The Egyptian Warriors I

At some point in his life almost every little boy wants to be a soldier. These days he can be a Roman soldier, complete with plastic greaves and breastplate, an intergalactic trooper, or a knight in armor, but these are merely variations on the basic theme—a love for legitimized mayhem, which is a congenital characteristic of most human males (and, admittedly, some females). The little Egyptian boy was probably no different. Since there were no toy manufacturers to influence his tastes, his choice was obvious: he wanted to be an Egyptian soldier.

Among the texts which schoolboys had to copy were several which might be subtitled “Why Not to Choose a Military Career.” Here is one of them:

Come, let me tell you of the woes of the soldier! He is awakened at any hour, and he is driven like a donkey. He works till the sun sets. He is hungry, his body is exhausted, he is dead while yet alive.

He is called up for Syria. His marches are high in the mountains. He drinks water every three days and it is foul with the taste of salt. His body is broken with dysentery. The enemy comes and surrounds him with arrows, and life fades from him. They say, “Hasten on, brave soldier—win a good name for yourself!”—but he is barely conscious and his legs are weak.

When victory comes, His Majesty hands over the captives to be taken down into Egypt. The foreign woman is faint with marching, so she hangs on to the neck of the soldier. His knapsack falls and others take it while he is loaded down with the Syrian woman. His wife and children are in their village, but he dies and never reaches it.

Frightful, isn’t it? I have had to prune this text considerably, for it goes on at length. We might suspect that the glamour of the military life was great, since the schoolmaster had to conjure up such horrific pictures to combat it. We may also wonder whether budding scribes had any choice in the matter. There was a form of military conscription; was there also such a thing as student exemptions from the draft? Not very likely.

The text I have quoted dates from a period when soldiering could be a profession. In the Old Kingdom, under the pyramid builders, there was probably no large standing army. When trouble arose with the Libyans or the Nubians, the king ordered his local governors, or nomarchs, to levy troops. This may have resulted in a situation resembling the press gangs of eighteenth-century En gland, with the nomarch’s men dragging reluctant heroes out of pretended sickbeds or caves in the hills or local taverns. One gets the impression that the Egyptians were never keen on fighting. “The army,” if one can give that name to a big disorganized militia, was not only called up for military campaigns. Under regular military commanders it was also employed for state work projects—quarrying, digging canals, and perhaps helping to build pyramids.

Some scholars believe that there must have been some sort of professional standing army even in the Old Kingdom. They assume that the king had sense enough to realize the danger of relying on troops who owed their immediate loyalty to the local prince who had called them up. This is a reasonable assumption, but there is no evidence that it was the case, except for the royal bodyguard, whose members could officer an amateur army in case of war. Although there is mention of a rank called “army commander,” possibly the equivalent of “general,” one of the most famous of the Old Kingdom campaigns was led by a man who held no military rank. His name was Uni, and he served under the kings of the Sixth Dynasty. When it was necessary to chastise the Sand-Dwellers, Uni, a mere Overseer of the Tenants of the Palace, was placed at the head of the army, although there were many men of higher rank available. He was chosen, he says, because he could manage the men better than anyone else.

Uni’s military career is an example, not of royal favoritism, but of the “Lord High Everything Else” tendencies of Egyptian officials, which we discussed in the preceding chapter. Once again it is a question of administrative ability; and, really, what other talent would be needed to manage an army? For the Egyptians, there was no such thing as military science. You just got your men out to where the enemy soldiers were standing, and then they shot arrows at one another and whacked one another with clubs and axes until one side got tired of it all and ran away. Some famous battles of the later period, when standing armies were the rule and kings prided themselves on their role as warriors, indicate a degree of ineptness and lack of common sense—let alone military strategy—that is astounding. So there was no reason why a judge and overseer like Uni couldn’t have been sent to chastise an enemy—and done it, as he claims, successfully. Even in modern wars the best soldiers are not always graduates of military academies.

After the Sixth Dynasty the local rulers used their local troops for their own purposes, set themselves up as in de pen dent princelings, and dared the king to do something about it. One nobleman bragged that he had resisted the Royal House when it attacked him. Nobody claims that the downfall of the united monarchy was caused by feudalistic military organization. It may have been the other way around—the nomarchs took advantage of a situation which they would never have dared to exploit when the monarchy was strong.

When forceful centralized government was restored in the Middle Kingdom the powerful nobles still maintained their own armies. Probably they didn’t get away with it for long. Senusert III, the great warrior king of the Twelfth Dynasty, seems to have subdued his proud nobles just as he subdued the Nubians. By this time the army had become a more regularized institution. It was recruited (perhaps this is a polite word for “conscripted”) by the army scribes, who got quotas from various districts. We assume that most of the conscripts—the “young men,” as they are called—served for a specified time and then went home, but other troops, whose name we translate as “warriors,” seem to have been real professionals. Another possibility is that “young men” was the designation of the raw recruits, and “warrior” a rank equivalent to the private first class. Then there were the “shock troops,” who may have been seasoned veterans.

An elite corps was formed by the “retainers,” who seem to have been young men of rank chosen to go into battle with the king. They were not the same as the royal bodyguard, though some of them seem to have been selected from it. In any case, it was an honor to be a retainer.

