The Egyptians

The Egyptian Empire was one of the longest-lasting in the ancient world, and it was largely kept together by military force rather than diplomacy.

Military Achievement

The Egyptian Empire was one of the longest-lasting in the ancient world, and it was largely kept together by military force rather than diplomacy. Its great wealth encouraged invasions such as those by the Hyksos peopleHyksos, the HittitesHittites, and the Sea PeoplesSea Peoples. Later it was to face far greater threats from the Macedonians, and later still the Romans.Egypt;ancientEgypt;ancient

To combat these ever-present threats, the Egyptians did maintain a large army and navy. However, the chief innovations of Egyptian military thought were more in strategy and tactics than in weapons development. Although Egyptian military armaments remained relatively unchanged for millennia, the Egyptians’ emphasis on indirect engagement and speed of movement–more than cultural conservatism–accounts for this lack of innovation.

Egyptian armies, from an early period,Auxiliaries;Nubianenlisted large numbers of foreign troops, foremost among whom were Nubia;archersNubian auxiliaries, renowned for their archery skills. The geology of southern Egypt, and the southern armies’ use of Nubian troops, who were adept at desert Desert warfarewarfare, led to wars of maneuver in the desert. Predynastic Period (c. 5300-3000 b.c.e.) and First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-2055 b.c.e.) forces used desert roads in order to outflank Nile Valley opponents. This emphasis on an indirect approach, and the Egyptians’ apparent preference for projectile weapons and battles of speed, led to an increasing reliance on foreign troops during the first millennium b.c.e., as foreign troops became increasingly important. From the reign of Ptolemy IVPtolemy IVPtolemy IV (king of Egypt)[Ptolemy 04]Philopator (r. 221-205b.c.e.), Egyptian soldiers were armed and trained in Hellenistic fashion.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

A nineteenth century representation of an Egyptian chariot team of driver and archer.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

The Bows and arrows;Egyptbow was the most important weapon in the Egyptian arsenal. Early ones were the simple bow with animal horns as the tip elements. The composite bow appeared in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 b.c.e.) and became increasingly popular during the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 b.c.e.), partly in response to the increased use of body armor by many of Egypt’s enemies. The bows of Libyan auxiliaries were small composite Bows and arrows;composite bowsComposite bowbows; Nubian troops preferred the self Self bowsbow. New Kingdom Egyptian chariots served as mobile archery platforms.

Pointed, and sometimes barbed, Egyptian arrows caused deep wounds. Broad, and sometimes flat-tipped, Egyptian arrows caused stunning injuries. Arrow tips were made from flint, horn, wood, and bone; copper tips had appeared by the time of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 b.c.e.), and bronze tips by the time of the New Kingdom. There is slight evidence for the use of poisoned arrows. Arrows were carried in Quivers;Egyptianquivers; primarily during the Middle Kingdom bows and arrows together were at times held within a sleevelike quiver, open at each end.

Slings Slings;Egyptianare attested, and surviving images have slingers appearing in the crows’ nests of Egyptian warships. Late Coptic sources portray Egyptian Women;slingerswomen as adept at the use of the sling. The Egyptians also employed throw sticks in combat.

Spears Spears;Egyptianappeared early in the Egyptian arsenal, both long, thrusting spears and short, stabbing spears. By the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty (1295-1186 b.c.e.) two spears had appeared in the arsenal of Egyptian chariot soldiers, to be used if the chariot became disabled. Throwing spears are also attested. New Kingdom troops at times carried both spear and battle-ax, possibly throwing spears prior to closing with axes.

Battle-axes,Battle-axes[Battle axes];Egyptianwith blades of stone, copper, or bronze as technology evolved, were the preferred close-combat weapons. Early metal battle-axes had rounded blades. From the time of the Second Intermediate Period the standard shape was a long, roughly rectangular blade, convex on the cutting edge, with slightly concave sides. New Kingdom Libyan auxiliaries carried battle-axes with archaic, rounded blades.

The Maces;Egyptianmace administered the coup de grâce to the heads of the mortally wounded, the origin of the pharaonic image of the ruler smiting the enemies of Egypt. Apparently common in earlier Egyptian forces as actual weapons with pear- and disc-shaped heads, the mace is rarely depicted outside smiting scenes and royal regalia. The mace becomes more visible in later New Kingdom scenes, in which it is larger, with a curved blade attached, beginning at the base of the mace head and coming to a point beyond the top of the mace head. The weight of the mace was apparently intended to help the blade pierce body armor.

