What Ancient Laws Can Teach Us About Holding Autocrats to Account Today

These are all the accomplishments of modern nations states, according to what we believe. Previous generations laid the ground with the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—documents that we are taught set standards that even kings and powerful rulers ought to observe. Were these foundational events as significant as we thought? Did they really bring in such revolutionary ideas?

It is a notion that rulers need to be held accountable in accordance with objective laws. That there ought to be rules OfRule is more important than law It is a fact that men are very ancient. This can be traced back nearly 2000 B.C.E. It dates back to the pre-common era, when a Mesopotamian warlord etched a lengthy list of laws onto stone slabs. Hammurabi is not the first ruler who made laws. However, his laws and military conquests were huge. On the granite rock, now in Paris’ Louvre, masons created a portrait depicting the king who received authority from the gods of the sun. Hammurabi stated that these laws would provide justice for Babylonians throughout the generations. A dramatic appeal to God was made to Hammurabi to grant blessings, curses and misfortune to any future rulers who would violate them.
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Hammurabi’s regime, built on conquest and plunder, hardly provides a model for peace, democracy or human rights. His colorful curses are a reminder of the true essence of rule of law. Any ruler must be accountable to the objective standards of legal justice. We do not know how, if at all, his laws were applied by Babylonian judges, but even after Hammurabi’s successors lost power and Assyrian forces overran the region, Mesopotamians continued to refer to his laws. As they learned their trade, Scribes copied the laws centuries later. They inspired many tribesmen from Israel and Jordan to copy some of their ideas as they created the Old Testament.

The citizens of Athens were also inspired by the Mesopotamian traditions in 600 B.C.E. After staging a rebellion against the tyranny, they ordered a series of laws to improve their society’s standing. The writers almost certainly copied Near Eastern precedents and tried to outline rights for common people in laws that would provide protection from oppression. A century later, Rome’s citizens, still minor cities, demanded new laws. After a rebellion against their own oligarchs, they formed an assembly demanding a change in the political system. They created the Twelve Tables which were a collection of rules in a form similar to those found in the Mesopotamian laws. The new laws were etched onto bronze tablets and displayed at the Forum. These rather simple rules dealt mainly with due process and the relief of debt. However, Romans began to view them as the foundation for their social order. Roman citizens met regularly in large assemblies over the following four centuries to create new laws. They used these to effectively curb the power of the ruling elite, and to hold corrupt officials accountable.

Roman assemblies had large processes and were cumbersome. These assemblies were not ideal models for law enforcement. However, the Romans insistently required that all their officers be held to account according to legal standards. And just before the turn of the first millennium, when the structures of the Republic came under threat from a new class of powerful military leaders—Mark Antony and Julius Caesar—the great orator Cicero warned of the dangers they presented to the authority and independence of the law.

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The rule of the law was developed from other traditions. To the east, Hindu priests made laws which their kings had to obey. While the Indian central plains have been under the control of powerful warlords for a long time, political rulers as well as army generals looked up to their priests in order to help them protect and intercede with gods. As guardians of Vedas ancient texts, they respected ritual specialists, so the priests created a hereditary class called the brahmins. They eventually wrote legal texts in the first decade of the second millennium. DharmashastrasThis gave instructions to people from different classes on how they should behave in line with their dharma. These rules included guidelines that the kings had to follow as well as enforce. The brahmins gradually persuaded all the rulers in the area to accept their ritual traditions. Even the most powerful accepted that the brahmins had to announce the law.

When they were faced with difficult legal issues, Hindu kings consulted the councils of brahmins. One 18th century ruler in Kerala asked the brahmins for advice on dealing with adultery allegations. They said that the king needed to appoint four investigators including two brahmins in order to examine the accusations. One expert should then go to the husband’s house and question the accused wife, while one of the brahmins hid behind a wall, his head covered by a veil. In the event that the investigator makes a mistake the brahmin can silently take off his veil. While the investigator reports to the King, the brahmin continues to watch the proceedings and uses his veil as a sign of disapproval. The procedure seems complicated but it likely served to highlight the gravity of the allegations as well as the moral consequences for perjury. This was the Hindu solution to the problem of adjudicating sexual misconduct charges. The brahmins, who were independent legal authorities, were the center of the solution.

The same way, Islamic legal scholars put their expertise out of reach for political leaders. In order to get the support and endorsement of most respected scholars the leaders of the early Caliphates established religious academies that could help scholars develop their education. Today, Muslims still consult local mufti for advice on social issues. People pay a lot of attention to the most prestigious religious and legal experts, who aren’t involved in politics. Sayyid Al-Husseini, an influential Shiite cleric in Najaf, has the support of many millions. Even though he is a quiet man, al-Sistani felt compelled to speak out during the American invasion. Realizing his influence over Iraq’s Shiite population, the U.S. promptly altered its policy. Al-Sistani managed to negotiate a ceasefire and then returned to his aloof position.

The rule of law is something autocrats try to ignore. But the Romans’ citizen assemblies, the brahmins’ texts and the aloof authority of the Islamic legal scholars, are just some of the means that people have used to hold their rulers to account. As we struggle to curb autocracy and power in today’s fragmented world, we may need to look beyond the familiar model of the democratic state. Many small communities still practice direct democracy and Al-Sistani’s intervention shows the positive influence religious leaders may have on geo-political events. History may not give us all the answers—Hammurabi’s curses are unlikely to have much effect today—but these examples remind us that there are many possible versions of the rule of law.


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