The subjection of Egypt to Babylon, which commenced in B.C. 565, was of that light and almost nominal character, which a nation that is not very sensitive, or very jealous of its honour, does not care to shake off. A small tribute was probably paid by the subject state to her suzerain, but otherwise the yoke was unfelt There was no interference with the internal government, or the religion of the Egyptians; no appointment of Babylonian satraps, or tax-collectors; not even, so far as appears, any demands for contingents of troops. Thus, although Nebuchadnezzar died within seven years of his conquest of Egypt, and though a time of disturbance and confusion followed his death, four kings occupying the Babylonian throne within little more than six years, two of whom met with a violent end, yet Amasis seems to have continued quiescent and contented, in the enjoyment of a life somewhat more merry and amusing than that of most monarchs, without making any effort to throw off the Babylonian supremacy or reassert the independence of his country. It was not till his self-indulgent apathy was intruded upon from without, and he received an appeal from a foreign nation, to which he was compelled to return an answer, that he looked the situation in the face, and came to the conclusion that he might declare himself independent without much risk. He had at this time patiently borne his subject position for the space of above twenty years, though he might easily have reasserted himself at the end of seven.
The circumstances under which the appeal was made were the following. A new power had suddenly risen up in Asia. About B.C. 558, ten years after Nebuchadnezzar's subjection of Egypt, Cyrus, son of Cambyses, the tributary monarch of Persia under the Medes, assumed an independent position and began a career of conquest. Having made himself master of a large portion of the country of Elam, he assumed the title of "King of Ansan," and engaged in a long war with Astyages (Istivegu), his former suzerain, which terminated (in B.C. 549) in his taking the Median monarch prisoner and succeeding to his dominions. It was at once recognized through Asia that a new peril had arisen. The Medes, a mountain people of great physical strength and remarkable bravery, had for about a century been regarded as the most powerful people of Western Asia. They had now been overthrown and conquered by a still more powerful mountain race. That race had at its head an energetic and enterprising prince, who was in the full vigour of youth, and fired evidently with a high ambition. His position was naturally felt as a direct menace by the neighbouring states of Babylon and Lydia, whose royal families were interconnected. Crœsus of Lydia was the first to take alarm and to devise measures for his own security. He formed the conception of a grand league between the principal powers whom the rise of Persia threatened, for mutual defence against the common enemy; and, in furtherance of this design, sent, in B.C. 547, an embassy to Egypt, and another to Babylon, proposing a close alliance between the three countries. Amasis had to determine whether he would maintain his subjection to Babylon and refuse the offer; or, by accepting it, declare himself a wholly independent monarch. He learnt by the embassy, if he did not know it before that Nabonadius, the Babylonian monarch, was in difficulties, and could not resent his action. He might probably think that, under the circumstances, Nabonadius would regard his joining the league as a friendly, rather than an unfriendly, proceeding. At any rate, the balance of advantage seemed to him on the side of complying with the request of Crœsus. Crœsus was lord of Asia Minor, and it was only by his permission that the Ionian and Carian mercenaries, on whom the throne of the Pharaohs now mainly depended, could be recruited and maintained at their proper strength. It would not do to offend so important a personage; and accordingly Amasis came into the proposed alliance, and pledged himself to send assistance to whichever of his two confederates should be first attacked. Conversely, they no doubt pledged themselves to him; but the remote position of Egypt rendered it extremely improbable that they would be called upon to redeem their pledges.
Nor was even Amasis called upon actually to redeem the pledges which he had given. In B.C. 546, Crœsus, without summoning any contingents from his allies, precipitated the war with Persia by crossing the river Halys, and invading Cappadocia, which was included in the dominions of Cyrus. Having suffered a severe defeat at Pteria, a Cappadocian city, he returned to his capital and hastily sent messengers to Egypt and elsewhere, begging for immediate assistance. What steps Amasis took upon this, or intended to take, is uncertain; but it must have been before any troops could have been dispatched, that news reached Egypt which rendered it useless to send out an expedition. Crœsus had scarcely reached his capital when he found himself attacked by Cyrus in his turn; his army suffered a second defeat in the plain before Sardis; the city was besieged, stormed, and taken within fourteen days. Crœsus fell, alive, into the hands of his enemy, and was kindly treated; but his kingdom had passed away. It was evidently too late for Amasis to attempt to send him succour. The tripartite alliance had, by the force of circumstances, come to an end, and Amasis was an independent monarch, no longer bound by any engagements.
