Cambyses ii king of the achaemenid empireCambyses II was the second king of the Achaemenid Empire who ruled from 530–522 B.C.E. He was a son of Cyrus the Great, who was known as the “King of Kings”. According to the historian Herodotus, his mother’s name was Cassandane, a sister of a Persian named Otanes. Meanwhile, historian Ctesias stated that his mother’s name was Amytis, the daughter of the last king of independent Media, Astyages.

He was famously known for his conquests of Egypt or the “Battle of Pelusium,” where he captured Heliopolis and Memphis, and the resistance collapsed.

Keep reading to find out what could be the reason behind his short reign as the king of Persia?

Who was Cambyses II?

Cambyses II was the sole ruler of the Achaemenid Empire after his father gave him the throne in 530 B.C.E. Before he got the throne, he was once appointed as the governor of Northern Babylonia under his father’s reign in 539 B.C.E. Cambyses son of Cyrus, became co-regent with his father for the first year of his throne as a Persian king. After which, Cyrus the Great named him both “King of Kings” and “King of Babylon” after the campaign Cambyses II took to Massagetae in Central Asia.

He was a descendant from the line of rulers of Persian tribes, having one brother named Bardiya and three sisters named Artystone, Atossa, and Roxanne. Cambyses II’s name was from his paternal grandfather Cambyses I, who was the former king of Anshan from 580–559 B.C.E.

Being one of the significant rulers of Babylon before his official succession, Cambyses II attended a ritual festival in which ancient kings should be present every year. It was like a New Year’s festival, and they called it the Akitu festival. Since the independent king of Babylonia had not been attending this festival for several years, Cyrus the Great appointed Cambyses II to attend instead. This event’s purpose was to convey the legitimization of the ruling monarch.

Cambyses II in Babylon

He already experienced how to partially manage a country after he became the governor of Babylon. However, his reign lasted for only one year, regardless of whether he resigned or was forced to resign for an unknown reason.

It might be from the festival he attended because, from the interpretation of inscriptions, he was incorrectly dressed or he and his men were armed, which was forbidden in the ritual regulations. It could also be because he already needed to take over the throne of his father. However, the concrete reason remained unclear.

– Early Conflicts Before the War

Before the great battle under the reign of King Cambyses II, there were already conflicts between the Persian Empire and the Egyptian Empire. According to Greek historian Herodotus, the incumbent pharaoh of Egypt, Pharaoh Amasis II, had a gradual process of conflicts involving multiple personalities from each empire. One of the conflicts was when Cambyses II asked for his daughter’s hand for marriage.

As Amasis II did not agree to want his daughter wed to a Persian ruler, he had an Egyptian girl named Netetis sent to Cambyses II. Little did Amasis II know that Netetis explained the trickery of what he did, which made Cambyses II infuriated by the insult and caused him to vow revenge.

In Herodotus’s text Histories, there’s also one person who significantly helped the Persians achieve victory. His name was Phanes of Halicarnassus, a counselor, and advisor of Amasis II. For some unknown reasons, Phanes was disgruntled with the pharaoh of Egypt and traveled by ship with the intention to seek an alliance with Cambyses II.

  • The Escape

This news brought great anxiety to Pharaoh Amasis II and led him to send a eunuch after Phanes with the aim of capturing or assassinating him. However, Phanes, being a wise man, managed to escape by letting the eunuch get drunk, after which he eventually continued his travel away from Egypt.

Upon his arrival, he met the determined Cambyses II, who was planning to conquer Egypt, although he still did not have a concrete path. Phanes played a strategic role in the advancement of Persia against Egypt by giving Cambyses II advice as he knew the Egyptian way of battle.

– Blessings from Northern Arabia

One of Phanes’s military contributions was when he told Cambyses II to send a message to the Arabian king to grant him safe passage to the Sinai Desert–a passage through the desert road of Gaza to Pelusium. As the Arabian king himself had bad blood with the king of Egypt, he granted the request of Cambyses II and even supplied the troops with fresh water.

– Battle of Pelusium

The “Battle of Pelusium” was one of the greatest historical occurrences between the Achaemenid Empire and the Egyptian Empire. The war happened in 525 BCE in Pelusium, a city located in the eastern Nile Delta in Egypt, the battle led to King Cambyses II’s victory and marked the beginning of the Achaemenid dynasty or the 27th dynasty of Egypt.

