Much of our perception of history is influenced by the artists who have drawn and painted scenes from out of the past. This is the second in a series in which we will look at historical armies and warriors through the images artists have given us.
Our knowledge of the warriors of ancient Egypt who served the Pharaohs comes, in large part, from their own artistic renderings.
Here the Pharaoh Thutmose III is depicted in ancient Egyptian art, leading his soldiers against the Canaanite fortress of Megiddo. Atop his head is the khepresh, the Blue War Crown worn by the pharaohs in battle. Thutmose rides the light, two-horse Egyptian chariot, a platform for horse archery.
Another depiction from Egyptian art, this from a chest found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun:
Modern artists take their cue from what we see in art (as well as archeological finds).
The late Angus McBride was a master of capturing scenes from military history. Here the Pharaoh rides to battle.
In the image above (by the amazing artist Igor Dzis) Egyptian and Canaanite chariots battle each other at Megiddo, 1457 BC. The chariot warriors on both sides were a military elite during the Bronze Age, often drawn from the nobility and their military retainers. Note the bronze panoplies of both chariot crews: these warriors were well protected against the weapons of the day. Mounted upon the chariot and armed with a powerful bow, spears or javelins, the charioteers were the battle tank of their day – armored, mobile, and lethal. In the background, divisions of Egyptian foot soldiers, armed with bow, spear, axe, and the deadly sickle-sword, the bronze khopesh wait in reserve, providing support and a base around which the chariots can maneuver.
The ever-informative Mike Loades explains the weapons of the Egyptian chariot warrior
Below, the Pharaoh Rameses II is accompanied by his pet lion during the Battle of Kadesh Campaign in 1274.
Kadesh was perhaps the most celebrated battle in ancient Egyptian history (in no small part because of Rameses’ unsparing efforts at self-promotion). Here is another image, of Rameses engaging a Hittite chariot warrior during the battle.
Artist Giuseppe Rava attempts to capture a moment in the battle when Hittite heavy chariots routed one Egyptian division and caused panic in the Pharaoh’s army.
Here the artists captures the clash of massed chariots. Bronze Age kingdoms maintained large numbers of chariots, often numbering in the thousands. At Kadesh, Rameses had around 2,000 of the light, fast Egyptian chariots. The Hittites brought as many as 3,700 of their heavier, 3 man chariots. While the Egyptians used their chariots as essentially light cavalry horse archers, the Hittites’ were “shock weapons”, platforms for spear and javelin men, used to break an enemy formation. There emphasis on speed and archery gave the Egyptians a superior “stand-off” killing ability.
Following the death of the boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun and his successor, the Vizier Ay, Egypt was ruled for 14 years by his chief general, Horemheb. Here the general is depicting campaigning in Nubia.
Chariots are seen here scattering Libyan tribesmen:
Though the charioteers receive the bulk of the attention both in ancient and modern art, the vast majority of Egyptian soldiers were infantry; organized into divisions. At the Battle of Kadesh Rameses II led an army against the Hittites; of which 16,000 were infantry. These were organized into four divisions: that of Amun, Re (P’re), Seth, and the newly-formed division of Ptah. The infantry were both light and heavy, and each division likely had a portion of both. Armor was worn by at least the officers and front rankers of the heavy infantry; made of metal or what appears to be bands of linen.
Here Egyptian infantry attack the crew of a disabled Canaanite chariot.
Three types of Egyptian infantry:
Below, archers are depicted, along with a mounted messenger. Horses in during the Bronze Age were for the most part too small to effectively bear a fighting man; particularly one in armor. This accounts for the popularity of chariots, in which a team of horse could effectively pull a cart bearing a team of armored warriors. However, unarmored messengers could make use of the smallish horses available.
In the 13th and 12th century BC, the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean were raided and conquered by seaborne fighters called “The Sea People“. They are thought to have been comprised of many different groups acting in alliance; including the Sherden/Shardana, from Sardinia or Corsica, and the Peleset (Philistines). They may also have included Homer’s Achaean Greeks (called the Ahhiyawa in the Hittite sources), and Lycians from the Aegean region; both perhaps veterans of the Trojan War. (See Heroes of Troy and Mycenae) These reivers are thought to have destroyed the Hittite Empire, sacked and torched the cities of the Aegean and the Levant, and founded city-states along the Palestinian coast that became known as Philistia. Egypt was the only great Eastern Mediterranean state that successfully resisted their incursions. Here is an image of the Sea People from an Egyptian temple relief:
The brilliant Giuseppe Rava brings them alive in this image:
Here a battle between the Sea Peoples and Egyptian defenders at the mouth of the Nile Delta:
Early in his reign, Rameses II defeated an incursion of one of these Sea Peoples, the Sherden (or Shardana). Impressed with their fighting skill, he took these Bronze Age Vikings into his service as an elite regiment of bodyguards. Here is an image from an ancient stele depicting the Pharaoh’s Sherden Swordsmen:
The Sherden were armed with the first great broadsword of history: the bronze Naue II. Modern testing has demonstrated the effectiveness of these strong, flexible swords; capable of both slashing and stabbing.
Following victory, the number of enemy slain was determined by cutting off the right hand of their dead; which were then counted. Here Rameses sits on his chariot, his Sherden guards behind him, as scribes count the Hittite dead.
After the Bronze Age came to a close in the 11th century, Egypt slipped into an internal slumber. Rameses III was the last great ancient pharaoh. After his murder, Egypt’s foreign policy became increasingly isolationist. Its army deteriorated, and the country was eventually conquered by first the Nubians, then the Assyrians, followed by the Persians. When Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy founded a Graeco-Macedonian dynasty, he found the Egyptians living much as they had in the time of the Pharaohs. Adopting the titles and roles of the ancient rulers of the land, the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty thrived by respecting the ancient traditions of Egypt and its people; which dreamed of the glories of their Bronze Age past.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy its companion piece –
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.