The ancient Egyptians were not happy with their position as a subject nation ruled by Persian overlords. They rebelled during the reigns of Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE) and Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE), but were unsuccessful in both of those endeavors. When Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BCE, another leader incited the Egyptian people to once more rebel against Persian rule. This leader was named Inaros, a prince or king of Libyan descent who managed to rally most of Egypt behind him in a massive six-year war against an ancient superpower.
Most information about this rebellion was recorded by sources such as Thucydides, Ctesias and Diodorus Siculus, as well as other miscellaneous texts from Egypt, Greece or the Persian Empire. Thucydides provided a general framework and sequence of events for the war, stating that the rebellion lasted for six years. Diodorus contributed more information for dating the war, with references to Athenian archons and Roman consuls that can be placed on a timeline. Ctesias’ account added more personal information about the rivalries in Persia, as well as information on battles during the rebellion, but his account is often viewed as biased and romanticized. Nevertheless, a decent picture of Inaros’ rebellion against Persia can be gleaned from these sources.
The exact date of the rebellion is still debated—historians are in agreement that Inaros launched his rebellion shortly after the assassination of Xerxes I, which occurred in 465 BCE. As such, the rebellion can be loosely dated to a six-year period somewhere within the late 460s and early 450s BCE.
Inaros’ rebellion occurred during Athens’ rise to power following the events of Xerxes’ failed campaign in Greece. Sometime after Inaros began to fight the Persians, he invited Athens to join the war. Thucydides claimed that the Athenians were attempting to take the island of Cyprus at the time, but decided to drop what they were doing and rerouted their forces to Egypt. Interestingly, he went on to say that Inaros and the Egyptians had already pressed the Persian forces into a defensive position at Memphis when Athens arrived. In contrast, Ctesias and Diodorus claimed that Athenian forces were present to help Inaros defeat the Persians in conflicts such as the Battle of Papremis, which led to the death of the Persian satrap of Egypt. Nevertheless, all of the accounts agree that Athenian forces eventually occupied the Nile river and besieged Memphis. Thucydides wrote that Athens managed to take all sections of Memphis except those that were protected by the Persian-controlled White Castle (or citadel), which harbored the remaining Persian soldiers in Egypt.
Obviously, the new King of Persia, Artaxerxes I (r. 465-425 BCE), could not let the rebellion go unanswered. The Persian forces that were garrisoned in Egypt were either defeated or contained to Memphis, but Artaxerxes had plenty more manpower left to siphon from the rest of his empire. While a new Persian army assembled, Artaxerxes sent an envoy to Sparta to lobby for a Peloponnesian invasion into the Athenian-dominated lands in Attica, Greece. The bribes, however, did not convince the Spartans to attack, so the Persians launched their campaign to recover Egypt without the aid of any distractions in mainland Greece that could have lured away the Athenian forces.
At the head of the Persian army was Megabyzus (also spelled Megabazus), the satrap of Syria and one of the most talented generals of his time. He successfully defeated Inaros’ forces in pitched battles and forced the Athenians out of Memphis. The rebels (or possibly just the Athenians) made a last stand at the island of Prosopitis, surrounded by channels of the Nile Delta. Rather than try to ferry infantry past Athenian ships, Megabyzus ingeniously diverted the Nile channels away from Prosopitis, allowing him to march his troops past beached and useless Athenian vessels. The surviving Athenian warriors tried to escape through Libya, but Thucydides wrote that most of them died, either to battle, disease, weather or lack of supplies. After six years of war, Megabyzus eventually apprehended the rebel leader, Inaros, and the rebellion was finally crushed.
Interestingly, Megabyzus promised Inaros that he would receive mercy. Yet, this promise was not Megabyzus’ to give—when Inaros was handed over to Artaxerxes, the rebel leader was gruesomely executed by either crucifixion or even impalement. Megabyzus, however, had given his word and bitterly saw the execution of Inaros as a disgrace. When the great general returned to his post in Syria he quickly launched his own rebellion against Artaxerxes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Ships from page 364 of “Julius Caesar and the foundation of the Roman imperial system” (1894), [Public Domain] via Flickr).
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.