Herodotus on Sesostris

Sesostris may be the twelfth dynasty pharaoh Senusret III, or any one of a number of warrior pharaohs. According to Herodotus he followed Moiris (possibly Amenemhet III who was actually Senusret’s son) and made war by sea and land.

Herodotus claims the king subdued the Arabian Gulf and defeated every nation in his way in a massive land campaign. He also refers to a number of stelae recording his deeds which the pharaoh placed at the limits of his empire and reports that the inscriptions included depictions of women’s genitalia, as a sign of the pharaoh’s lack of respect for his subdued enemies.

The pharaoh allegedly subdued the Scythians (near the black sea) and Thracians (northern Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, eastern Serbia and parts of Macedonia) and left a band of warriors at the river Phasis (now known as the river Rioni, in the republic of Georgia) who settled and formed the people of Colchis (who protected the Golden Fleece, according to Greek mythology).

Senusret III fought the Libyans and invaded Nubia and Syria, he also established stelae at the limits of his borders which proclaimed that any pharaoh who did not maintain his empire was “not his son” (none have been discovered featuring women’s genitalia!) However, there is no evidence that the Red Sea was under Egyptian control until the Ptolemaic dynasty, two centuries after Herodotus composed his history. Furthermore, archaeological evidence suggests that civilisation of the Colchis did not emerge until about 800BC (during the third intermediate period) and the Scythians are first recorded in the seventh century BC.

Herodotus goes on to tell that Sesostris was tricked by his brother (who he left in charge of Egypt while he was campaigning) who set up a lavish feast for the king and his sons and promptly set the building on fire. The queen instructed that two of the king’s sons should lie on the fire, creating a ramp for the others to escape. They, of course, burned to death. Needless to say, the king had his revenge on the conspirators, but Herodotus spares us the gory details.

He also recounts an extremely dubious story in which the pharaoh divided up the land because those living in cities in the middle of the country found well-water to be unpleasant. He alleged that the king divided up the land equally, and then calculated taxes based on the yield of the land. Clearly, he is a little confused here. There were no cities in the middle of the country away from the river, only Oasis, and the division of the land into Nomes was an ancient custom. The tax system was based on the projected yield of an area of land, and there was allowance for a poorer than expected harvest, but again this was a fairly old custom and we cannot confirm which ruler first established this method.

Finally, Herodotus advises that the king was worshipped in Ethiopia, and two huge statues of him were established outside the temple of Hepaistos (Ptah). Much later on, when Egypt was under the control of the Persians, the priest of Hephaistos refused to allow the Persian king Daruis to set up his own statue in front of those of Sesostris. He told the invader that he could not match the deeds of the great pharaoh and so he could not usurp his position. Surprisingly, the Persian did not punish the priest, and agreed not to install his own statue in front of the temple.

Herodotus: Pharaohs

Copyright J Hill 2010