Crimes are offenses that are considered to affect the whole community, not only their individual victims. Unlike civil actions, in which the plaintiff seeks compensation for the damage he has suffered, criminal prosecutions demand the punishment of the guilty. The transgressions that are classified as crimes by a society can thus be recognized by the penalties they bring on, such as loss of freedom, mutilation, or death.


Our information about crimes and criminal procedure in pharaonic Egypt derives mainly from official records rather than from private documents. Three genres are especially informative: decrees on behalf of temples and funerary cults that describe the means by which the decree will be enforced; records of the Great Prison from the late Middle Kingdom; and papyri documenting actual criminal investigations of the late New Kingdom. No criminal law code has been preserved, and it is doubtful that such a thing existed.

Documents concerning crime most often survived when inscribed on stone. Decrees on behalf of temples, for example, were often carved on stelae, both to commemorate the generous piety of the donor king and so that the temple's privileges would not be conveniently forgotten by the next generation of civil servants. The few surviving texts on papyrus also concern politically important criminal cases and may have been stored separately from or more carefully than records concerning common criminals. These latter were probably housed in the prisons or in government offices in the cities; only one such document has survived. The accidents of preservation have thus favored texts dealing with crimes against the state rather than crimes against individuals, such as murder, rape, or theft.

Nevertheless, the almost complete lack of evidence concerning prosecutions for crimes against individuals remains puzzling. There is no doubt that such incidents occurred, since they are alluded to in both private and official documents, but only a handful of such texts include any reference to investigation or punishment. It has been suggested that prosecutions for violence against individuals are missing from our sources because, in fact, this was not classified as a crime; but the few references to persons punished for assault suggests that this at least was criminal.

Old Kingdom.

In contrast to later periods, the Old Kingdom appears to have had established law courts staffed with permanent, specialized officials who were empowered to deal with criminal cases. The numerous legal titles—such as “overseer of the court” and “master of the secrets of judgments in the court”—form the bulk of the preserved evidence about the court system. The top office, “overseer of the six courts,” was held by the vizier himself (the location and function of the “the six courts” is not known). In general, however, the agents of the legal system were not of high status, although some “overseers of the court” also held the important title “overseer of works,” perhaps because convicted criminals could be sent on to the department of works. The courts were not closely associated with the temples, except in that a number of legal officers served in the cults of the minor deities Heket and Ha, who may have been the patron gods of the legal profession. The common title “prophet of Maat” is thought to have been administrative rather than religious.

What little we know about the operation of the courts in criminal matters derives mainly from such decrees as that of Neferirkare on behalf of the temple of Abydos. The text proclaims that anyone who interferes with the priests or cultivators of the god's fields shall be sent to the court, where his property will be seized and he himself will be assigned to the stone quarries. The text specifies that no distinction is to be made for rank:

"Every official, every king's acquaintance, and every ḥry-wḏb who will act following this that my majesty decreed shall be taken to court. His house, fields, people, and everything in his possession, shall be confiscated and given to […]"

Further punishments administered by the court included beatings and imprisonment.

A different type of criminal investigation is described in the famous autobiography of Weni of the sixth dynasty. The alleged offense is not named, but since it involved the queen, it was clearly both important and politically sensitive. In what appears to have been an unusual arrangement for the time, Weni and one other colleague conducted a secret investigation, the result of which is not reported. Similar investigations would take place under similar circumstances in the New Kingdom, most notably in the case of the Harem Conspiracy (see below).

Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom.

Crimes and punishments.

Literary texts reflect an aversion to capital punishment in general and suggest that this sentence was reserved for rebellion, the ultimate attack on the established order. The author of the Instructions for Merikare advises moderate punishment in general:

"Do not kill; it is not useful to you. Punish with beatings and with detention so that the land will be well founded. Except for the rebel whose plan is discovered. (Papyrus Leningrad 1116A, 48–50)"

King Piya of the twenty-fifth dynasty boasted on his triumphal stela that no one had been killed in the Southern nomes (provinces) except, again, the rebels who cursed god and who were executed. Finally, the notorious King Khufu (Cheops) of legend, in Papyrus Westcar, proposes that the magician Djedi use a prisoner for a magic display involving decapitation, at which the magician uttered the rebuke, “But not to a human, Sovereign! … It is not permitted to do thus to the noble cattle!” (Papyrus Westcar 8, 16–17).

The execution of rebels, on the other hand, was a religious duty. Indeed, execution did not go far enough; the rebel was to be annihilated altogether. “Expel him, kill [him], obliterate his name, [destroy] his associates, banish the memory of him and of his supporters who love him,” is the advice given in the Instructions for Merikare. As Anthony Leahy (1984) and Harco Willems (1990) have shown, rebels were identified with the opponents of the goddess Maat and, in particular, with the gods Seth and Apophis, the enemies of the legitimate ruler deities Osiris and Re. Just as in myth, the enemies of Osiris were destroyed by fire, so too human rebels against the king and the gods were executed on a brazier or in a furnace, perhaps on the altar of the god they had offended. Burning was the extreme punishment for an Egyptian because it destroyed the body and with it the hope of an afterlife: the victim ceased to exist.

