Adrian Burrows tells us the incredible tale of how a defensive weapon managed to conquer one of the world’s great ancient civilizations. And how cats were an integral part of this weapon.
So far in my series of articles looking at Weird and Bizarre Weapons of History (that’s Bizarre Body Armor and Bat Bombs), I’ve focused on relatively modern inventions. That’s something that I intend to continue over the coming months, but I thought that for this particular article I would take a little diversion. After all, it’s not like bizarre weapons of war were exclusive to the 20th century. Oh no good reader, mankind has come up with many a strange method of defeating their opponents over our history. But what were these inventions? What were the defining weird weapons of Ancient History? Which one will I write about?
There were so many to choose from… The 420 feet long Hellenic Warships (with 7,000 crew on board) were an early contender, then I had to consider the Byzantine Empire’s flamethrower (it had the first hand grenade too) and of course the Zhuge Nu Semi-Automatic Crossbow had to be an option (10 bolts fired in 15 seconds is nothing to be sniffed at). But none of those weapons had been responsible for an entire nation being conquered. The bizarre weapon that I have chosen was accountable for such a feat. Responsible for defeating a nation that at the time was one of the most powerful and advanced in the world. A nation that we are still fascinated with today: Ancient Egypt. And most impressively of all, the weapon in question wasn’t technically a weapon at all… It was a shield.
The Cat Shield
Invading Egypt was not an easy thing to do. After all, its expanses of near endless sand, lack of water and formidable armies had deterred many invaders over approximately two thousand years of history. The Babylonians themselves had tried to take Egypt by force twice and both times had been repulsed, so why did the armies of Persia think that their fate would be any different? Well, the difference came from the cunning of one man and the knowledge of a culture’s religious beliefs.
The Persian Leader King Cambyses II was well aware that the Egyptians revered the cat above all other animals. The cat represented the goddess Bastet, a goddess of home and love. She was both kind and loving unless she was offended, at which point she transformed into her alter ego ‘Sekhmet the Vengeful’ and brought divine retribution to those who had angered her (she loved the taste of human blood). Cambyses had done his research on his enemy, knowing that to defeat them he had to find their weakness. He had discovered that in Egypt the love for cats was so great that the punishment for killing one was death itself. Herodotus the ‘Father of History’ commented that an Egyptian, if caught in a burning house, would save a cat before trying to put the fire out or saving himself.
And so a plan was formed. I call it… The Cat Shield
Battle of Pelusium
So it came to be that at the Battle of Pelusium, Cambyses intended to deploy the cat shield. The Egyptians, under the leadership of Pharaoh Psammenitus, were feeling confident about victory, and why not? They were positioned in a series of fortresses near the mouth of the River Nile, they knew that their position would enable them to pour down a storm of arrows on the Persian Army, perhaps enough to annihilate the force long before they had managed to join the battle. So, it must have come as a horrific surprise when, as the Persian soldiers advanced, they held aloft battle shields emblazoned with the image of Bastet
The Persians then revealed the second part of their plan. The soldiers released cats ahead of their formation, forming a protective sea between Persian flesh and Egyptian arrow. It wasn’t only cats that the Persians had leading the charge either; they had, according to Polyaenus, ‘ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises and whatever other animals the Egyptians held dear.’ The Egyptian army, well-fortified as it was in Pelusium near the mouth of the Nile, was at a loss. They could not risk firing arrows at the Persian army less they kill or harm the animals at the lead, they could not charge towards the enemy as they would still risk harming the animals and angering their gods... What could be done? Chaos erupted in the Egyptian ranks that soon descended into a full rout. As the Egyptians fled their positions, the Persians pursued and cut them down.
Of course, this being Ancient History, there are always historical holes to examine and question. The logic that protrudes between myth and fact. Primarily, if this is true, how did the Persians stop the cats from wondering off? After all, it’s not like they would have been able to train the creature to march along in front of the army. Different translations of Polyaenus’ writings of the battle lead to different conclusions. Some have theorized that the Persian soldiers actually held the creatures aloft in front of them, others, such as the historian Tom Holland, suggest that the Persians had a much more efficient and vicious way of ensuring that the cats stayed where they should do - by pinning them to the front of their shields. Here’s the quote from Holland’s excellent book Persian Fire:
When the Persians finally met the Egyptians in battle, it is said that they did so with cats pinned to their shields, reducing their opponents' archers, for whom the animals were sacred, to a state of paralysis. Victory was duly won. Pelusium, the gateway to Egypt, was stormed, and the bodies of the defeated left scattered across the sands.
Regardless of whether the cat shield was simply an image of a cat on a shield or an actual cat nailed to a shield, there is one thing that cannot be disputed. Egypt was conquered not by offensive weapons, such as a sword or an axe, but by the symbol of defense. The humble shield. The cat shield had been responsible for the fall of a country. The cat shield had ended Ancient Egypt’s sovereignty. The cat shield had forever changed history.
Adrian Burrows works for Wicked Workshops, an organization that brings historical workshops to primary schools across the UK. They are currently delivering many workshops about World War I. They also run Ancient Egypt workshops. Click here to find out more about this great organization.
If you enjoyed this article, do tell others. Like it, tweet about it, or share it by clicking one of the buttons below!
Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland