Literature Study GuidesHistoriesBook 3 Cambysess Conquest Of Egypt Summary

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Histories | Book 3, Cambyses's Conquest of Egypt | Summary



Having introduced and described Egypt, Herodotus returns to describing Cambyses's campaign against Egypt. The Persians invade by crossing the desert with the aid of Arabs. They are faced with an army led by Amasis's son, as Amasis himself died shortly before the invasion. The Persian army destroys the Egyptians. Herodotus claims to have visited the battlefield, and he believes the skulls of Persians were thinner than those of Egyptians. Cambyses's army continues its rampage through Egypt and accomplishes the conquest of Memphis and Sais, the chief cities of the Egyptians. While in Sais, Cambyses orders the body of Amasis be disinterred and chopped into bits. However, the embalmed body is too tough, so Cambyses orders it to be burned instead. This is a grave insult. Cambyses plans his next conquests, which are to take place in Libya and Ethiopia. He sends spies to Ethiopia, followed by an army, but the expedition ends in disaster. Cambyses, angry, wounds the sacred Egyptian Apis bull, which was a real-life bull that represented the bull deity Apis (Greek), known also as Hap, Hep, or Hapi (Egyptian). This unholy act causes him to lose his mind. Troubled by a nightmare, he has his brother, Smerdis, murdered. This is followed by the murder of his sister. While Cambyses is engaging in increasingly outlandish acts, the Spartans begin a conflict with Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos. The Spartans form an alliance with the Corinthians and send an army to Samos. The expedition fails.


Herodotus spins the story of Cambyses in Egypt into another moralistic fable that mixes fact and fiction. Readers can tell from other sources that Cambyses really did order his brother to be killed, and that the sacred Apis bull died during Cambyses's excursion (the Apis bull is a sacred animal, worshiped in ancient Egyptian religious rites). Likewise, the conquest of Egypt is real. But the tale of Cambyses's madness, and his subsequent demise, is likely fictitious. Either Herodotus made it up or his sources did.

On a more human level, the limits of ambition are shown in the failed expedition to Ethiopia. One of the themes of Herodotus's work is that empire building has its limits. This is shown not only in the poetic downfalls suffered by arrogant men but also in more mundane details. That is, there are some countries too far away and with too strong or determined a population for an empire to conquer them. The Ethiopians, the Scythians (the horse nomads of Ukraine), and the Greeks are the prime examples in the narrative.

Herodotus continues to develop the subplot of events in Ionia and the island of Samos (an island in the Aegean Sea), showing how the interests of mainland Greeks become more and more entwined with the region.

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