How an Ancient Pharaoh Warped Reality: The Tale of Ramesses II & The Battle of Kadesh

Those who impose their wills on the world and are forever remembered by posterity think big. Thinking big is a necessary condition to True Glory, and Ramesses II of Egypt certainly thought big. His burning desire was to etch himself into stone as the greatest pharaoh to ever live. To do this, of course, he would need to surpass the feats of his predecessors with spectacular work of his own. One of the ways to do this was through great feats of arms. In this, Ramesses had gargantuan shoes to fill. The achievements of Thutmose III 200 years earlier was a tough act to follow indeed. Ramesses also had a father who was no slouch in this area either, Seti I. He knew he needed to do something spectacular to prevent himself from being overshadowed.

Fate, however, was kind enough to bestow upon Ramesses an enticing target – the Hittite Empire. The man who could subdue this powerful menace, which was far more threatening to Egypt’s interests than Thutmose III’s old enemy, the Kingdom of Mitanni, would surely go down as unequaled in the annals of Egyptian arms. Seti I had some success, but only comparatively minor, against the Hittites. The path to glory seemed wide open. Egypt would soon go to war, and there was one target which was so symbolic of Egyptian-Hittite tensions which would be the perfect point of contention: the city of Kadesh.

Battle of Kadesh Ramesses II chariot


Geopolitical Background:

During the 15th century B.C., Thutmose III carved a magnificent Egyptian Empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Nile’s fourth cataract. Bronze Age empires weren’t centrally controlled unitarian states like later ones, such as the Roman, but nevertheless, Egyptian kings commanded far-flung vassals and tribute poured into Egypt from many lands, leading to the most prosperous period in Egyptian history.

While Egypt’s power was at its zenith in the 15th and 14th centuries B.C., its principal enemy, the Kingdom of Mitanni, was in decline. It later became a reliable ally of Egypt. In the meantime, during the reign of Amenhotep III, it appeared that another kingdom, that of the Hittites in central Anatolia (today’s Turkey) was as good as finished. Those projections were wrong. Under its greatest king, Suppiliuluma I, the Hittite Kingdom bounced back and transformed itself into a mighty empire which could rival Egypt. The Kingdom of Mittanni faded away.

At the same time that Suppiliuluma was transforming the Hittite state into a great empire, Akhenaten was on the throne of Egypt. In the throes of his Year Zero revolution, he didn’t contest his rival, who played him like a fiddle. Suppiliuluma successfully wrested overlordship of Egypt’s northern vassals, inducting them into the Hittite sphere of influence. The peak empire of Thutmose III was lost.

The crucial border stronghold was the city Kadesh. It was heavily defended and straddled major trade routes. From this barrier, the Hittites could project power further south, and could easily consolidate their control over the lands formerly under Egyptian dominion.

Rocked by the tumultuous Amarna Period of the late 18th Dynasty, Egypt was in no condition contest the region the Hittites now dominated. The attempts to recapture the lost lands came later, during the reigns of Hormheb and Seti I. These campaigns had some modest successes. Seti even managed to briefly recapture Kadesh from the Hittites.

Nevertheless, the late 18th and early 19th dynasty kings were unsuccessful in restoring all the lands that Thutmose III had given Egypt, and with them, Egyptian hegemony in the region.

It would now be up to Seti’s son and successor, the 29-year-old Ramesses II, to take up the work. To be the greatest pharaoh who’d ever lived, Ramesses would need to subdue the Hittites, and that was exactly what he intended to do.

Battle of Kadesh map
The political map of the day.

The Kadesh Campaign:

The stage was now set, and for Ramesses II, nothing less than spectacular would be an acceptable course of action. He began gathering an army of Egyptians and allied peoples for what was to be the grandest Egyptian fighting force ever assembled. The Hittites, under King Muwatalli II, did the same. It would be the biggest battle of the Western Bronze Age and the largest chariot battle ever fought, with about 37,000 infantry and 3,500 chariots on the Hittite side and 16,000 infantry and 2,000 chariots on the Egyptian side.

