A History of Ancient Egypt – Volume 3 : From the Shepherd Kings to the End of the Theban Monarchy


Many readers may remember the documentaries made for British television on Egyptian subjects by John Romer in the 1980s and 1990s. I vividly recall his impassioned delivery, which struck my schoolboy imagination as something different from most other commentators. The present volume is perhaps the most eloquent encapsulation of his argumentation, and – relatively rarely for a book of this type – his own voice enlivens every page.

While not a product of the traditional Egyptological production line, Romer is a seasoned field archaeologist, accomplished researcher, and canny observer. This book, the third and final of a series, synthesises Romer’s dynamic take on pharaonic culture through more than five decades of work in Egypt. Although it covers what many may assume to be a standard history (with a rather sedate dust jacket in the UK edition), it does so in a fresh, detailed, and often unexpected way. The bibliography shows an admirable command of up-to-date sources and reflections, some of them new to this reviewer. Notably, Romer’s eloquent style actually makes this something of a rare case for a book of its heft: it is a genuine pleasure to read.

Romer deals meticulously with areas for which he already has form: the historicity of biblical accounts of Egyptian themes; the development of the Valley of the Kings; and the workers’ community of Deir el Medina. In this he gives a more detailed popular account of the Hyksos and beginnings of the Eighteenth Dynasty than is generally available, a superb retake on Hatshepsut (and Senenmut) and the social challenges of the end of the Ramesside Period, where the book ends.

What is most powerful about Romer’s reassessment is that it will be read by a significantly larger proportion of people than other more vociferously decolonising treatments. Romer skewers modern preconceptions of ancient ‘art’ with particularly fine prose, building on career-long interest in the makers who actually planned (on the ground rather than on blueprints) and executed monuments, and what we now view as works of art. In his previous writing about the Great Pyramid, Romer has challenged the concept of the modern ‘architect’ transplanted into ancient times. And his scepticism here about the personal megalomaniacal role of an individual ruler like Akhenaten or Ramesses II is particularly thought-provoking.

It is difficult to imagine how we might avoid terms like ‘queen’ or ‘princess’, about which Romer repeatedly complains, but his essential point – that pharaonic culture simply cannot be fully comprehended in modern Western terms or ways of thinking – is valid and needs shouting from the rooftops. This sterling volume may be the best way of doing that for some time to come.

A History of Ancient Egypt: Volume 3 – From the Shepherd Kings to the End of the Theban Monarchy
by John Romer
Allen Lane, 2023
ISBN 978-0-2414-5499-2
Hardback £45

Win a copy of John Romer’s book in our competition page: https://the-past.com/shorts/competitions/win-a-copy-of-a-history-of-ancient-egypt-volume-3-by-john-romer/