Corruption in the ancient world 
Posted on August 30th, 2017

Upali Cooray

It is not possible to compose in detail an essay because the field is vast. Therefore this attempt is to highlight a few random examples of corruption in the ancient world.

Ancient man’s difference was, during the evolutionary process from Ape to man his brain developed more than in other animals.His instincts as an animal was selfish and required survival in a competitive primitive animal world. His becoming civilized was an imposition. What we call ancient civilizations were a necessity to bring law and order and other cultural advances. However even the modern day man carries these instincts covered under civility.

Corruption is not a recent phenomenon. It has precisely been defined as a deviant human behavior, associated with the motivation of private gain at public expenseand, as such, has persisted for centuries. Corruption promotes illegality, unethicalism, subjectivity, inequity, injustice, waste, inefficiency and inconsistency in administrative conduct and behavior.  It destroys the moral fabric of society and erodes the faith of the common man in the legitimacy of the politico-administrative set up.

Ancient India

There are several references to the prevalence of official corruption in ancient India.  But the text that provides an elaborate description of the menace is the Arthashastra of Kautilya. This sophisticated and detailed treatise on statecraft is essentially prescriptive or normative in nature, belonging to a genre of literature that suggests what the state ought to be and not what it really was. Nevertheless, one should realize that norms are prescribed only when digressions or abnormalities exist. This confirms the fact that corruption was rampant enough in ancient India to necessitate expert advice on how to tame it.

Kautilya was a sagacious minister in the Kingdom of Chandragupta Maurya(324/321‒297 Before the Common Era). He expressed his views on a range of issues including state, war, social structures, diplomacy, ethics, and politics. He believed that men are naturally fickle minded” and are comparable to horses at work exhibitconstant change in their temper”.  This means that honesty is not a virtue that would remain consistent lifelong and the temptation to make easy gains through corrupt means can override the trait of honesty any time. Similarly, he compared the process of generation and collection of revenue (by officials) with honey or poison on the tip of the tongue, which becomes impossible not to taste.

During Mauryan times, superintendents were the highest officials, a position they received for possessing the desired ‘individual capacity’ and adequate ‘ministerial qualifications’.  Given the general emphasis of Kautilya on observing ethics and morality in relation to the functioning of a state, it seems the selection process would have involved not just a scrutiny of the educational attainments but also the right kind of aptitude for the job including traits of honesty and impartiality. This shows that despite the greatest care taken in recruiting officials, corrupt persons made their way into the system.

Kautilya was a great administrative thinker of his times. As he argued, too much of personal interaction or union among the higher executives leads to departmental goals being compromised and leads to corruption. This is because human emotions and personal concerns act as impediments to the successful running of an administration, which is basically a rule-based impersonal affair. Similarly, dissension among executives when team effort is required results in a poor outcome. Kautilya suggested that the decline in output and corruption can be curbed by promoting professionalism at work. The superintendents should execute work with the subordinate officials such as accountants, writers, coin-examiners, treasurers and military officers in a team spirit.  Such an effort creates a sense of belonging among members of the department who start identifying and synchronizing their goals with the larger goals of the organization, thereby contributing to the eventual success of the state.

Kautilya provides a comprehensive list of 40 kinds of embezzlement. In all these cases, the concerned functionaries such as the treasurer (nidhayaka), the prescriber (nibandhaka), the receiver (pratigrahaka), the payer (dayak), the person who caused the payment (dapaka) and the ministerial servants (mantri-vaiyavrityakara) were to be separately interrogated. In case any of these officials were to lie, their punishment was to be enhanced to the level meted out to the chief officer (yukta) mainly responsible for the crime. After the enquiry, a public proclamation (prachara) was to be made asking the common people to claim compensation in case they were aggrieved and suffered from the embezzlement.  Thus, Kautilya was concerned about carrying the cases of fraud to their logical conclusion.

The Arthashastra states that an increase in expenditure and lower revenue collection (parihapan) was an indication of embezzlement of funds by corrupt officials.  Kautilya was sensitive enough to acknowledge the waste of labor of the workforce involved in generating revenues.  He defined self-enjoyment (upbhoga) by government functionaries as making use of or causing others to enjoy what belongs to the king.  He was perhaps alluding to the current practice of misusing government offices for selfish motives such as unduly benefitting the self, family members, friends and relatives either in monetary or non-monetary form which harms the larger public good.

Kautilya was also not unaware of corruption in the judicial administration. He prescribed the imposition of varying degrees of fines on judges trying to proceed with a trial without evidence, or unjustly maintaining silence, or threatening, defaming or abusing the complainants, arbitrarily dismissing responses provided to questions raised by the judge himself, unnecessarily delaying the trial or giving unjust punishments.  This shows that there were incidents of judicial pronouncements being biased, favoring one party to the detriment of others. In an atmosphere of corruption prevailing in the judicial administration as well, Kautilyaperhaps wanted to ensure that the litigants are encouraged and given voice to air their legitimate grievances. He expected judges to be more receptive to the complaints and be fair in delivering justice.

Kautilya prescribed reliance on an elaborate espionage network for detecting financial misappropriation and judicial impropriety. Spies were recruited for their honesty and good conduct.  They were to keep a watch even over the activities of accountants and clerks for reporting cases of fabrication of accounts (avastara). On successful detection of embezzlement cases, Kautilya advocated hefty fines to be imposed apart from the confiscation of ill-earned hordes. If a functionary was charged and proved even of a single offence, he was made answerable for all other associated offences related to the case.  Since taxes paid by the people are utilized for their welfare, any loss of revenue affects the welfare of the society at large. This is precisely the reason why Kautilya explicitly argued that the fines imposed should be in proportion to the value of work done, the number of days taken, the amount of capital spent and the amount of daily wages paid at various levels.

Corruption is so obvious, and yet so mysterious. Even Kautilya reflected serious concerns about opacity in the operations of the world of the corrupt. Illegal transactions were so shrouded in mist that he compared embezzlers to fish moving under water and the virtual impossibility of detecting when exactly the fish is drinking water.  He also noted that while it is possible to ascertain the movements of bird flying in the sky, it is difficult to gauge the corrupt activities of government officials.


Corruption in China dates back over a thousand years and has been present through countless dynasties. In fact, widespread corruption is often cited as one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century.

In dynastic China, the implementation and enforcement of laws and regulations were the task of local officials. Their official salary was entirely at their disposal, but they had to finance office expenses, pay their assistants and bestow lavish treatments upon higher ranking state officials, as well as pay them a so-called regular fee”.

However, the imperial budget allocated to the administration was rather low. Local officials, the prefects, also received a small sum, jang-lien jin”, meaning the silver to maintain integrity”, yet it didn’t quite prevent them from accepting bribes in just about any form.

Even though taking bribes was generally considered to be an uncouth custom or bad habit, it was nevertheless a well-known and widely accepted one. In practice it meant that officials at every level required extra payments from their subordinates or citizens under various names.

It was not unusual that extra fees were charged several times for the same service” resulting in bribery becoming so complex that the central government was simply unable to control the situation. It was also very unclear as to what counted as legal corruption” and what fell outside of that. As a result, the labyrinth of bribes and favors, corruption became an integral part of the entire administration. A European traveller in the 18th century described Chinese corruption as follows: The man who preserved his integrity is generally considered as incapable or a dreamer. It is not easy to swim against the stream.”

In this complex system it was only normal that government officials would trade their influence for money. They also formed strong cliques to protect themselves from punishments by state businessmen, officials, military leaders and other high ranking state employees.

New people entering the administration carried on these traditions because they firmly believed that corruption was a normal facet of the job. According to historical records, less than three out of ten civilservants could preserve their integrity. China’s emperors were aware of the corruption problem and many of them made desperate attempts to eradicate it, but their endeavors were often futile. One of the most successful was the Great Qing Legal Code, introduced in 1644 and enforced from early 270 years. The code specified sanctions against corruption according to the severity of the crime. Depending upon the receivedamount of money or the value of gifts, the punishments varied from beatings with a bamboo stick to the death penalty.