A variety of staves and Clubs;Egyptianclubs were employed. A First Intermediate Period warrior refers to a staff of copper, perhaps a metal-sheathed staff, and fighting rods are relatively common in Ramessid Period (1295-1069 b.c.e.) battle scenes. These weapons, like the biblical “rod of iron,” delivered crushing blows and became more prevalent during the later New Kingdom as a means of combating armored foes. NubiaNubian foes and allies of the Egyptians often wielded wooden clubs with relatively narrow handles, swelling below the tip.

Soldiers carried Daggers;Egyptiandaggers of various lengths, which could be used to remove a hand, or the phallus of an uncircumcised foe, from each slain enemy, a well-attested New Kingdom practice that allowed an accurate estimate of the strength of enemy forces. The slashing Swords;EgyptianScimitarsscimitar appeared in Egypt during the New Kingdom; mounted troops developed long, stabbing rapiers. Long swords and body armor appeared with Mediterranean mercenaries during the New Kingdom.

As in hunting, so in warfare, Dogs, Egyptiandogs frequently accompanied Egyptian soldiers into battle. Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2125 b.c.e.) and Middle Kingdom desert rangers often appeared with their dogs, usually basenjis. During the New Kingdom greyhound- and saluki-like hounds became more common in battle scenes. Ramses II (c. 1300-1213 b.c.e.) was accompanied into battle by a pet “battle-lion.”

Early Shields;Egyptianshields depicted on the Hunters PaletteHunters Palette, a stone carving from the Predynastic Period, were small and irregular, perhaps made from turtle shells, like some more recent shields of Red Sea nomads. Shields;EgyptianShields during the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3000-2686 b.c.e.) were often large; tall, full-coverage shields are known from the time of the Middle Kingdom. Shields became smaller during the New Kingdom, rounded at the top and square at the bottom. During the New Kingdom they were often covered in animal hide, often with a metal boss in the upper middle. During melees New Kingdom soldiers often slung their shields over their shoulders with a diagonal strap, protecting their backs and necks while freeing both hands. At the end of the New Kingdom period, Mediterranean mercenaries introduced round shields into the Egyptian arsenal.

The Chariots;Egyptianchariot appeared in Egypt’s arsenal at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1295 b.c.e.) and presumably had entered the land during the Second Intermediate Period, when the Hyksos peopleHyksos, an Eastern Mediterranean maritime power, dominated northern Egypt. Egyptian chariots were light, usually with a rear-mounted wheel, and carried a driver and an archer. Horses and horse riding;EgyptianHorses wore protective armor, or bardings. Egypt’s opponents followed this pattern until the Hittites;chariotsHittites, under pressure from heavily armored troops in their western marches, adopted a heavier chariot with three occupants, used for rapid transport of infantry rather than for archery. Egyptian chariotry did not adopt such a response to the rise of heavy infantry. Runners accompanied chariots; many were foreign mercenaries who protected the chariots and horses and attempted to capture those of the enemy.

Old Kingdom Egypt,
c. 2686-c. 2125 b.c.e.

The earliest Egyptian chariots had wheels with four spokes. During the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty, six spokes became standard. Egyptian chariots had a cab with a D-shaped floor plan; a curved wooden banister at waist level in front stretched back and down to the rear floor. The light bodies could be partially closed with wood or leather sidings. Floors of rope or leather mesh absorbed the shock of rough terrain. Side-mounted cases held bows and arrows and, from the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty, spears.

The infrequently attested use of mounted troops was primarily as reconnaissance patrols and couriers. Many of these cavalry troopers were Nubians. Roads and remount stations were maintained for these patrols.

Wheeled Siege warfare;Egyptiansiege ladders appeared during the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. SappingSapping is attested, often performed by soldiers with hand weapons. In one Middle Kingdom scene, three men within a protective testudo siege engine work a long pole, similar to a crowbar, against the walls of a fortress. The use of sloping glacis at the bases of fortress walls by the time of the Middle Kingdom suggests the use of similar sapping, and would also have deterred the use of battering rams.

Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt,
c. 1550-1295 b.c.e.

Supposed evidence for stone-throwing machines from the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (747-656 b.c.e.) is based on faulty translations. Siege ramps, apparently of earth and wood, with platforms for archers and slingers, are attested. When the Nubian ruler Piye (Nubian ruler)Piye (747-716 b.c.e.) attacked Memphis by land and river, his marines used their ships’ spars to scale the river walls of the city, and the construction of a siege ramp held down many of the defenders of the land walls.

Climate and Egyptian emphasis on speed of movement and flanking maneuvers through the deserts flanking the Nile Valley discouraged the development of bodyArmor;Egyptianarmor. A metal breast protector appears in a Middle Kingdom scene, but during the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom the only garments common on soldiers’ torsos were crossed textile bands. Quilted and leather protection for the torso appeared during the New Kingdom, usually in the form of bands wrapped around the chest and over one shoulder. Textile or leather shirts with metal and leather scale armor also appeared during the New Kingdom, primarily providing protection for chariot warriors. During the New Kingdom, Mediterranean pirates and mercenaries in Egyptian service began to wear significant metal body armor; however, it is unclear to what extent native troops adopted such armor.

