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lthough the Persians and Egyptians would fight again at Pelusium 182 years later, the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE is considered the first significant battle between the expanding Achaemenid Empire and Ancient Egypt. But more than that, it is one of the earliest and most absurd recorded accounts of psychological warfare. The Battle of Pelusium gives a different twist to the idiom of fighting tooth and claw.

At the time, native Pharaohs still controlled Ancient Egypt. 

The fight pitted the Persian commander Cambyses II against Pharaoh Amasis II near Pelusium, an essential Egyptian town on the eastern slopes of the Nile Delta (also known as Psammenitus).

Despite the importance of the war, much of the information about it is only available through Herodotus and Polyaenus.

Timeline snapshot for reference:

  • Aug 480 BCE: Battle of Thermopylae; King Leonidas, 300 Spartans, and some other guys defeat the Persian army led by Xerxes I
  • 343 BCE: Battle of Pelusium Part 2: Electric Boogaloo
  • 331 BCE: Alexander the Great conquers Egypt, names a city after his drag persona, and lets the scroll-nerds roll.  
  • 305 BCE to 285 BCE: Reign of Ptolemy I Soter, the founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and catalyst for the Great Library. Number one scroll-nerd.
  • 69 BCE – 12 August 30 BCE: Life span of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler and all-around Bad B.

The Cat-alyst

Persians would have attacked Egypt eventually, but the struggle between Egypt’s Pharaoh Amasis II and the Persian King, Cambyses II, transpired due to two terrible decisions by Amasis II.

Cambyses II requested an Egyptian physician from Amasis II on favorable terms. 

Amasis agreed, and the physician (most likely an ancient ophthalmologist) was sent to Cambyses. However, the physician was angry and resented Amasis for imposing forced labor on him. 

Knowing how much Amasis would dislike losing his daughter to a Persian, the physician retaliated. 

Out of spite and probably tapping his fingers together like Mr. Burns, the physician urged Cambyses II to ask Amasis for a daughter in marriage. Cambyses II agreed and filed his paperwork.

While Amasis didn’t want to start a conflict with the Persians, he didn’t like the thought of sending his daughter either. So he came up with a plan. A terrible, terrible plan.

A Cat-astrophically Dumb Plan

Amasis decided to send the daughter of Apries, Amasis’ predecessor, instead. Herodotus calls her Nitetis. (There’s debate about the modern translation of her name, but this is what we’re going with for clarity.)

Technically she was the daughter of a Pharoah, just not the current Pharoah. 

Was Amasis II trying to summon his best inner-shady-lawyer with a loophole, or did he think women were interchangeable and no one would notice? We may never know, but according to Herodotus, “Amasis took this woman, and decking her out with gold and costly garments, sent her to Persia as if she had been his own child.” 

For someone trying to avoid conflict, Amasis II seemed to be heading down to Funky Town in a hurry. And by Funky Town, I mean war. 

You know what they say, the road to Duat is paved with good intentions.

What Could it Paw-ssibly Go Wrong?

It was a transaction that Nitetis found downright insulting, not only because she didn’t give her consent or approval but because giving Egyptian women to a foreign King was traditionally unacceptable. 

Did Amasis II think Nitetis would stay in character? Smooth move, King.

Herodotus reported that Nitetis revealed the treachery after Cambyses called her by her fathers’ name. Nitetis replied, “I see, O King, thou knowest not how thou has been cheated by Amasis; who took me, and, tricking me out with gauds, sent me to thee as his own daughter. But I am in truth the child of Apries, who was his lord and master, until he rebelled against him, together with the rest of the Egyptians, and put him to death.”

Feeling slighted, Cambyses II accused Amasis II of sending a “fake wife.” Technically, he wasn’t wrong.  

Cambyses responded with an attack on Egypt that would break the internet by today’s cat-loving standards. 

Bastet, the Cat’s Meow

Thanks to the Goddess Bastet, ancient Egyptians were obsessed with cats in a way that makes the internet’s obsession seem mild.

Not only did Ancient Egyptians favor cats, but the goddess Bastet was closely associated with them. Bastet is prevalent in Egyptian art and usually appears with a cat’s head and a woman’s body. Egyptians revered Bastet as the protector of home, domesticity, women, and children.  

