Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.04.41

Pascal Vernus, Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt. Originally published as Affaires et scandales sous les Ramsès (Paris, 1993). Translated by David Lorton.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2003.  Pp. 211.  ISBN 0-8014-4078-5.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Peter C. Nadig, RWTH-Aachen (
Word count: 1815 words

This excellent and exciting analysis of various political scandals in the later half of New Kingdom Egypt by the French Egyptologist Pascal Vernus (hereafter V.) was first published in 1993 and is now available in an English translation made by David Lorton. The incidents covered in "Affairs and Scandals" occurred between the end of Dynasty 19 and the end of Dynasty 20 (c. 1204-1069 B.C.). Several well preserved official documents provide detailed information about the legal hearings over tomb robberies in the necropolis of Western Thebes, the labor unrest as well as crimes of the workers from Deir el-Medina, misdeeds by priests from the temple of Khnum on Elephantine, and the harem conspiracy under Ramesses III. The exceptional state of preservation of several lengthy papyri along with many ostraca and archaeological reports make it possible to reconstruct these events. Many of these sources are compiled here for the first time under the theme of a "crisis of values" in late New Kingdom Egypt. V. not only provides the reader with translations of the most important texts, but also highlights them with his sharp analysis and insightful commentary.

The relevant episodes are presented (not necessarily in chronological order) in five chapters while a sixth summarizes the general background behind these events. The theme of chapter one (pp. 1-49) is the plunder of the west bank of Thebes. The robbery of royal tombs and also the pillage of temples were investigated during the reigns of Ramesses IX (years 16 and 17 = 1124-1123 B.C.) and Ramesses XI (year 19 = c. 1084 B.C.). The chapter begins with an overview of the economic consequences of Egyptian funerary beliefs. These required the body to be kept intact, therefore mummified and buried along with elaborate equipment in a tomb that assured its survival. Complex rites and rituals accompanied the internment, and a funerary cult for the deceased was carried out by the living. These beliefs had a debit effect on the economy: "Enormous quantities of goods and precious materials lay wasted in tombs, removed in principle from use or enjoyment by the living" (p. 3). One cause for robberies lay in the chronic crises of provisioning, when the state was unable to deliver rations it owed to its employees. It is interesting to note that not just royal tombs but also the mortuary temples on the west bank were plundered. The methods of the thieves can be gleaned from the papyri: they snipped off the gold and metal sheeting of door frames, shrines and naoi, and also removed portable items of value. They concentrated on items of wood, which was a rare commodity in Egypt. These stolen goods were subsequently bartered or, in the case of wood, recycled into other goods of necessity. In the second half of the first chapter V. investigates the sack of western Thebes as a social phenomenon (pp. 30-49) and takes a closer look at the accused people. The main conclusion from all the available information is that the thieves were employed by various "institutions, departments, and domains that constituted the 'pharaonic state'" (p. 34). They included e.g. craftsmen, servants, lower and middle clergy, scribes, and overseers. None of them were "marginal individuals or outcasts, and... brigands" (p. 35). Motives varied. While a few of these men robbed for gain in the hope of enjoying a more comfortable life, many others did it out of necessity. The modus operandi of the thieves is also highlighted. The dividing of the spoils was often tricky and often resulted in the bribing of numerous people who learned about these thefts and demanded a share. The thieves apparently employed middlemen, termed "shuty" in Egyptian and translated here as "brokers". The author sees the conventional Egyptian translation of "merchant" as "a serious misrendering". For him the title "broker" does not refer to independent shopkeepers but "to employees whose role was negotiate in-kind exchanges" (cf. pp. 47-48).

The various strikes of the workmen from Deir el-Medina, which apparently began in the 19th year of Ramesses III, are the topic of chapter two (pp. 50-69). The political and economic difficulties of that period resulted in the nonpayment of rations to the workmen's village, which subsequently triggered a lengthy social conflict. Sporadic strikes continued till the early reign of Ramesses IV, but there are no further strikes on record till year nine of Ramesses IX. Walkouts then continued till the reign of Ramesses XI. The Turin Strike Papyrus supplies a detailed account for the events under Ramesses III, while other papyri and ostraca supply further information for the later conflicts. During the first strikes the workers laid down their work and went to various mortuary temples on the west bank to make their demands, with varying degrees of success. (A minor mistake on p. 59: The temple of Sethos I is not the southernmost, but northernmost funerary temple at Qurna; cf. map on p. 2.) In one case of delayed payment the workers even threatened to violate a tomb (P. Turin "Strike" recto 2,6-2, 10), while in another situation two workers were accused of removing stone blocks from the superstructure of the tomb of Ramesses II. These strikes indicate the deteriorating economic situation of that period as well as the pernicious atmosphere under Ramesses III, who became a target of a plot.

