Egyptian Kingship


The concept of kingship developed in Egypt with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. For the Egyptians, the king was the pinnacle of Egyptian society and was the figure upon whom the whole administrative structure of the state was predicated. He acted as the head of the civil administration, the supreme warlord, and the chief priest of every god in the kingdom. The king of Egypt also was believed to be a divine being himself. In particular, he was considered to be an incarnation of Horus, a falcon god, the posthumous son of Osiris, and a divine king slain by his brother, Seth. For them, kingship meant that their king was a living god who was to lead the people of Egypt through all aspects of society.

To maintain this idea of kingship, the king or Pharaoh physically participated within these aspects of kingship. It was also just as important for the king to be depicted in these roles in Egyptian art. An example of this depiction is the smiting image. This image type in particular depicts the king in the role as the supreme warlord. The image itself represents an entire battle or war as a whole by displaying it as a battle between the Pharaoh and the leader of the enemy. This trend continued for many years until a change occurred where instead of just having the pharaoh and the enemy leader in battle, the enemy leader was replaced by a hoard of enemies. This image is not an assertion that so many enemies are powerless against the lone Pharaoh, but it is an assertion of power. For one, it represents the Pharaohs ability to defeat and control his enemies, but it also represents Egypt's ability as a whole to dominate its enemies. The latter is the case because for the Egyptians, the Pharaoh represented Egypt as a whole, meaning the land and the people, and instilled this belief in the images of the Pharaoh. The image is not just an assertion of power over the enemy, but it also is an assertion of power over chaos as depicted by the enemies. It was believed that the Pharaoh maintained an established order against the powers of chaos, and it is this ability that is being displayed in the smiting image. This order or eternal truth was essential to the Egyptians' lives and it is the main subject in most Egyptian art. They saw historical incidents as ripples in the eternal truth and were thus more concerned with the eternal truth than historical fact. Because of this, as long as the people thought that the truth was firmly established and championed by the Pharaoh, they were satisfied because the truth about their king affected every, even the most personal, aspects of their lives since, through the king, the harmony between human existence and the supernatural order was maintained.

When the Romans took over Egypt, this notion of kingship was still prevalent within the beliefs of Egyptian people and they moved to capitalize on it. They replaced the pharaoh with the emperor in many classic Egyptian art forms and tried to adapt to the local customs. The Romans saw that the best way to solidify their control in Egypt was to adapt Egyptian art and its meanings to spread their ideas and in the process be as unintrusive as possible. One such example of this work, the USC Smiting King, accomplishes just that. It places the Roman emperor at the top of Egyptian society and maintains the concepts of the nation as a whole's dominance over their enemies and the king's control over chaos by maintaining the eternal truth.



Dodson, Aidan. Monarchs of the Nile. London, England: The Rubicon Press, 1995.

Frankfort, Henri. Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1948.

  • Grant Dixon