The ancient art of sycophancy

Sycophancy, like most political diseases, is not new. The ancient Egyptians developed it to a fine art and its aura persists to this day.

Entrance of the main temple of Abu Simbel, Egypt, at sunrise.
Entrance of the main temple of Abu Simbel, Egypt, at sunrise. Credit: Jorge Fernández / LightRocket via Getty Images.

Modern-day populists are sometimes compared to the dictators of ‘banana republics’ and traditional ’strong men’ – constantly seeking praise from the crowd, and rewarding them in return. But sycophancy, like most political diseases, is not new. The ancient Egyptians developed it to a fine art, and modern Egyptians have given their forefathers a run for their money.

Sycophancy served multiple functions in the world’s best-documented autocracy. A popular story written in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2066-1650BC), the ‘Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,’ portrayed it as a survival tool. A peasant was robbed en route to market by a wealthy landowner who assumed he could get away with it. When the poor man threatened to go to the authorities, the rich one beat him up, so he approached a magistrate who passed him off to a colleague, who passed him to another, each recording his complaints but doing nothing about them. The peasant’s speeches were prefaced with wheedling adulation:

…My lord, you are greatest of the great, you are guide of all that which is not and which is. When you embark on the sea of truth… the waves shall not break upon you… the shy fish shall come to you, and you shall capture the fat birds. For you are the father of the orphan, the husband of the widow, the brother of the desolate…

After nine exhausting entreaties, the peasant got his goods back and was awarded the land of the man who robbed him. Pharaoh had apparently caught wind of the case and was impressed with the peasant’s turn of phrase.

Impressing pharaohs could be lucrative during the New Kingdom era (c.1549-1069BC). Encompassing both the apex and decline of pharaonic Egypt, it was characterised by ruthless military expansion, and the accumulation of wealth and its expenditure on sumptuous monuments honouring pharaohs. Generals could acquire high court positions without noble lineage, provided their victories inflated palace coffers, and humbly-born men could rise to prominence if sufficiently slavish.  ‘Bend your back before your chief’ runs an ancient Egyptian proverb, and boy, did they ever. ‘I am as a horse pawing the ground,’ wrote a subordinate, ‘my heart awakes by day and my eyes by night, for I desire to serve my master.’  Likewise, the titles accrued to pharaohs dripped with unctuous praise, reflecting both courtly etiquette and religious norms assigning him the role of divine intermediary. Inscriptions on a stela erected under Ramses II (‘the great’) who ruled from c. 1279-1213BC read, in part:

[To] the strong bull… who protects Egypt and subdues the barbarians, the golden Horus: full of years, great in victories … giver of everlasting life … shining daily on his throne amongst men … the beautiful silver hawk, [whose wings] provide shade for mankind, the castle of strength and of victory, who came out terribly from his mother’s womb … Heaven rejoiced at his birth…

Sycophancy was propagandist poetry, composed and voiced in the twin interests of purveying an image of unassailable, divinely-bestowed power, and basking in its reflected glow. Yet the attributes ascribed to Ramses II, a military hero and prolific builder, were recited ad nauseum for much less accomplished pharaohs, suggesting that deference to authority (i.e. respect and fear) had become merely formulaic flattery.

With its capacities to soothe, distract, and manipulate by signalling loyalty, sycophancy became a standard means of dealing with whoever was higher up the ladder, but the higher you climbed, the more widely you had to broadcast. During Hosni Mubarak’s presidency (1981-2011), his birthdays prompted outpourings of media adulation, and buckets of honeyed ink were spilled for the anniversary of his twentieth year in office on October 14, 2001. The words ‘love’ and ‘sacrifice’ peppered paragraphs describing him as ‘a prophet of peace, an angel in the form of a president.’ Ranked alongside the Nile and the Pyramids, Mubarak was part of an ‘exquisite national melody.’  His paternal rapport with his people was celebrated in historic terms: ‘We love to call him Papa Mubarak, because he is the father of us all.’ He was ‘solid as a mountain, because he supports Truth and Justice,’ his ‘eye always as clear as the eye of Horus.’  Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz was alone in politely requesting that Mubarak amend the constitution to allow for multi-party presidential contests. This happened in May 2005, when the only candidate to run against the incumbent was detained both before and after the election, which everyone thought was rigged.

The tighter he squeezed civil rights, the more Mubarak lost his grip, and in February 2011 a popular uprising forced him from office. Next up was Islamist Mohammed Morsi, elected in 2012 and treated to far fewer tributes than Allah, his campaign manager. Within a year, people had enough of religious rule and protested in their millions. On cue, the military removed Morsi, and General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, former director of army intelligence, was cast as the nation’s savior. Poems and songs were duly penned and al-Sisi’s previously unknown face appeared on posters accompanied by a photo-shopped lion, on candy wrappers, t-shirts and coffee mugs.

Men and women alike were drawn to the 59-year old, investing him with every virtue possible, beginning with virility. To celebrate his May 2014 election as president, a popular ‘military’ wedding theme emerged, with grooms dressed as generals, and the president’s portrait ensconced in bridal bouquets. It was but a short step to the nation’s bedrooms, where the latest thing in lingerie was the ‘officer’s uniform,’ a stretchy brief and see-through top with printed epaulets, and a set of plastic handcuffs, all black.  Egyptians have since been laying low, willing to exchange rights for the familiar assurance that ‘stability’ is a prelude to prosperity.

Deference to authority, and its perceived rewards, is a thread connecting the Bronze Age to the present. In Egypt, as elsewhere, it allows patriarchal norms of government to perpetuate.

Nor is Egyptian society alone in following the male-dominated, hierarchical format: one that was born in families, extended to tribes, enshrined in religion, and that persists in modern business and the state.

Compliance in this system is quiet deference. It enables ‘strong men’ to whittle away rights and perpetuate inequity. Sycophancy is a noisier form of deference: a wall of words built to defend power. Both are age-old responses to overweening authority, and proof that in some substantive ways, we’re still stuck in the Bronze Age.


Maria Golia