Chapter three (pp. 70-94) deals with the foreman Paneb of the "Institution of the tomb", the workers' village of Deir el-Medina, during the reign of Sethos II (c. 1104-1198 B.C.) and Siptah (c. 1198-1192 B.C.). In this influential position, he was in charge of half of the workmen of the village. The source of his misdeeds is a detailed memorandum, Papyrus Salt 124 in the British Museum. According to this list Paneb was notorious for his bribery, brutality, intimidation, amorous affairs, misappropriation of royal property and labor as well as theft from a royal tomb. He even deceived the usurper Amenmesse, who subsequently sacked a vizier with whom Paneb had a scuffle. His final fate is not clear from the sources.

"A Provincial Scandal" is the topic of chapter four (pp. 95-107). Its source, the so-called "Turin Indictment Papyrus" (= P. Turin 1887) reports several scandals at the temple of Khnum at Elephantine during the reigns of Ramessses IV (c. 1156-1150 B.C.) and Ramesses V (c. 1150-1147 B.C.). This document was most likely drafted as a complaint by the priest Qakhepesh, who accuses another priest, Penanukis, of immense bribery, sexual misdeeds, causing an abortion, intimidation, utmost brutality (which included burning a house and the blinding of two women and cutting off someone's ear), theft of temple property, and disrespect for the sacred as well manipulation of the oracle. Qakhepesh also accuses a barge-captain of embezzling more than 5,000 sacks of grain due to the temple of Khnum over a period of nearly ten years.

The famous "Harem Conspiracy" against Ramesses III is covered in chapter five (pp. 108-120). It is known from one papyrus dossier, which today is scattered in several parts. The biggest and best preserved of these, the Judicial Papyrus Turin, is primarily a summary of the five guilty groups and their respective punishments.1 The text is placed in the mouth of Ramesses III, who reports the findings of a commission he had appointed. V. presents the affair with lengthy quotes from the Turin document, explains the organization of the conspiracy, and cites Papyrus Rollin (Paris Bibliothèque Nationale) and Papyrus Lee (British Museum) to indicate the use of sorcery by the plotters. He also outlines the "defamatory baptism" (p. 117) of the conspirators, who were given new names with a pejorative twist. V. does not make a firm statement as to the exact outcome of the conspiracy. The fact that Ramesses reportedly ordered the investigation cannot be invoked as an argument that he survived the assassination; it may be a case of apologetics, like the famous Papyrus Harris written in the name of Ramesses III under his successor. V. concludes that "the sources at our disposal yield no irrefutable indication regarding the outcome of the conspiracy" (p. 117) or its exact date.2

In the sixth and last chapter ("The Crisis of Values in the New Kingdom", pp. 121-149), V. examines the causes of those affairs that affected the 20th Dynasty. He makes it clear that even though he described five rather spectacular and well-documented scandals, there are still a number of analogous events from the same period, which are, however, "more allusive, more obscure, or less well preserved". He even points out other scandals mentioned in documents that still await publication (cf. p. 121, esp. 191 n. 1). He then continues by comparing the change in ethical concepts that emerged with the beginning of the New Kingdom. The old ethic made it clear that earthly and postmortem success was based on the "adherence of the established order, which the divine had provided with considerable autonomy and with self-regulatory mechanisms" (p. 148). The new ethic questioned the established order and recognized individual salvation only in the establishment of deep personal relationships with a deity of choice. These changes are explained at great length in several subchapters along with quotes from Egyptian sources. V. sees the scandals of this period as a consequence of the changing values and the corruption of the state. Both causes are to be seen as result of Egypt's expansion beyond its natural borders: "The opulence that Egypt derived from its empire, together with its inability to make it last, stimulated a propensity that we see firmly rooted in the corruption of moral standards" (p. 148).

The book contains a section of plates and numerous line drawings throughout the text to illustrate the various subjects. A small appendix (pp. 151-154) lists the different terms for bribe in the ancient Egyptian language. "Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt" contains only a few flaws. The original bibliography contained in the French version has apparently been forgotten; the endnotes are therefore only preceded by a list of abbreviations (pp. 155-200). Also, the English version is not an updated version of the French original published a decade earlier. A small bibliographical update, either in the form of a preface or an appendix, would have helped. This inclusion along with the missing bibliography ought to be considered for a possible paperback edition.

The detailed endnotes offer thorough reference to the sources as well as the relevant international scholarly literature until 1993 and are worth looking up while reading, especially for anyone more familiar with Egyptological publications. An index each for the subject, the Egyptian terms, and the translated passages complete the book. The translation by Lorton is easy to read and will make this valuable book accessible to an even wider audience than before. All in all, V.'s Affairs and Scandals is a very exciting treatment of this period of New Kingdom history, which can be highly recommended and read with great benefit.


1.   Group one is those who were executed; groups two and three are persons who were compelled to commit suicide at the place of "examination" or "where they were"; group four is four men who were punished by having their nose and ears cut off; group five is a man who was acquitted with a harsh reprimand (the last two groups even included three of the twelve judges who investigated the plot).
2.   For a more detailed evaluation of this plot, see the recent monograph by Susan Redford, The Harem Conspiracy. The Murder of Ramesses III (Northern Illinois Press, 2002

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