Crime and Punishment in Pharaonic Egypt

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By: Renate Müller-Wollermann

In ancient Egypt crimes are acts against other persons or the state. Punishments are official, not private sanctions against persons who committed crimes. The term for “crime” is bt3. A capital crime is bt3 ‘3 (n mwt), “great crime” (worthy of death).

Egyptian sources for crimes and punishments are extremely diverse but are primarily texts such as royal decrees, administrative texts, such as court proceedings, and private texts, including biographies or letters. Most legal texts are from the Ramesside period (Dynasties 18-20), which makes comparison with other times difficult. A written criminal law code does not exist.

Crimes against the state, or better, the king, comprise treason, lese majesty, and desertion. Crimes against other human beings include killings, injuries, adultery and rape, robbery and theft.

There is no Egyptian word for “treason,” only paraphrases such as “great crime worth of death,” “great abomination of the country,” or “abomination of all gods.” The best-known case of treason is the harem conspiracy against king Ramses III, which aimed to raise a prince to the throne.

The mummy of pharaoh Ramesses III. G. Elliot Smith. The Royal Mummies. Le Caire: Imprimerie de L'institut Francais D'archeologie Orientale, 1912.

The mummy of pharaoh Ramesses III. G. Elliot Smith. The Royal Mummies. Le Caire: Imprimerie de L’institut Francais D’archeologie Orientale, 1912.

Although the king was murdered by the cutting of his throat, the plot failed, a special tribunal was established, and the culprits punished. The worst culprits were sentenced to death; others were allowed to commit suicide. Others were sentenced to have their nose and ears cut off.

A case of treason unrelated to the harem is directed against the Theban high priest Osorkon, the later king Osorkon III of the 23rd dynasty. Osorkon himself kills the captured perpetrators on the spot and burns the corpses. A judicial trial does not take place.

There is no direct evidence for cases of lese majesty and its punishment. According to a court protocol from Deir el-Medineh near Thebes dating to the Ramesside Period, a worker is accused of having insulted the king but his punishment is unknown.

Only one text provides direct information about desertion. The 26th dynasty official Ns-r relates in his biography that foreign mercenaries deserted, but that he brought them back to the king, who massacred them on the spot.

Various crimes of killing are not distinguished in Egyptian language. “To kill” is sm3, later db. Nearly all evidence stems from the end of the New Kingdom and the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period, a time of social and political unrest. Despite the number of cases no punishment for murder is known, although the death penalty is likely.

Mummies and skeletons provide some evidence for killings and even murder. A skeleton of a woman in Abydos reveals she was stabbed in the back with a blade. A mummy head found in Thebes also shows that the man was struck dead with an instrument while lying down sleeping or unconscious.

Evidence for the crime of causing injuries and its punishment is relatively ample and dates mainly to the Ramesside Period. The Egyptian word is nearly without exception qnqn. Diverse sentences are mentioned in texts such as corporal punishments as flogging or forced labor. The injured person receives no compensation. The use of force was, however, not sanctioned throughout. Force against dependent persons and children was seen not only legitimate but necessary to maintain order.

Egyptians did not clearly distinguish between adultery and rape as we do. In earlier times nk meant “to have intercourse,” but in the New Kingdom I became “to commit adultery.” A separate word for rape cannot be made out.

In cases where the initiative to commit adultery was taken by the man, the punishment is unknown. One papyrus mentions that a man standing trial had to swear an oath to have his nose and ears cut off and be sent into exile in Nubia if he met the woman again. Later he swears not to meet her, on penalty of being sent to the quarry at Elephantine.

Quarry near Elephantine.

Quarry near Elephantine.

But if a woman initiates adultery that leads to divorce or repudiation, she loses her bride price and remains without means. Adultery is also a topic of narratives and especially of didactic literature; men are warned not to have intercourse with married women and one or both persons involved are threatened with death.

In sum, intercourse with a married woman was considered a crime regardless of whether the man was married or not. The key issue was the offence against the woman’s husband. The rights of the woman herself were irrelevant along with whether intercourse was voluntary or forcible. This is also why adultery and rape were not distinguished. Rape was only a crime when the woman was married.

The vocabulary for “to steal” is varied, and many cases of theft and punishment have come down to us. Theft of private property, especially items of daily life, is frequently mentioned in Ramesside texts. The penalty consists of paying double or triple the value of the object stolen to the harmed person, in addition to the stolen object. Theft of temple property is addressed in royal decrees and punished much harder. It may be payment of a hundred times the value of the stolen item, beatings, or in extreme cases the death penalty. Sanctions for theft of ordinary state property are not clear.

A special problem that occurred widely is plundering of tombs, those of ordinary people as well as of kings, known both from archaeological evidence and texts. Plundering private tombs does not seem to have been punished. Instead, tombs were secured by threat formulae. Evidence for plundering royal tombs derives from the so-called Tomb Robbery Papyri from the times of the kings Ramses IX and XI, one passage in which indicates the crime was punished by the death penalty.

