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Law in the Ancient World

May 15, 2017

The legal systems in place throughout the world have origins that date back to ancient societies. Civil law has its foundation in ancient Roman law, and this type of legal system is based on complying with enacted laws. Common law originated with England's monarchy, and this type of legal system is based on precedent. This means that previous cases and judicial opinions determine how new cases are resolved. Studying ancient legal systems can help you understand how and why current work the way they do.


King Hammurabi was the first king of Babylon, and he was the ruler who was responsible for conquering Mesopotamia and creating the first Babylonian Empire. Hammurabi was known for his fair laws and style of ruling. He wanted his people to obey his laws out of respect, not out of fear. This ruler managed his court by clearly outlining the laws so that all of the people knew them. Hammurabi's laws are called the Code of Hammurabi. The Code of Hammurabi includes a wide range of statutes covering everything from family relationships to contracts to inheritances to crimes and punishments. For example, violent crimes often had penalties that equaled the crime; if you cut someone's hand off, for instance, you would have yours cut off, too. The king enforced his laws by holding everyone accountable equally, without regard for status or income. Every law had a clear punishment attached to it, and penalties were carried out consistently.

Ancient Greece

The judicial system in place in America has roots in the ancient Greek legal system. In ancient Greece, there was no need for law school because lawyers were not a part of the legal system. Instead of having a lawyer representing each side in a case, people argued their cases. Some people with enough means may have hired speechwriters to help them figure out what to say when arguing a case. Ancient Greeks also did not use judges to decide verdicts. Instead, they used large juries, sometimes with as many as 500 jurors. Cases were not drawn out over days or weeks in ancient Greece: The Greeks monitored the proceedings strictly with a timer to make sure that the parties presented their positions and the jury gave its verdict by the end of one day.

Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome contributed significantly to the legal systems still in place in many countries today. The foundation of Roman law was the Twelve Tablets, which contained the established set of laws. Some laws included in the Twelve Tablets include a requirement to appear in court if you are called upon, the punishment of death for lying in court, and a prohibition against holding business or political meetings at night. This system of Roman law was in place for more than 1,500 years. Emperor Justinian was responsible for creating the Code of Justinian, which was a compilation of Roman laws that is the foundation of the civil law in many modern countries.

Ancient China

China holds the top honor as the country with the longest continuous legal history. Chinese law is influenced by ancient Confucian codes of conduct, which focus on people's individual responsibility to be virtuous without having the law dictate their actions. The Xia Dynasty was the first of China's dynasties, but it was not until many hundreds of years later that the ruler of the Qin Dynasty established the first centralized feudal government. This type of government had a single ruler, who maintained control with military force. Many dynasties followed until 1911 when the final dynasty was overthrown. The Republic of China was established at that time.