Kneeling official

Ancient Egypt had a legal code but their were no such things as lawyers. Parties in disputes had to plead their case directly to government authorities, often people close to the pharaoh. The world's largest known will was made in 2026 B.C. on the walls of the tomb of Nek'ure, the son of pharaoh Khafre. It read that Nek'ure would bequeath 14 towns, two estates and other property to his wife, another woman and three children.

Courtrooms were usually a courtyard of a temple and judges consisted of the mayor, members of the council of elders, priests and sometimes the pharaoh himself. A "trial" consisted of accusations made by a plaintiff and a reply by the defendant. According to one record from 1375 B.C., "what [the plaintiff]" said" was followed by "what [the defendant] said."

A common torture technique in ancient Egypt was beating the soles of the feet with a stick. The method is still widely used today. Egyptians also used to smear disobedient slaves with ass’s milk and seclude them until they had been thoroughly bitten by ants, fleas and other insects.

Punishments sometimes carried into the Afterlife. According to one record, Teti, founder of the 6th dynasty around 2300 B.C. was assassinated. His successor lasted only two years before Tet's son Pepy I came to power. Pepy punished the assassins and made sure their names and likenesses were chiseled off of tomb engravings after they were dead. [Source: National Geographic, Geographica, July 2000]

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Law in Ancient Egypt

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen in Germany wrote: “When considering “law” in ancient Egypt, it is necessary to try to distinguish between our modern concepts and ancient aspects of Egyptian law. The word hep is most commonly translated as “law” and was used in the sense of “(single) law” throughout Egyptian history, but it also refers to any other type of binding rule. Hepu and, in Demotic, also hep can refer to the totality of laws and therefore come close to our modern understanding of “law.” Although maat is often translated as “justice,” it covered much more than legal justice, making it difficult to identify the Egyptian equivalent of “law” in its more general sense. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

marriage contract

“It is more difficult to identify the Egyptian equivalent of “law” in its more general meaning; only a comparatively small aspect of maat is concerned with what we would call “legal justice.” 0pw in the plural and, in Demotic, also hp in the singular can be used for the totality of laws and therefore come close to our modern understanding of “law,” but with the reservations made above. The proposition by Kruchten that hp derives from a (not attested) word hp, “leather/papyrus scroll,” and therefore initially meant commands written on papyrus or leather as opposed to those written on stelae (wD, “decree,” “stela”) is not convincing.

“The modern distinction between civil and criminal law is also hard to transfer to ancient Egyptian practice. There was no state prosecution for actions we would consider criminal such as theft or assault, but the injured party had to act as plaintiff. Only crimes against the pharaoh and gods, like conspiracies or theft from royal tombs or temples, were prosecuted by officials. There is no clear evidence for written laws before the Middle Kingdom and only indirect evidence for the period preceding the New Kingdom. The codification under Darius I may have been the first attempt at collecting all earlier laws still valid at that period in one single corpus. This collectionof laws continued to form the basis for Egyptian jurisdiction even during the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.).

“We expect crimes to be prosecuted by the authorities and punished in a way that shows not only the victim but society as a whole was injured by the criminal. In ancient Egypt, however, there was no state prosecution for theft from or assault of private citizens. The injured party had to act as plaintiff, and the punishment was limited towards amendments for the victim (crime and punishment). Only crimes against the pharaoh and gods, such as conspiracies or theft from royal tombs or temples, were prosecuted by officials. A special oath of loyalty (anx n sDfA tryt) bound them to report and investigate suspicious incidents. Since cases of manslaughter and murder against private persons are not well attested, it remains unclear how they were treated, but there are indications that local officials were expected to solve obscure deaths regardless of whether the families of the victims requested it or not .

Laws in the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “There is no evidence for the existence of codified law either in the Old Kingdom (2649–2150 B.C.) or the First Intermediate Period, although Diodorus Siculus attributes the first Egyptian laws to the semi-legendary founder of the Egyptian state, king Mneves. The only sources from which any knowledge about legal norms of that period can be derived are legal documents, which are extremely scarce however. Royal orders (wDw, “decrees”) could also be counted as acts of legislation, although often their purpose was rather specific: those attested from the Old Kingdom concern the appointment of officials, foundations, exemptions from tax and corvée, and protection of temple and funerary domains. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Although no written laws are attested from the Middle Kingdom either, there is indirect evidence for their existence in the Admonitions of Ipuwer, which laments the destruction of the papyrus scrolls of hpw nw xnrt, “the laws of the court/prison-cum-work camp.” Unfortunately, this literary text is not securely dated. An administrative text from the 13th Dynasty mentions several laws about deserters from forced labor, but their content, obviously well known to the officials, is not cited. There are also a few royal decrees from the Middle Kingdom; as in the Old Kingdom they do not contain laws as such but regulate particular circumstances such as offering foundations, protection of sacred areas, or the demotion of a criminal priest.

From the New Kingdom there are finally first direct citations of laws in connection with court proceedings. They are qualified as direct speech of the pharaoh and as “law of pharaoh,” respectively. It is likely that written records of laws were kept at the bureau of the vizier(s), to be consulted when local courts sent in their cases. The forty Ssmw, which, according to the Instruction, are to be laid in front of the vizier during his sessions (actually depicted in the Tomb of Rekhmira), are, however, not leather scrolls containing these laws but most likely leather whips or rods symbolizing the vizier’s punitive authority over the forty administrative regions of Egypt . Some royal decrees of the New Kingdom contain not only decisions and orders for special cases but veritable laws with general import, e.g., the Decree of Horemheb and the Decree of Sety II from Karnak.

“Many details about the legislative process remain unknown: How exactly did the king pass laws? Did he have a staff of advisors who proposed laws or did he decide alone? Did laws remain in effect after the death of the legislating king or did they have to be renewed at the ascension of a new king?”

judgement of the dead in front of Osiris

Law Courts in Ancient Egypt

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen in Germany wrote:“Egyptian law courts originated as councils of officials, which, besides acting as judges, also had other administrative tasks. Accordingly, they were known by the rather unspecific terms DADAt (Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom) or qnbt (Middle Kingdom until the beginning of the Late Period), which simply means “committee.” Their members are usually referred to as srw, “officials,” although more specific designations also occur. From the 26th Dynasty onwards, the members of the courts seem to have been mainly, if not exclusively, priests with a specific juridical education, called wptjw, “judges.” [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“From the New Kingdom onwards, a division into smaller local courts and great courts located in the capital(s) can be observed. Local courts dealt with minor cases of disputed property and petty crimes, which were punished with beatings, while the great courts attended to trials about land ownership, cases concerning officials, and crimes entailing heavier punishments like mutilation or the death penalty. This double system probably remained in action until the Ptolemaic Period when the local courts were integrated into a new system and the great courts were finally abolished and their role was taken over by Greek officials. Native Egyptian judicature fast declined under the Roman rule. Legal procedure changed little over time. Several laws about court procedure survive, which show that the conduct of cases was established in detail and that the judges had little scope for arbitrariness.

“Ancient Egyptian law courts are attested in textual sources from the Old Kingdom onwards. The earliest references to courts are in non-royal titles. The range of sources expands from the 6th Dynasty to include documents recording legal disputes and judgments, as well as sources which are not specifically legal but use judicial settings or terminology, such as tales, biographies, and letters. Courts originated as councils of officials, who adjudicated legal disputes, determined punishments, and held administrative, often notarial, functions, including witnessing legal documents and decisions and administering oaths. The composition of the courts, procedures and processes of judgment, terminology, as well as oracular proceedings will be discussed in the following in chronological order. A bibliography for the key primary sources treated in this entry is given at the end.”

Law Courts in the Old Kingdom (2649–2150 B.C.)

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Although a number of Old Kingdom titles seem to indicate a juridical office, very little is known about the precise functions of their bearers: sAb is often translated as judge and can be found on its own and in combination with other titles. WDa-mdw, literally “divider of words,” is also found as a designation for officials in a judicial capacity. The judicial titles combined with Hrj sStA seem to refer to positions of special confidence within the court system: Hrj sStA n wDa mdw (and similar), “privy council of decision,” Hrj sStA n sDmt wa, “privy council of solitary examination,” Hrj sStA n Hwt wrt, “privy council of the court”. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

annuity contract

“Old Kingdom courts were composed of several members, sometimes perhaps ten, as the titles wr mD Hwt wrt, “greatest of the 10 of the court house,” and wr mD 5maw, “greatest of the 10 of Upper Egypt,” suggest. Common designations were the rather unspecific terms srw, “officials,” or DADAt, “council.” In the tombs of nomarchs of the 9th/10th Dynasty, the term qnbt first appears for local councils. The tasks of these committees seem to have extended over notarial as well as juridical duties.

“Like other sectors of the administration, jurisdiction was headed by the vizier who, in this function, bore the title jmj-rA Hwt wrt 6, “supervisor of the 6 great houses”. Philip- Stéphan translates “great court of the six,” which is grammatically quite unlikely: if a direct genitive were intended, the adjective wrt should not stand between regens (Hwt) and rectum (6)—although a few exceptions to this rule have been collected by Edel—and the persistent ellipsis of the genitival adjective nt before 6 would be highly unusual at that period. The “six great houses” are traditionally interpreted as law courts because people who violated royal decrees were sent there to be condemned; the accused could also be jailed and beaten there (Inscription of Akhet-hotep). It remains unclear where they were situated; at least one of them probably was within the royal residence. Information about provincial courts is rather scarce, but it can be assumed that the local DADAt councils, which appear in a notarial capacity, also had juridical functions. As locations where courts convened, the rwt Hwt wrt, “the doorway of the great house”, and the wsxt (1rw), “broad hall (of Horus),” are also mentioned.”

Legal Procedures in Old Kingdom Law Courts

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “A single fragmentary document of the 6th Dynasty informs us about court procedure (Papyrus Berlin P 9010). The beginning is lost, therefore it remains unknown what court was involved and how the lawsuit concerning inheritance was initiated. Both parties seem to have been present in court, with the plaintiff making the first move by producing a document on which he based his claims, i.e., that the deceased had made him the trustee for his heirs. The defendant countered with the allegation that the document was a forgery and that therefore he (presumably as eldest son) should remain the sole heir. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The judges decided that the plaintiff had to produce three witnesses who would confirm the authenticity of the document on oath—the oath was drafted by the court and included an invocation of divine wrath (bAw) against the perjurer. If he could not do so, he would lose the case. The decision of the court therefore could consist of a conditional judgment, which made the final outcome dependent on the result of a proof of authenticity. There is no reference to the consultation of written law, nor to a discussion among the judges. The sketchy style and fragmentary state of the sole source do not permit us to draw any more general conclusions.

“The Autobiography of Weni, although often cited in this context, is not relevant since the procedure mentioned there is not a normal trial but a special examination probably in connection with a conspiracy involving a royal wife; moreover, no details about this case are divulged. Although not a documentary text, the Story of the Eloquent Peasant, which takes place during the 10th Dynasty, might also be used in order to elucidate court procedures—possibly before the vizier—in the First Intermediate Period.”

contracts with a west nurse that requires her to suckle with both breasts

Law Courts in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.)

