Ramesside Imperialism: Foreign Policy, Wars & Diplomacy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Egypt is remembered as a place of great warrior-kings, but why is that? In this lesson, we'll see how Ramesside Imperialism helped define this legacy.

Ramesside Imperialism

What makes for a great warrior-king? Is it success on the battlefield? Or is it a really skilled hand at propaganda?

When we think of Egyptian pharaohs today, the image of a warrior-king is almost implicit. Pharaohs had to be good in battle, right? Actually, that wasn't always the case, but became so particularly thanks to two pharaohs of the New Kingdom: Seti I and Ramses II. Through their combined military and diplomatic efforts, Egypt entered into a new era of imperial growth, called Ramesside Imperialism. But as it turned out, being a warrior was only one part of being a warrior-king.

Seti I and the 19th Dynasty

Our story begins in Egypt's 18th Dynasty, most famously including Akhenaten (the pharaoh who tried to make Egypt monotheistic). Overall, the late 18th dynasty was an unstable time, and Egypt slowly crumbled. As a result, the pharaohs were unable to maintain the military frontier. This was nowhere more evident than in Syria and Palestine, where the Hittite Empire (based in what is mostly now Turkey) started encroaching.

Out of the ruins of the 18th Dynasty rose a new ruler, Ramses I, who established the 19th Dynasty. However, his reign was extremely short, at which point the throne fell to his son, Seti I. This is where things get interesting.

Seti I
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Seti I proved quickly to be a talented ruler and military commander. In order to re-stabilize Egypt, he sought to strengthen the borders and expand the military frontier back to its former heights. Seti marched his armies from Libya and Nubia up to Lebanon and Syria, recapturing essentially all of the territory that had been lost since the decline of the 18th Dynasty. He also began engaging the Hittite Empire, and managed to recapture the crucial city of Kadesh in Syria. The Hittites would eventually take it back, but the victory was still galvanizing.

Seti I was a capable military commander, but not all of his territorial expansion came purely from war. In Lybia, Nubia, and parts of Palestine, Seti also relied on diplomacy to ensure the submission of local chiefs and princes.

So, why did this territorial growth really matter? Back in Egypt, Seti I made sure that the people knew their kingdom was strong. He used the wealth of the empire to sponsor massive building projects, improving Egypt's infrastructure and constructing mighty temples. To the Egyptian people, military victories abroad were making their lives better at home.

Ramses II

Seti I's reign (1290-1279 BCE) was one of the most influential in Egyptian history. So, why isn't his name more famous? To put it simply: his son actually managed to outdo him. Ramses II was raised at his father's side, embarking on military campaigns across the Mediterranean and even being named co-ruler near the end of the old pharaoh's life. Upon Seti's death, Ramses II took it upon himself to continue his father's legacy as the new great warrior-king of Egypt.

With an even greater military, Ramses II recaptured most of the lands of Canaan, fully secured Libya and Nubia, and finally marched against the Hittite Empire for control of Syria. Like his father, Ramses II proved to be a capable warrior and commander.

Image from Beit el-Wali Temple of Nubia, built by Ramses II, showing him killing a Nubian warrior in battle
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The most important moment in this campaign came in 1275, at the Battle of Kadesh. The Egyptians captured two Hittite spies, who confessed under torture that the Hittite camp was still far away. Ramses II decided to camp his armies outside the city, unaware that the spies had been part of a trap. The Hittites were actually nearby, and as the Egyptian army relaxed, they attacked.

The ambush nearly destroyed the Egyptian army, but Ramses II managed to regroup and push back. In the end, the Battle of Kadesh was basically a stalemate. Ramses II returned home, informing the Egyptian people it had been a great victory. He sponsored poems and monuments that told the story of how he had called out to the god Amun during the ambush, and how Ramses' calm and cool leadership revitalized the troops. He had fulfilled his role as a great warrior-king, and the Egyptian people were elated.

Fragments of a stone tablet bearing the Egyptian-Hittite Peace Treaty
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