While the two inscriptions differ somewhat in style and viewpoint, reflecting the two monarchs’ differing positions in their respective societies, the similarities in the two inscriptions stress the kinship in how kings used divine authority to reinforce the power of their stations. There are subtle differences within them as to the nature of this divine support, however.
The inscriptions of Ramesses III begin with a recounting of the danger facing Egypt, emphasizing the power and scope of the enemy, a coalition that had overrun many parts of the known world and, presumably, seemed irresistible at the time. By stressing, or even exaggerating, the threat of invasion, this viewpoint makes the Ramesses’ ultimate victory all the more impressive. The listing of exactly who the Sea Peoples were is also invaluable for fitting Ramesses’ war with them into a larger context, portraying the foe as a conquering horde that was defeated by his personal greatness. It is not until the second paragraph that mention is made of the pharaoh’s divine nature, and even then it is only made in passing. “Now the heart of this god, the Lord of the Gods, was prepared and ready to ensnare them like birds…” The assumption is clear that Ramesses expects each of his subjects to recognize his divine heritage without having to be told, therefore there is no need to beat them over the head with the point. This is a telling point about Egyptian society in and of itself, that the power and majesty of the Pharaoh was so ingrained as to make it unnecessary to dwell on the matter. It should also be noted that the commemorated event occurs in the eighth year of the reign of Ramesses III, harkening back to the epic times of his famous predecessor Ramesses II, a period when the perception of Pharaonic power and greatness would have been very high. Only in the last sentence does Ramesses make overt use of his divine authority as the reason for his victory, and the inclusion seems almost perfunctory, like an obligatory addition. “…for I am on the ways of the plans of the All-Lord, divine father, the Lord of the Gods”.
Sennacherib, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach regarding his divine patronage, and it should be presumed that his position in Assyrian society required this stance. The Prism of Sennacherib begins with a boastful litany of the king’s attributes and accomplishments and ties them to the power given him by the god Assur in the initial sentence of his inscription. By acclaiming himself: “…favorite of the great gods…the god Assur, the great mountain, an unrivaled kinship has entrusted to me…has made powerful my weapons”, Sennacherib focuses attention on the godly nature of his authority. This seemingly necessary reminder to Sennacherib’s subjects of exactly who he was and what he did, and by which divine authority he performed his deeds, shows the far more transitory nature of the power he wielded when compared to that of the pharaoh. For Ramesses, divine right was assumed and understood by the general populace and had been a cornerstone of Egyptian religious practice for two millennia. For Sennacherib it had to be claimed outright. Such an overt reminder might have seemed odd to the Egyptians, if not counter-productive, making them wonder why the pharaoh felt it necessary to remind them of what they already knew. Egypt was essentially a homogenous country, however, far different than the polyglot nature of Sennacherib’s empire with its myriad of different pantheons and religious beliefs, thus his need for explaining to his subjects precisely from where his power derived.
To address the question of what role the king played in each text, we again see the subtle difference in how the kings saw themselves, and therefore how they felt their portrayal to the masses must look. It becomes quite apparent that Ramses felt much more secure about his position in society. After first describing how fearsome and large his enemy was, he casually mentions taking on the aspect of Mantu, the God of War, then gives us a brief account of the tactics he used to defeat the invaders. The specificity of his tactics clearly reinforces the idea that he is to be taken literally. This, in turn, invites the reader to accept the remainder of the inscription at face value. In other words, if we are to believe how he defeated his enemy, then we should also believe that Ramesses literally became the God of War. The Ramesses inscription is, in many ways, self-reinforcing, showing a sophisticated understanding of nuance for such messages, a skill no doubt honed over the millennia by previous pharaohs.
Consideration of which text is more realistic and historically informative depends on how those terms are defined, as the two inscriptions have differing viewpoints of their respective military campaigns. The inscriptions of Ramesses III, combined with the illustrations from his mortuary temple, at times take a tactical view of the fighting and never expand past the operational. Descriptions of how he fortified the delta waterways against the invader are straight-forward descriptions of military tactics, not only vividly told but also logical and militarily sound. “I have the river-mouths prepared like a strong wall, with warships, galleys and coasters, (fully) equipped, for they were manned completely from bow to stern with valiant warriors carrying their weapons. The troops consisted of every picked man of Egypt…Those who came forward together on the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the river-mouths, while a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore”. So vivid is this imagery, so accurate the detail, that a reproduction of the battle fills the reader’s mind unbidden. Ships of all sorts are crammed with the best soldiers in the army and the shores are fortified with lancers. Fire-boats block the river-mouths, funneling the invading ships into killing zones. Indeed, so much information is contained within this inscription that it is almost a blueprint of the event. For example, the inscription uses a plural when referring to the “river-mouths”. Not simply a mouth, but multiples, meaning the Pharaoh was forced to fortify more than one spot, which also implies that the battle took place along the Mediterranean coast, where the Nile River delta splits into many branches.