The Egyptian army was organized in a surprisingly modern fashion. It had been at its core a professional army (rather than one consisting of part-time militia) which was cultivated during the wars against the Hyksos and perfected by Thutmose III. For the Kadesh campaign of Ramesses II, there were four main corps, or divisions, each named after a prominent Egyptian god: the Amun, the Ra, the Ptah, and the Set. Each division had combined arms forces, its own commander, moved according to its own line of march, and was responsible for its own administration and line of supply. Each division could act independently according to the demands of the campaign – whether as a strike force or a defensive one while waiting for other divisions to form a junction with it. Ramesses, of course, was in overall command of all the divisions, and he marched with the Amun division alongside his elite household troops. Ramesses’ army wasn’t purely Egyptian, but had many foreign allies involved which would prove crucial in the campaign. One of them was the “Sherden,” a name later to be seen roving among the infamous Sea Peoples.

This system of organization was very efficient, undoubtedly descending from the considerable contributions that Thutmose III had made to the science of logistics. In contrast to the Egyptian system, the exact details of the Hittite military’s organization are murky. We do know that the core of it was a professional standing army and that the Hittites supplemented their main force with forces from 18 vassal states as well as conscripts. Curiously, we are told by the Egyptians that the Hittites had with them troops that they (the Egyptians) called “Drdny” or “Dardani.” Indeed, these are likely the “Dardans,” who Homer says lived in the area around Troy and fought the Greeks in the Trojan War. Even more curiously, we are told that contingents from the vassal state of Wilusia, now thought to contain the site of Homer’s Troy, were present at the battle. It is even possible that a ruler known as “Alaksandu” was present with his troops on the Hittite side. Homer readers will immediately recognize that name as the Greek “Alexandros,” the infamous Paris, lover of Helen of Troy herself! But of course, we must now engage our no-fun responses and say that this alone isn’t enough to draw any precise conclusions.

The armies, Egyptian and Hittite both, made good time on the way to their destination. Ramesses must have used the logistical system perfected by Thutmose III to his advantage. Yet, it was during the line of march toward Kadesh that Ramesses made the first of a series of major mistakes in the campaign. In his eagerness to arrive at Kadesh, Ramesses stretched his army on a long line of march. The Amun and Ra divisions were quickly outpacing the Ptah and the Set, leaving them far behind. This plan was not done in accordance with a pincer movement, diversion, or anything else which could conceivably put all of his divisions to use in some way. Instead, Ramesses’ optimism was starting to make him careless, and the result was that these resources went underutilized or, we shall soon see, not used at all.

At this point, Ramesses’ forces captured two Bedouins. Upon interrogation, they told Ramesses that the Hittite army was far to the north at Aleppo. Ramesses couldn’t believe his luck. It looked as if he would be able to march right up to Kadesh and capture it without much of a fight. Yet, this was another case of the old adage – “if it’s too good to be true, it almost always is.”

Ramesses now crossed the Orontes River with only the Amun division in tow. The Ra division was left on the other side. The Ptah and the Set divisions were still far behind. This was the second and most disastrous error of the campaign. Ramesses not only divided his forces in the face of what he must have known was a numerically equal if not superior army, but he let a body of water separate him from the rest of his army. To perfect the trifecta of mistakes, by straggling his divisions so far behind one another, Ramesses left them vulnerable to being isolated and destroyed separately, and that’s precisely what happened.

After setting up camp, the Egyptians were able to make additional Hittite prisoners. To his horror, they told Ramesses the truth. The Hittite army under king Muwatalli was not, in fact, at Aleppo. Instead, the entire Hittite army was concentrated on the opposite side of Kadesh, with only the city separating the two armies.

The Bedouins were double agents. Ramesses had taken the bait without question, just as Muwatalli had planned. The “great” pharaoh had been easily outfoxed by the Great King of Hatti. The disastrous consequences of Ramesses’ reckless optimism would now present themselves with a thunderous impact.

