Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Madness of Cambyses

Never forgetting the valuable lesson he had learned that day he had befriended the fallen Croesus (for the the story click please here), the Persian King of Kings ruled wisely and fairly for all. The Persian Empire ever after became a deeply admired nation, where the vast array of cultures within its endless borders coexisted peacefully as equals. The Empire flourished, Iran became a model of religious freedom and cultural tolerance, and the first laws of human rights were written, and it was one of the earliest nations to deplore slavery. Many nations willingly flocked to the Great King’s court, and many willingly handed over their sovereignty to him. At his death, Cyrus the Great had achieved astonishing things.

King Cambyses
Artist unknown
Cyrus had, in twenty years, transformed an obscure Eurasian tribe into a world superpower. The realm inherited by his son Cambyses was breathtaking in its size. Many great kingdoms and empires had risen and fallen in the Middle East. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medians, the Lydians, the Akkadians, Sumerians and Elamites had all been great powers in their day. The domains of the Persian King included all of them, and were larger than all of them put together. It was so vast that it had not one but four capital cities; Pasargadae, Susa, Babylon and Ecbatana. Still, the Persian Empire was far from its greatest extent. To take up the crown and sceptre left by Cyrus was a formidable challenge indeed. Cambyses, though a little short tempered, seemed worthy of such a challenge. Some years earlier, Cyrus asked the Pharaoh of Egypt, Amasis, for the services of the most skilled oculist in Egypt. Amasis agreed, and sent the man to Persia. But the doctor, furious with the Pharaoh for tearing him away from his family and country, decided to sow the seeds of Egypt’s ruin. Scheming, the doctor approached young Cambyses, and persuaded him to ask Amasis for the hand of his daughter in marriage. The plan was an ingenious one. If Amasis agreed, he would be wracked with personal distress, for alarming were the rumours that reached his ears of the sadistic tendencies of Cambyses. If he refused, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war, and terrifying was the power of Persia. A sleepless night the Pharaoh endured, for the decision all Kings dread was now his. A choice between his Kingdom, and his conscience.

The next morning, he formed a plan. It seemed to him ingenious, for it would benefit both. Many years earlier, he had overthrown his predecessor, Pharaoh Apries, in a rebellion. The last surviving member of his household was his daughter, and Amasis decided to grant her the identity of his daughter, and dress her as a princess of Egypt, and duly she was sent to the Persian court. Cambyses was overjoyed with his splendid bride, and all seemed well. Amasis died of old age, confident that he had honoured his daughter and preserved Egypt. There came a time, however, when Cambyses addressed her by the name of Amasis her father. The girl, unable to tolerate the shame any longer, confessed to the Great King the deception Amasis had woven upon him, and her true identity. It was this simple revelation which brought down the wrath of Cambyses upon Egypt.

All of Persia prepared for war. The legions of Asia marched forth, and the world trembled. All Egypt, and the newly crowned Pharaoh Psammenitus, lamented, for a fresh blow struck. Long had the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Greek cities been friends. But now, lured by riches and power, the Greeks betrayed Egypt, and went over to Cambyses. One such traitor told the Great King all he knew from his years of service, and showed him the path by which a strike would be sure to succeed. A valiant stand did Egypt undertake, but the glory days of old were long gone. A new power was rising. The Egyptians were beaten, and fled in disarray, barricading themselves in their capital, Memphis. Cambyses, holding the peoples and culture of Egypt in contempt, sent a herald to Memphis to demand the surrender of Egypt. In one last act of defiance, the Egyptians slew the ambassador and his entourage, accepting their fate. After a gruelling siege, Memphis fell, and with it, after two and a half thousand years of greatness, Ancient Egypt came to an end. The last great nation in the region had now fallen to Persia. There was no other power left which could oppose her. Cambyses, stunning himself at the height his nation had reached, was fired with patriotic fervour, and things more sinister. What could he lose now? The Great King decided to humiliate Psammenitus, and test his resolve.

