The Unbridled Pride of the King of Persia

Histories by Herodotus is a history of the Persian Wars and the birth of Western Culture. It is a large volume with few wasted pages…if you actually like rabbit trails. There are all sorts of fun things that Herodotus writes about in his pioneering work, from various Egyptian embalming practices to ancient wildlife of the then-known world. But I want to take a moment and zoom in briefly on one character who holds a safe position among the bad guys of history. His name is Cambyses, and he was a king of Persia.

Cambyses was the son of Cyrus (aka “Darius the Mede” from Daniel 5:31ff), and he succeeded Cyrus. He only ruled for seven years, and the shortness of his reign was short due to in large measure to his pride. To say “he thought more highly of himself than he ought” is an understatement. I share Herodotus’ evaluation of Cambyses: “I am convinced by all the evidence that Cambyses was seriously deranged” (Book III.38). And his derangement is attributable to his pride.

He was a real piece of work. When the king of the Ethiopians defied him, he reacted by immediately mobilizing his army in the direction of the Ethiopians without bothering to even take time to gather provisions for the trip. He and his army had to return home before they made it to Ethiopia…but not before his men had started consuming one another to stave off starvation. (Book III. 21-25).

In his religious irreverence he killed one of the Egyptian gods in the midst of their worship, which was not a particularly ignoble decision, though certainly ironic and hypocritical for a polytheist like himself (Book III. 27-29).

He married and killed his sister (while she was pregnant, to boot) in a fit of insulted rage (Book III. 32).

In fact, even the Persians’ conquest of Egypt can be attributed to Cambyses’ pride! He was offended that Amasis, King of Eygpt had given the daughter of his predecessor (Amries) to Cambyses as a wife under the pretense that it was his own (that is, Amasis’) daughter. So, Amasis lied to Cambyses, and Cambyses was supremely insulted, and sent an army to vanquish Egypt. The rest is history, right? (Book III. 1-11).

Perhaps the most disturbing part of all of this is that Cambyses is only atypical among men in that he had more resources at his disposal when his pride was bruised. Most men could be every bit as dangerous if we had massive armies at our disposal and no consequence for furious murder. He killed with impunity. So would many of us if we could. But it seems he had little regard for the lives of his subjects and soldiers given that he would readily mobilize them in defense of his dignity. So we ought not be so quick to judge Cambyses, though he was deranged and quite possibly demonic. But by the grace of God, we could identify with him by virtue of common behavior.

Going a step further in our application, pride is particularly detestable for Christians. It gives birth to multiple other sins and it is like the leech that does not say “enough” (Proverbs 30:15-16). But Christians of all people ought to be aware that we have nothing that we have not received (1 Corinthians 4:7). Of all people, we should be most aware of who we would be apart from Christ. We should be aware of what He has rescued us from. We should be aware that the example of Cambyses is not unique, but rather common to humanity.

Thanks be to God who has mercifully rescued us from the ability to give full vent to our pride…and for giving us a new heart.