Battle of Kadesh line of march


The Battle of Kadesh:

The Hittite army’s chariots crossed the Orontes and descended on the right flank of the isolated, plodding Ra division, taking it completely by surprise. The result was what you would expect. The Ra division was easily destroyed and its panicked men fled in rout to Ramesses’ camp. Ramesses, the Amun division, his household troops, and the survivors of the Ra division, were now surrounded in camp by the triumphant Hittites.

Things looked very bad for the Egyptians, but now fate was to weave its tapestry in an odd, almost forgiving way. The victorious Hittites were now overcome by temptation and took to plundering the Egyptian camp. Additionally, it was they who were now suffering from a case of careless optimism, as in their zeal to attack, the Hittite chariots had left their own supporting infantry far behind.

At the same time, Ramesses may have made terrible decisions in the Kadesh campaign, but no one could accuse him of being cowardly. He launched a furious counterattack against the now-disorganized Hittites with the remaining troops available to him, and he was very much present in the actual combat. In the meantime, a desperate message was sent south to the Ptah division, which was marching at double-time to catch up with the rest of the army. Things got worse when the initial Hittite attack was reinforced by a further regiment sent by Muwatalli. Nevertheless, Ramesses continued on the attack, never retreating for a moment, and the Hittites were gradually losing strength.

Now there occurred another miraculous moment. As Ramesses was making his counterattack, allied Egyptian vassal troops from Amurru attacked the Hittites in their own unsuspecting flank. Disoriented and broken out of their formation, the impetus of their charge lost, and with the Orontes at their back, the Hittites withdrew in bad form as the Ptah division was almost reaching the battlefield.

The next day, there may have been some additional fighting, but both sides withdrew shortly afterwards.

Ramesses II Battle of Kadesh



Of the battle itself, we can possibly say that the encounter at Kadesh represented an Egyptian victory in the classical conduct of warfare since Ramesses was technically left in possession of the field and forced the Hittites to withdraw. Yet, it would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. The Egyptian army was in bad shape, and Ramesses had failed in his strategic goal of recapturing Kadesh, which would remain a Hittite stronghold until the collapse of the Bronze Age. Therefore, the Battle of Kadesh can only be concluded as being a strategic victory for the Hittites, and that’s what really matters.

Conclusion & The Persuasion Factor:

The fact of the matter is that Ramesses let his pre-existing biases get to him. In what may have been a classic 48 Laws of Power or Stumped play, it is quite possible indeed that Muwatalli carefully studied his opponent’s psychology, knowing not only Ramesses’ objective of recapturing Kadesh, but his “big think” desire to be the greatest pharaoh who had ever lived – and taking Kadesh out of Hittite hands was of course necessary for him to claim that title. According to Decisive Battles linked above, Ramesses talked about recapturing Kadesh very openly at the Egyptian court, and his “big think” would have been apparent in this. As there were doubtless Hittite spies in Ramesses’ court, Muwatalli must have known these things, and carefully planted the Bedouins to work Ramesses’ confirmation bias triggers. Scott Adams would be proud.

Ramesses, frankly, was utterly careless. In his haste to get to Kadesh, he allowed his forces to get dangerously separated, creating too much space between them so as not to allow his divisions to easily reinforce each other. This came despite the fact that he knew the Hittites were at least equal in numbers if not numerically superior to his own forces. He seems to have not done any investigative follow-up after hearing the story of the Bedouins. Instead of uniting his forces at double-time and sending scouts to quickly reconnoiter the area (which wouldn’t have cost him too much time if the Hittites really were all the way in Aleppo), he simply took the Bedouins at their word and recklessly marched off, making the further error of leaving the Orontes between him and the Ra division.

While the Hittites made some serious mistakes as well, these can be reasonably attributed to unfortunate common developments during the heat of combat. The lust to loot the enemy camp or baggage train has often broken out in armies commanded by even the most talented generals. Muwatalli allowing his chariots to get hemmed in by attacking the crowded Egyptian camp can be seen as an error, but it is all too easy for even disciplined troops to feel the rush of victory and make these kinds of mistakes, with or without their general’s guiding hand.

