The Police in Old Egypt

If you want to know the mid-18th century’s state of knowledge on almost any topic it’s a good idea go to their version of Wikipedia, the French Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean D’Alembert, which was first published in 1754. A cooperative online translation project of this great work is in hand and I’ve been contributing in a very small way. This started when I looked up what a Georgian doctor might be expected to know about Spanish Fly (cantharides) and arsenic, and found they were the subjects of quite short articles. I turned these into English and submitted them to the project.

I’ve now taken on a stiffer task with Police, a concept that I had rather thought was invented by the French, at least in its modern form. Not so, the encyclopaedia informed me. The Egyptians in the time of the pharaohs, it claimed, were a heavily policed society and the encyclopaedist gives a list of a dozen crimes that the police were supposed to enforce, along with the tariff of mandatory sentences to be meted out by the courts.

These penalties suggested there were dramatic differences between Egyptian (as described in the Encyclopaedia) and modern ideas on crime. For us there’s probably nothing worse than to kill a child but the Egyptians under the Pharoahs are said to have regarded the murder of a parent as much more heinous. They are said to have punished infanticide by a rather grisly form of shaming: the perpetrator was condemned to carry the child’s corpse around for three days and nights. The sanction against a parricide, on the other hand, was more like a case of hanging being too good for him. If I’ve got this right, he was to “have pointed reeds driven through all his limbs, be laid naked on a bed of nails and burned alive”.

How much the encyclopaedist  actually knew about everyday life in ancient Egypt is another question. He would certainly not have been able to read hieroglyphics, which were deciphered only after the Rosetta Stone was found in 1799.  He could have read about Egyptian society in Greek histories by the likes of Herodotus. But I can find no mention of a list of laws and tariffs such as the Encylopédie offers, and it seems to be the case that not a lot is known about the actuals laws the Pharoah's police enforced. *

Perhaps the difference the Encylopédie highlights between attitudes to the murder of a child and of a parent says more about attitudes in France in the 18th century AD than about Egypt in the 2nd millennium BC.


 *They did, however, stand guard duty, as well as investigate crime and bring criminals before the justices. They also used dogs and trained monkeys to help them and one source states that they would use re-enactments of the crimes – their own version of Crimewatch you could say.

Posted on November 18th, 2011


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