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“Ancient Egyptian Justice” Alexandre Loktionov (EEG Meeting Talk)

At the beginning of September Alexandre Loktionov visited the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about his work on the Ancient Egyptian justice system. In his introductory remarks he was keen to stress a couple of points – first that he is himself more interested in the Old Kingdom & Middle Kingdom eras, not just the New Kingdom (which receives rather more attention in general). And also that law in Ancient Egypt is not something isolated from the rest of the world, the legal systems of both the Middle East and of sub-Saharan Africa have influences on how the Egyptians practised law.

He started his talk by discussing the history of the study of Ancient Egyptian law. It was first studied by Spiegelberg in the 1890s – which is rather late in the history of Egyptology. It’s not just that it took a while for people to consider Egyptian law as worthy of study, but the language needed to be well understood as law in Egypt is like law everywhere and everywhen else – full of jargon and dense technical language. The first phase of the study of Egyptian law was the translation of the documents. After this the legal institutions were investigated. The current state of the field is to analyse the socio-economic impact of the law, but Loktionov thinks it’s time for the field to move on from this and start to investigate the way that the majority illiterate segment of society experienced law.

So what was justice in Ancient Egypt? Loktionov isn’t sure that even the Ancient Egyptians had a proper answer to this. The concept of Ma’at was clearly important – but what precisely is Ma’at? One answer is that she’s a goddess, but it’s not as simple as that – Ma’at is also a complicated concept of order & truth. There is also the concept of Hp, which appears to be an Ancient Egyptian technical term but it’s difficult to be sure what it means. It may be a code of law, but the Egyptians didn’t appear to go in for codes of law in the same way that (for instance) the Middle Eastern peoples did. Alternatively it may be a custom. However one thing that is clear is that conflict resolution is key to their concept of justice. Loktionov read us an instructional text that talks about impartiality being important for legal officials – which we recognise from our modern perspective. But the text also goes on to talk about how the petitioner wants be heard even more than he or she wants to get what they’re asking for, which doesn’t feel so familiar. Both parties going away happy is the ideal situation, and key to their idea of justice.

One of the difficulties in studying Ancient Egyptian justice, particularly before the New Kingdom, is the paucity of texts that set out what the system is and what the laws are. As I mentioned above the Egyptians didn’t produce codified lists of laws like the Code of Hammurabi etc. One source of information is the titles that people record in their tombs. In the Old Kingdom these title strings can be up to 40-50 titles, and these let you know not just what people were doing but also the ways the jobs link together. During this period tomb autobiographies can also be useful sources – although the evidence they provide is limited. While they may discuss specific trials that a noble wished to have remembered they generally don’t go into much detail. There are also some decrees that have survived, such as the Abydos decree of Neferirkare. This states that if the priests are called for corvee duty then the responsible person will be punished, and tried in the ḥwt-wrt (which from context must be some sort of court).

Throughout the talk Loktionov was showing us translations of actual legal texts from the period he was talking about. His purpose in doing this was partly to demonstrate how dense & how full of jargon they are. There is a suggestion that the justice system was primarily an oral process, and so the texts might just be notes of the key points rather than fully fleshed out records. But it’s still possible to glean information from these texts despite the impenetrability. For instance the phrase “divide the words” is a key phrase that shows up in both legal & religious texts about justice.

Loktionov summed up what we know about the Old Kingdom justice system as follows: There’s little known overall, but it’s clear that organised judging is happening. The institution where this happens is the ḥwt-wrt and priests of Ma’at may be involved in the process.

There are no sources for the First Intermediate Period, so the next period Loktionov considered was the Middle Kingdom. There are a variety of sources for this period – title strings for the nobles are again important, and are shorter than those of the Old Kingdom. Seals have been found with these titles on them, which shows that they are in use rather than just ceremonial. Papyri found at El-Lahun (including some of the oldest wills in the world) also provide evidence, as do stelae and literary texts like the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (which Linda Steynor gave a talk to the EEG about back in 2014 (post).

Loktionov showed us an example of an intact will. The first point to note was that it was dated, which was a new development during this period of Egyptian history. The writer of the will leaves his stuff to his wife, on the condition that she subsequently passes it on to her children by him. This reminded me of some of the translation exercises I’ve done recently on my Akkadian course – where a contract or will specifies that a woman may leave her share of a property to “the one among their sons whom she loves, and not to a stranger”. The Egyptian will also gave instructions about the writer’s tomb, in what Loktionov said was a formulaic fashion – akin to medieval English wills starting by leaving their soul to God. The Egyptian will writer followed his formula with an instruction about who is to be the guardian of his son, and then finishes with a long list of witnesses – 3-7 of them. (Which also reminds me of Akkadian documents.)

So that was an example of a Middle Kingdom legal document at one of the lower levels of society. Loktionov also discussed an example of documentation of Pharaonic interaction with the law – the Semna Stela from Year 8 of the reign of Senwosret III. The subject of the stela is the southern boundary of Egypt with Nubia and it stipulates that no Nubian should be permitted to cross the border unless they are coming to trade in Egypt. And even in those cases the Nubians are only permitted to travel a certain distance into Egypt. Basically it’s Pharaoh micro-managing how the border garrisons are to treat those who wish to cross.

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is also a useful source. It is the story of a peasant who petitions the state for the return of stolen goods. The arguments the peasant makes give us insight into how the legal system was expected to operate – for instance precedent was clearly important. However the text hasn’t yet been studied properly from this perspective, the emphasis is generally on the Tale as a work of literature (which was Steynor’s perspective in her talk in 2014).