The most conspicuous act of rebellion was, of course, an attempt on the life of the king, such as the conspiracy to assassinate Ramesses III and place one of his sons on the throne. The plot appears to have been hatched by women of the harem, including the mother of the pretender; harem officials carried their messages outside to relatives in high government office in the treasury, the temples, and the army. Whether they succeeded in murdering the king is not clear; at any rate, they failed in their ultimate aim of securing the throne, and either Ramesses III or his lawful successor, Ramesses IV, ordered their arrest and trial. The sentences passed on the guilty are recorded in the Judicial Papyrus of Turin. Twenty-four conspirators were found guilty and sentenced, but their fate—almost certainly execution—is not specified. Ten others, including the probable pretender to the throne, were allowed to take their own lives. The record does not indicate to what they owed this concession; the two groups appear to have been equally culpable and of equally high rank, and both included active conspirators as well as others who merely knew of the conspiracy and failed to report it. Each of the accused is called a “great enemy” (ḫrw ʿʒ). Some of the names have been changed—one, for example, to “Re hates him”—as a further step toward the obliteration of the criminal's identity. Once the leaders of the conspiracy had been duly punished, Ramesses IV issued a general amnesty to fugitives and prisoners, which was explicitly said to include rebels.

The practice of burning rebels alive is better documented in the Third Intermediate Period. In a number of cases, the method of execution is the brazier. The Chronicles of Prince Osorkon of the twenty-second dynasty relate that the Theban rebels against Amun-Re were punished by Prince Osorkon, their real opponent, with death, “each one being burned in the place of [his] crime.” The word “braziers” appears twice in the broken passages preceding this statement. A similar incident is described in the fictional Instructions of Ankhsheshonqy. The background to the Instructions is a plot to assassinate the king, which was overheard by a loyal servant and reported to his majesty. The latter, after reproaching the ringleader for his disloyalty and ingratitude, ordered an altar of earth to be built at the door of the palace; on it, the ringleader, his kin, and his coconspirators were burned on the brazier. Ankhsheshonqy himself was imprisoned because he had heard about the plot and failed to reveal it, although he had earnestly tried to dissuade the ringleader from his purpose. Nor was he released with the other prisoners on the anniversary of the king's accession—a reference to a practice of general amnesties issued on important state occasions, which may go back to the Middle Kingdom.

Political opponents, as a variety of rebels, might also be banished or, like Sinuhe, go into self-imposed exile. We are most likely to hear of them when they are magnanimously recalled. Thus, the Banishment Stela of the twenty-first dynasty records that Prince Menkheperre, the high priest of Amun, asked Amun-Re to pardon the rival claimants to his office who had been banished to the Kharga Oasis some years before and to forbid the practice of banishment for the future.

The idea of rebellion extended also to crimes against religious foundations; royal inscriptions and decrees on behalf of temples used the vocabulary of insurrection and capital punishment, though not always in the same text. For example, the word “rebel” was applied to anyone who might conscript staff of the temple of Min at Coptos, in violation of an exemption decree issued by Pepy II. Six hundred years later, a priest of Min who had stolen a cult object was called “a rebel and enemy of his god.” He was punished with loss of office and income, removal of his offerings from the temple, and perhaps debaptism; death was not mentioned explicitly.

A few texts of the pharaonic period specify burning alive as the penalty for cultic offenses. A decree usurped by the thirteenth dynasty king Neferhotpe, for example, names burning as the penalty for trespass on a protected area of the Abydos necropolis. Actual executions on the brazier or furnace are described by Senwosret I in his inscription at Tod; the temple had been wrecked by vandals who were arrested, placed on the brazier, and burned as “enemies.” Execution for cultic thefts could also be carried out by impalement rather than burning. The Nauri Decree, which generally sets lighter penalties (see below), specifies the death penalty for two crimes: sale of temple livestock, and the transferring of an animal from the offering-list of Osiris to some other list. Both offenses have to do with the alienation of sacrificial animals. The offender was to be executed by impalement, and his wife, children, and property were forfeit to the temple. Similarly, a New Kingdom exemption decree of unknown provenance announced that theft of sacred property or people would be punished with impalement next to the protected temple. The Great Tomb Robberies are also in this category of desecration of a sacred site.

