All About The Egyptian Army

The Army of Egypt up to the New Kingdom

In the Old Kingdom, Egypt had but a small standing army of semi-trained soldiers supported by Nubian auxiliaries. Local officials and notables also maintained untrained militia units as sort of a reserve. Most of the levies, known as Recruits, were called for service under national conscription. They were fed and equipped by the State, but received no payment. No precise unit sizes are known, as the only mention of army numbers is along the lines of “many ten thousands." A regular officer usually held the rank of Army Commander or General.

In the Middle Kingdom, the Nome (province) governors retained private militia units, organised similar to the National Levy. They were under obligation to provide a quota of troops towards the war efforts of the Pharaoh, contingents that were commanded by the Nomarch's deputy, the Superintendent of the Soldiers. The core of the standing army of the Pharaoh, recruited by conscription, was made up of well-trained assault units, called Retainers. The Pharaoh also had his personal bodyguard, the Shmsu, that was a 10-member elite unit also known as the Retainers of the Ruler. The cowardly Pharaoh Senusert III employed a 60-man personal bodyguard.

Map of Ancient Egypt | Purple - Old Kingdom | Red - Middle Kingdom | Yellow - New Kingdom
Map of Ancient Egypt | Purple - Old Kingdom | Red - Middle Kingdom | Yellow - New Kingdom

The national levy was commanded by the Minister of War, who did not personally participate in battles. The actual commander to take the field was the General. Then came the Commander of Shock Troops heading a 300-man assault unit of archers and axemen, made up of three groups of 100 men each. Shock troops were used as spearhead against the enemy lines or fortifications. Next in rank was the Instructor of the Retainers, leading 100 men.

Nubian and Libyan troops were only employed for police and garrison tasks. The Nubian garrisons contained recruits and a small number of shock troopers. Most of the Nubians were Kushites from Irthet and Yam and the Medjway, the latter being the most skilled warriors. The Nubians coming from Wawat were practically useless in war.

Archers and spearmen were organised in 40-man platoons, made up of 4 squads of 10 men each. Spearman and axeman units contributed the main power of the phalanx. These lightly-armored infantry carried huge shields for maximum coverage, often marching packed shoulder to shoulder for best protection. Trumpeters and runners were used for signalling among units.

Egyptian Infantry in the Middle Kingdom : 1. Archer, 2. Light Spearman, 3. Nubian Archer, 4. Phalanx Spearman, 5. Axeman, 6. Javelineer | Standards: (a) Standard of Hare Nome, (b) The Sceptre Nome, (c) Anupu - The Black Dog Nome
Egyptian Infantry in the Middle Kingdom : 1. Archer, 2. Light Spearman, 3. Nubian Archer, 4. Phalanx Spearman, 5. Axeman, 6. Javelineer | Standards: (a) Standard of Hare Nome, (b) The Scepter Nome, (c) Anupu - The Black Dog Nome

Egyptian Army in the New Kingdom

In the New Kingdom, quite a few changes were introduced into the army. Beside new weapons, war chariots were now available, and the Egyptian field armies were split into divisions including infantry and chariotry. Each division counted up to 5,000 soldiers. During Horemheb's reign, the army was organised into two divisions - one stationed in Upper, and the other in Lower Egypt, each led by a Lieutenant Commander of the Army.

The Pharaoh continued to be the Commander in Chief, with his Vizier serving as War Minister beside him, and the help of a war council of high ranking officers. Sety I set up a 3rd division, and named the three Amun, Re, and Sutekh. Rameses II added yet another, along with auxiliary and special troops. Larger divisions were further broken down into first and second divisions.

Tuthmosis III employed an army that consisted mainly of infantry and chariotry, however, the latter were used as an integral part of the army rather than a separate arm. References of this period are to horse and foot. It was only by the end of the 18th Dynasty and the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III that the chariotry was managed as a separate arm of the forces. The entire military was revised, dividing the armed forces into units of foot and mounted, each under a separate general's leadership.

Platoons Responsible For Training New Recruits

Led by the Squad Leader, a non-commissioned officer, the smallest unit of the army consisted of 10 men. Second in size was the platoon that counted 50 men, comprised of 5 sections under the lead of The Greatest of 50, the lowest ranking commissioned officer in the military hierarchy. Platoons were the main sub-units of the company, and the most important tactical units of the army, and also the place where the new recruits were trained.

Companies Had Their Own Standards

The company, made up of 5 platoons, numbered 250 men, its commander, the Standard Bearer, was also the quartermaster aided by a staff officer, called the Adjutant. The Adjutant was responsible for the provisioning of the company. Alongside him worked the Scribe of the company performing general administrative tasks. All in all, each company had 3 senior officers, 20 junior officers, and 220 common soldiers.

Hosts Were Melting Pots of Captured Enemy

The next larger unit was under the command of the Commander of a Host. Varying in size, these units contained at least 2 companies and were employed whenever a large military force was necessary, but not a whole army. They received reinforcements by chariotry if needed. The Commander of a Host, responsible for the amalgamation of captured enemies into the Egyptian ranks, and also for commanding fortresses within or without Egypt, reported only to the General.

