A Tale of Pestilence: Did Egypt Wield a Secret Weapon against the Assyrians?

A Tale of Pestilence: Did Egypt Wield a Secret Weapon against the Assyrians?

In 700 BCE, The Assyrian army commanded by King Sennacherib invaded Egypt.

Before the Assyrians pushed any further into Egypt, the Assyrian army made camp at Pelusium, which is located on the salt flats and flax fields of northeastern Egypt. It was to be an easy victory in Sennacherib’s eyes, for the enemy Pharaoh’s soldiers would not fight for him. The “warriors of the Egyptians refused to come to the rescue,” according to Greek historian Herodotus.

The reason for this is that Pharaoh Sethos of Egypt had distanced himself from the warrior class, holding them with great contempt, and felt that their service was needed no more.

Sennacherib, king of Assyria 705 BCE–681 BCE.

Sennacherib, king of Assyria 705 BCE–681 BCE. (Public Domain)

Herodotus wrote: “After him there came to the throne the priest of Hephaistos, whose name was Sethos. This man, they said, neglected and held in no regard the warrior class of the Egyptians, considering that he would have no need of them.” The reason for this odd and dangerous move was due to dreams and visions of grandeur.

Pharaoh Sethos

As Herodotus mentioned, Sethos was a priest, thus divinely inspired, and felt that the gods were on his side thus he was not needing an army. But reality soon enveloped the Pharaoh. For a brief moment his divine omnipotence was shaken and he was left to humble and lament himself before the god: “the priest, being driven into a strait, entered into the sanctuary of the temple and bewailed to the image of the god the danger which was impending over him.” As the priest bellowed and begged the god Ptah for an answer, as Pharaoh Sethos slept, dreams and visions were bestowed upon him, the god Ptah is said to have spoken with Pharaoh Sethos saying: “that he should suffer no evil if he went forth to meet the army of the Arabians; for he himself would send him helpers.”

Statue of Ptah, Egyptian deity of craftsmen, architects and creation.

Statue of Ptah, Egyptian deity of craftsmen, architects and creation. (CC BY 2.0)

When the Pharaoh awoke from his translucent dream, he stood up with full confidence and walked out of the sanctuary to meet and greet his people letting them know that all would be well.

The People’s Army

The Pharaoh needed an army and his god would provide. However, the army he would have used refused to fight for him and all that was left was the common civilian, people who worked in goods and services.

Herodotus mentioned this event: “Trusting in these things seen in sleep, he took with him, they said, those of the Egyptians who were willing to follow him, and encamped in Pelusion, for by this way the invasion came: and not one of the warrior class followed him, but shop-keepers and artisans and men of the market.”

Pharaoh Sethos had no choice, regardless of what his god said, for the only army around him, was an army of merchants, and it looked as if the Assyrians are set to conquer Egypt.

However, a strange and anomalous incident might have changed history.

Of Mice and Men

Once Pharaoh’s men made camp near the Assyrians, and as the night drew over them, a creature began to stir. It was a single mouse—and then it was thousands of them!

“Then after they came, there swarmed by night upon their enemies mice of the fields, and ate up their quivers and their bows, and moreover the handles of their shields, so that on the next day they fled, and being without defense of arms great numbers fell” -Herodotus

The mice that invaded the Assyrian camp are said to have eaten all the leather they could find, and most likely an unbelievable amount to say the least! However, back in the ancient days, this was doubly damaging: if a mouse had eaten your leather military gear, it was believed to be an omen of bad things to come.

An Assyrian winged bull, or lamassu, from Sargon's palace at Dur-Sharrukin.

An Assyrian winged bull, or lamassu, from Sargon's palace at Dur-Sharrukin. (Public Domain)

As for the Assyrians, Herodotus explained it well. The Assyrians fled out of Egypt and where they went remains unknown, but it seems possible that the Assyrians made a move to take Jerusalem next, and possibly with the same army, after being resupplied with men and arms.

An Assyrian siege ramp outside of Lachish, now Shephelah Southern District, Israel. Lachish archaeological site.

