E23 Army

Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period

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Social Structure and Political Organisation

2.3 Nature and role of the army

See also Magdeleine's presentation for this topic

The Ramesside period was characterised by a return to militaristic policies and regular campaigning. Control was re‑established over Palestine and Phoenicia, and territory in northern Syria was temporarily restored. The military objectives of the Ramesside rulers were achieved with the aid of a permanent, professional army. The army of this period differed from the early New Kingdom in the following respects:
  • 20 000 troops in total.
  • Four divisions by the reign of Ramesses II, the Division of Amun, the Division of Re, the Division of Ptah and the Division of Seth.
  • Each division comprising 5000 troops of mixed infantry and chariotry units.
  • Smaller units of 250 commanded by a standard bearer.
  • Increased number of mercenaries to augment regular troops.
  • Increased number of foreigners in combat forces.
  • Improved intelligence units.
  • Improved armour e.g. helmets, and short‑sleeved mail coat over cloth tunic.
  • Improved weaponry e.g. short axes with narrow edge, bronze arrowheads; quiver attached to chariot for carrying javelins.
  • Use of carts and pack animals for troop transportation.

The development of a permanent professional army

In earlier periods of Egyptian history, each nome (province) had its own militia. This was conscripted from local able‑bodied men who served seasonally and then returned to their homes. In times of national emer­gencies these local militia were organised under a commander chosen to meet the emergency and were provided with weapons from the royal armoury.

During the wars against the Hyksos at the end of the Seventeenth and beginning of the Eighteenth dynasties, the Egyptians adopted the superior weapons that had been introduced by the Asiatic invaders ‑ new types of bronze swords and daggers, bronze and leather armour, the powerful compound bow and, most important of all, the horse‑drawn chariot. It was also about the time of the war of liberation against the Hyksos; that the Egyptians used the Nubian Medjay troops as mercenar­ies. The Medjay became indispensable to the Egyptians in the following centuries.

Mobile warfare based on chariots, the use of the Nubians and a new patriotic fervour transformed the Egyptian state into a military power.

The campaigns against the western Asiatics in the early Eighteenth Dynasty and the need to leave garrisons to control conquered territory led to the development of a permanent professional army by the time of Thutmose III. This was based on a continuous levying and training program. At this stage the army was composed of a nucleus of native Egyptians organised into two divisions ‑ the Division of Amun from Thebes and the Division of Re from Heliopolis. However, this force was increasingly augmented by mercenary troops from surrounding countries.

As the early patriotic fervour waned, continued service away from home was not seen as desirable, particularly by the lower classes. The Egyptian forces were strengthened more and more with captives and mercenaries, such as:
  • the Medjay and Nehsiu from the south
  • the Shasu from the cast
  • the Merwesh from the west
  • the Sherden of the Sea Peoples.

During the Nineteenth Dynasty, a division of 5000 troops might include only 1900 Egyptians as against 3100 mercenaries.

The fighting forces and military bureaucracy

At the head of the armed forces was the pharaoh, who frequently led the army in person, in keeping with the New Kingdom image of the Commander‑in‑chief warrior‑king. However, he often delegated the position of commander­-in‑chief to the crown prince. A war council assisted the pharaoh with tactics and strategy.

The Egyptian military organisation included:
  • the fighting force with its hierarchy of field officers
  • the military administration with highly placed officers in charge of recruits, supplies, communications, accounts, records and other operations.

By the reign of Ramesses II, the army was divided into four divisions, each of 5000 men and named after one of the chief gods ‑ Amun, Ptah, Re and Seth. Each division was composed of smaller units of about 250 men, possibly led by a standard bearer. Not very much is known of their structure although some of their names have survived ‑ Amun protects his soldiers, Beauty of the sun‑disk and Squadron of the Pharaoh.

The elite members of the army were the charioteers, whose barracks, were the royal stables. Each chariot, drawn by a pair of horses, was manned by two men ‑ the driver, whose manoeuvring of the chariot ­during battle was vital, and the fighter who was armed with a spear, bow and arrows. The highest officers in the chariotry were the roya­l charioteers. They were distinguished, well‑educated men of high birth, including the sons of the pharaoh.

The infantry comprised units of spearmen, archers, axe‑bearers, club­men and slingers, each with its hierarchy of officers.

Within the army at any one time there were three groups based on dif­ferences in skill and experience:
  • an elite group of first class warriors
  • a corps of seasoned soldiers
  • the newest recruits.

As well, there were the necessary scouts, spies and messengers who made up the intelligence branch of the army.

