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The Old and the Restless - The Egyptians and the Scythians in Herodotus' Histories by Robert J. Hagan

47 At first glance

47 At first glance the affair might be dismissed as just an example of Cambyses’ insanity, however it is indeed the first act of murder in the Histories committed against a Persian subject by their king. 29 Again we see the establishment of another unseemly precedent within the Achaemenid reign; one for arbitrary violence that flies in the face of their nomos of not executing anyone if they have only been accused of committing only one crime (1.137). While Herodotus’ description does indeed give Cambyses’ execution of Prexaspes’ son the tenor of a capricious, drunken act, it is no more violent or despotic than the several other instances where a Persian king suddenly decides to teach one of his subjects a lesson. In Book Four, Darius orders Oebazus’ three sons to be killed (which we will discuss more in the next section) as a means of teaching his subjects that no Persians are excluded from the demands of imperial warfare (4.84). While the circumstances surrounding the two events are different, both are exceedingly cruel and arbitrary, since the sons have committed no crimes. Cambyses’ dispatching of his wine-server is a harbinger of the emergent practice of exercising deadly imperial power at a whim. Cambyses brandishes this power over foreigners as well, but according to Herodotus, he suffers as a result. After returning from an abortive expedition to burn down the oracle temple of Zeus in Siwa (in modern day Libya), he sees that the city of Memphis is celebrating in honor of the god Apis, but he believes the jubilance to be in honor of his failure in Siwa. He then sets about insulting the Egyptians in various ways, the most grievous of which occurs when he is presented to the calf god Apis. He mocks the living god, aiming to stab him in the stomach but misses and hits the thigh. The cow succumbs to his wounds and is buried secretly (3.29). He even dares to open ancient tombs to see the corpses inside, makes fun of and then burns the statues in the temple of Hephaestus (3.37). 29 This does not include the acts of violence made against his family members, including his wife and brother.

48 Cambyses’ assaults on Egyptian culture are especially shocking in light of Herodotus’ emphasis on the great importance of religion to the Egyptians in Book Two. 30 Like his brutality towards his court, Cambyses’ manic destructive behavior towards his foreign subjects foreshadows similar instances later in the Histories, done in less egregiously sadistic fashion. In the reign of Xerxes we will see the destruction of the temples on the Athenian acropolis, an act that, while logically understandable, is nevertheless brutal and offensive. Given the difference in capability and legacy between Cambyses and his successors, it might seem unnatural to draw connections between them, but the madness and caprice that fills Cambyses’ reign should not disguise the fact that he does establish precedents for imperial behavior, all of them negative. The Achaemenid trajectory set by Cyrus is deeply complicated by Cambyses’ conduct and gives the first hints at a Persian identity that seems increasingly despotic and arbitrary. 30 Dewald, C. (ed.) The Histories by Herodotus, 634.