Cambyses II


Cambyses (OP Kambūǰiya; "King of the Kamboja (?)", Mayrhofer 1974, 23; Charpentier 1923) was the second Great King in the Teispid line of the Persian Empire, the son of Cyrus the Great and his wife Cassandane (Hdt. 2.1, 3.2). His short reign (r. 530-522 BCE) is mainly documented in the pages of the Greek historian Herodotus, who described the Persian Wars fought by Cambyses' successors and elaborated on the accomplishments of the empire in general. Herodotus' picture of Cambyses is heavily influenced by his informants in the Egyptian priesthoods, who were hostile to Cambyses in particular. These influences have been the subject of intense scrutiny in modern scholarship (Brown 1982; De Jong 2006; Depuydt 2005; Dillery 2005; Felton 2014; Griffith 2009; Lloyd 1988, 1994; Munson 1991; von Hoffmann/Vorbichler 1980; Wojciechowska 2008).

King of Babylon

Before his accession to the throne, we hear of Cambyses only in relation to his short-lived stint as king of Babylon and his economic activity as crown prince in the area (Straßmaier 1890a, nos. 270, 325). About a year after the festive reception of Cyrus in Babylon, its Persian governor Ugbaru (Gobryas) died on October 18, 538 BCE (ABC 7.iii.15, 22). Cyrus replaced him with Cambyses, awarding him the title of King of Babylon, while he himself held the higher rank of King of Lands (CB²a, 20-27; Dubberstein 1938). This seems to have established a kind of junior co-regency and clearly indicates that Cambyses was the designated heir (Waters 2014, 52f.).

On April 5, 537 BCE Babylon was celebrating the New Year, the so-called Akitu festival. Cambyses appeared armed and in Elamite garb to greet the Babylonian deities, insulting the priesthood either through ignorance or a wish for distinction (ABC 7.iii.24-28). That may be why Cambyses had to hand over his office to a satrap also named Gobryas, who officially took over as governor of Babylon and Transeuphratene in December 537 BCE, while Cambyses disappears as king of Babylon (Straßmaier 1890b, no. 16; Briant 2002, 44, 49; Dandamaev 1992, 74-78; Peat 1989).


Cambyses was hence designated as Cyrus' successor even before Cyrus set out on his last campaign against the Massagetae in 530 BCE (Hdt. 1.208; Ctesias FGrH 688 F8). He seems to have succeeded his father without issue, taking the throne in August 530 BCE (Straßmaier 1890b, no. 1; Waters 2014, 52f.) and buried Cyrus in his previously prepared tomb at Pasargadae, instituting a funerary cult in his father's honour (Ctesias FGrH 688 F13.9; Arr. Anab. 6.29.7).

A younger brother of Cambyses by the name of Tanyoxarkes (OP *tanu-vazarka) is mentioned as satrap of the eastern provinces by Ctesias and Xenophon (Ctesias FGrH 688 F9.8; Xen. Cyrop. 8.7.11). This constitutes a sort of division of the empire by Cyrus, intended to soften the animosity between his sons about who would inherit the throne. Since Tanyoxarkes ("having a large body") means much the same thing as Bardiya and Smerdis ("giant"), the names found for Cyrus' other son in the Behistun inscription and Herodotus, this is probably the same man (DB §10, Hdt. 3.30). Bardiya's impressive strength and physical prowess is borne out also by Herodotus' story of him besting the entire court in drawing a particularly huge bow gifted Cambyses by the Ethiopians while in Egypt (Hdt. 3.21.3, 3.30; cf. Iust. 1.9.4-13). The bow was a symbol of royal power and prowess, featuring in art, coins and court titles (DNb §8; PFS 196, 859*; Schmidt 1953, pls. 144-146; BM 89132). All this suggests that there was a rivalry between the two brothers, but its resolution is unclear: Bardiya was either secretly murdered at the king's command or rebelled and succeeded him after his death (DB §10-14). See the full discussion under the entry for Darius I.


Almost all that is known of Cambyses' reign relates to his successful conquest of Egypt from 525 to 522 BCE, a campaign probably envisioned already by Cyrus (Briant 2002, 50f.; Cruz-Uribe 2003). It was a logical consequence of the power of Egypt under the Saïte pharaohs and rested on the conquest of Phoenicia and Cyprus, which Cambyses certainly controlled in 525 BCE, but we do not know any details of their acquisition. Herodotus claims that they joined the empire voluntarily, having previously paid tribute to Egypt (Hdt. 2.182; 3.19). Control of the sea was also necessary and it seems likely that Cambyses created the Persian fleet for this purpose, using Greek and Phoenician expertise, men and material (Hdt. 3.34).

