Historical Context


Figure 1


The Egyptian empire was created in roughly 3150 BCE when, according to Egyptian texts, both Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under a single king, now known as a Pharaoh. Egyptian history is separated into 30 dynasties, and those dynasties are further grouped into three "kingdoms" known as the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom consisted of the 3rd to 6th dynasties, the Middle was represented by the 11th to the 13th dynasties, and the New Kingdom consisted of the 18th to the 20th dynasties. There is also an Intermediate Period after each of the Kingdoms. The dynasties and what can be considered Classical Egypt ended in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great of Macedon invaded Egypt and conquered the territory. After Alexander's death, a period of civil war erupted in his empire and in 305, Egypt fell under the control of Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals. Ptolemy and his successors, known as the Ptolemaic dynasty, ruled Egypt for the next 275 years until 30 BCE.

In 30 BCE Egypt was conquered by Octavian after he defeated Marc Antony and the Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII at the Battle of Actium. With this victory, Egypt became a Roman territory, and Octavian was named Emperor for life and renamed Augustus, thus ending the Roman Republic and beginning the Roman Empire. The Romans would control Egypt until the fall of the Empire in the 4th Century when the country fell under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire.

While in control of Egypt, the Roman Empire used classical Egyptian art forms to spread their messages and ideals. This is an effective communication tool because the local populations would be able to understand without the intrusion of new cultural practices. Similar to the Ptolemies, the Roman emperors were depicted as Egyptian pharaohs. One such way they were depicted as Pharaoh was in the smiting image.


Figure 2


The USC terracotta figurine is a representation of an ancient image known as a smiting scene. The smiting motif originated in Egypt and developed in the pre-dynastic period of Egypt’s history. The motif was used by many Egyptian pharaohs throughout history until the collapse of the Egyptian Empire. The earliest known image containing the smiting motif is a slate palette is credited to the pharaoh Horus Narmer (fig 2), which dates back to 3000 BCE. The palette likely portrays the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Though the identity is debatable due to the lack of material evidence, it is commonly believed that Horus Narmer was the king who unified Egypt. Narmer belonged to the first dynasty of kings and reigned in approximately the thirty first century BCE (Wilkinson, 28).

The palette depicts an abundance of symbols of power and control. During the reign of Narmer, images native to the Egyptians began to emerge. One of the images associated with this shift was that of the “smiting king” motif (Wilkinson, 28). Displaying the motif, the pharaoh in the image is standing in profile while holding a mace above his head in his right hand. With his left hand, the pharaoh is holding the hair of a crouching enemy, in this case, a representation of those opposed to unification. The image is meant to show the people that their pharaoh has the power to subdue all those that oppose him. The image of the smiting pharaoh is shown in a static pose, just as the image of the king in the USC terracotta is posed. Both images show the rulers in the process of smiting their foes, but do not show them in the final position before doing so.


Figure 3


Another early representation of the smiting motif depicts the pharaoh Horus Den (Fig. 3), also known as King Udimu. King Udimu reigned in the twenty fifth century BCE (Berger, 25). His reign lasted a relatively long time, as he is known to have celebrated a Sed Festival, an event that occurred only after thirty years atop the royal throne. During his time as ruler, King Udimu campaigned multiple times throughout the East, most notably in Western Asia. King Udimu also left behind a heavy intellectual reputation. The Egyptian funerary text, The Book of the Dead, is attributed to his reign and a number of medical formulas from this period are preserved in New Kingdom papyri.

This particular image is of an ivory label that belonged on a sandal, which was a prestigious item to wear.  The image itself depicts King Udimu smiting his enemies in the east. It shows King Udimu holding his foe by the hair, just as the USC terracotta shows the king holding his foe by the hair with one hand. The hieroglyphs on the right-hand side of the label read “first occasion of smiting the East”. The fact that the enemy is an Easterner is verified through his long hair and pointed beard. The gravel-spotted desert, which serves as a ground-line, rises to a hill on the right and is suggestive of Egyptian depictions of foreign lands (Sliwa, 99-100). In the smiting image, the pharaoh is in profile, which is characteristic of much of Egypt’s relief art. While in the Palette of Narmer, the pharaoh appears to be stationary, in this image, the pharaoh is leaning forward toward his victim, making it seem to be the final moment before the victim’s destruction. King Udimu is shown with his heel up and his body square with the victim, further suggesting that this is the ultimate moment of triumph for the pharaoh. The pose of the king is meant to imply movement, which contrasts the stationary pose of the USC terracotta.


