Skip to content

“Horemheb” Charlotte Booth (EEG Meeting Talk)

At the beginning of July Charlotte Booth came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group – she’s actually the founder of the group, although she hadn’t visited in the last few years (not since I’ve been in the group) as she’d moved away from the area. She talked to us about the Pharaoh Horemheb, who is often presented as a sort of afterthought to the 18th Dynasty. Booth’s talk set out to show us that he is interesting in his own right, and is better thought of as the founder of the 19th Dynasty.

Horemheb was almost certainly born in Amenhotep III’s reign. Booth explained that we can make an estimate of his year of birth by working backwards from what is known of his career. His status at the beginning of Tutankhamun’s reign indicates that he must’ve been a mature adult at that point – perhaps around 30 years of age. That would make him 12 years old when Akhenaten took the throne. He was of middle class origins, and so Booth could tell us a little bit about the sort of childhood and adolescence he might’ve had. His education would’ve started at the age of 5, either at home or by attending a school. This phase of his schooling would last 4 years until he was 9 years old and at that point an Egyptian child would make a decision about what sort of career he would follow. I assume aptitude featured in the decision as well, although Booth didn’t discuss that. As she pointed out, at 9 most of us in modern society haven’t the faintest idea what we might really want to do for the rest of our lives! Horemheb chose to enter the army as an apprentice scribe. This apprenticeship would last for around 10-12 years, and the apprentice would move up the career ladder when his mentor (or father) died.

Army scribes were, of course, involved in all the routine bureaucracy and record keeping that an army requires – rotas, recruitment, organisation. And this is the sort of work that Horemheb probably spent most of his early career doing. Army scribes were also responsible for recording battles and the message sending and so on associated with campaigns – so the job wasn’t necessarily a safe one. Unusually Horemheb also trained as a soldier, which was an even less safe or pleasant job – Booth read us part of a list of privations suffered by soldiers (written by an Ancient Egyptian who wanted to sway boys into becoming scribes rather than soldiers).

The army’s primary role during Akhenaten’s reign was being the bodyguards of the Pharaoh. In the stelae which talk about the foundation of Akhetaten (the city at modern day Amarna) Akhenaten makes reference to “evil things done” in Thebes as part of his rationale for moving the capital. Booth told us that these would include threats to the king’s life, hence the need for lots of bodyguards. The army also did desert guard duty, and escort duty – so this was quite a boring time to be a soldier or an army scribe. In Year 5 of Akhenaten’s reign Horemheb accompanied a mission to the quarries at Gebel el Silsila (we heard a talk on this site earlier this year), and the place must’ve made some sort of impression. Later when Horemheb was Pharaoh he founded a temple at Silsila (finished off by Ramesses II and Ramesses III) which includes a shrine to Horemheb among the other deities. Booth showed us a few pictures of it both inside and out, it’s not in a very good state – in large part due to still being lived in until 1990(!).

What is known about Horemheb specifically or his personal life during this period is pretty slim. He may’ve used a different name during Akhenaten’s reign than the one that we remember him by – Paatenemheb, which is similar in form to Horemheb but invokes the Aten rather than Horus. (It wasn’t unusual in Egyptian society to change your name due to political or life changes.) He married at some point, but all that is known about his first wife Amenia is that she died relatively young and was buried in his tomb at Saqqara. That tomb was the one he originally intended to be buried in, before he became Pharaoh, and it is the source for a lot of his biographical information.

Horemheb must’ve been good at his job because when Tutankhamun became Pharaoh Horemheb not only kept his job but gained new and more exalted titles. He was promoted to be leader of the army, and was also given the title Deputy King. Booth told us that there is a reference to Horemheb being called in to calm the king down when he had got overly angry, which gives a sense of both his important status and his relationship to the Pharaoh Tutankhamun. He gained other royal administrative titles over the course of Tutankhamun’s reign, and probably had a role in Tutankhamun’s funeral pulling the sarcophagus along with other senior officials.

Given the number and importance of Horemheb’s titles during Tutankhamun’s reign (including Deputy King) you might’ve expected the succession when Tutankhamun died to be straightforward. However it is clear from the historical record that the next Pharaoh was Ay and not Horemheb. Ay was another important figure in Tutankhamun’s court – he was the Vizier, amongst other titles. His succession is frequently presented as a sneaky coup against Horemheb, but Booth was clear that she thinks this can’t’ve been the case. In part because Ay promptly names Horemheb as heir, and why would he do that if he stole the throne from him in the first place? It’d just be asking for trouble. And also because Horemheb was general of the whole army and so surely had the force necessary for a counter coup.

