Herodotus, Books II-IV, Part B

Book III gets down to the business of Cambyses, Cyrus’ successor, and the invasion of Egypt in which he displays signs of madness, which might just be interpreted as the indications of the tyrannical character that is created when boys are raised without anyone who can say, “NO!”  His action—as bizarre as it is cruel—in murdering the devotees of Apis, when he made his periodic appearance in the form of a bull, defines his character.  As we we have seen and as one or two commenters have observed, Herodotus is very careful to respect alien religions and not to disclose whatever mysteries he has learned.  Cambyses is the opposite, and when the priests, after the murder of the worshippers, persist in their reverence, Cambyses is provoked beyond all restraint. 

When they were dead, he called the priests to his presence, and questioning them received the same answer; whereupon he observed, "That he would soon know whether a tame god had really come to dwell in Egypt"- and straightway, without another word, he bade them bring Apis to him. So they went out from his presence to fetch the god. Now this Apis, or Epaphus, is the calf of a cow which is never afterwards able to bear young. The Egyptians say that fire comes down from heaven upon the cow, which thereupon conceives Apis. The calf which is so called has the following marks:- He is black, with a square spot of white upon his forehead, and on his back the figure of an eagle; the hairs in his tail are double, and there is a beetle upon his tongue. 

“When the priests returned bringing Apis with them, Cambyses, like the harebrained person that he was, drew his dagger, and aimed at the belly of the animal, but missed his mark, and stabbed him in the thigh. Then he laughed, and said thus to the priests:- "Oh! blockheads, and think ye that gods become like this, of flesh and blood, and sensible to steel? A fit god indeed for Egyptians, such an one! But it shall cost you dear that you have made me your laughing-stock." When he had so spoken, he ordered those whose business it was to scourge the priests, and if they found any of the Egyptians keeping festival to put them to death. Thus was the feast stopped throughout the land of Egypt, and the priests suffered punishment. Apis, wounded in the thigh, lay some time pining in the temple; at last he died of his wound, and the priests buried him secretly without the knowledge of Cambyses. 

And now Cambyses, who even before had not been quite in his right mind, was forthwith, as the Egyptians say, smitten with madness for this crime. “

The madness first manifests itself, according to the Egyptians, in the murder of his brother Smerdis, whom he kills out of envy.  This is an important story in that it brings down Cambyses.  He entrusts the task to a trusted senior official, who kills the royal brother.  When his sister, whom he has taken—contrary to Greek and Persian custom as his wife, displays grief for her murdered brother, Cambyses kills her too.  

Cambyses' misbehavior and misgovernment, so say the Persians, inspired two Magi—members of a Median tribe somewhat similar to the Jewish Levites—to raise a rebellion, one of them taking the part of Smerdis. Read the story carefully and see if you reach my unconventional conclusion.  I simply don’t believe that anyone, let along a Mede, could pull off the impersonation and fool Smerdis’ friends and family members.  To me it has always seemed far more likely that Darius, son of Hystaspes, and thus of a junior branch of the royal Achaemenid family, took advantage of troubled times and with a few supporters, seized power and murdered the real Smerdis.    I don’t say that is what happened, only that it is far more probable.

The conspirators, who had plotted well, succeeded, and, as Herodotus tells the story, they met to consider what sort of government they would set up.  Now, on one level, the tale is utterly fantastic:  Since the days of Sargon of Akkad, imperial monarchy had been the only possible government in the Middle East, and neither the Medes nor their Persian successors showed any inclination toward popular or even aristocratic government.  In Persia, as the Greeks knew, there was one free man:  the King.  Everyone else, including his mother and brothers and sons, were slaves.  Now this was not literally true.  Members of the Achaemenid house and other great families had great wealth and power, but, when Median push came to Persian shove, the king could kill his brother and sister with impunity.

