The First 'Lawyers'? Judicial Offices, Administration and Legal Pluralism in Ancient Egypt, ca. 2500-1800 BCE
Ancient Egypt is the oldest state with imperial characteristics to have left extensive records of both its judicial administration and its underlying legal thought, and yet legal historians have largely ignored it. This chapter seeks to change this, exploring in particular the first seven centuries for which records are in place. Concentrating mostly on judicial practitioners, its main argument is that this period saw them develop from a loosely-defined collective of high officials engaging in ad hoc justice alongside many other activities, to a body of highly specialised individuals focused almost exclusively on law. This evolution occurred within a context of much wider changes in Egyptian society and administration: first there was a highly centralised state in the Old Kingdom (c. 2500–2200 bce), then it broke up into multiple polities in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200–2050 bce), and ultimately these recombined once more into a less centralised state in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050–1800 bce). The weakening of centralised authority allowed greater wealth to remain in provincial centres, contributing to a proliferation of lower-level officials and scribes away from the original administrative core. These people transformed the justice system within which they operated. By looking at the officials, institutions, and concepts which shaped justice across this time period, this chapter sheds light on broader questions of how law responds to the fragmentation of a large imperial state into smaller independent polities, and what then happens if these polities choose to reunite. Key topics under consideration include the interaction between core and periphery, as well as the significance of legal pluralism and the differences between formally constituted and informal law. The resulting study is a demonstration of how law adapted to socio-political flux, fragmentation, and reunification in an extensive period of Empire – or at least something akin to it – almost two millennia before the advent of Roman law.