Lesson #325: Cambyses II’s Cat Army

A word about my prolonged absence: I have no excuse, really, except that I’ve been focused on other, sometimes (but not always, unless you count plowing through all of Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, and Sons of Anarchy as more important) more important, things.

Also, I’ve had no word from Fulham. Evidently, they didn’t think I was being sincere, despite my best efforts at explanation. Anyway, Spurs have shown reasonably well, even without Gareth Bale, so that’s what’s important.*

Moving on…

There are many things I love about history. Not the history you learned about in school because school history — all memorized names, dates, and events to be forgotten as soon as the final has been taken — is the worst. I’m talking about the history that’s interesting.**

As we all know from our grade four history unit on Ancient Egypt, — we all had that, right? — the Egyptians believed in the sanctity of cats. They also lived in an era when there Persians were enjoying a delightful conquering romp through the better part of the known world. Enter Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, who, five years after the epic death of his father, leads the Persian army on a little jaunt to make friends with Egypt.

There’s some pretty Game of Thrones-type political stuff involving powerful people, deposed monarchs, marriage of daughters, trickery, betrayal, and subversive doctors that leads up to the Battle of Pelusium*** in 525 BCE, but by May, Cambyses and the Egyptian Pharoah, Psamtik III, were at war over an insult to Cambyses’ pride (or honor…whatever, there was a slight, and Cambyses didn’t take it well).  It turns out, though, that Cambyses was prepared to completely obliterate the Egyptian army. He brought cats.

Knowing the Egyptians’ veneration of cats, Cambyses had the image of Bastet, the cat goddess, painted on his army’s shields and sent cats (as well as other animals the Egyptians held sacred, including dogs, sheep, and ibexes) out to march ahead of the first wave of soldiers. The Egyptians decided it was better to run screaming to Memphis and hole up there than to anger the Gods by fighting and wound up victims of a vicious rout. According to the historian Ctesias, 50,000 Egyptians were killed.**** Cambyses then wandered on down to Memphis with his troops and laid siege to it until it fell, after which he executed 2,000 of the city’s more important citizens. Psamtik was captured in the aftermath and, by all accounts, treated well, living out his life in Memphis (or jailed in Susa, depending on what you read) under the watchful eye of the Persians — right up until the point where he decided to lead a revolt against his captors, which earned him an execution.

Cambyses defeat of Psamtik ushered in the 27th dynasty, which was overseen by the Persian Shahs from Cambyses’ takeover in 525 BCE and running through Darius II’s overthrow in 404 BCE.

For more information see here and here.

*I just need to record for posterity that during the Northern Ireland/Portugal qualifier in Belfast a few months back, fans chanted “you’re just a cheap Gareth Bale” at Cristiano Ronaldo (of whom I have many things to say, few of them nice), which made me giggle. And then he turned around a scored a hat trick, which did not make me giggle. Other Cristiano Ronaldo hat tricks that didn’t make me giggle include the one he scored in the second leg against Sweden in the World Cup qualifier playoff that knocked Sweden out of the tournament before it even started. Between me and The Swede, that didn’t go over well, though he took it much better than I did.

**To be fair, my version of interesting history and other people’s versions aren’t necessarily the same. I like the chaos, idealism, and aggression aspects. Other people like quilts.

***See Herodus’ The Histories, Volume I, Book II

****See Persica

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