Book Review: Ramesses the Great: Egypt's King of Kings


by Toby Wilkinson

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023. Pp. vii, 223. . Illus., map, chron., stemma, notes, biblio., index. $26.00. ISBN: 0300256655

Egypt’s Greatest Pharaoh?

He wasn't the first pharaoh of his name on Egypt's long king list, and he wouldn't be the last. In fact, nine others would follow in the next dynasty.

But he was the only one who has the "the Great" attached to his moniker.

Renown warriors, both his father Seti I and his grandfather (Ramesses I) were fine generals who managed to rack up more decisive battlefield victories than did their successor, but they didn't get to have "Great" stapled to their names.

This ruler earned his greatness less as a general, however, and more as a real estate developer. He made his reputation by erecting or enhancing shamelessly self-promoting monuments and religious complexes all over his land: e.g., giant structures like the famous hall of Karnak and the splendid ruins of Abu Simbel. You can't miss his name on any of them.

Moreover, in a time when everyday folks slipped (or were shoved) into the afterlife during their thirties, he sat on the throne for 66 years, while fathering at least 100 offspring (accounts vary). The pharaoh had to bury three of his designated successors before finally passing himself at age 102. His subjects considered him divine and thus immortal, and he certainly behaved as if those qualities were true.

In short, this slim 230-page book is the fascinating biography of Ramesses II (1303 BC-1213 BC). As far as we can presently understand his character and motivations, prize-winning Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson fleshes them out well.

The author points out that Ramesses II was the third in the 19th Dynasty military line of pharaohs. Overall, historians call the golden era during which he ruled "The New Kingdom" (1539 BC-1069 BC). At its peak, Egypt enjoyed imperial sway from the Fourth Cataract (bordering Nubia) to beyond the Orontes River in Syria, a span of roughly a thousand miles. There were lengthy stretches of borders and coastlines to defend, some located near an aggressive rival empire, Hatti, to the north. When not building or planning to, he did have to spend a lot of his time fighting.

Consequently, Wilkinson devotes more than a third of the book discussing Ramesses II's military endeavors. In his long reign, most were actions against raiders and pirates in the west or punitive probes in the north and south -- but there was an exception. It turned out to be the biggest battle of the Late Bronze Age.

Kadesh – a City Too Far: By April 1274 BC, Ramesses II was on the march in Syria; with his 20,000 or so soldiers rested and reinforced, his army was closing in on the Hittite-held city of Kadesh. His goal was to snatch it back and ensure loyalty in the region. He headed the column with his bodyguards and the 4,000-man Amun division, while the other Egyptian units straggled behind. Meanwhile, the king of Hatti had amassed about 37,000 troops (including more than 2,500 chariots), who now lurked out of sight behind the target town.

At first, the Hittite ambush worked brilliantly, with a mass of chariots swooping down on the forward forces, who were just setting up camp. Many of the Amun's men panicked and fled, as did elements of the next division arriving on the field, when it was hit by a second wing of chariotry. The pharaoh and his guards fought back desperately, just managing to survive.

The victorious, if undisciplined, charioteers soon broke their charge to start looting; however, they were in turn attacked by a detached group of elite Egyptian soldiers. Then the Hittites routed themselves, colliding into their advancing reinforcements. Around this time, a third division of Ramesses' army reached the battle and stabilized the chaotic situation. What followed next was a confused back and forth, adding to the already-high casualties. Both monarchs now preferred to avoid another pitched clash.

An agreement was reached, and each king departed the field. Wilkinson emphasizes that the encounter had actually been a strategic defeat for the pharaoh because he failed to keep Kadesh, and because the nearby wayward province again slipped out of his grasp.

Snatching Propaganda Victory From the Jaws of Stalemate: Once back home, however, Ramesses ensured that everyone knew that the battle had been a glorious triumph, particularly for him personally. After all, he had remained steadfast while his cowardly troops had abandoned him. (The Amun division had already undergone official decimation – in front of the enemy, no less! – as punishment for their failure of nerve).