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “As in the Old Kingdom, committees of officials designated as DADAt or qnbt acted as courts while, at the same time, being responsible for administrative and notarial duties. The expression mabAyt, “the Thirty” seems to refer to a panel of thirty judges but is attested only in titles. The term xnrt or xnrt wrt has variously been interpreted as “court house” and “penal compound”; perhaps it was a mixture of both. Court sessions at the gate (arryt) probably of a public building recall Old Kingdom practice. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Again there are a number of most likely juridical titles, the exact meaning of which remains unclear, like those formed with the element tmA, “mat(?)/cadastre(?)”: Hrj tmA, sX n tmA, DADAt nt tmA. For the examining judges, sDmy, literally “hearer,” is attested since the 13th Dynasty, sometimes in combination with other terms. The heralds (wHmww), local administrators, were also involved in juridical action; they seem to have collaborated closely with the bureau of the vizier, sending in their cases for directives. Philip-Stéphan additionally claims a juridical function for the title jmj-rA Snt based on her etymology as “directeur de querelles,” but has to admit to a total lack of evidence for this.

“A number of juridical terms are preserved in the Stèle Juridique and the leather scroll Berlin P 10470, some even in both. 4pr is still the common word for “to file a complaint.” Rdj m Hr, “to put before someone,” is used for the action of presenting the plaintiff’s evidence to the defendant, who may acknowledge (shnn) the facts. WSd means “to interrogate” by the judges. The parties’ consent is expressed by hrw, “to be content,” the taking of an oath by arq, “to swear.”“

Legal Procedures in Middle Kingdom Law Courts

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Information about procedure is still scarce for the Middle Kingdom. The fragmentary Papyrus UC 32055 contains the evidence of the plaintiff in which he describes an earlier transaction of his deceased father, either a sale or a loan against security. The father seems to have fallen ill or even died without ever receiving the price/loan, so the son now charges the other party in his stead. Beginning and end are lost, therefore it is impossible to decide whether the text is a writ (thus proving that written claims were used) or part of a protocol of proceedings. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Unfortunately, the only two completely preserved sources for a court procedure could possibly be exceptional, since both ended not with a judgment but with a settlement between the parties; it is also possible that in both cases the procedure was notarial rather than juridical. The Stèle Juridique tells the whole involved history of a proceeding that resulted in drawing up an jmjt-pr document about the position and income of the mayor of Elkab from one brother to another as compensation for a loan or deposit that could not be paid back. The documents presented in court are copied as well as those that resulted from the proceeding.

“The leather scroll Berlin P 10470 also concerns a transfer, namely of a slave woman from her former owners to the city of Elephantine. Even if these two documents concern notarial procedure disguised as law suits, the fact that both parties (or their representatives) had to be present, that the “plaintiff” started by stating his claims to which the “defendant” responded, and that the judges then viewed the relevant documents and questioned both parties resemble Old Kingdom procedure and can therefore be considered as basic elements of trials.”

Law Courts in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.)

official with a pleated costume

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “After the Middle Kingdom, the term mabAyt, although still attested in religious and literary texts , occurs only rarely in documentary texts; it may be considered archaic and therefore somewhat highbrow by that period. In the New Kingdom, two levels of jurisdiction can be clearly distinguished. The great courts, presided over by the vizier(s), were situated in the capitals Memphis and Thebes and, at least during some periods, at Heliopolis. Their members were high court officials usually selected by the vizier and occasionally by the king; the king sometimes was even present himself and gave judgment. The great courts were concerned with litigation about land, law suits involving officials, and trials for crimes which demanded heavy corporeal punishments, i.e., mutilation or death penalty. Even direct pleas to the king during public ceremonies seem to have been possible. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“On a regional level, small qnbwt composed of at least three local dignitaries—according to the Decree of Horemheb D Z.6 - 7, from among the prophets Hmw-nTr), priests (wabw), and mayors (Hatjw-a)— adjudged cases of theft, property damage, overdue loans and payments, personal injury, and rape/sexual intercourse with married women. We are best informed about local jurisdiction at Deir el- Medina, but unfortunately, due to the exceptional character of this village, it is impossible to use this evidence generally. In trials for perjury, lèse-majesté, murder or similar, the local courts only decided on whether the crime actually had been committed by the accused but then had to transfer the case to the vizier (i.e., the great qnbt). Perhaps a system like the one assumed for the Middle Kingdom according to which local courts had to refer their cases to the bureau of the vizier in order to receive information about the applicable laws was still in use at the beginning of the New Kingdom (Instruction for the Vizier, R 25 - 26). On the other hand, the great courts could delegate on-site investigations and the enforcement of their decisions to the local court. Very small villages might have been served by mobile courts.

“Neither the great nor the local courts were permanent institutions; they assembled for court sessions only. A selection of judges for each session of each local court by the vizier seems improbable; therefore a procedure like the drawing of lots among the potential candidates is likely. At least the court of Deir el-Medina had a bailiff, who executed orders by the judges , as well as a scribe, who recorded the proceedings and might have been responsible for putting down the judgment in the proper legal phrasing. Since Deir el-Medina was under direct supervision of the vizier, the scribe could possibly also have acted as a representative of the bureau of the vizier. As in the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom, courts of the New Kingdom also fulfilled notarial duties like authenticating documents and continued to convene (at least occasionally) in the gateways of official buildings, cf. Papyrus Berlin P 3047 Z. 3 - 4. In the Third Intermediate Period, court might also have been held at the xA n sXw, “bureau of documents,” perhaps a record office where legal documents were filed. Besides the great and local courts, special committees for the investigation of major crimes like tomb robbery or conspiracy against the king could be set up.

