Amasis: The Pharaoh With No Illusions
John Ray on a ruler who mixed laddishness with mysticism in the last days of independent Egypt.
There is no denying that ancient Egypt arouses great popular interest, but most of the interest concentrates on periods which have visual impact especially the Old Kingdom, the age of the great pyramids, and the New Kingdom, the time of Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, and the splendours of the Egyptian empire. But there are lesser known delights, and one of these is the so-called Late Period, although it passes for early by most people's standards (664 – 330 BC). This period is the subject of increasing interest to scholars, but otherwise it tends to be neglected, partly because of the lack of surviving monuments, partly because of a feeling that Egypt, by this time, had passed its prime and lost its identity along with some of its independence. (The French name for this period, la basse époque, captures this feeling well.) But this is misleading, as becomes clear if we consider the case of Amasis, the last great ruler of the twenty-sixth dynasty, whose reign lasted forty-four years, from 570 to 526 BC.
The twenty-sixth dynasty originated from the Delta city of Sais, and the period of its rule is often known as Saite. However, the seat of power remained in the natural capital, Memphis, situated where the Delta joined the ribbon of the Nile valley. The dynasty began with a slow but methodical rise to power by a local ruler named Psammetichus, who assumed rule over more and more of Egypt while maintaining the pretence that he was a loyal vassal of Assyria, the invader which had conquered the country in the previous generation. At the end of his long reign, in September 604, Psammetichus handed an independent and essentially prosperous country to his son Necho, and all seemed well. But this was the sort of independence and prosperity which came with a price tag, in that success had been gained by the widespread use of foreign mercenaries. Most of these were Greeks, more specifically Ionians from the eastern coast of the Aegean, and others were Carians, an Anatolian people who have been well described by the historian Alan Lloyd as 'the Gurkhas of antiquity'.
These mercenaries were loyal to the crown which employed them, and normally played no part in factional politics, but the problem for any pharaoh was to balance his reliance on such hired assistants with the need to govern a conservatively-minded aristocracy who possessed more than a hint of xenophobia, especially when they felt that their jobs and status were under threat. In addition, this cosmopolitan society needed and encouraged trade and cultural contacts with most of the other peoples of the polyglot Near East, and it also attracted political refugees. One of the latter was the prophet Jeremiah, who ended Up gloomily in the Delta city of Daphnae, after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, where he rewarded his hosts by prophesying that they too would fall under the Babylonian yoke. Saite Egypt swung, pendulum-like, between the reality of mass immigration, since a resurgent Egypt acted like a magnet to economic refugees, and the recurrent threat of backlash from a native population with proud traditions of its own. Governing such a society was far from easy.
Problems came to a head at the end of the reign of Apries (589 – 570). Here, as usual in this period, the only connected narrative is in the history of Herodotus, but Egyptian sources in hieroglyphic do something to supplement the picture. Apries sent his army on a botched mission to conquer Cyrene in Libya, and the resulting mutiny led to the unthinkable: pharaoh was deposed. In Egyptian tradition this is unprecedented, but the likelihood is that ancient Egypt was always more chaotic than we are given to believe by our sources. According to Herodotus the army's choice of successor fell upon an obscure soldier who had been sent by Apries to negotiate with the mutineers, but who was quickly persuaded to join them. This was Amasis, and he came from Siuph, an insignificant town not far from Sais. The hieroglyphic references show that the reality was far from straightforward: although Apries was defeated in a major battle somewhere on the western arm of the Nile (probably in October 570), parts of the country, including Memphis, held out for many months in favour of the legitimate king, and an important, but sadly battered, inscription now in the Cairo Museum shows that the result was close to being a civil war.
Apries fled abroad. The lack of a proper government in Egypt prompted the Babylonians, who had succeeded the Assyrians as the major power in the Near East, to invade the country, which they did in the spring of 567, apparently bringing the deposed Apries with them. This must have added greatly to Amasis' problems, but it also gave him the same excuse that later history gave to Octavian in his war against Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra: he could pretend that the struggle was not against his fellow countrymen, but against a hated foreigner. The result was victory. This way, the reality of civil war could be disguised, the death of Apries represented as an accident, and the fact that Amasis was a usurper could be whitewashed over.
