Ancient Egypt Political and Social Organization


The titulary borne by the king of Egypt stressed the two most important aspects of his kingship—divinity and unification.

The king was the “good god” (Horus, son of Osiris, as well as the son of Re and the son of Amon) who originally united and continued to unite the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt. He was also the upholder of justice, who secured the proper order of life both in nature and in society. As chief priest of ali the temples of Egypt, the king was the liaison between his people and the other gods of the universe, who protected and nourished his land. Theoretically the king ruled because he was a god, and his rule was therefore also absolute. But in practice anyone who had the power to take and hold the throne could claim divinity. Thus some commoners, foreigners, and women became divine kings.

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Succession, Coronation, and Jubilee.

The normal successor to the throne was the son of the king and his chief queen. If there were no such son, a daughter might claim the throne. But more frequently she would marry someone—perhaps her father’s son by a lesser wife—who wouId become king. Brother-sister marriages were common in the royal family, both to keep the line as pure as possible and to keep down the number of pretenders to the throne. One means regularly used by a king to guarantee the succession of his chosen heir was to have this son crowned as king in his own lifetime. Once a person became king he could try to justify his claim to the throne further by promulgating the story of his divine birth or by publishing an oracular pronouncement that foretold his accession.

How convinced the ancient Egyptians were by the doctrine of divine kingship probably depended on how well things went for the country and the particular dynasty in power. People knew that kings died, that some were even killed, and that kings could be cursed and deposed.

The two most important celebrations of the king were his coronation and jubilee. Scenes of his coronation show him receiving the various emblems of his office from the gods. The jubilee was ordinarily celebrated after 30 years of reign and in origin seems to have been a test of the king’s physical fîtness to continue to rule. After the first jubilee this celebration was repeated every few years.


Through ali the great periods of its early history Egypt was governed by kings who had the support of a very well-organized administration. But, although something is known about administrative divisions and offices in ali periods, it is practically impossible to produce a coherent picture. The evidence indicates that administrative procedures and control may have varied considerably from dynasty to dynasty or even from reign to reign.

The king’s most powerful official was generally the vizier. This personage saw that the will of the king was carried out, kept the king informed by daily reports, handled the king’s appointments, and reeeived foreign embassies. He also presided over a court of law that decided important criminal and civil cases, and he reeeived taxes, supervised the royal estates, and levied troops. The vizier was often in charge of building projects and was frequently mayor of his city of residence (Thebes or Memphis). At times there were certainly two separate viziers, one for Upper and one for Lower Egypt, but it cannot be proved that this was always the case.

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The man who held the office of chancellor not only controlled the royal treasuries and granaries but also supervised the census and collection of taxes. In the Protodynastic Period (İst and 2d dynasties), this may have been the highest office, but in the Old Kingdom the vizier was often chancellor as well, and later the chancellor was clearly responsible to the vizier.

In the 18th dynasty the chancellor’s responsibilities fell more to the chief steward, who was in charge of the king’s personal estate and household. At least one such chief steward, Senmut, became the most influential official under his sovereign.

There were numerous other officials in this bureaucratic government, and many important positions were created as the need arose. One was the office of viceroy of Cush, established in the 18th dynasty. Another was the office of governor of Upper Egypt, apparently created in the 5th dynasty to give the central government more direct control over the chief officials in the 22 nomes of Upper Egypt. In the 6th dynasty, however, many of these nomarehs and other persons as well claimed the title of governor of Upper Egypt on an honorary or hereditary basis.

It was the growing independence of the nomarehs that led to the general breakdown of the First Intermediate Period, during which many of them even claimed royal titles and prerogatives. At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom the nomarchs who had supported the Thebans were maintained in office, but in the reign of Senusert III ali of these local officials were apparently suppressed and the central government was reorganized.

At various times different criteria were used in awarding the principal offices. In the 4th dynasty the king reserved the office of vizier for royal princes, both to centralize authority and to help ensure that the prince would remain loyal. In the 5th dynasty high offices began to be awarded to nonroyal persons on merit. By the 6th dynasty they were tending to become hereditary, even though the king theoretically maintained the right of approval. The extreme was probably reached in the 13th dynasty, when a family of viziers seems to have maintained itself in power and controlled a number of short-lived kings. In the 18th dynasty, offices were again awarded on the basis of ability, and self-made men attained high posts.


