Why did ancient egypt leave so little impact on the west?

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,248
#31
Ok but given Alexandria was an ‘international’ polyglot city with a giant jewish and syrian and greek population... it doesnt seem to me that one should point to it’s achievements if one is trying to argue the primacy of the influence of Egyptian culture on The West.

I am not suggesting Egypt was some backwater... clearly they did or transmit some of their culture to the west either by soft power or military power.

All i am asking is.... compared with mesopotamia .... etc... would you agree or disagree with the following.

1. Mesopotamian civilization had more influence than Ancient Egypt.
2. Mesopotamian civilization had less influence than Ancient Egypt.

Or perhaps

3. The question is unanswerable.
The metrics are unclear.

It's good to think about I guess. Less good for providing a pat answer. :)
 
Apr 2018
951
Upland, Sweden
#32
Not a specific word that could be used in that context, but they did have words for freeman and freewoman that were applied to slaves freed from servitude. This implies that a concept of liberty existed, and all Egyptians of no matter what rank had access to justice, and going only by the evidence for Deir el-Medina, were a very litigious bunch. I'll point out that slavery in Egypt was on a far lesser scale and less onerous than slavery in Greece or Rome. The means they employed to gather a large workforce for specific tasks was not to raid your neighbours for slaves, but to conscript on a temporary basis their own citizens, but this did not deprive them of their property or make them susceptible to arbitrary punishment up to and including death, as was the case elsewhere where slaves in the widely accepted use of the word did the work. Slavery, in the way we usually view it, came into Egypt primarily via the "civilizations" of Greece and Rome.
This intrigues me. What evidence exactly is there that the Egyptians were litigious? In what sense? How did the justice system work? I have to say, intuitively this does not make much sense to me (although admittedly I do not know very much about ancient Egypt), as it seems to me that the discrepancy in real power between the elite and the farmers appears to have been too big in Egypt for the elite to have an interest in upholding justice...

As for slavery, yes, of course there are not going to be a need to signal differences between free and unfree if most of the population except Pharaoh and his elites has the equivalent status of medieval serf ("conscription on a temporary basis" sound an awful lot like the state had the right to dispose of their citizens in an arbitrary fashion, and decide what constituted or did not constitute "temporary"...). Colour me unconvinced by this narrative. You can afford to be nicer to your slaves if all of your society is ordered around relatively straight forward obedience to one God King and have an entire religion around it, as well as your entire economy depends on the Nile river and the almost ludicruous agricultural productivity this resulted in.

Nah, I'd prefer ancient Greece - or especially Rome, where there was a lot more diversity in "slavery" than I think you make the case for there to be. The richest man in Athens (Pasion, 4th century) was at one point born a slave...
 
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Apr 2018
951
Upland, Sweden
#33
As for Egyptian influence: the custom of painting men black and women white which we see on various ancient Greek vases seems to have originated in Egypt, from what I've understood.

But yeah, more importantly the Egyptian were pretty adept mathematicians from what little I've understood.
 

Willempie

Ad Honorem
Jul 2015
5,009
Netherlands
#34
Ok but given Alexandria was an ‘international’ polyglot city with a giant jewish and syrian and greek population... it doesnt seem to me that one should point to it’s achievements if one is trying to argue the primacy of the influence of Egyptian culture on The West.

I am not suggesting Egypt was some backwater... clearly they did or transmit some of their culture to the west either by soft power or military power.

All i am asking is.... compared with mesopotamia .... etc... would you agree or disagree with the following.

1. Mesopotamian civilization had more influence than Ancient Egypt.
2. Mesopotamian civilization had less influence than Ancient Egypt.

Or perhaps

3. The question is unanswerable.
I'd go with 3 with a leaning to 1. The problem is that very little math scripts have survived (basically starting the tradition that math is the ugly duckling of science). What we do know is that the old Greeks looked up to Egypt and that Greek math took a leap after Alexander went on his rampage through Egypt and near Asia. Whether that is because they all of a sudden were smarter, found Mesopotamian math, found Egyptian math or all of the above is anyone's guess.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,248
#35
I think it depends on how BIG a Fetish one has for mathematics. Yes the Egyptians were OK at it. They were good at the land surveying stuff, geometry. However – if one is Super Impressed by Maths as the be-all-end-all for evaluation general Smarts, then the Egyptians weren't quite up to the level of fancy the Mesopotamians were.

I'd suggest a large part of the idea that Mesopotamia was "more important" than Egypt is actually derived from the Super Special Status as general indicator of General Brainyness that is derived from an emphasis of maths. (It's serious nerd territory.)

Move away from maths, and it's a different matter.
 

Corvidius

Ad Honorem
Jul 2017
2,591
Crows nest
#36
This intrigues me. What evidence exactly is there that the Egyptians were litigious? In what sense? How did the justice system work? I have to say, intuitively this does not make much sense to me (although admittedly I do not know very much about ancient Egypt), as it seems to me that the discrepancy in real power between the elite and the farmers appears to have been too big in Egypt for the elite to have an interest in upholding justice...

As for slavery, yes, of course there are not going to be a need to signal differences between free and unfree if most of the population except Pharaoh and his elites has the equivalent status of medieval serf ("conscription on a temporary basis" sound an awful lot like the state had the right to dispose of their citizens in an arbitrary fashion, and decide what constituted or did not constitute "temporary"...). Colour me unconvinced by this narrative. You can afford to be nicer to your slaves if all of your society is ordered around relatively straight forward obedience to one God King and have an entire religion around it, as well as your entire economy depends on the Nile river and the almost ludicruous agricultural productivity this resulted in.

Nah, I'd prefer ancient Greece - or especially Rome, where there was a lot more diversity in "slavery" than I think you make the case for there to be. The richest man in Athens (Pasion, 4th century) was at one point born a slave...
Not much is known about codified laws, most of what we know concerns essentially the administration of the state apparat, for instance the decrees of Horemheb about the running of the army, or of offences directed at the state, for instance against the king or in robbing the royal tombs. The vast bulk of actions that today would be covered by a criminal code and a prosecution service are not well recorded, and in the case of a prosecution service it did not exist, except for the state itself prosecuting those who have acted against the state. Any citizen wanting justice for any wrong or perceived wrong had to mount their own prosecution and petition a judge, usually it seems a lector priest, who had multiple roles outside of just reading out the liturgy and magic spells.

I quoted the village of Deir el-Medina as it is the closest to an Egyptian Pompeii as we can get. It had been the village for the royal tomb builders at Thebes, and due to it's location had been left untouched after it was abandoned. Of course the last residents took all their belongings with them, but fortunately they did not empty the middens of centuries of rubbish, including large amounts of ostraca. From these ostraca we can we can get quite a good picture of how they lived, including their many disputes with each other. They also hold the distinction of being the first workforce in recorded history to hold a strike in order to get a better deal. [What a far cry from Hollywood depictions of masses of slaves being whipped by overseers] From other records we also know that the tomb robbers were also the tomb builders, at least in later periods, and there was a huge scandal involving the foreman and the mayor of Thebes, who comes across as rather like a mafiosi boss, and escaped justice, or at least as far as surviving records show.

This form of justice was available to all whether farm worker or local lord, though I don't doubt there was an imbalance in justice due not least to an illiterate farm worker trying to plead his own case, and a lord or other "worthy" being literate and knowing how the system works, and maybe friends with the judge. Some things never change.... What should also be taken into account is that on death everybody, except the king, had to pass judgement before Osiris, and while they did not need to pass every single one of the 42 "negative confessions", if they failed too many, then that was it for them, the second death, which was oblivion for eternity. They did, as far as we can see, really believe in this, and it would have been a factor in deciding to commit crime or not, but then as now, some people just don't give a damn, even if tomb robbing had you impaled on a stake and eternal oblivion.

Visions of mass conscription of the peasant workforce belong mostly to pyramid construction, and we know that they were housed and treated properly, and may have seen it as an honour to serve, though there is no cast iron proof for that. Building projects of later times would probably have been undertaken for the most part with professionals, and only needing workers to be rounded up for tasks that needed a lot of men for short periods, obelisk and giant statue moving for instance. We can look at the ruins of Karnak and think that it must have needed a huge workforce to construct, but it all went up bit by bit over a period of centuries. I think conscription for these projects is not something that unduly worried the bulk of the population, and the vast majority of them never had to do it. But then, is conscription for building projects any different to modern day conscription for military service, for are not modern conscripts simply state slaves for a certain period of years.
 