Muwatalli and the Hittites did make mistakes, but nothing compared to the colossal and one might say, premeditated errors that Ramesses committed in the Kadesh campaign. They are, simply, inexcusable. We can however give credit to Ramesses for one very crucial aspect of leadership – he wasn’t a pussy. He fought side by side with his men and helped to save them from the disaster that he himself had created. If it wasn’t for his valorous conduct in that desperate battle with the surrounding Hittite chariots, he and his army would have been completely destroyed. He was out, front and center, doing what a true inspiring leader should do on this most important quality of leadership – manly fortitude.

Despite the near-disaster and defeat that Kadesh represented through his abysmal handling of the campaign, Ramesses of course, had other things to say. He carved deep into the temple walls of Egypt his story of the Battle of Kadesh, saying that it represented a great victory over the Hittite menace. As I’ve mentioned on the Masculine Epic before, Ramesses was a far better marketer than he was a warrior, and he took these skills to brand himself indelibly on the Egyptian memory as the victor at Kadesh, the conqueror of Syria, and vanquisher of the Hittites. He even remarked that he alone defeated hundreds of thousands! His enemy at Kadesh, the Hittite King Muwatalli, as we have seen, knew his fair share of persuasion. Ramesses’ post-Kadesh career shows us he knew his own fair share too (just not the kind that could be put to use on the battlefield).

Ramesses II Abu Simbel


Ramesses used his marketing skills in public relations. He completely understood all the avenues of communications available to him and used them to the hilt, taking full advantage of the inherent authority of his kingship. He dominated space with his claims about Kadesh, purposely overshooting so that people would, at worst, have ideas of a modest success there. He repeated his general themes about Egyptian victory and prosperity – proving his godhood by putting his face and his name everywhere. In this, he also crafted a new sense of Egyptian identity, and the length of his reign helped that too. The “victory” at Kadesh over the out-group, the rival team that the Hittites represented, was a distinct part of that identity, and of course Ramesses was at the center of that view of “Egyptianness.” He even had something of a Scott Adams-style linguistic kill shot against the Hittites, calling them “the effeminate ones” for their long hair (seen in the Decisive Battles link above) prior to Kadesh. This of course increased the morale of his own Egyptian team. Last but not least, though he didn’t plan very well in the Kadesh campaign, he did have a knack for geopolitical grand plans, and wisely made peace with the Hittites in 1259 B.C., establishing an alliance that led to prosperity. This in turn gave him a long, tranquil reign to conduct all his other marketing projects, and the Egyptian-Hittite alliance successfully checked the rising threat that the Assyrians represented in the east.

Ramesses II mummy
Ramesses’ mummy

In short, Ramesses, knowing full well he was operating in the realm of perception, warped reality. He was no genius on the battlefield, but he was a genius at marketing and persuasion. Because of this, he turned what was by all rights a defeat at Kadesh into a brilliant victory and the foundation of a personal brand that still holds true today. We still consider Ramesses II to be the greatest and most powerful Egyptian pharaoh. This is despite the fact that “logically,” we should know better. Using his powers of marketing, Ramesses accomplished exactly what he set out to do, holding a title that is truthfully far better suited to Thutmose III for his military achievements, Amenhotep III for his reign’s cultural flourishing, Narmer for making it all possible by uniting Egypt almost 2,000 years before Ramesses’ own time, and so on. The list could go on for a while of potentially more deserving candidates for the “greatest pharaoh” title.

But it doesn’t matter, does it? Ramesses will always be considered the greatest, because he arguably mastered the most important skill of all – power, persuasion, and marketing. It really does make all the difference, and it can turn a mediocre achievement into a great one, or a defeat into a victory.

If you think big like Ramesses and master the tools to influence people, there’s not much you won’t be able to do. Fortunately, you too, can have the tools that Ramesses – and the ones that Muwatalli used to nearly kill him – at your disposal. They’re all presented in a compact, specific, and actionable form in Stumped. Get it if you want to warp reality to your own ends.

This essay is expanded in chapter five of Lives of the Luminaries. There, you’ll learn more about the diplomatic dimension of this battle, and how Ramesses proved a far better diplomat than he did a general.

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