Ramesses the Great: Egypt's King of Kings (Ancient Lives)

Image of Ramesses the Great: Egypt's King of Kings (Ancient Lives)
Release Date: 
May 16, 2023
Yale University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Ramesses the Great is an authoritative work by one of the great authorities on the subject of Ancient Egypt.”

Egyptian expert Toby Wilkinson notes that his subject Ramesses II is almost the only one of Ancient Egypt’s hundreds of Pharaohs remembered by the general public and the only one remembered as “the Great.” Yet, “other pharaohs ruled over a larger empire, were more successful military leaders, achieved greater sophisticated in art and architecture.”

Ramesses II, however, “left more monuments” and “sired more children, his sons and daughters numbering at least 100,” as Wilkinson writes. Egypt’s rulers had to demonstrate their nation’s power over nature through massive stone works, mines, and control of water. Ramesses and his father Seti before him also used such symbols to legitimize their rule. Ramesses also had lists of pharaohs prepared to show legitimacy as a ruler, counted among other pharaohs.

Wilkinson explores the area between those facts Ramesses to find “what made him different, special, and noteworthy among the long line of pharaohs but especially among building projects and his family” This pharaoh ruled Egypt at its greatest in a time of powerful kings across the Near East.

Ramesses, in this work, is portrayed as effectively handling foreign affairs with a rare combination of diplomacy and military power, “a complex amalgam of tradition and innovation.” “For all of his vain glory, Ramesses seems to have been a pragmatist.” His reign, at just over 66 years the longest for any pharaoh, “was a period of uncommonly rich cultural innovation and expression.”

The author writes, however, that “a detailed examination of Ramesses’ personality lies out of reach.” Maybe though, looking at the pharaoh’s “preoccupations and preferences,” “we may perhaps infer something of his character and motives.”

Ramesses the Great begins with the political chaos and crisis that followed the death of Pharaoh Tutankhamun with no heirs that ended the 200 years of the 18th Dynasty. The pharaohs who followed ruled as members of the military class but with little or no traditional legitimacy, including Ramesses II.

The author explains that the Ramesses family hailed from Avaris, a garrison border town “with a checkered past.” In the chaos of earlier periods, it had rebelled and even taken over the rule of the Egyptian Delta. Seti I established a summer palace there but his son, Ramesses II, expanded that home into Per-Ramesses, a magnificent city and “vast military-industrial complex” to project his power.

Legitimizing Ramesses’ reign actually began under Tutankhamun 50 years earlier, reversing the radical changes of the pharaoh Akhenaton. The restoration of the old ways continued under the interim pharaohs and into the reign of Ramesses II. His grandfather Ramesses I and father Seti I established the new 19th Dynasty.

“Ramesses II’s first instinct as pharaoh was to build,” Wilkinson writes. His “penchant for building went far beyond what might be expected of a king, even in the golden age of Ancient Egypt’s Empire” and “of a scale and scope unprecedented in the long sweep of pharaonic history, and unsurpassed afterward.”

Ramesses expended vast resources in his long reign promoting his entitlement to the throne and insuring his succession, particularly through enormous statues that have awed visitors to the present. He also “seized the opportunity to restore, complete, and beautify the monuments of earlier kings at Abydos,” the sacred center of the beginning of rule by the pharaohs, and he had no problems with repurposing the monuments of earlier pharaohs for his own glory.

Military competence was critical in Ramesses’ time. Wilkinson explains. The Hittites, from today’s Turkey, threatened Egypt’s control of Canaan, which protected Egypt from invasion. Egypt also faced threats from the desert tribesmen of the West and the South.

Egypt’s generals and pharaohs saw themselves as protecting their country “and by extension, the whole of creation.” The previous 18th Dynasty had created a professional standing army to meet these challenges and Ramesses led it even as a teenage prince.

Ramesses the Great tells the story of the great battle of Kadesh but also, in the same detail, of Ramesses II’s great contribution to diplomacy as a telling example of his practical decision-making not always found in national leaders. In a famous treaty, Ramesses ended 70 years of conflict between the Egyptians and the Hittites.

Diplomacy with the Hittites, Egypt’s greatest threat, had gone on for generations before Ramesses’ birth. After 11 years of indecisive warfare, a coup among the Hittites and changes in Near East politics led to peace between the two nations. The author concludes with an account of the history of Ramesses’ mummy and why this pharaoh is remembered, including in cinema.

Ramesses the Great is an authoritative work by one of the great authorities on the subject of Ancient Egypt. This slim volume (only 188 pages of text), however, gives the general reader a great adventure without dry details, exaggeration, and undo speculation. Ramesses’ campaigns other than Kadesh, for example, receive almost no mention. The author also does not discuss the claims of Ramesses regarding the Exodus.

This work is an introduction to and summary of the importance of Ramesses II although told in an engaging manner. Ramesses the Great has annotations, a bibliography, a chronology of ancient Egypt, a chronology of Ramesses II’s life, and a genealogy of the Ramesses family. Ramesses the Great has photographs.