Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period

- Syllabus Content - Map - Pharaohs - Past Questions -

Social Structure and Political Organisation

2.1 Roles and images of the pharaoh; concept of maat

See also Nicola's presentation for this topic

The Divine Role of the King

maat: The divine order established at the time of creation. Without maat there would be chaos in both the physical and spiritual world.

The king was regarded as the representative of divine order on earth. When he died the people feared an outbreak of chaos and disorder. It was imperative to get the new king crowned as soon as possible in order to re-establish harmony, stability and security in the kingdom.

Since the king, as the embodiment of maat, interpreted and articulated the law, there was no need to draw up a code of laws.

As the representative of a god on earth, the king was expected to have power over the Nile and to win new agricultural lands. As well as bringing fertility and prosperity to the land the god-king was believed to protect his people from evil and dangers in both human and animal form.

The responsibilities of the king to uphold the divine order of the world by fighting evil, defending his land and sustaining life, continued throughout Egyptian dynastic history.

Kings were consistently depicted:
  • wielding a mace or some other weapon over their heads ready to smite the wretched enemies of Egypt who cowered before them
  • single-handedly defeating huge foreign armies
  • symbolically fighting evil as they engaged in hunting forays in the deserts
  • providing life-giving waters

Changes to the image of the pharaoh

The king as a god

From earliest times, the Egyptian king was believed to be:
  • the son of Re, the sun god
  • the earthly form of the falcon god Horus (Lord of Heaven, Lord of the Horizon, the Distant One)
  • Horus and Osiris ‑ the king became Horus, the son, when he ascended the throne and Osiris when he died.

During the New Kingdom, the pharaoh was regarded also as:
  • the son of the imperial god Amun‑Re. Ramesses II named Amun, Ptah and Re as his ‘fathers’. In the Ramesseum there are scenes which depict the divine marriage between Amun (in the guise of the pharaoh) and the queen consort, the conception and finally the birth of the royal child which takes place in front of a large number of the gods. Amun recog­nises the child, promising it millions of years like Re.
  • the incarnation of a warrior god like Montu or Seth. He was often depicted at this time wearing the feathers of Amun and in battle with the wings of Montu.

Statues of the king were erected in temples: colossal statues of Ramesses II at Luxor and Abu Simbel.
New epithets reflecting divinity were added to statues: Ramesses II added ‘Chosen of Re’, ‘Beloved of Atum’, ‘Montu in the Two Lands’.

One of the responsibilities of the god‑king was to defend the land against physical threats and confront evil or chaotic forces. The tradition of the pharaoh as a smasher of heads continued during the New Kingdom. The towering king was shown striding forward, grasping in his left hand the hair of a captive or captives while the mace-head or scimitar in his right hand was about to beat out the enemy’s brains. No one could hope to resist the divine ruler and survive.

The king as a warrior

Most pharaohs of the New Kingdom were war leaders. Some were true warrior‑kings who extended the boundaries of Egypt north and south. Others directed or participated in campaigns only in the first few years of their reigns. However, this was enough to maintain Egyptian power abroad and to reinforce the tradition of the warrior‑king who had divine support and approval. Almost all New Kingdom pharaohs took an interest in the recruiting and arming of their troops, whether they personally led them or not.

The court writers and artists of the day focused on the superhuman qualities of the god‑king. No matter what the abilities of the individual pharaoh or the incidents of history, the pharaoh was always shown larger than life in the midst of battle. Alone in his chariot, he had the reins fastened around his waist so that both hands were free for the fight. He was vastly outnumbered but needed no help from his forces. His arrows always found their mark and the enemy was utterly powerless against him.

The warlike image of the New Kingdom pharaohs was reflected in their names and titles. They include such descriptions as:

Strong‑armed, Subduing the Foe, Mighty of Bows in all Lands (Seti I)
Protector of Egypt who curbs the foreign lands (Ramesses II).

This image was further enhanced by:
  • the king's constant association with Montu, the war god of Thebes
  • the addition of the blue war crown (khepresh) to the collection of royal regalia. This blue leather crown covered with gold studs was not only worn into battle but whenever the pharaoh wanted to emphasise his warlike powers and military feats
  • the addition of the scimitar (a sword‑like weapon with a curved cutting edge) to the other sceptres ‑ the pastoral crook and the whip or flail
  • decoration which featured Negroes and Asiatics on the base of the king's throne or footstool (under the pharaoh's feet).

The depiction of the pharaoh as a warrior god reached its ultimate form under Ramesses Il.

The heroic image was also repeated in the records of the pharaoh's hunting forays against lions, wild cattle and even elephants. The pharaoh, always looking magnificent in his chariot, disposed of the wild beasts charging at him. No one could equal his prowess with the bow.


Relief scenes of battles:
  • Seti I’s Syrian Campaign (Temple of Amun at Karnak).
  • Ramesses II’s Battle of Kadesh (The Ramesseum).
  • Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh (Temple of Luxor).
  • Ramesses III defeating the Sea Peoples (Medinet Habu).

Other important features of kingship during the Ramesside period were:
  • An increase in the number of co‑regencies e.g., Ramesses I and Seti I, Seti I and Ramesses II.
  • An increased emphasis on the king's divine status.
  • A decline in the king's authority and position by Dynasty XX.

The following extract, which refers to Ramesses II, comes from a monumental inscription carved into the walls of the temples of Abydos, Luxor, Karnak, Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum.

His Majesty was a youthful lord,
Active and without his like;
His arms mighty, his heart stout,
His strength like Mont in his hour.
Of perfect form like Atum,
Hailed when his beauty is seen;
Victorious over all lands
Wily in launching a fight
Strong wall around his soldiers,
Their shield on the day of battle;
A bowman without his equal,
Who prevails over vast numbers.
Head on he charges a multitude,
His heart trusting his strength.
Stout‑hearted in the hour of combat,
like the flame when it consumes.
Firm‑hearted like a bull ready for battle,
He heeds not all the lands combined;
A thousand men cannot withstand him,
A hundred thousand fail at his sight.
Lord of fear, great of fame,
In the hearts of all the lands;
Great of awe, rich in glory,
As is Seth upon his mountain;
[Casting fear] in foreigners' hearts
Like a wild lion in a valley of goats.
... Who saves his troops on battle day,
Greatly aids his charioteers;
Brings home his followers, rescues his soldiers,
With a heart that is like a mountain of copper.