Ancient Egyptian Military: Fiercest Fighting Force of the Ancient World
One of the key reasons that the study of history is vital is to ensure we learn from our past mistakes in order to improve. While this is true in all aspects of life, it is especially true for military history. The ancient Egyptians knew this better than perhaps anyone else. Over hundreds of years, the ancient Egyptians built one of the most terrifying militaries ever created. We can learn vast amounts from how they built such a fierce fighting force. We can also learn much from how it eventually fell into ruin.
The Ancient Egyptian Military through the Ages
Let’s start by taking a look at the different armies that ancient Egypt fielded during its existence. Ancient Egypt’s history is normally divided into three different kingdoms and two intermediate periods. Intermediate periods are times when there was some kind of civil unrest going on and the state was between ‘kingdoms’.
As time progressed, and Egypt switched between kingdoms, we tend to see a general improvement in Egypt’s military power. The Egyptians were masters at learning from their past, and from their enemies, to improve their army.
This will be a look at changes in the Egyptian army over time in general, rather than focusing primarily on weaponry. However, what is an army without weapons? For an in-depth look at Egyptian weaponry, you can check out this article.
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The Pharaoh Tutankhamun destroying his enemies, circa 1327 BC. Painting on wood, length 43 cm (17 inches). Egyptian Museum of Cairo (Public Domain)
The Army of the Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom had a good run, lasting between 2686 BC and 2181 BC. The Old Kingdom was incredibly successful. It was a time of stabilization, consolidation, and great affluence. This affluence allowed those in charge to create a more impressive army than what had come before.
It still wasn’t an army as we think of it today though. Egypt was made up of different administrative divisions called nomes, (think states in the USA). These nomes had once been independent states but had been individually conquered by Egypt and now answered to the pharaoh. Each nome had a governor who was responsible for the day-to-day running of his state. It was also each governor's job to raise an army of volunteers.
Whenever the pharaoh decided to go to battle, he could call upon these volunteer armies to unite under one banner. With around 42 nomes in ancient Egypt, this gave the pharaoh a sizable army at his beck and call. This army might have been impressive in scale, but it did have some major shortcomings.
Firstly, the troops themselves weren’t exactly first-rate. Egypt essentially fielded a peasant army at this time. The average soldier was a largely untrained lower-class man who only joined the army because he couldn’t afford to train for a trade. Unlike Roman legionnaires, there was very little prestige to being an army grunt in ancient Egypt. It also wasn’t very well paid. Soldiers were paid a living allowance of bread and beer.
Secondly, the weaponry was crude at best. The average troop’s copper swords and daggers were likely to snap under any kind of duress. Those who were designated as archers were no better. They used a single arched bow that had pitiful range, accuracy, and stopping power.
In short, the army of the Old Kingdom was a ‘quantity over quality’ affair, where large numbers of poorly-trained, poorly-equipped peasant troops (aka cannon fodder) were thrown at the enemy. It certainly worked, but it wasn’t efficient. The bigger problem was each state had once been independent, but was now forced under the umbrella of the Egyptian empire. This meant loyalty and motivation could be an issue. The whole state needed strong leadership to keep it glued together.
This was a major cause of the First Intermediate Period. During this time, the pharaohs struggled to control the nomes, and lost control of huge chunks of ancient Egypt. The nome armies that had fought as one force now often fought each other.
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Ramses II on his chariot shooting arrow, bas-relief, battle Kadesh, Abu Simbel – Egypy. (Tom / Adobe Stock)
The Army Gets Serious in the Middle Kingdom
The ancient Egyptian military really leveled up during the Middle Kingdom. This all began with Mentuhotep II, who ended the First Intermediate Period. He did this by using his army to take down rival dynasties and reunite Egypt under one ruler, based in Thebes. He was responsible for bringing the Sinai region back into the fold and bringing all the nomes together once again.
The army of the Middle Kingdom was no longer made up of many smaller volunteer armies. Instead, most pharaohs of the age focused on having well-trained, better-equipped standing armies. As Egypt was recovering from a period of strife, the focus of these armies was often defensive; for example, Senusret I built a border fort at Buhen and brought in lower Nubia as a colony.
Being a soldier was now a little more prestigious. Rather than untrained cannon fodder, the men were now properly trained soldiers. This meant more of a focus on weaponry that didn’t break constantly, and even better, some basic protective gear.
The army of the Middle Kingdom set the scene for what was to come. Mentuhotep and his successors recognized the failings of the Old Kingdom’s military and worked to fix them.
The Second Intermediate Period
Sadly what goes up must come down, and all good things must come to an end. Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom, all the success went to the pharaohs’ heads, and they became both weak and complacent. This once again led to the fragmentation of the Egyptian empire.
This instability and weakness allowed a people called the Hyksos to move into Lower Egypt and start consolidating power. When Merneferre Ay (a long-lasting but ultimately weak pharaoh) fled his palace, the Hyksos raided Memphis. They then built a fortified capital at Avaris and became the bogeymen of the time.
The Hyksos were an Asiatic people from the northeast, who were simply much more advanced militarily than the Egyptians. Sources from the time also make them sound incredibly bloodthirsty. Propaganda from the New Kingdom of Egypt and Manetho’s Josephus makes it sound like the Hyksos swept through Egypt butchering civilians and burning everything in sight. However, there is no actual archaeological evidence for this.
The Egyptians were sandwiched between two foes, the Hyksos and the Kushite Nubians. What do you do when faced with a technologically superior enemy? You steal their ideas and use them against them of course. This is precisely what the Pharaohs Seqenenre Tere, followed by Kamose and finally his brother Ahmose I did. The Egyptian army copied the weapons of the Hyksos and used them to oust both the Hyksos and the Nubians.
