaller than it at the time of its greatest expansion. Egypt had not yet been conquered, which remained at that time the only major ancient kingdom that continued to exist independently and was still a danger due to its connections with the Greek world and its intrigues in Asia; already for its former intrigues and alliances it was subject to destruction. For Cambyses this inheritance came in handy, giving an outlet to his vanity.

The fact that he did not set out for Egypt as soon as he came to the throne can be explained both by the anticipated turmoil and by the difficulty and seriousness of the undertaking, which required long preparations.

Preparing for the hike

Like his father, Cambyses sought to use diplomacy along with military measures. Concentrating his forces in Palestine by the spring of 525 B.C., Cambyses entered into an agreement with the Arab nomads, who had in their hands the routes leading across the Sinai desert to the borders of Egypt. In this way he provided his army with supplies of drinking water, which were delivered to him on camels. On the sea the Persians had no fleet of their own, but made maximum use of Phoenician ships. In addition, Cambyses had formed an alliance with Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos. The latter sent 40 ships to help Cambyses. It is true that this squadron did not arrive at the place of hostilities, for Polycrates included in it persons whom he thought it necessary to remove from the island, and those returned from the road to overthrow their tyrant. The Cypriots, too, sided with Cambyses and supported him with their ships.

Greek mercenaries were on both sides. But the leader of the Greeks in the Egyptian service, Phanes of Halicarnassus, who had great authority among the mercenaries, being privy to all affairs in Egypt, betrayed Pharaoh Amasis and fled to Cambyses, bringing the Persians valuable information about the Egyptians” military preparations. Even more valuable to the Persian king was the dissatisfaction of a considerable number of the Egyptians with Amasis; among them must have been the followers of Aprias, the priests, and others. Ctesias expressly says that the victory of Cambyses was due to the treason of a nobleman, the eunuch Combatheus, who desired the post of viceroy of Egypt and who opened to Cambyses “bridges and other affairs of the Egyptians.” There are also clear allusions to the treason of the commander of the Egyptian naval forces, Ujagorresent. In his inscription, which contains his autobiography and is a contemporary Egyptian account of the event, the latter openly boasts of the favors of Persian kings who showered him with honors and rewards, which makes it possible to assume that Ujahorresent surrendered the Egyptian fleet to the Persians without a fight. Some historians directly identify this Ujagorresent with Combatheus, mentioned by Ctesias. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the vigorous Amasis died at this time, leaving the throne to his son Psammetichus III. This grave, unfortunate and ominous circumstance was followed by a rare meteorological phenomenon in Upper Egypt – rain falling in Thebes, which could not but make a grievous impression on the superstitious Egyptians. However, the Egyptian patriots resolved to bravely resist.

The Battle of Pelusium

After passing through the Sinai desert along the path indicated by Phanes, the Persians came to the border of Egypt. On the march Cambyses was accompanied by the former Lydian king, the aged Croesus, whom Greek historians portray as an old man of worldly experience, and Siloson, brother of Polycrates of Samos.

The Egyptian army was waiting for the Persian army at Pelusium. From ancient times Pelusium was important as a fortress that protected the approaches to Egypt and was called the “seal” of Egypt. The Greeks also called it “the key of Egypt both to exit and to enter.” It was here in May 525 BC that the decisive battle for Egypt took place. In anger at their former commander Phanes, the Greek mercenaries, who remained loyal to Pharaoh, stabbed his sons who were in Egypt in front of the formation, mixed their blood with wine and, drinking this mixture, rushed into battle. During the bloody battle many soldiers died, both from the Egyptian and Persian sides. Herodotus, who visited the battlefield some seventy years later, saw many bones of dead soldiers piled in separate heaps. On one side were the bones of the Persians, as they were buried, and on the other the bones of the Egyptians.