The Persian Empire under Cambyses
Map created by the author
So great was the fear of the increasingly unstable Cambyses, Libya and Cyrenaica surrendered to the Great King without a fight. Not ten days passed before the new Pharaoh, Cambyses, forced Psammenitus and all the nobles of Egypt to bear witness to a cruel spectacle. First, he had Psammenitus’ daughter, and those of the other nobles, dress as slaves and sent them to fetch water out under the burning African Sun. The girls wept bitterly in their humiliation, but greater still did their fathers. Only Psammenitus himself stayed his tears, mingled with frustration and fury as they were, for well did he know the Great King’s ploy. The former Pharaoh merely lowered his head in silence, eyeing the floor. Cruel Cambyses, seeing this, ordered the guards to force his head high. Next came Psammenitus’ only son, mouth bridled and neck tied in rope. In his wake followed two thousand others of the sons of Egypt’s nobility, for the Royal Judges of the Great King had decreed that for each emissary that had been slain by the defenders of Memphis, ten Egyptians would die. Though the other noblemen clasped their heads in their hands, spirits broken, Psammenitus battled for control of his emotion. Once a king, always a king. Never can a king allow his emotion to rule his head. But then, in the wake of the boys, there came an old man, bent with age no less than by the weight of his shackles. Psammenitus saw the man, and recognised him at once, for he had once been his good friend, and many a time had the two dined together, in the days before the coming of Persia. Now the man, stripped of his earthly possessions, wandered the streets as a hapless beggar, trying to get what he could from Persian soldiers. Now at last Psammenitus was moved to tears. The Great King, amazed at this newfound emotion, asked him why he now shed tears for a beggar when he did for his own kin. “Son of Cyrus,” he replied, “my own suffering was too great for tears, but I could not but weep for the trouble of a friend, who has fallen from great wealth and good fortune and has been reduced to beggary on the threshold of old age”. The bold man’s response struck deep in the hearts of all present, Egyptian and Persian alike. Even the Great King himself knew pity for but a moment, and gave orders that the son of Psammenitus be spared his fate.

But ever since Cambyses had set foot in Egyptian lands, a curse had swollen within him, for some force, natural, or supernatural, had begun to unhinge his mind. The Great King, remembering why he had struck against Egypt, advanced on Sais, to the royal tomb of Amasis. There he defiled the sacred dignity of the fallen Pharaoh’s corpse, ordering it lashed and scourged and subjecting it to hideous treatment. Then at last, when he had fulfilled his rage, he ordered it burned. Cremation was a thing deplorable to the people of Ancient Egypt, but so too for the people of Ancient Persia. So did Cambyses defile the customs of his own people, and another. Deeper drove the splinter in his mind. His affliction grew day by day. Soon thirst for glory, sated by his conquest of Egypt, grew strong again. To the South lay the land of the long lived Ethiopians, and great was the lure of their lands, and the end of the known world, to Cambyses. To the King of their people Cambyses sent heralds bearing gifts, offering his ‘friendship’ to Ethiopia. Making the arduous journey through the desert dunes, the ambassadors came. Bowing before the Ethiopian King, they presented their gifts, and request. But the King, a shrewd man, knew they were spies, sent in truth to scout out his lands. The King issued a dire warning to the Great King:

        “ Had he any respect for what is right, he would not have coveted any other
          kingdom than his own, nor made slaves of a people who have done him no
          wrong. So take him this bow, and tell him that the King of Ethiopia has
          some advice to give him: when the Persians can draw a bow of this size thus easily,
          then let him raise an army of greater strength and invade the country of the
          long lived Ethiopians. Till then, let him thank the gods for turning the thoughts
          of the children of Ethiopia to foreign conquest...”

Whereupon the King unstrung the mighty bow and presented it to the ambassadors. With great haste the emissaries returned to Cambyses, and the Ethiopian King’s defiance. Terrible was the rage of the Great King, and closer to the edge of the abyss edged his sanity. Without delay, a declaration of war followed, and with it, one upon Carthage and the people of Siwah for good measure. In his madness, not a thought to the fact that he would be leading his men to the ends of the Earth, he lead fifty thousand men into the desert. Fifty thousand more detached from the host and bore down on Siwah. The force against Carthage, however, stalled. For the Phoenicians, who formed the entire naval force of the Persian Empire, refused to make war upon their own colony, and would not pollute the sacred bond by making war on their own children. So by a hair’s breadth was the great nation of Carthage spared Persian wrath.

