The Curious Case of Cambyses and the Apis Bull

The Persian king Cambyses has a bad reputation. He has come down in Western histories as a prototypical mad emperor: arrogant, violent, and contemptuous. The centerpiece of this narrative is his treatment of the Egyptian Apis bull, but the evidence does not match up with the stories that have come down to us.

Cambyses ruled the Persian Empire from 530 to 522 BCE. Under his rule, Persia expanded westward to conquer Egypt. Egypt was a valuable prize for Persia, phenomenally rich and well organized, with strong trade connections to the larger Mediterranean and Africa. The Persian conquest of Egypt went swiftly and easily. Holding the territory was another matter.

The Persian Empire was the largest empire in the world, indeed the largest empire that had ever existed up that that point in world history. Persia owed a large part of its success to a policy of cultural accommodation. Conquered peoples were left alone to follow their own cultures, speak their own languages, and worship their own gods; Persian culture was not imposed on them. Persian kings took steps to ensure continuity of local traditions and present themselves according to local ideals and expectations.

Cambyses followed this same policy in Egypt. He officially ruled as pharaoh under the Egyptian name Mesutire and he carried on the traditional religious and military activities of Egyptian kingship. Among those activities was providing for the Apis bull.

Egyptians believed that an aspect of the god Ptah came to Earth in the shape of a black bull, known as Apis. Apis was cared for in a special temple and lived a life of luxury. When one Apis bull died, it was believed that the spirit of Ptah was born again in another calf, somewhere in Egypt. The death of an Apis bull was therefore an occasion of important ritual: the old bull became identified with the spirit of the god Osiris and had to be mummified and ceremonially interred, meanwhile the hunt was on up and down the Nile for the next calf to be born with the proper signs. Since the new Apis bull could not be born until after the previous one’s death, properly recording and commemorating the event was crucial. The finding of the new Apis was also the occasion for a major religious festival, which was joyously celebrated throughout Egypt.

An Apis bull died during Cambyses’ time in Egypt. The precise timing of its death and the ceremonies for its burial are not entirely clear, but it was given a full and proper burial under Cambyses’ authority, as attested by the inscription on its sarcophagus:

Horus, Uniter of the Two Lands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever! He has made a fine monument for his father Apis-Osiris with a great granite sarcophagus, dedicated by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever, in perpetuity and prosperity, full of health and joy, as King of Upper and Lower Egypt eternally!

Translation by Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire (London: Routledge, 2007) 4.13

The cult of the Apis bull was closely connected to kingship in Egypt and this inscription shows Cambyses fully engaged in his role as Egyptian pharaoh. He associates himself with the royal falcon god Horus and shows filial deference to both the sun god Re and to the spirit of the dead Apis bull. Whatever Cambyses may have personally believed, he was making sure that his public behavior was irreproachable as a king of Egypt.

Which makes it strange to turn back to the Greek sources and find a dramatically different account of Cambyses and the Apis bull:

When Cambyses returned to Memphis [after an unsuccessful military campaign in the south], Apis (whom the Greeks call Epaphus) appeared in Egypt. When Apis appears, the Egyptians at once don their best clothes and hold a celebration. Seeing this, Cambyses was convinced that they were celebrating his misfortunes, so he summoned the rulers of Memphis. When they came before him he demanded to know why the Egyptians were behaving in this way, which they had not done before, just when he was returning having lost so much of his army. They answered that a god had appeared, one who only came to them after long stretches of time, and that it was the custom for all Egyptians to rejoice on such an occasion. Cambyses replied that they were lying and he put them to death for it.

He next summoned the priests, who told him the same thing. He replied that if a tame god had come to Egypt, he would know about it. He then ordered the priests to bring Apis before him, so they fetched him. Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow which then cannot become pregnant again. The Egyptians say that a ray of light from heaven strikes the cow, and this is how Apis is conceived. The calf called Apis has these signs: he is black with a white triangular mark between his eyes and the shape of an eagle on his back, the hairs of his tail are double, and there is a beetle-shaped mark under his tongue.

When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses—who was a little disturbed in the head—drew his dagger and stabbed Apis, aiming for the belly but hitting the thigh. Laughing, he said to the priests: “Are these your gods, fools, of flesh and blood who can feel the bite of iron? This is a fitting god for Egyptians, but I will teach you to make a laughingstock of me!” Saying this, he ordered the priests whipped and any other Egyptians celebrating to be killed. So the festival ended and the priests were punished. Apis lay in the temple wasting away from the blow to his thigh. When he had died of the wound, the priests buried him in secret without Cambyses’ knowledge.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.27-29

My own translation

How did Cambyses go from a king properly honoring Apis to a tyrant mocking and killing him? The answer is: Egyptian resistance.