An Assyrian siege ramp outside of Lachish, now Shephelah Southern District, Israel. Lachish archaeological site. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Army on the Run

The Old Testament book of II Kings 19:35 tells an interesting story that might be somewhat related to the events that happened in Egypt.

“And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.” -II Kings 19:35.

Is it possible, that the remaining Assyrian army that fled from Egypt regrouped with other Assyrian forces already conducting war operations against Judah, and marched on Jerusalem together to besiege it? It is very possible, for the events that happened at Egypt are said to have occurred around 701 BCE and events which took place outside the walls of Jerusalem happened around 700 BCE. For when we look back to II Kings 19:35 we notice that the ‘angel of the Lord smote the Assyrians’ killing well over 100,000 of them. It becomes quite possible that when the Assyrian army set camp in Egypt—preparing for the conquest and subjugation of Egypt—that the very mice that ate the leather fixed to the weapons the Assyrians carried, also carried the plague.

Assyrian warriors hurling stones. The carving is from a wall decoration in the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh (early seventh century BCE).

Assyrian warriors hurling stones. The carving is from a wall decoration in the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh (early seventh century BCE). (Public Domain)

Thus, any remaining Assyrian soldiers that escaped, most likely carried plague with them, and in turn ended up infecting those they encountered like other Assyrian soldiers.

An Army of Plague Bearers?

It becomes quite likely that the account Herodotus told and the account found in the Bible are thus related to one another in terms of biological agents being passed from one location to another through military maneuver. Whatever the case was, concerning Assyria’s march and retreat from Egypt and Assyria besieging Jerusalem, these events should be reexamined, to see if they coincide with one another on a short-term base. 

Now, besides the two events matching one another there is another issue concerning these two fascinating events.


In 703 BCE Babylonia challenged Sennacherib's rule by rebelling. A man by the name of Marduk-apla-iddina, who had taken the Babylonia throne for himself once before did so again. However, Marduk-apla-iddina met defeat and Babylonia was plundered and placed firmly back under Assyrian control.

This event caused another rebellion to ignite in Syria-Palestine when Egypt and Hezekiah of Judah decided to challenge Assyria's authority by renouncing their own allegiances. Many more would join in this seminal event, such as the Phoenician city-states of Sidon and Ashkelon.

Sennacherib quickly mustered his forces and marched on the region. Sennacherib moved his forces down the coast of Phoenicia and Philistia and defeated, pillaged, took captives and moved on. As each rebellious city was subjugated, the writing was on the wall: rebellion was futile.

As his forces continued to push south they met an Egyptian army heading north to support the Judean rebellion, but met them head-on and defeated them at Ekron. In total, he had taken and sacked around forty-six cities. While the bulk of Sennacherib’s forces were conducting military operations throughout the southern Levant, particularly along the coastal region and inland, he probably sent an Assyrian detachment into Egypt.

Assyrian Archers. Assyrian Relief, South-West Palace of Nineveh (room 36, panel 5-6) ; 700–692 BC.

Assyrian Archers. Assyrian Relief, South-West Palace of Nineveh (room 36, panel 5-6) ; 700–692 BC. (Public Domain)

This Assyrian detachment was conceivably small in size and their mission was likely to chase the fleeing Egyptians back into Egypt. After pursuing the Egyptians from Ekron, they set up camp at Pelusium. The distance between the two is roughly 549 miles (884 kilometers) and it would have taken the Assyrian army a little over a month to reach Pelusium. Given the distance and the events transpiring east of them, this small, perhaps medium sized force was for the most part cut off from the main force, except for communications.

Nevertheless, communications moved much faster by horse than on foot but in any case made little difference, for the Assyrian force stationed at Pelusium (likely awaiting additional supplies and further orders from Sennacherib) was eventually confronted by a force more determined. Thus they were soundly defeated and chased out of Egypt.

What Really Happened?

Herodotus may have been right that the Egyptians soundly evicted the Assyrian force from their lands, but the idea that mice ate the bowstrings and other items for military use seems a bit farfetched but not impossible. What likely happened was that the Assyrian force which had been stationed in Egypt had been there for some time, and because of this, vermin infiltrated their camp, which is not at all uncommon, even today among armies bivouacked in the field for a considerable amount of days.

