Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.21

Stephen Ruzicka, Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire, 525-332 BCE. Oxford studies in early empires.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xxv, 311.  ISBN 9780199766628.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Anthony J. Papalas, East Carolina University (

Egypt of the Pharaohs flourished for over two thousand years. During this period, apart from two incursions, Egypt did not experience major foreign invasions. Its frontiers provided Egypt with excellent natural defensive barriers. Ruzicka’s Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire 525-332 BCE deals with the difficulties in conquering Egypt and the problems in holding it. This work begins with Cambyses’s conquest of Egypt in 525 (all dates are BCE) to Alexander’s subjugation of it in 332. Ruzicka argues that Persia’s primary concern in the West was not Greece but Egypt and during these approximate two centuries Persian rule was never secure. His thesis is supported by many costly and often unsuccessful Persian expeditions which were usually triggered by rebellions in the western part of the Delta, a region that the Persians never secured. Ruzicka contrary to reports in Herodotus and in line with recent scholarship argues that initial Persian rule was enlightened. Cambyses did not trample on Egyptian customs nor kill the Apis bull and Darius continued a liberal policy by maintaining low taxes and respecting Egyptian culture. In view of the immenseness of the Persian Empire, some three million square miles, it was practical to win over the people and maintain the area with light garrisons. But after the revolt of 487 Xerxes established a repressive rule and thereafter measures became increasingly oppressive. The Achaemenids, however, tolerated for about a century a strong Egyptian military class, the machimoi, which provided the Persians with military service. The machimoi were among Xerxes’s best soldiers in the Greek invasion of 480 but they eventually became untrustworthy.

The Persians usually mobilized their military forces on the Syrian coast. The land forces marched through semi-arid land into desert terrain and once in Egypt encountered strong fortresses, a limited road network and obstructions such as embankments and canals. The Persian navy, obliged to sail along a coast without good harbors, was equally challenged. The bulk of the fighting had to be conducted before the inundation of the Nile in May or after October when the waters receded. Cyrus defeated the Egyptians in one great land battle at Pelusium but the invasions of other Persian kings went less smoothly due to the obstacles outlined above.

Ruzicka provides an impressive in depth and breadth discussion of how Persia’s internal and external relations impacted on the various campaigns and a detailed discussion of each military operation, including naval operations. During this period the most important war vessel was the trireme. In an earlier era not covered in this work, the Pharaoh Necho ca. 600 according to Herodotus (2.159) acquired, perhaps from Greeks or Phoenicians, two fleets of triremes, one for the Red Sea and the other for the Mediterranean.1 Necho’s navy represents the first time any Mediterranean power had built a fleet of triremes, a warship that was then relatively new. The Pharaoh dispatched armed forces as far as the Syrian coast and his triremes assisted the land forces in seizing harbors in Phoenicia, staging points which enemy forces needed to invade Egypt. Necho did not hold these harbors long, but earlier Pharaohs, most notably Thutmoses III (1479-1425) practiced the policy of protecting Egyptian borders by expanding its frontiers. Despite the Egyptian practice of meeting enemy threats beyond the borders of Egypt, Ruzicka (17) wonders why there was no Egyptian attempt on land or sea to disrupt Cambyses’s military preparations. The answer may be connected to inadequate Egyptian sea-power. The Pharaoh Amasis II (570-526) was apparently thinking of seizing these critical staging points when he made an agreement with the Samian tyrant Polycrates (fl. 530) to provide forty manned triremes. 2 Polycrates broke his agreement with Egypt and without these triremes Psammetichus III (reign 526-525), Amasis’s successor, did not have the resources to check Cambyses beyond the frontiers of Egypt.

Ruzicka (43) maintains that the Pharaoh had the ability to build vessels. No doubt this is true for the traditional type of Egyptian river boat that plied the Nile, but it is debatable whether the Egyptians, who were never comfortable venturing into the open sea, could build triremes at this time. Such ships required not only shipwrights with knowledge in constructing vessels for the open sea but also experienced rowers to man triremes and especially vast supplies of wood which became unavailable to the Egyptians once the Persians had taken possession of Phoenicia. Polycrates betrayed Amasis and committed the triremes, most likely built in Samos with Egyptian funds, to Cambyses, but they were late in arriving for the expedition. It seems that Cambyses won over Egypt without much naval support. The only evidence we have of a trireme in Cambyses’s force is the one from Mytilene dispatched to Memphis after the victory at Pelusium. We know that it was a trireme because the Egyptians massacred the crew of two-hundred, the full complement of a trireme (Herodotus 3.13.1-2; 3.14.4).

Of all the Persian campaigns in Egypt classicists are most familiar with the one triggered by Inarus’s revolt (462- 454). Around 459 the Athenians dispatched two hundred triremes of their own and their allies to support the rebels (Thuc. 1.104). One school of thought maintains that Athens aimed at taking control of a section of the Delta. Ruzicka (34) eschews such imperialistic designs and suggests that the two parties were attempting to establish a “joint Egyptian-Athenian arche,” in the eastern Mediterranean. It is not clear what this entailed. Perhaps such an agreement was based on an expanded Athenian presence into the eastern Mediterranean, financed by the Egyptians, and intended to prevent Persian vessels from sailing into that region. After assisting the Egyptians in a two-year siege of Memphis most of the men serving in the Athenian expedition perished and their ships were either captured or destroyed. Another fifty triremes dispatched to supplement the Athenian force was also lost (Thucydides 1.110). Many scholars, including Ruzicka, dismiss Thucydides’s figures of two hundred and fifty Athenian triremes and suggest a much lower number, arguing that a large naval force was not necessary to carry out the siege. This view ignores the necessity of a great trireme fleet to deter the Persians’s Phoenician fleet from cutting off the Athenian forces. It is nevertheless hard to accept the staggering losses of around fifty thousand men unless we assume that the bulk were not Athenians but men from the Delian League eager to join an expedition which promised so much booty.

