fifth king of the Saite or twenty-sixth dynasty, Late period. Although not descended from the royal line begun by Psamtik I (r. 664–610 BCE), Amasis was an army general of uncertain but probably Libyan ancestry, selected by Egyptian troops to replace his predecessor, Apries (r. 589–570 BCE). Apries had been accused of cowardice while unsuccessfully attempting to invade the Greek city of Cyrene in North Africa, originally the capital of Cyrenaica. Information on the circumstances surrounding that usurpation is contradictory. Some accounts tell of Apries's death in battle with the forces of Amasis after Apries had fled Egypt in 570 BCE, to return three years later with a Babylonian army; others relate that Amasis imprisoned and later executed Apries after the coup of 570 BCE. The Greek historians Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, as well as Egyptian sources (a fragmentary Demotic story) portray Amasis as a plebeian who drank too much and did not act in a properly regal manner. Although those characterizations were probably true, Amasis had a very productive reign, proved himself capable of making both domestic and foreign-policy decisions, and demonstrated great acumen as a statesman.
Egypt, during the Saite dynasty, was a country greatly dependent on foreign trade and involved in realpolitik—at a time when it was not the dominant power in the area. When the twenty-sixth dynasty was founded by Psamtik I, he began his reign as a virtual Assyrian vassal. Yet the Babylonians (Chaldeans) had become the most influential force in the area by the time of Amasis, and their king, Nebuchadrezzar, was vigorously engaging the Hebrews in Palestine—a struggle that provoked some feeble and fruitless attempts at intervention by the Egyptian kings who had preceded Amasis. That situation faced Amasis at the beginning of his reign. Like his predecessors, he maintained a strong naval presence to protect Egyptian trade routes and an army powerfully reinforced by Greek mercenaries. Notwithstanding those precautionary measures, consistent with his military experience, he was an astute diplomat who forged numerous foreign alliances to support his country's interests. Most of the alliances were with the various Greek states with which Egypt traded and on which Egypt depended for mercenary troops. Amasis was careful not to provoke the Babylonians, although some of his treaties with the Greek states were clearly meant to deflect a possible invasion by them.
Amasis was equally successful with domestic affairs, reforming Egypt's juridical system and relocating the main body of Greek mercenaries away from a potentially harmful border position, where they might have been subverted, thereby opening Egypt to invaders. He married a woman who was possibly the daughter of a Greek (Lydian?) family residing in Egypt. Presuming that his marriage had political overtones, it would have served his desire to maintain a good relationship with an influential minority, who supported him despite the substantial taxes levied on the Hellenistic community in Egypt. The reign of Amasis was marked by massive building projects and a high level of prosperity throughout the land. In many ways, he was the most successful pharaoh of the Saite dynasty, rivaled only by its founder, Psamtik I.
His long reign ended with his death and the succession of his son Psamtik III. His tomb is presumably located in the eastern Delta city of Sais, the capital of the twenty-sixth dynasty, but no trace of it has yet been found. A single inscribed sphinx bearing his name (now in Rome, in the Museo Capitoline) is the only unquestionable example of a three-dimensional representation of him, although there is a group of fragmentary anthropomorphic statues probably depicting Amasis. They have long faces and eyes set high up on the head, features usually associated in the region with Libyans and perhaps revealing his ancestry. Most of the information about the reign of Amasis comes from the Greek historian, Herodotus, who visited Egypt less than a century after his death; but biblical sources, fragmentary Egyptian stone inscriptions, and papyri supplement our limited knowledge of this pharaoh.
- De Meulenaere, Herman. “Amasis.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1:181–182. Wiesbaden, 1975.
- Josephson, Jack A. Egyptian Royal Sculpture of the Late Period, 400–246 b.c. Mainz, 1997.
- Lloyd, A. B. “The Late Period”. Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge, 1983.
- Myśliwiec, Karol. Royal Portraiture of the Dynasties XXI–XXX. Mainz, 1988.
- Spalinger, Anthony. “Egypt and Babylonia: A Survey (c. 620 B.C.–550 B.C.).” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 5 (1977), 221–244.
- Spalinger, Anthony. “The Concept of Monarchy during the Saite Epoch—An Essay of Synthesis.” Orientalia, NS 47 (1978), 12–36.
Jack A. Josephson