Ptolemaic Warriors

Watch on the nile

Foreworld: Ancient egyptian armies

Warriors of the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC).

ancient egypian armies

Warfare fo Egyptian went back to the old city-states along the Niles, which, like for the Tigris and Euprates. However a proper "Egyptian" united army appeared under the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC). This affluent kingdom, could fund a large and functioning military. Threats which were dealt with were the Libyans tribes from the Sahara to the west, Nubians from the south, Sinai and Canaanites tribes to the north, and internal conflict when nomes separated from the monarchy to form rival factions. They also had outposts in order to face raiding parties entering Egypt. The Old Kingdom indeed created a chain of forts along the Nile River, more or less far away from main cities. The main conflict with Nubia obliged Egypt to create most fortified garrisons, deep south. They were generally bypassed, but acted as a deterrence. Lake Nasser now covers many. Another crucial point, is that there was no professional army in Egypt, not united at least. The all-powerful governor of each nome, or administrative divisio raised its own volunteer army in case of war. This allowed to spare local finances, but did not provided an highly trained army. The Pharaoh was the commander in chief by default, shiwh summoned all these provincial armies to battle. Military service was not prestigious, so recruits were merely lower-class citizens and peasants. Weaponry was very diverse as shown by many bas-reliefs which survived from that time:
-Spears: Generally 2 to 2.5 m, mostly helf by conscripts
-maces, cudgels and daggers: Used by the assault infantry, picked-up among the levies
-Bows and daggers: Used by levied archers

Apparently the famous kopesh was not common yet among levied troops because of its price, however the most ancient dated back from 2500 BC and they would probably be given to officers. The levied troops were unarmoured, but at least they had wooden shields and their thick braided hair and thick fabric coiff somewhat acted as an improvized helmet. Some assault troops could have been given paddled armor. In addition there were the Pharao's personal armies, made of professional warriors chosen and paid by the nobility, including the Goernor's own personal guard. The latter would have used an axe or Kopesh, were given a reinforced shield or a metal one, metal helmets, paddled or composite armour with linen and leather, leather bands on part of the torso of charioteers for example, but generally soldiers are depicted without any body protection. Scale armour: Its price must had reserved it to the Governor himself and also because of the status symbol attached, and probably drove a chariot. The Pharaoh's own body armour also was a scale armor, made of precious metals, multicolored tiny scales.

The extended Pharaoh's guard was probably made of full time elite warriors which were proficient with the spear, the Kopesh and above all, the bow. Single-arched bow were used with proficience by the Egyptian armies of the time. But encounters later with the Hyksos, brought to the Egyptian arsenal the much more powerful composite bow. The Pharaoh himself and his nobles had probably whariots, at a time cavalry was not a thing. But they were a mod of transport, and the Hyksos were believed to have broughts the war chariot associated with tactics in the intermediate period.

ancient egypian armies

The Kopesh was undoubtely one of the most interesting and typical weapon of the time. A typical one was 50–60 cm (20–24 inches) in length, with an inside curve used to trap an opponent's arm, or to pull his shield out before hitting. They appeared in bronze during the namesake age, and refined liter to iron in the New Kingdom period. The word "khopesh" possibly derived from "leg" probably because of the shape. It was only sharpened on the outside portion of the curved end. It was probably an evolution of the epsilon or crescent-shaped axes used by elites. The khopesh was used until around 1300 BC and replaced by the sword. But mentions of it still emerged on the 196 BC Rosetta Stone and pharaohs are depicted with a khopesh, also found in royal graves (Like for Tutankhamun). They were also ceremonial variants, in gold, or precious alliage like the silver-bronze one. But the military models were complex to maufactures and probable made only by the Governor's own smith, or the Pharaoh's smiths. Their mastery demanded skills and mastery, so they were likely reserve to guards only.

Warriors of the Intermediate period (2181–1550 BC).