Shortly afterwards, in B.C. 538, the conquering monarchy of Persia absorbed another victim. Nabonadius was attacked, Babylon taken, and the Chaldæan monarchy, which had lasted nearly two thousand years, brought to an end. The contest had been prolonged, and in the course of it some disintegration of the empire had taken place. Phœnicia had asserted her independence; and Cyprus, which was to a large extent Phœnician, had followed the example of the mother-country. Under these circumstances, Amasis thought he saw an opportunity of gaining some cheap laurels, and accordingly made a naval expedition against the unfortunate islanders, who were taken unawares and forced to become his tributaries. It was unwise of the Egyptian monarch to remind Cyrus that he had still an open enemy unchastised, one who had entered into a league against him ten years previously, and was now anxious to prevent him from reaping the full benefit of his conquests. We may be sure that the Persian monarch noted and resented the interference with territories which he had some right to consider his own; whether he took any steps to revenge himself is doubtful. According to some, he required Amasis to send him one of his daughters as a concubine, an insult which the Egyptian king escaped by finesse while he appeared to submit to it.
It can only have been on account of the other wars which pressed upon him and occupied him during his remaining years, that Cyrus did not march in person against Amasis. First, the conquest of the nations between the Caspian and the Indian Ocean detained him; and after this, a danger showed itself on his north-eastern frontier which required all his attention, and in meeting which he lost his life. The independent tribes beyond the Oxus and the Jaxartes have through all history been an annoyance and a peril to the power which rules over the Iranian plateau, and it was in repelling an attack in this quarter that Cyrus fell. Amasis, perhaps, congratulated himself on the defeat and death of the great warrior king; but Egypt would, perhaps, have suffered less had the invasion, which was sure to come, been conducted by the noble, magnanimous, and merciful Cyrus, than she actually endured at the hands of the impulsive tyrannical, and half-mad Cambyses.
The first step taken by Cambyses, who succeeded his father Cyrus in B.C. 529, was to reduce Phœnicia under his power. The support of a fleet was of immense importance to an army about to attack Egypt, both for the purpose of conveying water and stores, and of giving command over the mouths of the Nile, so that the great cities, Pelusium, Tanis, Saïs, Bubastis, Memphis, might be blockaded both by land and water. Persia, up to the accession of Cambyses, had (so to speak) no fleet. Cambyses, by threatening the Phœnician cities on the land side, succeeded in inducing them to submit to him; he then, with their aid, detached Cyprus from her Egyptian masters, and obtained the further assistance of a Cypriote squadron. Some Greek ships also gave their services, and the result was that he had the entire command of the sea, and was able to hold possession of all the Nile mouths, and to bring his fleet up the river to the very walls of Memphis.
Still, there were difficulties to overcome in respect of the passage of an army. Egypt is separated from Palestine by a considerable tract of waterless desert and it was necessary to convey by sea, or on the backs of camels, all the water required for the troops, for the camp-followers, and for the baggage animals. A numerous camel corps was indispensable for the conveyance, and the Persians, though employing camels on their expeditions, are not likely to have possessed any very considerable number of these beasts. At any rate, it was extremely convenient to find a fresh and abundant supply of camels on the spot, together with abundant water-skins. This good fortune befell the Persian monarch, who was able to make an alliance with the sheikh of the most powerful Bedouin tribe of the region, who undertook the entire responsibility of the water supply. He thus crossed the desert without disaster or suffering, and brought his entire force intact to the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, near the point where it poured its waters into the Mediterranean Sea.
At this point he found a mixed Egyptian and Græco-Carian army prepared to resist his further progress. Amasis had died about six months previously, leaving his throne to his son, Psamatik the Third. This young prince, notwithstanding his inexperience, had taken all the measures that were possible to protect his kingdom from the invader. He had gathered together his Greek and Carian mercenaries, and having also levied a large native army, had posted the entire force not far from Pelusium, in an advantageous position. On his Greeks and Carians he could thoroughly depend, though they had lately seen but little service; his native levies, on the contrary, were of scarcely any value; they were jealous of the mercenaries, who had superseded them as the ordinary land force, and they had had little practice in warfare for the last forty years. At no time, probably, would an Egyptian army composed of native troops have been a match for such soldiers as Cambyses brought with him into Egypt—Persians, Medes, Hyrcanians, Mardians, Greeks—trained in the school of Cyrus, inured to arms, and confident of victory. But the native soldiery of the time of Psamatik III. fell far below the average Egyptian type; it had little patriotism, it had no experience, it was smarting under a sense of injury and ill-treatment at the hands of the Saïte kings. The engagement between the two armies at Pelusium was thus not so much a battle as a carnage. No doubt the mercenaries made a stout resistance, but they were vastly outnumbered, and were not much better troops than their adversaries. The Egyptians must have been slaughtered like sheep. According to Ctesias, fifty thousand of them fell, whereas the entire loss on the Persian side was only six thousand. After a short struggle, the troops of Psamatik fled, and in a little time the retreat became a complete rout. The fugitives did not stop till they reached Memphis, where they shut themselves up within the walls.