But who was this usurper? The story of this king's humble origins is regarded by modern scholars with some scepticism, although an older idea that he was really of royal blood seems to be unfounded. We happen to know the name of his mother, but not his father, but these facts in isolation do not tell us much. However, Amasis (which is the Greek form of the Egyptian name Ahmasi) clearly held a position of some trust in the entourage of Apries, and this suggests that he was not a simple soldier; certainly if he was of humble origins, his immediate acclamation by the mutineers becomes hard to explain except in terms of personal charisma. If he was not a member of the military aristocracy, he was none the less acceptable to it. This class, which corresponds to the caste which Herodotus terms machimoi (warriors), was the heir to a long and extremely chauvinistic tradition, in spite of the fact that many of them were distantly of Libyan origin.
To the Greeks, the Egyptians were barbarians, albeit rich and interesting ones, but it is worth remembering that the Egyptian aristocracy thought of themselves as pirômis – a word recorded by Herodotus, which can be translated 'gentleman', but with the added seasoning that they were the only true human beings. Egyptian peasants were probably despised by - this class almost as much as Greeks. The chief grievance of the Egyptian warriors against Apries was not so much his military incompetence, serious though this was felt to be, as the fact that he favoured foreign mercenaries rather than themselves. In other words, although he was a legitimate pharaoh, and could command considerable loyalty elsewhere in the country, Apries was seen by the old military caste as a bad Egyptian. Amasis needed to appear the opposite. All the same, the 'simple soldier' image that Herodotus gives to Amasis appears to be less than generous with the truth, and we need to ask where this image came from.
One factor which must have weighed on Amasis' mind was the need to placate the mercenary elements within the army; and this would have induced him to play down his links with the native military caste. The image of the self-made peasant soldier would have appealed to men whose careers were similar, even if the language they spoke was a different one, and their gods went under different names. (There are parallels with some of the later Roman Emperors, who tended to exaggerate their own humble origins for much the same reason.) Among the Egyptians in general, Amasis had everything to gain from making a contrast with the hauteur that had characterised Apries. At the same time his apparent separation from the Egyptian machimoi would have been seen by foreigners as essential. These two poses could be reconciled. Amasis had stumbled upon a formula which fitted the peculiarities of his times, and his origins as a usurper, and he lost little time in developing this image.
In Herodotus, Amasis appears as a philhellene, preoccupied with making expensive donations to the principal shrines of Greece, in particular that of Apollo at Delphi, which had launched an appeal for reconstruction. The Greeks lived in great poverty compared with their neighbours in the Near East, and they showed a perennial fascination with this contrast and tended to spin tales about it, but it is likely that Amasis did show generosity in this way. Greeks and Anatolians were now settled in Egypt in considerable numbers, and Amasis was no longer dependent on recruitment from abroad, but it was still important for him to be on good terms with his mercenaries' homelands; he needed to represent himself as an international figure, and donations to temples were an accepted way of doing this. The Greeks returned the compliment by showing an increasing fascination with all things Egyptological, and both Solon, the poet and lawgiver, and Pythagoras, the reincarnationalist philosopher, are traditionally supposed to have visited Egypt at this time, and to have sat at the feet of the priests of Heliopolis and other learned shrines along the Nile.
Nevertheless, Amasis needed to keep his eye on the pendulum. There was a limit to the amount of indulgence he could show to foreigners on Egyptian soil, and a good example of his ability to find a compromise can be seen in his treatment of the Greek settlement at Naucratis in the western Delta. The king assigned exclusive trading rights between Egypt and the Aegean world to this city, which Herodotus represents as a new foundation. Archaeology, however, shows that the site, which was more like a trade emporium than a city in the normal sense, existed well before Amasis' day, and the most likely explanation is that the whole affair was an exquisite sleight of hand by a wily monarch: the Greeks were given to believe that they were being allowed a monopoly of a very rich market, importing oil, wine and ceramics and exporting grain, textiles and metals, while in reality further Greek settlement in Egypt was effectively banned. In this way, both foreigners and Egyptians believed that they were gaining a concession. The Naucratis settlement shows political tight-rope walking of a high order.
But there is another reason which lurks behind this apparent love of the Greek word, and that is the pharaoh's increasing need to develop sea power. Egypt at all times was vulnerable to a full-scale attack from the north east; in the first half of Amasis' reign the threat came from Babylonians, and in the second half from the growing power of Persia. Although the former power was not in a position to conquer Egypt permanently, it could deliver a severe setback, which would be enough to topple Amasis from his throne. However, an enemy holding Syria and Palestine was itself vulnerable to actions from the sea, and with a state-of-the-art navy pharaoh could cause enough disturbance along the Levantine coast to keep hostile armies away from Egypt's frontier. The Greeks possessed this technology, and Amasis needed access to it, both in terms of ships and of crews. Armed with a growing naval confidence, the pharaoh could attempt alliances with any state which was in a position to annoy his enemies. Such a confidence probably explains his most spectacular volte face, which came in the 550s, when the king realised that Babylonia was no longer a threat, and formed an anti-Persian quadruple alliance with Sparta, the Anatolian kingdom of Lydia and his old enemy, Babylon. In the short run, Lydia found that this policy was a mistake, since it was swallowed up by the rising power of Persia (516), but it gave Egypt, and Amasis, another twenty years of. independence. The wily monarch had survived again.
