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Government in Ancient Egypt

Depiction of Government Scribes working.
Depiction of Government Scribes working.

That the ancient Egyptian civilization proved so resilient and endured for thousands of years was in no small part due to the system of government it evolved over centuries. Ancient Egypt developed and refined a theocratic monarchy model of government. The pharaoh ruled through a divine mandate received directly from the gods. To him, fell the task of acting as an intermediary between Egypt’s panoply of gods and the Egyptian people.

The will of the gods was expressed through the Pharaoh’s laws and his administration’s policies. King Narmer unified Egypt and established a central government around c. 3150 BCE. Archaeological evidence suggests a form of government existed prior to King Narmer while during the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000-3150 BCE) the Scorpion Kings implemented a form of government based on a monarchy. What form this government took remains unknown.

Facts about Ancient Egyptian Government

  • A central form of government existed in Ancient Egypt from the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000-3150 BCE)
  • Ancient Egypt developed and refined a theocratic monarchy model of government
  • The paramount authority both secular and religious in Ancient Egypt was the pharaoh
  • The pharaoh ruled through a divine mandate received directly from the gods.
  • Viziers were second only to the pharaoh in power
  • A system of regional governors or nomarchs exercised control at a provincial level
  • Egyptian towns had mayors administering them
  • The Ancient Egypt economy was based on barter and people used agriculture produce, precious gems and metals to pay their taxes
  • The government stored surplus grain and distributed it to constructions workers engaged on monumental projects or to the people during times of crop failure and famine
  • The king announced policy decisions, decreed laws and commissioned construction projects from his palace

Modern Delineations of the Ancient Egyptian Kingdoms

19th-century Egyptologists divided Egypt’s long history into blocks of time classified into kingdoms. Periods distinguished by a strong central government are known as ‘kingdoms,’ while those without a central government are termed ‘intermediate periods.’ For their part, the ancient Egyptians did not recognize any distinctions between time periods. Scribes of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1782 BCE) looked back to the First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BCE) as a time of woe but they did not officially coin a distinguishing term for these times.

Over the centuries, the Egyptian government’s functioning evolved slightly, however, the blueprint for Egypt’s government was laid down during Egypt’s First Dynasty (c. 3150 – c. 2890 BCE). The pharaoh reigned over the country. A vizier acted as his second-in-command. A system of regional governors or nomarchs exercised control at a provincial level, while a mayor governed large towns. Each pharaoh exerted control through government officials, scribes and a police force after the turbulence of the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782 – c.1570 BCE).

The king announced policy decisions, decreed laws and commissioned construction projects from offices in his palace complex in Egypt’s capital.  His administration then implemented his decisions through an extensive bureaucracy, which governed the country on a day-to-day basis. This model of government endured, with minimal changes from c. 3150 BCE to 30 BCE when Rome formally annexed Egypt.

Pre-Dynastic Egypt

Egyptologists have discovered scant government records dating prior to the Old Kingdom Period. Archeological evidence suggests Egypt’s first pharaohs established a form of central government and set in place an economic system to serve a unified Egyptian kingdom under a ruling king.

Prior to the Persian Period, the Egyptian economy was based on a barter system, rather than a monetary-based system of exchange. Egyptians paid taxes to their central government in the form of livestock, crops, precious metals and stones or jewellery. The government provided security and peace, commissioned the construction of public works and maintained stores of essential food supplies in case of famine.

Egypt’s Old Kingdom

During the Old Kingdom, ancient Egypt’s government became more centralized. This focused power enabled them to mobilize the country’s resources behind the will of the pharaoh. Constructing monumental stone pyramids required an expanded labour force to be organized, stone to be quarried and transported and an extensive logistics tail to be set up to sustain the massive building effort.

Pharaohs from Egypt’s Third and Fourth Dynasties maintained this strengthened central government giving them almost absolute power.

The pharaoh’s appointed the senior officials in their government and they often selected members of their extended family to ensure their loyalty to the pharaoh. It was the mechanism of government that allowed the pharaoh to sustain the economic effort required for their vast construction projects, which sometimes lasted decades.

During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, the pharaoh’s power dimmed. The nomarchs or district governors had grown in power, while the evolution of Government positions into hereditary offices reduced the flow of fresh talent replenishing the government ranks. By the end of the Old Kingdom, it was the nomarchs who ruled their nomes or districts without any effective oversight by the pharaoh. When the pharaohs lost effective control of the local nomes, the Egyptian system of central government collapsed.

Ancient Egypt’s Intermediate Periods

Egyptologists have inserted three Intermediate Periods into ancient Egypt’s historical timeline. Each of the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms were followed by a turbulent intermediate period. While each Intermediate Period had unique characteristics, they represented a time when the centralized government had collapsed and Egypt’s unification had fallen apart amidst weak kings, the growing political and economic power of the theocracy and social upheaval.