During the forst and second intermediate era, as shown by Mentuhotep II campaign down to the Second Cataract in Nubia, and restored hegemony over the Sinai, large, well-trained standing armies, were constituted. They always formed the core of the invasion army, still supplemented by provincial armies. Between 1650 and 1550 BC, the second period, the Hyksos renewed chariots warfare. These were a Canaanite tribe, and proved usnstoppable, sacking Memphis and then conquered Upper and Lower Egypt. The Egyptians fled to Thebes, the starting point to reconstruct their army. However to the south the Kushite Nubians still threatened them. There was no other choice but reform the military. The Hyksos not only showed cavarly was possible and are said to introduce in Egypt the horse and Ourarit (chariot) in addition to the composite bow but also demonstration of their tactical use. The Egyptian made these innovations their own, and brought these elements together to form large charioteer units. These chariots were basically archers-carriers, 2-3 per chariot. The speed acted as a sort of active protection.

Warriors of the New Kingdom (2686–2181 BC).

During the New Kingdom the new Egyptian army had learned all possible tricks from the Hyksos, fighting them for many years before driving them of Egypt. This allowed Egypt to defend against new foreign invasions successfully. The Hittites for example attempted to conquer Egypt, but were defeated. The "Sea Peoples" also invaded the entire Near East but after their rampage they were ultimately contained. Egyptians still believed in numbers and their infantry, while the Hittites mostly relied on their chariots. The traditional levied infantry was made of conscripted peasants and artisans, armed with a spear and its copper spearhead, large wooden shield covered by leather, stone mace and bronze battle axe. Archers carryed a simple curved bow with flint/copper arowhead and none had armor. However mercenaries appeared, Nubians (Medjay) whih were quickly recoignises as highly-skilled archers and from then on would be parts of all Egyptioan armies until the Ptolemies.

Major advance in weapons technology and warfare around 1600 BC combined lrge chariot units and powerful composite bows. These reforms were implemented under 18th Dynasty and the design of the chariot was adapted to Egyptian requirements, lighter and faster than those of other major powers in the Middle East. There was a driver, holding whip and reins, and an archer or two, which after spending its arrows, could throw javelins and wield a short spear. Guards, nobles and elite Charioteers wore occasionally scale armor, but the common armor was made of leather bands crossed over the chest. They also had a shield. Pharaohs scale armour was enriched by inlaid semi-precious stones, harder than metal scaled and better at stopping arrowheads. Between the power of the composite bow and the speed of their chariots, in the vast expand of the desert, the Egyptians had forged an instrument which made regular foot infantry secondary, athough in case of war, it still made the meaty bulk of the army. Also in the 18th Dynasty elite soldiers started to wear leather helmets, rarely metal, and cloth tunics with metal scale coverings, while the kopesh was mass-produced at lower quality to equip a better trained assault infantry.

The military changes had an impact in turn in the Egyptian society. During the New Kingdom, levies troops was turned into a permanent army, and troops trained as professional soldiers, equipped in a more coherent and standardized fashion using the Royal Arsenal that took charge in mass production of weapons, helmets, chest armour and shields. Levies were still called by local governors, but only for local defense. Conquests of foreign territories such as Nubia, required also permanent forces to be garrisoned in the numerous forts in this area. Ongoing campaigns against the Mitanni, Hittites, Assyrians and Babylonians later, dictated frequent adaptations, to answer new tactics and sustain the army far from home. The base of the Egyptian army of the new kingdom was made of a corps of 4,000 infantry organized into 20 companies (200-250 men each). The mecrnry pool also grew substancially, as after Libyans and Nubians, the Egyptian army started recruiting Canaanite and Sherdens (Greeks). Many were impressed prisoners which were given the choice between a life as slaves or as soldiers.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty

