Is the Film Exodus: Gods and Kings Historically Accurate?
The 2014 film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale in the lead role as Moses, is a fictional take on some historical events in Late Bronze Age/New Kingdom Egypt, combined with a loose retelling of the biblical book of Exodus. The epic begins with the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (ruled ca. 1294-1279 BC) and ends with Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. In between, there is plenty of action, which includes large-scale battles, biblical plagues, slaves being whipped, temples being built, and romances taking place. In more than two hours, the big budget film seemingly has something for everyone, but how historically accurate is it? A review of Exodus: Gods and Kings reveal that there are plenty of factual historical elements portrayed, but also a fair amount of fiction that often appears factual.
Historical Fact in the Film
The film opens in the year 1300 BC, late in the reign of Seti I (played by John Turturro), just before his son Ramesses II (ruled ca. 1279-1213 BC) (played by Joel Edgerton) succeeded him. It accurately portrays Nineteenth Dynasty Egypt as a busy place with plenty of building projects happening. The films two primary characters, Moses and Ramesses II, are sent to Kadesh in the Levant to halt the retreat of the Hittite Empire, about 120 miles south of the modern day city of Aleppo, Syria. The film accurately shows that the Egyptians divided their forces into four divisions named for the most important gods of the New Kingdom – Re, Ptah, Seth, and Amun – and that Ramesses and his division were surrounded by the Hittites when they charged ahead. Although the Egyptians rarely recorded battlefield losses or other negative historical occurrences, once Ramesses became king he had numerous accounts of the Battle of Kadesh written on papyri scrolls and inscribed on the walls of temples throughout Egypt. Interestingly, in one passage he admits to having been surrounded by the Hittites at one point in the battle:
“I call to you, my father Amun, I am among a host of strangers; All countries are arrayed against me, My numerous troops have deserted me, Not one of my chariotry looks for me; I keep shouting for them, But none of them heeds my call. I know Amun helps me more than a million troops.” 
Ramesses was rescued by Moses in the movie, but in the historical Battle of Kadesh, it was a contingent of Egypt’s Canaanite allies who saved him. The film does not really show the outcome, but it is generally considered to have been a stalemate with the Hittites and Egyptians later entering into a permanent peace treaty. 
In contrast to the restrained, logical, and empathetic Moses, Ramesses was depicted as an egomaniacal ruler obsessed with his legacy, which he preserved through the erection of countless monuments. Although it is nearly impossible to gauge a person’s personality, especially someone who lived as long ago as Ramesses II, there is plenty of evidence to support this idea. Ramesses II built more mortuary temples – temples where the deceased and sometimes living king was worshipped – then any other Egyptian king. Ramesses II was even responsible for building entirely new cities in the Delta region during his rule, which included Per-Ramesses and Per-Atum – the cities of “Ramesses” and “Pithom” in Exodus respectively. 
Some modern scholars believe these building projects were a bit excessive and others point to the number of “usurpations” he did of previous king’s monuments. A monument usurpation was when a king would “erase” the previous king’s name on a monument and replace it with his own. Although Ramesses II did, in fact, usurp plenty of his predecessors’ monuments,  it was actually a common practice and that fact that Ramesses lived so long should be considered when one discusses the number of monuments he built and usurped. Sure, Ramesses II may have had an ego, but it was probably not any bigger than that of any other king during the period.
Although Ramesses was portrayed as obsessed with his own image in the film, he was also shown as a loving father and husband, which evidence suggest was true to a certain extent. It is known that Ramesses II had seven “Great Royal Wives” and many more concubines, several of which were foreign. His favorite wife, though, appears to have been Nefertari, who was his wife in the movie. Seti I probably chose Nefertari for his son, but all indications are that Ramesses truly loved her. She may have traveled with him to the Battle of Kadesh and she also journeyed with him after death. At Ramesses II’s mortuary temple at Abu Simbel, the pharaoh had an accompanying temple built for Nefertari, which are marked by colossal statues of both the king and queen. After Nefertari died, Ramesses had her interred in the Valley of the Queens, which is next to the more famous Valley of the Kings, in what is artistically one of the best tombs from the period.  Therefore, the primary source evidence clearly shows that Ramesses II had a deep affection for Nefertari, his favorite queen.
Ramesses is also shown as a loving father, which again is difficult to gauge for sure, but there is evidence that he was at least proud of his children, or his ability to produce them. It is known that Ramesses II fathered at least fifty male and fifty female children, many of whom are depicted and named in reliefs on the walls of the Abu Simbel Temple. The enduring king would outlive most of his children, but two were significant – Khaemweset and Merenptah, whom he both had with Queen Isetnefret. Khaemweset was a high-priest of Ptah and an early scientist, which may have been the inspiration for the character in the film who tried to explain the plagues in a logical manner. Khaemweset almost outlived his father and would have become king, but instead, that went to his brother Merenptah (ruled ca. 1213-1203 BC), who eventually succeeded Ramesses II as king of Egypt. 