The Creeping Death of the Desert
Artist unknown
Not a fifth of the distance to the faraway lands of the Ethiopians had the Great King covered, when the last of the provisions ran dry. The Sun bore down upon their necks. Sweat dripped from their brow. Parched grew their throats.  The Sahara welcomes all, but does not readily bid goodbye. Deeper grew the sand. Each step taken, was a towering effort, as the ground fell away beneath their feet. Hours would it take to reach the crest of the next dune, only then to see the Sahara go ever on, as far as the eye could see. If you have ever been deep into a desert, well will you know the deceptive influences that play havoc upon your judgement. At last, a lake ahead? Forever can you chase it, and never will you reach it. Such is the danger of mirages. This was the danger now which sapped the very life force from the men of Persia. The day came when the first horse collapsed into the sand, spent of its final ounce of energy. Men would kill for but a single droplet of water, others reduced to drinking the blood of their horses. As long as they were able, men ate whatever grass they could find. But then they reached the open desert, and terrible deeds this caused. Days passed, and man and beast alike fell lifeless into the sand. Men drew lots between them. One in ten was chosen, and cannibalism ran rampant throughout the army. There came a time when Cambyses saw his men slaying each other, desperate to stay alive, and at last, even the Great King saw it was useless to keep on. The few stragglers that returned to Thebes were a shadow of the vanguard which had left it. News came of the army which had marched on Siwah. West into the Sahara had they gone, seeking destruction upon the Oracle at Siwah (the very same which would proclaim Alexander the Great as the son of Zeus some two hundred years later). Reports had arrived that they had left the Oasis and marched to the West, but never again were they heard from again. For a sandstorm of terrible ferocity had struck the beleaguered men one day, and the whole army was swallowed by the desert.

The Apis Bull
Image taken from a 21st Dynasty Coffin, Egypt
The terrible heat of the desert, and the horrifying visions it had caused, had now at last shattered the Great King’s sanity, and his madness was absolute. There came not longer after his return to Memphis the time for the festival of Ptah, the creator god and patron deity of Memphis. The people donned their finest clothing, and prepared to receive the Apis bull, a noble beast sacred to Ptah, revered as a god in its own right. The people rejoiced, as the elegant animal was paraded through the street, and they gave thanks to Ptah. When Cambyses saw these things, he asked the priests what the fuss was about. “A god has appeared amongst us!” they joyfully replied. Cruel Cambyses declared them liars and had them dragged away and executed. Given over to insanity, he walked up to Apis, his dagger drawn. With a shout of laughter and a flash of steel, he drove the blade into the beast. Missing its side, he struck its thigh. The Bull roared with pain, before crashing to the ground, blood pouring from its wounded flank. Cambyses, turning to the crowd, laughing maniacally, declared:

              “ Do you call that a god, you poor creatures? Are your gods flesh and blood?
                Do they feel the cut of steel? No doubt a god like that is good enough for the
                Egyptians; but you won’t get away with trying to make a fool of me!”
                          - THE INSANE CAMBYSES TAUNTS THE GODS

The Great King abolished the festival, and any caught honouring the fallen bull was put to death, and the priests were whipped so savagely that their blood drenched the streets. The distraught Egyptians, enraged yet stricken with grief, obeyed by day but resisted by night. When darkness fell, Some brave priests broke free of their captors and gave the Bull a tender funeral, though well they knew they faced Death should they be caught. Cambyses’ insanity grew stronger yet, and hand in hand marched that most fatal scourge of rulers – paranoia. When it transpired that his brother, Smerdis , had been able to string the bow of the Ethiopian King, Cambyses had banished him back to Susa. Then, one night, the Great King had a dream, in which he saw before him a vision of Smerdis seated upon the royal throne, sceptre in hand, and his head touching the sky. His suspicions as to what this could mean tortured him, and ordered his murder in secret. Not only had he committed the atrocity if the slaying of a son of Cyrus, but he had killed his own brother. Next he turned to his sister. Taking  an unnatural attraction to her, the Great King, his mind by now truly lost, resolved to marry her. Summoning his royal judges, he demanded to know if there was any reason why he could not do so. The judges, torn between revulsion, and fear of the unstable King, replied that whilst they could find no written law that allowed brother and sister to wed, there was undoubtedly a law which permitted the King of Persia to do as he pleased. Thus Cambyses violated another law of nature. When brother and sister sat down to eat at the table one day, the woman picked up a lettuce, and began pulling off its leaves. Turning to her new husband, she asked whether he thought it looked better with or without its leaves. The Great King replied that he preferred it before it was stripped. The sister, who knew well the fate of her other brother, replied that Cambyses had treated the House of Cyrus just as she had treated the lettuce. In a maddened rage, the broken King added to his crimes the murder of his sister too.

