Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh: The Military Leader

Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh

The Military Leader

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

Ramesses II proudly wearing the Blue, or War Crown

Were we to take the depictions and reliefs of Ramesses II, Seti I, there successors and their predecessors at face value, it might lead us to sometimes believe that their contact with neighbors was always on the field of battle. Many of these reliefs on the exterior of temple walls portray war as both thrilling and glamorous, having also religious undertones. On these walls we are, repeatedly, almost like the high budget advertisements of our modern society, treated to scenes of the king vanquishing the enemy and thus fulfilling his duty to defeat the forces of chaos and preserve ma'at. Again and again, we see the brave pharaoh driving his chariot behind fiery steeds as he fearlessly leads his nervous troops into the fray. He stands single handedly sometimes in his two man chariot alone, firing arrows as he charges ahead, or at other times, beats his cringing enemies to death with a club.

Ramesses II smites his enemies with a battle ax

The message is clear. Pharaoh triumphant sacrifices his enemies to the greater glory of Egypt and her gods. The Defeated enemy invariably adopts an attitude of total submission, for he knows that it would be futile to struggle against his fate. These enemies very often included the Nubians to the south of Egypt, the Libyans to Egypt's west and the Asiatics to the east. They appear again and again to suffer at the hands of pharaohs, as depicted on temple walls, even when they were not a threat.

No one was better at this propaganda than Ramesses the Great, who always won his wars and always forced his enemies to grovel at his feet. For example, even though many scholars believe he lost ground with the Battle of Kadesh, he nevertheless had no fewer than ten inscriptions, a longer "poem" and a shorter "bulletin" carved on the walls of five temples, along with accompanying reliefs. These, of course, all depicted Ramesses II victorious, but few of these accounts conform to our modern standards of historic reporting. In fact, some battles depicted by later pharaohs, were actually campaigns of earlier kings whom the current pharaoh wished to emulate, while others depicted kings such as Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaten smiting enemies when in fact they probably never personally participated in military actions at all.

Ramesses II standing along in his two man chariot firing arrows

An examination of Ramesses II's campaigns, as depicted on the walls of his various temples, seems to show that his military leadership was not overly impressive, if stripped of their hyperbole. If the Battle of Kadesh, his most documented campaign, is any indication, he was almost certainly an unimaginative strategist who was better as a front line warrior than as a military leader. We must give him credit for his personal involvement in a number of campaigns, as well as his good intentions, and he did expand Egypt's territory, even in southern Syria. Because of the peace treaty with the Hittites, he was also able to use these possessions to increase the wealth of Egypt.

Just as the Egyptian temple walls were a fortress against the chaos of the secular world protecting the peace, or ma'at within, so too were Egypt's borders. The Two Lands (Egypt) might also be viewed in a certain way as a temple to the Egyptian gods, for pharaoh ruled the world. He had an religious duty to protect its borders from the corrupt and vile foreigners. So from a fairly early age, Ramesses, as the future pharaoh, was trained in the art of warfare. We know that he probably accompanied his father, Seti I on some of his campaigns, and as he grew older, was placed in charge of various military actions.

A fragment of the poem papyrus recording the Battle of Kadesh

In fact, when Egypt's ships and northernmost towns suddenly found themselves under serious threat by pirates (Sherden), it was Ramesses II, while still co-regent in one of his earliest actions as a commander, who was placed in charge of their elimination. Posting soldiers and ships at strategic points along the coast, Ramesses II waited patiently until the Sherden appeared. He surprised and captured them, inducting many of their survivors into the Egyptian army. While the Battle of Kadesh often dominates the scholarly view of Ramesses II's military prowess, he nevertheless did enjoy more than a few outright victories over the enemies of Egypt.

Ramesses II must be applauded for his protection of Egypt proper's borders. After all, this was one of pharaoh's prime directives. Not long after he neutralized the threat posed by Sherden pirates, he established a defensive line along Egypt's northwestern frontier. Archaeologists have identified at least three of these forts to the west of the modern city of Alexandria, and another two in the western Delta at Tell Abqa'in and Kom el-Hisn. These were probably only a part of an extensive chain of forts protecting Egypt's northwestern regions.

Another depiction of Ramesses wearing the khepresh, or war crown

While not a new innovation, these forts which were often built near water holes in order to deny access to Libyans infiltrating the prosperous Delta, probably became very useful when, during the reigns of several of his successors (Merenptah and Ramesses III), Libyans attempted a larger scale invasion into the region.

Yet, Ramesses II's military aspirations were to the east, and for good reason. Since Nubia was virtually a province of Egypt during his reign, and there was little to be gained to Egypt's west, imperial gains could really only be realized in southern Syria. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms there were occasional campaigns against specific fortified Canaanite towns, but Egypt's real involvement with the region was in trade. In fact, so important was this trade to the Canaanites, that after the collapse of Egypt's Old Kingdom, the Canaanite economy failed as well. However, it was not until the New Kingdom, following Ahmose's expulsion of the Hyksos, that Egypt's military attention became focused on southern Syria. By the time of Tuthmosis III, Egypt would see its greatest expansion into southern Syria. However, Egypt never seems to have been very committed to this expansion, or perhaps more correctly, their strategy for holding the region was faulty. There was never a sizable, permanent Egyptian military presence committed to the region. Instead, Egypt depended on the loyalty of local chiefs to oversee their interests, which soon became an undependable means of controlling the region. Egypt would be repeatedly required to mount military campaigns into southern Syria in order to hold, or as often as not, prevent the total collapse of these holdings.

Depiction of the Battle of Kadesh

This weakness in Egypt's strategic goals were never clearer than in the reign of Ramesses II's father, Seti I. He seems to have had considerable military success in the region, probably for a brief time, increasing Egypt's expansion almost to the extent of his early 18th Dynasty predecessors. This may have included most of southern Syria, as far north as Kadesh. Yet, by the time of his death, much of that territory was lost, and there is no doubt that Ramesses II sought to return it to Egyptian hands.

As early as the forth year of Ramesses II's rule, the important kingdom of Amurru was returned to Egyptian hands, but this also signaled a great battle to come, for it would ultimately result in the Battle of Kadesh, an action that Ramesses II claimed as a victory, but which most Egyptologists see, at best, as a draw between the Hittites and Egypt. It resulted in a peace treaty that, while excluding the city state of Kadesh which Ramesses II had sought to control, nevertheless allowed a measure of peace and prosperity throughout the remainder of Ramesses II's reign.

Major Sections on Ramesses II

Main Ramesses II Page

Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh - An Introduction

Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh - His Family (Specifically, his Women)

Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh - His Family (Specifically, his Children)

See also:

Amun-her-shepeshef, First Son of Ramesses II

The Bentrech Stele

Leading up to the Battle of Kadesh: The Battle of Kadesh, Part I

The Actual Battle of Kadesh: The Battle of Kadesh Part II

Egyptian Account of the Battle of Kadesh

Nefertari, Tomb of - Valley of the Queens

Qantir, Ancient Pi-Ramesse

The Queens of Ramesses II

The First Peace Treaty in History

The Peace Treaty Document

The Sons (and Daughters) of Ramesses II






Reference Number

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Osprey Publishing

ISBN 1 85532 939 5

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Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

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None Stated

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Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

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ISBN Not Listed

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Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

ISBN 0-8109-2870-1 (pbk.)