One of Herodotus’s charms is that he is always willing to share a good tale. Some of these stories he apparently believes; others strike him as dubious. Either way, he considers them imporant, and dutifully records their details. “Those who find such things credible,” he warns us, “must make what use of them they will of the stories of the Egyptians. My own responsibility, however, as it has been throughout my writing of this entire narrative, is simply to record whatever I may be told by my sources [II.123].”
And how fortunate for us that he does so! Consider this strange story (II.121), apparently a kind of satirical folk tale, which he learned from some of the Egyptian priests during his stay in that ancient land. It concerns a fictitious pharaoh named Rhampsinitus, who Herodotus seems to think was an actual ruler preceding the famous Cheops. It is said that Rhampsinitus had aggregated a large fortune in precious metals, and had stored his holdings in a specially-constructed chamber. The king’s mason, however, had plans of his own; he fitted the stones in the wall of this treasury so that one of them could be removed with relative ease. Anyone gaining access to this sanctum could then rob the king’s coins at will. On his deathbed, the mason summoned his two sons and told them what he had done, and implored them to carry out a robbery of the king’s stash. He provided them with very detailed instructions about what stone should be removed, and how it could be removed with a minimum of effort. Doing so, he told them, would ensure that they remained rich forever. “Do this,” he told them, “and you will be practically the stewards of the king’s exchequer!” The two brothers, their appetites now whetted, began to draw up plans to burglarize the chamber.
At night, the two brothers made their way to the depository where the wall to the money chamber could be found. They removed the stone, entered the room, pilfered what money they could, and then left with their gains. When the theft was discovered, the king was baffled at how it could have happened. The seals on the doors were intact, and there was no sign of any forced entry. The two brothers made additional robberies, and by this time the king began to suspect that the thefts were either an “inside job” or were being done by someone gaining entry in some new way. Rhampsinitus ordered his men to lay snares inside the money chamber, so that the thieves could be physically caught. Soon enough the brothers attempted another robbery, but this time one of them was caught in the king’s trap, and could not free himself; sunrise was coming soon, and there was no time to waste. The ensnared brother said to the other, “You should cut off my head, so that I cannot be identified. For if they find out who I was, they will also come after you.” The other brother was horrified at the suggestion that he should decapitate his brother, but he eventually began to see the logic in the demand. So he cut off his brother’s head, did his best to avoid the gory results of this operation, and left the money chamber, being careful to replace the stone on his way out.
The king’s men found the headless corpse in the depository the next day, and smiled in grim satisfaction. Yet he still could not see how the thief had entered, or how his accomplice had left. So he ordered the body to be exhibited in chains before the city walls, and that guards should be posted in the vicinity. Rhampsinitus told his men that anyone showing remorse or crying upon seeing the body should be brought before him; in his mind, such persons would probably have a connection to the thieves and would be able to provide more information about the thefts. The thief’s mother saw the headless corpse one day; coming home in grief, she implored her surviving son to retrieve the body for proper burial. “If you don’t do this,” she warned her surviving son, “I will make sure the king’s security service finds out that it was you who robbed his money.” The son had little choice but to agree; and do carry out his design, he came up with a plan of his own.
He approached the corpse’s guards on a donkey, carrying several large skins of wine. When he knew he was within plain sight of the guards, he opened the wine skins and let the liquid contents begin to pour out on the ground. The two guards, losing their discipline, ran towards the donkey and tried to prevent the wine from being completely wasted; they used cups and jars to collect the wine, and soon also began to drink it. The brother on the donkey encouraged them to do this, and soon all three of them were drinking and talking heartily. Intoxication followed in due course, and the two guards thought it would be a good idea to sleep off the effects of their inebriation. Once the guards were safely asleep, the brother approached the gibbet, cut down the body of his headless sibling, and loaded it onto the donkey, and left; and as a parting insult, he shaved one side of the guards’ faces. When the king learned of these developments, he was of course beside himself with rage. In his desperation to find the thief, Rhampsinitus now did something which, says Herodotus, “I personally find incredible.”
The king actually ordered his daughter to serve as a prostitute in a well-known brothel, with instructions that she should make inquiries of all her clients about the theft of the headless corpse. His guidance to her was that she should not have intercourse with any client until he had answered this question: “what is the cleverest thing you have done in your life, and the most wicked thing you have done in your life?” Anyone who divulged information about the theft of the king’s treasury, or the theft of the headless corpse, she should immediately identify and restrain. This, at least, was the king’s plan. When the actual thief found about all this, he decided to prove one last time that he was superior to the king in ingenuity. So he secured a human arm from an embalmer, and brought this horrific item to the brothel. When the king’s daughter asked him what the cleverest and most wicked things he had done, the thief said, “The wickedest thing I ever did was cut off my own brother’s head, when he had been trapped in the king’s depository; and the most clever thing I ever did was to get the guards drunk who were looking after his body, in order to bring it home to my mother.” When the daughter heard this, she made a lunge to grab him, but the thief managed to dangle before her the arm he had brought with him (it was dark in the room, and she could not see him).
Thinking this disembodied arm was the thief’s arm, she grasped it tightly. This gave the thief the time he needed to make his escape from the brothel; he sprinted out a side door and was off in a flash. When the king heard of this escape, he was impressed. He send men all around the city to announce that the thief would be fully pardoned if he would make himself known. The thief decided to trust Rhampsinitus, and went to the palace; the king even offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage. He said, “No one can match this man’s intelligence! We Egyptians have been called a very clever people, but this man is the cleverest of us all.” This is the story as Herodotus relates it. As for its meaning, we will leave that for the reader to decide.
Read more in the new, original translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: