Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian law and order: the criminals and their crimes, The police, commissions of inquiry, the law, the judges, the trial, oracles, punishment, pardon

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Law and Order

The Criminals and their Crimes

    Although there were differences in how members of the various social classes were treated and judged [11], neither riches nor nobility raised a person above the law. High treason committed by powerful noblemen and officials was severely dealt with. Judges and tax collectors abused their powers, above all during times of unrest, and scribes sometimes falsified cadastral data; if they were caught, their punishment could be savage.
    As the existence and proper functioning of the state depended on their activities, resisting state officials doing their duty or bribing them had to be suppressed at any cost, as had perjury, false accusations and statements and undue influence on judicial procedure. Misbehaviour had to be punished, honour upheld, peace between neighbours kept, and people's lives and property protected. Not reporting a felony was a crime in itself:
The great criminal, Weren, who was butler.
He was brought in because of his hearing the words from the chief of the chamber, and when he had [withdrawn from] him he concealed them and did not report them. He was placed before the nobles of the court of examination; they found him guilty; they brought his punishment upon him.
    Sacrilege and lese-majesty, twin crimes in a society where the divine and secular were closely interwoven, were especially heinous. They were offenses against what we would see as the worldly institutions of state and king, but in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians rather insults against the gods and the world order they had instituted.
    We know of a few, apparently rare attempts on a king's life [28], but there were also lesser transgressions: The pseudepigraphical Famine Stela threatens the impious with He who spits (on it - i.e. on the stela in the temple) deceitfully shall be given over to punishment. Even if this account is fictitious we may suppose that such actions were prosecuted.
    Robbery, theft and the fencing of stolen goods were criminal offences, particularly the breaking, damaging and looting of tombs: Mummy of a 25th dynasty grave robber who may have been buried alive

Supposedly the mummy of a 25th dynasty grave robber,
who was possibly buried alive

    After collaborating for four years, Amenpenofer, a builder working for Amenhotep, High Priest of Amen-Re Sonter, and seven other builders, woodworkers, farmers and a boatman, decided to break into the pyramid of Sobekmesef. With their metal tools they cut a passage into the pyramid's underground chambers, removed all the obstacles and reached the sarcophagi of the queen and king. They opened the lids and the inner gilded wooden coffins, collected the golden face masks, jewellery, amulets, weighing 160 deben (about 14.5 kg) and burned the remains. They divided the loot into eight parts and were rowed back over the Nile by the boatman.
    Whether he couldn't keep quiet, his sudden wealth was noticed, or they had been observed, Amenpenofer was arrested by the city guards and brought to the office of Peser, prince of the city. He bribed a scribe with his twenty deben of gold and was released without being charged. On his return, his associates agreed to redistributing the remaining 140 deben of gold.
    They continued their raids until they were finally arrested. And they were not the only ones to do so. As the thief remarked

Many sons of this people rob the graves just as we do and are not less guilty than we are.
The robbers returned with the investigating judges to the pyramids they had robbed. They agreed to reveal all the names of the gang to their master, the High Priest of Amen, but when they were brought before him, only three of the eight were left. The judges requested of the High Priest to apprehend the fugitives.
    The mother of Amenpenofer was exiled to Nubia and the builder himself rearrested a few months later and brought to court.

    Not just common people committed tomb robberies. Times were difficult during the late Ramesside period. The administration was in disarray and salaries rarely paid on time, if at all. Social upheaval and civil war brought with them sharp price rises. It is no wonder that scribes and priests took part as well in this "redistribution of wealth".
    One such gang included a priest named Pen-un-heb, and four Holy Fathers of the God, Meri and his son Peisem, Semdi and Pehru. They began by stealing the golden necklace of a statue of Osiremire Sotepenre, which after melting left them with four deben and six kit of gold. The old Meri divided the loot among them.
    Another gang of priests, scribes and herdsmen robbed the House of Gold of Osiremire Sotepenre. The priest Kaw-karui and four of his colleagues occasionally removed some gold with which they bought grain in town. A herdsman after threatening the priests, received a bull they had bought for five kit (about 45 grammes) of gold. A scribe, Seti-mose, who overheard their quarrel, blackmailed them and extorted four and a half kit of gold. [6]

    While the sources are very eloquent when the state and its institutions as incorporations of Maat were the victims of criminal behaviour, much less is known about what happened if the injured party was a private person. Homicides must have been committed, yet written evidence concerning or even literary mention of murder are rare. Paneb, a foreman at Deir el Medina, is described as having killed someone, and the possibly fictional Pediese was attacked and left for dead and members of his family were murdered. But these excesses of violence do not appear to have been prosecuted let alone punished by the state, even though the authorities were informed. It has been suggested that 'private' homicides were dealt with by feuds, [49] though there is even less evidence for that than for the murders themselves.

The Police

For the main article about the police see The ancient Egyptian police

Apprehending a thief     Armed with staffs, policemen guarded public places, at times making use of dogs or, probably more rarely, of trained monkeys.

From a market scene in the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum:
Monkey holding on to the leg of a thief
5th dynasty

Necropoles had their own guards who were supposed to prevent tomb robberies. There were periods of time when they were spectacularly unsuccessful at doing their job.

The investigation of crimes

Beating, here a supervisor beating a worker; The tomb of Menna; Source: Jon Bodsworth

A supervisor beating a worker
Tomb of Menna
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth, excerpt

    The prevention of crime and apprehension of criminals was the duty of local officials and police forces. They opened investigations following complaints by citizens
    To Polemon, epistates of Kerkeosiris, from Tapentos daughter of Horos, of the same village.
    An attack was made upon my dwelling by Arsinoe and her son Phatres, who went off with the contract relating to my house and other business documents. Therefore I am seriously ill, being in want of the necessaries of life and bodily ...
P. Tebtunis 52 , fragmentary [5]
114 BCE
    They collected clues against suspects by interrogating them and their acquaintances, checking public records, organizing reenactments and applying physical coercion, generally in the form of beatings.
    Then, as is still the fact today, most crime was of the petty variety, but in a society where most people lived much closer to the edge of abject poverty, even small thefts might be a serious matter. A memorandum describes such a robbery
perpetrated by the workmen of Nakhu-m-Maut. They went into my house, stole two large loaves and three cakes, spilt my oil, opened my bin containing the corn, stole Northern dehu-corn. They went to the house in the wharf, stole half the killesteis (a kind of acid bread) yesterday [baked], spilt the oil.
In the third month of the Shemu-season, the 12th day, during the crown feast of king Amen-hotep, l.h.s., they went to the granary, stole three great loaves, eight
sabu-cakes of Rohusu berries ..... They drew a bottle of beer which was [cooling] in water, while I was staying in my father's room. My Lord, let whatsoever has been stolen be given back to me.
Egyptian publications of Mariette
G. Maspero, Etudes de mythologie et d'archéologie égyptiennes vol. 3, 1898

    Better connected people or those, whose pleas had been ignored by the local authorities, might petition regional officials or even the king himself
    To King Ptolemy and Queen Cleopatra, his sister, the mother-loving gods, greeting. From Petesouchos son of Petos, Crown cultivator from the village of Oxyrhyncha in the division of Polemon in the Arsinoite nome.
    I live in Kerkeosiris in the said nome, and there belongs to me in the aforesaid village of Oxyrhyncha a house inherited from my father, possessed by him for the period of his lifetime and by myself after his decease up to the present time with no dispute. But Stratonike daughter of Ptolemaios, an inhabitant of Krokodilonpolis in the aforementioned nome, mischievously wishing to practise extortion on me, coming with other persons against the aforesaid house, forces her way in before any judgement has been given and ... in the village about ... the house, coming in and laying claim to it wrongfully. I therefore pray you, mighty gods, if you see fit, to send my petition to Menekrates, archisomatophylax (archbodyguard) and strategos (commander), so that he may order Stratonike not to force her ways into the house, but, if she thinks she has a grievance, to get redress from me in the proper manner. If this is done, I shall have received succour. Farewell.
P. Tebt. 771 [5]
From the middle of the second century BCE
    After an interrogation suspects whose guilt was apparent were either held until trial or ordered by the police to make amends.

