Ancient Egyptian history: Social changes in the Late Dynastic Period - the influx of foreigners, the privatization of the land, the nationalization of the temples.
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural chronology Mythology Aspects of Life in Ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian terms Herodotus on the pharaohs Ancient Egyptian texts Apologia and Bibliography
nakhthorheb,26th dynasty
26th dynasty

kneeling official, 26th dynasty
Kneeling official
26th dynasty

Social changes in the Late Dynastic Period

    The influx of foreigners, above all of the Greeks, and the origin and education of the pharaohs combined to change Egyptian life. Psammetic I, and his father Necho I before him, had spent much of his youth in Assyria, where the kings - while very powerful - were never considered to be divine. His attitude towards the kingship was radically different from the Egyptian tradition. The lifestyle of the pharaohs of Sais was much less ostentatious, to the point of being considered frugal by Diodorus [2]. And there was no return to the ancient traditions under the later kings:
    In the early morning, and until the time of the filling of the market he (Amasis) did with a good will the business which was brought before him; but after this he passed the time in drinking and in jesting at his boon-companions, and was frivolous and playful. And his friends being troubled at it admonished him in some such words as these: "O king, thou doest not rightly govern thyself in thus letting thyself descend to behaviour so trifling; for thou oughtest rather to have been sitting throughout the day stately upon a stately throne and administering thy business; and so the Egyptians would have been assured that they were ruled by a great man, and thou wouldest have had a better report: but as it is, thou art acting by no means in a kingly fashion."
    And he answered them thus: "They who have bows stretch them at such time as they wish to use them, and when they have finished using them they loose them again; for if they were stretched tight always they would break, so that the men would not be able to use them when they needed them. So also is the state of man: if he should always be in earnest and not relax himself for sport at the due time, he would either go mad or be struck with stupor before he was aware; and knowing this well, I distribute a portion of the time to each of the two ways of living."
Herodotus, Histories 2.173
Project Gutenberg

    Psammetic strengthened royal power over the former warlords of the delta and the priesthood by abrogating feudal and clerical immunities and privileges. At the same time he endowed Greek communities with land and rights. The land, which had traditionally belonged to the pharaoh, had become, according to Diodorus under Bocchoris (Wahkare, 720-715), to all intents and purposes property of the tenants, who no longer offered their persons as sureties but rather their land or even future crops.
    Diodorus thought that the abolition of debt slavery in Egypt under the kings of Sais had influenced Solon and that Greece owed much to Egyptian laws and customs
Lycurgus also and Plato and Solon, they say, incorporated many Egyptian customs into their own legislation.
Diodorus 1.98
Translated by Oldfather

    Land could be exchanged or sold, as long as the changes were registered by the local administration. As a result of this privatisation a class of landowners, the nemhu [1], formed. From 663 till the Persian invasion more than a century later, the Egyptian homeland was mostly at peace and the civil population, and above all the new bourgeoisie prospered.
In the reign of Amasis it is said that Egypt became more prosperous than at any other time before, both in regard to that which comes to the land from the river and in regard to that which comes from the land to its inhabitants, and that at this time the inhabited towns in it numbered in all twenty thousand.
Herodotus, Histories 2.177
Project Gutenberg
    This wealth was also reflected in the flowering of the arts. The pharaohs and the Wives of the God Amen at Thebes continued the formidable architectural tradition
First in Sais he [Ahmose] built and completed for Athene a temple-gateway which is a great marvel, and he far surpassed herein all who had done the like before
Herodotus, Histories 2
Project Gutenberg
    Not much is left of this activity: sarcophagi, statues, stelas. The remains show remarkable workmanship in hard stone such as diorite and granite, and progress in the working of metals. Bronze statues are plentiful and attest to a steady supply. The style, while being traditional, is more naturalistic than anything seen since the Amarna period.
    The creation, or perhaps rather production, of statuettes, amulets, talismans and other metal objects became widespread, supported by an affluent middle class.
    The pharaohs did not neglect to collect what was due to them, be it taxes or labour.
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. Now Solon the Athenian received from Egypt this law and had it enacted for the Athenians, and they have continued to observe it, since it is a law with which none can find fault.
Herodotus, Histories 2.177
Project Gutenberg
    Ahmose disposed of the goods of the temples as he saw fit (as did the pharaohs of the 30th dynasty and the Ptolemies after them). Just as the military nobles had been neutralized by absorbing many of them into the royal administration, the priests were turned into officials of the monarchy too, when their upkeep and that of their temples became the responsibility of the royal treasury.
    Class barriers had never been very rigid, they became even less so under these pharaohs of feudal and bourgeois origins. The description of the class system by Herodotus is more like that of a modern tourist who would probably notice policemen, shopkeepers, hotel employees, guides and bus drivers, than that of a sociologist
Now of the Egyptians there are seven classes, and of these one class is called that of the priests, and another that of the warriors, while the others are the cowherds, swineherds, shopkeepers, interpreters, and boatmen.
Herodotus, Histories 2.164
Project Gutenberg

[1] nemhu: nmHw, lowly from nmH = to be poor
A king, who lived many generations later (after Menes), Tnephakhtus, the father of the wise Bocchoris, was campaigning in Arabia and he suffered a shortage of food for a whole day, when his supplies ran out in the pathless desert. He had to be satisfied with the simple fare of the common people. But he found its taste to be excellent and he condemned oppulence and cursed the king who had first introduced luxury. He was so deeply happy over the changed food, drink and sleep that he engraved his curse in holy writing in the temple of Zeus at Thebes.
Diodorus Siculus Historical Library, First volume, § 45
After a German translation by Julius Friedrich Wurm

 -26th dynasty
-History Index Page
-Dynasty List
-Main Index and Search Page

Feedback: Please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. Thanks.

May 2003
April 2003