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Ancient Egypt: The rewards of military life: Glory, booty, privileges
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The rewards of military life

The scribes' view of the soldier's life

[Image:Akhenaten showering officials with gold of valour] Akhenaten and his family, standing in a window of appearances, are showering officials with the gold of valour
Source: Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien

    Scribes seem not to have had too much respect for the profession of the soldier, nor any other profession for that matter. They often warned their students against a career in the army describing it in the least favourable terms:
    Come, [let me tell] you the woes of the soldier, and how many are his superiors: the general, the troop-commander, the officer who leads, the standard-bearer, the lieutenant, the scribe, the commander of fifty, and the garrison-captain. They go in and out in the halls of the palace, saying: "Get laborers!" He is awakened at any hour. One is after him as [after] a donkey. He toils until the Aten sets in his darkness of night. He is hungry, his belly hurts; he is dead while yet alive. When he receives the grain-ration, having been released from duty, it is not good for grinding.
    He is called up for Syria. He may not rest. There are no clothes, no sandals. The weapons of war are assembled at the fortress of Sile. His march is uphill through mountains. He drinks water every third day; it is smelly and tastes of salt. His body is ravaged by illness. The enemy comes, surrounds him with missiles, and life recedes from him. He is told: "Quick, forward, valiant soldier! Win for yourself a good name!" He does not know what he is about. His body is weak, his legs fail him.
    When victory is won, the captives are handed over to his majesty, to be taken to Egypt. The foreign woman faints on the march; she hangs herself [on] the soldier's neck. His knapsack drops, another grabs it while he is burdened with the woman. His wife and children are in their village; he dies and does not reach it. If he comes out alive, he is worn out from marching.
    Be he at large, be he detained, the soldier suffers. If he leaps and joins the deserters, all his people are imprisoned. He dies on the edge of the desert, and there is none to perpetuate his name. He suffers in death as in life. A big sack is brought for him; he does not know his resting place.
From the Instructions of the Scribe Wenemdiamun
20th dynasty
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.II, p.172, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976 )
    Scribes, belonging to the privileged upper classes, were often not very representative of the Egyptian people as a whole. But in this case Wenemdiamun's view of the soldier's life seems to have been similar to that of the masses who have left no written testimony, but apparently did not volunteer in sufficient numbers to fill the ranks of the army, and foreign mercenaries had to be inducted into the military in ever greater numbers.

Booty and glory

Golden necklaces Maya received from the pharaoh     The soldiers saw it a bit differently. Ahmose, son of Abana, retired to his own estate satisfied that
    Never will the name and memory of the hero and his deeds be erased on this earth.
    He saw his profession as well remunerated. After a battle was won the booty was distributed. Brave men, whose names were proclaimed by the royal herald, received grants of land and after the possessions of the king's enemies had been confiscated, they were given slaves and chattels. Ahmose himself got nineteen slaves and slave-girls, and more than once was he the recipient of praise and glory in the form of necklaces and trophies with hieroglyphic inscriptions
    Given by the grace of King Menkhepere to the noble prince, the Holy Father, beloved of the God, who fills the heart of the king wherever he is, in all the foreign lands and islands of the Great Green, who fills the treasury with sapphires, silver and gold, over the foreign lands, over the army, the glory of the God is on him.
One of the three golden flies given to Queen Ahhotep; Excerpt-     Didu, a standard bearer under Amenhotep III, was awarded a necklace with golden bees (or flies) and a golden lion. His cousin, Neb-kemi who had the same rank, received a golden bracelet. The granting of sinecures, such as Ahmose Pen Nekhbet received, was another way of rewarding loyal servants. Ahmose summed up his career:
I have attained a good old age, having had a life of royal favor, having had honor under their majesties and the love of me having been in the court.
    Women, too, might be honoured. Queen Ahhotep received three golden flies for her role in the struggle against the Hyksos [1].
    Another kind of reward, given to Neb-amen, was the bestowing of the honorific Amkhu, which entitled its bearer to be buried at the pharaoh's expense.

Quasi feudal privileges

    In the Poem of Pentaur Ramses II says
I have made you nemhu (i.e. not subject to compulsory labour).
I have made you grow rich with daily sustenance;
I have freed you from taxes;
I have given the estate of the father to his son.
    These privileges were extended by Merneptah and Ramses III to the Libyans, the Meshwesh, the Sherden and other immigrant peoples settled in the Delta.

