The Law Before Moderate Times

Hammurabi (standing), depicted as receiving his royal insignia from Shamash (or possibly Marduk). Hammurabi holds his hands over his mouth as a sign of prayer (relief on the upper part of the stele of Hammurabi's code of laws). (Image Credit: Mbzt)

Many of the Western laws, even the religious ones, have origins which date back before modern times.

During the ancient times, the earliest forms of law became comprehensive and showed itself within Babylonia. It was here that ruler Hammurabi would fashion his rules for crimes in 1900 BCE known as the “Code of Hammurabi.” The infamous codes were, however, based on a societal caste system which means people were not actual equal. For example, if a citizen violated a slave, a fine was usually a result. But, let a slave violate a citizen and the penalty was even more extreme. The code of Hammurabi was a set of codes which were the first ever written down in human history.

Hebrew Law

The Jewish Mosaic laws were also among the earliest of laws. The Western world, till this day, reflects the theocratic nature of Hebrew society. Crimes were seen as ethical deviations and were penalized as misbehavior against the will of God called “Yahweh.” Capital punishment, exile and ostracism were widely accepted. Death done by stoning was only utilized when the most revered laws were violated. Mosaic early law was also responsible for the popular phrase “an eye for an eye.” Such a phrase was noted several times in the Hebrew bible dealing with the value of personal compensation. But even this phrase had its influence contained by Hammurabi’s Code.

Greek Law

The Greek law would also follow a similar pattern of individual retribution until the time of Solon, one of the great rulers from the Greek early days. Solon, in the 6th century, extended individual retribution rights to every person existing in Athens. And the laws reflecting Greece would have a huge influence on the Western world like Mosaic laws.

Elaborate Roman Civil Law

If the Greek, Babylonian and Mosaic laws were a great collection of laws in the ancient world to have influence on the Western world, well then Roman law may have had the most influence. Roman law was more sophisticated than Greek and Mosaic law, even though they started the gambit. The Romans, due to their multifaceted political and commercial lives, created an elaborate body of civil law. The Roman law dealing with criminal justice, in contrast, was dealt largely to local custom. And it did showed less superiority under the Caesars. But when concerning criminal law, the Roman judges dealt with abstract principles within the Roman criminal justice system at their own discretion.

It would take some hundreds of years before the European world would be mostly – run religiously by the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to that, when Rome fell, there were little or no improvements within Western law. The crimes ran unrestrained. But in the Middle Ages, Christianity was able to survive and spread itself partly thanks to great rulers like Charlemagne and Justinian. The laws from Roman thought would emerge with that of Christianity and form the basis of Ecclesiastical law practiced by Ecclesiastical courts.

Ecclesiastical law in the Middle Ages

According to Ecclesiastical law in the Middle Ages, crimes and sin were treated the same in substance and nature. Nevertheless, extremely terrible offenses, for instance sexual offenses, were punishable by way of castration. Also, when criminals were convicted of heresy, burning at the stake or decapitation was the final verdict and would include confessions as well as repentance. This nature of English law would exist until the last quarter of the 17th century.

Grand Jury, Double Jeopardy and Anti Self-Incrimination

After the Norman invasion of England, criminal law became idiosyncratic. During the reign of Henry II, Ecclesiastical courts were reduced. And the first criminal grand jury was started, by the royal crown in 1164. Its function was to present a sampling of public knowledge of criminal acts so that the government may be capable of prosecuting. Until the 16th century, jurors were supposed to look for facts as the sole groundwork of knowledge based on being of the general public. However, in doing so, circumstantial disturbing rumors might be the damning of the accused on trial. That is why in 1563, the Statue of Elizabeth made possible for a person to testify without being in jeopardy. Adding to that, in the 17th century, there would be a stoppage of Star Chambers which would lead to the creation of immunity against self-incrimination.