Crimes against the state, other than treason or cultic crimes, are sometimes identified as “worthy of death,” although not explicitly called rebellion. The Horemheb Decree announces that false rulings by judges are “great crimes [worthy] of death” (btʒ ʿʒ n mwt), but it does not specify the means of execution. Similarly, in the Instructions of Amenompe, falsifying official documents is called a “hostility [worthy] of death.” Finally, in a Deir el-Medina legal document, a woman who stole copper is called “worthy of death.” Her case was referred to the vizier, so we do not know how she was actually punished. Possibly, the expression “worthy of death” is not to be taken literally.

For persons of the official class, the most serious punishment short of death was loss of property, office, status, and sometimes also identity, whereby an erstwhile official was reduced to the status of a laborer in the fields of a temple or, in the worst cases, in the granite quarries or in the gold mines of Kush. The criminal's descendants shared in his ruin, since the office and property were lost to the family forever; if the offender himself had escaped, his relatives might be sent to prison in his stead. In the New Kingdom, mutilation of the ears and nose of the criminal could be added to other penalties. The crimes that incurred mutilation were similar to the capital offenses listed above but were not characterized as rebellion. In the Nauri Decree, those who move the boundaries of fields belonging to the temple of Osiris lose their ears and nose and become cultivators for the temple, as do those caught in the act of stealing animals. The families of the latter group were also handed over to the temple.

For other property crimes against the temple of Osiris, the Nauri Decree sets yet different penalties—beatings, open wounds, and multiple restitutions, in various combinations. Theft of property other than animals was punished by one hundred blows and a fine of one hundred times the value of the stolen goods. Temporary requisitioning of staff for corvée or agricultural work in another district drew two hundred blows, five “flowing wounds” (precise meaning unclear), and restitution of the lost work time, even if the staff or vessel had been used for official business and not for the borrower's own purposes. These penalties are much harsher than those for theft from private persons, which are thought to be threefold restitution of the stolen property with no accompanying physical punishment.

Punishment in the form of incarceration with hard labor is well documented, most notably by the Middle Kingdom records of the Great Prison at Thebes. This and other prisons were not only places of confinement but also workhouses or labor camps with links to the “Office of Provider-of-People,” or labor bureau. Some of its inmates were there for life, including those who had been convicted of running away to avoid compulsory labor on state projects. In one exceptional case, this penalty extended to the whole family; he was “given to the plow-lands together with his people forever [as ordered by] the court.”

Shorter sentences for various crimes are known, especially from the New Kingdom. A school text mentions the possibly fictional case of a sailor sentenced to twenty-three days in a local prison (itḥ), where he was made to cultivate public lands. Hard labor is also named in two of the three documented cases of punishment for assault on an individual. One offender was set to cut stone in the Theban necropolis and the other, a policeman, is said to be “in the compulsory labor since he hit with a stick and he was like every enemy of Re,” a characterization which again associates myth, rebellion, and crime. Neither case happens to mention a prison, but this may have been understood to be the setting for the penal labor.

Finally, prisons also served as a places of detention for criminals awaiting a harsher penalty. If the lawbreaker eluded the authorities, his family members were sometimes imprisoned in his stead. The wives and children of those who evaded compulsory labor were held in the law court, rather than in the prison, and they were released when the fugitive was captured or, perhaps, when the government had given up hope of catching him. In other cases, the family evidently had to serve out the entire sentence of the offender.

The mildest form of punishment was a beating, usually specified as “one hundred blows with a stick.” A beating is often named in oaths as the sanction for perjury or for default on a contract, but it was seldom actually carried out. Occasionally, however, the local court did administer a beating to a litigant who ignored several verdicts against him, gave false testimony, or brought what appears to be a false accusation. The common element of these offenses appears to have been contempt of court. Yet if the literary texts are to be taken at face value, officials, tax collectors, and schoolteachers frequently beat their subordinates without recourse to a court; it is thus impossible in many cases to tell whether the offense that provoked the blows was considered a crime.

Except for the few cases of assault mentioned above, crimes against individuals are poorly documented. Theft appears to have been a tort rather than a crime; it was privately prosecuted, and the penalty was three times the value of the stolen goods. Adultery was not a matter for the courts but probably led to private acts of revenge; the status of rape is unclear.

Murder appears to have been a capital offense, however, at least in later periods. On the Banishment Stela, the god Amun-Re agreed that he would in the future kill (or have killed) those who were found guilty of murder; and a stela from Napata of the seventh or sixth century BCE records that Amun ordered the death by fire of some priests who murdered or plotted to murder an innocent man (Cairo JE 48865). The Petition of Petiese contains a suggestion that Petiese the elder should have caused the murderers of his grandchildren to be brought and placed on the brazier; the suggestion was not followed, however, and no action was taken against the offenders.

Criminal procedure.

Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdoms, like many other ancient societies, lacked institutions that are associated with criminal procedure today, such as police, public prosecutors, and professional judges. Instead, the official class as a whole was responsible for reporting crime to the office of the vizier; the latter then conducted the investigation, examination, and punishment. In routine cases, he may simply have ratified the decisions of lower officials.

