Laws and rules – and the customs and conventions – from which they are descended have always been the part of human life ever since our ancestors first began to live in large and settled groups. But our knowledge is vague of laws that were in effect before the invention of writing in about 3500 B.C. The earliest known legal text was written by Ur-Nammu, the king of the Mesopotamian city of Ur, in about 2100 B.C. It dealt largely with compensation for bodily injuries, penalties for witchcraft and runaway slaves.
One of the earliest known collections of codified laws is the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi [,hæmu΄ra:bi] was a king of Babylon from 1728 B.C. to 1686 B.C. So that everyone could know the laws, they were carved into the stone pillars set up in the temple to the Babylonian god Marduk. The laws covered crime, divorce, marriage, the rights of slave owners and slaves, the settlement of debts, inheritance and property contracts; there were even regulations about taxes and the prices of goods. Punishments under the code were harsh. The cruel principle of revenge was observed: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, which meant that the punishment had to correspond to those damages and injuries that criminals had inflicted upon their victims. Not only murderers but also thieves and false accusers faced the death penalty. And a child who hit his father could lose the hand that struck the blow. The code outlawed private blood feuds and banned the tradition by which a man could kidnap and keep the woman he wanted for his bride. In addition, the new laws took account of the circumstances of the offender as well as the offence. So a lower-ranking citizen who lost a civil case would be fined less than an aristocrat in the same position – though he would also be awarded less if he won.
Another code of early law is the Code of Hebraic laws, or Mosaic Law of about 1400 B.C. This code is set out in detail in the first five books of the Old Testament, which are called the Torah, meaning ‘law’ or ‘guidance’ These books recount the forty-year-long wandering of Moses and the tribes of Israel from Egypt across the Sinai desert to the Promised Land of Canaan. While in the desert, Moses was summoned to the top of Mount Sinai by God and was given the tablets of Ten Commandments. Like the Babylonians, the Hebrew compilers believed that their laws were based on the will of God. Unlike the commercially-oriented Code of Hammurabi, the Mosaic Law reflects the agrarian community which Moses presided over. As chief lawgiver and magistrate, Moses was both a legislator and a judge in the modern sense. The Ten Commandments still hold a central position today in the teaching of both the Hebrew and the Christian faiths. As well, the Mosaic Law forms an important part of the laws of many countries today.
The ancient Greeks were among the first to develop a concept of law that separated everyday laws and religious beliefs. Before Greeks most civilizations attributed their laws to gods and goddesses. Instead, the Greeks believed that laws were made by the people and for the people. In the seventh century B.C., Draco drew up Greece’s first written code of laws. Draco’s laws were shockingly severe, so severe that people say that they were written not in ink but in blood. On the civil side they permitted enslavement for debt, and death was the penalty for almost all criminal offences. Thus, the term draconian usually applies to extremely harsh measures.
Several decades passed before Solon – poet, military hero, and ultimately Athens’s lawgiver – devised a new code of laws. The early 6th century was a troubled time for the Athenians. The aristocracy of birth owned the best land, and they were themselves split into rival factions. The social, economic and political evils might have culminated in a revolution and subsequent tyranny (dictatorship), had it not been for Solon, to whom Athenians turned in the hope of generally satisfactory solution of their problems. Because he believed in moderation and in an ordered society in which each class had its proper place and function, his solution was not revolution but reform. He retained trial by jury, an ancient Greek tradition, but prohibited enslavement of debtors. Under Solon’s law citizens of Athens were eligible to serve in the Assembly, and courts were established in which they could appeal government decisions. Solon revised every statute except that on homicide and made Athenian law altogether more humane. What the Greeks contributed to the Roman law was the concept of ‘natural law’. In essence, natural law was based on the belief that certain basic principles are above the laws of nature. These principles arise from the nature of people. The concept had a profound effect on the modern world.
Another earliest code of laws, the Law of the Twelve Tablets, was written between 451 B.C. and 449 B.C. The Law was carved into twelve bronze tablets set up in the Forum for everyone to see. It remained in use for over 1000 years. The second great set of Roman laws, the Justinian Code was compiled under the direction of Justinian, Emperor of Rome. Justinian was concerned with elimination of corruption and making justice available to everyone. The Code consisted of four works: a) all the imperial edicts; b) the Digest, the decisions of the great Roman jurists; c) the Institutes, which served as a hand-book for law students; d) the Novels, or ‘new laws’, passed by Justinian himself.
By 100 A. D., the Roman Empire had spread over much of Europe. It remained intact until the fifth century A.D. As a result, the two Roman codes greatly influenced the laws of all European countries, including France and England.
At the heart of the English system there are two principles of government – limited government and representative government. The idea that government was not all-powerful first appeared in the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, that King John signed in 1215 under the threat of civil war. The Magna Carta established the principle of limited government, in which the power of the monarch, or government, was limited, not absolute. This document provided for protection against unjust punishment and loss of life, liberty, and property except according to law. It stipulated that no citizen could be punished or kept in prison without a fair trial. Under the Magna Carta, the king agreed that certain taxes could not be levied without popular consent. The Magna Carta came in time to be regarded as a cornerstone of British liberties. It is one of the oldest written constitutional papers.
In Britain, the United States, and many other English-speaking countries, the law of Habeas Corpus guarantees that nobody can be held in prison without trial. Habeas Corpus became a law because of a wild party held in 1621 at the London home of a notoriously rowdy woman, Alice Robinson. When a constable [΄kΛnstəbl] appeared and asked her and her guests to quiet down, Mrs. Robinson swore at him so violently that he arrested her, and a local justice of the peace committed her to jail. When she was brought to trial, Mrs. Robinson’s story of her treatment in prison caused an outcry. Such treatment was barbaric even by the harsh standards of the time. Public anger was so great that she was acquitted, the constable who had arrested her without the warrant was himself sent to prison, and the justice of the peace was severely reprimanded. And the case led to the passing of the Habeas Corpus Act in Britain in 1679. The law is still on the British statute books. Habeas Corpus is part of a Latin phrase – Habeas Corpus ad subjiciendum - that means ‘Let the body be brought before the judge,’ In effect, a writ of Habeas Corpus is an order in the name of the people (or, in Britain, of the sovereign) to produce an imprisoned person in court at once.
The Bill of Rights (1689) is one of the basic instruments of the British constitution, the result of the long 17th century struggle between the Stuart kings and the English people and Parliament. The revolution settlement made monarchy conditional on the will of Parliament and provided a freedom from arbitrary government of which most Englishmen were notably proud during the 18th century. The main purpose of the act was unequivocally to declare illegal various practices of James II. Among such practices proscribed were the royal prerogatives of dispensing with the law in certain cases, the complete suspension of laws without the consent of Parliament, and the levying of taxes and the maintenance of a standing army in peacetime without specific parliamentary authorization. A number of clauses sought to eliminate royal interference in parliamentary matters, stressing that elections must be free and that members of Parliament must have complete freedom of speech. Certain forms of interference of the course of justice were also proscribed. The act also dealt with proximate succession to the throne, provided the heirs were Protestants. It is the constitutional paper of great importance, which prevented the sovereign from abusing his authority.
The laws of much continental Europe owe their modern form largely to a man who never studied law. Napoleon Bonaparte established in 1800 five commissions to refine and organize the diverse legal systems of France. The resulting Code was a triumphant attempt to create a legal system that treated all citizens as equals without regard to their rank or previous privileges. It was also so clearly written that it could be read and understood by ordinary people. The code was adopted intact in most of the areas of Europe and spread from there across the Atlantic. Many of its principles are still in force.