The History of Law

The history of law is closely intertwined with the history of civilisation. Ever since humans first established complex societies characterised by a social hierarchy, symbolic communication forms (e.g. writing) and separation from the natural environment, an established set of rules used to govern behaviour has existed.

Here’s a timeline of the key developments which brought us to how law is practised today.

Ancient Egyptians hieroglyphics

30th century BC

  • Ancient Egyptians established a set of civil codes based on social equality and impartiality.

22nd century BC

  • The oldest known law code was formulated in Sumer (modern-day Iraq).
    Laws of Hammurabai
    Laws of Hammurabai inscription

18th century BC

  • King Hammurabi further developed Babylonian law by inscribing in stone. Several copies of the code were placed around the Kingdom of Babylon as stone or wooden slabs, for the public to see.

 8th century BC

  • Ancient Greece became the first society based on broad inclusion of its citizens. This translated to its laws, widely cited as being a major contributor to the development of democracy.

5th century BC – 6th century AD

  • Roman law was always changing to reflect the dynamic nature of society. It was hugely influential on European law and still is today, as evidenced by the common use of Latin legal terms.
  • The Law of the Twelve Tables stood at the foundation of the Constitution of the Roman Republic. The series of definitions of private rights and procedures was written to stop magistrates applying the law arbitrarily.
  • The Constitution of the Roman Republic informed public legislation. Many of its concepts exist today including vetoes and separation of powers.
  • The Romans were the first civilisation to develop a formal class of law professionals known as Jurisconsults. The profession was heavily regulated by the turn of the Byzantine Empire.

Roman cavalry

11th century AD

  • Roman law was rediscovered after much of law code is replaced by custom and case law during the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages also caused the collapse of the legal profession in Western Europe.
  • The Royal courts develop common law in England.
  • A Europe-wide Law Merchant formed allowing merchants to trade according to a common standard.

12th – 13th century AD

  • Legal profession returned to prominence due to renewed efforts by the church and state to regulate it.
  • The world's first university, the University of Bologna, was set up as a law school. Bologna served as a model for other law schools of the medieval age.

16th century AD

  • By this time the legal profession could be subdivided into two distinct branches; barristers, and attorneys and solicitors. Despite there being many eminent solicitors, there were also ‘pettifoggers’ and ‘vipers’ disgracing the profession.

Law school judge books

18th century AD

  • Nationalism grew leading to Law Merchant being incorporated into many countries’ local law.

19th century AD – present

  • Germanic and Napoleonic codes became the most influential and make up the majority of European law today.
  • The US legal system is largely based on the English common law system.
  • The Law Society in London was formed to raise the law profession’s reputation and set standards to ensure good practice initially across London, later the whole of the UK, and eventually throughout Europe.  
  • Similar bodies were formed worldwide to regulate the profession. 

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