Nubian Nubia;armorAuxiliaries;Nubianauxiliaries wore leather sporrans, or pouches, during both the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom. Large, heart-shaped, quilted sporrans appeared during the New Kingdom. These elements of clothing appear to have functioned as protection for the groin area. Soldiers often wore a leather overkilt, cut to have the appearance of a leather net with a seat patch.

Middle Kingdom soldiers, as revealed by mummified remains at Deir el-BahriDeir el-Bahri, a temple site on the west bank of the Nile near Thebes, wore their hair thick and greased, forming a natural protection against blows to the head and neck. Textile head coverings are well attested, and there is sporadic evidence for helmets during the New Kingdom.

Military Organization

Early Egyptian forces were divided between Infantry;Egyptianinfantry and archers; during the New Kingdom the chief divisions were between chariotry and foot soldiers. The smallest independently operating units appear to have been of ten men, with a squad leader; during the New Kingdom the smallest units appear to have been fifty men. The New Kingdom saw the emergence of a complex military hierarchy. Armies;EgyptianArmies were equipped by various temples, institutions that fulfilled many important economic functions in Egypt. The four armies of Ramses Ramses IIRamses II (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Ramses 02]II (r. 1279-1213 b.c.e.) at Kadesh were named for four deities. Mercenaries were important, and there were early units of Nubian troops, usually archers. Libyans and Mediterranean Mercenaries;in Egypt[Egypt]mercenaries and pirates were also important. Each independently operating unit had at least one scribe. During the Ptolemaic (332-30 b.c.e.) and Roman (30 b.c.e.-395 c.e.) periods, Hellenistic and Roman military practices supplanted earlier Egyptian practices.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

As the primary role for the Egyptians was defense, Fortifications;Egyptianfortified positions first appeared during the Predynastic Period. During the Middle Kingdom, a series of fortresses, watch posts, and patrol roads created an elaborate system of defense in depth at the Second Cataract of the Nile in Nubia, the southern boundary of direct Egyptian control and influence in the south. The complexity and extent of this system presaged later Roman achievements. Roman border defenses, and their Egyptian precursors, consisted of three types: defense by client states, with lightly defended legionary camps; perimeter defense; and defense in depth. Perimeter defense involved main fortresses behind outer defenses, with patrol roads and watchtowers stretching back to the fortresses. In defense in depth, larger and more heavily fortified fortresses were intended to stand alone in areas periodically overrun by foes.

Middle Kingdom Egyptian forts in Nubia;fortificationsNubia developed in almost the opposite way. Initially they were well-fortified outposts in a perimeter defense, part of an elaborate system of patrol roads and watch posts, befitting their location in the low desert plain. Later Middle Kingdom forts on the southern end of the Second Cataract were, like later Roman fortresses, heavily fortified, with spur walls for enfilading fire, atop granite outcroppings, a response to the rise of the powerful Kerman state in Nubia. The Middle Kingdom fortresses in Nubia were supply depots and strongholds allowing the extension of Egyptian patrols into the far south.

By the time of Thutmose Thutmose IIThutmose II (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Thutmose 02]II (r. 1492-1479 b.c.e.) there were client states in Nubia, and the New Kingdom fortress of Buhen was less heavily defended, like the later Roman fortresses of the perimeter defense system. During the New Kingdom Egypt had a foederati-like arrangement with more developed Nubian client states. Nubia was important to Egypt as a source of military manpower, and the point of origin or transshipment of many goods, including gold and incense.

A network of patrol roads, camps, and watch posts stretched through the Western Desert during the Middle Kingdom, and the Theban Seventeenth Dynasty (c. 1580-1550 b.c.e.) maintained and elaborated upon certain elements of this system. Fortresses also guarded the eastern Nile Delta; a Middle Kingdom fortress in the Wadi an-Naṭrūn implies a similar line guarding the Western Delta. During the reign of Ramses II a line of fortresses guarded the approach to the Delta between the Mediterranean coast and the Qattara Depression.

Chariotry Chariots;Egyptdominated late Bronze Age battlefields, on which the vehicles initially served as mobile archery platforms. A reliance on the expensive chariot arm was possible only for the wealthiest states of the ancient Near East, allowing those states to rely on small, elite forces, a desirable situation for complex societies in which labor was needed in many fields. Chariotry was ineffective against massed barbarian infantry and unsuited to mountainous or forested terrain. In battles in which chariotry was the principal arm, infantry provided support. At the Battle of Kadesh (1274 Kadesh, Battle of (1274 b.c.e.)b.c.e.) under Ramses II, an infantry division assured the Egyptians’ tactical success.