One of the most infamous corrupt state officials was He Shen, the prime minister of Emperor Qianlon. He accumulated his wealth during two decades in office. In 1799, he lost the Emperor’s trust and the court ordered an investigation against him. Around 1,100 million taels of silver were discovered when his home was searched, an amount equivalent to the revenue of the Qing government for 15 years. His wrongdoings ended when, at the age 49, he was given a court decree to hang himself.

The Confucian concept of renzhi or people’s government” largely contributed to widespread corruption throughout China. In Confucians’ view, a true and honest state bureaucrat should be guided by moral principles. Therefore, striving for material wealth was considered inappropriate. Wang Anshi, the famous Chinese economist of the Song dynasty, wanted to introduce reforms in monetary institutions that would reduce corruption and nepotism, but his ideas were dismissed by the Confucian elite.

As a result, corruption continued to exist on an even larger scale, involving the court itself and the local elite. In practice it meant that the more important an issue was, the deeper one would need to reach in to his pocket.

Corruption has left its mark on the Chinese language and culture. Proverbs such as a big rooster eats no small rice” or money falls into the hands office” illustrate how corruption was present in everyday life of yamen secretaries as lamb into mouth of the tiger” (yamen” = state).Chinese literature also suggests that officials were corrupt and that it was only natural for them to expect bribes and gifts in return for a favorabledecision. The long history of corruption in China, moving from dynasty to dynasty, suggests that an honest and morally correct magister was indeed an exception to the rule.


In ancient Mesopotamia, Gimil- Ninurta, a poor but free man and a citizen of Nippur, seeks to improve his lot. All he has is his goat. Leading the goat by his left hand, he brings it to the residence of the mayor, and is made to wait. But when the mayor hears that he has something to offer he is indignant at his slaves. A citizen of Nippur, he says, should be admitted promptly. He sends for Gimil- Ninurta and asks, What is your problem that you bring me an offering?” Gimil- Ninurta says nothing but greets him with his right hand, invokes blessings on him, and gives him the goat. The mayor announces he will hold a feast. But when the feast is held, all that Gimil- Ninurta receives is a bone and a sinew of the goat and stale beer. He asks the meaning of such treatment. In reply he is beaten on the mayor’s orders. He departs, vowing vengeance. Later, Gimil -Ninurtavisits the king of the entire country and offers him one mina(a measure of weight) of gold in return for the use of the royal chariot for a day. The king asks no questions but agrees at once. In the chariot Gimil- Ninurta returns to Nippur, where the mayor receives him as a high official of the realm. Installed in the mayor’s residence, he secretly opens the chest he has brought and pretends the gold he says was in it has disappeared. He implies that the mayor is guilty of stealing it and gives the mayor three beatings for his crime. The mayor also placates him with a gift of two minas of gold. This story, which appears in Bribes, by John Thomas Noonan— one of the few authors who has attempted to explore in a thorough and diachronic manner the topic of political corruption over the centuries— and is known by the title The Poor Man of Nippur,” probably dates from 1500 B.C. It shows how among the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia the law of reciprocity— the natural rule of quid pro quo— was strictly respected, whereas any wandering from the straight and narrow path was punished. The misdeed lay not in the act of making an interested gift but rather in breaking with the logic of the exchange: in failing to offer value in exchange for value received. Noonan comments that the most serious misdeed lay not in the act of corrupting but in the effect of corruption: breaking one’s word in a society where keeping one’s word The Gift in Antiquity 25 was considered to be a divine characteristic. He cites in this connection a fragment of a hymn to the sun god Shamash, preserved in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, where we can read the following phrase: Your manifest utterance may not be changed.” The word tatu used in the text of Hammurabi, in a section titled The Corrupt Judge,” generically indicates the offering of a subordinate. Offering and corruption therefore trail off one into the other, and a more generalized condemnation of corrupt giving will only arrive later, in the modern age, even while the practice of exchange will in any case remain a constant custom.