Reporting crime was every offcial's duty and not only the business of police. The medjay, who are usually described as police, were in fact more like a military guard who protected areas such as the Valley of the Kings against physical threat. They were not concerned with crime control in the wider sense, although they might apprehend some criminals, especially burglars, in the course of their duties. Another group of officials, the ʒtw, had some investigative role, but their duties are not well documented and they do not play a major role in the known cases. Instead, as early as the First Intermediate Period, persons of the official class were required to report wrongdoing to their superiors and, in some cases, to confiscate the suspect's property until higher authorities arrived to deal with the offender (Edict of King Demedjibtawy for Idy). In the New Kingdom tomb-builders' community of Deir el-Medina, all workmen from scribes to stonecutters swore an oath of office not to commit crimes in the royal necropolis and also to report the crimes of others. The oath, administered to the work gang en masse by outside officials, read in part, “I will not hear a matter, I will not see a theft in the great and noble places and conceal it.” At least one workman named the oath as an introduction to charges against his colleagues. Laconic references to the oath of office from other parts of Egypt suggest that all civil servants were sworn to report crimes committed in their sphere of work.

Failure to report crime was itself a crime and was punished almost as heavily as the original offense. Those who knew of the Harem Conspiracy against Ramesses III but did not reveal the plot were executed along with the others. In contrast, King Demedjibtawy's decree, protecting the funerary cult of Idy, threatened any chief who failed to take action against criminals with loss of office and property, a lesser punishment than the execution and loss of burial rights suffered by the thieves and vandals.

Reports of crime passed up the chain of authority to the office of the vizier or, in exceptional cases, to the king, who sent agents to investigate. In New Kingdom texts from Thebes, those agents are sometimes identified as “officials of the Place of Examination”; suspects and witnesses were interrogated at this Place of Examination and could be imprisoned there for several days if necessary. The “great officials of the Place of Examination,” who handled the Harem Conspiracy investigation by order of the king, included two overseers of the treasury, standard-bearers, and royal butlers—that is, high-ranking officials close to the king. Generally, however, the officials are not identified, nor do is it known how they conducted their examinations.

The only criminal hearings that are described in detail are the Great Tomb Robbery investigations of the late twentieth dynasty. The robberies were a series of assaults on the tombs and temples of Western Thebes by various gangs of thieves. Over the years, a number of large-scale investigations were launched to punish the criminals and recover their loot, and the records of these unique proceedings have largely survived. The proceedings were carried out by the country's highest officials, including the vizier and the high priest of Amun. Interrogations were conducted under torture described as “twisting the hands and feet.” The suspects were confronted with contradictions in their story, and confederates were brought together to accuse one another; one of the defendants was even ferried over to the Valley of the Kings, to see whether he could point out the tomb he admitted to robbing (he could not). Although some of the officials were as anxious to cover up the scandals as to expose them, dozens of thieves were found guilty and imprisoned until word should be received from the pharaoh about their fate. We know from other sources that some were executed, but not by what means; a few suspects were acquitted and released.

Although the Great Tomb Robbery investigations were in some ways unique, in other ways they appear to have conformed to standard criminal procedures. The vizier seems to have been personally involved in most criminal investigations, and probably in all cases involving individuals of the official class; the Harem Conspiracy trials, from which the king deliberately distanced himself, form a notable exception to this rule. There is also reason to believe that only the king could authorize capital punishment. Again, the Harem Conspiracy provides a counterexample: the pharaoh explicitly placed full responsibility for the executions on the examining officials and declared himself blameless—a curious stance for one whose role was to battle the enemies of the state—and most likely because the defendants included members of the royal family.

One group of cases that does not follow the pattern described above is that of the fugitives from compulsory labor, whose fate was recorded in the late Middle Kingdom records of the Great Prison. When a peasant failed to appear for duty or was discovered to have fled from his work, action was first taken against his family. The relatives were held as security for his return by order of a council or court (ḏʒḏʒt), which was either a local body or one attached to the Great Prison. The facts of the case were entered into the register of the Great Prison and, evidently, also forwarded to some higher authority. When the runaway was captured or turned himself in, or perhaps while he was still at large but all of the facts in the case were known, this higher authority pronounced his sentence. The family was then released, the case was checked off in the prison register, and the case was declared closed by a scribe of the vizier. The identity of this higher authority who made the final decision and the means by which he reached its verdict are not specified, but the fact that a scribe of the vizier had the last word on the case suggests that it was the office of the vizier that decided a fugitive's fate or, at least, confirmed the decision of the council or court. If this is so, then it would appear that the office of the vizier had exclusive jurisdiction over all criminal cases, whether they involved peasants or officials.



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A. G. McDowell