Justice in Pharaonic Egypt

Detail of sarcophagus lid of Ramesses III / The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

Justice  was an immensely important concept within ancient pharaonic Egypt, known to them by the word Ma’at.

By A.J. van Loon / 12.15.2014
MA Thesis, Ancient History
Leiden University


Concerning Egypt, I am going to speak at length, because it has the most wonders, and everywhere presents works beyond description; therefore, I shall say the more concerning Egypt. Just as the Egyptians have a climate peculiar to themselves, and their river is different in its nature from all other rivers, so, too, have they instituted customs and laws contrary for the most part to those of the rest of mankind. Among them, the women buy and sell, the men stay at home and weave; and whereas in weaving all others push the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards. Men carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women pass water standing, men sitting. They ease their bowels indoors, and eat out of doors in the streets, explaining that things unseemly but necessary should be done alone in private, things not unseemly should be done openly. No woman is dedicated to the service of any god or goddess; men are dedicated to all deities male or female. Sons are not compelled against their will to support their parents, but daughters must do so though they be unwilling.[1]

Egypt holds a special place in history. This was as true when Herodotus wrote these words, as it is now still. It was one of the cradles of civilization as well as a long-lived kingdom, which lasted nearly three millennia under the reign of its pharaohs. While the Greeks and Romans certainly stood in awe of the wonders brought forth by the ancient Egyptian culture, they were often far less positive with regard to Egyptian society, i.e. the inhabitants and their customs. This is particularly interesting, since, in due time, both the Greeks and the Romans would gain control over Egypt for considerable periods of time. After the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty would rule the country until 30 BC, when Octavian–who was soon to be called Augustus–added Egypt to the Roman Empire. Thus, they got the chance to do things their way, so to speak.

With the exception of the nearly two centuries of Persian occupation between 525 and 332 BC, Egypt was ruled consecutively by the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans for the duration of a period of time spanning more than three millennia. Each of these three civilizations who came to rule over Egypt, are, in some way, closely connected to the concept of justice. Balance, order, and justice played a central part in Egyptian society and they were personified in one of their chief goddesses, Ma’at. The Ptolemaic Kingdom, then, would become famous for its advanced bureaucracy, but certainly also for its highly effective law enforcement system. The Romans, to conclude, prided themselves on their laws, which remain influential in European societies to this day.


Justice was an immensely important concept within ancient pharaonic Egypt, known to them by the word Ma’at; it was fundamentally embedded within all aspects of its society and culture. Law stood central in the life of the ancient Egyptian and observance of the rules was a universally sought after virtue. Even outside of its own borders, Egypt was known for its lawfulness. In his account of Egypt and the customs of its people, Diodorus reports to us the following:[2]

In their administration of justice the Egyptians also showed no merely casual interest, holding that the decisions of the courts exercise the greatest influence upon community life, and this in each of their two aspects. For it was evident to them that if the offenders against the law should be punished and the injured parties should be afforded succor there would be an ideal correction of wrongdoing; but if, on the other hand, the fear which wrongdoers have of the judgments of the courts should be brought to naught by bribery or favor, they saw that the break-up of community life would follow. Consequently, by appointing the best men from the most important cities as judges over the whole land they did not fall short of the end which they had in mind.[3]

Justice for ancient Egypt, however, pertained to much more than merely judicial matters. Ma’at
was personified as a goddess bearing the same name, who played a central part in Egyptian theology. She was the daughter of the Sun God, Re, and consort of Thoth, inventor of writing and the alphabet. She was the goddess of balance, truth and justice. Among others things, Ma’at was tasked with maintaining order in the universe and preventing it from collapsing into chaos. In mythology, Ma’at played a crucial part in the journey of the deceased in the afterlife: the weighing of their hearts against the sacred ostrich feather–which symbolized Ma’at and everything she represented–would decide the fate of the dead and their final otherworldly destination. Depicted as a young woman, often carrying the ostrich feather on her head, Ma’at was also one of the most visible aspects of the Egyptian state and its religion.[4]

The importance of Ma’at within Egyptian society even surpassed its signification as a powerful deity; it was a concept which pervaded every imaginable aspect of existence. The word Ma’at
has always been somewhat confounding and difficult to define. It may be translated as justice,
law, truth, order or cosmos and somehow it must have represented all of this. Jas Assmann proposed it should be translated as ‘connective justice’ and interpreted as the overarching term for the totality of all social norms. As a concept, Ma’at was the guiding principle of Egyptian law. It represented the natural order and cosmic balance; it had religious, ethical, moral, and political connotations. Most importantly perhaps, Ma’at can be perceived as a social contract–akin to Natural Law–connecting everything and everyone in existence, from the gods, through the pharaoh, down to the lowliest peasant. It bound the king to be good to his people and his people to be just and righteous to one another and to him, as well as to be virtuous in the eyes of the gods.[5]

Let us now discuss the administration of the Egyptian state and the way in which its legal system was organized. At the head of the state–or even at the center of it–stood the pharaoh, the godly king who seems to have attained this title partly through the magnificence of his residence. He presented the highest judicial authority, conveying divine justice on behalf of the gods to the Egyptian people. The pharaohs were ultimately responsible for all legal matters in Egypt and they often issued decrees which were judicial in nature. Directly under the pharaoh stood the vizier, who functioned as his right hand man and as ‘Prophet of Ma’at’. The pharaoh had placed the vizier at the head of Egypt’s mighty bureaucratic administration, in which he served as the most powerful civil servant. Furthermore, in his additional capacity of chief justice he was also in charge of the state’s legal system. The pharaoh and the vizier delegated their judicial and administrative responsibilities to local officials.[6]

Ever since the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-c. 2181 BC) Egypt had effectively been run by a class of
educated civil servants who reported to the vizier. Among those were the scribes, those people that had successfully taken up the arduous task of learning to read and write. The scribal class had been instrumental in Egypt’s flourishing, especially when it came to the successful execution of their many famous monumental building projects. Scribes played a central role in Egyptian administration and they were universally held in high regard. It should also be noted that Egyptian society was very traditional and extremely conservative, perhaps in part influenced by the lifeblood of their country: the river Nile, which dictated the fixed routines of life through its yearly inundation. As a result of this, Egyptian law evolved only very slowly and laws could remain in effect unaltered for very long periods of time. Their strict adherence to tradition and their tendency to follow precedent, on the other hand, had inspired them to diligently keep records of various administrative proceedings, which were stored in the vizier’s archives.[7]

However, from this broad characterization of Egypt’s administrative structure, we cannot yet deduce the manner in which law was practiced in actuality. Remarkably, in spite of vigorous
recordkeeping by the ancient Egyptians and despite the sheer volume of source material available to us, any example of Egyptian codified law prior to 700 BC is yet to be found. This absence of tangible evidence sparked a discussion among experts as to whether ancient Egyptians made use of codified law at all. Some were convinced elaborate bodies of written laws must have existed, based, in part, on the fact that classical writers as well as Egyptian sources give accounts of their existence.[8] Others, however, maintain that the simple fact that, as of yet, nothing substantial has been discovered among the copious amount of Egyptian written documents, must lead us to conclude that there was never any codified law in the first place.[9] Intriguingly, a single Middle Kingdom papyrus, probably dating to the 12th Dynasty (c. 1991-1802 BC), refers to five detailed directives for dealing with fugitives.[10] Even though this may prove the existence of written laws, it is at this time however the closest we can come to any solid evidence of ancient Egyptian codified law. Setting aside the question of the existence of written laws, it is evident that law played a significant role in Egyptian society.[11]

In the absence of extant codified law, our knowledge of Egyptian law in practice must for now be based upon other available documents, such as contracts, wills, trial records, and royal
edicts. These have, regrettably, neither survived in great numbers. Fortunately, one exception to this matter is presented to us by the New Kingdom workmen’s community of Deir el-Medina. Over the course of nearly 400 years, the inhabitants of this settlement produced scores of documents which were conscientiously archived. A wealth of written material from Deir el-Medina has been preserved through the ages and can now serve as a source from which to draw information on the application of law in the life of the Egyptian commoner. In spite of its importance in light of the relative scarcity of similar documents in Egypt, the evidence provided by the many texts from Deir el-Medina is, however, still rather fragmentary. As such, any further reaching conclusions regarding the legal practice in Deir el-Medina as well as in Egypt as a whole shall necessarily have to be extrapolated to a certain extent from these local sources, scattered through time.[12]

Deir el-Medina, situated west of present day Luxor, was a settlement inhabited by the civil
servants, workmen, and artists responsible for excavating and embellishing the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Together with their respective families, they were between 60 and 120 number. In their own days, the settlement was known by the name Set Ma’at, or ‘Place of Truth’, and it inhabited the southern part of the Theban necropolis. It is important to note that the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina were not slaves. They had been appointed by the Pharaoh and stood under the direct supervision of the vizier; they were salaried employees of the state. The settlement had been returned to former glory by the pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty (c.1543-1292 BC) who succeeded Akhenaten and it remained inhabited well into the 21st Dynasty (c.1069-c. 945 BC). The records left behind by these people thus span nearly the entire duration of Egypt’s New Kingdom. The varied and informative texts present a clear image of everyday life and they have greatly contributed to our knowledge of the ancient Egyptian judicial system.[13]

From the sources we know that–as it was common in ancient Egypt–the daily affairs of the
settlement were run by a council (Qnbt), in case of Deir el-Medina comprising two foremen and at least one scribe. In their capacity as administrators (rwDw) or chiefs (Hryw) they were responsible for overseeing the work on the tombs and for maintaining order in the community, which included presiding over the tribunals which dealt with various disputes and complaints.
These Hryw were the most prominent people within their community; they represented the royal authority and formed the link between the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina and outside institutions, such as the central administration and nearby temples. Within the Qnbt the scribes played an instrumental role. In spite of their hierarchical position under the two foremen, it was they who were actually responsible for all administrative duties within the community. It was the scribe who corresponded with the central authority, he drew up all contracts and wills and he also played an important role in the local trial process.[14]