“In the course of the expansion of personal piety in the 19th and 20th Dynasties, oracles of various gods were addressed in order to judge legal affairs (usually of the same categories as those brought before local courts). Some changes seem to have occurred during the Third Intermediate Period, although due to the small number of sources it is difficult to assess them. Allam assumes that the courts were restructured from all-purpose administrative bodies to strictly juridical committees with quasi- professional judges.”

Legal Procedures in New Kingdom Law Courts

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Some regulations for legal procedures before the vizier are preserved in the Instructions for the Vizier: both parties had to be heard. Decisions about fields in the vicinity of Thebes had to be made within three days, about those in other regions within two months. If a law existed for a certain case, the vizier had to judge accordingly and not use his own discretion.

“Law courts became active on application of a plaintiff. There was no institutionalized public prosecution, although officials were under oath to report illegal actions they witnessed. Although some scholars assume that plaintiffs had to address an official in order to try for an extrajudicial settlement before going to court, there is no evidence for this. The great courts probably had to be approached through a petition to the vizier or the king himself. A large number of ostraca from Deir el-Medina contain notes, sketches, or drafts for transcripts of court proceedings, but few of them are complete. Often only the date, names of the parties and the judges, and the judgment are mentioned, while the statements of plaintiff and defendant are missing. However, since the status of Deir el-Medina was not comparable to that of other villages of this size, caution should be used in assuming this evidence as typical. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“At least in some cases, plaintiffs handed in a written claim, but viva voce complaints may have been possible as well before the local courts. New Kingdom juridical terminology stresses the oral element, cf. mdw Hr/m, “to litigate” lit. “to speak about something”, and Sm r mdwt Hna, “to go to court with someone” lit. “to go in order to talk with someone” (Instruction for the Vizier R 27). From the 25th Dynasty onwards, “to litigate with (someone)” is expressed as jrj qnbt jrm or Dd qnbt jrm, lit. “to make/talk court with,” which remains the standard phrasing in Demotic texts. Plaintiff and defendant had to be present before the court. The plaintiff commenced with his presentation of the case (smj, “to complain, to plead”), sometimes he presented documents (mtrww, “witness documents”) to substantiate his claim. Then the defendant gave his statement. If necessary, the judges posed questions to the parties, viewed the documents, interrogated witnesses, sent agents off to investigate, or even went to visit the location themselves. Statements of both parties and witnesses had to be sworn to, only rarely witnesses were sworn in before they gave evidence . During the tomb robbery trials, witnesses and defendants were also beaten. The judges then decided and judgment was given in the standard formula mAaty X aDA Y, “X is right, Y is wrong.” The setting free of acquitted defendants in criminal proceedings was phrased as rdjt TAw, lit. “to give breath”.

“The protocols also might contain how the judgment was to be effected: punishment by beating was sometimes administered without delay. Sometimes the one who lost the case had to take an oath on the king or a god (anx n nb, “oath of the lord”) drafted by the court to comply with their judgment by paying his debts, not repeating his illegal actions, or never acting against the judgment. These oaths usually included the punishment applicable in case of noncompliance. The prephrasing of oaths is shown by the later procedural parallels, see below Late Period, 2. Procedure and process of judgment. It is highly unlikely that the judgments should not have been effective without these oaths, as Seidl assumes; they merely put more pressure on the culprit by making him realize the possible effects of his recalcitrance in public. The sometimes drastic punishments—which, although threatened by the local court, could not be executed except by vizierial or royal decision (see above)—did not always deter the condemned from repeating their crimes.”

Oracular Proceedings in New Kingdom Law Courts

Oracle of Delphi

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Oracle proceedings used the same system as other oracles: the answer of the god was derived from the movements his cult statue made during a festive procession. A forward motion, called hnn, “nodding,” was considered as affirmative answer, a backward motion, called naj n HA=f, “receding,” as negative. Oracular proceedings are best attested from Deir el-Medina. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The procedure for oracular trials resembled normal procedure inasmuch as the plaintiff gave his statement, sometimes probably in writing, including the presentation of documents. Oracles were approached for mainly the same types of suits as local courts. But the presence of the defendant seems not to have been necessary, especially since oracular procedures were quite common in cases of theft when the culprit was unknown. Three basic methods to address the god can be distinguished: 1. oral yes/no questions like “Is A’s claim correct?” or “Is B the culprit?” which the god answered with “yes” or “no” movements; 2. orally presented lists of possibilities (e.g., of possible thieves or prices for disputed goods) during the reading of which the god gave his assent at a certain point; 3. double written statements (positive and negative versions of a statement or the statements of plaintiff and defendant) between which the god chose, possibly by moving towards one of them. Like normal court sessions, oracle sessions were recorded.

“In the transcripts, the participants and onlookers were put down as witnesses for the judgment. The movement was usually translated directly into the standard judgment formula (see above), e.g., “X is right, Y is wrong.” The condemned was able to appeal at another god’s oracle. It remains unclear whether oracular trials took place on days when there were religious processions anyway or whether special processions had to be arranged for them: the fact that in Deir el-Medina most oracle trials are dated to the 10th, 20th, and 30th day of the month when the workers had their day off cuts both ways. During the 21st and 22nd Dynasties, when Amun became nominally head of the Upper Egyptian state, oracles also took over the notarial functions of courts, i.e., the authentication of documents.”

