“Man and animals are in reality vehicles and conduits of food, tombs of animals, hostels of Death, coverings that consume, deriving life by the death of others” – Leonardo da Vinci
Some days you just feel like invading Egypt. All the cool empires do it, from the Assyrians to the Persians to the Romans. And if you fancy marching your forces into the Nile Delta from the east, until about the 12th Century A.D., you were likely to have to contend with the border-fortress of Pelusium, an Egyptian frontier strongpoint (30 km to the southeast of the modern Port Said) situated to deter incursions from the direction of Syria or the sea. Consequently, Pelusium regularly found itself under siege. The Assyrians attacked in the 8th Century B.C., the Persians in 525 and 343 B.C, the Phrygians in 373 B.C., Alexander in 333 B.C., the Seleucid Empire in 173 B.C., the Romans in 55 B.C., the Muslim Conquest in 639 A.D., and it was finally razed to the ground in 1117 A.D. by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem. Not the kind of place to raise a family. Lots of people being put to the sword on a regular basis, or slowly starved as angry armies hurled rocks and less savory projectiles over the walls. Like Chicago. Should you experience an overwhelming urge to advance on Pelusium, I would advise drafting a zoologist or two, or at the very least a phalanx of ferocious friends with fin, fur, and feathers, as combatants of the bestial variety seem to frequently have played a decisive role in the many Battles of Pelusium.
Now many a brave animal has found greatness thrust upon them during our human military escapades. Horses, Camels, Elephants and those critters that are especially handy for trampling foot soldiers are eternally popular. And let us not forget the endless stream of pack animals that have carted supplies and munitions across battlefields as soon as we managed to domesticate them. And dogs, faithful companions that they are (and sharp of tooth) have been at our side through thick and thin. These are not the animals we’re talking about. Assaults on Pelusium seem to attract fauna of a different stripe, who nonetheless bravely engage the enemy, and hand victory to their chosen allies.
Sennacherib, King of Assyria (705-681 B.C.) had a rough start. His father Sargon II died in battle, and there was not a smooth transition to the reign of Sennacherib. There were uprisings in Mesopotamia, Syria, Israel, and Judah. After beating on the Babylonians, Sennacherib turned his attention to revolts in Judah that had reportedly been incited by Egypt. After quelling the Judean uprising, he marched on Pelusium for a little payback on the Egyptians, in particular the 24th Dynasty Pharaoh Sethos. The Book of Isaiah, Herodutus’ Histories and Strabo’s Geography all seem to concur that Sennacherib retired from his siege of Pelusium rather quickly. This was because of a surgical strike conducted against his army by field mice. Herodotus detailed the intricate sabotage conducted by a mobilized force of determined vermin.
The next king, I was told, was a priest of Vulcan, called Sethos. This monarch despised and neglected the warrior class of the Egyptians, as though he did not need their services. Among other indignities which he offered them, he took from them the lands which they had possessed under all the previous kings, consisting of twelve acres of choice land for each warrior. Afterwards, Sanacharib, king of the Arabians’ and Assyrians, marched his vast army into Egypt, the warriors one and all refused to come to his aid. On this the monarch, greatly distressed, entered into the inner sanctuary, and before the image of the god, bewailed the fate which impended over him. As he wept he fell asleep, and dreamt that the god came and stood at his side, bidding him be of good cheer, and go boldly forth and meet the Arabian host, which would do him no hurt, as he himself would send those who should help him. Sethos, then, relying on the dream, collected such of the Egyptians as were willing to follow him, who were none of them warriors, but traders, artisans, and market-people; and with these marched to Pelusium, which commands the entrance into Egypt, and there pitched his camp. As the two armies lay here opposite one another, there came in the night a multitude of field-mice, which devoured all the quivers and bow-strings of the enemy, and ate the thongs by which they managed their shields. Next morning they commenced their flight, and great multitudes fell, as they had no arms with which to defend themselves. There stands to this day in the temple of Vulcan, a stone statue of Sethos, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect—” Look on me, and learn to reverence the gods” (Herodotus, Bk 2, Ch. 141).
The obvious answer to the question, “Are you men, or mice?” was clearly, mice. And with that ignominious defeat, Sennacherib hotfooted it back to Judah, but peace in Pelusium never lasted too long, and one could never be too sure of the disposition of faunal forces and who they who side with in any given dust up. In 525 B.C., Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great (r. 559–530 BC), was emperor of the Achaemenid Empire. His father had conquered most of the Middle East, so looking to make a name for himself, Cambyses II turned his attention to subjugating Egypt, the last independent state in the region. The decisive battle that transferred the throne of the Pharaohs to Cambyses II went down at Pelusium. Now, Pelusium was well-defended, and sieges are a pain in the ass, what with the defenders raining stuff down on your heads while you try to knock the walls down. The initial fighting must have been intense as Herodotus observed the field of battle was littered with the bones of both Egyptians and Persians, so Cambyses did a little ethnographic strategizing. The popular local goddess was Bastet, the cat-headed Egyptian god of warfare, and thus cats were considered sacred. Tired of being pelted on the noggin’ by Pelusium’s war engines, he came up with the simple expedient of driving an army of cats in front of his forces, resulting in his capture of the city.
When Cambyses invested Pelusium, as being the entrance into Egypt, the Egyptians with great resolution defended it, advancing formidable machines against the besiegers; and from their catapult throwing darts, stones, and ﬁre. Against the destructive showers thus discharged upon him Cambyses ranged before his front line, dogs, sheep, cats, Ibis and whatever animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The fear of hurting the animals, which they regard with veneration, instantly checked their operations: Cambyses took Pelusium; and thus opened himself a passage into Egypt (Polyaenus, Strategems of War, Ch. IX).
We don’t know for certain how critters involved themselves in the ensuing centuries of battle around Pelusium, but we do know the outcome of its last stand. Baldwin I (1058-1118 A.D.) was the first titled King of the Crusader state of Jerusalem. Baldwin set about expanding his territory, spending most of his time fighting with Fatimid Egypt. In 1118 he marched his troops into Egypt and attacked Pelusium, which promptly fell, was plundered, and burned to the ground. Sadly, Pelusium’s last strike was against Baldwin himself, who enjoying the fruits of his victory, dined lavishly on local fish. And promptly died of food poisoning.
This leads one to wonder how many historical battles have turned on anonymous intervention by local fauna. Maybe we’re just too noisy, smelly, take up too much space, or are otherwise offensive to animals, and on occasion they capriciously decide to intervene in our affairs for their own arcane reasons, or perhaps we’re only now starting to learn that, as wildlife photographer Peter Beard said, “human pressure on wildlife is becoming increasingly dangerous. You’ve got to be more alert because more animals have been pushed around, wounded, subjected to human harassment, ambushed, all kinds of stress. When they attack, it’s totally predictable”.
Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, trans. Frances Rita Ryan. University of Tennessee Press, 1969.
Herodotus. The History of Herodotus: A New English Version, Ed. With Copious Notes And Appendices. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1866.
Polyaenus. Polyænus’s Stratagems of War. 2d ed. London: G. Nicol, 1796.