Second Persian conquest of Egypt

Second Persian conquest of Egypt

Ochus, besides his 330,000 Asiatics, had now a force of 14,000 Greeks, the mercenaries under Mentor having joined him. Marshalling his army in four divisions, he proceeded to the attack. The first, second, and third divisions contained, each of them, a contingent of Greeks and a contingent of Asiatics, commanded respectively by a Greek and a Persian leader. The Greeks of the first division, consisting mainly of Bœotians, were under the orders of Lacrates, a Theban of enormous strength, who regarded himself as a second Hercules, and adopted the traditional costume of that hero, a lion's skin and a club. His Persian colleague was Rhosaces, satrap of Ionia and Lydia, who claimed descent from one of "the Seven" that put down the conspiracy of the Magi. In the second division, where the Argive mercenaries served, the Greek leader was Nicostratus, the Persian Aristazanes, a court usher, and one of the most trusted friends of the king. Mentor and the eunuch Bagoas, Ochus's chief minister in his later years, were at the head of the third division, Mentor commanding his own mercenaries, and Bagoas the Greeks whom Ochus had levied in his own dominions, together with a large body of Asiatics. The king himself was sole commander of the fourth division, as well as commander-in-chief of the entire host. Nekht-nebf, on his side, was only able to oppose to this vast array an army less than one-third of the size. He had enrolled as many as sixty thousand of the Egyptian warrior class, and had the services of twenty thousand Greek mercenaries, and of about the same number of Libyan troops.

Pelusium, as usual, was the first point of attack. Nekht-nebf had taken advantage of the long delay of Ochus in Syria to see that the defences of Egypt were in good order; he had made preparations for resistance at all the seven mouths of the Nile, and had guarded Pelusium with especial care. Ochus, as he had expected, advanced along the coast route which led to this place. Part of his army traversed the narrow spit of land which separated the Lake Serbonis from the Mediterranean, and in doing so met with a disaster. A strong wind setting in from the north, as the troops were passing, brought the waters of the Mediterranean over the low strip of sand which is ordinarily dry, and confounding sea and shore and lake together, caused the destruction of a large detachment; but the main army, which had probably kept Lake Serbonis on the right, reached its destination intact. A skirmish followed between the Theban troops of the first division under Lacrates and the garrison of Pelusium under Philophron; but this first engagement was without definite result.

The two armies lay now for a while on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, which was well protected by forts, fortified towns, and a network of canals on either side of it. There was every reason to expect that Nekht-nebf, by warily guarding his frontier, and making full use of his resources, might baffle for a considerable time, if not wholly frustrate, the Persian attack. But his combined self-conceit and timidity ruined his cause. Taking the direction of affairs wholly upon himself and asking no advice from his Greek captains, he failed to show any of the qualities of a great commander, and was speedily involved in difficulties with which he was quite incapable of dealing. Having had his first line of defence partially forced by a bold movement on the part of the Argives under Nicostratus, instead of trying to redeem the misfortune by a counter-movement, or a concentration of troops, he hastily abandoned to his generals the task of continuing the resistance on this outer line, and retiring to Memphis, concentrated all his efforts on making preparations to resist a siege.

Meantime, the Persians were advancing. Lacrates the Theban set himself to reduce Pelusium, and, having drained dry one of the ditches, brought his military engines up to the walls of the place. In vain, however, did he batter down a portion of the wall--the garrison had erected another wall behind it; in vain did he advance his towers--they had movable towers ready prepared to resist him. No progress had been made by the besiegers, when on a sudden the resistance of the besieged slackened. Intelligence had reached them of Nekht-nebf's hasty retreat. If the king gave up hope, why should they pour out their blood to no purpose? Accordingly they made overtures to Lacrates for a surrender upon terms, and it was agreed that they should be allowed to evacuate the place and return to Greece, with all the goods and chattels that they could carry with them. Bagoas demurred to the terms; but Ochus confirmed them, and Pelusium passed into the possession of the Persians without further fighting.