Arrival of Alexandros Megas

Prior to the rise of Macedon, the Persian Empire which ruled the area had views on Egypt. The leap forward came in the Late Period (712–332 BC), when Egypt acquired both iron weaponry and armor, and proper cavalry in replacement to chariots, which was much cheaper. The turning point was the Battle of Pelusium (525 BC) on the Nile delta, after which the Aechemenid dynasty ruled Egypt, with a new governenor appointed by Cambyses II of Persia, himself recoignised as Pharahoh of the twenty-seventh dynasty. During this battle, Pharaoh Psamtik III called for Carian and Ionian mercenaries. After the defeat he poisined himself according to Herodotus, while most nobles were executed and his family emprisoned. During the Achaemenid rule in the sixth century BC, Persian rulers dominated Egypt from 525 BC to 402 BC, (to the exception of Petubastis III). The 30th Dynasty was the last native ruling dynasty, which succeeded to lead a great revolt ousting the Persians. But they cam back to quell what they saw as a rebellion, in 343 BC. They defeated Nectanebo II, conquereed Egypt again and created the 31th Dynasty of Egypt (Second Egyptian Satrapy) in 343-332 BC. Artaxerxes III reconquered the Nile valley during that time (33th Dynasty) and "pacified" the whole Kingdom. But would soon meet a powerful foe from the north: The Macedonian Kingdom.

Persian cavalry throwing cats (a sacred animal) at the Egyptians

Under the leadership of young Alexandros, new king of Macedonia after the assassination of his father Philip II Monophtalmos, and an army reinforced by Greek city states and thracian mercenaries (among many others) stepped into actual turkey to start a reconquest of the greek Ionian coast. To avoid the Persian naval threat thwarting his plans, he conquered coastal cities one by one along the Syrian coast, leading sometimes to legendary sieges, like Tyre; Once done, his armies marched south, to conquer Egypt. He visited Memphis, traveled to the oracle of Amun at the Siwa Oasis, the latter declaring him to be the son of Amun. While setting up his local power, he conciliated himself the Egyptians by respecting their religion, but still appointed Macedonians to all the senior posts while founding his own capital city, Alexandria. The wealth of Egypt was from there, harnessed for Alexander's conquest of the remainder of the Achaemenid Empire. In 331 BC he led his troops to Phoenicia and left behind a trusted Cleomenes of Naucratis, as nomarch, but Alexander will never returned to Egypt.

Fundation of the dynasty

Following Alexander's death in Babylon in 323 BC, the succession crisis commenced, as well as the era called the "Dadochi wars". Alexander's former generals all competed for territories and took the titles of kings. Perdiccas for a short while ruled the the entire empire as regent for Alexander's half-brother Arrhidaeus (retarded and therefore not able to rule properly). Persiccas was crowned as Philip III of Macedon, and stayed as regent for Philip III and Alexander's son Alexander IV of Macedon, born as his father died. To rule Egypt, Perdiccas appointed Ptolemy, one of Alexander's closest companions, as satrap. Ptolemy started to take its role 323 BC, still in the name of the Philip III and Alexander IV in a joint rule but as the empire disintegrated, Ptolemy no longer accounted for the Macedonian kings and became a fully independent ruler, successfully defending Egypt against Perdiccas which tried to invade his territory in 321 BC. He consolidated his position from 322 to 301 BC and already by 305 BC, took the title of King, Ptolemy I Soter ("Saviour"), founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty rusling Egypt 300 years.

