The Military Man in Ancient Egypt

The Military Man in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

Light Infantry of the Egyptian Army

To be in the military in ancient Egypt might have been difficult, but the officers and men were certainly in good company. After all, it was common for the son's of kings to serve, and on campaigns, the king often led his troops into battle. In fact, when there were dynastic problems in ancient Egypt, it was often the soldier who became king, such as Horemheb at the end of the 18th Dynasty. However, while there is considerable evidence of the favors bestowed upon elite troops and officers, assessing the fate of the ordinary soldier, who didn't leave tombs decorated with scenes from his life, is more difficult.

the early times of Egypt's ancient history, most young men did not need to fear that they might be conscripted into the army. Yet, many second and subsequent sons, unable to follow their fathers' professions, volunteered for the sake of a career and a secure living.

However, during the much more structured military organization of the New Kingdom, young men were sometimes forced to join the army against their will, even though at the same time the profession of soldiering became more prestigious. This is evidenced by the letters written by the scribe Djehutimose, who accompanied the general and vizier Piankhi on his Nubian campaign, to his son Butehamun, a scribe in at Deir el-Medina. He instructed his son to "take good care of the conscripts", ensuring that they were well fed, but also advising that he should see that they do not abscond.

An ancient model of Nubian Soldiers on the March

During the New Kingdom, initially the new recruits faced a hard school of discipline as soon as they were settled in their barracks. Their "uniform" was usually a short kilt or merely a penis sheath, with a feather in the hair for ornament. They were toughened up with a regime of alternati9ng physical exercise, wrestling and weapon training. For breaches of discipline, the commander would order a thrashing, often by his fellow recruits.

We know that the Officers of the Army received considerable booty after a successful campaign, and we can imagine that some of this wealth may have been passed down to the lower ranks. For the officers such as Ahmose, son of Abana, serving in the army produced considerable wealth, for he was able to retire to his own estate. He therefore saw his profession as well remunerated. Brave men, whose names were proclaimed by the royal herald, received grants of land and after the possessions of the king's enemies had been confiscated, they were given slaves and chattels. Ahmose himself got nineteen slaves and slave-girls, and more than once was the recipient of praise and glory in the form of necklaces and trophies with hieroglyphic inscriptions. We are told that:

"Given by the grace of King Menkhepere to the noble prince, the Holy Father, beloved of the God, who fills the heart of the king wherever he is, in all the foreign lands and islands of the Great Green, who fills the treasury with sapphires, silver and gold, over the foreign lands, over the army, the glory of the God is on him."

Tuthmosis III Smiting his enemies

In fact, both the officers and men often came away with considerable booty, sometimes at the expense of the military campaign. For example, after the initial battle of Megiddo in the reign of Tuthmosis III, we are told that

"...if only his majesty's army had not given their hearts to capturing the possessions of the enemy, they would have captured Megiddo at this time..."

course, the Egyptian army was not the only troops subject to such temptations. When Ramesses II had to abandon his camp at Kadesh, it may very well have been the enemy forces' looting of his camp that saved him from outright defeat.

Soldiers were also provided with land, often tax free, for their honorable service to the king. According to Diodorus (I, 73,94), one third of the land belonged to the king, another third to the priests and the rest to the soldiers.

" ...the warriors are called Calasirians and Hermotybians, and they are of the following districts,--for all Egypt is divided into districts. The districts of the Hermotybians are those of Busiris, Sais, Chemmis, Papremis, the island called Prosopitis, and the half of Natho,--of these districts are the Hermotybians, who reached when most numerous the number of sixteen myriads. Of these not one has been learnt anything of handicraft, but they are given up to war entirely. Again the districts of the Calasirians are those of Thebes, Bubastis, Aphthis, Tanis, Mendes, Sebennytos, Athribis, Pharbaithos, Thmuis, Onuphis, Anytis, Myecphoris,--this last is on an island opposite to the city of Bubastis. These are the districts of the Calasirians; and they reached, when most numerous, to the number of five-and-twenty myriads of men; nor is it lawful for these, any more than for the others, to practise any craft; but they practise that which has to do with war only, handing down the tradition from father to son."