Military training included route marches and sometimes mock combats, often performed in front of the court.

The army on campaign

The evidence suggests that after a pharaoh decided to send an army abroad, he consulted with his war council of senior officers concerning a plan of action. However, he was not obliged to follow their advice.

The first task was to call up the troops and issue them with weapons. According to the pictorial representations, this was a solemn affair super­vised by the pharaoh himself. The infantry, dressed only in loincloths, advanced in turn to a group of scribes who issued them with a variety of weapons including sickle‑shaped swords with long handles, javelins, bows and quivers of arrows. The scribes scrupulously recorded the name of each man and his equipment. At the time of Thutmose III, the infantry appear to have been very lightly clad but by the reign of Ramesses II they were issued with short‑sleeved coats of mail and helmets.

The order of march appears to have been as follows:
  • part of the infantry, in ranks seven or eight deep
  • trumpeters
  • officers of the king's personal staff
  • a chariot bearing the standard of Amun‑Re, the sacred ram crowned with the sun disc
  • two parasol bearers on foot
  • the royal chariot, driven by the king himself
  • more infantry
  • chariotry
  • supplies carried by asses and wagons.

Detailed written accounts (Thutmose III) and the pictorial representa­tions (Ramesses II) provide evidence of soldiers on the march, in camp,­ and storming a fortified town, as well as in the midst of battle.

Throughout the campaign the soldiers and subordinate officers were provided with rations of grain, bread, beef, cakes, vegetables and wine.

Ordinary soldiers also received some share of the booty. In the Egyptian account of the Battle of Megiddo, Thutmose III's troops 'went around counting their share of the plunder as the defeated troops lay stretched out like fish on the ground'.

Some of the difficulties faced by soldiers and subordinate officers are described in an extract at the end of this chapter. Although it is prejudiced there is probably some truth to it.

On the return journey, high‑ranking prisoners marched in front of the pharaoh's chariot. Generally their arms were bound and they were led by ropes around their necks.

Celebrations for the success of the pharaoh began as soon as the army re‑entered Egypt, with some of the prisoners being ceremonially put to death by the priests. Later, at a dedication ceremony, the fate of the rest of the prisoners was decided and the booty was consecrated to the var­ious gods. The pharaoh acknowledged his father Amun-Re for his victory and presented him (via his priests and temples) with the lion's share of prisoners and booty.

The army during peace time

Some troops were left behind to garrison foreign cities and states. These soldiers and officers were maintained at the expense of the conquered people.

Of those who returned home, some, particularly the mercenaries, were quartered in the capitals and residence‑cities throughout Egypt. Others were settled as military colonists on farms which their families could inherit so long as a male descendant remained available for military service. These troops were rapidly mobilised when the need arose. Any peasants who had been drafted returned home to resume work on the land.

In times of peace both the infantry and chariot forces were employed on public works, accompanied trading and mining expeditions and acted as bodyguards for the king during important festivals.

Promotion and rewards

There were always opportunities for men of initiative, courage and loy­alty to be promoted within the Egyptian army and those who showed outstanding bravery or merit might be rewarded with the gold of valour (a necklace of gold decorations presented in public ceremonies), as well as land and slaves.

An ordinary soldier in the infantry might hope to advance to the position of standard bearer and then further to become commander of archers.

On retirement, successful field officers often continued to hold impor­tant positions within the bureaucracy, such as chief of police or chief steward of the royal estates. Others retired in great comfort.

Didou, an ordinary soldier during the reign of Ramesses II, held the posts of commander of the deserts west of Thebes, king's messenger, standard bearer of the king's bodyguard, captain of the ship Mery Amun and chief of police. He also received the gold of valour several times.

Ramesses I
Vizier and primate of all Egypt
Superintendent of the mouths of the Nile
Fortress commander
Royal envoy
Superintendent of horse
Commandant of troops

The diagram above shows the promotion of Pramesse through the mili­tary and civil hierarchy. Pramesse later became the pharaoh Ramesses I.

Nebamun, a standard bearer in the army of Ramesses II, was honoured by the king on his retirement. He was assigned the job of chief of police at a ceremony attended by the pharaoh himself, and given a vast estate which was granted immunity from payments demanded by officials on behalf of the king. He was further honoured with a burial at the pharaoh's expense.

Some important campaigns of the Ramesside period included:

  • Ramesses I – campaign against Phoenicia ('Fenkhu').
  • Seti I – campaign against Syria.
  • Ramesses II – Battle of Kadesh.
  • Ramesses III – defeat of the Sea Peoples.