There’s a number of lost armies in the ancient world – lost legions, lost expeditions. According to Herodotus, Cambyses II’s expedition to subjugate the priests of Ammon in what is today the Siwa Oasis took a very bad turn, fast. The 50.000 men sent by the Persian king to give a hard lesson to the priests marched for ten days in the desert known as the Great Sea of Sand, got completely lost, and when last heard of were considering cannibalism as a way to survive.
When he came in his march to Thebes, he parted about fifty thousand men from his army, and charged them to enslave the Ammonians and burn the oracle of Zeus; and he himself went on towards Ethiopia with the rest of his host. But before his army had accomplished the fifth part of their journey they had come to an end of all there was in the way of provision, and after the food was gone they ate the beasts of burden till there was none of these left also. Now had Cambyses, when he perceived this, changed his mind and led his army back again, he had been a wise man at least after his first fault; but as it was, he went ever forward, nothing recking. While his soldiers could get anything from the earth, they kept themselves alive by eating grass; but when they came to the sandy desert, certain of them did a terrible deed, taking by lot one man out of ten and eating him.Herodotus, Book III, chapter 25
I have stumbled on the fifty thousand men that Cambyses lost in the Sahara while working on a project I am not at liberty to describe in detail – suffice it to say that it does have a vague connection with Robert E. Howard, and now will feature – among other things – undead Persian soldiers emerging in full Harryhausen mode from the Great Sea of Sand.
And really, nobody knows what happened to Cambyses’ men – OK, we know they died in the desert, and various causes, from sand storms to dehydration, have been proposed through the years. Indeed, roughly once every twenty years some archaeological expedition claims to have found the remains of the Persians somewhere. So far, all claims have been debunked.
Reading on the subject these last two days has been a nice opportunity to find out about desert survival (or lack thereof), about the Persian military structure, and about sandstorm physics.
Isn’t this writing thing a blast…?