Herodotus, Histories II,164f

"The warriors were the only Egyptians, except the priests, who had special privileges: for each of them an untaxed plot of twelve acres was set apart. This acre is a square of a hundred Egyptian cubits each way, the Egyptian cubit being equal to the Samian. These lands were set apart for all; it was never the same men who cultivated them, but each in turn. A thousand Calasirians and as many Hermotybians were the king's annual bodyguard. These men, besides their lands, each received a daily provision of five minae's weight of roast grain, two minae of beef, and four cups of wine. These were the gifts received by each bodyguard."

Herodotus, Histories II,168

Both officers and the ordinary soldiers were also recognized and, even as today, received metals and other special favors for their valor. Didu was awarded a necklace with golden bees (or flies) and a golden lion. His cousin, Neb-kemi who was a standard bearer as well, received a golden bracelet. The granting of sinecures, such as Ahmose of Nekhabit received, was another way of rewarding loyal servants. Another reward, given to Neb-amen, was the bestowing of the honorific Amkhu, which entitled its bearer to be buried at the pharaoh's expense.

Mercenaries were sometimes treated even better than the Egyptian soldiers. The Greeks were not use to the Egyptian way of remuneration in natura, which had been accepted by the Nubians and Libyans during earlier, moneyless times. They demanded payment in specie and received money originating in Persia, Greece or the Levant. From 360 BCE onwards the Egyptians minted coins themselves in order to pay their Greek mercenaries.

Hence, the soldiers, in many instances, and even the common infantryman, were probably well treated. In the poem of Pentaur Ramesses II says:

"I have made you nemhu (i.e. not subject to compulsory labour). I have made you grow rich with daily sustenance; I have freed you from taxes; I have given the estate of the father to his son"

These privileges were extended by Merneptah and Ramesses III to the Libyans, the Meshwesh, the Sherden (Sea People) and other immigrant peoples who settled in the Delta.

However, not everyone saw the soldier's life in such a good light. Some scribes, who of course traveled with the soldiers on campaigns fulfilling staff duties such as provisioning, had little respect for the professional soldier. Of course, they actually had little respect for most other professions outside their own. They warned their students against a career in the army:

Come, [let me tell] you the woes of the soldier, and how many are his superiors: the general, the troop-commander, the officer who leads, the standard-bearer, the lieutenant, the scribe, the commander of fifty, and the garrison-captain. They go in and out in the halls of the palace, saying: "Get laborers!" He is awakened at any hour. One is after him as [after] a donkey. He toils until the Aten sets in his darkness of night. He is hungry, his belly hurts; he is dead while yet alive. When he receives the grain-ration, having been released from duty, it is not good for grinding.

He is called up for Syria. He may not rest. There are no clothes, no sandals. The weapons of war are assembled at the fortress of Sile. His march is uphill through mountains. He drinks water every third day; it is smelly and tastes of salt. His body is ravaged by illness. The enemy comes, surrounds him with missiles, and life recedes from him. He is told: "Quick, forward, valiant soldier! Win for yourself a good name!" He does not know what he is about. His body is weak, his legs fail him.

When victory is won, the captives are handed over to his majesty, to be taken to Egypt. The foreign woman faints on the march; she hangs herself [on] the soldier's neck. His knapsack drops, another grabs it while he is burdened with the woman. His wife and children are in their village; he dies and does not reach it. If he comes out alive, he is worn out from marching.

Be he at large, be he detained, the soldier suffers. If he leaps and joins the deserters, all his people are imprisoned. He dies on the edge of the desert, and there is none to perpetuate his name. He suffers in death as in life. A big sack is brought for him; he does not know his resting place.

From the instructions of scribe Wenemdiamun Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), Vol. I






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