Figure 4


Another image containing the smiting motif is from the reign of King Djoser. The smiting image is from a rock inscription from the Wadi Maghara, Sinai (Fig. 4). The image depicts King Djoser, who ruled from c. 2654-2635 BCE. King Djoser was one of the first kings of the third dynasty. He is famous for his step pyramid complex that housed his own burial site. The step pyramid complex was the first structure made entirely of stone. His vizier, Imhotep, is widely credited with being the genius behind the complex (Hill, “Djoser”). King Djoser, like many of the pharaohs, led foreign military campaigns to increase Egypt’s lands. He sent expeditions to Sinai to mine precious materials such as turquoise and copper and also campaigned in the south to extend Egypt’s boarders to Aswan (Hill, “Djoser”).

The smiting image itself is similar to the image found on King Udimu’s sandal label. Again, the Pharaoh is shown in his last moment before his ultimate triumph over his victim. This is exemplified through the raised back heel and forward tilt of the Pharaoh, indicating that he is just about to smite his opponent. The Pharaoh’s weapon in his hand is still a mace, and this motif appears to be unchanged since the smiting images began appearing. Also, like the image on the sandal labels of king Udimu, the victim has one hand raised in futile defense. This further serves to assert the dominance of the Pharaoh, showing that nothing can save his opponent from immanent destruction. The defensive stance of the foe contrasts with the fully submitted foe in the USC terracotta.


Figure 5


Like his predecessors, King Sahure, who ruled from c. 2464-2452 BCE, worked the Sinai turquoise quarries and the Nubian diorite quarries. At the Sinai quarries, particularly at Wadi Maghara, Sinai, King Sahure left a rock inscription of himself smiting his foes in the manner of his predecessors (Fig. 5). He holds a mace above his head and an enemy who is kneeling at his feet in his other hand. Both figures are in profile just like they are in similar examples of the smiting image.


Figure 6


King Pepy I, who ruled from c. 2343-2297, was the son of the first king of the Sixth dynasty, Teti. He has a number of children and multiple wives. During his reign he oversaw expeditions to the south and east, the latter to both the mines of Sinai and further into southern Palestine. Like Sahure and Djoser, Pepy I created a rock inscription at Wadi Maghara, Sinai of him smiting his enemies (Fig. 6). He is standing with a mace above his head and grasping a kneeling enemy in his fist.

Figure 7


This image depicting the motif of the smiting king comes from the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhat III (Fig. 7). Pharaoh Amenemhat III reigned from 1842-1797 BCE, during the 12th dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs (Lee, 208). Contrary to many other pharaohs, Amenemhat III was more peaceful and did not use his armies for many campaigns. He did use his army to secure the southern boarder of Egypt against the Nubians. While he did build many fortresses at Semna on the southern boarder intended to control the Nubians, the extent of his strife with the Nubians ended there (Kinnaer, “Amenemhat III”).

Amenemhat III used his empire’s vast wealth at this time to create many structures within the empire. These included two colossal statues of himself in the city of Fayum, a large temple to Sobek, a crocodile god, and an expansion of the temple of Ptah in Memphis. During the end of his reign, these large, expensive build projects stopped due to a drastic decrease in the flooding of the Nile, which hindered food production and negatively impacted the empire’s economy (Kinnaer, “Amenemhat III”).

The smiting image of Amenemhat III comes from a pectoral from Dahshur. This piece is of particular interest because it shows two antithetical silhouettes of the pharaoh in the smiting position (Sliwa, 101). It is also interesting because the foe is not identifiable with any specific culture. It has no defining features that indicate with which people it belongs. Though the enemy cannot be identified, the rest of the smiting image is similar to others, both images preceding it and images created after it. The pharaoh once again is grabbing his prisoner by the hair with one hand and with the other has a weapon, ready to smite. He is also once again shown in a position moments before his final triumph, ready to smite as the prisoner begs for mercy. In this specific piece, the image of the smiting king is not the central focus. The emblems around the pharaoh predominate the scene of triumph and transform it in to a schematic hieroglyphic composition that is consistent with the apotropaic function that the pectoral fulfills. This image relates to the USC terracotta in that both images show the king holding the foe by the hair in one hand and holding a weapon to smite them in the other hand.



