Egypt: The Evolution of Warfare Part I

The Evolution of Warfare

Part I

by Anita Stratos

Egypt was considered to be the most peaceful country in the ancient world. Its natural boundaries (the First Cataract on the Nile at Aswan, the deserts east and west of the Nile Valley, and the Mediterranean coast to the north) provided plenty of protection from outsiders, and Egyptians themselves were not a society of invaders or conquerors. Therefore, the country didnt consider the need for a professional army until the invasion of the Hyksos during the 15th Dynasty in the Second Intermediate Period.

Up until that time, Egypt had a loosely organized, part-time army and crude, inferior weapons. The army that was raised in times of need, i.e., during civil unrest, consisted of conscripts, who were generally peasants and artisans, led by noblemen. There was, however, a small core of regular soldiers, but they were mostly engaged as palace guards, border police, or trade ship escorts. So lax was the military that during the Middle Kingdom, Egypts simple infantry was made up of nothing more than older foot soldiers and inexperienced young men. Further, Egyptians were very hesitant to engage in conflicts outside their own country because they were afraid of dying and being buried elsewhere, thereby not receiving the necessary and appropriate funeral rites. Because of this fear, armies of the Old Kingdom were made up of foreign mercenaries.

Of course, there were some military campaigns carried out in early times, such as those of King Scorpion and King Menes (Narmer or Aha), whose military force enabled him to establish a united Egypt. From Meness time (circa 3100 BC), Egyptian kings headed the army under the guidance of war gods such as Seth, Sekhmet, and Montu, who led them to victory. In fact, a warring king was considered to be acting on behalf of the gods in an effort to bring order to the chaos caused by Egypts enemies. Temple scenes depict pharaohs leading their armies into battle and some ancient records, such as that of Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh, give the pharaoh credit for winning the battle single-handedly.

The Hyksos invasion forced Egypt to create a trained, professional army and improve its weaponry. The Egyptians learned valuable lessons from the Hyksos attack, and by the middle of the 18th Dynasty, Egypt had become a major military power and expanded its territory to become the first empire in the region. The new Egyptian army, supported by its navy, reached its peak during the New Kingdom, becoming more of an aggressive nation rather than the defensive one it had been previously.


According to the Edict of Horemheb at the end of the 18th Dynasty, during peacetime the army was split into an Upper Egyptian corps and a Lower Egyptian corps, and each was led by a lieutenant commander. In this capacity, the two armies covered several arenas: the were stationed at frontier forts, escorted royal processions, intervened in riots, and possibly even served as unskilled building labor.

While the details of some military campaigns and battles were not well documented, the organization of the army was. The chain of command, in order of rank, was:

  1. King, commander in chief

  2. General, or overseer of the army, who reported directly to the king

  3. Lieutenant commander, serving as senior officer

  4. Overseer of the Nubian frontier and Mediterranean coast fortresses

  5. Overseer of garrison troops

  6. Troop commander, in charge of several regiments, a brigade or a fortress

  7. Captain of the troop

  8. Commander of 250 soldiers

  9. Standard-bearer, controlling 200 men

  10. "Greatest of Fifty", the lowest commander

For major military actions, the pharaoh was the commander-in-chief and physically led his army into battle, while minor officials or princes led less significant campaigns. The vizier acted as the minister of war, taking advice from an army council. Prior to a battle, the king always consulted his senior officials.

The army itself was made up of the infantry and chariotry divisions, which were commanded by either the king himself or one of the princes. These divisions consisted of approximately 5,000 soldiers, and each division was named after an Egyptian god. What was in the past an unprepared infantry became a unit of trained soldiers, recruits, and specialized troops.

From the time of Amenhotep III on, most enlisted men were former prisoners of war. In the 18th Dynasty recruits would be brought in from Nubia; in later periods recruits came from many foreign areas. However, during the New Kingdom soldiers were recruited locally by conscription and by the time of Ramesses II, one man in ten was forced to serve in the military. In order to properly prepare recruits for battle, it was important that they take part in javelin throwing and wrestling competitions under the watchful eyes of the king and nobles.