A further complication as far as the succession goes is a Hittite stela dating from a little bit later on that claims that Ankhesenamun (Tutankhamun’s wife) had written a letter to the Hittite king. In this letter she apparently asked him to send her one of his sons so that she could marry him instead of “a servant”, but unfortunately after the negotiations were successful the young man died on the way to Egypt. This could be taken to indicate that Ay secured the throne by marrying Ankhesenamun against her will, but as Booth points out it’s much more likely that it’s later Hittite propaganda intended to justify the ongoing war between the Hittites & Egypt. It’s only known from this one, later, second-hand source. And the idea of a royal woman marrying out of Egypt had been stated in Amenhotep III’s time to be unthinkable – royal women from elsewhere married in to Egypt, Egyptian royal women did not marry foreigners. On top of that, the Queen in question isn’t even named. There is an argument that if it is true then it’s more likely to’ve been Nefertiti after Akhenaten’s death.

Charlotte Booth’s theory about how the succession worked is that Ay and Horemheb were not rivals, instead they co-operated with each other to ensure a stable handover of power that would keep traditionalists happy as well as other factions in the court. Her theory hinges round the idea that as Tutankhamun’s only surviving male relative Ay had a better claim to the throne than Horemheb, but that they made an agreement that Ay would adopt Horemheb as his heir due to being childless. And that Horemheb was happy with this arrangement because it suited his traditionalist nature, and Ay was pretty old so it wouldn’t be a long delay. I’m not sure I entirely follow why this is plausible – Ay’s relationship to Tutankhamun is unclear and it is probably via being a great-uncle on the maternal side, so I’m not sure that’s a better claim than none at all. Certainly I don’t think it would count as valid in the sorts of monarchies I know more about, but I don’t know much about Pharaonic succession. I had also been under the impression that Ay had a son, Nahktmin, who didn’t predecease Tutankhamun as he donated funerary goods to Tutankhamun’s funeral. However that relationship is also a matter of conjecture by Egyptologists, so it may well not have counted at the time! 🙂

However it came about, Ay was Pharaoh for four years after Tutankhamun. He closely associated himself with Tutankhamun, referring to him as his father (clearly intended ideologically not literally as Ay was a good 40 years older than Tutankhamun!). He also continued the programme of dissociating the regime from Akhenaten’s heresy. During Ay’s reign he names Horemheb as his heir – which backs up the idea that they had some sort of agreement.

After Ay’s death Horemheb buries him as if he were his father – in a similar fashion to Ay associating himself with Tutankhamun by a symbolic paternal relationship. Before his coronation Horemheb married his second wife – Mutnodjment, who was possibly the sister of Nefertiti. If this identification is correct, then she was the last surviving woman of the Amarna royal family (as Ankhesenamun vanishes from the historical record before this point). She was an unusual choice of wife for a childless man – she was 35 when they married, and in poor health since childhood (due to losing her teeth at an early age). However, although old by the standards of the time she may not’ve been too old to conceive, as she was buried with a still born child and her body showed signs of multiple childbirths. Booth said that by marrying her Horemheb prevented any other Egyptian from marrying and claiming a right to the throne via her. But Booth hoped that it might also have been for love, not just politics – Mutnodjmet was Horemheb’s primary wife, not a political afterthought tucked away in the harem as a second choice. She was 50 when she died, perhaps in childbirth, and Horemheb had no surviving children. He buried her in his Memphite tomb alongside his first wife, Amenia.