Figure 8


King Tuthmosis III ruled from c. 1479-1424 BCE and is considered the greatest of all of the warrior-pharaohs. The first seven years of his reign were overseen by Hatshepsut and then they ruled together for the next 14 years. During the latter period, he led numerous expeditions including at least two into Palestine and another pair into Nubia. In the 23rd year of his rule, after his re-accession to sole rule, he began numerous campaigns and annual expeditions. He led campaigns against the ruler of Qadesh and campaigns through Syria-Palestine. His crowning military achievement occurred in the 33rd year of his rule when he crossed the Euphrates and defeated the king of Mitanni, one of the era's great powers. He pushed north to Carchesmesh and extended Egyptian power to its greatest extent in Asia. In the 42nd year of his reign, Tuthmosis conducted his last campaign in Asia and at its conclusion he commanded that the previous two decades' worth of fighting be written up on the walls of his new buildings at Karnak. In the 50th year of his reign he led a campaign into Nubia and in the process cleared the old First Cataract canal of Sesostris III.

This image located on the south face of the Seventh Pylon at Karnak depicts King Tuthmosis II smiting his enemies (Fig. 8). It was part of his massive building project at Karnak which documented many of his military successes. Here the king stands in profile with a mace above his head and his enemies grasped in his other hand. This image is slightly different from the others because instead of only one enemy, the king grasps many enemies in his hand. Each one is facing a different direction and has a small knife raised above their heads.


Figure 9


The “smiting” king image was also used by the pharaoh Seti I (Fig. 9), the father of Ramesses II. Seti I ruled from approximately 1291-1278 BCE, placing him in the 19th dynasty of the pharaohs of Egypt (Sanchez, 143). When he rose to power, Seti I embarked on a series of campaigns in Western Asia, both to reestablish Egypt’s presence and to expand his empire. These campaigns are documented in the reliefs at the temple at Karnak. On the northern wall of this temple, his campaigns against the Shasu nomads are depicted. This may have been his first campaign, as an inscription on the relief relates that the events happened in “year one”, indicating they happened during the first year of Seti I’s rule. Though the nomads were not a large threat the Egyptian empire, the relief still flaunts the power of the pharaoh to subdue any enemy (Spalinger, 30).

 Seti I also launched a large campaign to displace the Hittites from one of their cities, Kadesh. This campaign is also recorded through reliefs at the temple at Karnak. Unfortunately, there is no inscription that names the exact Hittite enemy that Seti I faced; there is only an inscription that mentions a vile chief of the land of the Hittites that Seti I slaughtered (Spalinger, 33).

Seti I launched two more campaigns during his reign, one in Libya and one in Syria. During both of these campaigns, like the campaign against the Shasu nomads, Seti I defeated an enemy with forces much weaker than his own. Despite these easy victories, Seti I is portrayed as a great conqueror who prevailed in the face of adversity (Spalinger, 33).

This smiting image depicts Seti I smiting prisoners while the god Amun-Re looks on. The prisoners are mostly Asiatic, as an inscription above the relief tells different names of Western Asian cities, and the pointed beard and hairstyle are motifs utilized by the Egyptians to indicate people of Asiatic decent. As in previous depictions, the pharaoh here is not in a static position, but in a position that shows him about to smite his foes. The scene shows Seti I moments before his final triumph. As in the USC terracotta, the foe is definitively of a certain culture, which can be deduced through hairstyle and facial hair of the prisoner.

Figure 10


This image comes from the reign of Ramesses II. This image portrays Ramesses II smiting the Nubians (Fig. 10). Ramesses II was closely associated with his father, the Pharaoh Seti I. There is some evidence that he may have even co-reigned with Seti I for around two years. Evidence suggests that Ramesses II was in the military during this time and was given all the powers over the military that Seti I had. This evidence comes from relief sculptures at the Beit el Wali temple. These reliefs show a young Ramesses II as a Pharaoh while his father was still alive (Spalinger, 273).

