Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 2


Life in Ancient Egypt

Eugene Strouhal,
Life in Ancient Egypt,
Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp279, £24.95

AT first sight the attractive illustrations that accompany this book could easily give the impression that it is yet another coffee table production about Ancient Egypt. But this impression is quickly dispelled on starting with the text, for it is a most serious work, the first attempt at a synthesis of the evidence on this topic by a practising Egyptologist for over a generation. And he has the advantage over his predecessors of being able to check the data coming from literary or monumental sources against the physical remains themselves, for the author is probably the leading palaeopathologist working in this field. One of the surprising results of this type of analysis is the estimate made for the average age at death of as low as between 20 and 25 years (pp. 254-6), a figure that would seem to be wildly at variance with those coming from inscriptions on tombs and statues, except when we remember for whom such monuments were made, and that the ‘the hope of living longer was one of the more important privileges of the upper classes’ (p. 256).

Fascinating data emerge for a class analysis of Egyptian society, which is gradually yielding up its secrets to computer-based techniques (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 4, Spring 1990, p. 48). One such survey applied to the dimensions of 500 houses at Amarna estimates the elite of ‘highest-ranking officials, high priests and generals who worked closely with the Pharaoh and controlled the political, religious and military affairs of state’ at between seven and nine per cent, the middle-ranking administrative officers, priests and master craftsmen at about 33 per cent, and the poor making up the rest (p. 67). This would seem to be a very high figure for the relative proportion of the upper classes to the rest of the population, and it would be dangerous to generalise it as an estimate for the rest of the country, for this site was a temporary capital built on virgin territory in a most unsuitable spot, doubtless containing a high proportion of non-productive personnel. Then, as now, the vast bulk of the poor population was rural, and lived in the villages.

This peasantry laboured at the behest of an all-powerful administration. Dr Strouhal comments:

The fruits of the farmer’s toil did not belong to him; the bulk of it had to be handed over to the state. All land in Egypt was the sole property of the king, or of the temples and nobles who received it from the king as a gift. It was in effect a system of large estates tilled by the population at large. (p. 101)

However, like most professional Egyptologists since the work of Butzer, he does not believe that this immense power over the direction of labour comes from the control of irrigation by the centre: ‘In contrast to the earlier notion that irrigation was a centralised affair, recent findings show that it was promoted by local initiative which sometimes exacerbated parochial rivalry.’ (p9. 4) However, since the earliest dated royal monument, the macehead of the Scorpion King, shows him cutting the first sod of a new canal (reproduced in this book on page 92), it is perhaps better to suspend judgement on this for the moment; certainly the arguments that canals for irrigation are not mentioned in the texts until the reign of Pepy I (c. 2350BC) (p. 93), or that the absence of a specific title pertaining to irrigation amongst the upper nobility precludes centralised direction of such works (p. 94) stop short of being compelling. The weakest argument is always that drawn from silence, and in any case we know that the division of labour amongst state bodies was relatively undeveloped during the Old Kingdom, the bodies of men raised at this time functioning indiscriminately as the armed forces and for public works.

The non-agricultural workforce was certainly directed in the same centralised manner as the peasant farmer; already by the Old Kingdom (c. 2705BC) production had been concentrated in centres employing large numbers of craftsmen; ‘the producer thus lost his individual attitude of ownership towards his tools, materials and products, and became an employee of royalty, priesthood or aristocracy’ (p. 137), since ‘the craftsmen of Ancient Egypt had no workshops or even tools of their own; these all belonged to members of the ruling class or to the institutions they controlled’ (p. 154). And as pointed out in previous reviews on this subject (for example Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 3, Summer 1992, p. 104), the division between cult and state is shown to be largely illusory, when temple workshops are shown to be engaged in the production of war chariots (p. 204).

Moving on to crisis theory, the author explains the collapse of the Old Kingdom (about 2195BC) by a failure of the system of state granaries due to ‘a breakdown in the central administration at critical moments when a worsening climate coincided with inadequate floods’, resulting in ‘famine, civil war or invasion, and general chaos’ (p. 134). Again, this would seem to be a rather sweeping conclusion to draw from a single set piece rhetorical text which may not apply to this period at all (cf. Van Seters, The Hyksos, 1966), especially as similar collapses were to take place on two subsequent occasions separated by several centuries, and would seem to be part of the laws of motion of this particular type of society.

The book certainly deserves careful study, especially as it represents the current consensus of scholarship on the subject of Egyptian life, and is beautifully produced, in spite of the odd slip in translation here and there (for example, papyrus texts in the New Kingdom are certainly not to be read ‘from left to right’ (p. 216)). But its interest as far as Marxists are concerned lies in the fact that institutions which were to become part of the future of all mankind — of class, state, social and work organisation — here appear in their earliest, unexpected forms, especially as history seems to suggest that societies dominated by all-powerful states are extremely inflexible, and can only develop their economies to a certain point before coming to the brink of collapse. Or perhaps it is better put the other way round: that there is a limit to which such economies will allow the despotic state to develop, before it collapses in its turn.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 20.9.2011