Since the film concerns the biblical Exodus, it had to tackle the difficult subject of the biblical plagues. The film showed the plagues fairly accurately according to the Bible, but the question here is, how much of that was historically accurate, or even possible? The plagues were related in Exodus as follows: first the Nile turned to blood (Exod. 7:14-24); then swarms of frogs inundated the land (Exod. 7:25-8:11); afterward a lice infestation infected the people (Exod. 8:20-32); the livestock were plagued with disease (Exod. 9:1-7); the Egyptians were inflicted with boils and lesions (Exod. 9:8-12); hail destroyed much of the crops (Exod. 9:13-35); locusts destroyed what was left (Exod. 10:1-20); darkness enveloped the land (Exod. 10:21-23); and finally the firstborn of all the Egyptians died (Exod. 11:4-7).
Of course, this all seems quite incredible, but there are logical explanations that the film attempted to employ. In the film, it all began with a swarm of crocodiles attacking river travelers, which caused the Nile to fill with blood ultimately creating the other catastrophes. During the 1950s, biblical scholar Greta Hort examined each plague separately, assigning logical explanations to each based on history, anthropology, geography, and biology. More recently, Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen updated Hort’s work. The Hort/Kitchen theory asserts that the blood was caused by oxygen fluctuations in the Nile River, not a crocodile infestation, which killed much of the fish. The frogs then left the river, dying and bringing forth the lice. The excessive water brought more insects that in turn infected the livestock with anthrax. The locusts then arrived from the southeast, as they often did. The darkness was the result of seasonal winds in March or April. The children would have been the most susceptible, but the perfect storm of environmental problems would have left people of all ages dead in its wake. All of it began in July or August during the annual inundation of the Nile River and ended about nine months later. 
Historical Fiction in the Film
As historically accurate the depiction of the Battle of Kadesh was in Exodus: Gods and Kings, there were several aspects of it that were also inaccurate. The style of sword that the Egyptians used during the battle and that Moses wielded throughout the film are not indicative of the Late Bronze Age. Before the New Kingdom, the Egyptians imported the sickle sword, which they referred to as a khepesh sword, from the Levant. The sickle sword became the standard sword used by the Egyptians throughout the New Kingdom and numerous pictorial reliefs from Egypt show the Egyptian army wielding them at Kadesh. 
The battle scene accurately depicted the use of chariot corps by both the Hittite and Egyptian armies, but erroneously depicted cavalry attacks. Cavalry was not fully developed until the Iron Age by the Assyrians for a number of reasons, the most important being that horses were too small in the Bronze Age. Horses were sometimes ridden for reconnaissance or to deliver messages, but they were only utilized with chariots in battle during the Bronze Age. 
The film’s depiction of slavery in New Kingdom Egypt is also somewhat complex and problematic. There were a number of “Asiatics” as the Egyptians called them (people from the Levant, such as the Hebrews) living in Egypt during the New Kingdom, especially in the Delta, but it is difficult to call all of them slaves. Many were prisoners of war, some were dissidents and refugees, while others were merchants, and some were in fact slaves.  With that said, the form of slavery as it was depicted in the movie was more like “chattel” slavery that was common in the early modern Atlantic world. The Egyptians never practiced chattel slavery and Egyptians could be slaves as well as other non-Egyptian ethnicities. 
There were also a number of smaller historical inaccuracies in the film. In terms of architecture, the film captured the general look of ancient Egypt, but mixed periods. It depicted pyramids being built, but the Egyptians had ceased building pyramids in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2055-1650 BC), hundreds of years before the events in the film. It also showed Seti I being buried at the Abu Simbel Temple, which was, as mentioned earlier, a mortuary temple of Ramesses II. Seti I, like most of the kings of the New Kingdom, was interred in the Valley of the Kings.
Finally, the film depicts Moses leading a guerilla uprising against the Egyptians at one point. This scene was neither biblically nor historically accurate. If anything, it appears that the film’s writers and directors got the idea from later history, possibly the Maccabean Rebellion of the second century BC. In that rebellion, a faction of Jews in Judea successfully rebelled against Greek Seleucid rule. The scene may also have been inspired by the Zealot Rebellion of the first century AD, which was also in Judea but directed against the Romans.
The 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings is a new telling of the biblical Exodus story for the silver screen. It has plenty of action, great sets and CGI, and some decent acting. In terms of its historical accuracy, the film gets many of the bigger aspects of ancient Egyptian and Late Bronze Age history correct but gets many details wrong. With that said, it is a movie worth checking out if you are interested in the history of the ancient world.
Related DailyHistory.org Articles
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2, The New Kingdom. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), pgs. 57-65
- Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. London: Routledge, 2010), p. 207
- Haeny, Gerhard. “New Kingdom ‘Mortuary Temples’ and ‘Mansions of Millions of Years.’” In Temples of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Byron E. Shaffer. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), pgs. 115-119
- Shaw, Ian, and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (London: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 240
- James, T.G.H. Ramesses II. (New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 2002), pgs. 220-30
- James, pgs. 245-54
- Kitchen, Kenneth A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 251
- Spalinger, Anthony. War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom. (London: Blackwell, 2005). pgs. 17; 198-201
- Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 120 BC. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1993), p. 251
- Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 221
- Shaw and Nicholson, p. 272