The Earliest Laws

Every society needs to have laws to protect itself and its members. Even ancient civilisations had laws, which were part of their religious ritual and tribal customs. These were passed on by example and by word of mouth.


The oldest written set of laws known to us is the Code of Hammurabi. He was the king of Babylon between 1792 BC and 1758 BC. Hammurabi is said to have been handed these laws by Shamash, the God of Justice. The laws were carved on huge stone slabs and placed all over the city so that people would know about them. Judges were appointed to see that they were obeyed.

This is an example of the philosophy that influenced their law making: 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. Whatever was done to the victim, then the aggressor would be repaid in a similar fashion.


The most detailed legal code of any of the civilisations was that of the Romans. This was first drawn up in 450 BC by the magistrates and was called the Twelve Tables. All Roman citizens were expected to know the Twelve Tables, which included laws such as:

  • When anyone makes a formal promise or sells property, then according to law, his promise must be carried out.

  • If anyone sings abusive songs about somebody else, he shall be put to death.

  • If anyone breaks somebody else's limb and does not apologise, then the other man can break the first man's limb in return.

Whenever people had legal problems, they would ask for an opinion from the jurists who studied the laws. These opinions were written down and collected to form part of the law.

According to Roman law, people were considered to be innocent until proven guilty. Lawyers would present their case to a jury consisting of 32 men, who would decide on the punishment to be imposed. Over the centuries, many changes and additions were made to the laws as the Romans extended their rule to the countries they conquered. Eventually a uniform legal code was introduced for the whole of the Roman Empire. This became the model for the first modern code of laws; many of our laws are based on those of ancient Rome.

Medieval England

Before medieval times, there was no legal system in England and consequently the individuals involved had to settle disputes themselves. This led, on many occasions, to duels being fought.

Under the feudal system, the lord of the manor set up courts to deal with less serious crimes. Because religion had such a significant influence on the life of the people, serious crimes were considered offences against God. It was believed that God would give people a sign as to guilt or innocence in these cases. There was no attempt to sort out the facts of the case or to find evidence, because proof was in God's hands.

The sign was believed to be shown during trial by ordeal, the main forms of which were immersion in hot or cold water, burning with a hot iron or trial by battle. In the ordeal by cold water, the accused was lowered into the water and if they floated they were considered guilty because the water had repelled them. They were then usually burnt at the stake. If they sank, they were considered innocent and pulled out. They were lucky if, in the meantime, they had not drowned.