How did American ideas of justice come to be? Here’s a brief look at a few of our ancient influencers, from a Sumerian lawmaker-king to the goddesses who inspired the image of Lady Justice.
Legal systems and policing in the ancient world reflected the priorities (and deficiencies) of the civilizations that created them — just as they do today. In many ancient empires, law codes etched lofty principles of equality into stone, while slavery remained legal and widespread. Bizarre and inhumane punishments persisted, as did corruption and abuses by the wealthy and powerful.
Mesopotamian societies valued stable families and birthright, so their law codes punished adultery harshly. And because agriculture and irrigation were paramount, Mesopotamian laws stipulated very specific damages for stealing seeds or livestock feed, or for destroying a neighbor’s crops by flooding his fields.
In Ancient Egypt, fear of repercussions in the afterlife didn’t dissuade tomb robbers from enriching themselves at the expense of the deceased, so the Pharaohs established a few repercussions in this life, from foot-floggings to hand amputations and the occasional impalement. During the more debauched eras of ancient Rome, convicted criminals were mauled to death by animals before thousands of spectators, in elaborate, gory spectacles known as damnatio ad bestias. — “condemnation to beasts.”
In ancient Athens, a direct democracy that valued civic participation in government, people argued their own cases in front of large groups of citizen-jurors chosen by lottery, and Scythian archers (slaves from the Eurasian steppes) were charged with keeping the peace.
Let’s look at a few examples of law and enforcement systems from the past and consider the ways they’ve influenced modern governing.
Sumer: The Code of Ur-Nammu
If you want to read the oldest known written legal code in the original, you’ll need to learn Sumerian. It’s no coincidence that sophisticated justice systems were birthed in the cradle of civilization — the word itself connotes a society advanced and organized enough to protect its citizens, at least to a degree, from invasion, banditry, crime, and the exploitative whims of local leaders.
The Sumerian king Ur-Nammu laid down the law more than 4000 years ago; parts of it were discovered in the mid-20th century, in present-day Iraq, on clay tablet fragments. The Code of Ur-Nammu was a vital part of the king’s social reforms, which included standardizing the mina and shekel — measures of silver currency — and protecting the weak from the strong.
Here’s an excerpt from the prologue:
“Then did Ur-Nammu…establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife … The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the powerful man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.”
The code was presented as a list of “if, then” scenarios, with crimes and punishments spelled out in striking detail. For example:
“If a man, in the course of a scuffle, smashed the limb of another man with a club, he shall pay one mina of silver.”
Wow — that’s pretty specific, and it doesn’t seem arbitrary. A mina, which equalled 60 shekels, was apparently a decent chunk of change. By comparison, the fine for cutting off a man’s foot was only 10 shekels. If you consider that, in a time before bone-setting, a smashed leg probably crippled a man more seriously than a severed foot, then the payment seems like a carefully-considered attempt at restitution.
The code set forth civil and criminal laws, assigned fines in silver for minor offenses, punished false accusers and perjury, and defined some acts, such as murder and robbery, as capital crimes.
In some ways, the Code of Ur-Nammu was slightly more humane than later codes like Hammurabi’s, which were a little more brutally punitive. Still, women in Sumer had few rights, and slaves had almost none.
Several laws illustrate this in strangely exact detail: One states that “deflowering” a man’s dewy bride is punishable by death, which implies that a woman’s value is all about virginity. Another law punishes a slave woman for disrespecting her owner’s wife — by scouring the slave’s mouth with a quart of salt.
Some court archives also survive from ancient Sumer and describe how local rulers administered lawsuits, marriages, divorces, contracts, investigations, and criminal malfeasance cases. Judges were upper-class men from other professions who presided over cases. Witnesses testified under oath.
Did Ur-Nammu really banish malediction and establish equity in the land? Doubtful. But aspiring to it is part of what made a hot and sandy place into A Civilization; and carving it into tablets for posterity shaped ideas of justice and fair government for millennia to come.
And if folks didn’t like it? Don’t blame Ur-Nammu — those laws emanated from the gods, he claimed. He was just the administrator. How convenient.