Commissions of Inquiry

    The first recorded tomb robberies occurred in the 14th year of the reign of Ramses IX. The governor of the necropolis, the prince of Kher, who had under his command the mejeyiw (Medjay) and a large body guard did nothing to prevent the looting. Peser, prince of the city, wrote a memorandum concerning this scandal to the committee of high officials. Pew-re, prince of Kher, was forced to appoint a commission of inquiry (qnb.t aA.t, a great court), which concluded that not all of Peser's claims were founded; the grave of Amenhotep I which had been reported defiled, was still intact. Other royal tombs, such as Sobekmesef's, had been robbed. In others attempts had been made to break in but failed. The conditions in the graveyard of non-royal persons were much worse. All the tombs had been broken into, the sarcophagi smashed and anything of value stolen. A few suspects were arrested and the protocols of their interrogation by Pew-re sent on to the commission. [7]
    The members of the commission were unhappy with these results, as they exposed their own dereliction of duty, and more important to them than catching the criminals, was getting rid of the whistle-blower, Peser, who threatened to notify the pharaoh himself and have them arrested. They set up a trap by sending him Bekheru, a metal smith, who confessed wrongly to having robbed the Residences of the Rulers. The prince of Kher started an investigation following Peser's accusation of Bekheru, which proved the utter groundlessness of Peser's charges. The commission published its conclusions
We have investigated the places which according to the prince of the town were defiled by the workers of the House of Osiremire-Myamun. We have found them whole, untouched by any hand. We conclude and uphold that all the charges are lies.
    They discharged the workers who belonged to the Chief Prophet of Amen-Re Sonter, one of Peser's main suspects, and charged Peser himself with fraud.

    As the robberies went on unabated another commission was set up by Ramses IX, which consisted of the vizier, the royal majordomo, the treasurer, two canopy carriers, heralds and scribes. They interrogated the herdsman Bukhef, who revealed the names of six accomplices after some talking to. This did not satisfy the commission who had him flogged. When he answered their question as to how they had entered the grave by claiming that it had been broken into previously, he was beaten again until he promised to disclose all. Another thirteen people were mentioned, who were then arrested and interrogated.
    Reliefs show prisoners tied to a stake and being flogged. There were three kinds of beatings used to achieve a confession, (bejena, nejena and menini). It was generally the back that was beaten, but legs and arms were flogged as well. Another means of persuasion was the threat to be exiled to Nubia, having body parts amputated or being tortured on the wood.

    Sometimes investigations did not lead to a proper trial in court, but to liquidation. During the 21st dynasty General Piankh sent an order to his agent Payshuuben:
I've taken note of all matters you wrote about. As for the mention you made of this matter of these two policeman saying, 'They spoke these charges,' join up with Nodjme and the scribe Tjaroy as well and send word and have these two policemen brought to my house and get to the bottom of their charges in short order and kill [them] and throw them [into] the water by night -- but don't let anybody in this land find out about them!
E.F. Wente, Letters from Ancient Egypt

The Law

    Justice, represented by Maat [42], the goddess of the World Order, lay with the gods and was immanent and retributive, both in the here-after [33] as in this world. The pharaohs as living gods were the source and executors of justice [43]. The viziers, substituting the kings as chief justices, wore the title of Priest of Maat, Hm-nTr-MAa.t, as did many other high officials. On the basis of some Late Period statues of high officials wearing necklaces with amulets of Maat .[50] and a passage in Diodorus' Historical Library,.[57] it has been suggested that pendants of the goddess of justice were a kind of a badge of office.[50]
    The administrative tools for achieving justice among humans were the laws and ordinances (hp.w).
Maat; Source: Jon Bodsworth

Tomb of Nefertari
Picture source: Jon Bodsworth

Thou art Re, thy body is his body. There has been no ruler like thee, (for) thou art unique, like the son of Osiris, thou hast achieved the like of his designs Isis [hath not loved] a king since Re, except thee and her [son]; greater is that which thou hast done than that which he did when he ruled after Osiris. The laws of the land proceed according to his position.....
From an eulogy to Ramses II
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Three, § 270
    Amenkhau, a commoner, expressed this principle in less exalted words in his testament, though this may have been based not on a specific pharaonic decree but on customary law, identified with Maat and the will of Pharaoh:
For Pharaoh has said: "Each one should do as he wishes with his property."
    Some of these powers, judicial and even occasionally legislative, the pharaohs delegated to their representatives, their viziers and judges, who exercised them as part of their official administrative functions.

    Apparently, Egyptian law was common law, based on custom and judicial precedent [23]. Enacting new laws or changing old ones was part of the pharaoh's prerogatives [35]. These royal decrees were seemingly often the king's responses to appeals by persons or institutions with grievances.
    The legal codes such as the Demotic Legal Code of Hermopolis West were guidelines rather than law compilations in the modern sense. They were collated by priests and kept in their archives. Statute books, rolls of leather, which were sometimes used for official documents rather than the less enduring papyrus, were seemingly in daily use

As for every act of this official (i.e. Rekhmire), the vizier while hearing in the hall of the vizier, he shall sit upon a chair, with a rug upon the floor, and a dais upon it, a cushion under his back, a cushion under his feet, a ... upon it, and a baton at his hand; the 40 skins [15] shall be open before him.
From the tomb inscriptions of the vizier Rekhmire (18th dynasty)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Three, § 675
In the same inscriptions the vizier was also exhorted to hear every petitioner according to this law which is in his hand.

    Under the Ptolemies a second, Greek legal tradition was introduced and cases were decided according to the language in which they were heard. Women, favoured by Egyptian traditions which gave them more rights and freedom than the restrictive Greek customs, did better under the Demotic than the Greek laws. Ptolemy II integrated a Greek translation of the Jewish Torah into the official code, which was applicable for Jewish subjects.

The Judges

    During the Old Kingdom there were seemingly no professional judges. Cases were tried before tribunals of scribes and priests appointed for the purpose, with high officials - sometimes one or even both of the viziers [1] - presiding. Throughout pharaonic history, the justice system remained part of the executive; and many official positions had executive and judicial aspects.
His majesty appointed me Judge over Hierakonpolis. ... because his heart was more filled with me than with any other of his servants. I listened to matters, being alone with the Chief-judge, the vizier, concerning every secret and [every case] connected with the name of the king, with the royal harem and the 6 great houses.
Autobiography of Weni the Elder, 6th dynasty
Judge Mehu, 5th dynasty;Source: Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Number 304, 1958     The title of judge was of great significance to its holder. In the tomb of Mehu, a fifth dynasty judge, inscriptions describe him as zAb (judge), Priest of Maat, the Goddess of Truth, Eldest One of the Hall and Secretary of the Secret Decisions of the Great Judgment Court.