Male rulers of the dynasty were all named Ptolemy, and princesses or co-regent queens (in the brother-sister co-rule usual here) were named Cleopatra, Arsinoë or Berenice. Ptolemaic politics became confusingly incestuous as the result of these internal marriages, having quite an effect on later kings. Some Ptolemaic Queens ruled by themselves, like Berenice III and Berenice IV while Cleopatra V co-ruled with another queen, Berenice IV. Cleopatra VII co-ruled with Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator as well as his younger brothers Ptolemy XIV, and Ptolemy XV, allowing her a quasi-regent position and effectively ruled alone. The Greeks were highly respectuous of the history and traditions of the country, and kept all them alive, while Egypt was slowly buut surely Hellenized in some ways. But it was mostly a fusion, well apparent in art and architecture. There was however definitely a social divide between the Hellenes, notably those of Alexandria, and the natives of the rest of Egypt, definitely "upper class" for the former. This created some tensions and underlined the composition of the army as well. The early Ptolemies tried to concile the population by financing the construction of brand new, magnificent temples for the Egyptian gods and displayed all the classic regalia of the pharaohs, incuding the entire priests caste and ceremionials. Under Ptolemies II and III, Macedonian veterans of the Alexandrian and Diadochi wars settled in Egypt, being rewarded with farmlands around the Nile. They became in effect landlors, exploiting the local peasantry, or were planted in military colonies and garrisons throughout the country. Upper Egypt was the farthest from Alexandria, soon the siege of government, and remained a native stronghold, with little Greeks settlers. Ptolemy I funded Ptolemais Hermiou as a new capital but it remained an isolated city, and a showroom of Hellenistic science and tech. Within a century, Greek influence and intermarriage produced a large Greco-Egyptian educated class, which made the bulk of the army. They however always remained a privileged minority, living under Greek law, with a Greek education and preying in greek Temples, were tried in Greek courts, and stayed citizens of all Greek cities around the Mediterranean.

The early Ptolemaic Army

The Hellenistic core

The social stratification of Ptolemaic egypt was the main factor behind the composition of the Army. The educated greek settlers formed the bulk of the semi-active and semi-profeesional arrmy that fought during the Diadochi wars and the whole Hellenistic era, that is, until the battle of Actium which sealed the fate of Egypt as an independent state from Rome. Before the 143 C reforms, the hard core of the army was very Macedonian-like in its composition: The elites made the cavalry, nobles in the Agema, the 300 elite Royal cavalry, the others in heavy cavalry units (Hetairoi), rich landowners making the Kleruchoi (Cleruch) cavalry, add-mixed with settlers, former mercenaries Gauls and Thracians, or Greeks called "Katoikai". It was complemented by a considerable native cavalry (see later). The Phalanx still made the bulk of the foot infantry, and for its majority at least in the 100 first years, made exclusively of greek settlers. The phalanx was complemented by a more mobile light infantry, of peltasts and thureophoroi, and around 140 BC, of Thorakitai. Archers could be Cretan settlers, mercenaries, or Syrians, renown and enjoying an old status, or natives (see later). Light infantry was mainly from the lower classes, so native Egyptian in majority.

The Cleruchs

(To come)

The Machimoi

The second part of the Ptolemaic army was assuredly the largest, with what was called the "Machimoi", and levies. These were raised to supplement the Hellenistic core of the army in campaigns. The low status peasantry made the bulk of the light infantry, mostly slingers, archers, and javelineers, avoiding close combat. In addition, a light native spear levy, summarily trained for a campaign called the Pandotapoi, were also there to bolster the ranks and defend the baggage train. But the most interesting soldiers were the Machimoi.

The old Machimoi (Late Empire)

