Law Hall of Fame logoSomething about the Egyptians that frustrates archaeologists. There are many papyrus and other inscription which act as teasers, references to law codes but none has ever been discovered.

Just as baffling, there is no direct reference to a comprehensive legal code of any kind.

Ancient Egypt invented and relied extensively on Papyrus for record-keeping; the shelf-life of papyrus is relatively short and little has survived.

Horemheb is as close to a law-maker that the Egyptians had, at least to the knowledge of archeologists circa 2009. He was commander of the Egyptian armed forces when, in 1355, the pharaoh Akhenaten suddenly vanished, likely assassinated. The prince Tutankhaten took his place, changing his name to Tutankhamum. But he was too young to run the country so Horemheb was appointed his deputy which, in accordance with Egyptian law, meant that if Tutankhamum died without a heir, Horemheb would become pharaoh.

HoremhebThe young king did die young and although not without palace intrigue, Horemheb eventually ascended to the throne of Egypt in 1343 B.C., reigning until his death in 1315 B.C., 28 years.

According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt:

"During his reign, Horemheb decreed measures to protect individual property (and) ordered the restoration of the judicial ... administration of Egypt."

There is strong circumstantial evidence that during Haremheb’s long reign, a number of Egypt-wide decrees were enacted. For example, a hieroglyphic inscription in archaeological restoration at Karnak ruins at Luxor, Egypt, details his anti-corruption decree in regards to punishing Royal officials, guards or soldiers for maltreament or theft of person or goods destined for the Royal Palace. The stated punishment: flogging or cutting off the offender’s nose or financial compensation to the victim.

The decree instructs:

"Do not compromise yourself with people. Do not accept rewards from others."

The Horemheb inscription at Karnak then lists apparently unrelated offences but all aimed at curbing corruption and abuses of his people by his employees:

  • The seizure of boats or female servants for unlawful reasons;
  • The intimidation of persons living along the route between the Palace and the annual festival at Thebes for the purposes of feeding or otherwise supplying the Royal retinue; and
  • Stealing of crops from private farms; and false or fraudulent taxation.

He restored the people’s law courts at Heliopolis and Thebes and he was careful in choosing fair-minded and honest judges to these courts. In this, he innovated with the office of a dedicated and professional judge rather than deferring to oracles, clerics, elders or sages. But in smaller communities, Horemheb decreed that local city elders or leaders or clerics presided over the courts of law.

He organized land registration and created an office of a senior scribe in charge.

Horemheb’s tomb was discovered in 1975. His influence on human history is not limited to things legal as his choice of successor was none other than the great Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses I. Ramses continued some of Horemheb’s legal reforms but many did not last as within a few centuries, oracles were used extensively to resolve disputes in civil cases, and in criminal cases, to decide guilt.

REFERENCES:

  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Ancient Egyptian Law
  • Redford, D., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Volume 2 (Oxford: University Press, 2001), pages 114-116