Today it is hardly possible to envision a society that is not governed by any form of law; judicial organs, be they highly bureaucratic and universalized or flexible and able to consider cases individually, are an intrinsic part of even the most primitive of communities. There are laws that govern states internally, laws that govern international relations among states, laws that govern the making of laws. So how did all of that come to be? Let’s explore the roots of law-making that allowed us to progress to the complex legal systems we have today.
Most historians attribute the beginning of law to the ancient Egypt. A set of civil codes that were established with impartiality and equality in mind appeared in 30th century BC. Eight centuries later, in 22nd century BC, the Sumerians developed the oldest known law code. Known as Ur-Nammu, it is the oldest known and surviving code of law. It includes punishments for crimes such as murder, robbery and kidnapping, covers how the marriages between slaves and natives or two slaves function, how divorces are supposed to be carried out and so on. A lot of the king’s power is associated with the Sumerian gods, showing the importance of divine powers to the societies of the time.
18th century BC marks another important cornerstone in law-making. King Hammurabi’s code of law is one of the oldest and most significant pieces of writing that were deciphered and can now be used to understand the structure and relations in societies back in the day. The code of Hammurabi is very lengthy, includes a bunch of explanations on how to conduct sales, trade, contracts and so on. Interestingly, it was inscribed in stone and several copies were presented for the public around the Kingdom of Babylon. It showed the wish to include, or at least inform, the society regarding the legislative practices of the kingdom.
However, it wasn’t until the 8th century BC that the citizens truly started getting involved into the law-making process. Ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy, was the first to create laws that at least attempted to reflect the general will of the people. Its philosophers were the first to utilize the concept of democracy in their thought and their society was the first to start practicing a form of direct democracy, which is a monumental contribution to the way most understand just law nowadays.
The Roman laws, strongly influenced by Greek teachings, were also most often focused on the general public. They changed a lot to reflect the dynamic nature of their society. The Law of the Twelve Tables was a monumental document that stood as the basis for the Constitutions of the Roman Republic. It elaborated upon aspects such as private rights, which were not commonly addressed previously and in general were a document of great significance back in the day and nowadays. For instance, many of the concepts of Roman Constitution, such as separation of power or the right to veto, are still highly relevant nowadays.
Overall, the ancient times created foundations for law to grow, flourish and become a tool that societies could use to live in peace and prosperity.