Primary Source: Selections from the Twelve Tables (ca. 450 BC) (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.4)

The earliest attempt by the Romans to create a code of law was the Laws of the Twelve Tables. A commission of ten men was appointed in about 455 BC to draw up a code of law binding on both patricians and plebeians. It would be the job of the consuls to enforce this law. The commission produced enough laws to fill ten bronze tablets. The plebeians were not satisfied, so a second commission of ten men was appointed in 450 B.C. and two additional tablets were added. Below are some selections from the Twelve Tables.

TABLE IV

1. Monstrous or deformed offspring may be put to death by the father.

2. The father shall, during his whole life, have absolute power over his children. He may imprison his son, or scourge him, or keep him working in the fields in fetters, or put him to death, even if the son held the highest offices of state.

TABLE V

2. The provisions of the will of a paterfamilias [head of the household] concerning his property and the support of his family, shall have the force of law.

TABLE VII

7. Holders of property along a road shall maintain the road to keep it passable; but if it be passable, anyone may drive his beast or cart across the land wherever hechooses.

TABLE VIII

1. Whoever publishes a libel shall be beaten to death with clubs.

12. A person committing burglary in the night may be lawfully killed.

13. A thief in the daytime may not be killed unless he carried a weapon.

23. Perjurers and false witnesses shall be hurled from the Tarpeian Rock.

26. Seditious gatherings in the city during the night are forbidden.

 

Review Questions

 1. What kind of power does a father have over his son?

2. What is the responsibility of someone who owns property along a road?

Primary Source: Exodus 20:1-17 (The Ten Commandments) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.7)

1 And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

 12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

 13 “You shall not murder.

 14 “You shall not commit adultery.

 15 “You shall not steal.

 16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Moses and the Law (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.6)

Abraham’s son, Isaac, married a woman named Rebekah. Isaac and Rebekah had two sons named Jacob and Esau. Jacob had a total of 12 sons. When a famine struck in the Middle East, Jacob and his large family moved to Egypt. There, they were welcomed by the Pharaoh of Egypt and given land to settle on. As time went on, however, their numbers continued to increase. Eventually there were thousands of Abraham’s descendants, called Hebrews, living in Egypt.

Although the Egyptians had welcomed them at first, they started to fear the Hebrews because there were so many of them. They thought the Hebrews might someday outnumber the Egyptians and take over their country. The Egyptians decided to make the Hebrews into slaves. Even as slaves, though, the Hebrews continued to increase in numbers. Finally, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered that all Hebrew baby boys should be killed immediately after they were born. He thought that by doing this he could stop the growth of the Hebrews and prevent them from taking over Egypt.

It was at this time that, in about 1400 BC, that Moses was born. To save him from the command of the Pharaoh to kill all Hebrew baby boys, his mother wrapped him in a blanket, placed him in a basket, and floated him down the Nile River. It just so happened that a daughter of the Pharaoh was bathing in the river at that time and saw the basket. She grabbed up the basket and decided to adopt the baby boy she found in it.

Moses was raised as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He knew, however, that he was really a Hebrew and he loved his people. One day, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Moses was so angry at what he saw he attacked the Egyptian and killed him. Because he had killed an Egyptian, Moses ran away and went to live in the wilderness.

He lived there for a very long time, away from the cities of Egypt. He married a woman whom he met there and became a shepherd. While he was out in the field one day, however, he saw a very strange thing. There was a bush off in the distance that was on fire but was not burning up. He walked over to take a closer look. As he approached it, he heard a voice command him:  “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses obeyed and removed his sandals. The voice from the burning bush then told him “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses was surprised and afraid. The voice continued speaking. God told Moses that he was to go back to Egypt and tell the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go free.

Moses was scared, but he obeyed the voice anyway. He went to the Pharaoh and told the Pharaoh that God had ordered him to set the Hebrews free. The Pharaoh laughed at Moses and refused to allow the Hebrews to go. To convince the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, God sent a series of ten plagues on the Egyptians. Each time, Moses was sent by God to warn the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, but each time the Pharaoh refused. The ten plagues were:

  1. The water of the Nile River turned into blood.
  2. There were many, many frogs all over Egypt.
  3. The Egyptians were plagued with lice.
  4. Flies were everywhere and getting into everything.
  5. The cattle of the Egyptians became sick and died.
  6. Egyptians caught a disease that caused boils, large pus-filled bubbles, to appear on their skin.
  7. A storm that rained down hail and fire struck the land of Egypt, destroying things it fell on.
  8. A huge swarm of locusts ate up the crops and trees of the Egyptians.
  9. The entire country was dark as night even in the middle of the day.
  10. Finally, each of the first born sons of the Egyptians died.

