The Battle of Pelusium: ‘Cats’ and psychological edge lead Persians to victory


Often viewed as the first major battle fought between the burgeoning Achaemenid Empire and Ancient Egypt (still ruled by native Pharoahs), the Battle of Pelusium was surely a decisive conflict before the advent of the Classical Age. Fought in 525 BC near Pelusium – which was an important Egyptian settlement on the eastern reaches of the Nile Delta, the battle pitted the Persian leader Cambyses II against Pharaoh Psametik III (also known as Psammenitus). Now interestingly, in spite of the crucial nature of the conflict, much of the information about the battle is only available to us through the writings of ancient authors and historians, namely Herodotus and Polyaenus. And according such antediluvian sources, the unique (and evolved) tactics used in the battle lend credence to the psychological element of warfare that was even used during the ancient times.

Motives and Women –

Now according to Herodotus, the bitterness between the two empires was sparked when Psammenitus’ father, Amasis, decided to ‘dupe’ Cambyses by sending him a wrong woman. Cambyses had supposedly asked for Amasis’ daughter’s hand in marriage. But Amasis fearing that his own daughter would live out her life as a concubine, decided to send another woman – by the name of Nitetis, the daughter of the previous ruler, Apries. On discovering the ruse, Cambyses was so furious that he was bent on invading Egypt itself. However by the time the Persian expeditionary forces reached the Egyptian borders, Amasis was already dead, and his son Psammenitus had to take part in the impending confrontation.

Preparation and Confidence –

As a result, the Pharaoh who had only ruled for six short months, decided to march up to the extreme eastern reaches of his kingdom. The Egyptians subsequently fortified their positions by the mouth of the Nile near the city of Pelusium. Historically, Persians were not the only foreign power that had tried to invade Egypt through the Pelusium route. The mighty Assyrians had tried their luck in 8th century BC, when Sennacherib attempted to conquer Egypt – but was supposedly defeated when a swarm of field-mice destroyed Assyrian bows, quivers and shields (according to Herodotus). Given this (surely exaggerated) passage of past history, Psammenitus might have felt a bit confident, especially with their already fortified advantage.

But all was not well on the alliance front, with Greeks from the Cypriot towns, along with the large fleet of tyrant Polycrates of Samos (a Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea), deciding to join the Persians in their invasion. The strategic predicament might have been even more exacerbated, since Phanes of Halicarnassus – who was one of the better tactical advisers of Egypt, had already took the side of the invading Persians.

Cats and Egyptians –

But according to few ancient writers, beyond grand strategies and sea-borne armies, the deciding factor in the Battle of Pelusium oddly pertained to cats. To that end, the native Egyptian mythology and religion popularized the worship of Bastet (or Bast). A goddess of the home, love, fertility, joy, dance, women and secrets, Bastet with her cat-like head and woman’s body was considered as a benevolent deity. But in Upper Egypt, she was also worshiped in the form of her ‘alter-ego’ Sekhmet – the warrior lioness who was seen as the protector of the pharaohs and symbolically led them in warfare.

Given such propensity for feline symbolization, cats were uniquely sacred in Egypt – so much so that the punishment for killing a cat was death by stabbing. Once again, according to Herodotus, Egyptians was so fond of their cats that they preferred to save their cats instead of themselves, when trapped inside a burning building. Some cats were also known to be mummified in a ceremonious manner with jewelry – as was the case with many noble people.


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Cambyses and His Cunning –

Unfortunately for the Egyptians, Cambyses came to know about the Egyptian (obsessive) veneration for cats. According to Polyaenus, the Persian king took advantage of this seemingly unhealthy feline fascination of his enemy’s culture by positioning many such animals in the front-lines of his own army. The adorable critters ranging from cats, dogs to even sheep, dissuaded the animal-loving Egyptians from firing their arrows – thus allowing the Persians to take the initiative and win the battle. However, Herodotus takes a contrasting approach by mentioning very few details of the battle itself, except for its unusually high casualties and an ultimate Persian victory.

On the other hand, modern sources talk about how instead of using living animals, the Persians might have taken the symbolic route to defeat the Egyptians. To that end, the Persians could have just painted their shields with images and depictions of Bastet, thus psychologically afflicting the Egyptians.

Reality and Fiction –

Now when examined from the practical perspective, the use of real animals by the Persian forces to unnerve the Egyptians does seem a bit far-fetched. Furthermore, there was a big probability that the Egyptians forces (like their Persian counterparts) employed a lot of foreign mercenaries, including Arabs and Greeks – who were surely not that ‘fond’ of Bastet. Anyhow, as we mentioned before, the Persians might have utilized some form of psychological demonstration that gave them a tactical advantage over their enemies. In fact, the use of such psychologically-inspired battlefield ploys was not unheard of during ancient times – as is evident from the grand Macedonian phalanx demonstration (planned by Alexander the Great) that both impressed and intimidated the rebelling Illyrians.

And, since we are talking about practicality, there is an interesting anecdote given by Herodotus concerning the Battle of Pelusium (as written in –

Herodotus visited the battlefield about seventy-five years later, and reported that the bones of the dead were still lying in the desert. He claimed to have examined the skulls and found that the Persians had thin, brittle bones and the Egyptians thick solid bones. He suggested that this was because the Egyptians normally shaved their heads, and the sunlight thickened their bones. This might suggest that the battle took place on the edge of the desert, rather than on cultivated land, although it does seem a long time for the bodies to have remained visible and unburied.


Painted by French painter Adrien Guignet.

Sources: / AttalusHistoryofWar / Ripleys 

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