At the head of the whole business was the “great overseer of troops,” or the commander-in-chief. He had generals under him; some of them were no more than overseers in charge of quarrying operations, some actually led troops in the field, and others commanded the forts of Nubia. There was a host of army scribes, responsible for everything from recruiting to supply. One title has always fascinated me: “Master of the Secrets of the King in the Army.” If the Egyptians did not use secret agents, the people they fought may have done so; there is a wonderful story of the great Ramses being deluded, on the eve of battle, by two men who pretended to be deserters from the opposing army in order to assure the king that most of the enemy forces were far away from the town. They were actually creeping up on Ramses at that very moment, and his credulity lost him the battle and almost lost him his life. However, reluctant as I am to do so, I don’t believe the Master of Secrets was in charge of military intelligence—or, for that matter, any variety of intelligence.

We do not know how much actual training, if any, a young recruit had before he was marched out to fight. However, young Egyptian boys probably learned to use the throw stick and the bow in hunting. Weapons were very simple during this period; bows were just lengths of springy wood, and war arrows might be made of hardened wood, without even stone points. Archery was a skill in which the Egyptians took some pride, and they probably started practicing when they were still young.

The bowmen made up one group among the soldiers. Others carried axes. The actual weapons which have been found include slings, spears, daggers, and clubs. We are still in the Bronze Age here; except for rare items like Tutankhamon’s iron dagger, that metal was not widely used until much later. Presumably a battle began with the archers and slingers softening up the enemy from a distance, but it ended in hand-to-hand combat with axes and clubs. I have always had the feeling that there would not be many wounded after these battles—that if a man went down everybody jumped on him. However, one of the medical treatises deals with wounds, particularly with fractures of the skull, and this last would no doubt be a common casualty in a battle fought with clubs. Nobody wore armor, although soldiers did carry big shields covered with hide.

The Hyksos, that mysterious people from Asia who took control of part of Egypt after the fall of the Middle Kingdom, seem to have been responsible for a host of innovations in the art of war—if it can be called an art. We are constantly being forced to modify the statements we make about the Hyksos; the name itself may be incorrect, as applied to the whole mass of invaders, and some of the artifacts ascribed to them have been seriously questioned. It is undeniable, however, that there was a drastic change in the Egyptian arsenal and in the Egyptian attitude toward war after the Hyksos.

The Hyksos are usually given the credit for introducing the horse and chariot to Egypt. Apparently it never occurred to any of the early Near Eastern civilizations to mount soldiers on horses and turn them into cavalry. Perhaps the animals were too rare and too valuable. Most Egyptologists think the ancient Egyptians didn’t actually ride them. I think they did, upon occasion, though there are few representations of men on horse back. It’s an undignified pose, when you come to think about it, and the well-established canon of Egyptian art was not receptive to innovation. But surely the utility of horse men as scouts and messengers is too obvious to be overlooked. A horse can move faster than a man on foot, over terrain that would be impossible for a chariot.

Horses were primarily used to draw chariots, though. We have several Egyptian chariots, from the tomb of Tutankhamon and from the tomb of his presumed ancestor Yuya, whom we mentioned back in the first chapter. Yuya was a captain of chariotry, so naturally he would want to take a chariot with him—though his appears to be too small for an adult. A model, perhaps? Or did he have a sentimental attachment to his first chariot?

At first glance, these vehicles seem to be mostly wheels—two big ones, with four spokes per wheel and leather tires around the wooden rims. Between the wheels was the body of the chariot, floored with woven leather strips and partially surrounded by a curved railing. The back was usually left open. They look like light, flimsy vehicles, with a tendency to tip. To make them as stable as possible the chariot-makers put the axle at the very back of the carriage body; the pole went under the floor and then bent up at an angle to join the collar which went around the horse’s neck. The chariots had to be light if they were to be pulled by the little horses then in use. In warfare two horses might be used to each chariot, but they had to pull two men, the driver and the warrior. In some of the reliefs the valiant king is shown all alone in the chariot, with the reins tied behind his waist so that he can wield his bow. It’s a good trick if you can do it.

Egyptian weapons changed significantly at this same period. Copper arrowheads became common; and a new variety of dagger appeared, cast all in one piece to lessen the strain between hilt and blade. Perhaps these were used for overhand, stabbing blows, wherein the dagger was held at right angles to the length of the arm. The older daggers may have been held in such a way as to continue the line of the forearm and used to slash upward; the strain on the joint of the hilt would not be so great as it was in stabbing. Sometimes the dagger was strapped to the upper left arm; otherwise it was stuck through the warrior’s belt. Swords were used, and there are a few with a long grip which may have been used two-handed; they are sharp on both sides but relatively dull at the point, which means they must have been used like a saber rather than a rapier. There was no art of fencing, which is not surprising when we consider that even in the Middle Ages sword fights simply consisted of hitting the other fellow as hard and as often as you could. One curious and romantic-looking Egyptian sword was a sort of scimitar with a curved blade. The old clubs and axes still continued in use along with the new weapons. So did the bow, but it had undergone a considerable change. Instead of being a single piece of flexible wood, the new compound bow was built up of several layers of tough springy wood, or alternate layers of wood and horn, glued together and covered with bark. It was curved in the reverse direction from that in which it was to be shot, to give it greater power. These bows were harder to make, though, and they were susceptible to warping, so the good old long bow continued in use.

1 thought on “The Egyptian Warriors I

  1. Pingback: The Egyptian Warriors I — Weapons and Warfare – My History Vault

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