Law in the Late Period (712–332 B.C.): Introduction of Persians Law to Egypt

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “The first unambiguous evidence for an official collection of laws is contained in the report of Papyrus Bibl.nat. 215 vso col. c 6 - 16. According to this text, Darius I ordered in his 3rd year that “the earlier laws of Egypt up to year 44 of Amasis” be collected. For this purpose he had priests, wise men, and military officials unite. The collection is said to have taken 16 years and was finally translated also into Aramaic. The implication is that there were written records of laws and perhaps even partial collections before this (e.g., of laws for specific groups like priests or of laws of certain kings), but the Darian collection seems to have been the first comprehensive one. The purpose of the Aramaic translation of the collection was obviously its use by Persian administrators. This is also suggested by Papyrus Berlin P 13540, which states that the candidates brought forth for the office of lesonis (temple administrator) had to conform to “what Darius the pharaoh has ordered”—a reference that the priestly laws set down in the Darian law collection were to be applied rather than a new law, which entrusted the selection to the satrap (provincial governor), as it is often interpreted. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Although Rüterswörden claims the report of Papyrus Bibl.nat. 215 vso col. c. l. 6 - 16 to be fictitious, a backward projection from the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.), his explanation does not correspond to the evidence. First, he assumes without explanation that the date of the composition of the text is identical to that of the manuscript (mid-Ptolemaic Period), which is not very likely considering the fact that the same manuscript contains another excerpt of clearly Persian Period origin. Moreover, well established Egyptian traits of royal representation (the king as benefactor and creator of order) are misinterpreted as Hellenistic innovations. Lastly, if the story had been a mere fabrication of the Ptolemaic Period in order to legitimize the Egyptian law in use at that time, as Rüterswörden suggests, it is not plausible that a Persian king would have been credited with its collection instead of an Egyptian pharaoh.

heart scarab of Bak-en-Djehuti, a priest (priests often served as the equivalent of judges

“Although no Persian Period manuscript of this collection survives, a number of fragments of later copies of the Demotic version, dating from the third to the first centuries B.C., have been identified: the longest is the so-called Codex Hermupolis preserving ten more or less complete columns and covering sections on leases of land and enterprises, sanx documents (a special type of annuity documents), inheritance, and miscellaneous subjects including addenda to the preceding sections. Others are the so-called Zivilprozeßordnung and the much more fragmented manuscripts Papyrus Carlsberg 236 and Papyrus Berlin P 23890 rto. The layout throughout all these fragments is similar: the text is subdivided into chapters that sometimes have headings like “the law about leases, if someone makes them about a house or movable object” or “the law about sanx documents”. These chapters are usually subdivided into paragraphs, in some manuscripts set off with blank spaces or line breaks.

While the first is mainly used for simple or static situations, the second type develops a hypothetical case, sometimes in a very elaborate way with possibilities branching off in various directions. In both cases, the aorist or future III main clause contains the legal consequences, e.g., the necessary steps to be taken by the judges. The grammatical structure therefore clearly indicates the text’s character as mandatory regulations; comparable structures are common for the formulation of laws throughout the ancient world (e.g., in the Codex Hammurapi, the Law Code of Gortyn, or the Law of the Twelve Tables). Additionally, the exact same structures are to be found for laws cited in protocols of court proceedings. The collection also contained model documents, e.g., for oaths, promissory notes, lease documents, sanx documents, public protests, etc.

“Unfortunately, Egyptologists have been discouraged to identify these texts as law codes by legal historians, who claimed that codified law simply could not have existed in ancient Egypt. The main argument for this is the unsubstantiated assertion that a systematic collection of laws had not been of interest to ancient Near Eastern societies...If regarded objectively, the Darian law collection fulfills all the necessary criteria for a codification: it was ordered by state authorities (i.e., the king, albeit a Persian ruler), claimed to be comprehensive, and aimed to serve as the basis of future jurisdiction in the Egyptian satrapy. The Aramaic version of the law code quickly became obsolete after the end of the Persian rule in Egypt; no manuscripts have hitherto been identified. But there is indirect evidence for its existence. The similarities in type, style, and phrasing between some Aramaic legal documents from fifth century Elephantine and Demotic documents suggest that the model documents contained in the Darian law collection, in their Aramaic translation, were used as prototypes.”

Law Courts in the Late Period (712–332 B.C.)

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “It seems likely that the two levels of jurisdiction— centralized great courts at the capitals versus small local courts in towns and perhaps even villages— either survived into the 26th Dynasty or were resurrected. The revival of judicial titles reminiscent of the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom, e.g., jmj-rA-sX-xnty-wr, “chief scribe of the great prison” and jmj-rA-sX(w)-DADAt-wrt, “chief (of) scribe(s) of the great court”, extended into the 26th and in some cases even the 30th Dynasty. The Saite kings as judges are mentioned in Papyrus Rylands 9 col. 11.19 and col. 15.8—in the last instance, Psammetichus II would have held court if he had not become ill. A court presided by the vizier occurs in col. 15.9. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The term qnbt, “court,” is used only in cursive hieratic documents while Demotic ones employ nA wptjw, “the judges.” Not much is known about the background of the judges, but it may be assumed that, as in the New Kingdom, they consisted mainly of local officials, and, as in the Ptolemaic Period, especially of priests.

“During the Persian Period, the satrap (provincial governor) residing in Memphis gave judgment as well as local administrators and, for the soldiers, the chief of their garrison. Councils of judges are also mentioned in Aramaic documents from the 27th Dynasty, but their composition remains unknown: perhaps the dyny mlk’, “judges of the king,” were the successors of the great courts while the dyny mdnt’, “judges of the province,” those of the local courts. Papyrus Rylands 9 recounts court sessions by several local officials as well as the snty.”