One of Amasis' most outrageous achievements was his invasion of Cyprus, which he managed to do without abandoning the claim that he was a philhellene, since he was able to represent his conquest of the island as a liberation from Asiatic rule. This took place about 56O BC, and marks the beginning of a new style in Cypriot sculpture and architecture, which drew heavily on Egyptian influence. This art is still relatively unknown, although anyone who is in a position to visit the Cesnola collection of sculptures, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will be able to form a vivid impression of it. Needless to say, the motive of Amasis in taking over the island was less to act as a patron of hybrid art than to use the place as a naval base for harassing the coastline of Phoenicia and forestalling an invasion of Egypt. But the archaeological evidence suggests that the island prospered as a result of his intervention. Amasis knew how to have his cake and eat it, and he also knew when to share it with others.
A similar background may explain Amasis' alliance with the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, which figures prominently in Herodotus, and which probably took place towards the encl of the reign, early in the 520s. Samos was famous for naval technology and for advanced engineering, things which Amasis needed to buy. There is an infusion of Egyptian sculptural ideas into Samos, similar to the ones seen in Cyprus, and the reign of Amasis may well correspond to a formative period in early Greek statuary. But there is also the same abrupt change of policy, which Herodotus represents by a story of folklore, but which none the less reflects the reputation for wisdom which Amasis had acquired for himself: the gods were jealous of Polycrates and his good fortune, so to avoid his doom the tyrant followed Amasis' advice and threw his most precious possession, a ring, into the sea. The ring came back to him inside a fish, caught by a fisherman, and Polycrates knew that his fate was inescapable. Amasis, not wishing to be associated with an impious cause, broke off the alliance. The last bit is likely to be true, and Samos fell not long after. Like Lydia, it had been set up as a target to divert attention from Egypt.
So far we have been watching Amasis as a character on the international stage, but he was primarily pharaoh of Egypt, and it worth looking at him as he appeared, or wished to appear, to his subjects. Once again, the stories in Herodotus are illuminating, in spite of their Greek disguise, since it is clear that they were deliberately encouraged by the pharaoh in an attempt to capitalise on his popularity. When asked why he gives up official chores in the evening and takes to the wine bottle, Amasis replies that an experienced archer always unstrings his bow at the end of the day, in order to relax it. When criticised for his humble origins, he sends for the equivalent of the royal bidet, melts it down and turns it into the statue of a god on a street corner; people immediately take to worship- ping it, thus proving that it is what you have become that counts, and not where you have been. Amasis' honeymoon with a lady from Cyrene, Ladike, is spoiled by a defect which may or may not have been the result of too much alcohol; but the story has a happy ending, which was certainly a good thing for Ladike. (Amasis is known to have had children by other wives, among them a prince Psammetichus, born to him by one Takheta, a lady who may well have had foreign blood. Such marriage alliances were clearly useful to him.)
All this might be thought the product of the Greeks' fevered imagination, but it is borne out by an Egyptian papyrus, which contains the opening of a disreputable tale. The text is in fact a parody of the genre known to Egyptologists as the Königsnovelle, a literary device in which the king is advised by his policy makers not to attempt a bold course of action for fear of the consequences, but goes ahead anyway and proves them all wrong. In this version, Amasis declares his intention of drinking the most potent of Egyptian vintages in huge jars, the equivalent perhaps of jeroboams. The courtiers are horrified by this suggestion, hut the king falls to the task notwithstanding. The king's resulting hangover bids fair to cripple the process of government, until a ship's captain volunteers to rouse him from his stupor with a distinctly nautical story, most of which is unfortunately lost. This is not simply a comic tale; what is happening here is that Amasis is using the Egyptians' distinctive love of satire to secure his own image as the merry monarch, the loveable rogue who understands his subjects. Satire was an important safety valve in such a conformist society, and who would want to plot against such a man, or feel nostalgia for the austere Apries whom he had supplanted?
