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Meeting Between Cambyses II and Psammetichus III, as imaginatively recreated by the French painter Adrien Guignet

The Battle of Pelusium: Psychological warfare leads Persians to victory

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The Battle of Pelusium is an historically important battle that took place in the 6th century BC, in which the Egyptians were decisively defeated by the Persians, and the Persians became the new rulers of the land. The battle is one of the earliest known examples of the use of psychological warfare. Knowing that the Egyptians worshipped cats as a symbol of the goddess Bastet, Cambyses II ordered his warriors to paint images of the cat goddess on their shields, and during the battle itself, the army was said to have followed behind a large group of cats. The Egyptians, who were unwilling to harm the sacred cats, were forced to surrender their city to the Persians.

Pelusium was an important Egyptian city on the eastern edge of the Nile Delta. In ancient times, this was the gateway from the east into Egypt. Hence, Pelusium was immensely significant from a military point of view, and any would-be conqueror of Egypt from the East would need to first take possession of this city.

Assyrian invasion at Pelusium

The Battle of Pelusium was not the first time a foreign invader attempted to invade Egypt from the East. During the 8 th century BC, the Assyrian king, Sennacherib attempted to invade Egypt, and marched his army to Pelusium. According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, the Egyptian ruler, Sethos, had angered the warrior class, who then refused to help defend Egypt when the Assyrians invaded. Sethos, who was “the priest of Hephaestus” before ascending the throne, complained to the god about his predicament. The god appeared in Sethos’ dream, and told him not to worry, as allies would be sent. Sethos gathered what volunteers he could, and established a base near Pelusium. The Assyrains soon arrived. During the night, however, a swarm of field-mice “gnawed through their quivers and their bows, and the handles of their shield as well.” Weaponless, the Assyrians were forced to flee, and lost many men to the Egyptians.

In the 8th century BC, Assyrian king, Sennacherib (pictured here in his throne) invaded Egypt at Pelusium, but was defeated

In the 8 th century BC, Assyrian king, Sennacherib (pictured here in his throne) invaded Egypt at Pelusium, but was defeated (Wikimedia Commons)

Persian invasion at Pelusium

The Egyptians were not so lucky during the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BC. This time, it was the turn of the Achaemenid Persians to attempt an invasion of Egypt from the East. They were led by Cambyses II, the second ruler of the Achaemenid Empire. The reason for Cambyses’ invasion of Egypt, according to Herodotus (whose account of this is based on “what the Persians say”), was that Cambyses was furious after discovering that he had been deceived by the Egyptian ruler, Amasis. Cambyses had previously requested the hand of Amasis’ daughter in marriage. Expecting that his daughter would become Cambyses’ concubine, rather than wife, he was reluctant to fulfil this request. Yet, he also feared the power of the Achaemenid Empire. Thus, he decided to disguise Nitetis, the daughter of the previous ruler, Apries, as his own daughter, and sent her to Cambyses. Nitetis revealed Amasis’ trickery, and Cambyses decided to attack Egypt.

Head of a statue of Pharaoh Amasis

Head of a statue of Pharaoh Amasis (Wikimedia Commons)

The psychological warfare of Cambyses

When Cambyses arrived on the eastern borders of Egypt, Amasis had already died, and his son, Psammenitus (Psamtek III) was the new ruler of Egypt. Herodotus does not say much about the Battle of Pelusium itself, except that “The fighting was fierce and losses on both sides were very heavy, but in the end the Egyptians were routed.” Another account concerning the battle can be found in Polyaenus, a 2 nd century A.D. Macedonian writer. In his Stratagems, Polyaenus claims that it was Cambyses’ cunningness that brought him victory. In order to counter the missiles fired by the Egyptian defenders, Cambyses placed various animals sacred to the Egyptians in his front lines. These included cats, dogs, ibises and sheep. Fearing that they might hurt the animals, the Egyptians stopped their assault, resulting in the fall of Pelusium to Cambyses.

One modern source claimed that Cambyses had the image of Bastet (an Egyptian goddess often represented as a cat) painted on his soldiers’ shields, whilst another speculated that cats were pinned to the shields’ of Cambyses’ soldiers to psychologically paralyse the Egyptians. We may never know what actually happened on the day of the battle.

Cambyses II of Persia capturing pharaoh Psamtik III. Image on Persian seal, VI century BC.

Cambyses II of Persia capturing pharaoh Psamtik III. Image on Persian seal, VI century BC. (Wikimedia Commons)

Herodotus also provided another colourful tale regarding the Battle of Pelusium. When Herodotus visited the site of the battle, he was shown the bones of the men who had fallen during the battle. The remains of the Egyptians were lying on one side of the field, whilst those of their enemies on another. One way of identifying whether a skull belonged to an Egyptian or a Persian was to strike it with a stone. If the stone made a hole in the skull, then it belonged to a Persian; if it did not, then it belonged to an Egyptian. According to the historian, this is due to the fact that from young, the Egyptians “shave their heads and the bone thickens in the sun”, whilst the Persians “wear felt tiaras from birth and so shelter their heads from the sun”. Once again, we may never know how much truth there is in this claim.

Featured image: Meeting Between Cambyses II and Psammetichus III, as imaginatively recreated by the French painter Adrien Guignet (Wikimedia Commons)

By Ḏḥwty


Bresciani, E., 2011. Egypt i. Persians in Egypt in the Achaemenid period. [Online]
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Dunn, J., 2013. Egypt: Pelusium (Tell el-Farama) in the Sinai. [Online]
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Herodotus, The Histories,
[Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

Holland, T., 2005. Persian Fire: The First World Empire, Battle for the West. London: Abacus.

Polyaenus, Stratagems [Online]
[Shepherd, R. (trans.), 1793. Polyaenus’ Stratagems.]
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Rickard, J., 2015. Battle of Pelusium, early 525. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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