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The History of Criminology: Part 1

Crime and Criminology, From the Ancients to the Renaissance

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Judge's bench

Image copyright 2011 Tim Roufa

Tim Roufa
As long as there have been people, there has been crime. Criminology as a discipline is the study of crime and the criminal element, its causes, and the suppression and prevention of it.  The history of criminology is in many ways the history of humanity. As human society has evolved over thousands of years, so, too, has our understanding of the causes of crime and societies’ responses to it. As is often the case, the history of modern criminology finds its roots in ancient times.

Ancient Views of Crime and Punishment

Throughout history, people have committed crimes against each one another.  In ancient times, the common response was one of revenge; the victim or the victim’s family would exact what they felt to be an appropriate response to the crime committed against them.  Often, these responses were not measured or proportionate.  As a result, the original criminal would often perceive himself or herself to have become the victim due to actions taken against him or her that they felt did not match the crime committed.  Blood feuds often developed that could sometimes last for generations.

Laws and Codes

While certainly crime is a problem for all societies, the response to crimes in early societies posed their own problems.  Laws that clearly defined crimes and corresponding punishments were established to both quell crime and to put an end to the blood feuds that resulted in the victims’ revenge.  These early attempts still allowed for the victim of a crime to issue the punishment, but sought to clarify that a response to a particular crime should be equal to the severity of the crime itself.  The Code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest, and perhaps the best known, attempts to establish a set punishment scale for crimes. The principles set out in the code are best described as the “law of retaliation.” 

Religion and Crime

In western culture, many of the early ideas about crime and punishment were preserved in the Old Testament of the Bible.  The concept is most easily recognized as the expression “an eye for an eye.”  In early societies crime, along with most everything else, was viewed in the context of religion.  Criminal acts offended the gods or God.  It was in this context that acts of revenge were justified, as a means to appease the gods for the affront committed against them by the crime.

Early Philosophy

Much of our modern understanding of the relationship between crime and punishment can be traced to the writings of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, though it would take more than a millennium for many of their concepts to take root.  Plato was among the first to theorize that crime was often the result of a poor education and that punishments for crimes should be assessed based on their degree of fault, allowing for the possibility of mitigating circumstances.  Aristotle developed the idea that responses to crime should attempt to prevent future acts, both by the criminal and by other who may be inclined to commit other crimes. Most notably, that punishment for crime should serve as a deterrent to others.

Secular Law and Society

The first society to develop a comprehensive code of laws, included criminal codes, was the Roman Republic.  The Romans are widely regarded as the true precursors to the modern legal system, and their influences are still seen today, as the Latin language is preserved in much of the legal terminology.  Rome took a more secular view of crime, viewing criminal acts as an affront to society as opposed to the gods.  Therefore, it took on the role of determining and delivering punishment as a governmental function, as a means of maintaining an ordered society.

Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages

The introduction and spread of Christianity throughout the west brought about a return to a religious connection between crime and punishment.  With the decline of the Roman Empire, a lack of strong central authority lead to a step backward in attitudes toward crime.  Criminal acts began to be thought of as works and influences of the devil or Satan.  Crimes were equated with sin.  In contrast to ancient times, where punishments were often carried out to appease the gods, punishments were now carried out in the context of "doing God’s work."  Harsh punishments were meant to purge the criminal of sin and free them of the influence of the devil. 

Foundations for the Modern View of Crime

At the same time, Christianity introduced the merits of forgiveness and compassion, and views toward crime and punishment began to evolve.  The Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas best expressed these notions in his treatise “Summa Theologica.”  It was believed that God had established a “Natural Law,” and crimes were understood to violate the natural law, which meant that someone who committed a crime had also committed an act which separated themselves from God.  It began to be understood that crimes hurt not only the victim, but also the criminal.  Criminals, while deserving of punishment, were also to be pitied, as they had placed themselves outside of God’s grace.  Though these ideas were derived from religious studies, these concepts prevail today in our secular views of crime and punishment.

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