Duhaime's Timetable of World Legal History: The Timetable of World Legal History

The Timetable of World Legal History

As fragments of primitive animals have been kept for us sealed up in the earth's rocks, so fragments of primitive institutions have been preserved, embedded in the rocks of surviving law or custom, mixed up with the rubbish of accumulated tradition, crystallized in the organization of still savage tribes, or kept curiously in the museum of fact and rumor swept together by some ancient historian.1

Some form of law, is always the foundation of even primitive institutions. Law, as it were, has travelled a long, long blood-stained path. From acts so barbaric that they defy belief, to a modern world where much if not most of the world population is exempt from the tyrannical Rule of Man system, and benefit from a transparent Rule of Law. This time-table looks at the significant steps in the ongoing evolution of law on our planet.

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On the Origin of Law


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2350 BC: Urukagina's Code

This code has never been discovered but it is mentioned in other documents as a consolidation of existing "ordinances" or laws laid down by Mesopotamian kings. An administrative reform document was discovered which showed that citizens were allowed to know why certain actions were punished. It was also harsh by modern standards. Thieves and adulteresses were to be stoned to death with stones inscribed with the name of their crime. The code confirmed that the "king was appointed by the gods".

2050 BC: Ur-Nammu's Code

The earliest known written legal code of which a copy has been found, albeit a copy in such poor shape that only five articles can be deciphered. Archaeological evidence shows that it was supported by an advanced legal system which included specialized judges, the giving of testimony under oath, the proper form of judicial decisions and the ability of the judges to order that damages be paid to a victim by the guilty party. The Code allowed for the dismissal of corrupt men, protection for the poor and a punishment system where the punishment is proportionate to the crime. Although it is called "Ur-Nammu's Code, historians generally agree that it was written by his son Shugli.

1850 BC: The Earliest Known Legal Decision

A clay tablet reveals the case, in 1850BC, of the murder of a temple employee by three men. The victim's wife knew of the murder but remained silent. Eventually, the crime came to light and the men and woman were charged with murder. Nine witnesses testified against the men and woman and asked for the death penalty for all four. But the wife had two witnesses which told the court that she had been abused by her husband, that she was not part of the murder and that she was even worse off after her husband's death. The men were executed in front of the victim's house but the woman was spared.

621 BC: Draco's Law

This Greek citizen was chosen to write a code of law for Athens (Greece). The penalty for many offences was death; so severe, that the word "draconian" comes from his name and has come to mean, in the English language, an unreasonably harsh law. His laws were the first written laws of Greece. These laws introduced the state's exclusive role in punishing persons accused of crime, instead of relying on private justice. The citizens adored Draco and upon entering an auditorium one day to attend a reception in his honour, the citizens of Athens showered him with their hats and cloaks as was their customary way to show appreciation. By the time they dug him out from under the clothing, he had been smothered to death.

399BC: The Trial of Socrates

Socrates was an Athenian philosopher. Socrates was not religious and preached logic. When Athens lost the Peloponesian Wars, conservative Athenians looked for a scapegoat. Three citizens brought an accusation against the 70-year old popular philosopher for allegedly corrupting the youth and for not believing in the gods. He was tried before a jury of 501 citizens that found him guilty on a vote of 281-220. When asked to speak on the proposed sentence, Socrates mocked the jurors and they replied, 361-140, with a sentence of death. Socrates' promoted "conscience" and his death increased interest in his life and teachings.

600: The Laws of Aethelbert (England)

The first laws believed to be written down in England were those of the Saxon (German) invader of Kent, King Aethelbert. The Germans tribes had occupied parts of England since the Romans retreated in about 410. Warren Lehman, in a 1985 paper published in the Journal of Legal History wrote:

"The first laws were probably set down between 600 and 615 in the kingdom of Kent on the southeast tip of England towards the end of the long reign of Aethelbert I. The people for whom Aethelbert and his counsellors wrote what he called domas or dooms - we might say judgments - had been tribesmen not long before.

"Law-writing made sense but not necessarily in Roman terms. The borrowed idea of law, I suggest, was radically altered to suit the needs and tastes of the borrowers."

700: Fingerprinting Is Invented

Fingerprinting was in use by this time in China as a means of identifying people.

1692: The Salem Witch Trials

In 1692, in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, USA, a group of young women accused several other women of practising witchcraft or worship of the Devil. The accusations turned into a judicial frenzy and over 300 people were accused of witchcraft, of which 20 were executed including a priest. The extremity of the penalty turned many against the prosecution of witchcraft. There would be no more witchcraft trials in New England.

1787: The Constitution of the United States of America

The 7 articles of the American Constitution were signed in Philadelphia in 1787 and formed the basis of the first republican government in the world. The Constitution defined the institutions of government and the powers of each institution, carefully carving out the duties of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The Constitution also declared that it was paramount to any other law, whether federal or state, and it would override any other inconsistent law. The American Constitution served as a model for the constitutions of many nations upon attaining independence or becoming democracies.

1788: Through the Operation of Penal Law, A Country Is Formed

Sydney was the site of the first British settlement on Australia, which had been designated as a prime location as a British penal colony. For fifty years, Britain sent its worst men, who were quickly chained into work gangs and put to building roads and bridges. By 1821, there were 30,000 British settlers in the British commonwealth, of which 75% were convicts.

1791: The American Bill of Rights

1791 US Bill of Rights postage stampWith the ink barely dry on the Constitution (signed only four years earlier), American statesmen amended their supreme law by declaring the rights of free speech, freedom of the press and of religion, a right to trial by one's peers (jury), and protection against "cruel and unusual punishment" or unreasonable searches or seizures. The ten amendments of Bill of Rights became known as the First to Tenth Amendment(s) respectively. The Bill of Rights influenced many modern charters or bills of rights around the world.

1803: Marbury versus Madison

In this case (at 5 US 137), the Supreme Court upheld the supremacy of the Constitution and stated unequivocally that it had the power to strike down actions taken by American federal or state legislative bodies which, in its opinion, offended the Constitution.

This has come to be known as the power of "judicial review".

This case is considered by the legal profession to be the most important milestone in the history of American law since the Constitution.

As of August 2007, the case was available from usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/democrac/9.htm.

1945-46: The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial

A special panel of eight judges convened in this German town to try Nazi officers for crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during World War II. The judges came from the USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Twenty-four Nazis were tried and twelve received death penalties (although one defendant, Hermann Göring, committed suicide hours before his execution). This trial was important as it showed that even in times of war, basic moral standards apply in spite of military law principles which oblige a subordinate officer to obey orders. "The true test," wrote the Tribunal, "is not the existence of the (superior) order but whether moral choice (in executing it) was in fact possible". The crimes included torture, deportation, persecution and mass extermination.


  • Lehman, Warren W., "The First English Law", The Journal of Legal History, Volume 6, May 1985, Number 1, Pages 1-32.
  • NOTE 1: Wilson, Woodrow, The State (New York: D. C. Heath & Co., Publishers, 1918), page 1

Published: Friday, October 20, 2006
Last updated: Saturday, April 19, 2014