However, despite their desperation and exasperation, the Egyptians were defeated and fled in disarray to Memphis, where they locked themselves up. Paulienus also tells of the siege of Pelusium, which was prolonged because of the desperate resistance of the Egyptians, who had many guns and threw stones, burning heads and arrows from slingshots. The story is told that Cambyses took the city with Egyptian sacred animals in front of his troops, which led to the surrender of the garrison who feared that the cats (goddess Bast), ibises (god Thoth) and dogs might be injured (the siege was probably launched from both land and sea). At Pelusium the Persians managed to break the courage of the Egyptian warriors, and their further progress was already unhindered.

The Conquest of Memphis and the Capture of Psammetichus III

According to Herodotus, Cambyses did not move immediately on Memphis, but sent a ship with a messenger beforehand (apparently during the siege of Pelusium), demanding the surrender of the city. But the Egyptians attacked the ship and sank it, and slaughtered all its crew, together with the king”s ambassador. Then Cambyses appeared in person. The Persians besieged the city, and the Egyptians, after a long siege, were finally forced to surrender (probably June 525 BC). Psammetich III and his entire family were captured. Two thousand noble Egyptian youths, including the pharaoh”s son, were executed as punishment for killing the Persian ambassador, but Psammetichus himself was spared, apparently guided by the policy of his father, who treated all captured kings mercifully in this matter. After the capture of Memphis the rest of Egypt was probably subdued without great difficulty. By the end of August 525 BC Cambyses was officially proclaimed Pharaoh of Egypt. He founded a new, XXVII dynasty. The dating, however, was by years from Kambis” accession to the Persian throne.

Fearing the Persian invasion, some tribes of North Africa, living to the west of Egypt, voluntarily submitted to the Persians. Thus, according to Herodotus, “The fate of Egypt frightened the Libyans who lived near Egypt, who surrendered to the Persians without a fight, imposed tribute on themselves, and sent gifts to Cambyses. Like the Libyans, the Cyrenians and Barcians did likewise, being similarly frightened.” Cambyses graciously accepted the Libyans” gifts, but the Greek tribute from Cyrenaica was looked down upon, because, in his opinion, it was a trifle small – 500 mines (over 170 kilos) of silver. Kambis, for his part, favored the African Greeks by sending the widow of Amasis, the Cyrenaic woman Ladika, back to her homeland.

The Politics of Kambis According to Egyptian Sources

These are the accounts of the conquest of Egypt reported by classical Greek writers. However, from the inscription of Ujagorresent and other Egyptian official sources, it seems to follow that Cambyses did not act as a conqueror, but repeated the policy of his father Cyrus in the conquest of Babylon. That is, the Persian king made the conquest of Egypt a personal union, was crowned in Sais according to Egyptian customs, adopted the title “king of Egypt, king of countries”, the traditional titles of the pharaohs – “descendant (of the gods) of Ra, Osiris”, the Egyptian name – Mesut-Ra (lit. “The spawn of Ra”) and tried to make everything happen “as it was done from the beginning”. Kambis continued the policy of the pharaohs of the XXVI dynasty that preceded him and sought to attract the Egyptians to his side. Reliefs from Egypt depict him in Egyptian clothing. He participated in religious ceremonies at the temple of the goddess Neith in Sais, offered sacrifices to the Egyptian gods and gave them other signs of attention. To give the conquest of Egypt a legitimate character, legends were created about the birth of Cambyses from the marriage of Cyrus with the Egyptian princess Nitetida, the daughter of Pharaoh Aprias. According to this version, the Persian royal house is no less, if not more, legitimate as pharaohs than the last Saisian kings. Thus, Cambyses conquered Egypt as the rightful heir who had wrested his patrimony from the hands of the usurper Amasis and his son Psammetichus III. As far back as Herodotus the Egyptians told this legend.

