(W)Archives: Beating the Spies


The first battle in human history of which we have a tactical account is the Battle of Kadesh, which took place in 1274 B.C.E., near the modern Syrian–Lebanese border. It pitted the ancient Egyptians under Ramesses II against the Hittites under Muwatalli II and may have been the largest chariot battle of all time. Afterwards, both sides plausibly claimed victory. However, it might have come out quite differently. Ramesses’ intelligence staff (for lack of a better term) did not do its work and as a result the pharaoh almost led his army into an ambush. The Battle of Kadesh has a certain grim resonance today because the Egyptians were saved from disaster only because they abused two Hittite prisoners.

We know of this battle from several sources, both Egyptian and Hittite. Today, however, we will focus on the Egyptian ones, available in translation on the internet. The Egyptian accounts include two inscriptions: a relatively short piece known as “The Bulletin” (and elsewhere called “The Official Record”), much of which is about the run up to the battle, and a longer “Poem of Pentaur” which gives an extended account of the battle. There are also images of the battle carved in Egyptian temples that add important details to the story.

The story in outline as told in the Bulletin is that Ramesses led his forces north to make contact with the Hittites, whom they called the “Khatti” (or other close variants). As he approached Kadesh two alleged defectors from the Hittite ranks came to him and offered their allegiance. They said that Muwatalli’s army was far away. What the Egyptians did not yet know was that these were agents of Muwatalli sent to convey disinformation and lull the Egyptians into complacency. Believing there were no threats nearby, Ramesses’ force continued to move northward without taking any particular security precautions.

Before long, however, Ramesses’ army captured two spies. This much the Bulletin tells us. What happened next we know only from a carving known as “Beating the Spies.” (Another version.) Under torture, these spies confessed that the Hittite army was nearby and ready to fall upon the unsuspecting Egyptians. Ramesses barely had time to begin to prepare before the Hittites attacked. The Poem of Pentaur then gives an extended account of the battle, making much of the fact that at one point Ramesses found himself alone and surrounded but was able to fight his way out because of his god-like powers.

As Beating the Spies shows us, torture for intelligence purposes is about as old as warfare itself. This may not be a good sign for those who would like to see its elimination. However, there has been some change over the millennia. These days, when governments torture detainees, they typically don’t want to admit it (although whispered rumors of the tactic’s use can of course serve a regime’s purposes) and the deed is usually done in secret, far away from outside witnesses. Ramesses, however, carved the scene on temples to be admired by the masses. At least eight temples in ancient Egypt had the story of the Battle of Kadesh carved into them in pictorial form and the Beating of the Spies has survived in three of them. So while torture’s long history does not bode well for its total elimination from warfare, maybe there is some silver lining in our evidently evolving attitudes, however faint it might be.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.