Cynthia Crofoot Rignanese, Esquire
Thinking Globally, Practicing Locally in Central Florida Since 1990

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How Ancient Legal Systems in Egypt Compare With Ours Today

It is thought that the laws of ancient Egypt were at least partially codified. In fact, we learn from one Greek writer that in the Late Period there were probably eight books that set out the legal code. But nothing remains of these documents, or for that matter, legal codes from other periods. However, we can derive some of the laws of ancient Egypt from funerary texts, as well as court and other documents.

Law and the Legal System in Ancient Egypt

Essentially, we believe that Egyptian law was based on a common sense view of right and wrong, following the codes based on the concept of Ma'at. Ma'at represented truth, order, balance and justice in the universe. This concept allowed that everyone, with the exception of slaves, should be viewed as equals under the law, regardless of wealth or social position. However, when punishment was carried out, often the entire family of the guilty suffered as well. For example, when individuals were sentenced to exile, their children were automatically outlawed along with them. If a relative deserted from military service, or defaulted on the labor demands of the state, the entire family might be imprisoned.

Law and the Legal System in Ancient Egypt

A gold Ma'at pendant which is currently in the British Museum was probably more or less an official badge of legal officials. Some statues of high officials from the Late Period are shown wearing such a pendant. During Egypt’s period of Greek occupation, Greek law existed alongside Egyptian law, but laws usually favored the Greeks. When the Romans took control of Egypt, the Roman legal system which existed throughout the Roman empire was imposed in Egypt. However, prior to the Greek period, ultimately it was the king as a living god who was the supreme judge and lawmaker. Of course much of this power was delegated to others. The legal and administrative systems seem not to have been well defined, and so at times anyone in an authoritative position may have made legal judgments. We know that the king's viziers often acted as judges, and theoretically, anyone with a legal problem could bring a case before a vizier, though arranging such an audience with busy, important government officials may have at times been difficult. But more specifically, we believe that the title, Overseer of the Six Great Mansions, refers to our modern equivalent of a magistrate. Mansions probably refers to the main law court in Thebes, though we believe there were other major courts in Egypt. Minor cases were tried by a local council of elders and each town or village had its own local kenet in charge of legal proceedings. Such cases usually involved minor problems, such as default on loans. Still, the most important matters were probably reported to the king who would then decide the case and the proper justice.

An interesting variation was that sometimes judgements were made by divine oracles rather than by human officials. For example, in Deir el-Medina the deified founder of the village was often asked to decide cases. While it is impossible to know exactly how this worked, we seems that a document was made for both sides of the case, and put on either side of a street. Whichever side the god's image inclined towards was rendered the winner. Also, specifically during the 21st Dynasty (1069-945 BC), law was given though the oracle of Amun. Documentation on prior cases were recorded and retained, and like our own modern legal systems, these court documents were used as precedent for current cases. Some of these documents remain, and are some of our best evidence of how the ancient Egyptian legal system functioned.

Criminal Law

An example of such documentation is the record of the famous trial of the tomb robbers, recorded on the Leopold II - Amherst Papyrus. This document, now in the British Museum, records the robbery of tombs during the reigns of Ramesses IX and Ramesses XI. The thief Amenpanufer confesses before Ramesses IX that "We went to rob tombs in accordance with our regular habit, and found the pyramid tomb of King Sekhemreshedtawdy....". While the papyrus documents the thief's guilt, it does not provide the actual punishment. We also have the Salt Papyrus, which is a petition of the workman Amennakhte denouncing the crimes of the foreman Paneb, another papyrus that documents tomb robbery. Tomb robbery was considered to be one of the most heinous crimes.

Of course, there are any number of other documented legal proceedings. From these, we know of the punishment in criminal proceedings. For example, from court documents at Deir el-Medina, we know that punishment for stolen or embezzled goods might be as simple as the return of the goods with a fine of twice their value. Simple corporal punishment could involve a hundred strokes of the cane and in more serious cases, 5 bleeding cuts added, or brands as a sign of permanent dishonor. The Pharaoh himself might very well decide the most important criminal cases, or at other times he might appoint a special commission with full authority to pass judgement. Depending on the severity of the case, being exiled to Nubia or the Western Oasis, or sent to to labor in the distant mines or quarries was not uncommon. Some crimes were punished with mutilation consisting of cutting off a hand, tongue, nose or ears. In extreme cases, capital punishment was inflicted by implement on a stake, burning alive, drowning or decapitation. Because the guilty had violated Ma'at, it was also assumed the individual would suffer failure, poverty, sickness, blindness or deafness, with the final settlement awaiting in the Court of the Dead. It should be noted that, while ancient Egyptian punishment is often seen as barbaric, there was some support of basic human rights. For example the pharaoh Bocchoris suppressed imprisonment for debt.

[Source: Tour-Egypt]

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Cynthia Rignanese