The specific proceedings at these trials, as well as the nature of the cases that were judged and the penalties that were imposed, will be discussed in detail in the following. In conclusion, however, it should be mentioned that there existed other courts of law besides these local courts presided over by the Qnbt. Cases which involved particularly grave offenses or which directly involved the state–such as robbery from the royal tombs–were handled by the ‘Great Court’ (Qnbt), presided over by the vizier himself. Since the time of pharaoh Horemheb (c.1323- 1295 BC) it became practice to appoint two viziers, who split their responsibilities geographically. Thus for most part of the New Kingdom there were two ‘Great Courts’, one in the south and one in the north. In addition to the local courts and the two ‘Great Courts’, special courts could be commissioned ad hoc. This, however, only happened in very few instances and these courts dealt with the most extraordinary of matters, such as the royal tomb robberies during the 20th Dynasty (c. 1187-1064 BC) and the harem conspiracies, which nearly resulted in pharaoh Ramesses III (1186-1155 BC) losing his life.[15]


  1. Herodotus, The Histories, II, 5, 35; (unless stated otherwise, all translations used are taken from the Loeb Classical Library, the database of papyri on www.papyri.info, or from the relevant publications listed in the table of sources).
  2. Russel VerSteeg, Law in Ancient Egypt (Chicago, 2002) 3.
  3. Diodorus, Bibliotheca HistoricaI, 75.
  4. Joseph G. Manning, “The Representation of Justice in Ancient Egypt”, Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities:Vol. 24: Iss. 1 (2012) 114; VerSteeg, Law in Ancient Egypt, 19-20.
  5. Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt. History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs (Harvard University Press 2002) 127-134; Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford 2006) 101-102; Manning, “Representation of Justice”, 114-116;
    VerSteeg, Law in Ancient Egypt, 20-23.
  6. Leonard H. Lesko, Pharaoh’s Workers: The Villagers of Deir el-Medina (Cornell University Press, 1994) 9; VerSteeg, Law in Ancient Egypt, 5-6, 43-44.
  7. Lesko, Pharaoh’s Workers, 8; VerSteeg, Law in Ancient Egypt, 24, 43.
  8. James Henry Breasted, A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian conquest (London 1920) 81, 165; Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt (New York 1971) 141; Diodorus, I, 75, 79.
  9. Aristide Théodorides, “The Concept of Law in Ancient Egypt”, in: J. Harris (ed.), The Legacy of Egypt, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1971) 291, 320; John A. Wilson, “Authority and Law in Ancient Egypt”, Journal of the American Oriental Society Supp. 17 (1954) 5.
  10. P. Brooklyn 35.1446, in: William C. Hayes, A Papyrus of the late Middle Kingdom in the Brooklyn Museum (New York 1955) 49-52.
  11. VerSteeg, Law in Ancient Egypt, 7-10.
  12. Schafik Allam, “Strafrechtliches im pharaonischen Ägypten”, in: Rollinger, Robert, Martin Lang & Heinz Barta (eds.), Strafe und Strafrecht in den antiken Welten, unter Berücksichtigung von Todesstrafe, Hinrichtung und peinlicher Befragung (Wiesbaden 2012) 129-130; Lesko, Pharaoh’s Workers, 1; VerSteeg, Law in Ancient Egypt, 10-11.
  13. Allam, “Strafrechtliches”, 129-130; Lesko, Pharaoh’s Workers, ii-3, 9.
  14. Allam, “Strafrechtliches”, 130-131; Lesko, Pharaoh’s Workers, 9-10.
  15. Allam, “Strafrechtliches”, 133; Lesko, Pharaoh’s Workers, 37-48, 44-45, 50.


Allam, S., “Strafrechtliches im pharaonischen Ägypten”, in: Rollinger, Robert, Martin Lang & Heinz Barta (eds.), Strafe und Strafrecht in den antiken Welten, unter Berücksichtigung von Todesstrafe, Hinrichtung und peinlicher Befragung (Wiesbaden 2012) pp. 129-145.

Assmann, J., The Mind of Egypt. History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs (Harvard University Press 2002).

Breasted, J.H., A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian conquest (London 1920).

Erman, A., Life in Ancient Egypt (New York 1971).

Lesko, L.H., Pharaoh’s Workers: The Villagers of Deir-el-Medina (Cornell University Press 1994).

Manning, J.G., “The Representation of Justice in Ancient Egypt”, Yale Journal of Law & the
Humanities: vol. 24: Iss. 1 (2012) pp. 111-118.

Théodorides, A., “The Concept of Law in Ancient Egypt”, in: J. Harris (ed.), The Legacy of Egypt, 2nd ed. (Ofxord 1971) pp. 291-322.

VerSteeg, R., Law in Ancient Egypt (Chicago 2002).

Wilson, J.A., “Authority and Law in Ancient Egypt”, Journal of the American Oriental Society Supp. 17 (1954) pp. 1-7.

Originally published by Leiden University under an open access license for educational, non-commercial purposes.