Ancient Egypt Government
"The Bureaucrats — Law — The Vizier — The Pharaoh"
Ancient Egypt Government
Every visitor to the Louvre has seen the statue of the Egyptian government scribe, squatting on his haunches, almost completely nude, dressed with a pen behind the ear as reserve for the one he holds in his hand.
He keeps record of work done and goods paid, of prices and costs, of profits and loss; he counts the cattle as they move to the slaughter, or corn as it is measured out in sale; he draws up contracts and wills, and makes out his master's income-tax; verily there is nothing new under the sun.
He is sedulously attentive and mechanically industrious; he has just enough intelligence not to be dangerous.
His life is monotonous, but he consoles himself by writing essays on the hardships of the manual worker's existence, and the princely dignity of those whose food is paper and whose blood is ink.
With these scribes as a clerical bureaucracy the Pharaoh and the provincial nobles maintained law and order in the state government.
Ancient slabs show such Government clerks taking the census, and examining income-tax returns.
Through Nilometers that measured the rise of the river, the scribe-officials forecast the size of the harvest, and estimated the government future revenue; they allotted appropriations in advance to governmental departments, supervised industry and trade, and in some measure achieved, almost at the outset of history, a planned economy regulated by the state.
Civil and criminal legislation
Civil and criminal legislation were highly developed, and already in the Fifth Dynasty the law of private property and bequest was intricate and precise.
As in our own days, there was absolute equality before the law whenever the contesting parties had equal resources and influence.
Oldest legal document in Ancient Egypt Government
The oldest legal document in the world is a brief, in the British Museum. Presenting to the court a complex case in inheritance.
Judges required cases to be pled and answered, reargued and rebutted, not in oratory but in writing which compares favorably with our windy litigation.
Perjury was punished with death.
There were regular Government courts, rising from local judgment-seats in the nomes to supreme courts at Memphis,Thebes,Heliopolis.
Torture was used occasionally as a midwife to truth; beating with a rod was a frequent punishment, mutilation by cutting off nose or ears, hand or tongue, was sometimes resorted to, or exile to the mines.
Or death by strangling, empaling, beheading, or burning at the stake; the extreme penalty was to be embalmed alive, to be eaten slowly by an inescapable coating of corrosive natron.
Criminals of high rank were saved the shame of public execution by being permitted to kill themselves, as in samurai Japan.
We find no signs of any system of police; even the standing army always small because of Egypt's protected isolation between deserts and seas was seldom used for internal discipline.
Law in Ancient Egypt Government
Security of life and property, and the continuity of law and government, rested almost entirely on the prestige of the Pharaoh, maintained by the schools and the church. No other nation except China has ever dared to depend so largely upon psychological discipline.
It was a well-organized government, with a better record of duration than any other in history.
The Vizier in Ancient Egypt Government
At the head of the Government was the Vizier, who served at once as prime minister, chief justice, and head of the treasury; he was the court of last resort under the Pharaoh himself.
A tomb relief shows us the Vizier leaving his house early in the morning to hear the petitions of the poor, "to hear," as the inscription reads, "what the people say in their demands, and to make no distinction between small and great."
A remarkable papyrus roll, which comes down to us from the days of the Empire, purports to be the form of address (perhaps it is but a literary invention) with which the Pharaoh installed a new Vizier:
"Look to the office of the Vizier; be watchful over all that is done therein. Behold, it is the established support of the whole land. . . .
The Vizierate is not sweet; it is bitter. . . . Behold, it is not to show respect-of-persons to princes and councillors; it is not to make for himself slaves of any people. . . .
Behold, when a petitioner comes from Upper or Lower Egypt ... see thou to it that every¬thing is done in accordance with law, that everything is done ac-cording to the custom thereof, (giving) to (every man) his right. ...
It is an abomination of the god to show partiality. . . .
Look upon him who is known to thee like him who is unknown to thee; and him who is near the King like him who is far from (his House).
Behold, a prince who does this, he shall endure here in this place. . . .
The dread of a prince is that he does justice. . . . (Behold the regulation) that is laid upon thee."
The Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt Government
The Pharaoh himself was the supreme court; any case might under certain circumstances be brought to him, if the plaintiff was careless of expense.
Ancient carvings show us the "Great House" from which he ruled, and in which the offices of the government were gathered; from this Great House, which the Egyptians called Pero and which the Jews translated Pharaoh, came the title of the emperor.
Here he carried on an arduous routine of executive work, sometimes with a schedule as rigorous as Chandragupta's, Louis XIV's or Napoleon's.
When he traveled the nobles met him at the feudal frontiers, escorted and entertained him, and gave him presents proportionate to their expectations; one lord, says a proud inscription, gave to Amenhotep II:
"carriages of silver and gold, statues of ivory and ebony . . . jewels, weapons, and works of art, 680 shields, 140 bronze daggers, and many vases of precious metal.
The Pharaoh reciprocated by taking one of the baron's sons to live with him at court a subtle way of exacting a hostage of fidelity.
The oldest of the courtiers constituted a Council of Elders called Saru, or The Great Ones, who served as an advisory cabinet to the king.
Such counsel was in a sense superfluous, for the Pharaoh, with the help of the priests, assumed divine descent, powers and wisdom; this alliance with the gods was the secret of his prestige.
Consequently he was greeted with forms of address always flattering, sometimes astonishing, as when, in The Story of Sinuhe, a good citizen hails him: "O long-living King, may the Golden One" (Hathor the goddess) "give life to thy nose."
As became so godlike a person, the Pharaoh was waited upon by a variety of aides, including generals, launderers, bleachers, guardians of the imperial wardrobe, and other men of high degree.
Twenty officials collaborated to take care of his toilet: barbers who were permitted only to shave him and cut his hair, hairdressers who adjusted the royal cowl and diadem to his head, manicurists who cut and polished his nails, perfumers who deodorized his body, blackened his eyelids with kohl, and reddened his cheeks and lips with rouge.
One tomb inscription describes its occupant as "Overseer of the Cosmetic Box, Overseer of the Cosmetic Pencil. Sandal-Bearer to the King, doing in the matter of the King's sandals to the satisfaction of his Law."
So pampered, he tended to degenerate, and sometimes brightened his boredom by manning the imperial barge with young women clad only in network of a large mesh.
The luxury of Amenhotep III prepared for the debacle of Ikhnaton.
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