Besides the chief officeholders there were, of course, hundreds of others, rnany of whom bore the title “scribe.” Scribes had to be educated. The main profession for educated young men other than government administration yvas the priesthood.

Education was first of ali a family concem, and every father who was master of a craft was expected to teach the craft to his son. This custom applied not only to the various arts, trades, and crafts but to the highest offices of the land. A vizier’s instructions to his son teli him how to carry out his assignments—to be reliable and not greedy and most of ali to be a good listener. The instruetion also telis him how to behave in the home or at the table of another and how to keep his own household happy. A king’s instruetion telis his son how to avoid making some of the same mistakes that he himself had made.

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When schools were set up for the education of young persons destined for the civil service, it was most important for the schools to teach reading and writing. Students learned to read by reciting “instructions” of the aforementioned type and to write by copying them. At the same time they learned how to conduct themselves properly. Since many of the texts had been composld much earlier, the students were also studying works that had become classics, written in an archaic idiom that was quite unlike the colloquial language. Other texts were intended to convince the young students of the importance of their studies. Such texts asserted that the seribe’s profession was superior to other occupations and that the work of great writers outlasted their monuments and made them live forever.

Students had to copy model letters and reports as practical training for the work that they would be doing as lower-echelon managers. A certain amount of mathematics, at least for book-keeping, was also necessary. Although much written material has survived on the monuments of ancient Egypt, probably only a very small percentage of the population could read and write. A scribal education was intended primarily for young men who would enter public service, but in every period there were some women who knew how to write.


Law in ancient Egypt depended entirely on the will of the king, who was the chief lawgiver and judge. But authority was regularly delegated to the vizier to decide civil and eriminal cases that could not be settled out of court or decided at a local level.

Although no code of laws has survived, it is reasonable to assume that a code existed and was entrusted to the vizier, since he had to know the law and how to interpret it. In a wall scene from .the tomb of a vizier of the 18th dynasty, 40 leather rolls are pictured on the floor of the vizier’s hail. Although some have considered these as symbols of authority or as instruments of punishment, it is indeed possible that these rolls contained a code of law.

In addition to the two great tribunals at Thebes and Heliopolis over which the viziers presided, every other large town had a council to judge noncapital cases. These councils consistcd of not only civil officials and priests, but also the town elders, both men and women.

Surviving Legal Texts.

A number of texts Survive that have a bearing on law, but, since they refer to specific cases and come from different periods, care must be taken in generalizing from them. One common type of royal decree is a grant of immunity to a particular temple. Such decrees indicate that temples were not automatically immune from taxation nor were the temple staffs immune from labor levies or military service. Two of the decrees, separated by more than 1,000 years, involve the temple at Abydos. Both are concerned with proteeting the temple staff from seizure by state officials for government service.

The penalties are very severe, but since in the later decree the penalties for taking cattle from the temple estates are even more severe, we can suspect that such apparently benevolent decrees were more concerned with protecting an important source of revenue. Similarly, die Edict of Horemheb, which was intended to set the land in order again at the end of the 18th dynasty, listed punishments for soldiers and tax collectors who had been oppressing the people. But the examples cited show that the king was as much or more concerned about his own loss of revenue if either the taxes (in kind) he was owed or the boats used to convey these taxes were taken from him.

The most common legal documents that survive from ancient Egypt are property transfer contracts, marriage settlements, and endowments. A “house document” was used both to record the sale of a valuable piece of property and to record its transfer as a gift. These documents were signed by witnesses, sealed by an official, and deposited in a record office. In a culture so preoccupied with providing for the afterlife it is not surprising to fînd many nobles contracting to turn over a portion of their estates to lay priests who would guarantee to make offerings to the deceased in perpetuity. Such endowments were considered property that could be inherited or sold.

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Two Legal Cases.

In some respects Egyptian law was very advanced, as in the use of legal precedents and dossiers. But in other respects it was very primitive, with appeal to oracles, interrogation by beating, and punishments that included hundredfold restitution and having the nose and ears cut off. Records of two extraordinary law cases have survived (see History). The Tomb Robberies papyri indicate that this case came before the vizier and confessions were obtained by beating, but since not every charge of the prosecution was correct the defendants were acquitted. For the “harem conspiracy” trial a special tribunal was appointed by the king. After lengthy proceedings several judges were found guilty of collusion, and a large number of defendants were sentenced to death. The most important of those convicted were allowed to take their own lives.