In the year 526 BCE, in the middle of the Persians’ siege, Amasis II died and was succeeded by his son, Psamtik III. This incident did not stop King Cambyses II from conquering Egypt; instead, this made him decide to mount an offensive attack. Phanes being on the Persian side meant that Psamtik III depended on his own convictions and military experience.

Psamtik III took to violence in an act of revenge as he arrested all the sons of Phanes and cut them one by one, draining all their blood, mixing it in wine, and drinking from it, along with the other members of the council, to convey what will happen if they betray the empire.

Herodotus described the “Battle of Pelusium” as the sea of skulls at the Nile basin, in which he could differentiate the heads of the Persians and Egyptians. According to another historian Ctesias, the number of fallen Egyptian soldiers was about 50,000, while the entire loss of Persians only numbered 7,000. This total loss of Psamtik III led the troops to retreat, Psamtik III took shelter in Memphis, and King Cambyses II advanced and besieged the place, establishing a Persian–Egyptian Empire garrison.

– Aftermath of Conquering Egypt

After the siege of Memphis, the Persians eventually advanced to Heliopolis and went to the Egyptian capital of Sais to crown Cambyses II there as a new pharaoh. The neighboring countries, including the Libyan and Greek tribes, voluntarily submitted to Cambyses II, which hence expanded his empire. He remained seated on an Egyptian throne and took part in all Egyptian ceremonies just like what an Egyptian king would do. He took the title of “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.”

Some historians say that Cambyses II’s reign in Egypt did not have many troubles, but wherever he stayed, resistance from the local population somehow arouse. He used propaganda to convince Egyptians of the legitimate unification of Persians and Egyptians as he himself claimed that he was a descendant of native Egyptians.

– Distinct Narration of the Lost Army of Cambyses II

As part of the local population resisted Cambyses II’s rule, some started a revolution, which King Cambyses II needed to put down. The Egyptians’ rebel leader, named Petubastis IV, challenged the king in 522 BCE. This person seemed to have lived in the Dahkla Oasis, a deep Libyan desert. Cambyses sent an army and might have been defeated, which later gave rise to the legend of the lost army of Cambyses II.

However, there was also a different opinion based on Herodotus’ text, saying that Cambyses II sent out a small expeditionary force to destroy the oracle of Amun in the Siwa Oasis, part of the beautiful Bahariya Oasis in the western desert.

Nevertheless, when the soldiers marched to Siwa, the army was overtaken by a sandstorm and killed. In the later years of this legendary tale, some scholars considered dismissing this story as there’s not enough evidence of whether the army was really killed by a rebel leader or wiped out in a natural sandstorm event.

– The Lost Army’s Remnants

On the NBC News website, an article dated November 10, 2009, by Rossella Lorenzi showed a photo that seemed like Persian bones buried in sand 2,500 years ago. The twins Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, the top two Italian archaeologists, claimed to have found an army that was indeed buried in a sandstorm. In 1996, in an area where they were investigating the presence of meteorites near Bahrain, they noticed some half-buried pots and some human remains. It was in a desert quite close to Siwa.

Intrigued, they investigated and proved that the found silver bracelet, earrings, bronze dagger, spheres, and several arrow tips were from the Achaemenid period. The Castiglioni brothers studied ancient maps and were convinced that they did not take the famously known route via the Dahkla Oasis.

They discovered a mass grave with hundreds of bleached bones and skulls. Among the bones were Persian arrowheads and horse bits. They surveyed the area; perhaps, the depth of sand where they were buried was 16.4 feet.

Cambyses II’s Egyptian Administration

Contrary to the contemporary information about Cambyses II’s rule of Egypt, historian Herodotus portrayed him as a “mad” king marked by brutality, looting of temples, disrespecting the Egyptians’ religion, and an accusation of killing a newborn calf named Apis. This calf was considered one of the gods of the Egyptian people.

Nonetheless, the contemporary information from Egyptian sources denied this accusation as there were no such looting of temples and defilement of royal tombs. In fact, it was documented that Cambyses II ordered the burial of Apis in a sarcophagus. He even took part in the burial preservation and ceremony of the bull god.

Theories state that the priests might have held a grudge, portraying him in a negative light, especially in the aspect of religion, as King Cambyses II decreased the income of Egyptian temples from the offerings or taxes from the people (according to the Demotic Chronicle). He might have seen collecting huge money from the people as ridiculous. The Egyptian priesthood took this personally, hence they did everything they could to make King Cambyses II look like an antagonist in history.