Divisions Were The Largest Units Of The Army

The next larger unit was the division, consisting of approx. 5,000 men, and commanded by a General, frequently a Prince or member of the Royal Family. In battle, the Pharaoh usually took the field personally in charge of one of the division while the others were led by Royal Princes. Beside them served the Scribes of the Army, men of high rank, holding high positions including the Superintendent of the Soldiers.

The Composition of Egyptian Infantry

Native Egyptian Units

There were 3 types of infantry - recruits, trained soldiers, and shock troopers. Recruits were mostly volunteers, trained soldiers were regulars, and shock troops were an elite squad called the Braves of the King destined to spearhead the assault.

Archers were the main strength of the army on whom the outcome of many battles depended. Much like chariot archers, they were divided into corps and positioned on the flanks. They were armed with axes in addition to the bow and arrows. In the great Sea Battle, the Egyptian archers and slingers were deployed in four-man subsections.

Of course, the archers couldn't have been successful without heavy infantry to protect them. These were organized into units according to the arms carried, and constituted the centre of the battle line. They were armed with spear, khepesh (Egyptian sickle-sword), heavy mace, battle axe, or pole arms, and a shield.

The Nefer, or young troops, were most likely elite units whose commanding officer was the Chief Commander of Elite Troops. They were integrated into companies and fought under the command of a Standard Bearer of Elite Troops.

Egyptian Soldiers, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty: 1. Pharaoh Ahmose, 2. Officer, 3. Infantry, 4. Syrian Chariot Warrior, 5. Horseman, 6. High Ranking Officer, 7. Hyksos Chariot Warrior, 8. Canaanite Spearman
Egyptian Soldiers, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty: 1. Pharaoh Ahmose, 2. Officer, 3. Infantry, 4. Syrian Chariot Warrior, 5. Horseman, 6. High Ranking Officer, 7. Hyksos Chariot Warrior, 8. Canaanite Spearman

Tribesmen, Auxiliaries, and Mercenaries

Aside from the archers, there were also the Bow troops who hailed from the barbarian Bow lands of Nubia. The Medjway tribe of Nubians was organised into a separate corps of its own and was led into battle by the Prince of the Medjway separately from the rest of the Egyptian army. However, they received their outfits and equipment from Egypt. When not in war, they were responsible for carrying out police duties or the scouting tasks of desert rangers.

Some of the Nubian archery units were mercenary, but there were also other mercenaries from Libya, Asia and the peoples of the Sea including Sherden. Peleset, Tyrsenoi, and Thekel. Libyan auxiliary units hailed from the Meshwesh, Tehenu, and Temebu tribes, while Asiatics came from among the Mentiu, Amu, and Serui. None of these were horsemen except some of the Sherden.

The commander of the auxiliaries was called Leaders of Tribesmen and he was equal in rank to the Greatest of 50. As the name suggests, the foreign auxiliary units were tactically independent and led into battle by their own native leaders but on Egyptian lines. They usually wore their native dress and wielded their own weapons. Foreign troops were also used to fill in for understrength Egyptian units. In such cases, they were regarded as regulars, instead of auxiliaries. When posted for garrison duty but not viewed as part of the garrison strength, auxiliaries were usually referred to as Men of Peleset, etc.

Egyptian Units, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty: 1. Pharaoh Rameses II, 2. General, 3. Chariot Warrior, 4. Heavy Poleaxe Infantry, 5. Heavy Mace Infantry, 6. Heavy Spearman
Egyptian Units, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty: 1. Pharaoh Rameses II, 2. General, 3. Chariot Warrior, 4. Heavy Poleaxe Infantry, 5. Heavy Mace Infantry, 6. Heavy Spearman

Horsemen existed on a small scale and were employed as mounted scouts provided reconaissance and intelligence. They were also meant to be able to fight if absolutely necessary. Some of the Heralds, the despatch carriers of the army, were mounted as well.

Army On The March

On the march, the way was led by the Pharaoh's personal staff, followed by the sacred disc-crowned ram standard mounted on a single chariot. They were, then, followed by officers and the Royal chariot and bodyguard of the Pharaoh. After them came the main army consisting of infantry and chariotry, along with the baggage train in the rear.

Sometimes the army's divisions were so drawn out that the last units to arrive at the battlefield did not actually see the enemy alive. When Rameses II marched to Kadesh his army of four divisions was so spaced out that the last division didn’t even see the battle.

Ships And Marines

The marines and rowers wore exactly the same dress as the archers and heavy infantry of the army. Slingers were also used on Egyptian ships as evidenced by the battle reliefs found at Medinet Habu. The man at the helm was protected by an archer, while the bows held the bulk of the archers.

The size of the vessel determined the size of the ship's company. These naval companies were commanded by a Standard Bearer and were called a ship's contingent, averaging 250 men. Onboard the warships of Rarneses III, the subordinate officer held the rank of u'au, while the highest ranking officer was called Chief of the Ships, meaning Admiral.

