Famous Ancient Laws Way Ahead of Their Time

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Law is the will of the supreme exercised by a segment of society, no matter how small or large, applicable to all within as small a segment as a tribe and, at times, having as wide a scope as  the whole world as in the case of international laws. Laws may or may not be documented as customs as time they serve as laws. Since the creation of mankind, laws have been instituted for its guidance through the holy messengers and Scripture. Additionally, genius people arose from just among the common folk and came out with laws which, though devised centuries before Christ, are applicable even today as if they were intended for use in this era. The Code of Hammurabi written by Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian King, is one of the well-preserved ancient law codes which date back to 1772 BC. The Code, comprising 282 laws, is preserved on a life size stone stele and clay tablets. Aristotle, who was a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great, addressed the subject in or around 350 BC. Grouts said about him ‘Among philosophers, Aristotle deservedly holds the chief place’¦’ He presented the laws pertaining to governance which were certainly way ahead of his time.

1. Conservation of Bio-diversity

Emperor Ashoka
Emperor Ashoka

Emperor Ashoka reined from 269 to 231 BCE. He perceived the need for conservation of bio-diversity while it was not in danger. He displayed his edicts and laws pertaining to animal protection. The edicts are still seen inscribed on stones in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. He was one of, if not the very first, rulers in history who made laws for animal conservation. The Edict of the 5th pillar reads: ‘Twenty-six years after my coronation, various animals were declared protected: parrots, mainas, aruna, ruddy geese, nadimukhas, gelatas’¦and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible’¦Those nanny goats, ewes, and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old’¦ husks, hiding living beings are not to be burnt either with or without reason to kill animals. One animal is not to be fed to the other.’

2.  Supremacy of Law

Socrates
Socrates

Plato advocated the superiority of the king over the law, and he idealized the philosopher king. In stark contrast, his brilliant and genius student Socrates advocated supremacy of the law and maintained ‘It is more proper that law should govern more than any one of the citizens: upon the same principle if it is advantageous to place the supreme power in some particular persons, they should be appointed to be only guardians and servants of laws.’ The Roman statesman Cicero said ‘We are all servants of the laws in order that we may be free.’ Kings and rulers were regarded gods and deities in the times of Socrates and Cicero. It was not so easy to come up and proclaim such thoughts as they did. They were indeed much ahead of their time.

3. The First Step Towards Antislavery

Neil Alden Armstrong
Neil Alden Armstrong

On July 21, 1969 at 2:56 UTC, setting his left foot on the surface of the moon, Neil Alden Armstrong spoke the famous words ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ The importance of the first step can never be undermined. The Code of Hammurabi was to antislavery what Armstrong’s first step was to the moon. According to the Code of Hammurabi, ‘If a state slave or the slave of a freed man marry the daughter of a free man and children are born, the master of the slave shall have no right to enslave the children of the free.’

4. Penal Code of Ur-Nammu

Penal Code of Ur-Nammu
Penal Code of Ur-Nammu

The Code of Ur-Nammu is considered the oldest surviving law code. It was written in 2100-2050 BC which is about 300 years before the Code of Hammurabi. The Code was written in the Sumerian language on tablets, and a copy of the Code was translated in 1952 and another in 1965. The code was written in an ‘If-then’ style like:

‘If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.

If a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.

If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.’

5. The Law of Proportional Equality

Aristotle
Aristotle

According to Aristotle, being a good man is not the same as being a good citizen. The difference being the degree of compliance to the prevalent law. Equal distribution may not be necessarily fair of just distribution. Depending upon the share of contribution, the benefit of the burden too needs to be distributed accordingly. For example, it would not be fair or just to distribute a benefit equally between partners who contributed in a ratio of, say, 70:30. This law is as applicable in the current times as it was in the time of Aristotle.

 6. ‘¦Love thy Neighbour’¦

Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi

‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ is a great Biblical commandment, a law for mankind in a much refined and polished form than what appeared in the Code of Assura in 1075 BCE. The Assyrians’ laws are like the Code of Hammurabi, but notably harsh and barbaric. The object of the law was, however, to make the neighbors respect each other. According to the Assyrian Law, ‘If a man meddle with the field of his neighbor, they shall convict him. Threefold shall he restore. One of his fingers they shall cut off, 100 blows they shall inflict upon him, 1 month of days he shall do the king’s work.’

7. Documentation of Business Transactions

Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi (details)

Documentation is an important clause in all the ISO standards. Need for documentation was realized and expressed as law in the Code of Hammurabi. It states, ‘If a merchant gives an agent corn, wool, oil, or any other goods to transport, the agent shall give a receipt for the amount and compensate the merchant therefore. Then he shall obtain a receipt from the merchant for the money that he gives the merchant.’ Business transactions are made through banks as documentary evidence currently.

8. Minimum Wages

Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi

One of the laws in the Code of Hammurabi reads: ‘If anyone hires a field laborer, he shall pay him eight gur of corn per year.’ A gur is a unit of volume used to measure grain. One gur is equal to 8.5 bushels, and 1 bushel is exactly 35.239 liters. It is a meager quantity, though, yet it specifies the minimum payable wages not left to the sole discretion of the employer. It was a foundation stone of labor policies. There were similar wage limits set for other jobs.

9.  The Presumption of Innocence

Justinian the Great
Justinian I

Justinian I, also known as Justinian the Great, was a Byzantine emperor who reigned from 527 to 565. A digest of his era known as Digest of Justinian includes a law which states ‘Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.’ This simply means the onus rests with the prosecution. It is the accuser who is responsible for proving the accusation made against somebody, and until such time the accused is considered innocent. The principle; innocent until proven guilty is the backbone of criminal trials.

10. Fingerprints as Evidence

Juan Vucetich
Juan Vucetich

In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds offered the concept of using fingerprints for investigations to the Metropolitan Police in London, but it was simply dismissed. The concept was probably too advanced for that time. In 1892, however, Juan Vucetich used the fingerprint for criminal investigation for the first time. Currently, Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence defines the use of expert testimony which is also applicable to persons performing forensic friction ridge impression examination (FRE).

Conclusion:

It was customary among ancient tribes to respect the sanctity of others’ dominions, and it is the international law and binding upon all countries to respect the sovereignty of the others. There were illiterate, ancient tribes who were well aware of the importance of this law, and there are so-called, enlightened modern societies who are completely ignorant of it and misuse power simply because they have it. Some farsighted, ancient people devised the laws which are equally applicable in modern times. But what makes the laws valuable is not their being ancient or modern, it is rather their application and effectiveness which determines their value.

 

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