This was a Greek name, "máchimos" meaning "pugnacious". Rather vague, it is understood as applied to a medium infantry trained for melee combat, with close range weaponry. The are first attestated by Herodotus, who visited Egypt during the first Persian rule and the term has been translated as "warriors" or "fighting men" from then on. The term also referred to Asiatic troops used by the Persians for close combat, close in role and origin to the Takabara, close quarter axe infantry. Herodotus claimed the Egyptian máchimoi, were literally a closed caste of warriors, forbidden to practice other activities, and given provided twelve "arourai" of tax-free land as reward. So they were a kind of native landlords, but Herodotus went further and recoigised two categories, the hermotybies and kalasiries, distinct by their origin and that the two forces amounted to 160,000 and 250,000 soldiers respectively, so a total or about 410,000 professional warriors. It seems considerable for the time, specially if these are all considered "elites", which was certainly not the case. Herodotus, was also confirmed by Plato and Diodorus Siculus, about the deployment of máchimoi troops in many battles during the Late Empire (pre-persian), notably under Pharaoh Apries as they are clearly cited in their assault of Cyrene. They were defeated and proclaimed general Amasis as pharaoh, setting up a rebellion against Apries in 570 BCE. These old máchimoi also fought at Plataea in 479 BCE, and under Persian rule, were soon recoignised for their military value by their new overlords and by them. But also against them, like the pharaoh Teos, which raised an armyo of 80,000 Machimoi for an expedition in the Near East circa 360/358 BCE (Diodorus), commanded by his nephew Nakhthorheb (future Nectanebo II, last ruler of Egypt before Alexander). Nectanebo II also made them the bulk of his army during the second Persian conquest of Egypt in 343 BCE.

The Machimoi in Ptolemaic era

Máchimoi were stil a large part of the army in the Ptolemaic period, most scholars considering them as direct successors of their pre-persian ancestors. They were still seen as a caste of native-Egyptian possessing lands, but still low-rank warriors. They took on increasingly important roles, notably after the battle of Raphia in 217 BCE, which is understandable as the original hellenic pool dwindled down after 300 years. Aware of their importance, they would have generated officers sensible to the cause of Egyptian independence and exerted increasing social pressure on the Ptolemies for reforms or animate various rebellions and uprisings, procuring the manpower and active arm, especially in the high nile region. Under the Ptolemies the terms of "máchimoi" are found on rare documents while only existing in Greek literary works prior. They were mentioned under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (261 BCE) as given guard duties. The Rosetta Stone, under Ptolemy V Epiphanes (196 BCE), also referred to an amnesty for some máchimoi deserters.

More recent reinterpretations, notably a 2013 paper by historian Christelle Fischer-Bovet revised these views, and according to this, Herodotus unintentionally merged professional military officers with a levied militia of commoners. The whole group could not therefore have an elite status. She also perceived a discontinuity between the late empire and Ptolemaic máchimoi, which through historical documents proved they were not exclusively native Egyptians, and thetefore the term was rather a status indicator. They were indeed a máchimoi phalanx and even a Machimoi epilektoi, elite thureophoroi or the Machimoi hippeis, a cavalry. This could also be connected to the amount of land received, leading to sub-distinctions: A Pentarouros, was a máchimos granted five arourai of land, which made them higher in status and more likely to be part of the cavary or elite pikemen than the Ekarouros, probably a simple spearman/clubman/axeman. In this regard, Christelle Fischer-Bovet accepts the idea of the lowest rank in military hierarchy wheras their socio-economic status was still way above the Egyptian commoner.

The reformed Ptolemaic Army (143 BC)

Famous fresco of the late Ptolematic army (To come)

Sources/Read More

Ancient egyptian body armour
History of Egypt
Ptolemaic dynasty
Military of ancient egypt.
Oxford online: The Ptolemaic Army by Christelle Fischer-Bovet

Greek prefixes

Christelle Fischer-Bovet (2013), "Egyptian warriors: the Machimoi of Herodotus and the Ptolemaic Army".
Werner Huß, Ägypten in hellenistischer Zeit: 332–30 v. Chr. Beck, München 2001

Previous entries

Cingetos Immortals Indo-greeks The Celts Cavaros Cataphract Romphaiorioi Chalkaspidai Samnite warfare Judaean Warfare Chalkaspidai Indian warfare Etruscan warfare Numidian warfare Devotio Warrior Ancient Chinese warfare Scythian Horse archer The Ambactos Iberian warfare Illyrian warriors Germanic spearmen Carthaginian Hoplite Corsico-Sardinians Thracian Peltast Caetrati Ensiferi Hippakontistai Hastati Gaesatae Cretan Archer Thorakitai Soldurii Iphikrates Kardaka The thureophoroi