Immediately after conquering Egypt, Cambyses ordered all his soldiers to stop looting, to leave the temple grounds, and to make restitution for the damage done to the shrines. Following Cyrus” policy, Cambyses gave the Egyptians freedom in religious and private life. The Egyptians, like other peoples, continued to hold their positions in the state apparatus and passed them on by inheritance. Thus, the priest and general Ujagorresent not only retained under Cambyses all the public offices (except chief of the fleet) which he had held before, but also obtained new ones. He also became an adviser to Cambyses and later to Darius I in matters concerning the administration of the country. The legal and administrative documents of the time of Cambyses show that the first period of Persian domination did not cause much damage to the economic life of the country.

The Politics of Cambyses According to the Greek Authors

Meanwhile, both Herodotus and Diodorus say that Cambyses came to Sais for the sole purpose of committing the desecration of the mummy of Amasis. In this connection other atrocities of Cambyses are also described. The accounts are, on the one hand, reminiscent of Greek moralistic anecdotes about the frailty of all earthly things and firmness in enduring adversity, and, on the other, of Egyptian romances composed about historical persons and events; a sample of these may be found in fragments of a Coptic palimpsest novel about Kambis, in which he is mixed with Nebuchadnezzar, and apparently also in a continuation of these fragments in the Chronicle of John of Niccius. Subsequently a whole series of destructions and sackings were attributed to Cambyses. According to Strabo, he burned both Serapeum and Memphis; according to Pliny, he spared Heliopolis only because of the obelisks which struck his fancy; according to Diodorus, he sacked Ramesseum and the like.

In favor of Herodotus we can cite the granite sarcophagus of the commander of the archers Yahmes (Amasis), son of the “royal consort” Nekht-Bast-erou, hence one of the members of the royal family. The names and titles of the deceased and his mother were damaged on this magnificent sarcophagus, so that only the names of the gods, Bast and Yah (the moon god) were left, which they dared not touch. The obliteration of the name is the most cruel posthumous execution according to Egyptian conceptions, and, of course, the first assumption is that it was done at the behest of the conqueror. Further, the Aramaic papyri from the Jewish colony on Elephantine say (though 118 years after the conquest) that when Cambyses conquered Egypt, he destroyed “all the temples of the Egyptian gods,” but did not touch the Jewish sanctuary that already existed on Elephantine. Finally, too, Ujagorresent speaks of “the greatest horror that occurred in the whole country, the like of which had never been seen. Indeed, we have reason to believe that in a few months Cambyses” attitude toward Egypt changed for the worse.

Herodotus in his “History” reported that, having conquered Egypt, Cambyses then decided to annex all known Africa, that is, Carthage, the oases and Cush. The first had to be abandoned, because the Phoenician fleet did not want to go against the tribesmen, and the Persian king did not consider himself entitled to insist, for the Phoenicians had joined voluntarily. The expedition to conquer the oases, which left Thebes, reached the Great Oasis (Herodotus tells about it, and there have survived buildings on behalf of the Persian kings Darius I and Darius II. However, the further advance of the Persian soldiers to the oasis of Amon (Siva), according to the story transmitted by Herodotus, ended in disaster – the army was covered with sand of the desert during a sandstorm.

There was another African kingdom, Kush (Ethiopia in Herodotus), with its capitals in Napata and Meroe. Cambyses decided to conquer it as well. All our information about this venture is drawn from Herodotus, whose story is not free from legendary stratifications and tendencies to present the campaign as a mad venture both by conception and execution, directed, moreover, not only against the Cushite state itself, but also to check the wonderful rumors about “long-lived Ethiopians” and about the “solar table”. According to Herodotus, Elephantine “ichthyophagi” who understood Nubian were sent to the Ethiopian king (according to archaeological data, the Cushites were ruled by Amaninatakilebte at that time) with a proposal to submit. On receiving the insulting reply, the irritated Cambyses set out too hastily, without sufficient preparation, to march along the Nile (winter of 524523 BC), but, having passed barely a fifth of the way, he felt a lack of food supplies. Although this did not stop the conqueror, when his army reached the point of cannibalism, he still had to return. On the way back a pestilence began, and the sands of the desert buried many people under them. According to Strabo, hills with buried bands of Persians were shown to the curious in Nubia as early as under Octavian Augustus.

