Monday, May 25, 2020

Cambyses, King of Kings

Achaemenid coin showing the king with a bow in his left hand and a spear in his right hand (c. 450 BCE)

... for instance, there was the case of Prexaspes, a man who was highly valued by the king and used to bring him his dispatches, and whose son was the king's cupbearer -- also a position of no small honour. On one occasion Cambyses said to this distinguished official: 'What sort of man do the Persians think I am, and what do they say about me?' 'Master,' Prexaspes replied, 'you are highly praised by them, and they have but one criticism to make: they say you are too fond of wine.' This enraged Cambyses. 'So now,' he said, 'the Persians say that excessive drinking has driven me mad. They said something quite different before; but I see it was a lie.' For on a former occasion, when a number of Persians were sitting with him, and Croesus was also present, he had asked what they thought of him compared with his father, and they had answered that he was better than his father, because he had kept all Cyrus' possessions and acquired Egypt and the command of the sea into the bargain. Croesus, however, was not satisfied with this opinion, and said: 'Son of Cyrus, I at least do not think you are equal to your father; for you have not yet a son like the son he left behind him in yourself.' Cambyses was delighted with this, and praised Croesus' judgement, and it was the memory of this incident which made him, on the present occasion, say in a rage to Prexaspes: 'I'll soon show you if the Persians speak the truth, or if what they say is not a sign of their own madness rather than of mine. You see your son standing there by the door? If I shoot him through the middle of the heart, I shall have proved the Persians' words empty and meaningless; if I miss, then say, if you will, that the Persians are right, and my wits are gone.'
   Without another word he drew his bow and shot the boy, and then ordered his body to be cut open and the wound examined; and when the arrow was found to have pierced the heart, he was delighted, and said with a laugh to the boy's father: 'There's proof for you, Prexaspes, that I am sane and the Persians mad. Now tell me if you ever saw anyone shoot so straight.'
   Prexaspes knew well enough that the king's mind was unbalanced, so in fear for his own safety he answered: 'Master, I do not believe that God himself is a better marksman.'  (Herodotus, The Histories, translation by Aubrey de Selincourt revised by John Marincola.)

Cambyses II was the Achaemenid "Great King" from 530 - 522 BCE. Modern historians don't take Herodotus' characterization of Cambyses as a power-drunk killer very seriously; they assume his sources were highly unfavourable. (And though archaeology tells us very little about Cambyses, that little contradicts some of Herodotus' assertions, while others may derive from cultural misunderstandings.) It's a different kind of truth that confronts us here.

Achaemenid coin showing the king with a bow in his left hand and a dagger in his right hand (c. 400 BCE)



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