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Apr 2018
951
Upland, Sweden
#37
Not much is known about codified laws, most of what we know concerns essentially the administration of the state apparat, for instance the decrees of Horemheb about the running of the army, or of offences directed at the state, for instance against the king or in robbing the royal tombs. The vast bulk of actions that today would be covered by a criminal code and a prosecution service are not well recorded, and in the case of a prosecution service it did not exist, except for the state itself prosecuting those who have acted against the state. Any citizen wanting justice for any wrong or perceived wrong had to mount their own prosecution and petition a judge, usually it seems a lector priest, who had multiple roles outside of just reading out the liturgy and magic spells.

I quoted the village of Deir el-Medina as it is the closest to an Egyptian Pompeii as we can get. It had been the village for the royal tomb builders at Thebes, and due to it's location had been left untouched after it was abandoned. Of course the last residents took all their belongings with them, but fortunately they did not empty the middens of centuries of rubbish, including large amounts of ostraca. From these ostraca we can we can get quite a good picture of how they lived, including their many disputes with each other. They also hold the distinction of being the first workforce in recorded history to hold a strike in order to get a better deal. [What a far cry from Hollywood depictions of masses of slaves being whipped by overseers] From other records we also know that the tomb robbers were also the tomb builders, at least in later periods, and there was a huge scandal involving the foreman and the mayor of Thebes, who comes across as rather like a mafiosi boss, and escaped justice, or at least as far as surviving records show.

This form of justice was available to all whether farm worker or local lord, though I don't doubt there was an imbalance in justice due not least to an illiterate farm worker trying to plead his own case, and a lord or other "worthy" being literate and knowing how the system works, and maybe friends with the judge. Some things never change.... What should also be taken into account is that on death everybody, except the king, had to pass judgement before Osiris, and while they did not need to pass every single one of the 42 "negative confessions", if they failed too many, then that was it for them, the second death, which was oblivion for eternity. They did, as far as we can see, really believe in this, and it would have been a factor in deciding to commit crime or not, but then as now, some people just don't give a damn, even if tomb robbing had you impaled on a stake and eternal oblivion.

Visions of mass conscription of the peasant workforce belong mostly to pyramid construction, and we know that they were housed and treated properly, and may have seen it as an honour to serve, though there is no cast iron proof for that. Building projects of later times would probably have been undertaken for the most part with professionals, and only needing workers to be rounded up for tasks that needed a lot of men for short periods, obelisk and giant statue moving for instance. We can look at the ruins of Karnak and think that it must have needed a huge workforce to construct, but it all went up bit by bit over a period of centuries. I think conscription for these projects is not something that unduly worried the bulk of the population, and the vast majority of them never had to do it. But then, is conscription for building projects any different to modern day conscription for military service, for are not modern conscripts simply state slaves for a certain period of years.
Very interesting. I'll respond more in depth later once/if I figure out something not totally superficial to say.

One thing though: what kind of status did Egyptian farmers really have? In the formal sense Pharaoh owned everything and all the land in Egypt as far as I know, so there were no property rights to land in the Greco-Roman sense of the word (although I have no doubt that in practice they had some autonomy and there were some customary aspects etc.). Were there ways to move up the hierarchy for the average guy?
 

Corvidius

Ad Honorem
Jul 2017
2,591
Crows nest
#38
Very interesting. I'll respond more in depth later once/if I figure out something not totally superficial to say.

One thing though: what kind of status did Egyptian farmers really have? In the formal sense Pharaoh owned everything and all the land in Egypt as far as I know, so there were no property rights to land in the Greco-Roman sense of the word (although I have no doubt that in practice they had some autonomy and there were some customary aspects etc.). Were there ways to move up the hierarchy for the average guy?
The peasant farmers and fishermen had no lower status than blue collar workers today, that of course means that there was disparity due to wealth and influence, but they were no lower than the anybody else, except the king, before the law. They could own property, and women could also own property, and were also equal before the law, but in a patriarchal society took second place to men, though of course there were a number of female pharaohs, and in this they were light years ahead of the Greeks and Romans.

So, though all men and women could own land, the riches of the temples belonged to the king, and very many people would have worked for the temples either in direct employment or in it being the prime destination for goods they have produced. The king could I'm sure sequester property and land, so in that sense you could never be totally sure that what was yours was actually yours and that you were not just looking after it for the king, but we have a similar situation today where the state, if it sees fit, can order any person or corporation to sell their property and land to the state, for less than market value of course.

It was possible for the humblest peasant to move forward in society, usually by military service, and some peasants became generals. Ancient Egypt looks like a very rigid society, and the social structure is usually visually depicted as a pyramid with peasants at the base and the king at the top, but below the king it was also, to an extent, a meritocracy for those who wanted to advance. They were not like medieval serfs, they had mobility, both socially and geographically.

