Thutmose III, the sixth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, and Ramses II, the third pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty, were two of the most influential pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Having ruled for more than fifty-four and sixty-six years respectively, they had a significant impact on the political, military, economic and cultural life of Egyptians. While Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great, is undoubtedly the most recognized pharaoh, his title “the Great” is better suited to Thutmose III. Unlike Ramses II who used self-promotion to turn middling accomplishments into epic achievements and resounding defeats into decisive victories, Thutmose II left an enduring mark on history despite his humility and relative obscurity.
His military prowess, diplomacy, and architectural and artistic achievements far exceeded those of Ramses II and ushered in a golden age of Egyptian civilization. While both pharaohs spent their youth immersed in the study of military strategies, Thutmose III was a far superior warrior and military tactician. He led seventeen campaigns and conquered 350 cities without a single defeat, culminating in the largest empire in Egyptian history (Dorman). His mastery of strategic warfare was no more evident than in the Battle of Megiddo. He made proficient use of rapid troop movement, supply line management, reconnaissance, and the element of surprise to subdue a rebellion by a coalition of states who sought to free themselves of Egyptian control and disrupt Egypt’s trade networks (Millmore). To ensure the speedy deployment of troops and supplies, Thutmose III dispatched units ahead of the army to deposit food and water at intermittent posts throughout the desert so his men did not have to stop and wait for supplies (Gabriel 86). Instead of taking one of two lengthier, but wider and more navigable routes around the mountain to Megiddo, an approach recommended by his senior officers, Thutmose III led his troops along a shorter, but narrower and more treacherous cattle route through the mountain.
Thutmose III understood that this bold approach increased the risk of ambush by extending the line of advance, leaving little room for his army to maneuver, retreat or receive support from the rear guard. However, based on reconnaissance missions and his military acumen, he also knew that the move would catch the insurgents off guard (Clayton 109). His insights proved accurate. The obvious routes were heavily guarded, allowing his army to surprise the rebels and send them fleeing into the city. In another display of military genius, during the ensuing siege, he had a moat and wooden stakes built around the city, depriving the inhabitants of food and water until coalition leaders finally capitulated (Ojo). Thutmose III was also innovative. Recognizing he could not extend the empire without an effective mobilization strategy, he was the first to use ships and four-wheeled wagons to deploy troops and supplies. During his eighth campaign, Thutmose III ordered his men to haul disassembled boats on wagons and reassemble them prior to crossing the Euphrates River, taking the people of Mitanni by surprise (Gabriel 55).
While Thutmose III was one of the greatest warriors in antiquity, Ramses II used propaganda to bolster his military reputation. The military achievements of Ramses II are greatly overstated and are largely a product of his own self-aggrandizement. While Ramses II accompanied his father on military operatives when he was only five-years-old and assumed the title of commander in chief of the army at the age of ten, he did not command troops or participate in conflicts and the title of commander in chief was simply an honorary one (Whiting 20). Further, despite his claims to have waged war on the Libyans, archaeological evidence from a fortress near the Egyptian-Libyan border suggests that Egyptians harvested crops and raised cattle as far as eight kilometres from the protection of the fortress (Nielson 1569).
As stated by an Egyptologist, “How on earth could Ramses have been fiercely at war with Libyan nomads when his soldiers were living in peace with them deep in their territory?” (Addelman). Ramses II also made many tactical errors. In the Battle of Kadesh, he divided his army into four divisions of five thousand men in the face of a much larger Hittite army and accepted the account of two men who claimed the Hittites were two hundred kilometres north and were too afraid to proceed south into Kadesh out of fear of Ramses II (Tyldesley 70).
The Hittites were, in fact, two kilometres away and the two men were spies sent by the Hittites to appeal to Ramses II’s vanity and lull him into a false sense of security (Clayton 150). It had the desired effect. Overconfident and making no effort to confirm the veracity of the account or to conduct any reconnaissance, Ramses II led his division across the Orontes River, leaving the other three divisions kilometres behind.