Judge Mehu
5th dynasty
Source: Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Number 304, 1958

    Judging became a profession [21] and similar to other professions in Egypt, administering the law ran in families. The father was followed by the son unless something extraordinary happened.
The supervisor of the ruler's table, Sebek, deceased.
His son, the judge Nemu.
His son, the judge [Kirdis].
His wife, the king's ornament Yusni.
His wife Nubyiti.
(his) daughter Nubenib.
His brother, the judge Khnummose.
His son, the judge Bebiseneb.
His son, the judge Khnum.
His son, the judge Merikhnum.
His son, the judge Hor.

From the stela of Sebek, Abydos, about 12th Dynasty,
Thomas George Allen: Egyptian Stelae in Field Museum of Natural History, 1936
    Judges, like other officials, could only be impartial if they were not economically dependent on anyone. It was a king's duty to see to it that they did not become corruptible:
Make your magnates great, that they may execute your laws; one who is rich in his house will not be one-sided, for he who does not lack is an owner of property; a poor man does not speak truly, and one who says, "Would that I had," is not straightforward; he is one-sided toward the possessor of rewards.
    The road to some kind of justice was sometimes long and arduous. Bribery or flattery might sway a judge and replace sound legal argumentation. The fictive Tale of the Eloquent Peasant [3] describes how Hunanup, a peasant, brought a complaint against Djehuti-nekht . His case was a bit weak as he had no witnesses, so he sought to ingratiate himself with the judge Meruitensi:
Chief steward, 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, that you may go sailing upon it, then shall not the.........strip away your sail, then your ship shall not remain fast, then shall no misfortune happen to your mast then shall your spars not be broken, then shall you not be stranded---if you run fast aground, the waves shall not break upon you, then you shall not taste the impurities of the river, then you shall not behold the face of fear, 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, the garment of the motherless. Let me place your name in this land higher than all good laws: you guide without avarice, you great one free from meanness, who destroys deceit, who creates truthfulness. Throw the evil to the ground. I will speak hear me. Do justice, O you praised one, whom the praised ones praise. Remove my oppression: behold, I have a heavy weight to carry; behold, I am troubled of soul; examine me, I am in sorrow.
From the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
From: George A. Barton, Archaeology and The Bible
Eight times he repeated his obsequious pleas before judgment was given in his favour or rather
His majesty said, "Pass sentence yourself my beloved son!"
which, as it seems, Hunanup did, helping himself to part of Djehuti-nekht's estate.
    Getting justice was often difficult, and it was rarely cheap. There were attempts to bring relief to those who could barely help themselves, but the expenses seem to have weighed heavily on some:
Amun, lend your ear to the lonely in court,
He is poor, he is not rich;
For the court extorts from him:
"Silver and gold for the clerks,
Clothes for the attendants!"
Might Amun appear as the vizier,
To let the poor go free;
Might the poor appear as the justified,
And want surpass wealth!
P. Anastasi II.8,5-9,1
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Texts, Vol. II, p.111
    The king, or in the ordinary run of life his stand-in, the vizier, was at the top of the judicial hierarchy. There were courts at different levels; the highest were the Six Great Houses with the vizier carrying the title of Chief of the Six Great Houses
.... chief of the six courts of justice, judging the people and the inhabitants, and hearing causes; to whom the great come bowing down, and the whole land, prone upon the belly ....
The commander's tablet, 11th dynasty
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part One, § 445
By the New Kingdom these Six Great Houses whose composition changed but little, had been replaced by new courts whose members changed frequently, and Chief of the Six Courts was little more than an empty title.
    The Tribunal of Thirty, the, was on the one hand a court in the afterworld created by Re,
Then Re spoke to the One Who was in his Time (i.e. the one in charge): "Receive the spear, the inheritance of mankind!"
That was the coming into being of the Court of Thirty by the One Who was in his Time.
pNu (Book of the Dead) [52]
In the Negative Confessions in one papyrus, pNu, the deceased claimed before the Entraildevourer belonging to the Tribunal of the Thirty, that he had not deceived during the land measuring, in another, pMaiherperi, that he had not practised usury with grain.[51]
    It was also a tribunal of some consequence in this world until the end of pharaonic history.[56] Amenemope recommends in his Instructions:
Tell the truth before the high official. so that he will not seize your person. The morning after, when you will approach him, he will agree with all your words. He will mention your testimony [in] the Residence before the tribunal of Thirty, so that it will consider it a second time.
pBM EA 10474, The Instructions of Amenemope (line [20.18]) [53]
    Judges and officials, even the lowliest among them, commanded a great deal of respect from ordinary Egyptians, as it was in their power to decide their fate, be it a beating or the confiscation of their property.
    While many judges tried to act according to moral precepts
Forget not to judge justice. It is an abomination of the god to show partiality. This is the teaching. Therefore, do you accordingly. Look upon him who is known to you like him who is unknown to you; and him who is near the king like him who is far from his house. Behold, a prince who does this, he shall endure here in this place.
The Instructions of Rekhmire
From "The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt" by Joseph Kaster.
and most claimed to have
done what people will praise, what is right in the eyes of the gods. I gave bread to the hungry, I satisfied the possessionless soul.
Mortuary stela of Ptahmose
quite a few, above all during periods of civil unrest and uncertainty, were corrupt [30]. Horemheb saw this clearly:
Know that they will not show mercy and be compassionate on the day they will judge the poor.
    He was aware that the scribes and tax collectors of his day were oppressing the populace, robbing both them and the royal treasury. And when people appealed to the courts, these were often venal and bribed to acquit the guilty and condemn the innocent. Some of Horemheb's strict measures were aimed against these dishonest officials: The noses of convicted judges were to be cut off and they were to be sent to Tharu (Sile) [10].
    Under Ramses III a similar fate befell two officials who had received the king's instructions and two officers who had probably been in charge of the gaol. They had associated with women accused of participating in the Harem Conspiracy making a beer-house, i.e. partying. The butler Pebes could not bear the shame of having nose and ears cut off and committed suicide [16].
    It seems that attempts were made during the reign of Seti to protect not only rich temples but also the poor as the partially extant story of the peasant Menet-hamlekh proves.

    From discoveries made at Deir el Medine we know that there were also workers' or citizens' courts similar to juries, where foremen, artisans, scribes and workers sat in judgment over their peers at least from the New Kingdom onwards. These kenbet (qnbt) generally dealt with minor offenses [18]. In complicated cases where a decision could not be reached, oracles were appealed to.
    The punishments these courts could impose ranged from fines to beatings [36] and, perhaps worst from the standpoint of the offender, to the elimination of his name from the tombs he was working on. He thus lost his hope for eternal life which was dependent on the continued existence of his name. [4]

The Trial

    The differences between the administration of civil and criminal law were significant. In criminal cases, where the state was the prosecutor, there seems to have been an initial presumption of guilt, and trials were conducted accordingly [27]. Crimes against the state, the king, the gods, and against the person, such as murder and bodily harm, were prosecuted by the state, while victims of robbery, theft, and apparently sexual aggression had to bring their cases before the court themselves [40].