The great legislator Solon established in the 5th century BC the Seisachtheia, i.e. the debt cancellation. As Aristotle writes, just before the announcement of the debt cancellation, he informed his friends to rush and get large loans, which eventually were cleared of any debt, hence making them really rich. Themistocles claimed that it has no value to be a leader if you cannot enrich your friends. Agisilaos, King of Sparta believed exactly the same thing.  Even the monuments on the Acropolis were connected to the biggest scandal of abuse during the Golden Century of Pericles (5th century BC).  The main issues were both; using money from the treasury of the Athenian Alliance by Pericles and the suspicion that Phidias had distorted the gold in the statue of Athena. Plutarch writes that Pericles introduced the “secret funds” by taking 10 talents, an enormous sum for that period. When questioned in Pnika he answered “I gave them where they were needed”, without explaining further.

Demosthenes was exiled and imprisoned twice due to corruption charges. The first time he took money of Alexander the Great’s treasurer, Arpalo, who took the funds from Babylon and fled to Athens. The second time he took money from the Amfises in order to cover a scandal at Delphi. Arpalos had escaped to Athens in order to avoid the wrath of Alexander the Great because he stole the army’s finance and the treasury of Babylon, which had been entrusted to him. Finally, Demosthenes was convicted and exiled from Athens in 324 BC for choosing to work with the biggest abuser of his time, Arpalo.

In ancient Greece, the laws and the constitution did not work by divine right but by the right of the people. That is why Pericles was given a trial date, although he was never tried, since during that time the Peloponnesian War commenced. Nevertheless, before the temple of Athena Nike began, the auditors looked thoroughly at Kalikratis’ designs. As for Phidias, he achieved to demonstrate his innocence in court, however he didn’t escape prison. The key reason was his arrogance in immortalizing Pericles and himself on the shield of the goddess Athena.


Niccolo Machiavelli is well known as one of the most important and earliest realist thinkers and promoters.Machiavelli in his work discusses a lot of themes in general framework of good state: establishment of a city, rule of law, good and bad governor, role of religion in society, virtue and corrupt people and many others. Machiavelli’s thoughts about corrupt people and their interdependence with good state.What does Machiavelli mean when he uses the termscorrupt” and corruption”.Sometimes, very rarely, he uses corruption” as a synonym of bribery”. But in general corruption” and corrupt people” for Machiavelli in this book are antonyms of virtue people”; corrupt” people are bad, spoilt citizens that live only for their own profit, that don’t respect laws or adopt new laws for become even more corrupt, thecorrupt society” lives without respect among participants, in such society the rich become richer and the poor become poorer; the richest class usurps the power and doesn’t permit to good people that will work for entire society benefit come to the power. In corrupt societies the power has the strongest and the richest, while the mostmeritorious abstained from being candidates from fear.” So the corrupt society becomesworse because people that can improve community don’t have the possibility and opportunity to do anything. Such society becomes more corrupt and it seems to be more difficult to change the regime.Machiavelli tells us a lot about transformation of corrupt state to a good one. He sees two various scenarios: impossible and conditionally possible. The impossible one, which implies that transformation, is completely difficult. Machiavelli states that it is strange if someone comes to power using bad means even if he serves for good aims in the future. The person that is able to use such means for obtain power in the state can use them against the people of the state. This question is very complicated from moral point of view. Is man still virtue if he behaves as a corrupt one? no, because it is very difficult to earnauthority and very easy to lose it. Even he will make good things the way he came to power doesn’t allow him to do a lot and govern long for two reasons.


