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.