The Art of War in pre-modern Africa

Mar 2012
The Army and Navy of the A. Egyptians

Egyptian Spearmen

Nubian Archers


From the Tomb of Mesehti

More images..

Ancient Egyptian soldiers were the main ingredient of what made ancient Egypt a great civilization. The military might of ancient Egypt was what translated the Pharaoh's ideas and tactics into a reality. It is also what kept ancient Egypt continuous for over 3,000 years.

It's strange then to know that ancient Egypt did not have a standing army, ready for battle, before the New Kingdom! In fact, whenever soldiers were needed, the Pharaoh had to call on the many nomarchs to conscript able young men from each of their nomes (provinces).

This temporary army only lasted for as long as the campaign was alive, and then dispersed once it was done. The young men would go back to their old jobs and villages.

Once it was seen how much of an advantage having a permanent army would be, it was set up in the New Kingdom and the career of a soldier was created.

So there were now 2 ways to be part of the army:

National Service - You could just join as an adult recruit to train/serve for a year or two, with the possibility of being called back to serve any time after that.
Military Career - You were signed up as a child to serve in the army your whole life.

Some military men rose to such great power as to become kings themselves...

...the pride and glory of a military life then became a most-coveted aspect of such a career choice.

So once this career was chosen, the child was signed up and began training. Some children signed up as young as 5 years of age!

The actual service however didn't start until the age of 20 - older than some armies today.

Ancient Egyptian Military Training
After becoming a new recruit, the ancient Egyptian soldier got a haircut and an induction... the inductions included beatings to show who's boss. Soldiers needed to learn the important lesson of obeying orders before they were given any.

Now that the soldier is ready, the training began. Training for strength, fighting skills and stamina were the main tasks of the day. They included:

  • Wrestling
    Sand-bag lifting
    Free fighting
    Knife throwing
    Target practice
    Stick fighting

And according to the soldier's superior skills, he was then assigned to the corresponding regiment.

Ready For Battle!
Now that a soldier has had a hard induction and even harder training, he is now almost ready for his first campaign!

But of course, he needs to be armed...

Some of the more popular weapons of choice in ancient Egypt include:

  • Bow and Arrow
    Knives and Swords

Other than weapons soldiers had to wear helmets, scales, gloves, and shields for protection...

...they also had another form of protection - magical and religious icons on jewelry for example were popular too.

And on top of all that, they had to carry food and water. They would sometimes hunt or fish.

The men were divided into infantry divisions that grouped similarly skilled soldiers together. Charioteers, spearmen, archers, foot soldiers, etc...

And now the army is ready to march! And along with them followers followed: musicians, scribes to record the events, military standard carriers, etc...

But what if there was no campaign? Other than the usual training, ancient Egyptian soldiers were called on to help out with non-military tasks.

Helping with the harvest was one of the most important tasks, as this was what fed the entire country.

Guard duty such as making sure the trade routes were secure.

And also - hard manual labor such as construction.

The Hard-Earned Rewards
Ancient Egyptian soldiers sought the prestige that comes with being a national warrior and hero. They were more widely respected than others of the working class, and they gained recognition from the elite and even the royal family.

There were also formal awards for heroism and duty.

Soldiers were also paid wages, which in ancient Egypt was not monetary. They were given in rations of food which could be bartered for other items. However, they were also given the opportunity to plunder - a plus that comes with war.

And finally, ancient Egyptian soldiers were those of the lucky few that got state pensions.

Mar 2012
The Egyptian Navy

Egyptian squadrons composed of speedy keftiu [SIZE=-2][3][/SIZE], kebentiu from Byblos and Egyptian transports patrolled the eastern Mediterranean.
Unlike the later Greeks who developed special naval techniques (used also by Late Period Egypt), maritime battles by New Kingdom Egyptians and their opponents, the Sea Peoples, were fought by seaborne land troops. The Egyptian deployment of archers and the fact, that Egyptian ships could both be sailed and rowed, gave them a decisive advantage, despite the inferiority of the vessels themselves, which were at times quite sizable carrying up to two hundred and fifty soldiers.
But often the navy was little more than a means for getting land troops to where they were needed. Senusret III reached Nubia by ship
Master of the double cabinet, Sisatet, he saith: "I came to Abydos, together with the chief treasurer, Ikhernofret, to carve (a statue of) Osiris, lord of Abydos, when the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Khekure (Sesostris III), living forever, journeyed, while overthrowing the wretched Kush, in the year 19."
[SIZE=-2] J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 672 [/SIZE]​
Soldiers could also be transported at great speed to the Asiatic coast where they came upon the rebellious Canaanites without warning. Thutmose III employed this technique with great success. Egypt lost its role of maritime superpower after the end of the New Kingdom. Phoenicians and Greeks became the main players in the Mediterranean. Continental powers like the Persians used these sea-faring nations to impose their control on the seas.
Egypt renewed its navy under Necho II, investing heavily in the development of biremes and was possibly among the inventors of the more powerful triremes in its attempt to fight off the Persians. It was unsuccessful and thereafter its fleet was at the behest of the foreign power controlling the country. Dozens of Egyptian ships were incorporated into the Persian fleet fighting the Greeks.
The last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra VII joined forces with the Roman Marc Anthony, in an attempt to preserve Egypt's independence. But her fleet was defeated at Actium, which spelled out the end of pharaonic Egypt


The army in ancient Egypt


-Boat being constructed..

-Egyptian Navy fights the Sea People


Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
I highly recommend Warfare in Atlantic Africa by John K. Thornton.

Their armament differed little whether they were employed as
infantry in a cavalry battle or on their own, or fought from boats as a
marine infantry in the rivers and creeks of the coast in regions that lay
to the south. The infantry that the Portuguese first encountered on reaching
Senegambia in 1445 carried a tough leather-covered shield, a javelin or a
lance, and perhaps a sword or long knife, and frequently used a bow and
arrows, weapons that they would continue to use until well into the next
century. The arrows loosed from these bows were small and weak, typically
with a barbed head, but they carried a deadly poison that put more fear into
the Portuguese than any other weapon in their armoury, and probably convinced
them to stop raiding.


Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
Very often Cavalry made a crucial difference in West African Warfare. the Youruba Kinngdom of Oyo in modern day Nigeria with its struggle against the ambitious Dahomey King Agaja, of modern day Benin is a perfect eg. Agaja had plans to take over the neighbouring kingdom of Allada, which was allied to Oyo. Naturally the Oyo despatched a force to curb his ambitions : Oyo army, consisting largely of cavalry, was despatched to invade Dahomey in 1726. Like the Allada in 1698, the Dahomians found the Oyo calvary invincible in open country, and were defeated with great slaughter. Agaja was obliged to seek refuge in bush country, and returned only after the Oyo forces had withdrawn home.
However the Dahomian King proved that superior military strategy does not always guarantee political victory by resorting to brutal and deadly realpolitik which forced a compromise with his more powerful rivals:

Soon after the departure of the Oyo, however, Agaja succeeded in defeating and killing Hussar, the ex-king of Allada. In these circumstances, with Agaja anxious to avoid another Oyo invasion and the Oyo having lost their candidate for the Allada throne, it was possible for a compromise settlement to be arranged. Agaja sued for peace, and a treaty was made whereby Agaja keptr possession of Allada but himself became tributary to Oyo.
History of West Africa, J. F. Ade; Michael Crowder pg 441


Forum Staff
Oct 2009
Some absolutely fascinating post going on in this this, cheers to those who have contributed. Keep 'em coming :)
Mar 2012
New York
Also the Zulus had no real use for horses. Before shaka it was mainly spear throwing, and after they just used his ideas.