    Not always was the king successful in securing the undivided loyalty and support from his well treated troops. Ramses II scolded them for having forsaken him in the face of the enemy

    Indolent, are you, indolent, my charioteers. I cannot be proud of you. Not one is among you whom I have not shown my benevolence in my land. Am I not exalted, lord of all? Were you not poor and destitute? I have elevated you every day for the sake of my Ka. I gave the father's inheritance to his son. I have done away with evil in this land. I have reduced your taxes. I returned to you what had been taken from you in the past. Whoever had a wish, I fulfilled it. There is no ruler who has done as much for his soldiers as has my Majesty. I let you live in your cities and you did not have to serve, my charioteers. I let you take the roads leading to your cities, saying to myself: I will always find them, on the day of the battle and for the parade.
Persian coin used in Egypt after Persian conquest
Persian gold stater
used in Egypt
after Persian conquest
(Source: Princeton Economic Institute)
Athenian Tetradrachm, similar to the coins minted in Egypt
Athenian Tetradrachm
similar to the coins
minted in Egypt

The standing of the military

    There were times when the military had an important say in Egyptian politics. Horemheb appointed a general, later known as Ramses I, to be his successor; and the influence of the army high command was only weakened after the debâcle at Kadesh, when Ramses II decided to change his policy towards Hatti from confrontation to cooperation.
    In the absence of money soldiers were paid with land grants. According to the somewhat simplistic view of Diodorus (I, chapter 73), one third of the land belonged to the king, another third to the priests and the rest to the soldiers.
    ...the warriors are called Calasirians and Hermotybians, and they are of the following districts,--for all Egypt is divided into districts. The districts of the Hermotybians are those of Busiris, Sais, Chemmis, Papremis, the island called Prosopitis, and the half of Natho,--of these districts are the Hermotybians, who reached when most numerous the number of sixteen myriads. Of these not one has been learnt anything of handicraft, but they are given up to war entirely.
Again the districts of the Calasirians are those of Thebes, Bubastis, Aphthis, Tanis, Mendes, Sebennytos, Athribis, Pharbaithos, Thmuis, Onuphis, Anytis, Myecphoris,--this last is on an island opposite to the city of Bubastis. These are the districts of the Calasirians; and they reached, when most numerous, to the number of five-and-twenty myriads of men; nor is it lawful for these, any more than for the others, to practise any craft; but they practise that which has to do with war only, handing down the tradition from father to son.
Herodotus, Histories II,164f
Project Gutenberg [2]
    The warriors were the only Egyptians, except the priests, who had special privileges: for each of them an untaxed plot of twelve acres was set apart. This acre is a square of a hundred Egyptian cubits each way, the Egyptian cubit being equal to the Samian.
These lands were set apart for all; it was never the same men who cultivated them, but each in turn. A thousand Calasirians and as many Hermotybians were the king's annual bodyguard. These men, besides their lands, each received a daily provision of five minae's weight of roast grain, two minae of beef, and four cups of wine. These were the gifts received by each bodyguard.
Herodotus, Histories II,168
Project Gutenberg [2]
    The high officers like Ahmose, son of Abana, who were under the eye of the pharaoh, could amass land which improved their social standing:
I have been endowed with very many fields. The name of the brave man is in that which he has done; it will not perish in the land forever.
    To some, like Ahmose Pen-nekhbet, the military was a springboard to a civil career, and they took on important positions at court or in the administration:
The divine consort, the Great King's Wife, Makere, triumphant, repeated honors to me. I reared her eldest daughter, the Royal Daughter, Nefrure, triumphant, while she was a child upon the breast

The ordinary soldier's lot

    While there is much evidence of the favours bestowed upon elite troops and officers, assessing the fate of the ordinary soldiers, who did not leave tombs decorated with scenes from their lives or descriptions of royal bounty they received, is more difficult. The depictions showing Amenemhab and Horemheb distributing not just bread and vegetables but also wine, cakes and meat to their soldiers may have been an attempt to improve these officers' chances in the other world rather than everyday practice.
    The foot soldiers probably had little to show for their pains, when they left the army. But sometimes they were taken care of. Granting land to veterans was a time-honoured practice, though the land was not always rent free [3] and the allotment was often motivated by political considerations: under the Ptolemies former soldiers were often settled in places which had been centres of rebellion against the regime.

The mercenaries

    The Greeks were not used to the Egyptian way of remuneration in kind, which had been accepted by the Nubians and Libyans during earlier, money less times. They demanded payment in specie and received money originating in Persia, Greece or the Levant. From 360 BCE onwards the Egyptians minted coins themselves in order to pay their Greek mercenaries .


Picture sources:
[  ] The picture of Maya's golden necklaces is an excerpt from a photograph taken by Jon Bodsworth
[  ] Golden fly, excerpt from the Egyptian Museum website
[  ] Coins: Princeton Economic Institute website

 -The biography of Ahmose Pen-nekhbet
 -The biography of Ahmose, son of Abana
 -The army
 -[3] Allotment of crown lands to soldiers and their rents in Ptolemaic times
-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites.
One of the three golden flies given to Queen Ahhotep; Excerpt[1] Order of valor
-[2] Herodotus on the Gutenberg Project
-Ehrengold (in German)

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© August 2000
March 2014
August 2005
December, October 2004