Here in the UK these days, most people are preoccupied by the widespread unrest in our cities. Now I don’t write about politics, but I do research and write about social differences in ancient Egypt. I find it interesting to note that the debates we’re having today about criminality, deprivation, & social responsibility can also be found in ancient Egyptian poetry dating back to almost 4000 years ago. Despite the vast inequality in ancient Egyptian society between pharaohs and peasants, despite corporal punishment being commonplace and literacy rare, an Egyptian poet was still able to eloquently question the condemnation of criminal acts by the poor over those of the rich. The poem entitled ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ (the inspiration behind the name of my blog) tells the story of a peasant whose only possessions are stolen by a wealthy official and his subsequent articulate pleas for justice, which move even the pharaoh.
This is the passage that came to mind recently:
A lord of bread should be merciful, whereas might belongs to the deprived,
theft suits one without belongings, when the belongings are snatched by the deprived;
but the bad [are those who] act without want—should it not be blamed? It is self seeking.
Criminal responsibility is a controversial topic. Although one can’t really properly contrast a fictional robbery committed by a government official in ancient Egypt with the rioting of thousands of teenagers in deprived areas, it is fascinating to see that the social issues we struggle with today are the same as those of ancient Egypt. Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years, but human nature has not greatly changed in the past few millennia. Plus ça change…
You can read the rest of ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ in Richard Parkinson’s book of translations of ancient Egyptian poetry, ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’. I’ll be giving a talk on the lives of the rich and poor in ancient Egypt in the Nebamun gallery at the British Museum this Friday, August 10th.