Diodorus of Sicily in his Historical Bibliothecae also noted that, according to the Ethiopians, Cambyses attacked them with a large army, and not only lost his entire army, but himself was in the greatest danger.Thus, the campaign was unsuccessful and resulted only in a protectorate over “the Ethiopians bordering Egypt,” who were not even required to pay tribute to the Persian king, but brought gifts.

It is likely that the long absence of Cambyses in Cush (Ethiopia) produced in the newly conquered Egypt a movement towards the overthrow of the Persian yoke. Herodotus reports that Cambyses, having left Psammetichus III alive, was even prepared to make him vassal ruler of Egypt and only ruined him when he was found to have incited his former subjects to revolt. Cambyses returned upset by the failure of the campaign; the restlessness of the Egyptians may have finally driven him mad, and it would not be bold to suggest that the “greatest terror” to which Ujagorresent alludes came as a result of the pacification of the Egyptian rebellion. No doubt Psammetichus III fell as one of the first victims of the fury of Cambyses, who now entrusted the government of Egypt no longer to an Egyptian, but to a Persian, Ariandes.

Herodotus tells us that when Cambyses returned from his expedition to the south, he found the Egyptians in Memphis reveling in their festive garb, feasting on the “appearance” of the new Apis. The Persian king suspected that the Egyptians were enjoying his misfortunes. He was furious, executed the city officials, ordered the priests to be flogged, and tried to stab the calf of Apis himself with a dagger, but only wounded him in the thigh, from which he, nevertheless, perished. After he died from his wound, the priests secretly, so that Cambyses would not know about it, buried Apis.

How true Herodotus”s information about the cruelties of Cambyses on the occasion of the feast of the enthronement of Apis and his mockery of the Egyptian religion is unknown; at any rate, the account of his murder of Apis is not justified on the ground that the stelae, originating from Serapeum, speak of the death of Apis in the 6th year of Cambyses, hence at the beginning of the Ethiopian campaign (524 BCE. E.), and then about the death of the next Apis in the 4th year of Darius I, which shows that the change of Apis took place during the Ethiopian campaign and in normal order, and on the stele of the time of Kambis he himself is depicted kneeling in front of the sacred calf. An inscription on Apis” funerary sarcophagus survives, testifying to the solemn official (not secret) burial of Apis. The inscription reads: “Kambis, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, dedicated a large sarcophagus to his father Osiris. However, it does not seem entirely proven that Apis of the 4th year of Darius was the direct successor of the deceased during the Ethiopian campaign and that the image of Kambis is not placed solely because of tradition. Perhaps the damage to the names on the sarcophagi belongs to the same time. At least Herodotus reports that Cambyses “in Memphis opened ancient tombs. A similar damage and perfect obliteration of the name of Amasis is seen on many monuments originating from Sais and the Delta in general. Note also that the Demotic chronicle gives a list of items received by the temples under Amasis, and says that many of these receipts were cancelled by Cambyses, others (such as cattle) were halved.

According to Herodotus, after killing Apis Cambyses – “according to the accounts of the Egyptians, because of this sacrilege he was immediately struck with insanity”, although, as the Greek historian immediately notes, he “was not quite in his right mind before”. Besides, they say, that he from birth suffered from a grave illness, which some people call “sacred” (that is epilepsy), and was not at all self-controlled in drinking. In a fit of madness he beat his pregnant wife Roxana (who was his younger sister), so that she gave birth prematurely and died as a result. Then he shot Prexaspas, the son of his confidant, with an arrow, ordered twelve of the greatest Persians to be arrested and buried alive in the ground without any good reason, and also wanted to execute Croesus, his advisor and instructor, only because he had remarked on the matter. The faithful servants sheltered Croesus, and though Cambyses later forgave Croesus, all the servants were executed for their disobedience. And there were many other similar criminal acts committed by Cambyses in a frenzy.