Satires and collection of satirical poem by the Latin author Juvenal written in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries A D. Juvenal is credited with sixteen known poems divided among five books: all are in the Roman genre of satire, which, at its most basic in the time of the author, comprised a wide-ranging discussion of society and social moresin dactylic hexameter. The sixth and tenth satires are some of the most renowned works in the collection. The poems are not individually titled, but translators have often added titles for the convenience of readers

 Hypocrites are Intolerable

I get an itch to run off beyond the Sarmatians and the frozen sea,

every time those men who pretend to be old-time paragons of virtue

and live an orgy, dare to spout something about morals.”


There is no Room in Rome for a Roman

What could I do at Rome? I don’t know how to lie;

If a book is bad, I am unable to praise it and ask for one;

I don’t understand the motions of the stars – I am neither willing

nor able to predict the death of someone’s father; I never inspected the guts

of frogs; other men know all about ferrying what the adulterers send to brides;

nobody is going to be a thief with me as his accomplice,

and that right there is why I’m going in no governor’s entourage

– I’m like a cripple, a useless body with a dead right hand.”



Sri Lanka

Ancient Sri Lanka seems to have refused to accept bribery and corruption as a part of the system. The Badulla pillar inscription of Udaya IV records an instance when the public protested to the king regarding corruption. The merchants and householders of the market town of Hopitigama in Sorabora district petitioned the king, when the king visited the area. They said that they were subject to harassment, extortion, and bribes. The officers delegated by the dandanayake who was in charge of Hopitigama, exacted five hundred instead of the 25 kalandas which was the official payment. The officers accepted presents, had the village surrounded, houses occupied and householders taken away by force. A statute was written on the orders of the king prohibiting these activities and stating that corrupt officers should be reported to the authorities.

Some stone inscriptions of the late Anuradhapura period have It is evident, through these few examples that the phenomenon of corruption is timeless; however it is not a characteristic of one people or nation, but of all of mankind, starting from Adam and Eve. Nevertheless that does not mean that regulations and laws shouldn’t exist in order to prevent and minimize this bad habit.

been categorized as codes of disciplinary rules for the perpetuation of the Buddha Sasana. The kings, in order to protect the Buddha Sasana worked for the purification of the order of the monks when it was beset by corrupt practices. The documentation of regulation of the Buddhist Order by the kings in the form of the rock edicts continued up to the late Anuradhapura period as Kathika, which later came to be known as Kathikawathas. With the formal introduction of Buddhism to the island in the 3rd century B.C. by the mission led by Arahat Mahinda, the Sangha was established in a more organized manner. What we witnessed after that was the rapid expansion of the Sanghawith overt royal patronage. The rapid expansion and institutionalization of the sangha created the need, from time to time, to protect it from deviations, disorders and interpretations. As a result, the enactment of disciplinary rules (Patimokkha) .

It is evident from the above random selections of corruption in the ancient world;the phenomenon is everlasting as long as man exists. However the level of corruption varies according to rulers and scholars.

What we see today in our country is the worst corruption in our history.

Upali Cooray

Bibliography:- 1) History of Ceylon (volume 1 part 1)

                             2) Wikipedia

                             3) Senarath Paranawithana

                            4) Chanakya- kautilya :- Ancient history encyclopedia

                             5) Crime and punishment in ancient Sri Lanka-Kamalika Peiris

                              (The Island” newspaper)

                             6) Institute of Defense Studies- India

                                (IDSA issue briefs- internet)

                             7) Corrupt people and good state in” discouses” by Machiavelli

                                 Nick Tyan

                            8 )The role of Bhikkus in ancient Sri Lanka and Bhikku Katikawat in ancient inscriptions.

Ranasinghe, S.K.


2 Responses to “Corruption in the ancient world ”

  1. AnuD Says:

    So, what is your point, let it happen ?

  2. Senerath Says:

    Ancient corruption was countered by rising public against it, as Gomin Dayasiri says elsewhere our parliament is “the Club of The Corrupt”. This cannot be stopped by the corrupt becoming “good” at the next election or “previous corrupt is better than the current corrupt” or with the ” corruption is a very ancient art” ideology.
    Nothing can be won because of corruption. It is the MOTHER OF ALL INJUSTICE.

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