The Athenians deployed the trireme chiefly as a war vessel, but during the Egyptian expedition put it to another use. Triremes had little room for anything besides one hundred and seventy rowers and between thirty to sixty men on deck. Apparently, the Athenians converted triremes in this campaign to troop transports. The rowers apparently served in land operations. But the Athenians were not the only ones who occasionally deployed the trireme in this manner. Around 350 the Persians, as part of their preparation for an Egyptian campaign, dispatched Idrieus, the Hekatomnid, to Cyprus with forty triremes and an eight thousand man force, the number of men required to man forty triremes. It appears that once Idrieus arrived in Cyprus his rowers and deck personnel became a land force.

One of the chief merits of this work is the detailed analysis of the Persian-Egyptian struggle in the context of Greek affairs. After the Peloponnesian War the Persians made an alliance with Athens to check the growth of Spartan power while the Spartans made a pact with Egypt to weaken the Persian Empire. The Athenian admiral Conon convinced the Persians to follow an aggressive naval policy with a trireme fleet. With a navy financed by the Persians, Conon disrupted grain shipments from Egypt to Laconia and then defeated a Spartan navy near Cnidus. At the Battle of Cnidus the Athenians put the trireme to its traditional use, destroying the Spartan navy with a ramming attack. The naval battle gave Persians control of the sea and opened the way to invade Egypt in 390-388.

Artaxerxes III, known as Ochus (425-338), led two major invasions of Egypt, 351-350 and 343, the first a fiasco and the second a success. There are scarcely any sources for the 351/0 abortive campaign. Diodorus (16.48.1-2) notes that the Egyptian rebels owed much to a Spartan Lamius and an Athenian Diophantus but does not specify their contribution. Diophantus in Athens had served as a syntrierarch, an office which required financial contributions to maintain a trireme and some service on triremes during naval campaigns. With this naval background it is reasonable to assume that Diophantus was in charge of organizing the Pharaoh’s trireme navy and leading it against a Persian fleet consisting mainly of Phoenician and Cyprian vessels. It should be noted that Cyprus was also an important base in attacking Egypt, and Ruzicka discusses the internal politics of the island and military operations against it. Both of these Persian allies revolted after the campaign. The Phoenician uprising of ca. 350-345 is reminiscent of the 480 rebellion. After the Battle of Salamis Xerxes punished the Phoenicians, who had made onerous contributions to the expedition, by executing some officers for what the King considered cowardly conduct during the battle. Xerxes’s unjust action triggered a major revolt in Phoenicia. The revolt of ca. 350-345, which Ochus brutally suppressed, may have been provoked for similar reasons, a perceived inadequate naval effort and high exactions.

Ochus’s second invasion was a textbook operation. He entered Egypt with three separate strike forces, a land army and two naval contingents made up of triremes. The trireme was a vessel with a relatively shallow draft and could ply the Nile, but if any naval battle took place, a question Ruzicka ponders, it would not have been a conventional encounter because the Nile was too narrow for the rowers to carry out the maneuvers associated with trireme warfare. Ruzicka (183), who elucidates Diodorus’s confused account of the expedition, believes that the three strike forces attacked three different fortresses on the Pelusaic branch: Pelusium, Daphnae and Babitis. Diodorus describes force one taking Pelusium and force three securing the surrender of Babitis. But there is no reference to Daphnae. Diodorus (16.48.3-69) reports that when force one launched its attack on Pelusium, force three sailed to a “secret area” where troops disembarked and defeated an Egyptian army. This does not sound like an attack on a fortress. This battle could have taken place in the Delta west of Pelusium. As a result of the encounter Nectanebo II (360-342), the last native Pharaoh, fled to Memphis and then to the south and disappeared. Ochus conquered the land and imposed a harsh rule, carrying out mass executions, looting temples and exacting high taxes. It is surprising that the Egyptians had the will and wherewithal to rebel after Ochus’s death in 338. The uprising was quickly put down by Darius III. Ruzicka concludes that these centuries of intermittent warfare drained the resources Persia needed to resist Alexander’s invasion. Alexander, who was short on naval resources, was also fortunate that the Egyptians were exhausted and did not have the wherewithal to exploit their considerable defensive strengths.

Overall, Ruzicka has written an excellent scholarly monograph based on a wide and deep knowledge of the ancient texts and modern scholarship. It is particularly impressive that he produced a very readable narrative history of this complex subject.


1.   A. B. Lloyd, “Were Necho’s triremes Phoenician?”, JHS, 95 (1975), 45-61.
2.   H. T. Wallinga, Ships and Sea-Power Before the Great Persian War: The Ancestry of the Ancient Trireme (Leiden, 1993), pp. 84-99, 117.

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