Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from the 1st century BCE, recorded many peculiar pieces of folklore about ancient Egypt in his bulky Library of History. One such tale that he wove into his account concerned an odd figure known only as the “Chief of Thieves.” This peculiar individual, if he actually existed, apparently felt secure enough that he announced his presence openly to both the criminal and the law-abiding sides of society. He thrived in the grey area between crime and justice, playing both sides to his benefit. In his criminal dealings, the Chief of Thieves was well-informed about who was in the business of thievery, and with this information the Chief allegedly monopolized the black market of buying and selling stolen goods. As the story goes, the Chief of Thieves somehow became the predominant purchaser of stolen items, and in addition to simply collecting the contraband, the Chief also gathered as much information about the pieces as he could get, such as the places of origin for the various items, as well as the exact time of day when the objects were stolen. Once the stolen goods were in his possession, the Chief could move on to the next step in his scheme—selling the stolen goods back to their original owners. As mentioned earlier, the Chief of Thieves allegedly felt secure enough to proclaim his presence to law-abiding Egyptians, and therefore people who were the victims of theft apparently flocked to the Chief to see if he had their lost item. Like a lost-and-found, if victims could submit an accurate description of the object, the Chief would retrieve it from his warehouses and return it to the original owner, albeit for a fee, of course. Diodorus Siculus recorded this strange tale in the following way:
“The Egyptian law dealing with thieves was also a very peculiar one. For it bade any who chose to follow this occupation to enter their names with the Chief of Thieves and by agreement to bring him immediately the stolen articles, while any who had been robbed filed with him in a like manner a list of all the missing articles, stating the place, the day, and the hour of the loss, and since by this method all lost articles were readily found, the owner who had lost anything had only to pay one-fourth of its value in order to recover just what belonged to him” (Library of History, book 1, chapter 80).
Exactly how Diodorus Siculus came by this story is uncertain, but it is not likely that an Egyptian pharaoh, vizier, or other law enforcement authority in ancient Egypt would have condoned such a system unless they were a corrupt official. Returning stolen property was indeed one way that theft was resolved in ancient Egypt, but thieves were known to have been forced to pay double or triple the price of the stolen property to the victim of the theft. And thieves who robbed temples or tombs could expect a death penalty for their crimes. All in all, Diodorus Siculus’ story seems to be a tale about a corrupt government official or a powerful criminal who did not fear the law.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Stela of the Steward Mentuwoser, dated c. 1944 B.C., during the reign of Senwosret I of Egypt, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).