Before the final plague, Moses warned the Hebrews to mark the doors of their houses with the blood of a lamb so that death would know which houses belonged to Hebrews. In that way, only the firstborn sons of the Egyptians would die and not the sons of Hebrews. Jews still celebrate this event today. The holiday is called Passover because on that day death passed over their houses and struck the Egyptians instead.

After this final plague, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Hebrews go. As the Hebrews began their journey out of Egypt, though, the Pharaoh changed his mind. He led his army to chase down the Hebrews. He wanted to take them back to slavery. As Pharaoh’s army approached them from behind, the Hebrews were approaching the Red Sea. Moses called on God and raised his arms. When he did this, the sea split in two and allowed the Hebrews to walk through. Once the Hebrews had gone through, Moses put his arms down and the sea closed. Pharaoh and his entire army drowned.

Safely out of Egypt, Moses led the Hebrews to Mount Sinai. There, he went up on the mountain to speak with God and find out what the Hebrews should do next. He was up there so long the people thought that he had died. When he came back down to give them the Ten Commandments, Moses found the people worshipping a golden calf instead of God. For this, the Hebrews were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years before they were allowed to go to the land that God had promised to Abraham.

Eventually, Moses was able to lead them to this Promised Land and Joshua, a faithful follower of Moses, led the Hebrew army to conquer it. At least, the Hebrews were allowed to settle in the land that had been promised by God to their ancestor Abraham. They built cities there and began to follow the law that Moses had given them from God.

 

Review Questions

 1. Shortly before the birth of Moses, the Pharaoh ordered all newborn Hebrew boys killed. How did Moses’s mother save him from this command?

2. What sea did Moses part so the Hebrews could cross over?

 

Vocabulary Words

 Famine – a time when food becomes very rare

Primary Source: Selection from the Code of Hammurabi (1772 BC) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.2)

21. If anyone breaks a hole into a house to steal from it, he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried.

22. If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.

195. If a son hits his father, his hands shall be cut off.

196. If a man puts out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

197. If he breaks another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

198. If he puts out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

199. If he puts out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

200. If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

201. If he knocks out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.

202. If any one hits the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.

203. If a free-born man hits the body of another free-born man of equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina.

204. If a freed man hits the body of another freed man, he shall pay ten shekels in money.

205. If the slave of a freed man hits the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off.

206. If during a quarrel one man hits another and wounds him, then he shall swear, “I did not injure him on purpose,” and pay the physicians.

207. If the man dies of his wound, he shall swear similarly, and if he was a free-born man, he shall pay half a mina in money.

208. If he was a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

209. If a man hits a free-born woman so that she loses her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss.

210. If the woman dies, his daughter shall be put to death.

211. If a woman of the free class loses her child by being hit, he shall pay five shekels in money.

212. If this woman dies, he shall pay half a mina.

213. If he hits the maid-servant of a man, and she loses her child, he shall pay two shekels in money.

214. If this maid-servant dies, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

229 If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

230. If it kills the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.

231. If it kills a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.

232. If it ruins the things inside, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall rebuild the house from his own means.

 

Review Questions

1. What is the punishment if a man knocks out another man’s eye?

2. What is the punishment for a builder who builds a house that falls down and kills the owner?

3. Do you think the laws of the Code of Hammurabi are fair or unfair? Answer in a paragraph.

Personhood in Roman Law (Personhood Part V)

The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.

Notes

62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).

63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1

64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1

65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1

66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2

67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.

68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.

