They sprawled before my horses,
And lay slain in heaps in their blood.
- —Ramses II's account of his victory against the hitites (according to the Poem of Pentaur)
Rameses II, also known as Ramses II or Rameses the Great, is probably the most famous warrior-king of ancient Egypt. Although often considered to have been the pharaoh of the Exodus who kept the Hebrews enslaved according to the Bible, there's no actual evidence of this. However, even without considering this, he has at several points been considered a despot and a tyrant, as well as a raving megalomaniac.
He was the son of Seti I, a pharaoh considered- at least by his people- as noble and kind-hearted. Seti died relatively young, and was succeeded by Rameses who was, according to different authors, between 16 and 20 years old at the time. He was said to be very handsome and to have had reddish hair, an unusual trait amongst ancient Egyptians. Usually in this culture, red hair was associated to the god Seth, who was considered a destructive, dangerous force; apparently, however, Rameses' family were Seth worshippers, and during his reign, Seth was one of Egypt's most important gods.
Said to have been an incredible archer as well as a fine swordsman, and strong enough to wield even the heavy Egyptian war mace (used to crack the skulls of oponents), Rameses was intent on conquering the lands surrounding Egypt that had once been owned by his ancestors, and lost after a time of political turmoil.
Perhaps his most "villanous" deed of which there's good evidence was the execution of his own military commanders after a Hitite attack that nearly cost him his life. According to Rameses, his commanders had abandoned him to his fate when he needed them most, and beheaded them personally due to their treachery and cowardice. However, it is believed that in fact, the Hitite ambush was Rameses' own fault, for he had believed the words of a couple captured spies who had told him the Hitites were nowhere near their camp. Some may see this as an attempt on Rameses' side to cover his own incompetence by blaming his men and punishing them instead.
There's also been some controversy about a mysterious Egyptian prince that was portrayed besides Seti I- Ramses' father- but was later erased from all records during Rameses' reign. Some believed that Rameses may have had an older brother, and that he either killed him, or had him assassinated or thrown into prison, in order to seize the crown for himself. There's little evidence to support this, however, and some experts believe that the so-called "prince" may have been a soldier instead, with Rameses being Seti's only son and heir.
Another "typical" villainous trait often attributed to Rameses was his apparent megalomania; he virtually covered the entire land of Egypt with colossal statues of himself, and apparently- unlike other pharaohs who prefered to have their facial features stylized-, had them reproduce his actual face, so that they would be instantly recognizable. Before Egyptian writing was decoded, archaeologists such as Giovanni Belzoni could already tell Rameses' statues apart from those of other pharaohs, because they all looked alike. Rameses also had his people worship him as a living god, instead of simply a representative of one, and had his own statue sculpted along with those of other gods in his famous temple at Abu Simbel. He was worshipped in parts of Egypt and also in Nubia long after his death.
It must be noted that, although commonly seen as a villain in modern popular culture, or by those who believe he was the pharaoh of Exodus, Rameses II was seen as a national hero and legendary king by those who lived after his time, and today, in Egypt, he is held in high regard as well.
In popular culture
- In the 1956 film The Ten Commandments Rameses is shown as a vengeful tyrant as well as the main antagonist of the film. He was portrayed by Yul Brynner.
- He also serves as the main villain in The Prince of Egypt where he is shown as Moses' brother and the de-facto villain. In the film he is voiced by Ralph Fiennes.