Criminal justice


    The Egyptian obsession for keeping records was often useful against criminals. One could not own slaves without registering them with the authorities. The problem for the judge was to discover the source of the money. A resident of Thebes, Ari-Nofer was asked: What do you say about the silver your husband Penhesi brought home? To which she replied: I did not see it. The question How were the slaves bought that were with him? she answered with I did not see the silver with which he paid their price. When he was on the way, they were with him. She explained the source of the silver which Penhesi left with Sobekmesef by saying I acquired it with the barley during the year of the hyaenas, when there was a famine. And no wrong-doing on her part could be proved.


    Beatings, certainly of common criminals, were a tried and proven way for eliciting if not the truth then at least a confession.
    Amenpenofer, a New Kingdom grave robber, was beaten until he admitted to having committed further robberies, among them in the tomb of the Third Prophet of the God with four associates previously unknown to the authorities.

    The threat of a beating or mutilation was sometimes hoped to prevent false witness
The tribunal of judges said to the woman Iry-nofret: 'Take the oath of the Lord with the words: "Should witnesses be brought up against me that any property belonged to the woman Bak-Mut within the silver which I gave for this servant and I concealed it, I shall be (liable) to 100 blows, while I am deprived of her." '
and they took the oath of the Lord as well as the oath of the god, with the words: 'We shall speak truthfully; we shall not speak falsely. Should we speak falsely, the servants shall be taken away from us.'
Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament
Translated by John A. Wilson
ed. by James B. Pritchard
The field laborer Pay-Kharu, son of Pesh-nemeh, was brought. He was examined by beating with the stick and his feet and hands were twisted. He was given the oath by the Ruler on pain of mutilation not to speak falsehood.
The Great Tomb-Robberies of the Twentieth Egyptian Dynasty
Translated by Thomas Eric Peet
    Even witnesses not accused of any wrong-doing were at times beaten. Nesuamon, a priest, and Wenpehti, both sons of accused tomb robbers and at the time of the alleged crimes both children, were examined by beating with a rod and Wenpehti, who was merely a weaver, received a bastinado to his feet and hands [19].


    The confession was the base for a conviction. Circumstantial evidence, witnesses and torture were means for achieving this confession. When the accused despite everything refused to confess, he was sometimes given the opportunity to have a witness speak in his favour, or as happened more rarely, he was released.


    A man called Amenkhau who was accused of having committed robbery in the necropolis steadfastly refused to admit any guilt
I haven't seen anything. Whatever I've seen you have heard from my mouth.
He was found to be not guilty and was released.
    Hori, a standard bearer and seemingly one of the judges at the Harem Conspiracy trials under Ramses III, was tried for having had connections with the accused. He was dismissed; punishment was not executed upon him and remained in office. In the records he continues to be given the epithet great criminal, but this seems merely to have been the equivalent of the modern "the accused" [17].

Civil justice

    Judgments were based on written and oral evidence [18]. Documents were generally composed by official scribes and the names of those who had witnessed the signing were appended. Witnesses gave testimony under oath [37].
    Judges were expected to be impartial, be neither too severe nor too lenient:
Beware of that which is said of the vizier Kheti. It is said that he discriminated against some of the people of his own kin in favor of strangers, for fear lest it should be said of him that he favored his kin dishonestly. When one of them appealed against the judgement which he thought to make him, he persisted in his discrimination. Now that is more than justice.
Regulation laid upon the vizier Rekhmire
    Hopefully they had no preconceived notions and listened to all that petitioners had to say and made the reasons for their judgment known:
Pass not over a petitioner without regarding his speech. If there is a petitioner who shall appeal to you, being one whose speech is not what is said (i.e., who has spoken improperly), dismiss him after having let him hear that on account of which you dismiss him.
Regulation laid upon the vizier Rekhmire
    The professional barrister representing ordinary people by speaking for them was unknown. Certain groups of litigants, widows, orphans and the timid, were consequently considered to deserve special protection and consideration from the courts as they were thought to be incapable of looking properly after their own interests [24]:
I have saved the fearful from the violent.
Regulation laid upon the vizier Rekhmire
(I was) kind to the great and to(?) the little, one who turned his face towards the fearful, when his case was heard and his witnesses appeared and gave evidence.
Harwa, chief of domain under Amenirdis
    Cases should be adjudged swiftly
Make no delay at all in justice, the law of which you know.
Regulation laid upon the vizier Rekhmire
    There was also the (perhaps a bit cynical) acceptance of the fact that justice cannot always be done, but an aggrieved person should have his say (and his moment of glory) at least.
A petitioner desires his saying be regarded rather than the hearing of that on account of which he has come.
Regulation laid upon the vizier Rekhmire
    Ancient Egyptians were quite a quarrelsome lot. Records of cases have been found where every possible aspect of life was disputed. Frequent bones of contention were the rights to land, vital in a rural society, and inheritances were often fought over, as they still are today.
    At times private referees rather than official judges adjudicated in civil disputes. A 4th century prenuptial agreement speaks of three mutually agreed upon men who were to decide in the case of a dispute between the husband and the wife.


    During the New Kingdom the priesthood arrogated to themselves some of the judicial powers belonging to the royal administration. This took the form of oracles with the statue of the god choosing between two alternative papyri, as in the case of a supervisor accused of embezzlement.
O Amon-Re, king of gods], my good lord; it is said that there are no matters which should be investigated in the case of Thutmose, triumphant [38], son of Sudiamon, triumphant, the major-domo
O Amon-Re, king of gods], my good lord; it is said that there are matters which should be investigated in the case of Thutmose, triumphant, son of Sudiamon, triumphant, the major-domo
Karnak pylon inscription
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 672
The two papyri were placed in front of Amen's statue, which twice pointed out one of them, thus acquitting Thutmose, who was reinstated and given further honours. The choice of the god may have been made manifest by the statue recoiling a few steps if the answere was negative, or by advancing if affirmative. Other ways have been proposed based on the word used, hnn, interpreted as "inclining the head".
    Typically the questions - or statements to be approved of - put to oracles were probably even more succinct. Ostraca have been found containing simple questions, many of which were personal rather than part of a judicial inquiry:
Are they true, those things?
Will Seti be appointed priest?
Is it him who has stolen this mat?
Were they stolen by the people of the royal tomb?
Jaroslav Cerny, Questions addressées aux oracles, BIFAO 35 (1935), p.41ff.
    Decisions of one oracle could be appealed against before another. This led Ahmose II, who had been a rebellious lad in his youth to have doubts as to the competence of some gods' oracles at least:
... when finally he (i.e. Ahmose II) became king he did as follows: as many of the gods as had absolved him and pronounced him not to be a thief, to their temples he paid no regard, nor gave anything for the further adornment of them, nor even visited them to offer sacrifice, considering them to be worth nothing and to possess lying Oracles; but as many as had convicted him of being a thief, to these he paid very great regard, considering them to be truly gods, and to present Oracles which did not lie.
    During the Graeco-Roman period the god was generally addressed in a more elaborate way, including a salutation, the question, and a concluding supplication such as "Reveal it to me".
    Unless it was a public holiday on which the god emerged from his temple, access to the oracle was difficult as laymen were not allowed inside the sanctuaries. In the late New Kingdom a petitioner was in a hurry to have an issue decided upon, but encountered obstacles when he tried to get himself heard:
When I was looking for you (the god) to tell you some affairs of mine, you happened to be concealed in your holy of holies, and there was nobody having access to it to send in to you. Now, as I was waiting, I encountered Hori, this scribe of the temple of Usermare-miamon (Ramesses III's mortuary temple), and he said to me, "I have access." So I am sending him in to you...
P. Nevill, 20th dynasty
Translated by E. Wente in E. S. Meltzer ed., Letters from Ancient Egypt, Scholars Press Atlanta, Georgia, 1990, p.219
The petitioner continued complaining that the business of others had been dealt with, but that it seemed to him as if the god were confined in the netherworld for a million years.