Personhood in Hebrew and Jewish Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part III)

The conception of personhood which developed in the thought of the Ancient Near East and early became a cornerstone of Jewish anthropology stood in stark contrast with these Greco-Roman understandings. Ancient Near Eastern thought had included a concern for social justice as a central feature from a very early date, as is evidenced by, for instance, texts like the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code dating to about 1772 BC. In the thought of the Hebrews, this concern for social justice became a near obsession and formed the basis of nearly all of their law. The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, declares in its first chapter (verse 27) that “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him.”8 This idea, generally referred to under its Latin name as Imago Dei, permeated Jewish thought and practice concerning relationships between people. Every person was considered a bearer of the Imago Dei and, as such, entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of social or economic status, age, or gender. As scholar Thomas Cahill has succinctly stated, the “bias toward the underdog” throughout biblical law “is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”9

In direct contradiction to Aristotle’s belief that foreigners should be subdued and ruled by his own nation, the biblical injunction regarding treatment of foreigners orders that “you shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him,” adding a justification from the Israelites’ own history and an appeal to empathy: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”10 In the following chapter of Exodus, the Hebrews are ordered to leave their fields uncultivated every seventh year so “that the poor of your people may eat” from what is left in it.11 The Book of Exodus also presents a view of slavery that is nearly opposite that of the Greco-Roman world. The text explicitly denies a master the right to kill his servant, commanding “if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.”12 The text even goes as far as ordering that a slave who loses his or her eye or tooth because of violence by his or her master must be freed.13 The phrase “male or female” in verses like these is also indicative of the treatment of women in the legal code outlined in the Bible. The law, including both the privileges it confers and the responsibilities it demands, is made to apply equally to men and women, as in the verses cited concerning slavery. Certain special privileges are even afforded to women in order to prevent their oppression or marginalization in Israelite society; for instance, it is ordered that if a man takes a woman’s virginity outside of marriage, a state which thereby rendered her almost entirely unmarriageable in the Ancient Near East, he must take her as his wife and support her for the rest of his life.14 In addition, the Jews regarded infanticide as abhorrent. The Torah offers unequivocal condemnation of infanticide, referring to it as an “abomination,” and, again in contrast to Greco-Roman thought which commended the practice and even explicitly ordered it in certain instances, demands that it should never be performed. Although the Torah is ambiguous on its treatment of abortion and may even endorse it at several points,15 by the first century AD Jews generally understood the condemnations of infanticide in their law as encompassing abortion as well; the prolific first century Jewish author and historian Josephus, for instance, reports as the common Jewish belief and practice that “the law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.”16 These Jewish tendencies toward a broad view of personhood and a consuming desire for social justice were part of the legacy of biblical thought inherited by early Christians. Especially significant is the early Christian development of the idea of Imago Dei, a concept which, in spite of its centrality in Jewish thought, had remained largely underdeveloped. It was in early Christianity, and in a synthesis of Hellenic and Hebrew thought, that followers of the biblical tradition would most fully explore what the Imago Dei consisted of and what were the implications of that idea.

Notes


8 Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version).

9 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.

10 Exodus 22:21 (NKJV).

11 Exodus 23:11 (NKJV).

12 Exodus 21:20 (NKJV).

13 Exodus 21:26-7 (NKJV).

14 Deuteronomy 22:28-9 (NKJV).

15 Prescriptions of capital punishment for adulterous wives in such verses as Deuteronomy 22:22-4, for instance, seem to have been intended to be carried out immediately upon discovery of the act with no delay to observe for signs of pregnancy to prevent the loss of the life of a fetus the woman may be carrying. In fact, these laws seem to have been formulated specifically for the purpose of preventing illegitimate heirs who might usurp the property of the woman’s husband. Numbers 5:11-31 even seems to prescribe some kind of abortion ritual for unfaithful wives in which the woman drinks “bitter water that brings a curse” (verse 19, NKJV) which “makes [her] thigh rot and [her] belly swell” (verse 21, NKJV) if she is indeed unfaithful. Significantly, this ritual is presented as a punishment for adulterous wives, not something to be desired, and, following this apparent abortion, “the woman will become a curse among her people” (verse 27), indicating an overwhelmingly negative attitude to abortion. Verses such as Exodus 21:22-25, which commands the execution of a man who causes a woman to miscarry through violence against her, seem, on the other hand, to assign the fetus a moral value equal to that of other human beings. Although the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous on this point, the logical development of its thought is captured by its actual subsequent development: a condemnation of abortion.

16 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, par. 25 in William Whiston, tr., The Works of Josephus (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987).

Personhood in Greco-Roman Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part II)

Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.

Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6

These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.

Notes


1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.

2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.

3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.

4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.

5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.

6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.

7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, http://www.constitution.org/sps/sps01_1.htm (accessed 24 March 2013).