The Sahara Swallows the Persian Army
Engraving by Alfredo Y Angelo Castiglioni
All Egypt was turned on its head. On Cambyses’ orders, temples were thrown open, and ancient tombs broken asunder, as the crazed machinations of the Great King slowly tore asunder all taboos and customs. Many times could the Great King be found jeering at the statues of gods in the temples, an act no other mortal would dare to do. His moods would swing from uncommon kindness to savage malice. One moment he would order a man executed, then hours later ask to see him, oblivious to his former act. Soon, as the ethical codes of both Egypt and Persia lay in ruins, plots began to form against the insane King. Far away in Persia, the two of the Magi staged a rebellion. One of them also held the name of Smerdis, and even bore a strong resemblance to the Great King’s slain brother. Seizing this chance, he adopted the identity of the fallen brother, knowing well that the name of the House of Cyrus would strike a chord with all. Since the murder of Smerdis was conducted in secret, no one would question his identity.

When news reached Cambyses, the follies of his designs was at last laid bare before him. At last, the truth of his dream was clear. He had polluted his soul with the murder of his brother, all to no avail, and in that moment, the Great King felt a hideous remorse. The pain was so terrible that he lamented his miserable state, and felt his brother and sister’s death with remarkable empathy. Those present, appalled at the Great King’s transgressions against god and nature, could not fail to be moved at the sad sight. For Cambyses, only half aware of what he was doing and where he was, cried as though an infant. Oblivious to the full extent of his crimes, even for the few he was aware of he wept bitter and furious tears, fury for the tortures his mind had been subjected to ever since his arrival in Egypt. Battling for control of his own mind, the Great King leaped onto his horse, his human side desperate to put right all the wrongs. But in that moment, with a scream from Cambyses, came the ominous retribution. For the leather scabbard at the Great King’s side split, and his sword point plunged into his thigh – in the very spot where his dagger had struck the Apis Bull. The Egyptian gods, it seemed, had struck back with the ultimate vengeance. The wound grew gangrenous, and the Great King knew his time drew near. For though the wound would spell his doom, he felt the terrible burden upon his mind lift. Control returned to Cambyses, and there, at the end, it seemed the true son of Cyrus had returned. As the darkness began to fall on his eyes, he turned to his entourage, both Persian and Egyptian alike. “I murdered my brother for nothing, and have lost my kingdom just the same… For now I realise that it is not in human power to avert what is destined to be.” Tears fell down his cheek, and down those of Persian and Egyptian alike, as they saw the dignity of a true Persian King, and saw that the man had endured a terrible fate – ever to be polluted by the savagery of crimes he knew not that he had done. “I pray that the earth may be fruitful for you, your wives bear you children, your flocks multiply and freedom be yours forever…” were among the last words heard to leave Cambyses’ lips. So at last, the tragic son of Cyrus found peace…

Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, passed away in 522 BC, after a reign of seven years. He left behind him a kingdom larger than the one he had inherited, but at a terrible personal cost. What caused his madness is to this day unknown. Perhaps schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or porphyria. Perhaps the heat of the desert, and the trauma of it, permanently shattered his mind. Maybe it really was the punishment for Cambyses, the vengeance of the gods of the conquered Egypt. Whatever the cause, one thing was certain. The fate of superpowers had changed forever. One destroyed, one stronger than ever, and one soul a casualty of the ordeal - an unwilling tyrant who lived long enough to know remorse and redemption...

United Kingdom

The Histories of Herodotus:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
(The grand story of the rivalry between the East and the West, with a pretty eclectic mix of the most fabulous stories from a plethora of cultures - to read it is a rite of passage!)

United States

The Histories of Herodotus:
The Histories, Revised (Penguin Classics)
(The grand story of the rivalry between the East and the West, with a pretty eclectic mix of the most fabulous stories from a plethora of cultures - to read it is a rite of passage!)

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