Hubris: Horemheb’s downfall

Posted on June 17, 2010


Everybody knows the story of Tutankhamun, the boy king who ruled as Pharoah of Egypt for ten years from 1333-1323BC. What isn’t known is the story of one of his military advisors, Horemheb, who rose from being a common-born man to the young pharoah’s right-hand man – and eventually became pharoah himself.

When the boy king died, he was replaced by his septuagenarian relative Ay, who married King Tut’s wife (and his own granddaughter) Ankhesenamun. Ay had been another of the boy king’s close advisors: he was given the title of vizier, or the equivalent of the modern day Prime Minister. While Tutankhamun ruled from the throne, Ay oversaw the day-to-day running of Egypt, while Horemheb became the ruler of the armed forces amassing in Egypt as they sought to expand and consolidate their standing. What followed the death of King Tut was a power struggle between these two men to become the next pharoah following Tutankhamun.

Horemheb had the support of the army, while Ay was seen as the natural progressor by the political classes. For his own choice as successor, Tutkanhamun had anointed Horemheb with the title of idnw, giving him the presumptive right to take the throne upon the Pharoah’s death. Ay won out by his polticial maneouvering and shotgun marriage, and moved quickly to return Egypt to a conservative, monotheistic, relgious ideology, while also ensuring that the door was firmly closed on any delusions of power that Horemheb would still hold by giving a younger pretender, Nakhtmin, the title of Crown Prince of Egypt. Horemheb, having been cheated out of becoming the Pharoah once already, was now seemingly closed out of the next succession too, but kept in thrall by Ay as the leader of his army.

Ay’s reign as Pharoah lasted even less than Tutankhamun’s – a paltry four years, when he died of old age. Horemheb came to power after another struggle (this time against Nakhtmin) and began to let his overteeming pride get the better of him.

Horemheb took out his anger at being overlooked after Tutankhamun’s death by vandalising Ay’s tomb, and desecrating monuments to the two preceeding pharoahs. Ostensibly, he said he was taking action against the excesses of the previous rulers, and ensuring that such proclivites would never happen again, but in reality he was doing the same thing they had, but much worse.

Think of Horemheb as an Egyptian Stalin or Hitler, intensely focussed on the cult of the personality. He appointed supportive subordinates to high-ranking priesthoods, ensuring the support of the army and of organised religion. He built a welter of monuments and temples (many to legitimise his standing as Pharoah) and it was in the two most important monuments to an Egyptian ruler that his hubris really shines through.

All Egyptian rulers would begin planning their tombs not long after they came to power. In such a society as the Egyptians’, the place you would remain when mummified was of huge importance to gain access to the afterlife. Horemheb, when he became Pharoah, already had one tomb being built for him at Saqqara near Memphis – but it was a layman’s tomb, ill-fitting for a king (especially one with such self-assurance as Horemheb). So he began work on his Pharoah’s tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings, at a site we know now archaelogically as KV57.

Work on KV57 began not long after Horemheb became ruler in 1319BC. By the time of Horemheb’s death 27 years later, it still was not finished.

The plans for the tomb were so grand, the detail so exquisite in an attempt by Horemheb to cement his place in history as one of the great pharoahs, that it ended up half-painted and ramshackled.

Horemheb had wanted his walls to be crafted in relief, rather than just painted onto flat stone. He did away with the traditional floorplans of tombs; with the traditional methods. He wanted everything to be grander than ever before, and in doing so ensured he would be remembered forevermore as the man who reached too far in his attempts to solidify his place as ruler of Egypt. Hubris, then, was Horemheb’s downfall.

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