Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Rameses the Great

The Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt course embarks on an episode about a pharaoh known as “the Great,” which is only fitting.

Wow, that’s a tortured opening. Meh, I’m going to leave it.

This time we are looking at Rameses the Great. There are a lot of high points to this episode, from a discussion of the dynastic difficulties following Tutankhamen’s death, to the naming conventions for pharaohs, to a discussion of Egyptian military practices.

And you know that last one is going to get me to prick up my ears.

But part of that last topic also raised my ire. Dr. Brier talks about the Battle of Kadesh in detail. He can do that because Rameses left lots of details regarding his great victory, something Dr. Brier expects he “dined out on” for quite some time: “Did I tell you about the time my army was outnumbered two to one and I was a no-shot super-hero? Oh, you’ll love this. So, you know the Hittites, right? . . .”

I’m going to save my ire for later. This is one of the episodes that overlaps with my other interests a fair amount. It has a lot of good stuff about the army in this episode – from the structure and hierarchy to the camp life on the march. Logistics, as always, was very important in the Battle of Kadesh, though it doesn’t sound like we have a completely clear idea how Egypt projected force into the Levant, but it did – sending an army of 20,000.

The Battle of Kadesh is pretty iconic as ancient battles go, but almost all of our sources – and as far as I know, all of our detailed sources – are Egyptian. This isn’t a problem for relying on them for information such as types of troops, organization of camps, and even order of march, but to accept everything the Egyptians claim about the battle as true – to me – seems like using Shakespeare’s Henry V as a primary source for the Battle of Agincourt.

Then again, I’m not a famed and successful professor.

In the end, I came out of this episode with a lot more knowledge than I went in with, and – as always – it held my attention and got me excited. I think, like other episodes, this one has a lot of grist for the mill when it comes to basic knowledge and inspiration. I love listening to Dr. Brier talk about Egyptian history, and he is definitely a fan of Rameses (though not as much as he is a fan of Sneferu). And Rameses was so great he gets two episodes, so there’s more where this came from.

That makes me happy.

Yet as I mentioned above, I’m not 100% happy. This is what irks me. In relating the Battle of Kadesh, Rameses depicts himself as a super-hero – and whomever actually did the carving or wrote the papyrus or whatever other evidence we get from the Egyptian side, it’s Rameses’ perspective. He describes his “victory” (and minimal further research leads me to believe that this might not have been as complete a victory as he claims) in terms that wouldn’t be out of place on a North Korean biography of its first communist leader – Kim Il Sung. Rameses is surrounded and outnumbered, and not only does he rally the troops, he personally leads them and possibly shoots fireballs out of his arse.

Dr. Brier relates all this as fact. Unquestioning. Remember when we were talking about Hatshepsut? Remember how he made the claim – without explanation – that there was no way she actually led her troops into combat? Now he’s relating with complete sincerity – again, without explanation – something that sounds like utter bull$h!t. Okay, maybe there is good evidence that Hatshepsut was full of it while Rameses was not, but without providing that, it really sounds like assumptions and biases are at play.

And given that the main character of Nefertiti Overdrive is both a woman and the chief counsellor of the pharaoh, I do have a horse in this race. Even if I didn’t, even if I accepted that because she was a woman Hatshepsut could never lead an army, I would damn sure want to hear the strong corroborating evidence that Rameses hulked out and beat the Hittites, possibly with their own severed limbs.

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