The Middle Kingdom

The Old Kingdom’s government served as a springboard for the emergence of the Middle Kingdom. The pharaoh reformed his administration and expanded his government. Clarification was made to the titles and duties of government officials, introducing greater accountability and transparency. Effectively they curbed the individual official’s sphere of influence.

The Pharaoh’s central government involved itself more closely with the nomes and exerted greater central control over the people and their level of taxation. The pharaoh curbed the nomarchs’ power. He appointed officials to oversee the nomes’ actions and he reduced the nomes political and economic power by placing towns at the centre of the governing structure. This greatly increased the power and influence of individual mayors with contributing to the growth of a middle-class bureaucracy.

The New Kingdom

The New Kingdom pharaohs largely continued the existing government structure. They did act to curb the power of provincial nomes by decreasing the size of each nome, while increasing the number of nomes. Around this time, the pharaohs also created a professional standing army.

The 19th Dynasty also saw the decline of the legal system. During this time, plaintiffs began seeking verdicts from oracles. Priests dictated a list of suspects to the god’s statue and the statue indicted the guilty. This shift further increased the priesthood’s political power and opened the door to institutional corruption.

Late Period and Ptolemaic Dynasty

In 671 and 666 BCE Egypt was invaded by the Assyrians who conquered the country. In 525 BCE the Persians invaded transforming Egypt into a satrapy with its capital at Memphis. As with the Assyrians before them, Persians assumed all positions of power.

Alexander the Great defeated Persia in 331 BCE, including Egypt. Alexander was crowned as Egypt’s pharaoh at Memphis and his Macedonians took the reigns of government. Following Alexander’s death, Ptolemy (323-285 BCE) one of his generals founded Egypt’s Ptolemaic Dynasty. The Ptolemies admired Egyptian culture and absorbed it into their rule, blending Greek and Egyptian cultures from their new capital in Alexandria. Under Ptolemy V (204-181 BCE), the central government was diminished and much of the country was in rebellion. Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE), was Egypt’s last Ptolemaic pharaoh. Rome formally annexed Egypt as a province after her death.

Government Structure in Ancient Egypt

Egypt had layers of government officials. Some officials worked at the national level, while others were focused on provincial functions.

A vizier was the Pharaoh’s second in command. To the vizier fell the duty of overseeing a wide sweep of government departments, including tax collection, agriculture, the military, the judicial system together with oversight of the pharaoh’s myriad of construction projects. While Egypt usually had one vizier; occasionally two viziers were appointed who responsible for either Upper or Lower Egypt.

The chief treasurer was another influential position in the administration. He was responsible for assessing and collecting taxes and arbitrating on disputes and discrepancies. The treasurer and his officials kept tax records and monitored the redistribution of the barter goods raised via the tax system.

Some Dynasties also appointed a general to command Egypt’s armies. The crown prince frequently took command of the army and served as its commanding general prior to ascending the throne.

The general was responsible for organizing, equipping and training the army. Either the pharaoh or the general usually led the army into battle depending on the importance and duration of the military campaign.

An overseer was another frequently used title in the Ancient Egyptian government. Overseers managed construction and work sites, such as the pyramids, while others managed granaries and monitored storage levels.

At the heart of any ancient Egyptian government were its legions of scribes. Scribes recorded government decrees, laws and official records, drafted foreign correspondence and wrote government documents.

Ancient Egypt Government Archives

As with most bureaucracies, ancient Egypt’s government sought to record the pharaoh’s proclamations, laws, accomplishments and events. Uniquely, much of the insights about the government come to us through tomb inscriptions. Provincial governors and government officials built or had tombs gifted to them. These tombs are decorated with inscriptions recording details of their titles and key events during their lives. One official’s tomb contained a description of meeting with a foreign trade delegation on behalf of the pharaoh.

Archaeologists have also excavated caches of trading records together with legal documents, including detailed prosecutions of tomb raiders. They outline measures the government took to punish them and prevent further looting. Senior government officials also sealed documents documenting property transfers giving researchers insights into the day-to-day transactions occurring within the kingdom.

Reflecting On The Past

A significant factor in the durability of the ancient Egyptian civilization was its system of government. Ancient Egypt’s refined theocratic monarchy government model balanced the power, wealth and influence of the trio of centres of power, comprising the monarchy, the provincial nomarchs and the priesthood. This system survived up until the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and Egypt’s independence.

Header image courtesy: Patrick Gray [Public Domain Mark 1.0], via flickr

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Government in Ancient Egypt," Give Me History, April 1, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/government-ancient-egypt.

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