The distance between divisions left them vulnerable to ambush, a frailty the Hittite army ably exploited. The Hittites immediately tore through one division and then followed those who fled to another division led by Ramses II, resulting in significant losses and Ramses II’s near capture and death (Fitzgerald 58-62). These errors also led to an impasse that prolonged the conflict over Kadesh, which remained a Hittite stronghold, and increased political instability in the area for two decades (Mark). In addition, in one of the earliest displays of “fake news,” Ramses II commissioned texts and reliefs commemorating the battle not as the strategic defeat it was, but as a decisive victory (Clayton 151). Thutmose III was not only a better warrior than Ramses II but was also a far superior leader and purveyor of architecture and the arts.
Thutmose III brought peace to Egypt and ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity that allowed architecture and the arts to flourish. His terms of surrender and treatment of conquered people produced peace in the region. He did not execute them and only required them to swear an oath of allegiance promising not to further threaten the security of Egypt. He also brought their children back to Egypt.
He housed the children in the palace and provided them with an Egyptian education to ensure their parents did not incite further hostilities and to solidify the children’s allegiance to Egypt when they returned home (Cline 399-400). While historians laud Ramses II’s non-aggression and mutual assistance agreement with the Hittites as a “masterpiece of diplomacy” and “the earliest recorded peace treaty in history,” the agreement was a product of his failings as a general, negotiator and statesman (Sheafer 91). The agreement, necessitated due to his strategic errors in the Battle of Kadesh and his inability to gain control of the area in the ensuing two decades, does not appear to contain terms favourable to the Egyptians. It gave the Hittites control over Amurru and Kadesh and provided them with access to Phoenician harbours, while the Egyptians only received access to the port of Ugarit (Sheafer 91-93). Further, it is erroneous to credit Ramses II with negotiating the first peace treaty. The Hittites had previously negotiated a successful peace treaty with the Babylonians (Tyldesley 76).
Peace also brought prosperity under the reign of Thutmose III as captured city-states were pillaged and required to pay tribute (Gabriel 193). This prosperity enabled architecture and the arts to thrive. Thutmose III embarked on an ambitious building campaign, commissioning more than fifty temples, statutes, and obelisks (“monuments”) and making significant contributions to many more, including the Temple of Karnak (Cline 211).
While many consider Ramses II to be the greatest builder in ancient Egypt because he erected more monuments than any other pharaoh, he does not merit this title because he emphasized quantity over quality and his monuments were erected to secure his legacy and not for the betterment of his people (Whiting 11). Thutmose III’s reign produced some of the finest workmanship in Egypt’s history. He commissioned the first building in basilica style and Egypt’s only known set of heraldic pillars – two large, freestanding columns not supported by a roof. He also commissioned tombs that were entirely painted, as opposed to being painted reliefs (Cline 199). On the other hand, Ramses II’s singular focus on self-promotion caused him to emphasize quantity over quality and size over artistry. As an archaeologist commented, “Far from being the inspired work of talented artists, the royal colossi were exercises in engineering mass produced by workmen of diverse talent supplied with raw materials of variable and occasionally inferior quality” (Tyldesley 13). To ensure monuments were built quickly, Ramses II directed that a new style of relief be adopted that was less labour intensive and time-consuming than traditional relief. Forms and figures were carved directly onto the material as opposed to being sketched onto the material and then carefully and painstakingly carving out the background (Fitzgerald 69).
Unlike Ramses II, Thutmose III created public parks, gardens, lakes, and ponds for his people’s recreation and enjoyment. In fact, Ramses II was so obsessed with his memorializing his legacy that he misappropriated the monuments of prior dynasties. He inscribed his name on the monuments of his predecessors, defacing the names of the pharaohs who built them, and disassembled monuments for the stone needed to undertake his ambitious projects (Tyldesley 12).Thutmose III was an accomplished general and political visionary whose leadership culminated in the largest empire and one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods in Egypt’s long history, spawning a revolution in architecture and the arts.
His singular focus on the betterment of his people and not his self-serving ends set him apart from Ramses II, who used propaganda and misinformation to bolster his reputation and distort his accomplishments in an attempt to rewrite history. As aptly stated by a professor at the University of Cambridge, “In astronomical terms, Ramses II is the Jupiter of the Pharaonic system…since the giant planet shines brilliantly at a distance, but on close inspection turns out to be a ball of gas. Ramses II, or at least the version of him which he chose to feature in his inscriptions, is the hieroglyphic equivalent of hot air” (Ray). Thutmose III, despite his relative obscurity, is the greatest pharaoh of ancient Egypt, forever transforming its political, military, economic and cultural landscape.