Herodotus Tells Tales From Egypt’s Hoary Past!  Today’s installment: Rameses II!

Well, probably Rameses II.  Maybe.  Herodotus calls him Sesostris, and there’s a considerable amount of dispute as to whether he’s talking Rameses II or some later pharaoh, Sensoret III or Thothmes III or some other pharaoh I’ve never heard of.  For our purposes, we can go ahead and say Ramses II.

According to Herodotus, Rameses II invaded the Middle East and made it as far east as India, mainly through naval power.  He only turned around when he got to India, in fact, because the Indian Ocean was too shallow for his ships to proceed.  I suppose Herodotus thought that sounded fairly plausible.

Wherever Rameses went he conquered.  When he conquered a city that put up a good fight, afterwards he’d arrange for the construction of a war memorial, honoring the city’s fallen defenders and listing their names.  When he conquered the city that just rolled over for him, he’d instead arrange for the construction of a cowardice memorial.  The cowardice memorials looked just like the war memorials, except that instead of fallen heroes they listed the names of guys who had surrendered, and also they were covered in crude images of women’s genitals.

There may or may not have been crude images of men’s genitals all over the war memorials.  Herodotus is ambiguous.  Apparently these memorials were an actual thing, albeit a Greek thing rather than an Egyptian thing.

The other thing Herodotus can tell us about Rameses II is a funny story about murdering children.  See, when he went off invading the Middle East and raising his phallic and yonic memorials, he left his brother in charge of Egypt, as an interim pharaoh.  When Rameses II came back to Egypt, the brother didn’t want to give up his power, so plotted murder.  He invited Rameses and his family over, but then ran outside his house and locked it and set it on fire.

“Aw, heck,” said Rameses II.  He tried the doors and windows and couldn’t find a way out, except up on the roof, and from there the only escape meant falling to his death.  “I guess we’re all going to die.”

“Not so fast!” said Rameses II’s wife, whose name Herodotus failed to write down.  “Instead of you and me and all six of our sons dying, why not kill two of our sons and use their corpses to construct a safety ladder?  Then we, and our four surviving sons, can escape!”

“Honey, you’re a genius!” cried Rameses II.  Lickety-fast he killed their two least-favorite sons, and the rest were saved.

Naturally Rameses II went on to avenge his children by killing his brother in a bloody civil war, but you could have guessed that.  Afterwards he took his enormous army of slaves, captured during his Middle Eastern campaigns, and had them dig all the irrigation canals in Egypt.

“Probably he also invented the sundial,” muses Herodotus.  “I mean, someone had to have, right?”



Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE 8 (Rameses II) — 2 Comments

  1. Put me down in the “Menes, probably Narmer” column.

    I just have to say on that point how happy I was that Ozymandias had the Narmer Pallette in his office in the Watchmen movie.

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