While vermin are quickly killed and shooed away, the bugs, which use them as a host, are not so easily disposed of. Because of this, fleas and lice could have bitten the Assyrian men. Also, consider that the mice, which began to eat the grain, would also defecate in it, and this too would add to their coming illness. Vermin, bugs, and excrement weakened the Assyrian forces, and as such they were easily disposed of.

Another proposition is that the Egyptians, sensing that they had not the professional, seasoned soldiers at their disposal, decided to round up all the flea-carrying rodents and herded them towards the Assyrian camp. From a tactical stance, Pharaoh Sethos employed an indirect attack by utilizing his men as a ‘fixing force’ (controlling or stopping an enemy’s advance), thus allowing nature and its biological agents to act as the real attack power. The Assyrian forces able to make it back to their main unit would infect their comrades as well.

As Sennacherib and his officers continued to conduct military operations, they gave the order to send a medium-sized detachment to besiege Jerusalem as a show of force. However, the medium force that encamped outside the walls of Jerusalem may have basically been dead men walking. The Assyrian commanders may or may not have taken notice that some men were sick. If so, little could have been done to alleviate their pain, and the sickness spread fast, passing even to the officers in charge.

Unfortunately, the health of the men before the day they died at the walls of Jerusalem is unwritten. However long the Assyrian army had been stationed outside the walls of Jerusalem is also unknown. But eventually the defenders on the walls noticed one morning that the Assyrian soldiers on the ground were dead. It would have indeed appeared as if a miracle from heaven had happened.

“Sennacherib's Army Is Destroyed” by Gustave Dore, 1891.

“Sennacherib's Army Is Destroyed” by Gustave Dore, 1891. (Public Domain)

Here and Gone Again

Another interesting aspect of this campaign is that the army that presumably suffered and died from plague or some other type of illness somehow did not spread that vile scourge to the rest of the Assyrian army. For after Sennacherib was done despoiling the Levant he headed home, proclaiming himself victorious, and claiming to have captured 200,150 people. If a major disease did break out in Assyria, it was not recorded in their annals.

Limestone stele of king Sennacherib from Nineveh.

Limestone stele of king Sennacherib from Nineveh. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Furthermore, while the Bible indicates that 100,000 Assyrian forces were dead, the reality is, it was far less. The purpose for the Bible stating that 100,000 men died outside the walls of Jerusalem was likely nothing more than propaganda. While it is true in one dark sense that they did defeat 100,000 troops, this is only true in the sense that the great army of Sennacherib had already taken their fill of booty, had reclaimed their sphere of influence, had left for home with a great number of captives, and as such allowed Judea to continue as a state.

Judean captives being led away into slavery by the Assyrians after the siege of Lachish in 701 BC.

Judean captives being led away into slavery by the Assyrians after the siege of Lachish in 701 BC.  (Public Domain)

However, Judea was now worse off than before.

As for Egypt, they too were able to avoid the full wrath of Assyria, but this would not last. For the next time Assyria invaded, no plague could stop them, and in 671 BCE, they conquered the Egyptians. 

Map of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its expansions - dark green shows the empire in 824 BCE, light green in 671 BCE.

Map of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its expansions - dark green shows the empire in 824 BCE, light green in 671 BCE. (Public Domain)

The Destruction of Sennacherib

In conclusion, I leave you with the famous poem by British poet Lord Byron titled “The Destruction of Sennacherib”, faithful to the Biblical account and a recounting of the history from a romantic perspective:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.


   Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,

That host with their banners at sunset were seen:

Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,

That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.


   For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,

And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;

And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,

And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!


   And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,

But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;

And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,

And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.


   And there lay the rider distorted and pale,

With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:

And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,

The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.


   And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,

And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;

And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,

Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Featured image: Assyrian relief of a horseman from Nimrud, now in the British Museum. "Battle scene, Assyrian, about 728 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Boardman, John, I. E. S. Edwards, and N. G. L. Hammond. The Cambridge Ancient History. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C. Volume III, Part 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Bray, R. S. Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2004.

Herodotus. The Histories. North Clarendon, VT: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1992.

Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs. Woodstock & New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2003.