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Law: Definitions and Codification


When considering “law” in ancient Egypt, it is necessary to try to distinguish between our modernconcepts a nd ancient aspects of Egyptian law. The word hep is most commonly translated as “law” and was used in the sense of “(single) law” throughout Egyptian history, but it also refers to any other type of binding rule. Hepu and, in Demotic, also hep can refer to the totality of laws and therefore come close to our modern understanding of “law.” Although maat is often translated as “justice,” it covered much more than legal justice, making it difficult to identify the Egyptian equivalent of “law” in its more general sense (cf. German Recht). The modern distinction between civil and criminal law is also hard to transfer to ancient Egyptian practice. There was no state prosecution for actions we would consider criminal such as theft or assault, but the injured party had to act as plaintiff. Only crimes against the pharaoh and gods, like conspiracies or theft from royal tombs or temples, were prosecuted by officials. There is no clear evidence for written laws before the Middle Kingdom and only indirect evidence for the period preceding the New Kingdom. The codification under Darius I may have been the first attempt at collecting all earlier laws still valid at that period in one single corpus. This collectionof laws continued to form the basis for Egyptian jurisdiction even during the Ptolemaic Period.

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