Legal Procedures and Oracles in Late Period Law Courts

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “There are hardly any sources for court proceedings during the Late Period. The proceedings in Papyrus Rylands 9 (see above) are described in a very general way. No transcripts of trials before small local courts survive from that era. However, some information about the rules of procedure can be gained from the law collection compiled under Darius I, which gives detailed instructions for the handling of different cases by the judges, e.g., in which order the parties have to give evidence, who has to prove his claims and how, who is to be questioned and about what, which party has to take an oath, etc.. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The evidence for oracular proceedings in the Late Period is sparse and indirect. A lavishly illustrated transcript of an oracular proceeding of the 26th Dynasty with an exceptionally large number of witness copies concerns the transfer of a priest from one priesthood to another and is therefore more administrative than judicial in nature. Herodotos II, 174 reports that king Amasis of the 26th Dynasty had repeatedly been acquitted from quite legitimate accusations of theft in his youth by the oracles of some gods but condemned by others, with the effect that, as king, he esteemed only the latter and did not take the first seriously any more. There is no evidence for real oracular proceedings after the 26th Dynasty—what Seidl supposes to be writs in an oracular trial are letters to gods containing prayers for protection against injustice. Although oracle questions with legal content, usually concerning cases of fraud or theft with unknown perpetrator, are still to be found in the Roman Period and, in Christianized form, continue into the seventh century CE, these are no longer part of a proper trial.”

Law in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods

back of the heart scarab of Bak-en-Djehuti

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “During the early Ptolemaic Period, the indigenous law courts were acknowledged as juridical institutions for the Egyptian population under the Greek term laokritai; in the same context, Egyptian law (nomoi tês chôras) was sanctioned as the basis of their judgments. The Demotic law code used by the Ptolemaic laokritai and cited in court protocols was likely none other than the one collected under Darius. Thus Egyptian law continued to be applied during the Ptolemaic Period, with a few limitations: royal jurisdiction seems to have taken over the department of criminal law (except theft), and royal decrees, which mainly concerned fiscal matters, could override Egyptian laws (and also Greek city laws). Instead of the obsolete Aramaic translation, a Greek one was produced for reference by the Greek officials, which was still copied in the second century CE. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Additionally, a didactic commentary for the Egyptian legal code existed since at least the Ptolemaic Period. Manuscripts of this text survive in Papyrus Berlin P 23757 rto and the so-called Legal Book of Tebtunis of which fragments are preserved in Florence and Copenhagen. The text is divided into short sections, which are hardly ever thematically connected to each other. Each section consists of a question and an answer. Laws from the code are cited and, at least in the surviving passages, often identified by a year date, but without the name of a king—the same method of citation can also be found in Ptolemaic court protocols referring to Egyptian laws (see above). These citations therefore refer to a section of the code that was organized chronologically in the first place and thematically only in the second, if at all. As a result, it would have been difficult for someone to find the laws applicable to a given case without a vast knowledge of the code as a whole. The aim of the commentary was obviously just this: to quiz the (most likely priestly) students for the position of judge about their knowledge of the legal code, which they were supposed to have memorized to a large extent.

Indigenous (and Greek) courts in Egypt were entirely replaced by Roman officials soon after the Roman takeover. The “law of the Egyptians” (nomos tôn Aiguptiôn), which is mentioned occasionally in legal proceedings before Roman officials, might refer at least in part to the Greek translation of the Egyptian legal code, especially since this was still transmitted in the second century CE (see above). Modrzejewski tries to argue that all legal rules thus labeled are purely Greek and not Egyptian, but this estimate is based partly on argumenta e silentio, partly on outdated interpretations. Therefore we have at least to consider that the Romans subsumed Greek and Egyptian law of Egypt under this heading. Regulations (prostagmata) and ordinances (diagrammata) of Ptolemaic kings were also still referred to, but neither seems to have been binding so that it was up to the Roman officials acting as judges to consider them or not. Thus the relevance of Egyptian (and Greek) law diminished quickly although an outright ban never seems to have been enacted.

“Since the Constitutio Antoniniana (212/213 CE) through which all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire became Roman citizens, a general acceptance of Roman law should be expected; however, local traditions seem to have been strong and vestiges of Egyptian (and Greek) law can still be found in legal documents from later periods.”

Law Courts in the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.)

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “The Ptolemaic king was the highest judicial authority but limited his personal performance to legal matters of state importance. Although petitions to initiate a law suit were formally addressed to the king, they actually were attended to by the dioiketes (minister of finance) or the strategos (governor) of the nome. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ] “At the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period, the Greek poleis in Egypt seem to have had their own juridical systems; in the case of Alexandria, it was based on the Athenian legal constitution, including dikastêria (courts), kritêria (arbitration boards), and diaitêtai (arbiters). The Greek population in the rural areas turned to dikastêria of frequently ten judges (dikastai) in the larger settlements. For the native Egyptians, the local courts of judges (nA wptjw) continued to exist and were known by the Greek as laokritai, “judges of the (native) people.” They consisted of three judges, usually priests of the local main god, who had obtained a legal education in the temple and based their judgments on the Egyptian law code collected under Darius I and sanctioned by Ptolemy II as nomoi tês chôras, “law of the land”. Since only very few transcripts of court proceedings before the laokritai survive, our main source for the scope of their jurisdiction are the temple oaths (see below). They concern cases of divorce, inheritance, sale, loan, securities, guaranties, lease, work contracts, fraud, theft, but rarely also damage to property and assault , thus showing that the competence of the laokritai was limited to civil cases and minor criminal ones by the Ptolemaic Period.

writing on the heart scarab of Bak-en-Djehuti

“For litigation between Egyptians and Greeks, a “common court” (koinodikion), probably composed of Egyptian and Greek judges, existed in the third century, later such cases were adjudged by the epistatês, a nome official. Ptolemy II is most likely to be credited with integrating the two parallel systems into a state- approved (and, to a certain degree, state-controlled) comprehensive judicial system. To initiate a law suit, the plaintiff had to write a petition (enteuxis)—nominally to the king, but in fact to the strategos of the nome who, after a short investigation, decided which court was to be approached. A Greek official, the eisagogeus, was assigned to the Greek as well as the Egyptian local courts; he introduced the cases, was responsible for the summoning of the defendant, supervised the suitability of documents as evidence (only if they contained a tax receipt and were properly recorded), issued the court orders, and had them executed. At least for the dikastêria, he also selected the judges (probably by drawing lots) from a list of candidates, possibly local honoraries.