Egyptian Units, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty: 1. Heavy Archer, 2. Light Archer, 3. Slinger, 4. Standard Bearer, 5. Javelineer, 6. Sherden, 7. Trumpeter
Egyptian Units, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty: 1. Heavy Archer, 2. Light Archer, 3. Slinger, 4. Standard Bearer, 5. Javelineer, 6. Sherden, 7. Trumpeter

Egyptian Chariotry

The Chariot Crew

The crew of a war chariot included a warrior (sinni) and a charioteer (gazanna), both of whom were armed with bows. Otherwise they could be either lightly or heavily armed, but the vehicles in both cases were very similar.

Chariot warriors represented the middle classes of society. They could even come from among temple personnel. Furthermore, the conditions for becoming a chariot warrior was to own your own vehicle and willingness to undergo special training. It follows that most chariot warriors were volunteers with a small number of exceptions in the lower grades.

Chariotry soldiers of foreign lands were considered simple chariot warriors, the lowest rank, while a higher grade of chariot warrior was the first charioteer. Runners, accompanying the chariot into battle on foot, were lighly armed infantry and below these ranks.

Organization of Chariot Units

Basic chariot units consisted of 5 to 10 vehicles. These basic units could be grouped to create larger units. A Charioteer of the Residence was in command of a squadron of 25 to 50 vehicles.

The Commander of Chariot Warriors, equal to the Standard Bearer, was in charge of a number of squadrons. He reported to the Group Marshaller of Chariotry who was in the lead of the divisional chariotry strength, subordinate only to the General.

The largest tactical chariotry unit, consisting of 150 vehicles, was usually an attachment of an infantry division.

A special unit of Egyptian chariots was called the Katana, made up of Royal charioteers. These Royal Scribes were the highest ranking of all chariot officers.

Under Rameses II, the chariotry served only as a type of first-class reserve and stayed in their hometown until summoned.

Egyptian Units, New Kingdom, 20th Dynasty: 1. Hettite Spearman, 2. Pharaoh Rameses III, 3. Light Archer, 4. Marine, 5. Guard Officer, 6. Retennu Spearman, 7. Peleset Light Infantry, 8. Peleset Medium Infantry, 9. Meshwesh, 10. Meshwesh Lybian
Egyptian Units, New Kingdom, 20th Dynasty: 1. Hettite Spearman, 2. Pharaoh Rameses III, 3. Light Archer, 4. Marine, 5. Guard Officer, 6. Retennu Spearman, 7. Peleset Light Infantry, 8. Peleset Medium Infantry, 9. Meshwesh, 10. Meshwesh Lybian

The Makeup of Egyptian Armies

Up to the New Kingdom. Egyptian armies consisted of 100% light infantry types, of which a minimum of 50% were archers. About 60% of these archery units would be Nubians, able to fire 5 volleys per minute, with the rest of the army composed of light infantry armed with spear, battle axe or mace, and shield. The most typical of these light infantry would be the spearmen, making up about 25%, whereas axemen. macemen, and slingers would be about 10% each.

During the New Kingdom, one composition of a 5,000-man division contained 2,000 archers, 500 Sherden, 1500 Kehek, 100 Meshwesh, 900 negroes.

As for the chariotry, a tactical unit of 150 vehicles attached to a division would be some 3%, however, this must not have been the case with Rameses II at the battle of Kadesh. 3% gives a total of 600 vehicles at Kadesh, which in comparison with the known numbers of the Hittite enemy would have resulted in an utter defeat for the Egyptians, having been outnumbered by at least 6 to 1. There must have been more chariots than what the records suggest. The Egyptians must have had a similar ratio to the Hettites giving a divisional strength of 25% chariots, making up about 50% of the manpower, given that each vehicle carried 2 men.

At the time of Ramses II, mercenaries accounted for over half of the total number of troops. Of the regular soldiers, about 30% were native Egyptians with the rest being of the Na’aruna and the Pidt (see above).

New Kingdom Egyptian Standards
New Kingdom Egyptian Standards

Egyptian Standards in the New Kingdom

In the New Kingdom, the old Nome standards were fancied up and transformed into regimental ensigns. They were made either of painted wood and metal, or a wooden framework covered with linen. Mounted on a pole, most standards had a stand to make it easy to stand them up. They had colored streamers attached to them.

(a) The commonest standard type for military and naval use. Identical to the flabellum of ostrich feathers carried in battle behind the Pharaoh.

(b) A rectangular standard colored yellow, white or red. Its cartouches would display a Royal name or the name of the corps represented.

(c) In the style of the Djed pillar surmounted by the sun disc, likely representing men from Abydos.

(d) Standard, signifying Abydos.

(e) Standard, signifying Hermonthis.

(f) A parade standard with the prenomen of Hats-hepsut, surmounted by horns, plumes, and uraei (the familiar snake from the Pharaoh's headdress).

(g) The Lion and Fan standard, carried by marines.

(h) The Falcon and Ostrich plume, also carried by marines.

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Comments 2 comments

Jbern117 profile image

Jbern117 4 years ago from Dunmore, PA

Very cool topic, and well written hub!


lions44 profile image

lions44 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

Great job. The detail is awesome. Voted up.

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