The campaign was further benefitted by the death of the powerful and well-connected pharaoh Amasis in 526 BCE, who was succeeded by his son Psammetichus III (Briant 2002, 51f.). In this situation of transition, Cambyses managed to turn Polykrates of Samos to his side, who sent a fleet from Samos to Egypt, though it mutinied upon arrival (Hdt. 3.40-43). The mercenary commander Phanes of Halicarnassus similarly betrayed his allegiance to Psammetichus and gave Cambyses important inside information and the water supply for the army's desert crossing was secured by a contract with the Arabs of the Sinai Peninsula (Hdt. 3.4-9).

The Battle of Pelusium in May 525 BCE brought victory over the Egyptian border troops after hard fighting (Polyain. 7.9). Based on the implications of Udjahorresnet's tomb inscription, one can speculate that the Egyptian navy may have capitulated (Lloyd 1982; Briant 2002, 54). The Egyptians mounted a final defence at Memphis, but were defeated after a short siege supported by the fleet (Hdt. 3.13).

As mentioned earlier, the stay of Cambyses in Egypt for almost three years leaves some room for speculation due to the thoroughly hostile nature of the sources. According to Herodotus, he led campaigns to Libya and Cyrenaica, and to Nubia, both of which were disastrous (Hdt. 3.17, 25f.); Carthage was another objective, but had to be abandoned due to the Phoenicians' resistance. While Herodotus is clearly exaggerating, misled by an Egyptian narrative tradition (Dillery 2005), these endeavours do seem to have been largely unsuccessful, though the king did succeed in securing the south with a long-lived Persian garrison at Elephantine and found some success in northern Nubia (Hdt. 3.97; DAE 102; Heidorn 1992). While the king was in Nubia, the Egyptians revolt against Persian rule, forcing Cambyses to return to Memphis and put the revolt down in 524 BCE (Hdt. 3.27).

The portrayal of Cambyses as a mad king holds little of historical value; for details see the literature given above. It features tomb defilement (Hdt. 3.37), murder of the Apis bull, abuse of his priests and defilement of sanctuaries (Hdt. 3.29, 37; Iust. 1.9.2; Strab. 17.1.27, 46), murder of relatives, a pregnant wife, and supporters (Hdt. 3.30-36), temple robbery (Diod. 1.46.4, 49.5) and Cambyses' armies perishing in sandstorms and turning to cannibalism as a result (Hdt. 3.26). While there was trouble in Egypt under (or in form of) Cambyses (Posener 1936, no. 1h-i) and clearly some sort of conflict with the priests of Apis and other temple administrators, probably about revenues, Cambyses also buried Apis bulls with reverence and in the traditional manner (Posener 1936, nos. 3-4; Briant 2002, 56f., 60f.). A more positive tradition on Cambyses also existed, probably engendered by those who benefitted from the change in ruler, such as Udjahorresnet and the priests of Neith (Posener 1936, no. 1; Lloyd 1982). Herodotus preserves muddled evidence of an attempt to make Cambyses more Egyptian by having him be the son of Cyrus and pharaoh Apries' daughter (Hdt. 3.1f., but cf. Briant 2002, 49). Also according to Herodotus (3.1), Cambyses married the Egyptian princess Nitetis, probably the last survivor of the Saïte dynasty, in order to legitimize his claim to the Egyptian throne. This would have ensured that the royal lines of Persia and Egypt were joined in their children, in the same way as Cambyses' successor Darius would later ensure that his line would be joined to Cyrus' in Xerxes.

Any dynastic plans of Cambyses were cut short, however, by his surprising death on the way back to the Persian heartland (Hdt. 3.64-66; Walser 1983). While in Syria, he stabbed himself in the thigh by accident and died of gangrene. Since this wound mirrors that Cambyses is said to have inflicted upon the Apis bull (Hdt. 3.29), the historical accuracy of Herodotus' evidence is uncertain (cf. also Hdt. 6.136 with a similar story for Miltiades); in the Behistun inscription Darius merely says that Cambyses "died his own death", which seems to square with an accident (Schmitt 1991, 51).


Besides Nitetis, Cambyses was married to his full sisters Atossa and Roxane, as well as Phaidyme, the daughter of a prominent Persian noble named Ostanes, but none of these unions produced any children we know of (Hdt. 3.31f., 3.68). If there were any, they were surely killed in the messy accession of Darius.