About the same time Mentor had proceeded southwards and laid siege to Bubastis. Having invested the town, he caused intelligence to reach the besieged that Ochus had determined to spare all who should surrender their cities to him without resistance, and to treat with the utmost severity all who should fight strenuously in their defence. By these means he introduced dissension within the walls of the towns, since the native Egyptians and their Greek allies naturally distrusted and suspected each other. At Bubastis the Egyptians were the first to move. The siege had only just begun when they sent an envoy to Mentor's colleague, Bagoas, to offer to surrender the town to him. But this proceeding did not suit the Greeks, who caught the messenger, extracted from him his message, and then attacked the Egyptian portion of the garrison and slew great numbers of them. The Egyptians, however, though beaten, persisted, established communication with Bagoas, and fixed a day on which they would receive his forces into the town. Mentor, who wished to secure to himself the credit of the surrender, hereupon exhorted his Greek friends to be on the watch, and, when the time came, to resist the movement. This they did with such success that they not only frustrated the attempt, but captured Bagoas himself, who had ventured within the walls. Bagoas had to implore the interference of his colleague on his behalf, and was obliged to promise that henceforth he would attempt nothing without Mentor's knowledge and consent. Mentor gained his ends, had the credit of being the person to whom the town surrendered itself, and at the same time established his ascendancy over Bagoas. It is clear that had the Egyptians possessed an active and able commander, advantage might have been taken of the jealousies which divided the Persian generals from their Greek colleagues, to bring the expedition into difficulties.

Unfortunately, the Egyptian monarch, alike pusillanimous and incapable, was so far from making any offensive effort, that he was not prepared even to defend his capital against the invaders. When he found that Pelusium and Bubastis had both fallen, and that the way lay open for the Persians to march upon Memphis and invest it, he left the city with all the wealth on which he could lay his hands, and fled away into Ethiopia. Ochus did not pursue him. He was content to have regained a valuable province, which for above fifty years had been lost to the Persian crown, without even having had to fight a single pitched battle, or to engage in one difficult siege. According to the Greek writers, he showed his contempt of the Egyptian religion after his conquest by stabbing an Apis-Bull, and violating the sanctity of a number of the most holy shrines; but the story of the Apis-Bull is probably a fiction, and it was to obtain the plunder of the temples, not to insult the Egyptian gods, that he violated the shrines. There is no trace of his having treated the conquered people with cruelty, or even with severity. Prudence induced him to destroy the walls and other fortifications of the chief Egyptian towns; and cupidity led him to carry off into Persia all the treasures that Nekht-nebf had left behind. Even the sacred books, of which he is said to have robbed the temples, may have been taken on account of their value. We do not hear of his having dragged off any prisoners, or inflicted any punishment on the country for its rebellion. Even the tribute is not said to have been increased.

There is nothing surprising in the fact that, when once Persia took resolutely in hand the subjugation of the revolted province, a few months sufficed for its accomplishment. The resources of Persia were out of all comparison with those of Egypt; alike in respect of men and of money, there was an extreme disparity. What had protected Egypt so long was the multiplicity of Persia's enemies, the large number of wars that were continually being waged and the want of a bold, energetic, and warlike monarch. As soon as the full power of the vast empire of the Achæmenidæ was directed against the little country which had detached itself, and pretended to a separate existence, the result was certain. Egypt could no more maintain a struggle against Persia in full force than a lynx could contend with a lion. But while all this is indubitably true, the end of Egypt might have been more dignified and more honourable than it was. Nekht-nebf, the last king, was a poor specimen of the Pharaonic type of monarch. He had none of the qualities of a great king. He did not even know how to fall with dignity. Had he gathered together all the troops that he could anyhow muster, and met Ochus in the open field, and fallen fighting for his crown, or had he even defended Memphis to the last, and only yielded himself when he could resist no longer, a certain halo of glory would have surrounded him. As it was, Egypt sank ingloriously at the last--her art, her literature, her national spirit decayed and almost extinct--paying, by her early disappearance from among the nations of the earth, the penalty of her extraordinarily precocious greatness.

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