Three centuries later, Babylon was on the rise. Hammurabi conquered southern Mesopotamia and bound together his vast, multilingual empire by instituting a uniform code of law.
His famous legal code is inscribed in cuneiform on this famous four-ton stone stele (topmost part pictured) which now stands in the Louvre. Atop the stele is a relief sculpture of Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice, presenting Hammurabi with the sacred laws, represented by a scepter and a ring, symbols of power.
According to Babylon scholars, Hammurabi probably didn’t create these laws, but simply recorded past judgments — legal precedents — in the form of hundreds of “if-then” rules that set forth actions and their consequences. As with any legal code, the details of Hammurabi’s code reflected that society’s priorities. The 282 surviving rules addressed contracts and liability, fees for services, marriage and child custody, property and agriculture, and crime.
The code contained many elements of any modern legal system: the ideas of impartiality and equality, consistent enforcement, damage awards, and criminal punishments (which varied according to status).
The Code of Hammurabi was an early example of lex talionis (“law of the claw”), a type of retaliatory justice that created penalties that mirrored the misdeeds, sometimes in bizarre and rather brutal ways. In its “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” approach, it echoes some elements of Hebrew law as set forth in the Torah/Old Testament — although certain punishments were a little grisly. For example, the penalty for adulterous lovers who plotted to murder their spouses was impalement. (Ow.) And people accused of crimes like sorcery, which couldn’t be proved by evidence, were tried by “ordeal”— e.g., held underwater and acquitted if they failed to die. (Not a great legal precedent.)
On a brighter note, Hammurabi’s code also offered one of the first known examples of the “presumption of innocence” concept, and of the right of accused and accuser to present evidence in court — key legal principles that laid the foundation for modern criminal law. And that’s why Hammurabi appears on a marble frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court depicting the “great lawgivers of history.”
Don’t mess with Mesopotamia.
During the Old Kingdom (2613-2181 BC). you got as much policing as you could afford. Kings and elites hired personal bodyguards, and private watchmen guarded tombs. But there was no police force tasked with protecting citizens.
A relief carved on a tomb near the end of the Old Kingdom suggests that a police force existed by that time. Nubian warriors and ex-soldiers armed with staffs patrolled markets and temples and trained monkeys and dogs to help catch suspects. After the Old Kingdom fell, Bedouins were hired to patrol the borders and guard royal caravans crossing the desert. The Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BC) saw the creation of standing armies, a professional police force, and a sophisticated judicial system, including judges and investigators.
Under the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BC), the justice system evolved and specialized further. Police offers were appointed by the vizier, and were responsible for everything from guarding public places and safeguarding the sanctity of temples to prosecuting and punishing crimes. Courts operated under a “guilty until proven innocent” assumption.
The foundational principle guiding the Egyptians’ attitude toward justice and ethics was known as ma’at, a word that refers to a feather-wearing goddess of truth and fairness, and also to a concept of harmony that should guide a moral life.
According to this philosophy, every human heart would be weighed in the afterlife against Ma’at’s white feather of truth; a heart weighed down by selfishness would fail this trial and pass out of existence instead of entering paradise.
Justice personified as a goddess, often holding a scale and a sword, appears throughout history, from Ma’at and Isis to Themis, the Greek goddess of justice and law and Justitia, her Roman counterpart, popularized by Emperor Augustus.
You’ll have seen any number of these allegorical figures, standing watch as the Lady of Justice before modern-day courthouses all over the world. The blindfold, symbolizing impartiality, first appeared in European sculptures during the late Renaissance.
When in Rome: Evolving Laws and Imperial Enforcers
There was no written law in the Roman Republic until around 450 B.C., when lower-status “plebs” demanded fairer treatment before the law from ruling-class “patricians.” A ten-man commission called the decemvirs created the Twelve Tables, inscribing preexisting Roman cultural norms and traditions into bronze tablets. That early code focused on private law and relationships, including statutes about marriage and guardianship, and it set punishment such as banishment or fines for certain crimes. (For example, casting a nefarious spell on someone’s crops could get you executed by crucifixion. No word on whether that worked well as a deterrent.) The Twelve Tables were displayed at the Forum, and were said by Cicero, the eminent Roman statesman and political philosopher, to “surpass the libraries of all the philosophers, both in weight of authority, and in plenitude of utility.”