Ramesses II also launched many campaigns during his rule as Pharaoh. At least three campaigns can be associated with his rule. The first was against the Libyans. This is supported by a relief sculpture showing Ramesses II slaying a Libyan prisoner. A second campaign was fought against an Asiatic people, as represented through different works showing Ramesses II grasping Asiatic prisoners. A third campaign was waged against the Nubians (Spalinger, 272). This smiting image comes from that campaign. In this image Ramesses II grasps three different prisoners by the hair in one hand. Though in most smiting images the Pharaoh grabs the foe by the hair, this one is unusual because Ramesses II grabs multiple foes at once. This feature is by no means unique though, as it can be seen in other works from the Egyptian empire. When compared with the USC terracotta, the kings in each image grasp their foe by the hair, though the USC terracotta only has one foe, while the image of Ramesses II shows many foes about to be smited.

Figure 11


A second image of Ramesses II smiting his enemies comes from Ramesses II’s temple at Abu Simbel (Fig. 11). Evidence shows this temple was completed during the lifetime of Ramesses II. This particular scene shows Ramesses II smiting his enemies while Amen-Re favorably looks on (Spalinger, 86-87). In this scene, Ramesses II again has many foes grasped in his hand. Ramesses II is now leaning forward and in the position that is associated with ultimate triumph. He is depicted in the final moment right before he becomes victorious. Like smiting images that came before, he is holding a mace with his other hand, ready to come down and finish off his enemies. Again, this image contrasts the USC terracotta in that it shows the king in a position that implies movement to the final triumph where as the USC terracotta shows a stationary king.

This image is one of several smiting images, all of which depict Ramesses II, at the temple at Abu Simbel. This temple is a monument to the military accomplishments of Ramesses II. It contains scenes of his prowess in battle, as shown in the smiting scenes, and other scenes that illustrate his leadership, with emphasis on his victories (Spalinger, 85).

Figure 12


Another image utilizing the smiting motif shows the pharaoh Ramesses III. This image is a relief on a column depicting Ramesses III smiting a Nubian foe (Fig. 12). Ramesses III ruled from about 1185 BCE to 1153 BCE. During his rule Ramesses III had to deal with problems that had arose during the rule of his predecessor. When he took power, he consolidated his empire, rather than campaigning to expand it like many other Pharaohs before him. During the fifth year of his reign, Ramesses III had to deal with an attack from the Libyans, the first Libyan attack since the reign of Merenptah a dynasty earlier. During the eighth year of his reign, the Egyptians were attacked by an unknown foe simply known as the “sea people”. These people were known to the Egyptians for toppling other cultures, such as the Hittites. Ramesses III is remembered for his military prowess in dealing with the “sea people” quickly and effectively, both on land and on the Nile (Schulman, 183).

The actual smiting image shows Ramesses III smiting a Nubian. Though the Nubians were most likely not a dire threat, they were well known to the Egyptian people and easily recognizable. The smiting image was used to give a face to the military endeavors and to show the absolute power of Ramesses III. Like his early predecessors, Ramesses III is shown in a position that shows him the moment right before his absolute triumph. We can see him leaning forward, about to smite the enemy. Ramesses III is seen opposite Amun, a god who is blessing his work. Though in this image there is a god blessing the work of Ramesses III, it still shows the figure of authority, Ramesses III, with his hand grasping the hair of his foes, just as the USC terracotta shows.


Figure 13


Ramesses III ruled from c. 1185-1153 BCE and is considered the last truly great pharaoh. After his fifth year as pharaoh a number of external threats emerged. The first came from the west by the Libyans who advanced on the western Delta. In the battle that followed, Ramesses was incredibly successful and thousands of the enemies were killed and many more were captured. Two years later a second threat appeared. A confederacy of foreign nations liquidated the principal states of Syrian and Asian Minor and moved on Egypt. Ramesses II established a defensive line in southern Palestine and secured the Nile by using squadrons of warships and merchantmen. Ramesses commanded the land forces and singly defeated the opposition, while the sea-battle ended in an overwhelming Egyptian victory. This conflict led to an expedition into Syria and Palestine to mop up the opposition and reassert Egyptian power in the area. In his 11th year, another invasion from Libya occurred. The enemy again was driven back and over 2,000 men were killed and the captured leaders were executed. This victory brought relative peace for the rest of his reign. After his death, Ramesses III was buried in the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu.