Hangovers or otherwise, the business of government continued. One of the problems about administering Saite Egypt had been the fact that, for several centuries, Upper Egypt and the Delta had used mutually unintelligible writing systems. By the 550s this came to an end. Demotic, the script used in the north, became the sole administrative medium. Upper Egypt was a proud region, with a long- standing suspicion of the Delta and its ways, and it must have taken much persuasion to alter things. Persuasion was what Amasis was good at, and the gain in efficiency, as well as economy, must have been considerable. Some of the resulting wealth was applied to a selective programme of temple building, principally in the two capitals of Sais and Memphis. The shrine of Abydos, the place of pilgrimage which was the resting place of the god Osiris, was always dependent on royal patronage, and had lapsed into decay. Amasis undertook a complete programme of restoration, under the aegis of an energetic courtier, Peftuaneith. Other building projects are known, although the chances of time, and archaeology, have not favoured their preservation.
At the same time, there was a process affecting much of Egyptian society, which had been under way for more than a century. On one level, it takes the form of an artistic renaissance based on the sculpture and architecture of the Old Kingdom, and to a lesser extent other periods; although we are talking about ancient Egypt, it is worth recalling that the time gap between Amasis and the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza is the same as that which separates us from the reign of Augustus. Side by side with this conscious archaism goes a tendency to develop those aspects of Egyptian religion which seem most strange to us, notably the cult and burial of sacred animals and the growth of the oracles based on them. These were the aspects which also seemed strange to contemporaries who were not Egyptian, and there is no reason to imagine that this is a coincidence. Egypt, as we have said, was a multi-racial society, and in practice must have been close to being multi-lingual. Such a society will feel a need to define itself; if it is not to lose cohesion and fly apart at the seams. Saite Egypt did this by stressing its roots, and by exaggerating those aspects of its intellectual life which were felt to be most characteristic, and, therefore, most real. Multi- racial Egypt may have been; multi-cultural it was not, and such a sentiment must have appealed to the conservative machimoi. Many of these aspects reached their peak during the long and prosperous reign of Amasis.
However, when all is considered, Amasis' religious devotion appears rather patchy, and this is reflected in another anecdote, surely apocryphal. Herodotus records that in his youth Amasis had been a petty thief, and in later life he refused to show any respect for those oracles which had failed to convict him. There is no chance of this being true, although it may well have originated in a private joke, but it does bring us up against an intriguing question. How much of this religion did Amasis believe? To a modern mind, the cynicism of his politics would suggest that he shared a similar scepticism when it came to the gods. However, this is probably to misunderstand the situation. Open atheism is unattested in ancient Egypt, partly for the obvious reason that it does not declare itself in our sources, but partly because it was not necessary. As pharaoh, Amasis' job was not to believe in a dogma, but to carry out a ritual role, and promote the harmony of the state. Theology could be left to the priesthood, unless, like Akhenaten, the king was minded to intervene, and the fate of Akhenaten had been to suffer damnatio memoriae. Perhaps Amasis had the superstition of the professional soldier, and trusted whichever gods he believed had brought him to the throne and would help to keep him there. That was all that was needed; after all, he had seen many peoples and known their ways, and at the end of the day it was his custom to unstring the bow.
In the king's forty-first year, demotic sources record a campaign into Nubia, hut although this was thoroughly prepared, it was probably an exercise in flag-waving rather than an exception to a military policy that was essentially defensive; the Nubians were being warned to remember the power of pharaoh, and not to throw in their lot with Persia. But Amasis was no longer young, and he died in December 526 BC. He was buried at Sais, a small but noticeable distance away from the tomb of Apries, but his rest was soon disturbed.
John Ray is Herbert Thompson Reader in Egyptology at Selwyn College, Cambridge.
- Herodotus, The Histories (Penguin, 1982)
- Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd Ed vol. III part 2 (1991), ch. 35 (by T.G.H. James) and vol. III part 3 (1982), chs 36b and 36c (by T.F.R.C;. Braun and V. Karageorghis)
- John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (Thames & Hudson, 1980)
- P.C. Elgood, The Later Dynasties of Egypt (Oxford, 1951)
- Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford, 1961)
- Mary F. Gyles, Pharaonic Policies and Administration, 663 to 332 B.C. (Chapel Hill, 1959)
- M.A. Leahy, 'The earliest dated monument of Amasis and the end of the reign of Apries', Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 74 (1983)
- A.B. Lloyd, Herodous Book II: A Commentary (3 vols, Leiden 1975, 1976 and 1988)
- A.B. Lloyd in B.G. Trigger et al, Ancient Egypt: A Social History (Cambridge, 1983)
- Peter Der Manuelian, Living in the Past. Studies in Archaism of the Egyptian Dynasty (KPI, 1994).
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