Trial by ordeal

    Unlike other nations in the Near East, Egypt appears not to have known trials by ordeal, in which the accused in a criminal trial or the contestants in a civil litigation underwent an ordeal (often held in a river), the winner of which was supposed to be favoured by the gods and therefore in the right. Some have claimed that the contests in the myth of the Contendings of Horus and Seth in which the two gods are pitted against each other in order to decide who should succeed Osiris as ruler over Egypt, point to the possibility of there having existed trials by ordeal in prehistoric times.


Punishment by beating - Source: Excerpt from 'Pharaos Volk' by T.G.H. James

Punishment by beating
Source: T.G.H. James Pharaos Volk

    Just as their gods in the Afterlife [31] were weighing the souls of the dead and meting out eternal justice [26], the Egyptians dealt quite pitilessly with criminals in this life too. Officials who had been remiss in their duties were removed. Teti was nomarch of Coptos and was informed against by the lay priests of Min
An evil thing is about to happen to this temple. Foes have been [stirred up] by, a curse to his name! Teti, son of Minhotep.
Cause him to be deposed from the temple of my father, Min; cause [him to be] cast out of his temple office, from son to son, and heir to heir; [...] upon the earth; take away his bread, his [food], and his joints of meat. His name shall not be remembered in this temple, according as it is done toward one like him.....
From the Coptos Decree (2nd Intermediate Period)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part One, § 777f
Officials who might plead for leniency for Teti were threatened with the impounding of their own belongings. Syrian prisoners tied to a pillory; Source: Louvre Museum

Syrians tied to a pillory
Late Period
Source: © Georges Poncet / Musée du Louvre [20]

    Other crimes were punished with restitution of stolen property, fines, confiscation, imprisonment [14], forced labour, beatings, mutilation, banishment, or death.
List of property stolen by the servant of the charioteer Pakhary.
1 wash-basin of bronze amounting to 20 deben, making a penalty of 40 deben ;
1 vessel of bronze amounting to 6 deben, making a penalty of 18 deben ;
1 spittoon of bronze amounting to 6 deben, making a penalty of 18 deben ;
1 vessel of bronze amounting to 3 1/2 deben, making a penalty of 10 1/2 deben ;
1 vessel of bronze amounting to 1 deben, making a penalty of 3 deben ;
2 garments of fine Upper Egyptian linen of first quality, making a penalty of 6;
2 garments of fine Upper Egyptian linen, making a penalty of 6;
1 shirt of fine Upper Egyptian linen, cast off, making a penalty of 3;
17 hunks of yarn, making a penalty of 51;
1 ... making a penalty of 3.
Restitution of, and Penalty attaching to, Stolen Property in Ramesside Times
Published by Jaroslav Ocernoy, 1937
    The peace treaty between Ramses II and the Hittite king Hattusili III specifically protected extradited persons from some punishments: let no injury be done to his eyes, to his ears, to his mouth, nor to his feet. It is even possible that relatives were at times held responsible for the deeds of an individual; the same treaty forbids any reprisals against family members: Let not his house be injured, nor his wives, nor his children.
    The harsher punishments were only meted out by the vizier or the king himself. In a tale about magic Khufu, who had heard that someone called Djedi knew how to rejoin a severed head
... said, "Let a criminal who is in gaol be brought to me and his sentence be executed!"
Westcar Papyrus
in order to satisfy his curiosity. If Djedi could not rejoin the head, no harm would have been done, as the criminal's sentence had been executed [25].

    In his Great Edict Horemheb laid down some severe penalties in an attempt to curb official corruption. Anybody guilty of preventing the free traffic on the Nile for instance was to have his nose cut off and be exiled to Tharu, called Rhinocolura by the Greeks for this reason, a town in the Sinai desert on the shores of the Mediterranean. The theft of hides was punishable by 100 blows and five open wounds. This was also the penalty for military men guilty of extortion from the common people. Corrupt magistrates were guilty of a great crime of death. [10]
    Seti I tried to prevent officials from requesting illegal corvée work from the staff at his temple at Abydos and confiscating the trading goods from Nubia carried on the Nile. They were to be given 100 lashes, had to return the stolen goods and pay fines worth a hundred times the amount of their theft. Disfigurement, like the cutting off of ears, and enslavement were also imposed.

    The death penalty was imposed for crimes against the state, i.e. the king and the divine order he stood for; the conspirators against Ramses III were consequently dealt with harshly. Some were executed, others–according to the records–were forced to commit suicide, and some were mutilated.
And they set him (Paibekkamen, the major-domo) in the presence of the great officials of the place of examination and they examined his crimes and found that he had committed them. And his crimes took hold of him, and the officials who examined him caused his punishment to cleave to him.
    Executions took the form of impalement, giving on top of the stake, a slow and painful death. [44] It seems that in normal times the pharaoh was informed of death, and possibly also of lesser, sentences, as Ramses III gave specific orders to the court trying the conspirators to execute punishments without referring to him.
    Death sentences were rare in Egypt compared with other ancient societies [39]. For the killing of another person the death penalty was deemed appropriate, but at times it was apparently punished by a lesser sentence. Seemingly no distinction was made between premeditated murder and unpremeditated manslaughter.
Then the High Priest of Amon, Menkheperre triumphant, went to the great god, saying: "As for any person, of whom they shall report before thee, saying, 'A slayer of living people [...] (is he);' thou shalt destroy him, thou shalt slay him." Then the great god nodded exceedingly, exceedingly.
Stela of the Banishment
21st dynasty
Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, part IV §658
    Tax evasion was of serious concern to the authorities as were attempts to dodge the compulsory corvée work,[55] on which the proper flow of the Nile waters and the upkeep of the temples and palaces depended. [8]
It was Amasis too who established the law that every year each one of the Egyptians should declare to the ruler of his district, from what source he got his livelihood, and if any man did not do this or did not make declaration of an honest way of living, he should be punished with death.
Herodotus, Histories II [12]
Project Gutenberg

    Burning, which may have been used to punish the most serious offences such as crimes against state and temple institutions, [45] would have had implications for the eternal life of the criminal. Without a body the deceased could not pass the tests before him and achieve eternal life. Similarly, impalement may have bound ba and shadow of the deceased to the ground of execution, making them unable to follow the body, when it was disposed of [39].