“Ptolemy II also introduced a new court system, the chrêmatistai, who were initially sent out into the countryside on special orders to judge particular cases and later constituted permanent courts situated in the larger towns of the nomes. The chrêmatistai consisted of three judges, selected by the archidikastês (the highest judicial offical) probably from the Alexandrian upper class, appointed by the king and supervised by the dioiketes. An eisagogeus, a scribe (grammateus), and a bailiff (huperêtês) accompanied them. The judges had a comparatively short term of office, probably only two years. In the second century B.C., the chrêmatistai completely took over the role of the dikastêria as courts for the Greek population and later even diminished the importance of the laokritai because even Egyptians chose to bring their cases before them instead of their native courts. The advantage consisted in the fact that the chrêmatistai could be applied to either through enteuxis or directly, and that there was no appeal against their judgments. The disadvantage for Egyptians was that Egyptian documents had to be translated into Greek before they could be used as evidence and that the Greek judges had no profound knowledge of the Egyptian law. “Until 118 B.C., the case was presented to a Greek or an Egyptian court according to the nationality of the parties. Afterwards, the language of the document on which the case was based decided whether Greek or Egyptian law was to be applied and therefore whether it fell under the jurisdiction of chrêmatistai or laokritai.

“In addition to these boards of judges, high district officials like the nomarch, the strategos, and the epistatês had a certain judicial power by themselves. From about the middle of the third century B.C., the nomarch was obliged to call in the strategos at least for cases concerning lease and sale. Suits concerning taxes were administered by financial officials instead of normal courts. For soldiers, their commander or, if they were outside of their garrison, the chief of the Alexandrian police acted as judge. Cult associations required their members to apply for the association’s decisions and to refrain from suing each other before public courts.

“The Greek courts and officials acting as judges had no comprehensive law code but based their judgments primarily on royal prescriptions (diagrammata), if these did not exist for the case, on the laws of the particular town (politikoi nomoi) or, if these did not apply either, on their personal sense of justice. Despite this obviously very complicated situation, neither the judges of the dikastêria, the chrêmatistai, nor the officials with judicial authority were obliged to receive proper legal training.”

Legal Procedures in Ptolemaic Period Law Courts

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Procedure varied according to the judicial organ. Before the Egyptian judges, the procedure began with the plaintiff handing in a written plea (xrw), which was also delivered to the defendant who wrote his response to it. To this, the plaintiff commented again in writing, and finally the defendant gave his view to the second statement as well. A full set of four writs is preserved in Papyrus BM 10591 rto. After the writs were completed and had been handed to the court, the judges summoned both parties and questioned them. No evidence that was not in the original writs was accepted, and no documents that were issued after the trial had started could be used as evidence. If documents were presented in court, their authenticity had to be proved by hearing the signatories or their children as witnesses and, after the introduction of the registration in a notary archive, also through the records. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“No lawyers seem to have been present: the parties presented their cases themselves, although sometimes obviously after having taken legal council; women could ask a man to speak for them. A prohibition of lawyers before the Egyptian court as stated by Diodorus I, 76 is therefore possible, but not verifiable. The judges were well trained in the Egyptian legal code and cited the applicable laws in their judgments. As can be seen in the so-called Siut trial, they did not let themselves be hoodwinked by parties who tried to conceal a law to their disadvantage by putting forward another, more favorable one that in reality did not fit the facts. The judgment was quite often given conditionally, dependent on whether one of the parties did or did not take the oath that the judges had imposed on him, as evidenced by temple oath texts including the possible judgment in both cases. “Before the Greek courts and officials, lawyers were quite common. They were controlled by the state and a tax had to be paid for them. Only in cases of fiscal interest, lawyers were forbidden by a decree of 259 B.C.. Contrary to the Egyptian procedure in which the main evidence of the parties was given in writing, the Greek procedure was dominated by the oral pleas of the parties, respectively their lawyers. As in the Egyptian court, legal documents were the most important evidence, followed by entries in official land registers and oaths of the parties and witnesses.”

Account of Diodorus Siculus of Ptolemaic-Era Law Courts

transcription of the heart scarab of Bak-en-Djehuti (a spell)

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Diodorus Siculus, who visited Egypt around 50 B.C., also described the Egyptian judicial system , but his account most likely derived from the (almost completely lost) Aegyptiaca of Hecataeus of Abdera, a contemporary of Alexander the Great and Ptolemy I. He depicts a single central court with thirty judges (ten each from Memphis, Heliopolis, and Thebes), presided by a high judge who wore a piece of jewelry (agalma) called Truth (Alêtheia) made from a blue gemstone (sappheirou lithou) around his neck and had the laws of Egypt on eight scrolls before him. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“It is impossible to reconcile this picture with the early Ptolemaic, let alone late Ptolemaic judicial system; we have no evidence for a central court of native Egyptian judges at that time, and Diodorus’ account lacks the local courts for which there is evidence. But the individual elements recall earlier conditions: the thirty judges resemble the mabAyt of the Middle Kingdom (see above Middle Kingdom and 2nd Intermediate Period: 1. Composition of courts), the three cities of origin of the judges correspond with the three sites of the great qnbt courts of the New Kingdom, which might have survived into or been revived in the Late Period.

