Ancient Egypt Law
Egyptian Law: The law that originated with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under King Menes (c. 2925 BC) then grew and developed until the Roman occupation of Egypt (30 BC).
The history of Egyptian law is longer
than that of any other civilization. Even after the Roman occupation,
elements of Egyptian law were retained outside the major urban areas.
No formal Egyptian code of law has been
preserved, although several pharaohs, such as Bocchoris (c. 722-c. 715 BC),
were known as lawgivers. After the 7th century BC, however, when the Demotic
language (the popular form of the written language) came into use, many
legal transactions required written deeds or contracts instead of the
traditional oral agreement; and these extant documents have been studied for
what they reveal of the law of ancient Egypt.
The ultimate authority in the settlement
of disputes was the pharaoh, whose decrees were supreme. Because of the
complex nature of legal administration, the pharaoh delegated powers to
provincial governors and other officials. Next to the pharaoh, the most
powerful individual was the vizier, who directed all administrative branches
of the government. He sat in judgment on court cases and appointed
magistrates as part of his legal duties.
In a legal proceeding, the plaintiff was
required to bring suit. The tribunal then ordered the defendant to appear in
court if a point of law seemed to be involved in the dispute. Scribes
employed in the legal system supplied procedural information; legal
advocates did not represent the parties. Both parties spoke for themselves
and presented any pertinent documentary evidence. Witnesses sometimes were
called, but usually the judge ruled on the grounds of the documents and the
testimony of each party. The judgment included recommendations for
preserving the written record of the trial--possibly the main reason why
many of these documents are extant.
Although masculine primogeniture
dominated in some periods of Egyptian history, there are records of property
being divided equally among the children, male and female. Even with
masculine primogeniture, the other children and the surviving spouse usually
received a share of the estate. The usual law of succession could be
circumvented by a special unregistered document: a parent, for example,
could favour a daughter by guaranteeing her rights over the family property.
Legal judgments pertaining to the family and rights of succession clearly
demonstrate that women as well as men were granted full rights under the
laws of ancient Egypt. Women owned and bequeathed property, filed lawsuits,
and bore witness in court proceedings without the authority of their father
or husband. The working class also had some legal rights; even slaves were
allowed to own property under certain circumstances.
Property transfers and contractual
agreements were conducted as if they were the same type of legal
transaction. Rental of slaves, for example, was regarded as a sales
agreement. Work was often bartered for various commodities. The individual
parties were allowed to determine restrictions and guarantees in their
transaction concerning possible defects in the property or service as well
as defects in the law.
Criminal justice necessitated a
hierarchy in the judicial system, depending on the severity of the charge.
Only the pharaoh could judge the most heinous criminals, often with the
vizier conducting the investigation and turning to the pharaoh for final
judgment. In some cases, the pharaoh appointed a special commission with
full authority to pass judgment. Punishment for serious crimes included
penal servitude and execution; mutilation and flogging were often used to
punish lesser offenders.
Although punishment for criminal offenders could be severe--and, in the modern viewpoint, barbaric--Egyptian law nevertheless was admirable in its support of basic human rights. The pharaoh Bocchoris, for example, promoted individual rights, suppressed imprisonment for debt, and reformed laws relating to the transferal of property. His legal innovations are one example of the far-reaching implications of Egyptian law: the Greek lawgiver Solon (6th century BC) visited Egypt and adapted aspects of the legal system to his own ideas for Athens. Egyptian law continued to influence Greek law during the Hellenistic period, and its effects on Roman imperial law may still be felt today.