ancient egypt: history and culture
Late Period: Desertion and revolt of a discontented army
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Late Period: Desertion and revolt of a discontented army

A mass desertion

Map of Egypt and Nubia     With the accession to the throne of Psammetic I (656-609 BCE), Pharaonic Egypt entered a last period of independence and prosperity, but it was vulnerable both from without and within. Its capability to fend off foreign aggressors and the stability of its régime depended to a large degree on the good will of mercenaries, many of whom were foreigners.
    On leaving this city (Meroe), and again mounting the stream, in the same space of time which it took you to reach the capital from Elephantine, you come to the Deserters, who bear the name of Asmach. This word, translated into our language, means "the men who stand on the left hand of the king."
    These Deserters are Egyptians of the warrior caste, who, to the number of two hundred and forty thousand, went over to the Ethiopians in the reign of king Psammetichus.
    The cause of their desertion was the following:- Three garrisons were maintained in Egypt at that time, one in the city of Elephantine against the Ethiopians, another in the Pelusiac Daphnae, against the Syrians and Arabians, and a third, against the Libyans, in Marea. (The very same posts are to this day occupied by the Persians, whose forces are in garrison both in Daphnae and in Elephantine.) Now it happened, that on one occasion the garrisons were not relieved during the space of three years; the soldiers, therefore, at the end of that time, consulted together, and having determined by common consent to revolt, marched away towards Ethiopia.
    Psammetichus, informed of the movement, set out in pursuit, and coming up with them, besought them with many words not to desert the gods of their country, nor abandon their wives and children.
    "Nay, but," said one of the deserters with an unseemly gesture, "wherever we go, we are sure enough of finding wives and children." [1]
    Arrived in Ethiopia, they placed themselves at the disposal of the king. In return, he made them a present of a tract of land which belonged to certain Ethiopians with whom he was at feud, bidding them expel the inhabitants and take possession of their territory. From the time that this settlement was formed, their acquaintance with Egyptian manners has tended to civilise the Ethiopians.
Herodotus Histories Part Two § 30.1, translated by George Rawlinson
    The number of deserters, 240,000, seems exaggerated. But their numbers must have been quite significant, otherwise they would probably have been prevented from leaving, as happened to the mercenaries under Wahibre not much thereafter. One may also doubt that these were native Egyptians leaving their country en masse but rather Libyans, though the Kushites kings who had ruled Egypt just a few decades before were culturally not too different from their former subjects.

A prevented desertion

    Nesuhor, hereditary prince, count, wearer of the royal seal, beloved sole companion was governor of the Door of the Southern Countries, i.e. commander of the fortress of Elephantine under Wahibre (Apries, 587-569 BCE). He prides himself on having prevented foreign mercenaries from deserting to Nubia.
    Let my name abide in your house, let my ka be remembered after my life, let my statue abide and my name endure upon it imperishable in your temple.
    For ye rescued me from an evil plight, from the mercenaries, [Libyans], Greeks, Asiatics, and foreigners, who had it in their hearts to ...., and who had it in their hearts to go to Shas-heret.
    His majesty feared because of the evil which they did. I re-established their heart in reason by advice, not permitting them to go to Nubia, but bringing them to the place where his majesty was; and his majesty executed their punishment.
Inscription of Nesuhor
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, §§ 993 f.

A coup d'état

    Wahibre does not seem to have had much luck when dealing with his army. According to Herodotus, disgruntled soldiers in the western Delta staged a coup against him and elevated Ahmose, whose mother had been the royal confidante of Wahibre, to the throne.
    An army despatched by Apries to attack Cyrene, having met with a terrible reverse, the Egyptians laid the blame on him, imagining that he had, of malice prepense, sent the troops into the jaws of destruction. They believed he had wished a vast number of them to be slain in order that he himself might reign with more security over the rest of the Egyptians. Indignant therefore at this usage, the soldiers who returned and the friends of the slain broke instantly into revolt.
    Apries, on learning these circumstances, sent Amasis to the rebels to appease the tumult by persuasion. Upon his arrival, as he was seeking to restrain the malcontents by his exhortations, one of them, coming behind him, put a helmet on his head, saying, as he put it on, that he thereby crowned him king. Amasis was not altogether displeased at the action, as his conduct soon made manifest; for no sooner had the insurgents agreed to make him actually their king than he prepared to march with them against Apries.
Herodotus Histories Part Two § 162, translated by George Rawlinson
    Three years after Ahmose's accession Wahibre had not been subdued yet, but in another battle his forces were routed
    Said his majesty: "Ye shall fight tomorrow! Every man to the front!"
    His majesty mustered his infantry and his cavalry ... ... ... His majesty mounted upon his chariot; he took arrows and bow in his hand, [he arrived] at [...], he reached Andropolis, the army jubilating and rejoicing on the road.
    His majesty fought like a lion, he made a slaughter among them, whose number was unknown. Numerous ships [took] them, falling into the water, whom they saw sink as do the fish.
From the Elephantine Stela
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, §§ 1004f.
    Wahibre was killed and Ahmose buried him with honours.
    While many mercenaries showed little loyalty, others were faithful to their overlord. Egypt, by this time practically incapable of mobilising native forces, depended mostly on Greek soldiers, who were rewarded with land in the western Delta and the Fayum.


[1] A different translation of this sentence: Then one of them, the story goes, pointed to his genitals and said that wherever that was, they would have wives and children. (ed. A. D. Godley)

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-Herodotus: Euterpe translated by George Campbell Macaulay
-Herodotus: The Histories (ed. A. D. Godley)


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