Ramesses II, Egypt’s ultimate pharaoh?


Ramesses II is known as ‘the Great’, yet there are far fewer volumes dedicated to his reign than to earlier New Kingdom kings, such as Akhenaten and, of course, Tutankhamun. So this is a timely publication – ‘a readable, up-to-date survey of Ramesses II’, with particular emphasis on his relations with the powerful Hittite empire, aimed at scholars and general readers alike, and packed with colour illustrations, notes, and an extensive bibliography.

There seem to be particularly polarised opinions about this ‘ultimate pharaoh’: he’s the great builder and victorious military commander, whose reign was a golden age; or he was ‘a vainglorious and tiresome pooh-bah who accomplished little of substance beyond excessive self-promotion’. The author aims to present ‘a more balanced and nuanced perspective’, although the book’s title – with no question mark at the end – does hint at his final conclusions.

Brand presents an in-depth chronological exploration of Ramesses’ reign, beginning with the end of the Amarna Period, the founding of the Nineteenth Dynasty, and Ramesses’ achievements as crown prince. Ramesses and his father Sety I were commoners who came to power following the instability of the Amarna Period, and a succession of kings – two of whom were also commoners – dying without an heir. There would have been immense pressure on the new dynasty to rebuild the state, restore the damaged prestige of the kingly office, and demonstrate its absolute right to rule. As a family from the North, there was the added problem of potential rival claimants in Thebes, home of the earlier great rulers of the New Kingdom.

Egypt’s empire in the Near East was under threat from the expansionist Hittites, forcing Sety and Ramesses to lead campaigns in the Levant in order to re-establish control over their territories and trade routes. There are conflicting accounts in Egyptian and Hittite records of the Battle of Kadesh, fought by Ramesses. (Ramesses was also present when his father failed to retake the city.) Peter Brand takes us through one possible reconstruction in detail, placing the conflict in its ‘broader historical and ideological contexts’. Although the battle was at best a draw, Ramesses presented it as his victory, but there is more to his so-called ‘propaganda’ and Brand shows that he was no more ‘dishonest’ than other pharaohs, including Thutmose III and Amenhotep II.

The author then covers Ramesses’ later wars, his wives and children, the events leading to the end of the Egyptian–Hittite conflict, his later reign, his descendants, his legacy, and his afterlife in the modern world, as Shelley’s Ozymandias, movie star (cue Yul Brynner!), and advertising icon symbolising pharaonic Egypt. So does Ramesses II deserve to be called ‘Egypt’s Ultimate Pharaoh’? Readers will find it difficult to disagree after reading Brand’s compelling narrative.

You can read Peter Brand’s article on divine kingship in AE 136, and there is more on Ramesses II to come in future issues.

by Peter J Brand 
Lockwood Press, 2023 
Hardback £80; paperback £33