For the land battle, in Ramesses’ Mortuary Temple we see intricate depictions of both the Egyptian and the Sea People’s weaponry and armor, including the difference in their use of chariots, to the point where it is possible to infer details of exactly how the Egyptians won the battle. For example, the Egyptian chariots were lighter and faster with only two soldiers per chariot, while the invaders had three per chariot, presumably increasing firepower but losing maneuverability. History is replete with examples of speed and maneuverability besting strength and firepower, from the story of David and Goliath to the English defeat of the Spanish Armada. That such also occurred under the command of Ramesses III is not a stretch of the imagination.
The historical military viewpoint of Sennacherib never falls past the operational and flirts with the strategic. That is, instead of giving details of how battles were fought, he records the battles and sieges themselves, and gives details of what happened to those who opposed him and those who supported him. He tells us what happened, as opposed to how it happened. In the excerpt we are presented with from the prism one line reads: “I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city.” This relates the bigger picture of who and what was conquered, but not how the actual conquest was accomplished. Battle-winning tactics are absent. Did the city fall? Was it sacked? Or did the people turn over the elite class and beg for mercy? We are not told.
From an overall historical standpoint, however, I would judge that the Prism of Sennacherib contains far and away the greater quantity of information. By naming many kings and rulers, as well as the lands over which they were lords, the Prism is a virtually survey of Sennacherib’s world at the time of his conquests, an inventory, if you will, of his empire and how he acquired it. One passage will suffice to illustrate just how crammed the prism is with historical data. “From Menachem, the Shamsimurunite, Tuba’lu the Sidonite, Abdi-lin the Arvadite, Uru-milki the Gublite, Mitinti the Ashodite Budu-ilu the Beth Ammonite, Kammusu-nadbi the Moabite, Malik-rammu the Edomite, kings of Amurru, all of them, numerous presents as their heavy tribute, they brought before me for the fourth time, and kissed my feet.” Not only are we told the names of these kings and the kingdoms they ruled, we are also told that the tribute they paid to Sennacherib was “heavy”, an implication that they are perhaps being punished for some past transgressions. And how many of these minor kings would be known to us now without the Prism of Sennacherib? The rather inventory list feeling to much of the prism is most likely because of Sennacherib’s role as a conqueror, which would also explain the largely propagandistic tone of his inscriptions, whereas Ramesses III was defending the homeland and had less need to convince his subjects of the rightness of his cause, or his prowess in carrying out his mission. Indeed, Sennacherib’s Prism seems to be not only a list of his conquests, but also a dire warning to anyone daring to cross his path that it will cost them dearly, a clear case of propaganda at its most elemental.
We see this most clearly in the case of “Hezekiah the Judahite,” who defied Sennacherib only to see his cities besieged and laid waste, his riches confiscated and hundreds of thousands of his people carried off into bondage, a punishment so great that eventually even Hezekiah bows before Sennacherib’s greatness. At least, this is what the prism tells us happened. Disbelief may, perhaps, creep in because we also see something of a tendency toward overkill, to the point of raising doubts, in the sheer volume of kings and cities who Sennacherib lists among those he vanquished. Did he inflate his success? Maybe, maybe not, but the overall tone of the prism plants the seed of doubt. In the case of Hezekiah, while we see Jerusalem besieged, we do not see it conquered. Why not? We are told that Hezekiah paid massive tribute on bended knee for being presumptuous enough to defy the great Sennacherib, but in a tone that sounds like nothing if not propaganda.
Ramesses III had no need for such strident bombast. Egypt had been endangered and he successfully defended her, as her people would surely have known. His words, therefore, are intended for his legacy and sound factual, as opposed to those of the Assyrian, whose tone sounds defiant, as if daring skeptics to doubt him aloud.
The bias shown by the two inscriptions shows Assyria to have been curiously tolerant in its outlook upon the cultures and cities it conquered. Sennacherib seems to have been content with conquering lands, punishing those who defied him but allowing those in power to remain in power so long as they paid him tribute. There is no implied threat to Sennacherib anywhere on the prism fragment in question, no justification for his actions. This shows a strong bias on his part, and, through him, his society, toward the right of conquest. In sharp contrast is the inscription of Ramesses that builds up the threat offered by the Sea Peoples by listing the various kingdoms and countries they had overcome, then the relative ease with which he crushed them. This Egypto-centric viewpoint makes sense given the period in which it was written, the very apex of Egyptian power in the years just following the reign of Ramses II, as that mighty Pharaoh’s successors harkened back to his legacy to bask in his reflected glory. Ramesses through this inscription assumes that Egypt was the center of world events with other peoples coming to overwhelm her, while the Assyrian bias was their presumed right to conquer whomever they chose.