Early Crime and Punishment


While we have a modern legal system is how we currently persecute and imprison those who commit crimes in civilisations such as ours. This is an agreed-upon system where the crime of any individual is viewed from several perspectives such that it is not just the victim or even those who have been wronged that get to decide the fate of those that have done wrong. But it is always important to remember where something originates from and that this system has not always been in place. 

When there was no strict legal system, it was those that were wronged that had the power to act out against those that had done them harm. Revenge was seen as a valid form of punishment in the very beginning, with families being in extended feuds about the slights that were done against one of their own by members of the opposing families, as is shown in the bloody, strange and complicated relationship shown between the Montagues and the Capulets within the Shakespeare play ‘Romeo and Juliet’. This proved to be fairly destructive towards communities as well as the families participating in the feuds, as well as the fact that the punishment would often not meet the crime that they were being punished for in the first place. This lead to the development of early laws around the ideas of which punishments truly fit which crimes and how these particularly punishments were to be carried out. The victim was often allowed to still commit the punishment, which means that the wronged were still able to take out their revenge but it was still a somewhat fair punishment, at least marginally proportionate to what they’ve actually done. 

This was, clearly, not the end to the development of the justice system, as that is not the way that the current system of crime and punishment works. Hammurabi, a Babylonian emperor who ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC, is the reason that the adage ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is used when prosecuting defendants, and he introduced many laws and specific punishments for different things and for different groups of people. For example, if a rich man were to steal from a slave, the fine that he would have to pay would be cheaper than if a slave had stolen from him, purely because he is richer than the slave. Also, if a slave were to murder a rich man, the punishment would be more severe than if a rich man were to murder a slave, the second being more forgivable because the victim would be a slave and therefore was of less worth than the rich man. Still, just because the punishments were more and maybe less equal too, that didn’t make them any less gruesome.

Our ideas of justice and what is reasonable are changing every day with the development of the knowledge of the way that the world and the human mind works. It is important that we think about how people are before we judge them against how people should be.


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