“The pendant of Truth (i.e., the goddess Maat) is well attested on statues from Dynasty 26 onwards, and even original pendants of lapis lazuli have been discovered; Maat is called “who is on the neck of the (chief) judge (sAb or tAyty sAb)” in temple inscriptions of the Ptolemaic Period. The Maat pendant (“emblem of Justice”) is still mentioned as ensign of the chief judge in BGU V 1210 (l. 194), the so-called Gnomon of the Idios Logos, a Roman collection of instructions for the administration of Egypt, which incorporated among other things a number of earlier Egyptian priestly regulations— although not from any Roman interest in the proper execution of Egyptian cult but for the sake of collecting the fines in case of nonobservance. All in all, it seems that either Hecataeus or Diodorus assembled chronologically disparate and incomplete bits and pieces to make up an ostensibly consistent account of the Egyptian legal system.”

Law Courts in the Roman-Era Egypt (30 B.C.–364 A.D.)

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “Although the term laokritai is not attested after the end of the second century B.C., Egyptian courts might still have existed during the first century of Roman rule. This is indicated by the existence of transcripts of Demotic temple oaths from that period—such oaths are never attested in connection with suits before the chrêmatistai—and although courts of cultic and other associations used temple oaths as well, the number and scope of the surviving examples make it unlikely that all of them should derive from procedures before these courts. The chrêmatistai last appear in the second century CE, but their duties seem to have changed by then. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The main judicial authority in Roman Egypt was the praefectus Aegypti as deputy of the emperor. He held court on his annual convents in selected towns of the country. Since the prefect was usually not a jurist, he had legal advisors probably from Rome. However, the prefect usually only took on criminal cases and others of higher importance, e.g., concerning fiscal matters or liturgies, while minor cases without state interest were delegated to subaltern officials.

“The iuridicus Alexandreae was responsible for inheritance and bankruptcy as well as voluntary jurisdiction. Cases concerning state finances or temples and priests were managed by the official responsible for the idios logos (special exchequer) and later by the dioiketes. Other officials like the epistrategos and the nome strategos could also be charged with judicial functions and thus became iudices pedanei, i.e., delegate judges, rendered in Greek papyri as dikastai or kritai.”

Legal Procedures in Roman-Era Egyptian Law Courts

Oracle Temple in Siwa, Egypt

Sandra Lippert of Universität Tübingen wrote: “To initiate a law suit, the plaintiff had to write a petition to the prefect including his statement. If the prefect decided to hear the case himself, it was put on the agenda of the next convent, if not, it was delegated to another official. The defendant was informed about the plaintiff’s claim; if the plaintiff did this himself, he needed witnesses, but the notification could also be given by the judicial organ. Both parties then received a summons and had to give a sworn declaration about their appearance at the hearing. If the defendant did not appear for the third appointment at the convent, judgment in absence was given in favor of the plaintiff. If both parties were present, the law suit started with the plaintiff stating his claim and then the defendant replying. Parties often relied on lawyers to present their cases. They or their lawyers were also responsible for collecting and presenting the applicable laws, including Greek and Egyptian ones, the latter in Greek translation, decrees of Ptolemaic kings or Roman prefects, the opinion of legal experts (nomikoi), and precedents excerpted from the court journals of the prefects. [Source: Sandra Lippert, Universität Tübingen, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Depending on the case, the taking of evidence followed, including the reading of legal documents, which could also be copied into the transcripts; Demotic documents had to be translated into Greek. In an edict of 138 CE, the prefect ordered that the authenticity of documents presented as evidence had to be contested immediately in order to be considered . Declarations of witnesses probably had to be in the shape of an affidavit deposited beforehand since there are no references to oral testimonies. Evidence could include expert opinions, especially for medical conditions. The parties were not normally put under oath by Roman officials, and a conditional judgment dependent on an oath is attested only once—perhaps influenced by Egyptian practice. Personal investigation by the Roman judges is rarely attested. The prefect could also cut short the proceedings before the parties appeared in court as in Papyrus Oxy. II 237 when he dismissed the complaint after having the defendant’s evidence checked by the local strategos. Another shortcut, which made judgment unnecessary, was the confession of the defendant.

“The transcript of the proceedings contained the date, the name of the judge, the important steps of the process, and the judgment and was entered into the journal of the official. If a case was not decided by the prefect on the convent, the judgment was announced later on public display both in Alexandria and the home town of the plaintiff.

“Roman officials acting as judges were not bound by either Greek or Egyptian law and, because Roman law at that period was not very comprehensive, quite often judged by their own discretion. Although Egyptian laws were sometimes cited by the lawyers of the parties, Egyptian legislation seems to have been followed only if this was profitable for the state, but completely ignored if not. The most striking example for this is the so-called trial of Nestnephis, in which the official of the idios logos convicted the Egyptian defendant of appropriation of ownerless land although he possessed a valid Demotic sales document and the vendor declared under oath that he had inherited the land from his father. The completely innocent defendant, who had been slandered by a colleague, was fined 500 drachmas. Theoretically it was possible to appeal against a judgment of the prefect, although this would have involved sending to the emperor himself at Rome. Appeal was impossible if the party already had acknowledged the judgment by his reactions.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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