Early Forms of
Justice and Law
Prehistoric and ancient peoples often lived
together for protection. Living in crowded conditions
can quickly lead to trouble. In many ancient societies, kings
often made laws after an argument or incident.
Most kings knew that for ordinary people to obey a law,
they had to understand it, and know the consequence if they
broke it. This was true in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia
and among the ancient Hebrew people.
As a result, most ancient codes of law seemed to
be a punishment for some action or misbehavior.
The harsh punishments of ancient codes make sense when it is
understood that ancient peoples thought law was something that
had been given to them by God. So, in their view,
if a person broke a law, they were also disobeying God.
the rugged geography of Greece, there was little
cultural diffusion. The isolation caused by high
mountains led to the development of very different forms
of government and law in Greece. For example,
was first developed in Athens. Sparta, on the
other hand, was ruled by a military council.
also believed that their laws were
But, sometimes punishment for crime was handed down by
the gods themselves. Much of Greek mythology grew
out of telling moral tales about the interaction of the
Gods and men.
The code of
law in ancient
Rome developed over a thousand years.
It started in 451 BCE with the
Laws of the Twelve
Tables. What was different about the laws in
Rome, though, was that they were based on strict
definitions, common experience and logic rather than on
fell to invaders in the fifth century, the
cultural and political systems. Old
Roman laws were clarified and changed to better fit
Byzantine society in about 530 CE by
the collapse of Roman law in western Europe in 476 CE,
dealing with crime was left up to local rulers.
Actually, fewer severe punishments like execution were
used, and fines and physical punishment became more
It wasn't until the 1200s that major changes were
made toward ensuring justice for all people. In
addition, trial by jury, the right to face your
and swearing an oath to tell the truth were reintroduced.
The population explosion after the Black Death in the
14th century led to overcrowding, and great competition
for limited resources. As one may expect, poverty bred
crime. By the 1700s, efforts to reform the legal
and prison systems, especially in England, led to great
changes in the way prisoners were treated, sentenced and
In the twentieth century, something unexpected
happened. Instead of trying to change things while
following the law, or breaking it and trying not to get
caught, several groups began to protest peacefully, or
demonstrate with the purpose of getting arrested.
They believed their causes would be helped by the
This site is designed to aid students in reviewing the
concepts of justice and law as they will appear on the New
York State Global History & Geography Regents Examination. In
addition, students may test their knowledge of the material
presented here by accessing multiple-choice questions from
past Regents Exams.