No matter how much Cambyses tried to behave like a traditional Egyptian pharaoh, he wasn’t one. Egypt had a strong sense of national culture, with a strain of isolationism. There were also internal conflicts within Egypt that the Persians did not manage with much success. Over time, as resentment against Persian rule built up, the memory of Cambyses the conqueror was adapted to suit Egyptians’ attitudes towards contemporary Persians. By the time Herodotus was traveling in Egypt asking questions about history—about a century after Cambyses—popular opinion had thoroughly rewritten the king’s reputation.

Herodotus and other Greek and Roman historians had no idea about Cambyses’ actual behavior in Egypt, and their own anti-Persian prejudices inclined them to accept any negative story about a Persian king. Thus Cambyses the arrogant bull-stabber became a fixture of Western history, even though he was only ever a figment of lurid anti-Persian rumor.

Image: Funerary stela for an Apis bull, photograph by Rama via Wikimedia (found Serapeum of Saqqara, currently Louvre; 643 BC; painted limestone

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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Equal Pay for Persian Women

A cache of administrative documents from the ancient Persian empire reveals an intriguing facet of Persian economic life: female workers were often paid the same amount as their male counterparts. Some women were even paid more than men.

Unlike most pre-modern societies, Persians did not practice slavery. Basic agricultural and craft labor was instead done by workers who were paid in rations of grain, wine, beer, and livestock, either for their own consumption or to barter for other goods. Ensuring that everyone got properly paid was the work of administrators who documented the distribution of these commodities from royal and aristocratic estates to the workers who supported the elite. The documents created by these administrators were not intended for posterity, but some survived by chance when Alexander the Great’s army destroyed the palace at Persepolis. The collapse of part of the building protected the archive it contained of about fifty years’ worth of documents. Excavations in the 1930s recovered documents like these two below.

An arashshara was a female supervisor managing a group of pashap, who were workers of some kind. The exact meaning of the term pashap is unclear, but it seems to have applied to agricultural and craft laborers who were supported with monthly distributions of food and supplies. The different levels of rations assigned to groups of workers in these texts probably reflect different ages and levels of responsibility.

1 arashshara of the pashap subsisting on rations at Umpuranush, whose apportionments are set by Irshena, received as rations 30 quarts of wine supplied by Irtuppoya. Month 2, year 22.

– Persepolis Foundation Text 876

(Translations from Maria Brosius, The Persian Empire from Cyrus II to Artaxerxes I. London Association of Classical Teachers Original Records 16, London: 2000. Slightly adapted for clarity)

30 quarts of wine for a month was typical for local supervisors like this one. It was a generous, if not luxurious, standard of pay.

Pashap at Liduma, assigned by Irshena, subsisting on rations, received as rations for one month: 2,615 quarts of grain supplied by Irtuppiya

  • 16 men (each receive) 30 quarts
  • 7 boys 20
  • 5 boys 15
  • 6 boys 10
  • 1 woman 50
  • 34 women 40
  • 1 woman 20
  • 2 girls 20
  • 2 girls 15
  • 9 girls 10

Total: 92 workers.

– Persepolis Foundation Text 847

 

It is worth noting how many women in the second text were paid as much or more than their male colleagues, and also that the highest paid worker on the list was a woman (probably the arashshara of the workers at Liduma). If we break down the numbers, there are a total of 34 male workers being paid an average of just over 22 quarts of grain a month, while 49 female workers were paid an average of more than 32 quarts.

Other tablets show that this distribution of pay was not universal, but neither was it atypical. Not every woman in Persia was paid as much as a man for her work, but many of them were, and those who were placed in positions of responsibility received pay to match.

If the ancient Persians could do it, what’s stopping us from doing the same today?

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Ancient Clay Cup Animation

Oh, wow: quite possibly the oldest attempt at animation ever comes from some four thousand years ago. It’s a depiction of a goat jumping up a tree to eat the leaves:

The sequence laid flat looks like this:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup Reproduction

And here’s a photo of the cup:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup

Found via The Real Iran on Tumblr. My Tumblr source doesn’t unfortunately give any more info, but it sounds like the cup was found in the Bronze Age site of Shahr-e Sūkhté (or Shahr-e Sukhteh) in Sistan, southeastern Iran.

Just reading the Wikipedia page for Shahr-e Sūkhté makes my imagination run—a large trading route hub with connections to Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and India with rich material culture would make an excellent setting for historical or speculative fiction. (For example, among the archaeological finds from the Burnt City is apparently the world’s first artificial eyeball.)

Finding real-world inspiration like this is when I really wish I was a writer!

Images: Animation via Wikimedia. Reproduction via Wikimedia. Cup photo via Wikimedia (Shahr-e Sūkhté, Iran; late half of 3rd millennium BCE; clay).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?


Custom is King

We often think of multiculturalism as a particularly modern virtue, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus gave a pretty good argument for respecting other peoples’ cultures more than two millennia ago.