Ramesses III inscribed his exploits on the walls of his mortuary temple, including the smiting image, which documented his military victories (Fig. 13). This inscription is almost identical to that of Tuthmosis III because there are multiple enemies being executed instead of just one. Once again Ramesses is depicted in profile with a mace above his head in line with the common trends with the smiting image.


Figure 14


This image of the smiting ruler can be attributed to the reign of King Natakamani, who was actually a Kushite king (Fig. 14). He ruled in an area just south of Egypt, around what is now Sudan, from around 15-40 CE. King Natakamani shared his rule with his wife, Queen Amanitore, who may have also been his mother. The queen can be seen next to King Natakamani in many of the relief works of the time (Haycock, 477).

King Natakamani is known for instituting a brief revival of the Egyptian written language, which was instituted in inscriptions in relief works (Haycock, 239). This can be seen in the smiting image, which comes from a Kushite temple in Naqa (“Pharaoh…”). This smiting image is significant for two reasons. The first reason is that it shows both the king and the queen smiting their enemies. This seems to imply that they ruled equally, which was unusual for the time.

The second reason is that the image does not come from Egypt. This smiting image comes from the Kush region, and though it boarded Egypt, it was still it’s own sovereign region. This demonstrates that the image of the “smiting king” had started to disseminate out of Egypt before the Romans took control and began to use it. This is of importance because it supports the idea that the “smiting king” image was seen as one of power that transcended the Egyptian culture and that Egyptian culture was highly influential throughout the region.

Figure 15


A tenth smiting image comes from the reign of Trajan, a Roman emperor who ruled from 98-117 CE (Fig. 15). Trajan was not born into royalty, but, through his military success against the Germanic people, found favor with the emperor Nerva. Around the year 97 CE, Nerva adopted Trajan with the intent to make Trajan the next in line for the Roman throne. When Nerva died in 98 CE, Trajan took power and became emperor of the Roman Empire (Benario, “Trajan”).

Like the Egyptian rulers previously discussed, Trajan launched many campaigns to expand the boarder of Rome. His first campaign was against the Dacians. With their land he created the first province north of the Danube. He also gained a large mining operation that had belonged the Dacian people. With the riches he gained from the mines, he began an extensive building initiative throughout the empire, with an emphasis on building projects in the city of Rome itself and the surrounding areas (Benario, “Trajan”). The famed column of Trajan was built at this time to commemorate the great battle (Lancaster, 419).

Later in his reign, Trajan launched a campaign against Parthia. He first attacked Parthia through Armenia, and swept south and then back west with his armies. As he tried to completely take over Parthia, a Jewish revolt broke out in Alexandria, which diverted his attention back westward, to Egypt. Because Trajan was afraid the Jewish uprisings would spread to his newly conquered lands, he stopped his campaign in Parthia, and went to assert his control in Egypt (Benario, “Trajan”).

The smiting image that depicts Trajan could show him smiting the Jews. This would have served as propaganda to help keep the revolts under control. The image it self is a relief work on the northern wall of the temple of Khnum at Esna (Longden, 8). The image depicts Trajan as a pharaoh during the time of Egypt’s sovereignty. This is shown through his depiction with the double plume hat indicative of Egyptian royalty.

His pose is also in a quintessential Egyptian style. His body is in profile, which is a far difference from the Roman verisimilitude seen in their statues and head busts. This would serve to further empower him as the leader of Egypt itself instead of a foreign conqueror. Like many of the smiting images that came before, Trajan is shown in his final moment before his ultimate triumph. His back foot is lifted to indicate that he is moving forward to smite his foes. Also, like the images that came before his, he grasps all of his foes by the hair with one hand and is raising a mace to defeat his enemies with the other hand. Opposite the figure of Trajan is an Egyptian god who is looking on favorably. This image is of Roman origin, which is important in that the USC terracotta is of Roman origin also. Because of the image of Trajan smiting, the image of the smiting king would have been available for later kings to use.


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  • Grant Dixon