Studying the laws of ancient Egypt is a complicated task. The king or pharaoh was the top judicial figure in ancient Egyptian law, and as the new monarchs came to the throne, and as new dynasties rose and fell, so too could the laws and procedures of Egypt shift and change. The lack of existent formal legal codes from Ancient Egypt also hampers the efforts of Egyptologists and historians to understand ancient Egyptian law. As it is, researchers have to make do with resources such as archaeological information, records of individual ancient Egyptian court cases, and dubious accounts of foreign ancient historians (like Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus), whose information and interpretations could be hit or miss in accuracy. One such piece of legal information provided by Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) involved the punishment faced by a person who killed his or her parents. Citing knowledgeable priests in Egypt, Diodorus Siculus claimed that the following was the punishment for someone guilty of patricide:
“For children who had killed their parents they reserved an extraordinary punishment; for it was required that those found guilty of this crime should have pieces of flesh about the size of a finger cut out of their bodies with sharp reeds and then be put on a bed of thorns and burned alive; for they held that to take by violence the life of those who had given them life was the greatest crime possible to man” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, I.77.8).
Such was the elaborate punishment that Diodorus Siculus and his informants believed was once meted out on murderers who killed their parents. Unfortunately, further details one might ask about the situation were excluded from the historian’s account. Questions such as how long this punishment was in use, and what was the specific criteria for being sentenced to or excluded from this execution, were left unanswered in Diodorus Siculus’ account.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Ancient Egyptian Statue dated ca. 1353–1336 B.C., [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).