We also have different historians who truthfully take notes from all the events in Cambyses II’s empire. As we can also compare the historian text and physical evidence to this day, some stories may have been fabricated, but there were also events and inscriptions that can be proven true.


Initially, Herodotus mentioned that Cambyses II married Phaedymia, the daughter of Otanes. Otanes was the brother of Cassandane; thus, technically, Cambyses II and Phaedymia were cousins. However, Herodotus made mistakes in his description, so the scholars were skeptical.

In addition to what Herodotus claimed, King Cambyses II supposedly married two of his sisters, Atossa and Roxanne. Committing this would be seen as an illegal action. As all accusations were from the same source who was trying to make King Cambyses II look like an antagonist in the Egyptian Empire, this had been confirmed as a piece of fake information.

If we are also going to look back on the history of securing nobility through ancient marriages or unification, incest was not uncommon to keep the royal bloodline pure. Therefore, this information was definitely dismissed by some scholars and historians.

Death of Cambyses II’s Brother

The Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great states that Cambyses II killed his younger brother, Bardiya, when they were traveling to Egypt. Bardiya had the position of satrap. He was also called “Tanyoxarces”, meaning “protector of the kingdom” or “keeper of the kingdom,” which referred to a Persian governor and was usually given to the crown prince. Cambyses II had no heir and spouse at that time, so he might have feared that his brother would usurp his throne. Thus, he killed him in secret, as stated in the Behistun Inscription.

However, there are different accounts of when his brother died. According to Histories by Herodotus, Smerdis died during the Egyptian Empire, not before Cambyses II left Persia, as the Behistun Inscription indicates. Either way, they both agreed that Cambyses ordered someone to kill his brother.

The murdered brother, however, was later impersonated by Gaumata or Smerdis (as Herodotus called him), who seized the Achaemenid throne in 522 BCE. King Cambyses II fled Egypt immediately and went to Persia to deal with this rise of rebellion. He confessed to his army that he secretly killed his brother and that the person claiming to be Bardiya, his brother, was fake.

Death of Cambyses II

The information on the real cause of the death of Cambyses II was inconsistent. One account said that while King Cambyses was en route from Syria to Persia, he got wounded in his thigh, which soon got infected and resulted in gangrene (the death of body tissue due to the lack of blood flow or serious infection) and eventually led him to death after three weeks.

Another account stated that Cambyses II committed suicide or was assassinated. In the account of Herodotus, the death of Cambyses II was due to the sword that slid out of his scabbard, slicing through his thigh, exactly the same place where he had stabbed the calf Apis, which made his opinion unreliable since it was derived from a biased story.

Cambyses II never encountered Smerdis in battle as he died on the way to Persia. There were several places speculated on where Cambyses II’s tomb was placed. Some said that the stone structure Takht-e Rostam was Cambyses II’s tomb, whereas others indicated that it was in Pasargadae. However, on December 13, 2006, the Iranian Heritage Organization announced that the tomb of Cambyses II was indeed in Pasargadae.


Gaumata, the impersonator, managed to claim the Persian throne but only lasted for two months when the people realized that the person in power was not the real brother of Cambyses II. King Cambyses II had no child and spouse to inherit the throne. The court official decided that the one who had the title of “lance-carrier” must inherit the Persian throne. His name was Darius, the son of Hystaspes, also famously known as Darius the Great.

Cambyses and Darius were in a campaign together as Darius was also once a lance carrier of Cyrus the Great. He claimed that they were distant cousins with the late King Cambyses II, who was crowned the new king of Persia. According to Herodotus and the Behistun Inscription, Darius and six men killed Gaumata on September 29, 522.

The whole year was an intensive battle to eliminate the rebellion of Persia, which he victoriously won, proving that he deserved to be the successor of Cambyses II.


Cambyses iiKing Cambyses II was certainly a great ruler in following the path of his father by conquering Egypt, same as what his father did in Babylon. The unification of the Persian–Egyptian Empire indeed created a lot of inconsistent information that might confuse modern historians. Nonetheless, these are some of the significant events that happened during the reign of King Cambyses II:

  • He succeeded his father on the throne after being a co-regent in his first regnal year.
  • The “Battle of Pelusium” was a famously known achievement in his entire reign.
  • His army was mysteriously lost after being sent on a military expedition to the Siwa Oasis.
  • He was portrayed to have an antagonistic image during his reign as an Egyptian ruler.

In spite of the short reign of King Cambyses II, it can’t be denied how great his contributions were to the entire Achaemenid Persian Empire. These achievements were passed on to the succeeding dynasty.

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