The Three Brothers

Egyptian traditions recorded by Manetho and preserved by Josephus contain some intriguing facts about Sethos and his contemporaries. The heroes of the story are Sethosis and his two brothers Ramesses and Harmais. Sethosis was the king of Egypt. His name is like that of king Sethos who, according to Herodotus, went to war against Sennacherib. The text, familiar to all who read Josephus, is as follows:

The last-named king [Sethosis], who possessed an army of cavalry and a strong fleet, made his brother Harmais viceroy of Egypt and coferred upon him all the royal prerogatives, except that he enjoined upon him not to wear the diadem [and] not to wrong the queen . . . He then departed on a campaign against Cyprus and Phoenicia, and later against the Assyrians and the Medes . . . meanwhile, sometime after his departure, Harmais, whom he had left in Egypt, unscrupulously defied all his brother’s injunctions. He violated the queen . . . put on a diadem, and rose in revolt against his brother. . . . Sethosis instantly returned to Pelusium and recovered his kingdom.(1)

This is the opening of the story as Josephus gleaned it from Manetho. Manetho, in his Sethosis, amalgamated the Sethos mentioned by Herodotus who went to war against the Assyrians under Sennacherib, and Seti the Great, who two generations later fought against the Scythians, Babylonians, and Medes as ally of Assyria, the subject of a later chapter of this volume. Harmais is Haremhab of the monuments; his being a brother of the king probably reflects the true situation. Like Sethos, he was educated to be a priest.

The work of Josephus Flavius which contains the above-quoted passage, Contra Apionem ("Against Apion” ), a polemical work of the first-century Jewish historian, was copied repeatedly by hand; the earliest version that reached us dates from the eleventh century and is called the “Laurentinian” manuscript, so named for the monastery of St. Laurence where it was preserved; other extant versions are but copies of the Laurentinian manuscript. In that earliest extant manuscript of the work, where the story of the two brothers Sethos and Harmais starts, there is an interpolation in the form of a marginal note, worded as follows: “In another copy was found this reading: ‘After him(2) Sethosis and Ramesses, two brothers. The former [Sethosis] . . . slew Ramesses and appointed Harmais, another of his brothers, viceroy of Egypt.’”

In Egypt, since ancient times, the royal succession was supposed to follow the female line—an heir to the throne usually legitimized his claim by marrying a sister of his. The exhortation by Sethosis when he left for the front, made to his brother Harmais, not to wrong the queen and not to wear the diadem, we understand now is but one exhortation. Taking over the supreme power in the country was conditional on “violating” the queen, or marrying her while she was still the wife of another.


  1. Josephus, Contra Apionem, transl. by Thackeray, pp. 201ff; cf. Diodorus Siculus I. 28. 2; 97. 2.

  2. An unidentified king named Amenophis.