All these reports, however, are probably somewhat exaggerated. Apparently, the conquering and despotic policy of Cambyses provoked great opposition in Midia and in a number of countries that became part of the Persian power, an explosion of patriotic feelings in Egypt, and anxiety throughout the Greek world. It is not surprising, therefore, that especially in Greco-Egyptian circles exaggerated accounts and even almost legends of the cruelty, despotism, and madness of Cambyses arose. These legends are vividly reflected in the writings of Greek historians, particularly in the book of Herodotus.

The moralizing Greek historiography contrasted the “humane and just” Cyrus with the “cruel and insane” Kambis, in both cases, of course, allowing for exaggerations. Moreover, the younger branch of the Achaemenids, represented by Darius, who took the Persian throne soon after Kambis” death, supported these fabrications in everything, sometimes generating outright myths themselves. Their purpose was to show the incapacity of the older line to rule.

In the spring of 522 B.C. alarming rumors began to reach Egypt from Asia about the appearance on the Persian throne of the impostor Ljébardia. Already in the month of ayaroo (April-May) in Babylon they began to date the documents to his reign. Cambyses moved hastily to Persia to suppress the revolt, but on the way he died under very mysterious and suspicious circumstances. In April 522 B.C., Cambyses was still alive and still recognized in some places in Babylonia. Thus, we have the last tablet from Shahrinu (a suburb of Babylon) dated to his reign on April 18, 522 BC.

According to the official version, recorded in the Behistun inscription of King Darius I, the magician (i.e., a Midian priest) and impostor Gaumata seized power under the guise of Bardiya. It is further stated that Cambyses “died by putting himself to death,” but no details of this episode are revealed. Herodotus” account of the episode is more detailed. It, like the Bechistun inscription, calls the impostor a magician, one of the two brothers left by Cambyses to run the palace and who was among the very few who knew of Bardia”s murder. The impostor also called himself Bardia (he put Lembardia on the throne and sent heralds everywhere, especially to the troops, with orders to swear allegiance to the impostor. The rumors reached Cambyses (supposedly he had a prophetic dream), who went back to Persia and was in some Syrian Ekbatanes (maybe, Hamat, which name in the Greek rendering sounded similar to the name of the Midian capital), where he was supposedly predicted to find his death. And here came heralds in the name of the impostor. Kambys interrogates Prexasp, who has been sent to kill Bardija, and then catches the herald and learns from him that he himself has not seen Bardija, but was sent by Patizif. Prexasp and Cambyses guess what the matter is. Cambyses rides his horse in a rage to go to Susa, but wounds himself in the thigh and dies of gangrene twenty days later.

Herodotus, who was prone to moralizing, explained the death of the Persian ruler as revenge on the gods for the sacrilege committed by Cambyses:

Ctesias gives a slightly different account of the death of Cambyses. According to him, he “chopped a branch with his knife for fun, but he injured his hamstring badly and died on the eleventh day. Josephus Flavius reports that Cambyses died in Damascus. The Demotic Chronicle from Egypt, also says that Cambyses died on the road, “when he had not yet reached his country.

Against Ariand in Egypt, according to the Greek author Polyenus, was a rebellion by the Egyptian prince Petubast III, who ruled from about 522-520 B.C. In 2014, Olaf Kaper of the University of Leiden stated that he had found an inscription of Petubast III describing an ambush and victory over the army of Cambyses II.

Cambyses reigned for seven years and eight months and died without an heir. Ctesias says he ruled for 18 years, apparently counting the years of his reign from when he became king of Babylon in 538 BC.

After Kambis” death, Atossa and Fedima, along with his other harem women, whose names we do not know, went to his successor Gaumata.


  1. Камбис II
  2. Cambyses II
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