The Final Pharaoh: Horemheb, the Army King

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D.Long Island University

Horemheb was the last pharaoh of the XVIII Dynasty of Egypt. He succeeded Aye to the throne. Unlike Tutankhamen, Horemheb was not a royal. In fact, he was a commoner who became the king, but he became a very traditional pharaoh indeed.

The statue of Horemheb on the Pillar of the Sawary in Alexandria, Egypt.
It is a possibility that Horemheb succeeded Aye with the help of the military establishment he commanded. (Image: hesham raouf abdulrahman/Shutterstock)

The Thorough Military Man

What do we know about Horemheb? Well, the first is, he was a military man; a career military man. Horemheb started his career, probably, under Amenhotep III. When Akhenaten moved the capital, he didn’t support the military. Consequently, Horemheb didn’t go with the pharaoh to the new capital. He stayed behind at Memphis for about 17 years, as long as Akhenaten was on the throne.

But then, after Akhenaten’s death, his son Tutankhamen succeeded him. It was during Tutankhamen’s reign that Horemheb’s career suddenly swung upward. Under Tutankhamen, Horemheb had the title of King’s Deputy. This was a very important position, especially as he was a military man, strong on law and order. Horemheb married a woman named Mutnedjemet. Some people think that she was the sister of Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Law and Order Candidate

Horemheb was a “law-and-order candidate.” There is a wonderful statue of Horemheb, carved when he was working under Tutankhamen as his deputy. It shows Horemheb as a scribe. He is sitting cross-legged. He is got a papyrus roll on his lap.

And along the base of the statue and on top of the scroll are hieroglyphs. Some of the lines say, “I am the recorder of royal laws, who gives direction to the courtiers. Wise in speech. There’s nothing I ignore. Without forgetting my charge.” Horemheb is associating himself particularly with the god Thoth—the god of writing, the god of law and order, keeping the records. Horemheb, like the majority of Egyptians at the time, may not have even been literate, but his statue lays claim to the power of the gods.

Learn more about Akhenaten the heretic Pharaoh.

A Military Pharaoh

Horemheb became the next pharaoh, probably with the help of the military establishment he commanded. And during his reign, he decided to institute lots of new policies.

Tutankhamun depicted in a triumphant battle against Asiatic enemies.
Horemheb was the leader of the Egyptian army under Tutankhamen. (Image: Yan Forget/ Public domain)

The first was that he decided that the priests should be integrated into the army. We can say these were the first military chaplains. Maybe, Horemheb had seen how powerful the priests were during the time of Akhenaten. After all, hadn’t the priests forced Akhenaten to get out of Thebes when he had decided to create a new religion? Horemheb probably knew that the priests were powerful.

Horemheb knew the army was going to be important, and also that the army was essentially a bureaucracy. With an institution so large, one person can’t watch it all. So, he had a commander for the north, and a commander for the south. He shook things up as far as the establishment was concerned.

The Two Tombs of Horemheb

Horemheb also wanted to show that he was a great builder. So, he went to Karnak Temple, which was the greatest temple on Earth, in Thebes. He built the ninth and tenth pylons there. But he did it in an interesting way. Horemheb took down Akhenaten’s temple, and filled his ninth pylon with the blocks of Akhenaten’s temple.

Akhenaten's temple sculpture.
Horemheb wanted to tell everyone that he was a traditionalist, unlike the heretic Akhenaten.(Image: Sergey-73/Shutterstock)

But what about the tomb which each pharaoh generally built as grandly as possible? Well, Horemheb has two tombs. But why does he have two tombs? Because, first, when he was the deputy of the king, when he was a commoner, he built a tomb at Saqquara. This was a place where the powerful citizens of the XVIIIth Dynasty—the nobles, but not the royalty—had tombs.

It is a pretty impressive tomb for a military commander and the King’s Deputy. It has the most wonderful carvings. The carvings show Horemheb being rewarded for his good service by the pharaoh, who is probably Tutankhamen. He is being given gold collars. He is standing up. And he is got his arms up so the collars can be placed over his head. And people are coming and placing gold collars around Horemheb, as his reward for good service.

Learn more about the murder of Tutankhamen.

Making a Pharaoh of a Commoner

Horemheb was not buried in a tomb at Saqquara because he had become the king of Egypt. He was buried in the Valley of the Kings. What did Horemheb do about the tomb that already existed?

The tomb as we see it now, is almost complete: it is decorated; it has got scenes of military exploits, all kinds of things. When Horemheb became the king of Egypt, he sent sculptors to the tomb at Saqquara, to change it a little. Now, how did they change it? They had the task of re-writing the history.

He seems to have sent in the sculptors with a simple task: to carve a little cobra on the forehead of every figure of Horemheb in the tomb at Saqquara. The cobra was the sign of royalty; of the king. If you look, for example, at the famous gold mask of Tutankhamen, he has got a cobra coming out of the forehead. So, the sculptors carved the little cobras on Horemheb’s forehead wherever his images appeared.

And that is how the XVIIIth Dynasty ended; with the commoner, Horemheb, a military man, who probably took over the throne by military force. He did not leave behind any successor when he died.

Common Questions about Horemheb, the Army King

Q: What was Horemheb’s job during Tutankhamen’s reign?

During Tutankhamen’s reign, Horemheb was the head of the army, and was known as the King’s Deputy.

Q: What changes did Horemheb introduced in the Egyptian army when he became the pharaoh?

Horemheb decided to integrate priests into the army. Also, to make sure that the army was properly administered, he had a commander for the north, and a commander for the south.

Q: Why does Horemheb have two tombs?

Horemheb built his first tomb when he was the King’s Deputy. He then made another one after he became the pharaoh. Also, he ensured that the images in the first tomb were changed to reflect his status of a pharaoh.

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