What the Egyptians learned from the Hyksos was invaluable. Thanks to the Hyksos, the Egyptian army could now field cavalry, ourarit (war chariots), the deadly composite bow, and vastly improved metallurgy. Going into the New Kingdom, they had a massive, technologically advanced army that was almost unstoppable.
Recreation of an Egyptian war chariot from the Early New Kingdom. Based on historical wall paintings, the armor and chariot from Tutankhamun's (r. c.1336-c.1327 BC) tomb, and illustrations by artist Angus McBride. (Simon Seitz / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
The New Army of the New Kingdom
The New Kingdom, which lasted between 1550 and 1069, was a period in which Egypt had taken the heavyweight belt title, and now had to take on the contenders. Early on, the army had to handle threats from the Hittites, a new enemy from the far northeast, and the Sea Peoples who invaded all of Egypt.
The Hittites put up a good fight, but their chariot-focused army ultimately couldn’t stand up to Egypt's more well-balanced army. On the other hand, the Sea Peoples caused some major headaches across Egypt, but the army was strong enough to put them down and stop a total governmental collapse. Nothing else is really known about the Sea Peoples. We don’t really know where they came from or where they went.
The Egyptians had not only taken and learned from the Hyksos, they were now improving upon the Hyksos technology. The Egyptian war chariot was lighter, faster, and much better armed than anything other Middle Eastern armies could throw at them. The Egyptian war chariot and composite bow were a deadly combination that could easily sweep through enemy ranks.
New weapons and armor for infantry troops were also devised. Weapons like the khopesh gave the Egyptian infantry a clear advantage against their less technologically-advanced neighbors. All this equipment was expensive, and so an even greater emphasis was put on training troops. They were now excellently equipped and trained.
The role of the military in Egypt also changed during this period. The army was now no longer just a defensive force. Egypt had taken the fight to its neighbors, and conquests in areas like Nubia meant that Egypt had to invest in garrisons permanently stationed abroad. Furthermore, later encounters with neighbors like the Assyrians and Babylonians required the Egyptians to fight far from home.
By the time of Ramesses II, it is estimated that the Egyptian army was up to 100,000 strong. On top of this, they had companies of Libyans, Nubians, and Greek soldiers. These were often called mercenaries, but were more than likely prisoners of war who chose to be soldiers rather than slaves.
The Organization of the Ancient Egyptian Army
Even going back as far as the volunteer nome armies of the Old Kingdom, the ancient Egyptian army was always reasonably well-organized. However, like every other facet of the Egyptian military, this organization vastly improved over time. The Old Kingdom made use of different military units (archers and infantry), but it was not a well-differentiated army.
The unified army of the Middle Kingdom brought in the idea of military hierarchy. The army had a commander-in-chief who led the army under the pharaoh. Under the commander-in-chief were the various captains.
Finally, it was the New Kingdom that introduced the idea of a branched army where the military consisted of three main branches - infantry, chariotry, and naval:
The infantry was made up of both conscripted and volunteer soldiers during the New Kingdom. Whether conscripted or volunteer, they worked for pay. The higher your rank, the more you would earn. The infantry was also made up of foreign ‘mercenaries’ who were more likely to be prisoners who chose to serve as soldiers rather than slaves. The infantry was made up of different regiments that were recognized by the weapons they used. They consisted of long-range archers, medium-range lancers and spearmen, and close-range troops.
Modern loose interpretation at the Pharaonic Village in Cairo of a Battle scene from the Great Kadesh reliefs of Ramses II on the Walls of the Ramesseum (Public Domain)
The second branch of the military was the chariot. This can be imagined as Egypt's armored division. Chariots were horse-drawn, highly-mobile weapons platforms. They usually consisted of a driver up front and a weapons master in the back.
The chariot was lightweight but laden with weapons; quivers of arrows and javelins were attached to the sides along with khopeshes and battle axes. They could defend themselves at short ranges while decimating the enemy at long ranges. One was scary enough, but the Egyptians used formations of up to 100 chariots at a time. These would cut through the enemy flank like a hot knife through butter.
The chariot divisions also frequently appeared invulnerable. The horses and charioteers were often equipped with the latest scaled armor, making them incredibly hard to take down. The armor also made them terrifying to behold. Some sources described the armor as giving them the appearance of lizard men.
Model Paddling Boat, Middle Kingdom – 2040-1640 BC. (Metropolitan Museum of Art / CCO 1.0 Dedication)
While we often mistakenly think of Egypt as being entirely desert, the ancient Egyptians had a brilliant navy. The Egyptians had always ferried troops around using boats, but by the Late Intermediate Period, the navy had become a force to be reckoned with in its own right.
The Egyptian army was enormous by the time of the Late New Kingdom, and logistics was key. Without an advanced navy to transport its troops, Egypt’s military wouldn’t have been anywhere near as efficient or deadly.
As can be seen, the ancient Egyptian military was adept at learning from its shortcomings. Each Egyptian age saw an advancement in technology and tactics that led to the Egyptian army becoming what may well have been the fiercest fighting force on the planet. During the time of the New Kingdom, anyone who came to challenge the Egyptians ultimately came to regret it.
Sadly, the army’s strength would eventually become its undoing. The cost of the army became untenable. Egypt would eventually reach a point where the cost of fielding the army outweighed any gains made from military victories.
Even worse, from great strength often comes great arrogance. Pharaohs became increasingly complacent and forgot the lessons that had made the military so great in the first place. Leadership became increasingly weak and began repeating the mistakes of the past.
A military is only as great as those who lead it, and ultimately one of the greatest fighting forces the world has ever seen was doomed to fail thanks to those who led it.
Top image: Representation of ancient Egyptian military unit going to battle. Source: Acrogame / Adobe Stock
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