Regents Prep: Global History: Justice & Law:

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.

Classical Civilizations

Ancient Greece

Because of 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, democracy was first developed in Athens.  Sparta, on the other hand, was ruled by a military council.


The Greeks also believed that their laws were divinely inspired.  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. 


Ancient Rome

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 religion.


Byzantine Empire

When Rome fell to invaders in the fifth century, the Byzantine Empire inherited Rome's cultural and political systems. Old Roman laws were clarified and changed to better fit Byzantine society in about 530 CE by Justinian's Code.

Modern Concepts
After 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 common.

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 accuser, 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 jailed.

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 publicity.

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.


Created by Shannon Babbie
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