Papyrus Abbott on tomb robberies.

Papyrus Abbott on tomb robberies.

The death penalty was carried out by impalement. The body was put on the pointed top of a wooden stake and the victim’s weight drew the body down the pole. We have no representations of this procedure, but there is a hieroglyph depicting a body atop a stake after the phrase “to give on the wood.” The execution seems to have been in public; one text even says besides a temple.

Corporal punishments consisted of beatings or mutilations. Texts speak of thrashings with a wooden stick given 10, 20, 50, 100, or even 200 times. They also mention branding and mutilation of nose and ears. Tomb reliefs often show beatings of people, but in most cases these are private coercion of subordinates, not an official penalty. Sometimes the culprits are bound to a pillory. A unique scene depicts a naked man with a kind of yoke around his neck.


Flogging scene in the tomb of Khentika at Saqqara. T. G. H. James. 1953.The Mastaba of Khentika Called Ikhekhi. London: Oxford University Press, pl. IX.

Flogging scene in the tomb of Khentika at Saqqara. T. G. H. James. 1953.The Mastaba of Khentika Called Ikhekhi. London: Oxford University Press, pl. IX.

Old Kingdom houses on Elephantine.

Old Kingdom houses on Elephantine.

Naked man with a yoke in the tomb of Henqu at Deir el-Gebrawi. Naguib Kanawati 2005. Deir el-Gebrawi I. The Northern Cliff. Oxford: Aris and Phillips Ltd., pl. 55.

Naked man with a yoke in the tomb of Henqu at Deir el-Gebrawi. Naguib Kanawati 2005. Deir el-Gebrawi I. The Northern Cliff. Oxford: Aris and Phillips Ltd., pl. 55.

Relief with a pillory in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. Naguib Kanawati, Alexandra Woods, Sameh Shafik, and Effy Alexakis 2010. Mereruka and his Family. III: 1 The Tomb of Mereruka. Oxford: Aris and Phillips Ltd., pl. 23.

Relief with a pillory in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. Naguib Kanawati, Alexandra Woods, Sameh Shafik, and Effy Alexakis 2010. Mereruka and his Family. III: 1 The Tomb of Mereruka. Oxford: Aris and Phillips Ltd., pl. 23.


These punishments were all carried out in public and therefore also meant a loss of honor and degradation of the culprits. The result of these measures can be seen on many skeletons. A large percentage of the common population of Elephantine of the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period suffered from multiple bone fractures, which can only be interpreted as the results of harsh beatings. Many fractures were not lethal, but the severity amounts to torture. Branding and mutilations cannot be detected on skeletons, but we have a sculptor’s model of a man with his nose cut.

Forced labor seems to have been widespread, as it was more useful to use culprits than to imprison them. Banishment to Nubia is often mentioned as a threat in New Kingdom texts presumably these people had to work in the gold mines of the Eastern Desert. Imprisonment, however, is not known as a punishment, but only as custody pending trial.

Degradation as a separate punishment is not attested, but many forms of punishment also meant a loss of honor. There is only one case of a deprivation of the name as a punishment. Punishments regarding the property lack standardization and consisted of deprivation of property, or the removal from office. The payment of a fixed fine is not attested.

In general, the author of the Instructions for Merikare advises moderate punishments, “Do justice, then you endure on earth; calm the weeper, don’t oppress the widow, don’t expel a man from his father’s property, don’t reduce the nobles in their possessions. Beware of punishing wrongfully, do not kill, it does not serve you. Punish with beatings, with detention, thus will the land be well-ordered; except for the rebel whose plans are found out, for god knows the treason plotters, god smites the rebels in blood.”

Crimes were prosecuted by officials whose tasks were not exclusively judicial, but administrative as well. Serious crimes, like murder, had to be prosecuted, and the chairman of important court sessions was the vizier. Death sentences seem to have been confirmed by the king. Confessions were often forced by torture, as the Tomb Robbery Papyri attest. The term for “to torture” is smtr, which literally means “to investigate” –with or without using force. Some torture instruments can be detected on a Ptolemaic temple entrance in Karnak, including whips, a gag wood, and something that looks like two jaws, probably to tie up the culprit.

Torture instruments at the entrance of the Karnak temple. Clère, Pierre 1961. Le porte d’Evergète à Karnak. 2e partie. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire, pl. 22.

Torture instruments at the entrance of the Karnak temple. Clère, Pierre 1961. Le porte d’Evergète à Karnak. 2e partie. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire, pl. 22.

Today the natural sciences play an increasing role in studying human remains from ancient Egypt, detecting previously unknown medical conditions and related phenomena. It will also open up new avenues for the study of crime and punishment in ancient Egypt.

Renate Müller-Wollermann is an Egyptologist at the Eberhard-Karls-Universität in Tübingen.

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