Men of Bronze is ten years old, today; to commemorate its birthday, I want to talk a bit about the history behind the novel. The book, for those who’ve not yet read it, concerns itself with the Persian invasion of Egypt — the defection of the Greek general, Phanes of Halicarnassus, to Persia and the efforts of a Phoenician mercenary, Hasdrabal Barca, to defend his adopted homeland from utter ruin at the hands of King Cambyses. As I discussed earlier this week, the book mixes history with the blood-and-thunder of Robert E. Howard’s Conan.
Much of the backstory is derived from a much older work: The Histories of Herodotus. Known as “the Father of History”, Herodotus’ work chronicles the causes and outcome of the Persian Wars – that series of invasions during the 5th century BC that produced such touchstone events as the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) and the heroic last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae (480 BC). Indeed, it is only because Herodotus’ work has survived into the modern era that we’re so well-acquainted with the triumphs of the ancient Greeks.
But, Herodotus detailed more than just the wars of the Greeks versus the Persians. He also told the tale of Persia’s expansion into its neighboring kingdoms and especially of the Fall of Egypt in 525 BC. To the ancient Greeks, who we in the modern era look upon with the reverence of antiquity, Egypt was impossibly old – a land of soaring monuments to Gods and Men, where wisdom is written on temple walls in a language only the learned can decipher. Egypt was, according to Herodotus, the Gift of the Nile. He journeyed to that ancient land, listened to the sages and the priests, and put much of what he learned in his Histories, books II and III.
Because of its strategic importance as a maritime nation, as a food producer, and as a treasure house, the kings of Persia long sought a way of conquering the Nile valley. But its navy was formidable and the vast and inhospitable Sinai Desert protected its eastern border. Egypt, by ancient standards, was untouchable. At the time, the backbone of the Egyptian military was an army of Greek mercenaries, called the “Men of Bronze” due to their heavy armor, helmets, and shields. Because the Pharaohs of the 26th dynasty – the rulers of Egypt from 664 BC to 525 BC – did not trust their native Egyptian commanders, they allowed the Greeks to garrison key forts, and even to garrison the ancient capital of Memphis. Pharaoh treated his Greek mercenaries well, and paid well, but still – as Herodotus tells us – one of their officers nursed a grievance against him:
There was another matter, quite distinct, which helped to bring about the expedition. One of the mercenaries of Amasis [Pharaoh Ahmose II], a Halicarnassian, Phanes by name, a man of good judgment, and a brave warrior, dissatisfied for some reason or other with his master, deserted the service, and taking ship, fled to Cambyses [King Cambyses II of Persia], wishing to get speech with him. As he was a person of no small account among the mercenaries, and one who could give very exact intelligence about Egypt, Amasis, anxious to recover him, ordered that he should be pursued.” – Herodotus, The Histories, III.4 (translated by George Rawlinson).
Quite a few of the characters from the book were true historical figures, mentioned first in the pages of Herodotus and later in various non-fiction history books associated with the Persian Wars, or with ancient Greek and Egyptian history. Some have even been identified through archaeological discoveries. Here’s a list of historical characters:
PHANES OF HALICARNASSUS: Greek mercenary officer whose defection from Pharaoh Ahmose II triggered the long-planned Persian invasion of Egypt. Phanes provided Cambyses with the crucial last piece of the puzzle: how to cross the Sinai Desert with an army. His answer was to suggest to the Persians that they ally with the Arabs (Bedouin), who kept the army supplied with water. According to Herodotus, the Greek mercenaries still in Pharaoh’s service executed Phanes’ sons – whom he’d left behind in Egypt – and ritually drank their blood prior to the Battle of Pelusium.
UJAHORRESNET: a physician and admiral who defected to the Persians and helped King Cambyses understand the ways of the ancient pharaohs. His tomb was found in 1995, in the necropolis at Abusir in Egypt.
PHARAOH AHMOSE II: ruled from 570-526 BC; a former Egyptian general who was elevated to Pharaoh by the acclaim (and power) of his troops. He was called “the Philhellene”, or “Lover of the Greeks” for his patronage of the Greek mercenaries. Herodotus gives us a sketch of his character at the end of Book II of The Histories.
PHARAOH PSAMMETICHUS III: ruled for only a year, from 526-525 BC; he was the eldest son of Ahmose II. Herodotus paints him as a just king who moved Cambyses to pity for his concern over the fate of an old family friend who had fallen on poverty. At first, the Persians allowed him his freedom, but later they executed him for trying to raise an Egyptian revolt.
LADICE: Historically, Ladice was a Greek princess from Cyrene (modern Libya) who became Ahmose II’s third wife. She was sent back home after the Persian conquest of Egypt, as a gesture of goodwill to the people of Cyrene.
Like any good fantasy, Men of Bronze liberally mixes reality with fancy, and some of the book’s most memorable creations were drawn from other time periods and “repurposed” for the book. The MEDJAY, for example, actually existed during the 18th Dynasty (the period of Egyptian history most well-known to modern audiences, thanks in no small part to the discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen – a minor ruler in an age of giants). Originally, the Medjay were a nomadic people from the south of Egypt who drifted north and became almost a police force, guarding not only the tombs of pharaohs, but also patrolling the desert corridors on both sides of the Nile. When I needed a name for the mercenary brigade Barca commanded on the eastern border of Egypt, I found a reference in An Oxford History of Ancient Egypt on how the rulers of the 26th dynasty were prone to recycle institutions and names from the 18th dynasty – what they considered the golden age. Thus, I swiped the name Medjay and applied it to Barca’s command.
Herodotus is also the original scribe of Egypt’s downfall. From him, we learned of the final battle outside the Egyptian port-city of Pelusium, on the eastern border of the Nile Delta. Our sum total of knowledge on this particular struggle, where ancient Egyptian autonomy was lost for the first time in almost three thousand years, is this:
Stubborn was the fight which followed, and it was not till vast numbers had been slain upon both sides, that the Egyptians turned and fled.” – Herodotus, The Histories, III.11 (translated by George Rawlinson).
Herodotus lived a generation after the events of the Persian War. He traveled widely and talked to those who had been there, veterans of some of the greatest clashes of Western civilization. He walked the battle fields and saw the trophies erected by the victors – including the field of bones left in the wake of the Pelusium. It was not the Persian way to bury or burn their dead, but rather to leave them exposed to the elements. Somewhere among those bones laid Phanes of Halicarnassus, in reality as well as in fiction . . .
Tomorrow, I’ll start a month-long series re-reading Men of Bronze, adding my thoughts, notes, and perhaps a bit on what I’d do differently if I were to write it today.