The Story of Pharaoh Ahmose II


At the end of Book II of his History, Herodotus relates the story of one of the last Egyptian Pharaohs, Ahmose II, or, as we and Herodotus call him, Amasis, who, with his son Psammetichus III, ruled from 569 to 525 BC. After them came the Persians, then the Macedonians, then the Romans, then the Arabs, then the Turks, then the British. Amasis was of the New Kingdom dynasty XXVI, the Saïte, whose palace was in Saïs, near Naucratis, on one of the western mouths of the Nile. It is strange that this is called a dynasty, since Amasis wrested power from his predecessor Apries in war, and was of common origin. The cartouche at the right is that of Psammetichus I, the founder of the Saite dynasty, 663-525 BC. The hieroglyphs spell p-s-m-tj-k. The cartouche in the heading says Ahmose (really, A'-ms-s or Amasis, if the vowels are supplied as Herodotus heard them). The Saites cultivated the art and architecture of the Old Kingdom in their effort to regain the lost splendor of the Empire. Amasis furthered this tradition, which was again picked up in Ptolemaic times after the barbarous Persian interlude. If you want to know more about Egypt, one of the best sources is still James Henry Breasted's A History of Egypt, 2nd. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), which is a classic. A newer account, that explains hieroglyphs among other things, is Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs by Barbara Mertz (New York, Coward-McCann, 1964). Bill Manley's The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin, 1996) is well illustrated and currently available. A good recent history is Ian Shaw, ed., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). The story of Amasis is told by Breasted in his final pages, and the influence of Herodotus is plain. My purpose here is mainly to share my enjoyment of Herodotus's Greek, but there may something for those interested in ancient Egypt as well. A brief discussion of the references and the history of Egypt and its culture can be found in Egypt and Egyptology. Hieroglyphs are discussed in Hieroglyphs.

Amasis lived only a hundred years before Herodotus, so he was also a part of the age when Phoenicians and Greeks colonized the shores of the Mediterranean, not of the age of the pyramids and temples of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and the Empire of Thutmose III and Ramses II. Nevertheless, he was a true Egyptian, and his is the only story we have in what is, so to speak, our language, and he is, therefore, the only Pharaoh whom we can know personally, however little it is that we know. The map below shows an area about 200 miles square, consisting of Lower Egypt (the Delta) and the first part of Upper Egypt. Thebes is about 250 miles upriver from Heracleopolis, and Syene, at the first cataract, 125 miles farther on. Elephantine, the ivory market and syenite quarry, is on an island opposite Syene. Herodotus gives the length of the Egyptian coast as 420 miles, from the Plinthinite Gulf (on the west) to the Serbonian Marsh (on the east), between Palestine and Libya. Cyrene, the Doric colony in Libya, is 500 miles west of Naucratis, and is directly south of the Peloponnesus. Re was the god of Heliopolis, Ptah of Memphis, and Amon of Thebes, in Upper Egypt. The graphic link to this page shows the double crown, the red crown of Lower Egypt, and the white crown of Upper Egypt. All the action of this story occurs in Lower Egypt, the Delta. The word pharaoh isn't Egyptian, but an attempt to express the Egyptian word for the king's court.


The story begins in Chapter 161 and ends at Chapter 182 of Book II, but, as is his wont, Herodotus treats us to interesting digressions, so the story really consists of Chapters 161-163, 169, 172-178, and 181-182. In these pages, I make the Greek text available, accompanied by an explanation of what is going on, as well as a literal translation and some notes on the text, to help my fellow learner. The attempt to retain the Greek expression in the literal translations leads to tortured English, for which I apologize. In my opinion, a translation should be either good English, or should follow the text closely. The usual intermediate style is neither fish nor fowl. Herodotus writes in the New Ionian dialect, which is easy to get used to, since it is somewhere between Homer and Attic. Herodotus is a very entertaining place for the student to encounter dialect, and to see the orthographic variations in Greek. The text comes from the Loeb Classical Library, Herodotus, vol. I, where Professor Godley's translation can also be found. In translating, I have eliminated most euphemisms I can recognize, whether Greek or English. I have not made unauthorized changes to the Greek, and have followed the punctuation of my source. We must always remember that the text went through many recopyings to reach us, and 'improvements' may have been made.

The first English translation of Herodotus was published in 1709. Since then, new translations have been possible merely by rephrasing earlier ones. The translation by Harry Carter (New York, Heritage Press, 1958) is good, and it is a beautiful book, but he unfortunately interchanges Apries and Amasis in one passage, which is confusing. Our knowledge of ancient Egypt is not much more than an outline, for which Herodotus is an important source, since he was an eye-witness before the decay of the monuments, and actually talked to Egyptians. Modern information comes largely from archaeology, and more seems to be known than can be known, and besides has an annoying bias because of the nature of its very incomplete sources consisting mainly of funerary inscriptions of the Upper Kingdom. Practically everything in the Delta is either covered with mud, or has been used as a source of building material, so that all physical evidence has perished.

My explanations and notes may well contain some egregious errors that would not be committed by someone more expert, and for these I humbly beg pardon, and appeal for enlightenment. I learn daily, and this may leave uncorrected errors in earlier parts until I can get back to them. This project is done in pure enthusiasm and the faint hope that it may interest others while instructing and entertaining me. The student should at least have an Abridged Liddell and Scott, and a good grammar, such as Goodman and Gulick, within reach. I have assumed a preparation equivalent to the completion of a standard introductory course in classical Greek. The new student will find that it is not easy to look up many of the words, because of stem and vowel changes, and Ionic dialect, but persistence and analysis pay off. I have tried to ease this process a little, and have also prepared some translation hints that explain what I have found useful in learning Greek.

Since the Greek text is a graphic, it will not appear if you are using a text browser. I do not know of any reasonable alternative to this, because of the Greek text with accents. Also, your browser must not resize the Greek text, or it will become unreadable. The text can always be downloaded as a .GIF file, and it will be perfect. I would be glad to hear any comments, corrections and suggestions, on either the Greek or on problems with its Internet presentation. I have now proofread the Greek text again, and have corrected many misprints. The font I have available does not distinguish nus and upsilons, making them all look like nus, so I have to change them manually. There may still be some upsilons masquerading as nus.

The Text and Notes

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Composed by J. B. Calvert, 1999
Last revised 28 July 2002