Laws, Punishment and courts system in ancient Egypt

Oct 24, 2010

Laws, Punishment and courts system in ancient Egypt

Compared with other ancient civilizations Egyptian law has yielded little evidence of its institutions. It was, however, clearly governed by religious principles: Law was believed to have been handed down to mankind by the gods on the First Occasion (the moment of creation), and the gods were held responsible for establishing and perpetuating the law, which was personified by the goddess Ma’at.

She represented truth, righteousness, and justice and maintained the correct balance and order of the universe. Theoretically the god-king was the sole legislator with power of life and death over his subjects, but in reality his freedom in legal matters, as in other areas, was determined by precedent. As chief official of the judiciary the king was a priest of Ma’at, and the vizier, as the king’s delegate, was head of the courts of justice. Officials of the judiciary were also priests of Ma’at.
Inscriptions in tombs and on stelae and papyri, which provide the earliest extant legal transactions, can be dated to the Old Kingdom.
They indicate that the legal system was well developed by this date and suggest that there must have been a long period of experimentation beforehand. Egyptian law ranks with Sumerian as the world’s oldest surviving legal system, and its complexity and state of development are on a level with ancient Greek and medieval law.

In general there are many transactions that deal with funerary property. Although the king had absolute rights over his subjects and their property, in practice there was private as well as royal law, and property was often dealt with through private legal transactions.
There was no formal law code (such as the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon), and cases were largely decided on precedent. The laws were generally humane (more than those of other ancient societies), and they controlled and regulated an essentially law-abiding society.
Men and women of all classes were treated equally, and there was great emphasis on protection of the family within the society. The punishments were generally severe, and there was a complex system of procedure within the law courts.

Some evidence still exists of legal transactions during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but most information derives from the New Kingdom. Major changes were introduced under the Ptolemies and Romans.
Ownership and transfer of property was the subject of either Crown or private transactions. In ownership cases, the original owner drew up a special document setting out the terms of the transfer, which was then passed to the new owner. This document was witnessed by three persons, and then the papyrus was rolled up and sealed by a high official.
These were usually prepared for houses and other valuable possessions; wills in the modern sense were unknown, but a person could leave a transfer document to pass on, at his death, a valuable item to someone else.

Special arrangements were made to protect the provisioning of the tomb. Because family commitments to bring food offerings to the tomb were often neglected, a legal
arrangement existed which provided an “insurance policy” against this omission. The tomb owner would set up an “eternal property” from a profit-bearing part of his estate.
From this, a selected special priest (ka servant) would receive a perpetual income in exchange for a legal agreement to place offerings at the tomb. When the priest died his heirs would inherit his income and this obligation. Even this arrangement was not entirely satisfactory, however, and the offerings would lapse, so the tomb owner also resorted to magic and provided his tomb with wall scenes and models depicting food in addition to an inscribed menu.

The law courts system

The legal system operated through the law courts, although it was possible to reach private agreements. There were two types of court: the local courts (kenbet) included local dignitaries under a chairman and they dealt with most cases; the High Court sat at the capital under the vizier and tried serious cases, particularly those entailing capital punishment.
The courts admitted and considered all kinds of evidence, which was studied by the judges, but a case did not end with the judgment: It had to be followed by a declaration of submission by the defeated party. Documentary evidence (particularly tax rolls in deciding ownership cases) was often used.

A change that was introduced in Dynasty 19 marked a deterioration in the system. A verdict was now sometimes obtained by means of an oracle. The statue of a god became the judge and its decision was ascertained through ceremonies performed in front of the image.
A list of named suspects would be read out, and the statue was supposed to give a sign at the name of the culprit. The system was clearly open to corruption and abuse.

The Punishments system
Punishments were severe and were intended to deter future offenses. Officials could pursue ruthless interrogation of the suspect in court, beating him until he confessed, and independent witnesses could also receive severe treatment so that their“evidence” would be presented to support the desired outcome of the case. Minor misdemeanors could be punished with 100 strokes, and imprisonment and forced labor in the mines and quarries were also often imposed. If prisoners tried to escape their ears and noses were sometimes amputated before they were sent back to their captors.

The death penalty
The death penalty offered a number of options. Some criminals were left to be devoured alive by crocodiles. As a special favor or indication of high status, some individuals were allowed to commit suicide. Children who killed their parents underwent an ordeal in which pieces of their flesh were cut out with reeds before they were placed on a bed of thorns and burned alive. However, parents who killed their children were not put to death but were instead forced to hold the dead child’s body for three days and nights.

Deserters were also spared death, but they suffered great disgrace (although they could be reinstated to favor if they later performed a courageous deed). The operating principle here was that disgrace could often be worse than death.
Also, a rehabilitated person could be useful again to society whereas an executed criminal could never contribute. Sometimes a whole family might be punished for the actions of one member.

Other punishments included the emasculation of a man who committed rape against a freeborn woman; the amputation of the hands of dishonest officials; and the removal of tongues of those who released military secrets.
If a man committed adultery with a woman’s consent he would receive 1,000 blows, but she might suffer amputation of her nose, or she might be divorced or even burned to death.

How the ancient Egyptian law protects wife and children
Although the lawmakers were men, the system safeguarded the financial position of women and children and attempted to protect and promote the family. Property was invested in women. On marriage a woman retained her own property, and under the terms of the marriage contract the husband sometimes transferred the whole of his property to his wife to hold and pass on to their children. This transfer of property was probably more theoretical than actual, and in most cases the man would have retained the right to administer and use his own property, at least until divorce.

Outside the royal family bigamy and polygamy were rare, although some men had serf concubines as well as a wife. Divorce was possible for both men and women; legally, it was easier for a man to divorce his wife, but if he did so he had to pay her compensation and she retained the property she had brought to the marriage.
Archival material that illuminates the Egyptian legal system is rich and varied. It includes papyri fragments from town archives; temple documents that provide details of the trial of men and women implicated in a harem conspiracy to assassinate the king; and well preserved papyri that record the trials of the royal tomb robberies in the Ramesside Period.

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