Unlike the Nubians, the Egyptians never permanently occupied Asia. In the northeast, Egypt supported the lesser of two conflicting powers, thereby seeking to create buffer states that, with Egyptian aid, might oppose a third power, but could not alone pose a threat to Egypt.

Amphibious infantry landings are known from the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. During the Seventeenth Dynasty, Kamose (Egyptian Pharaoh)Kamose (r. 1555-1550 b.c.e.) employed warships in three lines ahead, the central line breaking the enemy line and flanking lines preventing enemy escape. Kamose could thereby break the line of the Hyksos battle squadron and capture its merchant fleet. Thutmose Thutmose IIIThutmose III (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Thutmose 03]III (r. 1479-1425 b.c.e.) constructed ships in sections on the Mediterranean coast and transported them overland for an amphibious attack on the Euphrates.

When invasions of marauding Sea PeoplesSea Peoples occurred during the reign of Ramses IIIRamses III (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Ramses 03]Ramses III (r. 1184-1153 b.c.e.), various ships, including smaller Nile warships, protected the Nile Delta. Archers and grappling hooks and lines for capsizing enemy warships were the main offensive weapons. Large ships filled with troops appear to have broken the formations of the attacking enemy. Smaller vessels, able to operate in the treacherous areas of sandbanks near the mouths of the Nile, completed the destruction of the enemy. Ramming apparently was not practiced until the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

Considering the importance of Religion and warfare;Egyptreligion in Egyptian culture, it is to be expected that religion should serve military purposes as well. The names of foreign and domestic foes were written on small, usually clay images of bound enemies, and buried in execration rituals. Warfare was equated with hunting, both activities asserting Egyptian authority and control over chaotic forces and contributing to the proper order of the cosmos.

Ancient Sources

The considerable accomplishments of the ancient Egyptians in the realm of Tactics;Egyptiantactics must be reconstructed from much disparate and indirect evidence, and the lack of any true military treatise from ancient Egypt means that much information has been lost. Military scribes kept daybook accounts of expeditions, excerpts of which appeared occasionally in inscriptions, such as those of Thutmose III at Karnak. The ancient Egyptians stressed the timeless importance of events and of history as festival, an emphasis leading to a lack of what might be considered truly historical accounts of military activities.

However, although these manuscripts have not survived, there are numerous scenes and inscriptions recounting military activity which do survive, the earliest from the late Gerzean Period (c. 3500-3200 b.c.e.). Some actually show the recording of military events, and there are many bas-reliefs showing chariots, soldiers and ships.

In addition, many actual weapons, and even some chariots, have survived. Some of those, such as the throwing sticks in the tomb of TutankhamenTutankhamenTutankhamen of the Eighteenth Dynasty, were clearly decorative, but there are also swords, knives, and bows that do survive, from the tomb of Tutankhamen, and from archaeological sites both much older and more recent than the Eighteenth Dynasty. Other information comes from bodies and skeletons, some of which show the effects of Egyptian weaponry.

Some contemporary written accounts exist from non-Egyptian sources. These include the Bible;EgyptBible, which mentions the Egyptians in the Book of Exodus and other parts. HerodotusHerodotus (Greek historian)Herodotus, in his Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e. ; The History, 1709), provides some descriptions of the Egyptians in battle. There are far more extensive written sources from the Hellenistic period from the works of ArrianArrian (Roman historian) Arrian, the Campaigns of Alexander, The (Arrian) Anabasis Alexandri (Arrian) Anabasis Alexandri (early second century c.e. ; The Campaigns of Alexander, 1893), and also from the writings of PlutarchPlutarch Plutarch (c. 100 c.e. ).Egypt;ancient

Books and Articles

  • Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Fields, Nic. Bronze Age War Chariots. New York: Osprey, 2006.
  • Healy, Mark. Armies of the Pharaohs. New York: Osprey, 1992.
  • _______. New Kingdom Egypt. New York: Osprey, 1992.
  • _______. Qadesh, 1300 B.C. New York: Osprey, 1993.
  • Shaw, Ian. Egyptian Warfare and Weapons. Princes Risborough, England: Shire, 1991.
  • Spalinger, Anthony John. Aspects of the Military Documents of the Ancient Egyptians. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.
  • Wachsmann, Shelley. Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998.
  • Yadin, Yigael. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Films and Other Media

  • Antony and Cleopatra. Film. Transac, 1972.
  • Cleopatra. Film. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1963.
  • Egypt Golden Empire. Documentary. Lion Television, 2001.
  • The Egyptian. Film. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1954.
  • Ramses: Favorite of the Gods. Documentary. Time-Life Video, 1997.

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