Edit: An important point about property and jobs is that land passed from father to son, as did employment, so for the eldest son there was no incentive to do anything other than stay put and pass it all on to your son and so on down the generations. For younger sons and daughters it was a different matter of course and they had to move away, or at least from the home they grew up in. The mortality rate was very high though, so there were never large numbers of "fledglings" looking for another nest.
 
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Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,248
#39
What we know about the Egyptians and their legal practices also involves knowledge of a particular branch of literature in the form of stories featuring great eloquence, typically in a court situations. They clearly appreciated oratory and a feller who could argue his case and turn a phrase effectively.
 
Apr 2018
951
Upland, Sweden
#40
The peasant farmers and fishermen had no lower status than blue collar workers today, that of course means that there was disparity due to wealth and influence, but they were no lower than the anybody else, except the king, before the law. They could own property, and women could also own property, and were also equal before the law, but in a patriarchal society took second place to men, though of course there were a number of female pharaohs, and in this they were light years ahead of the Greeks and Romans.
Don't know if I entirely buy that they were "no lower than blue-collar workers today", as they didn't have any role in making the law from what I've understood. But I see your point. I have no doubt ancient Egypt was very civilized.

This is a quite a piquant difference you raise, with the status of women - it is probably comparatively easier to have a female ruler in a society where men are not used to govern themselves. If the ruler achieves legitimacy largely through religion and through convention rather than consent, that might make it easier for the people to accept a female ruler. What difference will it make to them what sex their God is? On the other hand, if you have a society made up of largely self-sufficient farmer-soldiers then you are going to have a hard time convincing those people to elect a woman to public office, at least before the modern era. The classical citizen-ideal was in a sense quite restrictive no doubt, but I prefer a stratified society with a large, decentralized free class to a stratified society with a single ruler and a large bureaucracy - better to be unequal in freedom than to be equal under a tyranny (even if it is a "nice" tyranny), is my view. But you are absolutely right, both Greek/ Roman and ancient Egyptian societies are far from modern liberal interpretations of what is a just society, it's certainly not simply the case that Egypt was "totally totalitarian" and Greece/Rome was "totally free".

So, though all men and women could own land, the riches of the temples belonged to the king, and very many people would have worked for the temples either in direct employment or in it being the prime destination for goods they have produced. The king could I'm sure sequester property and land, so in that sense you could never be totally sure that what was yours was actually yours and that you were not just looking after it for the king, but we have a similar situation today where the state, if it sees fit, can order any person or corporation to sell their property and land to the state, for less than market value of course.
But everyone put all the agricultural produce in the temples, correct? So ergo all of the spoils of the land all belonged to the King, but people had formal right to the land - is that how it worked? If that is how it worked then I would make the case that whatever "right to the land" the people had was severely infringed.

When I say property I essentially mean land. The only meaningful kind of property (unless you live in a city state and happen to be a trader or craftsman) in a pre-modern context is land. It is the only thing that can guarantee you any kind of economic autonomy. This is why I am a bit skeptical when you speak of "property rights" etc. Rights are meaningless if you are totally reliant on somebody else to enforce them for you (yes, I do think this holds true in the modern world, largely), and you cannot dispose of your own produce the way you want. This is why I can't help but perhaps in turn romanticize the hoplite farmer a bit instead...

It was possible for the humblest peasant to move forward in society, usually by military service, and some peasants became generals. Ancient Egypt looks like a very rigid society, and the social structure is usually visually depicted as a pyramid with peasants at the base and the king at the top, but below the king it was also, to an extent, a meritocracy for those who wanted to advance. They were not like medieval serfs, they had mobility, both socially and geographically.

Edit: An important point about property and jobs is that land passed from father to son, as did employment, so for the eldest son there was no incentive to do anything other than stay put and pass it all on to your son and so on down the generations. For younger sons and daughters it was a different matter of course and they had to move away, or at least from the home they grew up in. The mortality rate was very high though, so there were never large numbers of "fledglings" looking for another nest.
Hmmm. This sounds a bit like the situation with yeoman farmers in medieval (or even early modern) Europe. Makes sense. And the fact that land was inherited also implies some kind of property right, and not just that everyone was a slave to the state working on the ancient equivalent of the Soviet Kolzhoz, as I have sometimes heard it being portrayed. Perhaps I should read more on ancient Egypt. Do you have any good literature for the beginner?
 
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