Egypt, Persia, and the New Regime: Book III

Book III of Herodotus’s Histories is concerned with the internal battles among the barbarians -a competition for the best of men among the Egyptians and the Persians. Per usual in Herodotus, he presents multiple perspectives and defends one or the other, as in the case of the Greek and Egyptian defense of Helen arriving in Egypt for the Trojan War, contra other barbarian nations that claim she stayed in Ilium for the war.

Persia Conquers Egypt

Cambyses, son of Cyrus, wishes to claim Amasis’s daughter as his wife but Amasis (Pharaoh of Egypt) fearing that Cambyses hopes to take his daughter only as a concubine, sends instead another girl. When Cambyses discovers this truth, he makes war on Amasis. However, the Egyptians present a false version of the story according to Herodotus. Amasis sees safe passage from the Arabians -a culture that worships only Dionysos and Ourania (Heavenly Aphrodite) and heavily values pledges made between men.

The Persians meet the Egyptians and prior to the battle, the Egyptians bring out the sons of Phanes, a defector, and slit their throats into a jar of wine and drink the wine before battle as punishment. Years later, Herodotus claims to have visited the grounds where this battle took place and discovers that the Egyptian skulls are more brittle than the Persian skulls due to increased exposure to sunshine from baldness and shade. Upon invading Egypt, Cambyses orders the corpse of Amasis to be defiled, contrary to both Egyptian and Persian custom.

Elsewhere in Book II Herodotus claims the Egyptians to be the “wisest men on earth” but the Ethiopians are rumored to be the “tallest and most beautiful” people in Book III. Cambyses tries to march against the Ethiopians but they run out of food and withdraw. Upon retreating, Cambyses descends into madness unjustly killing many Egyptians. He then stabs a sacred cow in Egypt, and kills his brother, kills one of his sisters that he married, and other fellow Persians. Croesus is still an advisor to him like Cyrus. Cambyses suffers from the “sacred disease” from birth, today called epilepsy. He tries to kill Croesus after Croesus councils Cambyses to behave with more forethought and he kills the servants protecting him (successfully). However, he soon longs for Croesus, but Cambyses also commits strange acts such as digging up the graves of the dead and inspecting them, and also entering sacred temple spaces.

The Madness of Cambyses

According to Herodotus, Cambyses was mad because he laughed in the face of his cultures own customs, and this is mad because every man believes his own cultures customs to be the best. At one point, when Darius ruled he brought forth Hellenes who said they would never eat the remains of their dead, and then he brought forth Indians who do eat their dead and asked if they would burn their dead. They responded that he shut his mouth! Herodotus defends Pindar for stating in his odes that “custom is king of all” (3.38).

Herodotus also details the Lacedomians invasion and war with Samos along with other Hellenistic city-states. A man who looks and acts like Smerdis appears in Egypt and the Magi revolt against Cambyses encouraging the people to follow Smerdis (ironically the same name and appearance of his brother). Frightened and in sorrow over the senseless past loss of his brother, Cambyses jumps on his horse intending to ride out into battle but his blade stabs his leg and he believes himself mortally wounded in Ecbatana. There Cambyses dies when his flesh became gangrenous, leaving no heirs.

A Conspiracy to Overthrow Cambyses and the Magi

A conspiracy of seven men seeks help from Darius to storm the palace and claim Persia. Darius advises that they act immediately: “…many plans cannot revealed in speech, but only in action, just as there are plans that can be described, but nothing glorious comes from them…For where a lie must be told let it be told. We strive for the same goal whether we lie or tell the truth. Some people lie hoping to gain by convincing their listeners to believe them; others tell the truth hoping that trust will thereby be placed in them. Our goal is the same, though the methods we practice to reach it may differ. If there were nothing to gain, a truthful man would be just as likely to lie as a liar would be to tell the truth. Now then, we will see to it that any guard watching the gates who is willing to let us pass will be rewarded in the future; but whoever tries to resist us let him be marked as our enemy, and then let us push our way through and keep to the task at hand” (3.72). Darius, a keen political man, is concerned with the end goal, not as much with the means by which one arrives at it -such as by lying or telling the truth. The ultimate goal to is rally a herd of people to follow.

The Persians lead a revolt against the Magi slaying as many as people by beheading them. This is till celebrated by Persians (Iranians) today.

Establishment of A New Persian Regime

The conspirators are thus left to persuade the people of the best form of government. Otanes provides a defense of democracy, the rule of the majority, and he uses the insane rule of Cambyses and the Magi as examples of how the nation cannot be governed by a single man. Therefore he argues to elevate the majority to the regime”for the many is the whole” -also translated as “the plurality is really the totality” or “in numbers is everything.” Otanes claims that human nature is corrupt when given such luxurious power that is accountable to no one, and that therefore a Monarchy cannot be sustained as any man will be corrupted.The Monarch possesses all good things and therefore becomes envious and paranoid when the best of men confronts him, and he commits brute force on women and overturns ancestral customs. Otanes is concerned with number fundamentally (3.80).

Next, Megabyzos is not concerned with number, but rather with ridding themselves of a tyrant, however at least a tyrant knows what he is doing, while the common people have no idea was they are doing -the “mob”. “How could someone who has not been educated, who has never seen anything good or decent, be knowledgeable about anything? He pushes and shoves and stumbles into affairs without thought, like a raging torrent” (3.81). Megabyzos defends an oligarchy as the best of men to rule.

Finally, Darius defends a Monarchy. He claims that if we compare the best of three regimes: the best democracy, the best oligarchy, and the best monarchy -monarchy invariably surpasses the other two. Darius does not make his argument based on endurance of the regime, but rather he makes it based on virtue ethics. In an oligarchy many men strive to achieve excellence and thus private rivalries become public hostilities, and when the people rule, incompetence prevails. They form compacts with one another and this incompetence goes on until one steps forth as the leader, and therefore monarchy redeems the democracy. Lastly, Darius asks from where did our freedom come from? Since neither from the people or from a group of men, it came from a monarchy. Therefore Monarchy should prevail (3.82).

The irony of the situation is that in making the decision, the men constitute an oligarchy -a chosen few of men who decide by a majority vote that Darius’s conception of the best regime is superior. Onates also, like a monarch, preserves his own family from political repercussions and the laws of the city. The regime that establishes a future regime for the barbarian Persians, is a blend of three best regimes.

The Kingship of Darius

The remaining four men decide in favor of Monarchy but Otanes addressed them stating that he would relent only if his family would not be required to submit to the new Persian King -a tradition lasting to Herodotus’s day. They decided to ride their horses outside the city and the first horse that made a noise, his horsemen would be king. Darius decided to rig his kingship by having his servant tie his mule to a gate just outside the city. That morning it happened as planned along with thunder and lightning from the sky -and the remaining men prostrated themselves before Darius. Another story told by other Persians is that his horseman rubbed the genitals of another horse and put it before the horses nose once outside the city. Therefore Darius became ruler of all of Asia- except for the Arabs who had formed an alliance rather than submit to slavery. He divides the kingdom into 20 sections and establishes a tribute system.

Customs of the Indians and the Conquering of Babylon

Herodotus lists the customs of the Indians such as the many people with different languages, the black skin like the Ethiopians, cannibalism, camels, heat of the sun and so on. India is the furthest East in the inhabitable world, Arabia the furthest to the South.

Darius lays siege to Babylon employing similar tactics to Cyrus when they try to revolt. However a soldier, Zopyros mutilated himself and pretended to defect to Babylon. Once he gained their trust, he opened the gates and let in the Persians to conquer Babylon. Darius then impaled 3,000 of the highest ranking Babylonians.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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