    Sometimes posthumous punishment [32] was meted out as in the case of King Teti's bodyguards who, according to Manetho, assassinated the pharaoh. Grave inscriptions and names were erased, in some representations the noses and feet were destroyed, and Teti's chief armourer was removed from his tomb and replaced by a female bodyguard.
    The loss of his grave might befall a convicted criminal. According to the The Loyalist Instructions while those who were in the king's good graces would be well provided spirits, there would be no tomb for anyone who rebels against His Majesty, and his corpse shall be cast to the waters. In a 5th dynasty relief at Abusir the feet and arms of the bearers of offerings were hacked out, probably to prevent them from carrying sustenance to the deceased.[59]

    Pentawer, the son of Ramses III, who was involved in a harem conspiracy was, according to Judicial Turin Papyrus, forced to take his own life. Scientists think that they have identified his corpse and do not exclude the possibility that he was strangled. His corpse was not mummified but simply wrapped in a goatskin, which would have caused him all sorts of problems in the after life.[58]

    Retribution wasn't harsh - or considered to be so - all the time. According to Herodotus Shabaka's rule was just and the punishments he imposed measured

The Ethiopian was king over Egypt for fifty years, during which he performed deeds as follows:--whenever any man of the Egyptians committed any transgression, he would never put him to death, but he gave sentence upon each man according to the greatness of the wrong-doing, appointing them to work at throwing up an embankment before that city from whence each man came of those who committed wrong.
Herodotus, Histories II [12]
translated by G.C. Macauley
Project Gutenberg


    Not many examples of royal clemency during the early periods of Egyptian history have come down to us, and the little evidence we have is mostly indirect or literary: Sinuhe received a pardon and was allowed to return home from exile. When he reached the Horus Road, a region on the eastern border, he was picked up by a troop of soldiers who took him by ship to Itjtawy. Sinuhe prostrated himself in front of his king, who made a remark about Sinuhe's changed appearance attributing it to his having lived among Asiatics. After songs of praise had been sung invoking the Golden One, Goddess of Joy, the plea was uttered that Sinuhe might be forgiven as he had committed his deed without forethought. Sinuhe left the palace a free man, and lived in the house the king had given him. [9]

    Nebkheperure-Intef, one of the ephemeral Second Intermediate Period kings, vented his wrath against the nomarch Teti accused of plotting against him in his Coptos Decree

    As for any king or any ruler, who shall be merciful to him, he shall not receive the white crown, he shall not wear the red crown, he shall not sit upon the Horus throne of the living, the two patron goddesses shall not be gracious to him as their beloved.
From the Coptos Decree of Nebkheperure-Intef (2nd Intermediate Period)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Two, § 779
He also threatened anybody appealing for mercy for Teti with dire consequences. Given the vindictiveness of this inscription one wonders whether Teti managed to escape with his life. But the verbal virulence may have been caused by the fear that a successor or competitor might be quite likely to pardon the rebel.
    In the early Macedonian-Greek period a certain Psenamunis was sentenced to death and Absenhy writes to Kolanthion and begs him to appeal to the oracle of Amen at Ptolemais on his behalf:
Absenhy (sends) greetings to Kolanthion there before Pshai-hu, the Agathos Daimon (protective deity) of Ptolemais. Leon sends many greetings to you.
Psenamunis, son of Tryphon, is incarcerated in prison. For many days he has been beaten on hands and feet. They say: "Today or tomorrow they will come to kill him." We have not ascertained if he is already dead or if he is still alive.
Perform the cult service and ask a question concerning him before (the oracle of) Amen, as follows: "Will he escape the circumstances he is in? Will they be far from him (i.e. will he be pardoned)?" And ask (furthermore) as follows: "All the adverse circumstances he is in, is it you (i.e. Amen) who has something to reproach him?" Also question him (Amen) in order to find out, as follows: "Will he (Psenamunis) live or die in prison where he is?" Take care to let us know about the oracle's answers concerning him as fast as possible, for his life's breath is in danger.
Cairo JE 95206 [48]
    There may have been a general amnesty on the occasion of the accession to the throne of a pharaoh as the Ptolemaic Instruction of Ankhsheshonq  [29] or a paean to Ramses IV seem to suggest:
Those who hungered are sated and glad
Those who thirsted are filled with drink
Those who were naked are clad in the finest linen
Those who were dirty shine
Those who were in captivity are freed
Those who were in fetters rejoice
After Jan Assman, Ägypten, Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, p.171
though, while Those who fled have returned to their cities are mentioned, there is no reference to those sent into exile.
    Among the measures announced on the Rosetta Stone by Ptolemy V Epiphanes, c.210-180 BCE, was a decree freeing some prisoners
... those who were in prison and those who were under accusation for a long time, he has freed of the charges against them ...
The Rosetta Stone [13]
and towards the end of his reign Ptolemy VIII decreed:
King Ptolemaios and Queen Kleopatra the sister and Queen Kleopatra the wife proclaim an amnesty to all their subjects for errors, crimes, accusations, condemnations and charges of all kinds up to the 9th of Pharmouthi of the 52nd year, except to persons guilty of wilful murder or sacrilege.
P.Tebt.0005, decrees of King Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, 28th April 118 BCE copied by the village scribe of Kerkeosiris., accessed 17th May 2009
    The priesthood, again using the oracle, also gave pardons to offenders. When the statue of Amen was asked whether the banishment to a desert oasis of some convicts should be shortened, it nodded in agreement. By way of the oracle new laws could be enacted, thus banishment was abolished as a punishment under the 21st dynasty:
Then he (i.e. the High Priest of Amen, Menkheperre) went again to the great god, saying: "O my good lord, thou shalt make a great decree in thy name, that no people of the land shall be [banished] to the distant region of the oasis, nor ..... from this day on."
Then the god nodded exceedingly. He spake again, saying: Thou shalt say it shall be made into a decree upon a stela ... in thy [..], abiding and fixed forever.
Stela of the Banishment
21st dynasty
Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, part IV §656


