The Battle of Pelusium: A Victory Decided by Cats

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published on 18 January 2012

The Battle of Pelusium in 525 B.C. was the decisive conflict between the Pharaoh Psametik III (also known as Psammenitus) and the Persian leader Cambyses II. Cambyses, upset that Psammenitus' father, Amasis, had sent him a `fake daughter' , decided to invade Egypt to avenge the insult. Cambyses had asked for Amasis' daughter for a concubine and Amasis, not wishing this life for his daughter, sent the daughter of the late king Apries. This woman, insulted, told Cambyses her true identity and Cambyses could not bear to be affronted by Amasis. By the time he mounted his campaign, however, Amasis had died and Psammenitus was Pharoah.

The Preparation for the Battle of Pelusium

Psammenitus fortified the position at Pelusium near the mouth of the Nile and awaited the Persian attack. The fortresses were strong and well provisioned and the young Pharoah, who had only ruled for six months at the time, must have felt confident he could repel any attack and easily withstand a siege. What Psammentius did not count on, however, was Cambyses cunning.

The Cat In Ancient Egypt

One of the most popular goddesses in ancient Egypt was Bastet, often depicted with the body of a woman and the head of a cat; the goddess of the home, love, fertility, dance, women and secrets. Bastet was a kind and loving goddess unless she was offended and then became her alter-ego Sekhmet the vengeful; her sacred animal was the cat. Cats were so highly regarded in ancient Egypt that the punishment for killing one was death and, Herodotus tells us, Egyptians caught in a burning building would save the cats before saving themselves or attempting to put out the fire. Herodotus says, further, that, "All the inmates of a house where a cat has died a nautral death shave their eyebrows" as a sign of their grief and cats were mummified with jewelry just as people were.

The Battle of Pelusium

Cambyses II, knowing the veneration the Egyptians held for cats, had the image of Bastet painted on his soliders' shields and, further, "ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibeses and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold dear" (Polyaenus). The Egyptians under Psammenitus, seeing their own beloved goddess on the shields of enemies, and fearing to fight lest they injure the animals being driven before their foe, surrendered their position and took flight in a rout. Many were massacred on the field and Herodotus reports seeing their bones still in the sand many years later; he commented on the difference between the Persian and the Egyptian skulls. Psammenitus was taken prisoner and was treated fairly well by Cambyses until he tried to raise a revolt and was executed. Thus ended the sovereignty of Egypt as it was annexed by Persia and, henceforth, changed hands many times before finally ending up as a province of Rome. It is said that Cambyses, after the battle, hurled cats into the faces of the defeated Egyptians in scorn that they would surrender their country and their freedom fearing for the safety of common animals.

Contributor's Note:

This article was first published on the site Suite 101. C. 2008 Joshua J. Mark



References

  • Aubrey De Selincourt. The Histories of Herodotus, Book II, Chapter 66. , 1954.
  • Don Nardo. Living In Ancient Egypt. , 2004.
  • R. Shepherd. Polyaenus' Strategems, Book VII, Chapter 9. , 1793.
  • William Smith. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography. , 1856.

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