Who is Cambyses?

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses. Who at once took up his father's project of Egyptian conquest. Cambyses had a younger brother, Smerdis, who either headed a revolt or was suspected of planning one. So Cambyses, when setting out with his army for the Egyptian war, left Smerdis, who was the only heir to his throne, safe in imprisonment-or so the empire believed. In reality, the king, resolving that no peril of rebellion should remain behind him, had caused his brother to be slain in secret.

Burdened by this guilty shadow, Cambyses started on his glittering march. Egypt had always felt herself protected from invasion by the desert of Sinai, which lay between her land and Asia; but Cambyses made an alliance with the wandering Arab tribes, and their camels supplied all his army with water during the desert march. Within Egypt itself the resistance was brief; one tremendous battle was fought, then the great border fortress of Pelusium was stormed. After that the entire land lay helpless at the Persian's feet.

At first Cambyses, following the traditional Persian policy, tried to make friends with the defeated race. He visited their temples and did homage to their idols. Later he broke with the Egyptian priests, treating them with cruelty and their gods with contempt. Here again it becomes difficult to distinguish between fact and romance. Most of our knowledge of Cambyses comes from the Greeks, and most of theirs from the Egyptians, who hated Cambyses, and said nothing good of him. Hence to later ages the tyrant of Egypt was depicted as a monster, half insane and wholly murderous, who insulted the Egyptian gods with gross obscenity and suffered from their vengeance.

We are told that he summoned before him the sacred bull in which the spirit of the deity was supposed to reside; and after deriding the beast-god he deliberately plunged his dagger into it and wounded it to death. He then had all the bull's attendant priests scourged as impostors. In the other temples he burnt the idols and tore to pieces the mummied cats and birds which were preserved as having once sheltered the spirits of the gods. Twelve of his own Persian lords who remonstrated at his excesses were burned alive. Finally, he was cursed with madness by the insulted gods, and fled from Egypt raving, and stricken unto death.

Probably these tales do not much exaggerate; for Cambyses met disasters in Egypt such as his haughty spirit could ill endure. He made the same blunder as did Napoleon in invading Russia. Having carried conquest to the limit of human power, he attempted to extend it beyond humanity and to war against the irresistible powers of Nature. From Egypt he strove to extend his dominion over the unknown wilds of Africa. He led an army into the desert toward Abyssinia in the south, and despatched another across the sands toward Carthage in the west. Both ill-considered expeditions failed. His Abyssinian army was almost exterminated by hardship and starvation. The one sent against Carthage disappeared completely, probably overwhelmed by a sandstorm.

Bitterly stricken in spirit, distrusted by his countrymen whose lives he had recklessly sacrificed, hated by the Egyptians, whose faith he had vindictively insulted, Cambyses turned homeward. But from home came yet more terrifying news; the Persians themselves were said to have revolted under the lead of Smerdis. Only Cambyses himself knew that this report could not be true, since Smerdis was dead; and even Cambyses, shaken by guilt and despair, wavered in his belief. Could it be that his own servants had somehow deceived him about his brother's killing? Or could that brother's ghost have returned for vengeance? Or was this leader an impostor? In a confusion and agony of mind such as we can imagine, Cambyses seems to have called his chief followers together on the army's hasty homeward march, and told them the truth about his brother's murder.

Then the conqueror died. How? We do not know. Perhaps, most fitting end to the grim tragedy, he slew himself; possibly he submitted his fate voluntarily to the judgment of his peers, his generals, to whom he had announced the truth, and they condemned him by that unchanging law of Medes and Persians. Legend has told of his ending in a dozen edifying ways.

Meanwhile, the false Smerdis, who was really a priest named Gomates, had been accepted in Persia, and the returning army also bowed to his rule. The Persian reverence for their royal race was intense; the same law which bound their king to them bound them in devoted loyalty to him. With Cambyses dead, Smerdis was to be accepted unquestioningly as king. Hence the deception of Gomates seems at first to have passed unsuspected. Smerdis had been invisible in prison for several years, the impostor closely resembled him, and moreover kept himself carefully secluded within his palace, while he hastened to make his grasp upon the empire secure. Even the generals who had heard Cambyses' confession could not be wholly sure that the pretender was not Smerdis.

His overthrow was accomplished by the chief Persian nobles with the dash and boldness characteristic of the race. In the old days before Cyrus, the Persians had been divided into seven tribes. Cyrus had become ruler of the whole, but the seven tribal chiefs had joined him as friends rather than as subjects. The families of these seven were still looked upon as the chief supports of the nation, and their heads had special, almost kingly, privileges. Among these was the right to enter the king's presence at any moment, as an equal, unannounced. These seven chiefs now met in secret and resolved to test Gomates.

With weapons hidden beneath their clothes, they presented themselves suddenly before the palace, and demanded to see their king. Gomates had specially announced that this privilege of theirs was repealed, but the Persian respect for ancient law upheld the seven. The officers who would have checked them were easily swept aside; the slaves who would have warned Gomates were stopped; and the impostor found himself suddenly encircled by seven judges. They questioned him briefly, and then, convinced of his imposture, slew him on the spot. He resisted desperately, but in vain, and no hand seems to have been raised in vengeance against the seven, so surely did the Persians trust their loyalty and judgment.

Legend represents the seven as next agreeing among themselves to decide by lot which of them should succeed to the vacant throne; the one whose horse first neighed was to be king, and by a groom's strategy the lot fell to one of them named Darius. It seems more probable, however, that Darius, who had been a general in Cambyses' army, acted as the leader of the seven throughout. Indeed, strictly speaking, he was not even by right among the seven, as his own father was still living as head of his tribe. The aged father, however, resigned the first place to his son, and remained thereafter a loyal subject and principal supporter of the new monarch.

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Read about Who is Cambyses? in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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