Picture sources:
[  ] Excerpt showing a supervisor beating a worker: Lionel Casson Ancient Egypt
[  ] Judge Mehu: Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Number 304, 1958
[  ] Photograph of the grave robber mummy: Tigertail Virtual Museum.
[  ] Line drawing of beating: T.G.H. James Pharaos Volk
[  ] Syrians tied to pillory: ) Georges Poncet / Musée du Louvre
Thomas George Allen: Egyptian Stelae in Field Museum of Natural History, 1936
Jan Assman, Ägypten, Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur
George A. Barton, Archaeology and The Bible
Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Number 304, 1958
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906
Lionel Casson Ancient Egypt, Time-Life
Herodotus, Histories II, translated by G.C. Macauley
T. G. H. James Pharaos Volk, Artemis 1988
Joseph Kaster, The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt
Ranon Katzoff, The Validity of Prefectural Edicts in Roman Egypt, in Artzi, Pinhas (ed.) Bar-Ilan Studies in History, Bar-Ilan University Press, 1978
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volumes 1 to 3, University of California Press, 1973-80
Gaston Maspero, Etudes de mythologie et d'archéologie égyptiennes vol. 3, 1898
A. G. McDowell, Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs, Oxford University Press 1999, ISBN 0198149980
E. S. Meltzer ed., Letters from Ancient Egypt, Scholars Press Atlanta, Georgia, 1990
Pierre Montet, Haiey yom-yom bemitzrayim (La vie quotidienne en Egypte), Am Hassefer Publishers Ltd. Tel Aviv, 1963
R. Müller-Wollermann, Vergehen und Strafen. Zur Sanktionierung abweichenden Verhaltens im alten Ägypten, Brill 2004
Jaroslav Ocernoy, Restitution of, and Penalty attaching to, Stolen Property in Ramesside Times, 1937
David B. O'Connor, Eric H. Cline, Amenhotep III: Perspectives on His Reign, University of Michigan Press 1998, ISBN 0472088335
Thomas Eric Peet, The Great Tomb-Robberies of the Twentieth Egyptian Dynasty
James B. Pritchard ed. , Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament
Jacob Rabinowitz, Isle of Fire, invisiblebooks 2004
Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 1995
Emily Teeter, John A. Larson (eds), Gold of Praise, University of Chicago 1999
[1] The vizier was the supervisor of the Six Great Houses, the main courts of law. During the reign of Pepi I for instance an official called Mery-Teti held a number of offices:
He of the curtain, judiciary official and vizier , overseer of scribes of the king's documents, overseer of all the king's works, overseer of the six great law-courts, revered with Osiris, lord of Busiris, revered with Anubis who is on his mountain, overseer of the priests of (the pyramid complex) 'The Perfection of Pepi Endures'.
Tomb of Mery-Teti, Saqqara
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site
During the New Kingdom there were times when there were two viziers, see The Vizierate.
[6] The stories of the 20th dynasty criminals are translated from La vie quotidienne en Egypte by Pierre Montet
[8] In the light of this, the Hebrew tradition which claims that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, seems not to be completely without base. Chances are that like many other tribes they sojourned in Egypt, probably on a number of occasions. A semi-nomadic people, they would not willingly have given up a large part of their time to work for a government they did not regard as their own. What was a not much loved but necessary tax to Egyptians, must have looked very much like slavery to people, who were used to moving on when conditions in a place became unfavourable.
[9] The Tale of Sinuhe
[11] There are such differences even in the most advanced democratic societies. There still is no equality before the law. But the ancient Egyptians did not pretend there was.
[12] Herodotus' reports of historic occurrences are just that: reports. He repeats (one hopes faithfully) what he has heard from his Egyptian interlocutors.
[13] The Greek Section of the Rosetta Stone
[14] Little is known about Egyptian gaols. They were frequently just pits or wells deep enough to prevent an escape. At times a room in a temple, often in the gate building, was used: The Semitic loan word Sar, originally referring to a gate, was employed for 'prison'. Fortified places (xnr.t, jtH) also had this connotation.
Feeding people locked up as a punishment was alien to the Egyptian mindset. The only reference to it is in the introduction to the demotic Instruction of Ankhsheshonq dating to the Ptolemaic Period. Debtors were apparently imprisoned at times, possibly to prevent their escape or to force them to pay up, but on the whole the primary purpose of gaols seems to have been to hold prisoners on remand, rather than to incarcerate convicted criminals:
He who has not disproved the charge at his hearing, which takes place [...], then it shall be entered in the criminal docket. He who is in the great prison, not able to disprove the charge of his (i.e. the vizier's) messenger, likewise; ...
From the Regulations Laid upon the Vizier, Rekhmire, 18th dynasty
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 683
The Egyptians probably made their prisons as impregnable as possible, but even then gaol-breaks occurred as is reported in a 21st dynasty letter of which only fragments survive, leaving us in the dark about the circumstances:
... and they escaped from prison (DdH.w)
I. Hafemann ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe nach dem Neuen Reich => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus El-Hibeh => pStrasburg 22 II. (Brieffragment)
In the afterworld too rebels (sbj.w) - i.e. anybody opposing the will of the gods - were apparently imprisoned. The New Kingdom papyrus Neferubenef promises the deceased that nothing like this would happen to him:
You shall not be locked up.
You shall not be guarded (as a prisoner)
You shall not be imprisoned.
You shall not be put in that room in which the rebels are.
(pNeferubenef), Tb 169
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site.
[15] skins : Ssm, translated by Beinlich as "ledernes Gesetzbuch", a statute book made of leather. Lippert on the other hand suggests that the Ssm.w may have been leather whips or rods, symbols for the vizier's authority. (Lippert, Sandra, 2012, "Law (Definitions and Codification)". In Elizabeth Frood, Willeke Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles.
[16] Records of the Harem Conspiracy against Ramses III
Persons upon whom punishment was executed by cutting off their noses and their ears, because of their forsaking the good testimony delivered to them. The women had gone; had arrived at their place of abode, and had there caroused with them and with Peyes. Their crime seized them.
This great criminal, Pebes, formerly butler. This punishment was executed upon him; he was left (alone); he took his own life.
The great criminal, Mai, formerly scribe of the archives.
The great criminal, Teynakhte, formerly officer of the infantry.
The great criminal, Oneney, formerly captain of the police.
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 451ff
[17] J.H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 453
[19] J.H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 551 f.
[21] This did not preclude judges from filling other positions in the administration. No conflicts of interest between their judicial and their administrative functions were recognized.
[23] judicial precedent: According to the inscriptions in Rekhmire's tomb
Lo, what one says of the vizier's chief scribe:
"Scribe of Justice" one says of him.
As to the hall in which you judge.
It has a room full of [written] decisions.
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II, p.23
or in the words of J. H. Breasted
... every act of the vizier, while hearing (cases) in his hall and as for every one who shall ... ... ... ... ... [he shall record] everything concerning which he hears
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 683
    These records, unless they were confidential, could be consulted by officials
As for any writing sent [by the vizier to] any hall (i.e. court), being those which are not confidential, it shall be taken to him together with the documents of the keepers thereof under seal of the sDm.w- officers, and the scribes thereof after them; then he shall open it; then after he has seen it, it shall return to its place, sealed with the seal of the vizier.
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 684
[24] Shoufu Jin, "Der Furchtsame und der Unschuldige: Über zwei sozio-juristische Begriffe aus dem alten Ägypten" in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, October 2003, Vol. 62, No. 4: pp. 268-273
[25] Interestingly, Djedi protested against experimenting with human beings:
"But not to a human being, O king, my lord! Surely, it is not permitted to do such a thing to the noble cattle! (i.e. mankind)"
The Magician Djedi
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I, p.219
[26] The Shabaka Stone defines justice in terms of "deeds that are loved" and "deeds that are hated", rather than referring to transgressions against the divine will:
<Thus justice is done> to him who does what is loved, <and punishment> to him who does what is hated. Thus life is given to the peaceful, death is given to the criminal.