Loktionov summed up our knowledge of the Middle Kingdom period as: In general a time of greater specialisation of officials. There were local officials who gave judgement, and formal structures were less noticeable than in the Old Kingdom (no mention of ḥwt-wrt in Middle Kingdom texts, for instance). The Pharaoh can still intervene & issue decrees.

For the New Kingdom period there are many more sources. Title strings (& seals) still provide us with information, these are much shorter than in preceding periods. Excavations at Deir el Medina have provided Egyptologists with a wealth of letters & administrative documents. There are papyri detailing trials. Tomb reliefs also provide information, and of course there are also Pharaonic decrees. It’s not surprising that most work on the legal system of Ancient Egypt focuses on the New Kingdom, given the relative quantity of information available.

The documents from Deir el Medina talk about the Ḳnbt. From context this is a court, and it is a new institution for the New Kingdom era. It seems more informal than the other structures we’ve seen documented, and much more dependent on conflict resolution rather than police action. Loktionov thinks that this is down to a lack of power to enforce their decisions. Trying to force an unwelcome resolution on one party to the dispute would demonstrate that the court had no power, which would then undermine the ability of the court to adjudicate anything. Far better to reach a solution that everyone was at least able to live with.

The Tomb Robbery Papyri illustrate a more formal justice system that ran alongside the informal one. These texts include details on how the confessions were obtained, generally brutally by our standards I think. And they say who the investigators were: people of high rank. So there were two justice systems that co-existed, an informal one & a formal one. They are not entirely separate – Loktionov gave us an example of a local official called Paneb at Deir el Medina who was reported to the Vizier for poor behaviour – thus moving the justice problem from the informal court to a more formal one.

At this point Loktionov had finished his overview of the justice system of Ancient Egypt and what sources our knowledge comes from. After a break for coffee & cake Loktionov resumed his talk by discussing the system that can be drawn out from across the chronological overview.

At the “top” of law in Ancient Egypt was Kingdom Law – this consisted of the Pharaoh’s decrees, and Pharaoh as ultimate judge. Important to this aspect is the symbolic personification of justice: Ma’at. The reliefs that depict Pharaoh offering Ma’at symbolise him dispensing justice, and there is also the idea that Ma’at sustains the king (which was most famously said by Akhenaten). Also involving the Pharaoh are oaths – often sworn in the name of the king and in the names of gods. This meant that if you broke the oath (or the terms of justice or the contract) then you had also committed treason.

Just underneath the Pharaoh was the Vizier. The main source of information that we have about the role of the Vizier are the reliefs in the tomb of Rekhmire. These give the duties of the Vizier & list everything that he should be doing on behalf of his Pharaoh. Clearly it is not entirely literal. He wouldn’t be actually carrying out every investigation himself, he’d delegate that further down the chain of officials but he would be where the reports came to.

There were two sorts of courts that were held in Ancient Egypt. One sort were Extraordinary Courts – these were convened as & when required and did not sit all of the time. They were composed of high officials, and were involved with matters such as tomb robberies & attempts on the life of the king. The other sort of court were Ordinary Courts. These sat on a daily basis & handled matters such as dead donkeys or un-returned jars – the everyday disputes of ordinary people. The Sr (magistrate) was not a profession, he would also have other roles in society. There was also some sort of oracular component to justice, which shows evidence of Mesopotamian legal ideas. It’s not known precisely how it worked – the records are things such as “the god was asked if such&such had stolen a donkey and the god said yes”. But there are no details, perhaps the god’s statue was asked during a procession & the priests carrying it were inspired to answer?

There were a variety of punishments that could be meted out. At the most severe end was death, probably by impalement. There was also mutilation – noses or ears cut off, or severe whipping. On the more benign end of the spectrum was things such as forced labour, or restitution of goods. Loktionov also talked about something called supra-practical punishment, which sounds ridiculous in our modern cultural context but was presumably more efficacious in Ancient Egyptian times. The basic idea is that instead of a punishment literally being applied, it would be symbolically applied via a curse. So instead of someone’s nose actually being cut off, perhaps they would be induced to believe it had been prevented from working by a curse. I wasn’t sure I followed the evidence that Loktionov was talking about for this – it seemed to be heavily based on the idea that if someone continued to flout the law after mutilation then they can’t’ve really been mutilated (as then they’d either be dead or traumatised).

The last two aspects of justice that Loktionov talked about were ones that are hard to study as they were kept secret at the time. The first of these is corruption, which is obviously hidden by the perpetrators. Some evidence comes from texts like that of a prayer for a poor man to be vindicated and not have to pay more bribes to the court. The other subject is torture – there is evidence that there was a role of “torturer” but what he did was not often explicitly referenced.

The very last part of Loktionov’s talk was in essence a separate talk, about his recent research done at the Library of Congress. This is not an institution that springs to mind when thinking of Egyptological resources & Loktionov said he was the first egyptologist to actually work there – but it has a lot of relevant documents that should be studied. This part of the talk was in part a repeat in brief of the first talk as context, and in part ongoing unpublished research so I’m just going to summarise it briefly rather than go through it in detail. In essence he was looking at foreign influences on Ancient Egyptian justice in the 2nd Millennium BCE – a period when Egypt was a very large state (for the time). This meant that the justice system differed across the state with the southern areas showing influences from Nubia, and the northern areas showing influences from the Middle East. He’s been approaching the subject from two perspectives, by looking at the people involved in the justice system (using statistical analysis of title strings) and by looking at the institutions & processes (in part by doing ethnographic studies of informal local courts in modern Egypt & sub-Saharan Africa).

I found this a really interesting talk, and it was fascinating to see how much information could be gleaned from references here & there in impenetrable texts!