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Ancient Crime and Law Codes

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Crime, or what one in the twenty-first century may perceive as crime, has changed drastically since historical and societal formation. From the times of Hammurabi to now, much has changed; a minor crime today may have carried the death penalty when he was walking around. This essay will go over ancient crime in a multitude of eras and empires from Mesopotamia, to Ancient Rome, to the Aztecs all the while including the various law codes each society had.

Traditionally, when one thinks of ancient Mesopotamian laws Hammurabi comes to mind, and while he is very important, he did have a predecessor. In the twenty-first century BCE, the Code of Ur-Nammu was created. Unsurprisingly, it was written by Ur-Nammu of Ur. While only being partially preserved, Ur-Nammu’s code brought us great insight to Hammurabi’s framework. The Code of Ur-Nammu was “arranged in casuistic form” which many later law codes used. It also implemented the idea of monetary compensation for any bodily injury afflicted (“Law in Mesopotamia”).

Unlike the Code of Ur-Nammu, Hammurabi devised a law code based on reciprocity; “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. He developed this law code composed of 282 laws in order to have one unifying thing across the Babylonian Empire, which encompassed several modern-day countries. Hammurabi had stated that he wanted to “make justice visible in the land, to destroy, the wicked person and the evil-doer, that the strong might not injure the weak” ( His code was advanced, listing all the crimes based on the category (whether it was property, marriage, etc.), and all the punishments for those crimes based on social class for both the victim and perpetrator. An example of this would be this “If a man has destroyed the eye of a man of the gentleman class, they shall destroy his eye… If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner… he shall pay one mina of silver (today’s price is around $313.50)… If he has destroyed the eye of a gentleman’s slave… he shall pay half the slave’s price” (

Next up is the Greeks, more specifically the Athenians. The US and many European law systems base themselves off of the Athenian law system. There are quite a few differences though, first off, the average jury size in Athens was between 200 and 600 people, almost always an odd number, to ensure there were no ties (Mathes). There were also no lawyers or judges. Instead of lawyers, cases were argued by regular Greek citizens, and judges were to easily bribed or coerced in order to trust them. Something the Greeks did which is almost unheard of today is that all cases and trials lasted no more than one full day, down to the point where the time was monitored using a water clock to be sure there was an accurate representation of the time left (Zaffar).

Just like ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Greece had its share of laws and law codes. One of the most well-known law codes was the one written by Draco. Draco was known for his incredibly harsh, brutal punishments, which is where the word ‘draconian’ comes from. An example of these violent punishments comes from Plutarch in Life of Solon, apparently, the punishment for stealing an apple or cabbage was death. Before Draco, laws were given orally. He wrote the laws on wooden and stone tablets so any literate Greek could read them (Dhwty). Aristotle claimed the laws were written with blood instead of ink, whether he was speaking literally or metaphorically is up in the air.

In order to bring some sort of normalcy to Athens, after the death of Draco, Solon wrote up a new law code. Solon’s laws were extensive, covering from inheritance to damages to how the political system works. Draco’s harsh laws were either scrapped or heavily modified, apart from the ones dealing with murder, which were kept. Solon also had to change how the trade worked in Athens due to a massive economic problem, which resulted in grains being illegal to trade and Greece’s olive and olive oil industry to be exported and sold at will (Cartwright).

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Roman law was complex to do the hierarchical form of government and citizenship statuses they had. Laws were voted on through assemblies for the most part but could also come to fruition through the Emperor’s orders, senatorial decrees, magistrate decisions, as well as the unofficial Council of Plebs (“Ancient Rome”). Laws were enforced by Praetors on an administrative level, and by Vigiles on a police force level. For a long period of time, none of the laws were written down formally, therefore wealthy officials could just makeup laws or change ‘existing’ ones to suit their needs. This lead to a revolt, which lead to the laws being written down of twelve stone tablets and displayed for all literate Roman citizens to read (“Ancient Rome”).

A lot like Hammurabi’s, the Roman Empire’s punishment system was greatly determined by the social class of those committing the crime. Patricians and other high ranking citizens may receive a slap on the wrist for something a plebian or a slave would be killed for. The favorite Roman manners of execution for capital offenses included: crucifixion, beheading, throwing the criminal from the Tarpeian Rock, burying them alive, or if they commited patricide, they were thrown into a river (Mathes).

A lot of Rome’s features of law and order are still used today. Concepts such as checks and balances, regular elections, and term limits for officials are meshed together with Athenian democracy to form the modern democratic structures we have today (“Ancient Rome”). Another Roman piece commonly used around the world today is Justinian’s law code. Justinian’s law code is called the Corpus Juris Civilis, it is a compilation of four books, totaling somewhere near one million words that codified all Roman Empire laws from the time of Hadrian in the early 100s CE. The four books the Corpus Juris Civilis includes are: The Code, the Novellae (new laws Justinian created), the Digest (legal opinions prior to Justinian), and the Institute (legal textbook). Most European law codes are backed off of Justinian’s Code, and to some extent, the US is as well, though the United States is based on English Common Law, which is a mix of Germanic and Roman laws (Krenzke).

Medieval England had its fair share of law code attempts, as the history of English Common Law is murky and surprisingly, unknown. Before kings and queens wrote down their laws they were practiced as generational customs passed down orally from kingdom to kingdom. Everyone from William the Conqueror to Edward the Confessor had their own law codes. Punishments were often bizarre and interestingly specific, like this one from King Alfred, “The loss of a big toe cost the offender 20 shillings (1 pound, $1.29). The second toe over, 15 and only 9 for loss of the middle toe, 4 for the 4th and 5 for the baby toe” (Duhaime). Innocent or guilt was thought to be up to God, therefore, England adopted Germanic trial by Ordeals. The most commonly known ordeal is Trial by Combat, wherein two people (or their chosen champions) fight to the death, and if the accused is still living, they were innocent because God had willed it (“Crime and Medieval Punishment'). Medieval England also used capital punishment more than imprisonment, heathens were executed, concealment of an exile would land both parties executed, acts of treason would have one executed, and the list goes on (Duhaime).

A much different look at crime comes from the Aztec Empire. Crime and punishment for the crime varied between cities. Their laws covered every imaginable aspect of life, from estate inheritance to economics. Unlike other civilizations, many of the laws were created in order to preserve the social class system (“Aztec crime and punishment”). Commoners could not dress the same as those ranking above them. Women and men in Aztec culture were fairly equal. Crimes were dealt with seriously, harshly, and swiftly through the court systems; minor crimes would be dealt with in the village, more serious crimes were dealt with in the capital, Tenochtitlan, and very serious crimes were dealt with at the Emperor’s palace, and judged by the Emperor himself. There was no prison system in the Aztec Empire, therefore most crimes were punished with the death penalty. Criminals would often be put to death on an altar, strangled, or stoned on the spot. Lighter punishments included having one’s head shaven, their home demolished, or paying back medical expenses (“Aztec crime and punishment”).

Overall, all these civilizations and their interpretations of crime and punishment have shaped the modern world in ways we cannot imagine. Many aspects of society are compounded upon when looking at law codes. One also gets a window into how society is running and what they believe to be a nuisance occurrence based on what they are making laws on.

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Ancient Crime and Law Codes. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from
“Ancient Crime and Law Codes.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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Ancient Crime and Law Codes [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2024 Feb 29]. Available from:
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