Law and Justice in Ancient Societies

Subject: History
Pages: 7
Words: 1654
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College


In the ancient world, law and justice were used to maintain peace and harmony between people living in different societies. These laws were used to judge citizens of territories where ancient empires had acquired authority to administer as the dominant source of government. Ancient laws and justice systems were influenced by religious doctrines, where the elite was given more protection compared to common citizens. In these societies, laws were used to protect the interests of the elite from any form of violation by people from lower classes. This paper will discuss how law and justice were applied in ancient societies by analyzing the Twelve Tables in Ancient Rome and The Laws of Hammurabi in Ancient Babylon.

Twelve Tables

The Twelve Tables in Ancient Rome served as the foundation of Roman law and was formed to govern how the Roman Republic was ruled. They were influenced by unwritten customary laws which were observed by Roman citizens in different parts of the empire. Before the formation of these laws, there were a lot of class struggles between aristocrats and working-class citizens of the empire. In essence, the Twelve Tables were a set of rules that were used to govern Roman citizens by the empire’s rulers. The structure adopted for these laws was similar to ancient Greek laws even though they were written in Latin. They were publicly displayed for all Roman citizens to read and understand. They conferred different penalties depending on the nature of the offense committed, severity, and the social status of the offender. The Twelve Tables were used by magistrates, who formed part of the privileged class to enforce law and order in the empire. They consisted of statutes that set norms and practices all citizens in the empire were required to observe.

Significance of Each Table

They are widely regarded as the foundation of modern law because they sought to address various legal and justice issues in ancient Rome. The first table enforced the supreme authority of the court. Any person summoned had to appear before the magistrate and if he failed, he would be brought to court by force. It also stipulated that an accused person’s court had a right to an advocate with a similar social status. Therefore, conflicting parties were required to present their issues in a trial, where a judge would administer a final ruling. The second table outlined penalties for various offenses committed by Roman citizens. A free citizen found guilty of theft was flogged and ordered to repay stolen items to the owner while a slave found guilty of theft was sentenced to death by getting thrown off a cliff.

The third table dealt with fraud and required that a person accused of engaging in fraudulent acts pay double the amount he had taken to compensate the aggrieved party. This had to be repaid within thirty days, a failure to which the guilty party was required to perform free hard labor for sixty days or become a slave. The fourth table mandated that a father had the right to sell his own children as slaves. If a father sold a child more than three times, he was considered a free citizen who was no longer under his father’s authority. The law also stipulated that fathers had a right to kill their deformed children after birth. The fourth law demonstrates how fathers were given absolute powers over their families.

The fifth table gave men the power of guardianship over females irrespective of their age. During the marriage, a woman and her guardian had to agree before any dowry payments were made. The law also recognized the legality of a will left by a deceased person and any division of possessions left by the deceased had to be done in accordance with his will. The sixth table required that a formal agreement between a seller and a buyer be recorded before any commercial land transaction was done. The agreement between parties involved was legally binding and they were all supposed to respect it. A woman was given rights of ownership over her husband’s property if she had proof that they had stayed together for more than one year. This law also required men to show valid reasons that made them divorce their wives before their wishes could be granted.

Table seven outlined property planning laws that all citizens were required to observe during the construction of their buildings. The law mandated that a property owner had to build his building several feet apart from the next building taking into consideration roads that were used for passage. Boundary disputes between two property owners were arbitrated by a praetor who determined where the true boundary lay after reviewing issues raised by parties involved. Table eight prohibited citizens from writing libelous statements and any person found guilty of writing these statements was sentenced to death by clubbing. A thief found guilty of stealing another person’s property at night was sentenced to death. The law also banned citizens from holding seditious meetings at night. The ninth table mandated that all statutes applied to all Roman citizens equally irrespective of their status. Judges who were found guilty of receiving bribes and other favors were condemned to death.

The tenth table outlawed all funeral ceremonies within the walls of the city. The law also valued the importance of oath-taking by citizens because the act showed a strong sense of duty to the empire. Table eleven mandated that crucial laws in the empire could only be adopted after all citizens had approved them through voting. This law also upheld that senators were not allowed to get married to common citizens. The twelfth table prohibited any form of sacred rituals being done in a property that had ownership disputes. The law also assigned responsibility to the owner of a slave who damaged the property of a fellow Roman citizen. The twelve tables were comprehensive because they addressed all legal and justice issues that were deemed important by Roman citizens. They were obtained from common customary law and touched on civil issues, public affairs, religious matters, and property laws.

Hammurabi’s Laws

The Code of Hammurabi was used in ancient Babylon during Hammurabi’s reign as king from 1792 to 1750. Hammurabi was motivated to codify more than 280 laws which were used to govern the territory that was under his authority. These laws were borrowed from ancient Mesopotamian customs and they were used to maintain law and order in the area. Hammurabi had a vision of uniting all city-states that were under his domain and to achieve his goal, he used a set of laws to unify all people in different city-states in the empire. The preamble to these laws outlines the importance of a just society that does not have wicked people to ensure the weak are adequately protected. Hammurabi’s laws were used to regulate different activities in Babylon and they made all citizens understand their legal obligations in the empire.

Some of the laws contained in the code served brutal punishments to offenders. They were used to deter Hammurabi’s subjects from engaging in any acts that were either deemed immoral or illegal. Hammurabi’s laws conferred harsh sentences both to the elite and common folk, though slaves that broke the law received more severe penalties because they were considered inferior beings. For instance, people who were found guilty of robbing fellow citizens were sentenced to death. The code also had a law that punished children who fought with their fathers. A child who was accused of beating up his father had his hands chopped off for disobedience. A slave who was found guilty of speaking disrespectfully to his master was punished by having one ear chopped off. Hammurabi’s laws were harsher compared to the twelve Roman laws. However, both sets of laws were heavily influenced by cultural customs, and penalties administered were influenced by the social status of an offender.

Hammurabi laws were vindictive and they were used to carry out vengeance against persons found guilty of various offenses. Babylon and other ancient societies equaled the concept of vengeance with justice. Slaves were not given adequate protection and any person who was found sheltering a runaway slave was sentenced to death. Freemen were prohibited from encouraging slaves to disobey or escape from their owners’ homes and any person found guilty of this crime was sentenced to death. The law also set clear responsibilities that property owners were supposed to adhere to during construction. The law also stipulated that a man who rents land from another man for farming bears all liabilities sustained by his crops before harvest. Therefore, the owner of the land is not required to compensate the tenant if his crops get destroyed by bad weather.

The law also set clear issues that deal with marriage, women’s rights, and divorce. The code stipulated that men who abandoned their wives could not claim their rights as husbands after their wives had been courted by other men. It also mandated that a wife accused of being unfaithful or disrespectful to her husband will be made to go back to her father’s house. It also imposed stiff penalties on women that were openly found to be unfaithful to their husbands. They were sentenced to death by drowning. Hammurabi’s laws imposed stiff penalties depending on the status of the person accused of committing a particular crime. They were influenced greatly by religious beliefs in ancient Babylon.


In conclusion, the two sets of laws administered different forms of punishment to people who had been accused of violating them. The twelve tablets allowed accused persons the right to have an advocate during the trial to enable them to prove their innocence. Hammurabi’s laws were more vindictive and they were used to make ancient Babylonians submit to the authority of their king. Religion and traditional customary practices influenced the formation and application of these laws in the two ancient empires.