It is the lot of Egypt to have its fate decided by a single battle. The country offers no strong positions, that are strategically more defensible than others. The whole Delta is one alluvial flat, with no elevation that has not been raised by man. The valley of the Nile is so wide as to furnish everywhere an ample plain, wherein the largest armies may contend without having their movements cramped or hindered. An army that takes to the hills on either side of the valley is not worth following: it is self-destroyed, since it can find no sustenance and no water. Thus the sole question, when a foreign host invades Egypt, is this: Can it, or can it not, defeat the full force of Egypt in an open battle? If it gains one battle, there is no reason why it should not gain fifty; and this is so evident, and so well known, that on Egyptian soil one defeat has almost always been accepted as decisive of the military supremacy. A beaten army may, of course, protract its resistance behind walls, and honour, fame, patriotism, may seem sometimes to require such a line of conduct; but, unless there is a reasonable expectation of relief arriving from without, protracted resistance is useless, and, from a military point of view, indefensible. Defeated commanders have not, however, always seen this, or, seeing it, they have allowed prudence to be overpowered by other considerations. Psamatik, like many another ruler of Egypt, though defeated in the field, determined to defend his capital to the best of his power. He threw himself, with the remnant of his beaten army, into Memphis, and there stood at bay, awaiting the further attack of his adversary.
It was not long before the Persian army drew up under the walls, and invested the city by land, while the fleet blockaded the river. A single Greek vessel, having received orders to summon the defenders of the place to surrender it, had the boldness to enter the town, whereupon it was set upon by the Egyptians, captured, and destroyed. Contrarily to the law of nations, which protects ambassadors and their escort, the crew was torn limb from limb, and an outrage thus committed which Cambyses was justified in punishing with extreme severity. Upon the fall of the city, which followed soon after its investment, the offended monarch avenged the crime which had been committed by publicly executing two thousand of the principal citizens, including (it is said) a son of the fallen king. The king himself was at first spared, and might perhaps have been allowed to rule Egypt as a tributary monarch, had he not been detected in a design to rebel and renew the war. For this offence he, too, was condemned to death, and executed by Cambyses' order.
The defeat had been foretold by the prophet Ezekiel, who had said:—
According to Herodotus, Cambyses was not content with the above-mentioned severities, which were perhaps justifiable under the circumstances, but proceeded further to exercise his rights as conqueror in a most violent and tyrannical way. He tore from its tomb the mummy of the late king, Amasis, and subjected it to the grossest indignities. He stabbed in the thigh an Apis-Bull, recently inaugurated at the capital with joyful ceremonies, suspecting that the occasion was feigned, and that the rejoicings were really over the ill-success of expeditions carried out by his orders against the oasis of Ammon, and against Ethiopia. He exhumed numerous mummies for the mere purpose of examining them. He entered the grand temple of Phthah at Memphis, and made sport of the image. He burnt the statues of the Cabeiri, which he found in another temple. He scourged the priests of Apis, and massacred in the streets those Egyptians who were keeping the festival. Altogether, his object was, if the informants of Herodotus are to be believed, to pour contempt and contumely on the Egyptian religion, and to insult the religious feelings of the entire people.
On the other hand, we learn from a contemporary inscription, that Cambyses so far conformed to Egyptian usages as to take a "throne-name," after the pattern of the ancient Pharaohs; that he cleared the temple of Neith at Saïs of the foreigners who had taken possession of it; that he entrusted the care of the temple to an Egyptian officer of high standing; and that he was actually himself initiated into the mysteries of the goddess. Perhaps we ought not to be greatly surprised at these contradictions. Cambyses had the iconoclastic spirit strong in him, and, under excitement, took a pleasure in showing his abhorrence of Egyptian superstitions. But he was not always under excitement—he enjoyed lucid intervals, during which he was actuated by the spirit of an administrator and a statesman. Having in many ways greatly exasperated the Egyptians against his rule, he thought it prudent, ere he quitted the country, to soothe the feelings which he had so deeply wounded, and conciliate the priest-class, to which he had given such dire offence. Hence his politic concessions to public feeling at Saïs, his Initiation into the mysteries of Neith, his assumption of a throne-name, and his restoration of the temple of Saïs to religious uses. And the policy of conciliation, which he thus inaugurated, was continued by his successor, Darius. Darius built, or repaired, the temple of Ammon, in the oasis of El Khargeh, and made many acknowledgments of the deities of Egypt; when an Apis-Bull died early in his reign, he offered a reward of a hundred talents for the discovery of a new Apis; and he proposed to adorn the temple of Ammon at Thebes with a new obelisk. At the same time, in his administration he carefully considered the interests of Egypt, which he entrusted to a certain Aryandes as satrap; he re-opened the canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, for the encouragement of Egyptian commerce; he kept up the numbers of the Egyptian fleet; in his arrangement of the satrapies, he placed no greater burthen on Egypt than it was well able to bear; and he seems to have honoured Egypt by his occasional presence. He failed, however, to allay the discontent, and even hatred, which the outrages of Cambyses had aroused; they still remained indelibly impressed on the Egyptian mind; the Persian rule was detested; and in sullen dissatisfaction the entire nation awaited an opportunity of reclaiming its independence and flinging off the accursed yoke.