The Shabaka Stone
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I, p.55
[27] In the Instructions for Merikare composed by a member of the scribal class (it is improbable that they were written by the king himself) who was unlikely to have to appear before a judge, the choice of words designating the accused is significant: wretch, and misertable:
The Court that judges the wretch,
You know they are not lenient,
On the day of judging the miserable,
In the hour of doing their task.
The instruction addressed to king Merikare
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I, p. 101
[28] There are hints of conspiracies in the Instruction of Amenemhet, records of proceedings against the accused in the conspiracy against Ramses III in the Judicial Turin Papyrus, Rollin Papyrus and Lee Papyrus.
[29] The introduction to the demotic Instruction of Ankhsheshonq is a tale concerning an assassination attempt against Pharaoh. Ankhsheshonq, the fictional author, had known about the plot but had refused to participate. After their discovery the conspirators were executed and he was sentenced to gaol for failing to inform against the traitors.
He was never forgiven. On special occasions there were seemingly general amnesties, but Ankhsheshonq was excluded:
... there occurred the accession-day of Pharaoh. Pharaoh released everyone who was (in) the prisons at Daphnae except Ankhsheshonq son of Tjainufi.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.163
[30] If mortal judges could not always be relied upon to be impartial, one might at least hope to be judged fairly in the afterworld:
Amen-Re who first was king,
The god of earliest time,
The vizier of the poor.
He does not take bribes from the guilty,
He does not speak to the witness,
He does not look at him who promises,
Amun judges the land with his fingers.
He speaks to the heart,
He judges the guilty,
He assigns him to the East,
The righteous to the West.
P. Anastasi II.6, 5-7
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. II, p.111
Mafdet [31] Mafdet, a mongoose goddess, was protectress of Re during the Old Kingdom, decapitating the sun god's enemies with her razor sharp teeth. In New Kingdom tomb scenes she was shown as executioner in the afterlife. The instrument of execution she was associated with was a pole to which a knife had been tied. It may have been used for executions in early times.
During the weighing of the heart the demon Ammut waited for the outcome; and if the heart of the deceased was found to be too heavy with sin, Ammut would devour it destroying the sinner for eternity.
[32] The stela of Sehetepibre at Abydos carries the following warning
There is no tomb for one hostile to his majesty;
But his body shall be thrown to the waters.
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 748
[33] cf. Judgment of the Dead where every deceased person is judged individually, or the Book of the Dead:
O Yebew-Weret, guardian of the slaughter-site of Ra's Day of Judgment,
today you have said and said again: "The butcher-block of justice is ready - you know what to expect."
Jacob Rabinowitz, Isle of Fire p.156, accessed 5 June 2004
[35] Under the Ptolemies royal edicts, the so-called prostagmata, at times carved in stone, often became permanent law and were cited decades later. This tradition was inherited by the Roman prefects governing the province of Egypt. While in Rome and its other provinces edicts were valid only during the time of office of the magistrate, in Egypt they often continued to serve as judicial authority long after. (Katzoff)
[36] Naguib Kanawati, "Extreme Physical Punishment In Old Kingdom Scenes" in Newsletter No. 93, July 2005 of the Rundle Foundation for Egyptian Archaeology
[38] triumphant: deceased
[39] R. Müller-Wollermann, op.cit., pp.198f.
[40] R. Müller-Wollermann, op.cit., p.293
[42] Explicit reference to Maat is rare. The introduction to a record of a civil case heard at Deir el Medina contains the sentence:
Let the court of the Necropolis act in conformity with the laws of Maat!
McDowell, op.cit., p.166
[43] At the same time, the pharaohs were also subject to the law themselves. (cf. The Demedjibtawy decree)
[44] According to R. Müller-Wollermann, op.cit. p.197, records of real-life executions do not refer to any other mode of putting to death other than impalement.
[45] Burning as punishment appears generally in literary, fictional sources only. But the Libyan pharaoh Osorkon, after putting down a revolt in the Thebaid, had the rebels punished:
Then the prisoners were brought to him at once like a bundle of pinioned ones(?)
Then he struck them down for him (Amun), causing them to be carried
like goats the night of the feast of the Evening Sacrifice [...] of the Going Forth of Sothis.
Everyone was burned with fire in the place of (his) crime.
Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2002, p.314
The effects burning was thought to have, were expressed in a New Kingdom charm which threatens the cursed one with utter destruction:
Neither will you be able to beget, nor will one give birth for you, as you will be killed by fire, which will destroy your ba, so that it cannot roam on earth anymore, so that you cannot wander on the clouds, so that you will not be seen, so that you will not be perceived, because you have been destroyed as your shadow ceases to exist.
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, K. Stegbauer ed., => Projekt "Digital-Heka", Leipzig => Schlangenzauber Neues Reich => Cairo JE 69771 (Statue prophylactique) => Spruch 8 (Rückseite, 18-26)
[48] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, G. Vittmann ed. => Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Briefe => Kairo JE 95206
[49] Baines, "Feuds or vengeance? Rhetoric and social forms" in Teeter & Larson 1999, pp.11-20
[50] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.159
[51] pKairo CG 25095 (pMaiherperi), Tb 125 , line 422 on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pKairo CG 25095 (pMaiherperi) => Tb 125
[52] pLondon BM 10793, Tb 115 (line [24,21]) on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => ppLondon BM 10793 => Tb 115
[53] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 3. Weisheitslehren => Neuägyptische Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre des Amenemope => 1. pBM EA 10474 => Die Lehre des Amenemope
[54] Breasted 1906, Part Four, § 437
[55] There are no records to prove that forced labour was extracted during the Old Kingdom, while for the Middle Kingdom it is known that people tried to get around fulfilling their duties towards the state, for which they were punished harshly. (Ingelore Hafemann, Dienstverflichtung im alten Ägypten während des Alten und Mittleren Reiches, Internet-Beiträge zur Ägyptologie und Sudanarchäologie XII, ISBN 978-1906137113)
[56] In Chapter 75 of his Historical Library Diodorus Siculus who lived in the first century BCE, describes it as having consisted of judges who were the best men and came from the most important Egyptian cities For from Heliopolis and Thebes and Memphis they used to choose ten judges from each.
[57] Siculus mentions the Maat sign worn by the Chief Justice of the Tribunal of Thirty. saying that he regularly wore suspended from his neck by a golden chain a small image made of precious stones, which they called Truth.. Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, Chapter 75
[58] BMJ: "Revisiting the harem conspiracy and death of Ramesses III: anthropological, forensic, radiological, and genetic study" accessed at - USAToday: "Egyptologist: Ramses III assassinated in coup attempt", accessed at on 18th December 2012
[59] Hartwig Altenmüller: "Verstümmelte Opferträger auf einem Relief aus Abusir" in V. G. Callender et al.: Times, Signs and Pyramids. Studies in Honour of Miroslav Verner on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, Prague 2011, p.1-23
- The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant[3] The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, c. 1800 BCE
The Abbott Papyrus[7] The Abbott Papyrus: An investigation into the tomb robberies under Ramses IX
The Great Edict of Horemheb[10] The Great Edict of Horemheb
Records of legal proceedings at Deir el Medine[18] Records of legal proceedings at Deir el Medine
An Old Kingdom judgment: Sobek-hotep vs. Tchau[37] An Old Kingdom judgment: Sobek-hotep vs. Tchau
Trial by oracleTrial by oracle
Stela of the BanishmentStela of the Banishment
Diodorus Siculus on the Egyptian judicial systemDiodorus Siculus on the Egyptian judicial system
Herodotus on Egyptian LawsHerodotus on Egyptian Laws


Index of TopicsIndex of Topics
Main Index and Search PageMain Index and Search Page


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These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these sites


Family Law [2] Family Law
-[4] La administración de la ciudad 1
The Tebtunis Papyri[5] The Contents of the Tebtunis Papyri (Berkeley University website)
-[22] Texts accompanying "The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women: Their Status in Public Life," by William Ward
Law in ancient EgyptLaw in ancient Egypt
Bibliography: Egyptian lawBibliography: Egyptian law

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