Pelusium, the battle the Persians won over the Egyptians by throwing cats at them.


Throughout History, men have not had enough of tearing each other apart in an endless number of wars, but they have incorporated all kinds of animals into the slaughters, from the most orthodox such as horses, mules, elephants and dogs to other rarer ones, such as pigeons wrapped in fire, birds in flames to burn roofs (apart from carrier pigeons), cattle (in stampedes provoked ad hoc), bees or snakes (thrown in jars against ships or enemy fortifications). But probably one of the most unheard of employed in those warlike necessities has been the cat.

At first glance it is a bit disconcerting to imagine felines in combat which are not major beasts – for example, it is said that Ramesses II had a trained lion who fought beside him in the Battle of Kadesh and there are no lack of similar cases with tigers or leopards – and it does not seem that the nails of a cat have enough power to face a warrior. However, there is at least one case in which this species was responsible for the capture of a city: the Battle of Pelusium.

Pelusium or Pelosio was a city in Lower Egypt, located in the Nile Delta, although that name derived from the Greek and was later given by the classic authors, the real was Per-Amon. In the middle of the 6th century B.C. there was little left of the ancient Egyptian splendour; threatened by Persian expansionism, at that time no pharaoh possessed sufficient strength to prevent not only its borders from being crossed but even the loss of some points of his own territory. It was what happened with Pelusium, if we give veracity to the story of Herodotus, not confirmed by the archaeological record.

In the year 526 B.C. Psamtik III, son of Amasis II, of the XXVI dynasty, ascended to the throne. The period of government of the latter had been prosperous and long, more than forty years, which shows his good work because although noble had no royal blood and had come to power in a military coup. The influence of Egypt with Amosis reached places such as Cyprus in the north, Cyrene in the west and the first waterfall in the south, but the Persian Empire already appeared in the east.

The Pharaoh Psamtik III/Photo: Juan R. Lázaro in Wikimedia Commons

Herodotus narrates a curious cause as the trigger of everything: Amasis had sent an Egyptian doctor – they were famous all over the world – to the court of Cambyses II, but the doctor (probably an ophthalmologist, according to some scholars), resentful of this forced mission, decided to take revenge by sowing tares between the two kings and suggested his new master to ask Pharaoh for the hand of his daughter, aware that the proposal would not please him. So it was; Amasis preferred to send the daughter of his overthrown predecessor posing as his but she revealed the truth to Cambyses, who felt insulted.

This recourse to the distorting element of diplomatic relations is classic and Herodotus insists on it with the story of a Pharaoh’s advisor, a Greek mercenary called Fanes of Halicarnassus who would also have sought refuge in Persia after disagreements with Amasis, informing Cambyses of all the details necessary to begin the conquest of Egypt. Of course, there were deeper reasons -economic and political- to initiate the campaign and it was under the reign of Psamtik III when the disaster arrived.

The young and inexperienced Pharaoh could not be compared to a figure like Cambyses II, the heir of Cyrus the Great and as willing as he was to expand his domains. Egypt was already the only state that remained independent in the area, so its conquest was a matter of time. In the year 525 B.C. the Persian army took the step and crossed the Sinai Peninsula logistically aided by the indigenous tribes. The Pharaoh’s only possibility was to obtain help from the Greek cities with which he maintained good commercial relations but it turned out that these joined Cambyses with their respective fleets, so the fate of the African country was cast.

Psamtik put himself in front of his men to try to stop the advance of the enemy and Pelusium was the scene of the clash. Although the number of troops on both sides is unknown, the Greek historian Ctesias tells in his Persica that both Egyptians and Persians had foreign allies and mercenaries: Ionians and Cararians the former, other Greeks and Bedouins the latter. The struggle was bloody but there was no color, at that time the Achaemenid Empire was the main power of the known world and militarily Egypt was not a rival.

The Achaemenide Empire / Image: William R. Shepherd in Wikimedia Commons

Thus, the Persian troops devastated the formations of the Egyptians, who were tremendously disturbed to see that the adversary had on his shields the image of Bastet, the goddess of the Egyptian pantheon that embodied harmony and happiness and whose iconographic representation had the form of a cat (or woman with a feline head and carrying a sistrum). According to another version, they were not painted images but cats tied in the manner of living armor, which provoked the reluctance of the soldiers to strike against that disconcerting defense, which was one of the causes of the defeat.

The fact is that Herodotus puts the gloomy image of a sea of skulls (according to him, the Egyptians were distinguished by having the hardest skin, the result of their habit of shaving from an early age), while Ctesias details that the Persians caused them fifty thousand casualties for only seven thousand of their own. Unable to resist the enemy’s push, Psamtik and the survivors had to turn back in a dramatic retreat -practically a save yourself- and get to safety behind the walls of Pelusium.

One could then wait for the beginning of a siege but it turns out that it was not necessary either, again thanks to the cats and this time very real. The story is told by Polyaenus, a Macedonian general and lawyer from the 2nd century A.D. who wrote a military treatise in eight books entitled Stratagems (of which only references remain because it has been lost), and who explains that the Persians threw those animals that Egyptians considered sacred over the battlements in order to obtain a kind of covering fire in their assaults. Fundamentally they were cats, which, in effect, paralyzed the Egyptian actions and led them to abandon the fortress, continuing their disbanded up to Memphis.

Cambyses captures Psamtik (Persian relief)/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

On the other side, Herodotus does not mention this unusual tactic, but he does mention another equally demoralizing one: Cambyses had Amasis’ tomb profaned and his mummy burned. Then, after taking Pelusium, he sent a herald to Memphis to negotiate their surrender but the Egyptians killed him, so a real revenge was unleashed in which ten Egyptians died for each Persian, either in combat or later executions, adding about two thousand people of the Menphyte elite: priests, nobles, senior officials and even one of the sons of Pharaoh. Of course, the Greek historian only picks up the version of the losers.

Memphis fell, then. Psamtik was taken prisoner and subjected to the humiliation of seeing his daughter forced to work collecting water from the Nile and his son chained and harnessed like a saddle before losing his life. On the other side, according to Persian tradition, he was well treated until later, when his participation in a rebellion against the invader was discovered, he committed suicide – or was forced to commit suicide – ending his dynasty and making way for the XXVII, the Achaemenid, which lasted until 404 BC.

The encounter between Cambyses II and Psamtik III (by Adrien Guignet)/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

There would still be a fascinating epilogue collected also by Herodotus: that of the Persian army sent to seize the oasis of Siwa, where the famous Oracle of Amon was located, the same that Alexander the Great would later visit to be invested with mysterious divinity. As this place is inland, in the middle of the desert, the Cambyses soldiers were surprised by a sandstorm that made them get lost forever. It is probably a legend, typical but so fascinating that many people have tried to find their remains and in 2009 an Italian archaeological expedition found human bones along with weapons and bronze ornaments identified as achaemenides.

Sources: Los nueve libros de la Historia (Heródoto)/The complete fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: translation and commentary with an introduction (Andrew Nichols)/Stratagems (Polyaenus en Attalus)/The world of Ancient Egypt. A Daily Life Encyclopedia (Peter Lacovara)/The Ancient History of the Near East. From the Earliest Times to the Battle of Salamis (H.R. Hall)/A History Of Persia (Sir Percy Sykes)/Wikipedia