Cambyses left no monumental royal inscriptions, since the genre began to be utilized for the Persian Empire only by his successor Darius I. Nothing comparable to the Cyrus cylinder, an extensive foundation inscription from Babylon (C²Ba), is extant for his reign, though a host of administrative documents from Babylonia is dated by his reign. An unfinished tomb near Naqsh-i Rustam built on the model of Pasargadae may have been Cambyses' or his brother's (Stronach 1978; Kuhrt 2007, 104); alternatively the remains of a structure near Tall-i Takht, similar in design to so-called Ka'ba-ye Zartosht built by Darius at Naqsh-i Rustam, may have been Cambyses' tomb, though without epigraphic evidence, certainty is impossible.


Brown, Truesdell S., "Herodotus' Portrait of Cambyses", in: Historia 31:4 (1982), 387-403.

Charpentier, Jarl, "Der Name Kambyses", in: Zeitschrift für Indologie und Iranistik 2 (1923), 140-52.

Cruz-Uribe, Eugene, "The Invasion of Egypt by Cambyses", in: Transeuphraténe 25 (2003), 9-60.

Dandamaev, Muhammad A., Iranians in Achaemenid Babylonia, Costa Mesa 1992.

De Jong, Irene J.F., "Herodotus and the dream of Cambyses (Hist. 3,30,61-65)", in: André Pierre M. H. Lardinois, Marc G. M. Van der Poel, Vincent J. Chr. Hunink (eds.), Land of Dreams: Studies in honour of A. H. M. Kessels, Leiden 2006, 3-17.

Depuydt, Leo, "Murder in Memphis: The Story of Cambyses's Mortal Wounding of the Apis Bull (ca. 523 BCE)", in: Journal of Near Eastern Studies 54 (1995), 119-126.

Dillery, John, "Cambyses and the Egyptian 'Chaosbeschreibung' tradition", in: Classical Quarterly N.S. 55:2 (2005), 387-406.

Dubberstein, Waldo H., "The Chronology of Cyrus and Cambyses", in: American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 55 (1938), 417-419.

Felton, Debbie, "The motif of the ‚mutilated hero' in Herodotus", in: Phoenix 68:1-2 (2014), 47-61.

Griffith, Robert D., "Honeymoon salad: Cambyses' uxoricide according to the Egyptians (Hdt. 3.32.3-4)", in: Historia 58:2 (2009), 131-140.

Heidorn, Lisa A., The Fortress of Dorginati and Lower Nubia during the seventh and fifth centuries B.C., PhD diss., University of Chicago 1992.

Lloyd, Alan B., "Cambyses in late tradition", in: Christopher Eyre, Anthony Leahy, Lisa Montagno Leahy (eds.), The Unbroken Reed. Studies in the Culture and Heritage of Ancient Egypt in Honour of A. F. Shore, London 1994, 195-204.

Lloyd, Alan B., "Hdt. on Cambyses", in: AchHist 3, 1988, 55-66.

Lloyd, Alan B., "The Inscription of Udjaḥorresnet: a Collaborator's Testament", in: The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 68 (1982), 166-180.

Mayrhofer, Manfred, Iranisches Personennamenbuch I/2, Vienna 1974.

Morkot, Robert G., "Nubia and Achaemenid Persia", in: AchHist 6, 1991, 321-336.

Munson, Rosaria V., "The madness of Cambyses: (Herodotus 3. 16-38)", in: Arethusa 24 (1991), 43-65.

Peat, Jerome, "Cyrus ‚King of Lands', Cambyses ‚King of Babylon': The Disputed Co-Regency", in: Journal of Cuneiform Studies 41 (1989), 199-216.

Posener, Georges, La première domination Perse en Egypte, Cairo 1936.

Schmidt, Erich F., Persepolis I: Structures, Reliefs, Inscriptions, Chicago 1953.

Straßmaier, Johann N., Inschriften von Cambyses, König von Babylon, Leipzig 1890b.

Straßmaier, Johann N., Inschriften von Cyrus, König von Babylon, Leipzig 1890a.

Stronach, David, Pasargadae: A report on the excavations conducted by the British Institute of Persian Studies from 1961 to 1963, Oxford 1978.

von Hoffmann, Inge and Anton Vorbichler, "Das Kambysesbild bei Herodot", in: Archiv für Orientforschung 27 (1980), 86-105.

Walser, Gerold, "Der Tod des Kambyses", in: Karl-Heinz Stroheker and Gerold Walser (eds.), Althistorische Studien. Hermann Bengtson zum 70. Geburtstag dargebracht von Kollegen und Schülern, Wiesbaden 1983, 8-23.

Wojciechowska, Agnieszka, "The black legend of Cambyses in Herodotus", in: Jakub Pígon (ed.), The children of Herodotus, Newcastle 2008, 26-33.

Henry Heitmann-Gordon

Henry Heitmann-Gordon, 'Cambyses II', Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online (ARIo) Project, The ARIo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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