Sunday, January 19, 2014

Did Cambyses Have Cats Nailed to His Soldiers' Shields?

Yesterday, I finished reading Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Last Years of Roman Republic.  Excellent and highly recommended.  Even if you know the period well, he brings it and many of the personalities to life. You also get a whiff of just how weird and alien the Romans were (but that's another story).  I then promptly took up another of his histories, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, about the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire founded by Cyrus the Great and the Persian Wars.  I'm only a few pages in, but as with Rubicon the vivid writing promises to bring drama to a well known period.

Soon into the book, however, I ran into a following startling assertion relating to the invasion of Egypt by Cyrus's son Cambyses II in 525 BC.  According to Holland, Cambyses defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Pelusium in the eastern Nile delta by using a unique trick:

When the Persians finally met the Egyptians in battle, it is said that they did so with cats pinned to their shields, reducing their opponents' archers, for whom the animals were sacred, to a state of paralysis.  Victory was duly won.  Pelusium, the gateway to Egypt, was stormed, and the bodies of the defeated left scattered across the sands . . ..

Cats pinned to shields? Yikes!  I'd never heard that one before.  But whether for that reason or some other the story just seemed too bizarre, so I took a closer look.  The source, duly noted by the author, was one Polyaenus, a Macedonian who in the mid-second century AD ("perhaps a suspiciously late date," Holland admits) wrote a book called Stratagems in War in eight volumes.

Having never heard of Polyaenus either, I thought I'd take a look.  His Stratagems, it turns out, are freely available on the internet in both the original Greek and in English translation.  Alas, it appears that Mr. Holland has taken some liberties.  A standard English translation reads as follows:
When Cambyses attacked Pelusium, which guarded the entrance into Egypt, the Egyptians defended it with great resolution. They advanced formidable engines against the besiegers, and hurled missiles, stones, and fired at them from their catapults. To counter this destructive barrage, Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The Egyptians immediately stopped their operations, out of fear of hurting the animals, which they hold in great veneration. Cambyses captured Pelusium, and thereby opened up for himself the route into Egypt.

How accurate is the English translation?  Focusing on the key sentence ("Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred") a look at the original Greek shows the translation to be very close.  The original Greek uses a form of the verb "tasso", which typically refers to placing soldiers in a line of battle: "Cambyses placed [the cats and other animals] in line of battle in front of his own army."  No mention of shields or pinning the animals to them.

On the other hand, as the owner of multiple cats, I can attest that it is hard to imagine placing cats in a line of battle in front of an advancing army.  It's also doubtful that placing animals, particularly small ones like cats and dogs, on the ground, would prevent skilled archers from firing at soldiers behind them.  So perhaps Mr. Holland's reconstruction isn't all that unreasonable.  In this regard, it's interesting to note that the Wikipedia entry on the Battle of Pelusium comes up with yet another reconstruction (without admitting that it is not exactly in the text) (emphasis added):
Polyaenus claims that, according to legend, Cambyses captured Pelusium by using a clever strategy. The Egyptians regarded certain animals, especially cats, as being sacred, and would not injure them on any account. Polyaenus claims that Cambyses had his men carry the "sacred" animals in front of them to the attack. The Egyptians did not dare to shoot their arrows for fear of wounding the animals, and so Pelusium was stormed successfully.
Yet other pages on the internet, to which I won't link to, have come up with the idea (out of whole cloth so far I can tell) that Cambyses and his soldiers threw cats at Egyptians.

So did Cambyses and his men herd, carry, throw or pin the cats to their shields? Or is the whole story (related almost 700 years after the fact) a wild fabrication?  Your choice.
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