Here’s the story he tells:

When Darius was king [of Persia], he summoned the Greeks who were at his court and asked them how much money it would take to get them to eat the bodies of their deceased fathers. They replied that nothing would make them do so. Darius then summoned some Indians, called Kallatiai, whose custom it is to eat their dead parents, and asked them—in the presence of the Greeks, who had an interpreter to explain the Kallatiai’s words—how much money it would take to convince them to cremate their deceased fathers [as was the Greek custom]. The Kallatiai exclaimed that he should not even mention such an abomination. Custom dictates such things, and it seems to me that [the poet] Pindar got it quite right when he said that custom is king.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.38

Herodotus does not tell this story at random but to illustrate a point. Cambyses, a different Persian king, had mocked the Egyptians for worshiping a white bull, and Herodotus felt that Cambyses had been very wrong, even insane, to do so. This story about Darius’ cultural investigations was meant to drive the point home: everyone believes in their own way of doing things, and it is wrong to dismiss or disparage other peoples’ culture, even if you don’t share it or even understand it. We can respect other people’s culture just as we expect them to respect ours. No culture is right or wrong.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s a Greek author standing up for Egyptian traditions against the scorn of a Persian king and citing another Persian king’s discussions with Greeks and Indians to do it. Herodotus’ defense of multiculturalism is itself multicultural.

Image: Relief sculpture of Darius via Wikimedia (Persepolis; sixth century BCE; stone)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

No Time for Conditioner When You’ve Got Rebels to Fight

The Greek military writer Polyaenus recounts this story about the Parthian princess Rhodogune:160901Shirin

Rhodogune was bathing and beginning to wash her hair. A messenger came to report that a subject nation was in revolt. Without washing out her hair but just tying it up as it was, she mounted her horse, led out the army, and swore an oath that she would not wash her hair until she had put down the rebellion, and indeed, after long fighting, she triumphed. After her victory, she bathed and washed out her hair.

– Polyaenus, Stratgems 8.27

So, the next time you’re having a bad hair day or just can’t be bothered to do anything but tie it back, you can tell the world you’ve got rebels to fight and the hair can wait.

Image: Shirin bathing (not Rhodogune, sorry) via Wikimedia (c 1480; ink on parchment)

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

In a World Without Alfalfa…

151019Shapur… Marcus Licinius Crassus would have been the first emperor of Rome instead of Julius Caesar.

Stick with me here.

Alfalfa is a plant in the pea family that resembles clover. It originally comes from south central Asia and was cultivated in the northern parts of the Iranian plateau as animal fodder. Compared with other fodder plants, alfalfa is very high in protein, so it is mostly fed to cattle. It can be given in small amounts to most horse breeds, but in large amounts it causes bloating as horses cannot use the excess protein.

The exception is Nisaean horses, a breed of horse that was developed in northern Persia and bred to feed on alfalfa. These horses were able to absorb the extra protein of alfalfa into their bones, giving them denser, stronger bones than other horses. These dense bones enabled the Nisaean horses to make sudden turns while galloping at high speed that would have broken other horses’ legs and to carry heavier weights than other horses of the ancient world could manage.

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I Want an Iwan

Well, no I don’t actually want one. I don’t have room for one to begin with, and I don’t live in the right climate anyway. That doesn’t change the fact that iwans are cool. Literally.

An iwan is a large room with a vaulted ceiling that has walls on three sides and the fourth side open to the air. They were built in the heat of Mesopotamia to create large shady spaces that were still open to light and air. The earliest iwans are thought to have been constructed under the Parthian empire in the first or second centuries CE. One of the earliest examples to survive into modern times was at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, built by the Sasanian empire in the sixth century CE. Unfortunately, the building fell into poor repair over time and was destroyed by wars in the twentieth century, but in these old photographs you can still see enormous vaulted space.

 

Photograph of a Sasanian iwan at Ctesiphon, photograph 1864, Wonders of the Past vol. 2
Sasanian iwan, from Wonders of the Past vol. 2 via Wikimedia (photograph 1864). Note the people standing on top of the roof vault for a sense of scale.
Photograph of the same iwan from half a century later showing ongoing decay, currently San Diego Air and Space Museum
Photograph of the same iwan from half a century later showing ongoing decay via Wikimedia (photograph currently San Diego Air and Space Museum)

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Labor

150810oxcartThe majority of the stuff that needs to get done in an agrarian society is basic manual labor: primarily farm work, but also things like construction, building and road maintenance, mining, carrying, housework, etc. Any functioning pre-industrial society needs lots of workers to do all that work, but there are many different kinds of workers, some of which are not so familiar to us today. Some of these kinds of workers had it much better than others.

Here’s a list of possibilities, by no means exhaustive, arranged roughly in order from worst to best conditions.

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