Horemheb started his reign with several propaganda moves to present himself as man of the people who was concerned with the general population’s interests. In terms of events there was his Royal Wedding and then his Coronation, both of which would involve days off work and free food & beer for the population. He also chose his five titles to reflect his intention to return Egypt to the golden age of Amenhotep III’s time, and to complete the restoration of the old religion and build at Karnak. The Aten (Ahkenaten’s god) was returned to being a local god and he was still worshipped at this time, the destruction of Atenism didn’t start till later on. Although Horemheb later erased the Amarna period from his King Lists (i.e. the official succession went Amenhotep III -> Horemheb) he didn’t do this until after Year 15, which was when Mutnodjmet died. His building work at Karnak took advantage of this reassignment of succession as he usurped much of Tutankhamun’s building works. However some things were his idea – for instance he designed the Hypostyle Hall, even though he didn’t live to see it built. Three of the pylons are also originally his – the second, ninth and tenth – each of which is filled with blocks from Akhenaten’s building works, inadvertently preserving them for archaeologists.

Horemheb also carried out many reforms. One thing he did was entirely self-serving – he reorganised the army. It was split into two sections, each of which had its own general reporting directly to him. He recognised how much power he himself had gained by being in charge of the whole army and took steps to change that. Horemheb also reformed law & order. Booth explained that this is not just the rhetoric of “bringing order out of chaos” but that we actually have a document setting out the reforms he made. He reinstated punishments against corrupt officials, including those who over-taxed the population or extorted goods under pretence of taxation. He also made provision to reward those who did the right thing. He appointed priest as judges to enforce the law of Ma’at, and tried to make them unbribe-able giving them good salaries and granting them exemption from taxation. He tried to be involved in the running of the country – meeting with officials, rewarding them personally and keeping an eye on them.

One thing there wasn’t much of in Horemheb’s time as compared to other Pharaohs were battles and expeditions. There is a relief in the temple at Silsila which documents an expedition to the goldmines of Kush, but Booth said it probably didn’t actually happen.

Horemheb remained childless until his death in 1293BC. He had chosen Ramesses I has his heir, and promoted him in a similar fashion to Horemheb’s own pre-Pharaonic career. Ramesses I became both Vizier and Deputy King. When Horemheb died the succession was smooth and Ramesses I continued much of Horemheb’s reform and building programme. One reason Ramesses I had been chosen was because he already had a family – his son would be Seti I and his grandson would be Ramesses II, and both were alive when Horemheb designated Ramesses I as heir.

It’s not clear how long Horemheb reigned for – Booth explained that it could be anywhere from 12 years to 59 years depending on what sources you trust. She thinks the most plausible date is somewhere around Year 15 or 16 of his reign, because the wines in his tomb are vintages from Years 13, 14 and 15. Egyptian wine didn’t last more than a couple of years, so if these were still the best wines then he must’ve died fairly soon after. I’m not sure what the 12 year date would be based on but the 59 year date would be the “official” count, started at the death of Amenhotep III and ignoring the inconvenient heretics.

Horemheb had two tombs. The first is in Saqqara, and was intended to be his tomb before he became Pharaoh. He didn’t just abandon it, as he had uraeuses added to his images in the tomb and buried his wives there. However it wasn’t suitable for a Pharaoh who must be buried in the Valley of the Kings. His tomb is KV57, and it was not finished before his death. Not only is the decoration incomplete but the workmen haven’t even removed the detritus from the work they had done before he died. There were tracks through the debris where the sarcophagus had been dragged – it’s as if the workmen barely left before the funeral procession arrived. Booth showed us some pictures of the fragments of grave goods that were found, and they are very reminiscent of Tutankhamun’s assemblage. There was graffiti in the tomb when it was discovered that said that Horemheb’s body had been moved to the tomb of Sethnahkte and Taweret, and it’s possible that the coffin in which Ramesses II’s body was found in the cache had originally belonged to Horemheb. Rather oddly when the Egyptians moved the bodies about and re-wrapped them in antiquity they did so in a production line fashion and each body ended up in the coffin of the previous one to be dealt with.

Horemheb’s mortuary temple was originally Tutankhamun’s – which had first been usurped by Ay before Horemheb. Unusually it was built of mudbrick, and so little survives today. His cult was maintained throughout the Ramesside period and he was worshipped at Deir el Medina alongside Amenhotep I and Ahmose-Nefertari. He was clearly viewed by the Ramesside dynasty as being the founder and father of their dynasty, and Booth finished by re-iterating that that’s how we should view him now – not as an afterthought to the 18th Dynasty.

This was a fascinating talk, Charlotte Booth really brought to life this Pharaoh. I must confess I’d previously thought of him just as she was arguing against – a sort of coda to the Amarna period – but I’m now convinced he belongs more with his successors.