In ancient Rome, casting a nefarious spell on someone’s crops could get you executed by crucifixion.
The Twelve Tables laid a foundation for justice systems in Rome and other Western societies for many centuries to come. But as the Roman Empire expanded, the legal system grew and evolved with it. The growing body of law came to be divided into three main categories: civil law (ius civile), which applied to Roman citizens only; the law of nations (ius gentium), which applied to all people of all nationalities; and natural law (ius naturale), which derived from nature, applied to all humankind, and was independent of the laws of any society or nation. This concept of universal justice grew from ideas put forth by Aristotle and the Stoics, was embraced by Cicero, and inspired America’s founding fathers.
After Julius Caesar’s assassination and the collapse of the Republic, JC’s great-nephew and adoptive son Augustus transformed Rome into an empire and became its first emperor (reign: 27 BC – 14 AD). He’s the guy generally credited with securing the famous Pax Romana — around 200 years of relative peace and stability. He consolidated power, created a large standing army and conquered more territory, built roads and aqueducts to connect the expanding empire, and established a central treasury and system of taxation to pay for it.
Maintaining the pax also required a professional civilian law enforcement body. Privately-owned slaves had long been Rome’s firemen, but Augustus established new city brigades of night watchmen who fought fires and arrested suspected thieves, assailants, and runaway slaves. The vigiles were seven cohorts of 1,000 freedmen, promised Roman citizenship after their term of service was up.
An elite military unit called the Praetorian Guard (pictured) were Rome’s imperial bodyguards and intelligence officers. As their power grew, Augustus assembled a body of troops called the cohortes urbanae (urban cohorts) to balance the scales, and also to help maintain public order in Rome. A prescient move, considering that the Praetorians, in later administrations, abetted a few assassinations. (Although, you could argue, Caligula was pretty scary and kinda needed killing.)
No good pax lasts forever. Nor does a Republic.
Code of Justinian
Centuries later, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I (reign: 527-565 AD) revamped Roman law into a more coherent and consistent system of jurisprudence: the Corpus Juris Civilis, or “Body of Civil Law,” which collected past laws and judicial opinions and added an outline of how it all worked, for scholars and students. The Code of Justinian (as it was also known) influenced Byzantine civilization for hundreds of years and set the stage for modern civil law in the West.
Then as now, when it came to creating just societies, the distance between aspiration and practice could sometimes be rather … vast. Still, a few visionaries along the way introduced legal systems and reforms that would influence moral and political philosophy for millennia to come.
It’s easy (and fun) to look back through the millennia and assess where the great civilizations fell short in their striving for equity and justice. What’s tougher is seeing our own society’s shortcomings with clear eyes. Studying the thinkers and doers who inspired our own institutions can help clarify things a bit. But what counts even more is continuing to aspire to a better, fairer system that balances rights and responsibilities, security and liberty, and protects its citizens from each other, from the wealthy and powerful, and from the state itself.
As investigators, we are lucky enough to have an insider’s view of it all and a role to play in that quest. It’s a right, and a serious responsibility.
Sources & Further Reading:
Tomb Robbing in Ancient Egypt (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
Ma’at (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
Ur-Nammu (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character, by Samuel Noah Kramer (ch. 3)
Babylonian Law–The Code of Hammurabi (The Avalon Project, Yale Law School)
Code of Hammurabi (History.com)
Roman Legal Tradition and the Compilation of Justinian (Berkley Law)
Twelve Tables (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
Cicero and the Natural Law (The Witherspoon Institute)
Cohortes Urbanae (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
Corpus Juris Civilis (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
*note: The author is not a historian and did the best she could with this overview. Any errors, omissions, or catastrophic failures were made in good faith and with genuine, humble curiosity. If you’re a legal historian, we invite you to share your knowledge. Submit a better story, or add your $.02 in the comments.