The Ancient Roots of Character Assassination

By Martijn Icks

When did character assassination originate? The question is impossible to answer. We can safely bet that the art of defamation is as old as human civilization itself, if not actually older. Even in prehistoric times, it’s all too easy to imagine some ambitious caveman spreading nasty tales about a rival for a leadership position or a desirable mate, trying to turn the whole tribe against his competitor.

History, however, is about recorded events, and some of the earliest attestations of character assassination come from ancient Egypt, one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Tellingly, perhaps, one of the prime examples is a woman: Pharaoh Hatshepsut of the Eighteenth Dynasty, one of the first recorded female rulers in world history.

Hatshepsut, the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II, gained power as the regent of her orphaned nephew, the two-year-old Thutmose III, in or around 1479 BCE. Not content with this influential position, however, she soon claimed the title of Pharaoh outright, reigning successfully for over twenty years.

Although this wasn’t entirely without precedent – there had been two or three female pharaohs before – it was certainly exceptional. In her statues, Hatshepsut often took on an androgynous appearance, wearing the pharaoh’s traditional false beard. Texts sometimes refer to her as a man, at other times as a woman.

Hatshepsut erased
Hatshepsut’s image removed from a wall of the Karnak Temple

After Hatshepsut’s death in 1458 BCE, Thutmose III was finally able to emerge from her shadow and start ruling in his own right. Towards the end of his reign, an assault against his predecessor’s memory was launched: her name was chiseled off inscriptions, her depictions on temple reliefs erased, leaving conspicuous gaps.

It’s possible that Thutmose resented that he had been forced to play second violin to his ambitious aunt for so long, but that begs the question why he waited two decades before he started to attack her memory. Perhaps he was worried that Hatshepsut’s inspiring example would set a precedent for other women to seize power. Alternatively, the culprit may have been Thutmose’s son and co-regent, Amenhotep II, who later claimed many of Hatshepsut’s achievements as his own.

About a century later, another case of memory erasure occurred. This time, the victim was a man: Pharaoh Akhenaten of the Eighteenth Dynasty, who ruled from ca. 1353 to 1336 BCE. Like Hatshepsut, he was a controversial ruler, but for a very different reason: Akhenaten turned his back on traditional Egyptian religion. Instead, he advocated the worship of the hitherto minor solar deity Aten, from whom he took his name.

Akhenaten’s religious reforms did not go over well in a conservative society that treasured tradition and stability above all else. After the pharaoh’s death – he may or may not have been murdered – his successors returned to the worship of the traditional gods.

Sarcophagus Akhenaten
Damaged sarcophagus of (probably) Akhenaten (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

Serious efforts were made to destroy Akhenaten’s images. His sarcophagus was defaced, his name removed from lists of kings. In fact, the assault on the pharaoh’s memory was so successful that he was largely forgotten by history until he was rediscovered by nineteenth-century Egyptologists.

Character assassination, then, certainly had a role to play in the politics of pharaonic Egypt. The fact that it usually occurred posthumously should not surprise us: in an autocratic society, with a ruler claiming superhuman status, openly attacking him (or her!) was tantamount to putting one’s head in the executioner’s block.

We should also take into consideration that the range of media was very limited and to a large extent in the hands of the pharaohs, which allowed them to exercise a high degree of control over their own image. There was as yet no place for the invective speeches and mocking plays that would flourish in Classical Athens and Rome.

Nevertheless, even in the second millennium BCE, culprits were deftly practicing the art of defamation, destroying the images of their targets. Literally, in many cases.

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