Some men did not have to be recruited they chose the army as their profession. The Ramesside Period saw many upper class Egyptian men become military officials, and these men received promotions and wealth quickly. Officers were always chosen from among the career army men. But there were other inducements to choosing the army as a profession booty collected during a military campaign was distributed among these professionals, and the king also gave land to these men with the added incentive that their sons could inherit the land if they also served in the army. Herodotus recorded just such provisions:

Light Infantry

"The warriors were the only Egyptians, except the priests, who has special privileges: for each of them an untaxed plot of twelve acres was set apart. . A thousand Calasirians and as many Hermotybians were the kings annual bodyguard. These men, besides their lands, each received a daily provision of five minaes weight of roast grain, two minae of beef, and four cups of wine. These were the gifts received by each bodyguard."

The chariot and chariotry were introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos. The Egyptian chariotry consisted of five squadrons, with twenty-five chariots in each and two men in each chariot: a driver and a soldier armed with bows and arrows, a shield, a sword, and a javelin. Within the chariotry was a powerful position known as the "First Charioteer of his Majesty". This man not only drove the pharaohs chariot, but also ventured into foreign lands to obtain stud horses. Between these horses and those that were taken as booty during military campaigns, the breeding stock of Egyptian horses was well maintained. The royal stable master trained the horses, while lower level stable masters fed and exercised them. It is believed that there was no cavalry because the horses were smaller and not strong enough to support a rider.

The pharaohs specialized troops were called "Braves of the King". These were the elite fighting forces that led attacks, while the garrison troops, called the wyt, sometimes served as the pharaohs household troops both in Egypt and in foreign lands. A group called the "Retainers" distributed rations to troops during the 18th Dynasty, acted as letter carriers during the Ramesside Period, and may have functioned as the royal bodyguards.

Mercenaries were still important in the professional army of the New Kingdom. The number of foreigners including Medjay, Sheriden, and Libyans in the Egyptian army was so high that captains were specially designated to be in charge of them. By the latter part of the New Kingdom, these foreign mercenaries formed the majority of the army. It is interesting that by the 19th Dynasty, foreign mercenaries came from so many different places that at times, they fought in battles against members of their own former tribes. In fact, descendants of Libyan mercenaries actually became rulers of Egypts 22nd and 23rd Dynasties.

Traveling along with the army were scribes, who appeared to have low regard for the professional soldier. Their writings characterized the profession in very unflattering terms as they warned their students not to consider a career in the army. The Instructions of Scribe Wenemdiamun speaks of the "woes of the soldier", counting among these woes the fact that each soldier had many superiors who could wake him at any hour of the night for any purpose. He wrote "One is after him as a donkey", saying that the soldier must toil until he is so hungry that his stomach hurts "he is dead while yet alive" and then is given inferior food for his troubles. He claimed that soldiers were only given water every third day, that they were "ravaged by illness", that they suffered no matter how well they performed their duties and that ultimately "He suffers in death as in life". This was quite different from the soldiers perspective, who not only received physical remuneration, but also believed that as a hero, his name and memory would never be erased from the earth.

Although the Egyptian army became a professional, organized unit, it did not really refine its warfare style. Generally, when an enemy sought protection behind its own fortifications, the Egyptians patiently starved them into submission under the protective cover of huts, then broke through gates and used ladders to scale the enemy stronghold. Hand-to-hand combat was common in open areas. Prior to a battle, Egyptians let their enemies know which day they planned to do battle and if the enemy wasnt prepared, the battle was rescheduled. However, not all enemies were as civilized, sometimes launching surprise attacks against Egyptian troops.

Victory over the enemy meant an infusion of riches for Egypt from the booty that was collected. Booty could also be a distraction, as in the case of the Hittites at Kadesh who became so involved in looting an Egyptian camp that they didnt even bother pursuing Ramesses II and his forces. Generally, Egyptian kings such as Thutmose III kept better control over their men, allowing them to plunder the enemy camp after victory was achieved. Booty was turned over to the king, who in turn distributed one portion of it to temple priests and another to the deserving soldiers who had fought the battle. In some cases, thousands of items were plundered from the enemy including horses, chariots wrought with gold, armor, bows, and cattle. Detailed accounts of some remarkable riches have survived the centuries. Enemy survivors, both civilian and military, were either taken as prisoners of war or enslaved.

Enemy princes who surrendered to the pharaoh had the option of accepting the Egyptian pharaoh as their overlord; these princes were then allowed to continue governing their own cities. However, in some cases the bodies of enemy soldiers who were killed in battle were mutilated, and their body parts were presented to the king.

See also:


Important Battles