So this great debate on the best form of government, while it is very important in the history of political thought, must be mostly fictional—mostly, but not necessarily entirely.  It is quite possible, even probable, that Herodotus is expatiating on Persian tradition and rumors he had heard, that one of another of the conspirators had favored an arrangement with much real power in the hands of the greatest architects, and another might possibly have argued for the stability that results from acknowledging the people as partners.

I am happy to speak at greater length about this debate, but will let you all have a chance to read it first for yourselves.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    Quite a story this one, many would-be Cambyses with us today, addicted to transgression but never satisfied. Having read this once, and knowing only its rough outline and drawing no strong conclusions, I did not suspect the sort of unconventional conclusion put forth here. But reading once more with this possibility in mind, what sort of conspiracy hypothesis can I think of? Prexaspes, given the order to kill Smerdis, really went to Smerdis and said, “Your brother has gone potty and you had better take the throne or we’ll be ruined.” Then the Achaemenid get together and say, “Let’s say Smirdis is an imposter, wipe out the Magi and claim they came up with the imposter conspiracy. We all know Cambyses is nuts so it’s not a stretch to think he would kill his brother. And Cambyses you see, his sword just sort of accidently fell off of his belt and killed him, fluke accident.” But where does Prexaspes throwing himself from the tower fit with this? What of the issue of feeling for ears on the sleeping Smerdis? Which account is which? Already this can go off in five hundred directions, so now it’s time to go back once more and see what a hole I’ve dug myself into. This sort of thinking on the fly is prone to set up disastrously abstract, subconscious epistemological precedents, but it sure is an awful lot of fun.

  2. Thomas Fleming says:

    It makes more sense to me than the story the Persians fed to Herodotus. Darius is an odd character with a dubious claim to the throne–apart from right of conquest. As Artabanus his brother later reminds Xerxes, no one could talk him out of attacking the Scythians, which was pointless and a failure.

    The things we should talk about, if there is interest, are 1) they debate on government, and 2) the tragic career of Polycrates of Samos, too damn lucky for his own good.

  3. Jacob Johnson says:

    Yes, the eccentricities of the story I thought could have all been made up. But what about XYZ? This is all so maddeningly interlaced and I’m very displeased with myself that this is the first time I’m reading this. The funny thing about the discussion of government is that it is almost word for word what one reads in modern political articles and books, almost verbatim, and this from the first work of history. The story of the emerald ring I have heard many times before. If I recall correctly it was often touted in school as an anecdote supporting taking risk or investing. I can sympathize with the admonition of Amasis, starting the day by pacing back and fourth and thinking of everything which can go wrong is definitely a trait I’ve gotten from the Davidson side of the family. Everything is going smoothly so something must be wrong. But is it just envy which motivates him to break friendship? Though unstoppable piracy and conquest are legitimate causes for alarm too. Oroetes seemed as well to be alarmed, but more transparently envious. In the end Amasis is proved right. Since Polycrates wanted gold he was done away with despite warning. Knowing nothing of failure he was ultimately stupid and gullible.

  4. Jacob Johnson says:

    (And if it’s a bad day back and fifth)

  5. Thomas Fleming says:

    This is a typical Herodotean story to illustrate two basic Greek principle: First, that there are supernatural powers that resent it when men get too uppity. Greeks would have liked the Tower of Babel fable.s; second, one excess invites the opposite. Being too rich or good looking or too lucky lead most times to disaster. This is the basis for the formula in tragedy that Koros (excess of a good thing) leads to hybris (a self-confidence that abandons prudence and experience) which breads Ate (ruin). Even in the case of good health, a Hippocratic physician warned against negative consequences, and even here they are right, since someone who has been protected from diseases by, for example, wearing masks or having an over-protective mother, does not build up immunities and will get slammed by a plague. The “bottom line” is the Delphic wisdom: Meden Agan (nothing in excess), arisen metron (measure is best) and Gnothi Seauton (know thyself) which comes close to Dirty Harry’s admonition: A man’s got to know his limitations. For a Greek, it also meant, “Know you are only a man and not a god.”