As part of our series to celebrate the launch of Civilization V, we are asking the question: who was the greatest military leader of all time?
In this article Dr Jonathan Eaton explains why he believes Ramesses II is the greatest.
Great leaders should be assessed not by the extent of their territorial gains, but by the worth of their opponents. Greater skill is required to snatch an uneasy victory from certain defeat than to win through overwhelming martial superiority.
Ramesses II is widely remembered as one of the last great pharaohs and a key protagonist in one of the most well known clashes of antiquity, the battle of Kadesh. As pharaoh, Ramesses sought to protect and consolidate Egypt’s borders. He had previously defeated pirates who plagued the Delta region. The north-western frontier was bolstered by a defensive line of forts, which discouraged incursions from Libya. Territorial expansion was only viable in the east, yet here Egypt faced conflict with the powerful Hittite empire. In particular, Ramesses wished to retake the city state of Kadesh, which frequently switched its allegiance between the two neighbouring superpowers. Conquest of the city would demonstrate that Egypt had the power to enforce its will over its Eastern neighbours.
Battle of Kadesh
In 1274 BCE, Ramesses II advanced on Kadesh with an army of around 20,000 men, comprising of both infantry and charioteers. The Egyptian army was divided into four divisions, named after the gods Amun, Ptah, Ra and Seth. On the approach to the city, Bedouin tribesmen reported that the Hittite force had retreated to over 120 miles away. Ramesses and his Amun division advanced with confidence and constructed his camp within sight of Kadesh, with the other divisions spread out behind. In fact the intelligence was faulty and the enemy were hidden behind the city.
Ramesses had walked blindly into a Hittite trap. With little warning, a huge detachment of 2500 Hittite chariots descended on the division of Ra as it marched towards the camp. Hittite chariots carried two soldiers as well as the charioteer and were specifically designed for close-range combat. Egyptian survivors of the initial assault fled in disarray as the Hittites poured into the Egyptian camp. Yet it was at this point, as the pharaoh stood alone and defeat seemed certain, that Ramesses proved his worth. He leapt into his war chariot and personally drove back the Hittite advance from the camp. As the Hittites faltered, they were hit by a second setback. Egyptian reinforcements had been sent by sea and fortuitously appeared in time to help Ramesses repel the Hittites.
On returning to Egypt, Ramesses had poems and images of his victory displayed throughout his realm. The victory at Kadesh brought no significant territorial gain, but it did demonstrate that Egypt would not be intimidated by its rival superpower. Eighteen years later, a formal peace treaty was agreed between the Hittite and Egyptian empires, allowing a peaceful and mutually beneficial co-existence. Ramesses II’s military worth can be seen in his success in securing Egypt’s frontiers and willingness to confront the Hittites. At Kadesh, he proved that great commanders may make mistakes – in his case relying on faulty intelligence –but true genius lies in the instinctive actions made in that key moment of every battle where victory or defeat is decided.
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