Tag Archives: Pyramids

“No one man should have all that power”

Sneferu was a boss. At least, he seems fairly admirable from a power and authority standpoint. I have no idea whether he was a benevolent ruler or not (although the Times article, “The Secrets of Snefru”, indicates that he was thought of as the “Good King” compared to his son and successor, Khufu/the “Bad King”), but that doesn’t seem to matter because he managed to compel his people to build at least three pyramids for him. Pharaoh Sneferu, first king of the 4th Dynasty, is best known (respective to pyramids) for ordering the construction of the Red Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid, and Maidum Pyramid in Dahshur. While these monuments are impressive feats of human labor and engineering what I think is more impressive is the great deal of authority the pharaohs had to compel their people of the importance of these public works.

In class we’ve discussed the importance of legitimate authority. Without it, there is no way Sneferu or any other Pharaoh could have gained so much power (the ability to get other people to do stuff for you).  I think the magnitude of their power is so great not only because they have legitimate authority, that is, the ability to get people to do stuff for you because they want to (or think they want to) or see it as a rational choice. What helps tremendously is the different angles from which pharaohs draw legitimacy.  According to Max Weber, there are three types of legitimate authority. (Weber, Economy and Society Vol 1)

The first is legal authority.  This is the authority behind the institutions and bureaucracies that make complex states possible. The king’s ability to govern by endorsing viziers and nomarches below him is part of the administrative hierarchy that provides legal authority. Citizens of Upper and Lower Egypt do not follow laws simply because the Pharaoh commanded they do something (at least not all of the time), but because it is a law and is therefore something they should follow because they are a citizen of that state. There are even rules which the Pharaoh must follow. Legal authority places power in impersonal institutions and laws rather than in the personal qualities of the Pharaoh himself. When one Pharaoh succeeds another, there is at least some continuity. The pharaoh in a sense draws his power from the legal authority of the state which he governs. Usually with legal authority, there is some sort of selection process that considers qualifications (like candidates running for an election, or an employee seeking a CEO position). So I will admit it does not align perfectly, but there are aspects that are consistent with government in Ancient Egypt.

But, we know that laws and bureaucracy, tradition and royal blood hardly cover the range of the pharaoh’s legitimacy. The Egyptians didn’t simply take cues from the pharaoh because he was in the position of power, they revered him because he had a great deal of charismatic authority. For the Ancient Egyptians, the pharaohs were Gods or at least as close as to being Gods as is possible for humans. Sneferu claimed he was the living sun god, Ra. This type of legitimacy is in some sense diametrically opposed to the institutionally permanent legal authority. Even so, pharaohs are holders of “specific gifts of the body and spirit; and these gifts have been believed to be supernatural, not accessible to everybody.” (Weber) It is precisely because pharaohs are not chosen by the people, but by a higher power that gives them their charismatic authority. For this, their personalities are revered, not simply their office. Hence, great monuments and temples and sacrifices are made in their name. Consider the tomb of Hor-Aha alongside the tombs of many royal retainers. Lavish offerings are brought to the tombs to ensure their ka are well taken care of. Does part of this reverence come from fear? It undoubtedly does, which makes a pharaoh’s authority a little less legitimate, but his coercive power is still power and speaks to the multitude of mechanisms by which pharaoh exerts power.

Another aspect of pharaoh’s legitimate power is traditional authority. This is the type of authority that scholars might likely attribute to Ancient Egypt, but I really think all three of Weber’s types of legitimate authority bear some presence. In the case of traditional authority, “obedience is not owed to enacted rulers, but to the person who occupies a position of authority by tradition or who has been chosen for such a position on a traditional basis.” (Weber) At the level of kingship, Ancient Egypt was a patriarchy. So the decision of who would be the next pharaoh was not dictated by laws or even some sort of prophet discovery, but instead through family lineage. In this way, Ancient Egyptians owed their lives, belongings, labor, etc. to the pharaohs because they were of the royal line.