Advertisement Close

Egypt and the Origin of Just War Theory

posted on: Jun 3, 2021

By: Evan Ploeckelman/Arab America Contributing Writer

Recent evidence and research suggest that the ancient Egyptians may have developed the oldest just war theory in the world. While most cultures have developed some type of just war theory, researchers have begun to discover how the developments made by Ancient Egyptians actually provided the framework for Western just war theories. This framework is also the likely framework for non-Christian just war theories in the region and around the world.

Just War Theory

St Thomas Aquinas established one of the most well known Just War Theories/

Just War Theory is a moral theory that aims to make war justifiable. They generally encompass cases of jus ad Bellum – the right to go to war – and jus in Bellum – the right actions to make in war. The most well-known Just War Theory, as described by Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, requires three conditions to make war justifiable. First, the command to start the war must originate from a rightful ruler. Second, the war must be waged for a just cause, usually, due to some wrong, the ones being attacked have performed. Third, warriors must act in a manner that advances good and eliminates evil.

Aquinas also argued that violence on the battlefield should only be used as a last resort, and killing in battle was only acceptable if it advanced justice. Other cultures, from China to India to Ancient Greece and Rome to medieval Arabs, had their own versions of a just war theory. However, this was not the first just war theory in history. The origins of this theory could lie in Ancient Egypt, which had fully developed theories both for jus ad Bellum and jus in Bellum

Egyptian Jus Ad Bellum

Ma’at, goddess of Justice,

In the Egyptian Just War Theory, the right to go to war laid solely in what the Pharaoh dictated. This is because the Pharaoh represents the will of the Gods in the human world. Specifically, the Pharaoh would represent Ma’at, the embodiment of justice in Egyptian society. Ma’at is threatened by Isfet, or chaos, which is represented by foreign forces who were against Egypt. Therefore, war was justified when foreign forces acted in a way that disrupted Ma’at; by extension, this meant that any actions by foreign kingdoms or forces that threatened Egypt justified entering the war. This meant, to the Egyptians, that all wars that they entered were defensive, as they were the sole keeper of justice, or Ma’at, in the world.

While the ethics of going to war differ heavily between Ancient Egyptians and other just war theories from around the world, there are some similarities. Aquinas required a rightful leader to call for war, which was present in the Egyptian just war theory. However, war was not used as a last resort in Ancient Egypt like other just war theories.

Egyptian Jus In Bellum

Ancient Egyptian war was marked by brutality/

Conduct in a battle for the Ancient Egyptians was characterized by extreme violence. Because they believed other nations to be barbarians and inferior to them, they were extremely violent in combat. Mass slaughters would be performed and no care was given to the bodies of the deceased. Pharaohs would often relish this fact, as shown by Thutmose III in a war against the Naharin: “I desolated his towns and his tribes and set fire to them. I captured all their people, carried off as living prisoners…and their goods as well. I took away the very sources of life.” Prisoners of war were also treated poorly and often executed by high-ranking officials including the Pharaoh. This is because prisoners of war became the property of the Pharaoh after their capture, which meant they had the final say over their fate. Women and children also became the property of the pharaoh, who often faced similar fates. Similarly, property and religious artifacts of the opposing forces were also the property of the Pharaoh and were kept or destroyed as they commanded.

The jus in bellum aspects of the Egyptian just war theories is what differentiates it most from other theories. In most other theories, including Christian, Muslim, Chinese, ancient Roman, and Greek theories, along with others, there was some limit as to how to treat opposing nations, their soldiers, and their citizens. In Ancient Greek and Roman traditions, there were restrictions on the types of weapons that could be used, and certain religious rights had to be observed, such as respect for corpses. In the Christian tradition, war should only be used as a last resort as a means to achieve a just cause. In the Islamic tradition, war cannot be fought for entire months for religious reasons. These features were largely absent from the Egyptian just war theory, which saw itself as the sole purveyor of justice in an evil, barbaric world.

Check out Arab America’s blog here!