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Herodotus' sixth logos: Egypt

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Map of Egypt at the end of the sixth century BCE. Design Jona Lendering. Lower Egypt

Egyptian history (2.100-182)

The third logos of Herodotus' Histories is entirely devoted to Egyptian history. It starts with the legendary first pharaoh Min; Herodotus claims that since this legendary king 330 pharaohs have ruled. 

He does not mention all of them, but gives some attention to the great conqueror Sesostris, who has conquered the whole world. The only notable fact about his successor Pheros ('pharaoh') is that he was blind. He is succeeded by Proteus, a name that Herodotus also knows from the Odyssey and allows him to digress at great length on the Trojan War and to discuss the possibility that Helen was never at Troy but remained in Egypt.

Herodotus
Sesostris III as a young man. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Senusret III (Nelson-Atkins museum, New York; ©!!!)

The next pharaoh is Rhampsinitus, who is so wealthy that he had to store all his wealth in a large store room. Herodotus tells us a very entertaining fairy tale about a cunning thief who managed to rob the treasury (and after all kinds of adventures marries the king's daughter and lives happily ever after).

Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus are the next kings to rule Egypt. They are credited with the building of the three pyramids at Gizeh, which are described in great detail. Herodotus claims that he has measured the pyramids personally. Another pyramid he describes is that of Asychis, the pharaoh who succeeded Mycerinus.

 
Shabaqo. Bust from the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Shabaqo (Louvre)

The blind Anysis is the next ruler of Egypt, but he loses his kingdom to the Kushite king Sabacus. After a reign of half a century, however, this man has a dream that causes him to leave the country and return it to Anysis.

His successor is the high priest Sethos, who ignores Egypt's military needs and is attacked by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. The gods intervene and ensure that mice destroy the attacking army. Having described this incident, Herodotus digresses on the antiquity of Egypt and its gods.

His next subject is the Dodecarchy, the reign of twelve rulers who divided Egypt. This experiment with collegial rule was no success, and Psammetichus reunites the country. He is supported by Greek and Carian mercenaries and succeeded by his son Necho, who conquered Gaza. His successors are Psammis and Apries, who is presented as a successful ruler who campaigned in Phoenicia.

 
Bust of Amasis. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.Bust of Amasis (Louvre, Paris)

However, his intervention in the Greek town Cyrene (in modern Libya) is unhappy and the people revolt. The new king is Amasis. He is to be the last ruler of independent Egypt.

Comment

The third Egyptian logos is a curious mixture of facts, fiction and fairy tales. Among the latter is of course the story about king Rhampsinitus and the thief. Sometimes, we can see why our Greek researcher tells a story. That Sesostris -the name of a real Egyptian pharaoh- was a great conqueror must be Herodotus' own invention: he tells us that Sesostris had made a monument in the neighborhood of modern Izmir in which he had written that he had met only effeminate warriors in this part of the world. In the Karabel pass, there is a monument with Hittitic hieroglyphs that fits the description; since Herodotus cannot have known the difference between the hieroglyphs of the Hittites and the Egyptians, his mistake is understandable (text).
 
Rock relief at Karabel, Turkey. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Karabel relief

On the whole, Herodotus' description improves when he comes closer to his own time. He has grossly underestimated the date of  the building of the pyramids, his tale about the Kushite pharaoh Sabacus already contains some elements of truth, and his narrative on the twenty-sixth or Saite dynasty (ruled 672-525) is pretty accurate. For example, Herodotus tells that these kings campaigned in the east, and we know why: to prevent a Assyrian or Babylonian attack on Egypt.

Herodotus is aware of his growing reliability and explains why: under these pharaohs, there were Greek mercenaries and merchants in Egypt, who lived in Naucratis. Culturally, these people were living between two cultures, as is illustrated by the sarcophagus of Wahibra-Emakhet.
 
Greek name Egyptian name
Necho I Mencheperra Nekau
672-664
Psammetichus Wahibra Psamtik I
664-610
Necho II Wehemibra Nekau
610-595
Psammis Neferibra Psamtik II
595-589
Apries Ha'a'ibra Wahibra
589-567
Amasis Chenibra Amose-si-Neith
570-526
Psammenitus Anchkaenra Psamtik III
525

 

Literature

  • Alan B. Lloyd, commentary on Herodotus. Book Two. Its three volumes appeared in Leiden between 1975 and 1988.
  • Alan B. Lloyd, 'Herodotus on Egyptians and Libyans' in: Hérodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposés suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquité classique, tome XXV) (1990 Genève), pages 215-253
  • Alan B. Lloyd, "Egypt" in: Egbert Bakker, Irene de Jong and Hans van Wees (eds.), Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002 Leiden), pages 415-436.

 
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