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Megabyzus (2)

Megabyzus (Old Persian Baghabuxša) (c.516-c.440): Persian nobleman, most important Persian commander during the first half of the fifth century BCE.

Achaemenid nobleman
Achaemenid nobleman
Megabyzus was the son of Zopyrus and a sister of king Darius I the Great. Zopyrus' father Megabyzus had played an important role in the civil war in the Achaemenid empire after the death of king Cambyses in 522 (he had helped to kill the usurper Gaumâta) and Zopyrus may have played a role in one of the recaptures of Babylon, which revolted twice (under Nidintu-Bêl in 522 and under Arakha in 521).

During the reign of king Darius the Great, Zopyrus occupied an important office in Babylon. However, after the accession of Xerxes, the Babylonians revolted and killed Zopyrus (according to the Greek historian Ctesias). The immediate cause may have been that Xerxes had not attended all rituals in the main temple of Babylon, the Esagila. The king ordered Zopyrus' son Megabyzus to take the city, which he did. If Ctesias' chronology is correct, this happened before Xerxes' campaign against Greece. It has been argued that the Babylonian leaders were Šamaš-eriba and Bêl-šimânni, rebel kings known from cuneiform texts, which date their insurrection to 484.

According to the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Megabyzus was one of the supreme commanders during Xerxes' campaign against Greece in 480. Like all generals, he was closely related to the king: Megabyzus was married to Anytis, a daughter of Xerxes. Megabyzus' exact role during the Greek expedition is not known, except for the fact that he led one third of the army from the Hellespont through Thrace and Paeonia to Macedonia. It is probable that Megabyzus stayed with Xerxes during the rest of the campaign, being present at a.o. the battle of Thermopylae.

Ctesias tells that in the summer of 479, Xerxes ordered Megabyzus to pillage the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. His son-in-law, however, refused to do so. This makes no sense: the Persians venerated Apollo (he was considered identical to their own supreme god Ahuramazda) and would never have destroyed one of his temples. The explanation may be that Megabyzus is the nameless commander of the peaceful expedition to Delphi in 480 (incorrectly presented by Herodotus as a violent attack warded off by divine intervention).

At the same time, still following Ctesias, Megabyzus' wife Amytis was accused of adultery. Her father Xerxes called her to order again. Many scholars have connected this incident to an adulterous adventure of Xerxes himself, told by Herodotus. Actually, there is no proof to connect the two incidents, except for the fact that they took place at more or less the same time: after the expedition to Greece.

It is not known what Megabyzus' function was during the next quarter of a century, but he may have been satrap of Syria.

Xerxes was killed in the first days of August 465 and succeeded by his son Artaxerxes I Makrocheir. Almost immediately, several parts of the Achaemenid empire revolted; among these countries were Bactria and Egypt. The Egyptian Inarus defeated the Persian satrap, Artaxerxes' brother Achaemenes, seized control of Lower Egypt and opened negotiations with the Greeks. In 460, Athens, which was officially still at war with Persia, sent an expeditionary force of two hundred ships and six thousand heavy infantry to help Inarus. Together, they captured Memphis, except for the Persian citadel, which held out for several years. To the Persians, the rebellion was very serious, because many Persian noblemen possessed land in Egypt, and they did not appreciate that the new king considered the Bactrian revolt of greater importance. The Persian high command not only had to overcome at least two rebellions, but also its own officers. 

In 456, Artaxerxes sent Megabyzus and Artabazus, the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, to Egypt. Although they had three hundred ships at their disposal, their huge army - 200,000 men according to Ctesias' exaggerated History of the Persians - took the land route. Artabazus, who must have been an old man, is hardly mentioned in our sources; Megabyzus, on the other hand, played an important role during the campaign.

He managed to drive away the Athenians end Egyptians from Memphis and isolated them on an island called Prosopis. In June 454, when the Nile was low and the Athenians could not use their ships, Megabyzus launched an attack on the island. Shortly before the decisive battle, he offered terms to the Athenians, who left their allies and went to Cyrene. After this, the Egyptians were easily defeated and Inarus was taken captive.

According to Ctesias (who is not known for his reliability but is our only source), Megabyzus almost fell into disfavor after his victory. The queen-mother, Xerxes' wife Amestris, was enraged because Megabyzus had not punished the Greeks. After all, they had been the collaborators of the man who had killed her son Achaemenes. Initially, her son Artaxerxes did not allow her her revenge, but after five years (in 449?), he permitted Amestris to crucify Inarus and kill several captive Athenians. Megabyzus, who had given his word that Inarus would not be killed, was unable to bear this humiliation and requested to be allowed to return from Artaxerxes' court to Syria. This permission was granted.

So far Ctesias. The story seems contradicted by the facts, because we know from another source, that in 449/448, Megabyzus and Artabazus were still occupied with the war against the Greeks.note The theater of operations was Cyprus, which belonged to Megabyzus' presumed satrapy Syria. It is certain that Artabazus and Megabyzus opened negotiations with the Athenians. This resulted in the Peace of Callias.

Ctesias continues his history with an account of Megabyzus' personal war against Artaxerxes, in which his sons Zopyrus and Artyphius were also engaged. With the help of Greek mercenaries, they defeated two Persian armies, commanded by Ousiris and Menostanes. After this, Artaxerxes decided to negotiate and offered Megabyzus an unconditional pardon. The former rebel returned to the king's court, but it did not take long before troubles started again: during a hunt, he saved the king's life, but in doing so, he threw his spear before the king could throw his - something that was forbidden. Consequently, Megabyzus was exiled to a town near the Persian Gulf. However, after five years, he dressed himself as a leper and returned to his wife Amytis. She used her influence with her brother Artaxerxes and Megabyzus was pardoned again. On Ctesias' chronology, he returned to the Persian court in c.444 BCE and died not much later at the age of seventy-six.

This story sounds incredible, but people like Menostanes are known from contemporary cuneiform sources and Ctesias was in the position to interview eyewitnesses. Perhaps, Megabyzus' revolt is indeed a fact, although we do not know why he rebelled (it is unlikely to have been indignation about Inarus' fate). It is also possible that he was pardoned, but he was probably sent into exile immediately.

The rebellion is interesting, because he was the first Persian commander to use Greek mercenaries during a revolt. This was to become a general practice. It also shows that a Persian nobleman could be pardoned, even after he had defeated two armies.

Megabyzus' son Zopyrus is known to have lived in Athens after his father's death, probably in voluntary exile.

This page was created in 2000; last modified on 23 October 2014.