This rosy account of the conflict was trumpeted over and over, and Wilkinson presents an thorough review of all of its manifestations. The approved version was repeated on papyrus and, most importantly, on temple walls. The author notes: " At Karnak, a great tableau with extended captions depicting the battle took pride of place...adding to -- or even overshadowing -- the accounts of Seti I's [ his father's] military exploits."

Wilkinson notes that there had long been an Egyptian literary trope of a sage king overriding the advice of timid or inept counselors and then charging on to victory. Ramesses II, however, castigated "his closest advisors in terms that would have been unthinkable to previous generations."

The years after the battle were unsettled, a period during which neither empire could gain an advantage. Eventually, a formal peace treaty was declared between Hatti and Egypt, the first in recorded history (1259 BC). The author presents an enlightening analysis of this remarkable document.

Ramesses II the Great... Builder : This pharaoh's vast construction and refurbishing efforts left a solid visible legacy of his power and influence. In the very beginning of his reign, he had completed Seti I's stalled projects, added additions to established temple complexes, and raised new ones. No Egyptian ruler -- before or since -- ever managed to construct "the sheer number and size of buildings and statues commissioned by a single king," according to the writer. (It helped the total that he would also claim preexisting edifices as his own.)

Wilkinson spends 40 pages of his compact book reviewing the multiple building projects this long-lived ruler accomplished, or at least began. The author sums up Ramesses II's gigantic constructions well, but not particularly succinctly: "His colossal statues, looking out serenely from the facade of Luxor Temple and Abu Simbel, or lying in the ruins of Memphis and the Ramesseum, represent the epitome of pharaonic civilization: confident and assertive, magnificent and uncompromising, dedicated to the gods but really about the king."

The 36-page chapter that follows presents brief profiles of his chief wives and his many, many offspring. Heir-production was not an issue for this gentleman, but he out-lived several of them. Finally, Wilkinson uses his last chapter to relate how posterity made Ramesses II our quintessential idea of an Egyptian pharaoh, as well as the subject of Shelley's famous poem, "Ozymandias." (Ironically, the poem highlights how fleeting fame can be.)

I realize that the rather tedious tally of consorts (among them, a Hittite princess -- part of the peace treaty) and his passel of progeny was crucial to detailing the uniqueness of the man. I don't really comprehend, however, why the author thought it necessary to also explain -- at such length -- how later generations awarded Ramesses II the fame he craved. I found these closing chapters hard to get through, even though Wilkinson's writing is clear and is geared toward non-specialist readers.

As happens, the pharaoh's mummified body was discovered in 1886, so we know a bit about him physically. Apparently, Ramesses II was fair-skinned, with ginger hair, which would have been rare among his subjects. He stood 5'8"-- tall for his time.

Ramesses certainly was an impressive monarch by any standard . . . and you can be sure he wanted everyone to recognize that – then and now.

Note: This is a volume in the Yale UP series "Ancient Lives," which is intended to unfold "the stories of thinkers, writers, kings, queens, conquerors, and politicians from all parts of the ancient world. Readers will come to know these figures in fully human dimensions, complete with foibles and flaws."

Our Reviewer: A former naval officer, Richard Jupa was a senior finance editor at a major credit rating agency for more than two decades. He is also the co-author of Gulf Wars, on the 1991-1992 Gulf War, and has published over a dozen articles on contemporary conflicts. His previous reviews include Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning, Pioneers of Irregular Warfare, Mars Adapting: Military Change During War, A Short History of War, Ancient Greeks at War: Warfare in the Classical World, from Agamemnon to Alexander, Dreadnoughts and Super-Dreadnoughts, The Roman Empire in Crisis, 248-260, A Military History of the Cold War, 1962-1991, and Secrets of the Cold War


Note: Ramesses the Great is also available in audio- and e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Richard Jupa   

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