Crime and punishment, criminal law and its administration, are areas of ancient history that have been explored less than many other aspects of ancient civilizations. Throughout history women have been affected by crime both as victims and as offenders. Yet, in the ancient world customary laws were created by men, formal laws were written by men, and both were interpreted and enforced by men.
Best known as a history of progress, Ancient Law is the enduring work of the 19th-century legal historian Henry Sumner Maine. Even those who have never read Ancient Law may find Maine's famous phrase "from status to contract" familiar. His narrative spans the ancient world, in which individuals were tightly bound by status to traditional groups, and the modern one, in which individuals are viewed as autonomous beings, free to make contracts and form associations with whomever they choose. Maine's dichotomy between status-based societies and contract-based societies is a variation on a theme that has absorbed the social sciences for a century: the distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). This theme has been elaborated upon by such eminent scholars as Tonnies, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, and Parsons. Along with many lesser scholars, they have considered what we gained and what we lost when we left behind a social world held together by communal, primordial bonds, and adopted one based upon impersonal temporary agreements among individuals. Maine wrote Ancient Law to increase knowledge about the internal mechanics of developing societies. He felt a key objective was better understanding of how law develops over time. Failure to understand temporal processes in relation to legal development, he argues, leads to the creation of false dichotomies. The most important of these is the alleged division between the ancient and the modern, which Maine described as an "imaginary barrier" at which modern scholars feel they must stop and go no further. Maine's desire to breach this barrier led him to present this complex and richly nuanced analysis of legal evolution. This book will be of interest to historians, political philosophers, and those interested in the development of law.
In Ancient Law and Modern Understanding Alan Watson proposes that ancient law is relevant and important for understanding history, theology, sociology, and literature. "Law, though technical," he writes, "is not remote from scholarship on other matters, and law is a central element in society." From Homeric Greece to present-day Armenia, Watson examines law's influence. Without a sensitivity to technical legal language, scholars of literature or history miss much: the use of puns in Plautus, Sulla's claim that Julius Caesar was descended from a slave, the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels. Legal history is an essential tool for understanding society, Watson argues, but it must be applied with knowledge of how law moves from one society to the next, legal reliance on authority, juristic concern with apparent trivia, and the impact on legal growth.