Greco-Roman Period.

In the Ptolemaic period Greek law was applied to the Greek cities and to the Greeks scattered through the country, while Egyptian law applied to Egyptians. For cases involving both Greeks and Egyptians there was a joint court at first, but these cases later were referred to one of the other courts, depending on the language of the relevant documents. In Roman times three separate legal systems existed in Egypt—national law for Greeks and Egyptians, Roman imperial law, and Roman provincial law.

The Army.

Ancient Egypt ahvays had some form of military organization, although it changed with the times. Thus in the Old Kingdom, when the country was fairly secure from outside invasion, men were levied as the need arose, but in the New Kingdom a large standing army had to be maintained. The king was commander in chief, but relatively few kings personally led expeditions of foreign conquest.

Most early kings probably had a small bodyguard for the palace and a national poliçe force to guard the borders and to assist in colleeting taxes. They also had some troops that could be sent to foreign lands to bring back what the king desired or to inspire fear abroad. Troops were also used on public works and building projects. The nomarchs of the First Intermediate Period maintained their own small mercenary forces. From a nomarch’s tomb in Asyut come wooden models of companies of both native Egyptian spearmen and Nubian bowmen. In the Middle Kingdom, armies were again called up according to need, and they included many Libyans and Nubians. Interesting graffiti left by one Nubian mercenary show his contempt for his Egyptian comrades.

The Hyksos experience of the Second Intermediate Period turned Egypt into a militaristte country, and a very well-organized professional army helped the kings of the early 18th dynasty attain their goal of imperialistic expansion. In the New Kingdom there were several armies of infantry commanded by generals. Each army was divided into 25 companies of 200 men commanded by standard-bearers. The armies were accompanied by units of chariotry, and a master of the horse was in charge of these privileged units. The army had headquarters at both Memphis and Thebes. Scribes handled the administrative work of recruiting, supply, and recordkeeping, ineluding the writing of campaign annals.

The navy had its main base near Memphis and served principally to transport the army and its supplies and tribute from foreign lands. Ramses III recorded on the walls of his mortuary temple a great naval battle with the Sea Peoples, but this type of battle was unusual.

The army generally had a large number of foreign mercenaries and prisoners in the ranks of the infantry. Among these some members of the tribes of Sea Peoples stand out in the 19th and 20th dynasties, even in battles against their kinsmen. In the New Kingdom the national poliçe force was known by the name of a Nubian tribe, the Medjay, indicating that the Egyptians were clearly becoming very dependent on foreigners. From the 26th dynasty on, the Egyptian kings counted on their Greek mercenaries more than on Egyptian warriors, and often trusted them more.

Social Distinctions.

None of the ancient Egyptian townsites that have been excavated is really typical. At Lahun a town was built for ali the people involved in work on a Middle Kingdom pyramid complex. It had an acropolis with a palace for either the king or a mayor, and(a number of other large houses were on an avenue leading up to the acropolis. A large wall separated this quarter of the town from the workmen’s dwellings, which were in regular rows off another street.

Ancient Egypt : Way of Life (Family, Food and Drink, Clothing and Recreation)

At what is now Teli el-Amarna, Akhenaton constructed his new capital, Akhetaton. His officials picked out for their estates scattered large areas that certainly included the best sites, and they waited for the town to develop around and between their estates. Amarna indeed offers a contrast to the class distinctions at Lahun. Another contrast is in the dwellings themselves, which at Lahun seem to have separate women’s quarters but at Amarna do not.

Whether there were separate women’s quarters, it is clear that the position of women socially and legally was very nearly equal to that of men. Women could own and dispose of property, make contracts, and bring lawsuits. It was possible for women to receive an education and even to become scribes, and it is thought that women probably received equal pay for equal work. The significance of maternal parentage for the right of succession can also be noted.

Most of the people of ancient Egypt were serfs or peasants who earned little more than their livelihood. Slavery existed and was certainly advanced by the military conquests of the New Kingdom, but slaves could own property and pass it on to their heirs and could also marry free women. Slavery therefore was not always completely abject.


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