Herodotus doesn’t mention using cats or any animals at the Battle of Pelusium. Still, he documents numerous instances of Egyptian reverence for cats in The Histories and information on many other domestic and wild animals. 

If a cat dies in a private house by a natural death, all 

the inmates of the house shave their eyebrows; ~ Herodotus

A Fur-midable Opponent

At some point between the time Cambyses II’s wife-swap sleight of hand and the beginning of the battle, Amasis II died and left Egypt under the rule of his son, Psametik III.

Amasis II’s accomplishments overshadowed Psametik III for most of his life. Still, the aftermath of Amasis’ terrible decision-making would fall on Psametik III, as he was the one who would have to deal with the repercussions of his father’s perceived insult to the Persian King. 

Psametik III was unprepared to defend the country in the event of an attack. He did his best to fend off the attacking forces but relied heavily on his Greek allies, who deserted him. Phanes of Halicarnassus, his father’s military advisor, had already defected to the Persian side, leaving Psametik without military counsel. 

Psametik III was left to clean up the mess he inherited from his father on his own. 

Anticipating the Persian onslaught, Psametik III reinforced his stronghold near the Nile’s mouth at Pelusium while also preparing the capital city of Memphis to resist capture. Pelusium’s stronghold, as well as the capital, were both formidable and well-equipped. 

He had only ruled for six months by this time; however, Psametik III seemed confident in his ability to defend the kingdom from his enemy.

Unfortunately, Psametik III did not anticipate the ingenuity of his opponent.

Fight Like Cats and Dogs

According to Polyaenus’ Stratagems, the Egyptians had successfully fought off the Persian onslaught when Cambyses II abruptly changed strategies. 

Knowing the Egyptians’ reverence for cats and the Goddess Bastet, he ordered his soldiers to paint their shields with her image. 

Seeing that this tactic was working and wanting to avoid a lengthy siege, Cambyses II’s following command to his soldiers was even more devious. 

But also effective. 

This part of the story has many retellings, ranging from capturing and placing sacred animals on the front lines to yeeting cats at the Egyptian soldiers. However, the only source claiming Cambyses II used cats to defeat the Egyptians remains a small passage in Polyanenus’ work, Stratagems.

Here, Polyaneus writes, “To counter this destructive barrage, Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The Egyptians immediately stopped their operations, out of fear of hurting the animals, which they hold in great veneration.”

Whatever way it happened, Cambyses II’s plan stopped the Egyptian troops in their tracks. Preferring to retreat instead of offending their gods, the Egyptians fled the battlefield. The Egyptian forces were devastated. Pelusium and thus Egypt fell to Persian rule.

The Cat That Ate the Canary

Cambyses II defeated the Egyptians. The Persian Empire ruled over Egypt for the next 100 years. Egypt became a Persian satrapy, and its leaders became known as the Twenty-Seventh Dynasty.

Herodotus’ account makes no mention of the use of any animal. However, he writes of his visit to the battle site about 75 years after the battle. 

“The bones of the slain lie scattered upon the field in two lots, those of the Persians in one place by themselves, as the bodies lay at the first – 

those of the Egyptians in another place apart from them.”

He also reportedly examined the skulls and claimed noticeable differences between the Persians’ and Egyptians’ bones.

Even without using the cats against Egypt, it’s very likely Cambyses II still would have won the war for various reasons. 

Psamtik III was only six months into his reign, young and inexperienced as a military leader. 

The Persians had better weapons and strategies, even when you exclude the cat hurling. 

Cambyses II had advanced military experience. He was familiar with Egyptian customs and culture. 

Examining the battle through a modern, pragmatic lens, it’s more likely that the use of live animals to unsettle the Egyptians was more likely storytelling that had grown into a legend by the time it made its way to Polyaenus. 

That’s not to say Cambyses II didn’t use an ancient form of psychological warfare. But it more than likely culminated with painting Bastet on the soldier’s shields. 

One thing is for sure, while this defining battle changed Egypt for years to come, it didn’t alter Egypt’s high regard for all things feline. 

Sources:

  1. Polyaenus: Stratagems – Book Seven Adapted from the translation by R. Shepherd (1793) 
  2. Herodotus: The Histories – Book Three
  3. World History Encyclopedia Battle of Pelusium

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