Rulers and governments of past civilizations faced challenges in maintaining their control and authority over their state and people. Laws were used to regulate the misconduct in society and sometimes courts were developed to address the validity of accusations towards misconduct. The need for order is universally found in many civilizations but many respond to this need in different ways. Justice systems in civilizations varied in style and some had questionable methods of seeking justice. What factors led to the different interpretations of justice in these old civilizations? Hammurabi’s laws, the moral examples of characters in The Ramayana, and Plato’s philosophies of justice in the Republic all share similarities in the moral conduct of the human being. However, each of the civilizations in which these literary works originated from had different expectations of how individuals should act in society. Upon closer analysis, these literary works reveal differences in how ancient Mesopotamia, ancient India, and Classical Greece view justice within their society. The differences of justice systems in these civilizations suggest that justice was not necessarily influenced by means of retribution but were also altered by people of authority and belief systems.
Religion is one factor that almost always differs in civilizations and suggests that its influence altered the interpretation of justice in many of these societies. Hammurabi’s code was not only altered by Hammurabi’s own motives but were also influenced by gods worshipped in that society. In the epilogue of the Hammurabi’s code, “By the command of Shamash, the great judge of heaven and earth, let righteousness go forth in the land (Johns)” Shamash, a god worshipped in Hammurabi’s state, suggests that all forms of righteousness, such as Hammurabi’s code, originated from him. This puts a lot of power in religious leaders such as priests who are known to advice Mesopotamian kings in their rulership. Implementing civil documents, such as codified laws, and claiming them to be inspired by the gods show how the qualities of justice and retribution in a society can be put within the constraints of religious doctrine.
Although religious doctrines and principles can alter justice, the examples of divine beings worshipped in a religion can change the way justice is to be perceived by the people. The Ramayana presented a lot of moral principles based on the doctrines of Hinduism. When Rama put Sita in a judgement test, the gods came to speak to him. Agni, one of the gods, presented Sita back to Rama saying, “Here is Sita, blemishless as she was born. Like a serpent Ravana tempted her; but the thought of you was always in her heart. Not for a moment, not with a fleeting thought, has she sinned. Rama, she is purer than I am (Menon 497)” The gods intervened Rama’s test and justified Sita under the bases of their authority as gods. This suggests that a person’s justice can be met by simply having it be favored by the gods. Divine interventions to the moral affairs of people in The Ramayana reflect how the actions of gods and those who interpret them can alter the interpretation of justice.
There are cases where the level of association between religion and a society is high enough to alter moral standards among the community. Religion was an integral part of Greek society. This religious influence can be seen in the moral conduct expected for all Greeks. Plato mentions in his Republic, “But gods, surely, and everything that belongs to gods, are in every respect in the best condition possible (Plato 75) Gods in Greece portrayed the ideal way people should act in society. This could be implied to how justice was also influenced by the gods. “Because religion was related to every aspect of life, citizens had to have a proper attitude toward the gods (Duiker and William 101). Common moral aspects, such as justice, were practiced by Greeks under the standards of their gods. When the religion plays an integral part in a society’s life, it is only inevitable that justice will be altered to favor the qualities and expectations of the gods worshiped.
Although religion places an influence on moral conduct among a society, it is those who permit that sort of agency who truly hold the most power of moral standards, especially justice. Many justice systems in civilizations mainly have retributive factors, but they are still altered by those who design and enforce them. King Hammurabi (1792-1750) B.C.E. (Duiker and William 12) was a Mesopotamia king who was known for his codified laws. In Hammurabi’s code, it is clear that he wanted to enforce strict retribution in his state but there is still evidence where some of his laws don’t reflect justice but instead solidify his authority. One of Hammurabi’s laws state, “On those who rob the king’s treasury and those who persevere in opposing (his commands), he shall inflict various kinds of capital punishment, likewise on those who conspire with his enemies (Johns 257).” Hammurabi takes upon himself the right to punish anyone that takes from his property or threaten his rulership. This implies that if the laws were to ever become unjust, there is no way to modify it without challenging Hammurabi. Hammurabi created laws that enforced justice but only according to his approval and control.
Hammurabi molding justice to his favor is one way of how justice is altered but the exertion of authority can also affect the purpose of justice. The Ramayana, written by Valmiki (500 – 100 B.C.E.), was an Indian epic designed to teach Hindu morals and principles for people of all people in India, along with those of high authority. Although the epic teaches many good life principles, it suggests signs of unbalanced power especially of people of greater authority. This unbalanced power can be seen to bend the qualities of justice interpreted in Indian culture. In the epic, after Rama defeated Ravana, Rama initially doesn’t acknowledge Sita as his women in which to test her faithfulness towards him. Sita expresses her anguish after reacting to Rama’s change in attitude towards her, “You say again and again that you are born into a noble house; you boast of your great honor. But what about my honor, that you have humiliated me like this, after everything I have endured? (Menon 495).” Sita points out how her honor was not considered by Rama despite not knowing it was just a test but there is still some truth to her statement. Even though Rama wanted to test her, he still unjustly put Sita in a situation where she was completely at the mercy of his judgement. Sita no longer had the agency to justly stand up for herself and had to play along with Rama’s test (A test that was not even justified by Sita’s actions but were caused by mere speculations of her being with Ravana for so long). Rama using his power to exert trials on Sita, who was not even allowed to justify her actions, presents a twisted example of justice that many Indian leaders had follow and incorporated among their own people.
Some rulers are also known to hide their unjust acts in hopes to present a better image of themselves to their people. Plato (429 – 347 B.C.E.) (Duiker and William 99) admits how rulers may have to sacrifice moral values over the greater good of the people. When Plato explains an ideal society in his Republic, he mentions, “Our rulers are probably going to have to use a great deal of falsehood and deceit for the benefit of the ruled (Plato 173).” Plato explains that in order to have an ideal society, rulers may need to deceive their people for the greater benefit. This means that altering justice can be an option for rulers to take in order to maintain their society. Plato’s concept of power over justice was later reflected by Alexander the Great who started conquering regions in Asia Minor around spring of 334 B.C.E. There are accounts where Alexander had been deceitful in which he “risked the lives of his soldiers for his own selfish reasons… (Duiker and William 105)” These dark acts were usually covered through his major success in war and in state affairs. The way Alexander hid his unjust acts and created a just identity of himself through his success in public affairs.
Justice has played an important part in keeping order in societies, but those of authority and the religions they permit bear an influence in the standards of lawfulness and fairness. Rulers and high-ranking officials in Mesopotamia, India, and Greece have altered justice in a way to either elevate themselves, unjustly exert their power, or seek alternative motives. Religion can also constrain justice by having it conform to the attitudes of the gods. There are cases where gods and their natural attributes are rooted deep into the daily lives of a civilization, leading to justice being molded by the doctrines and principles of religion. Ultimately, justice may have universal affects of addressing misconduct in society, but the standard of justice and the extent to its effectiveness can be altered by factors that possess greater agency of influencing them, such as rulers and religion.
- Duiker, William J. Essential World History: since 1500. Cengage Learning, 2019.
- Johns, Claude. “Ancient History Sourcebook: Code of Hammurabi, c. 1780 BCE.” Internet
- History Sourcebooks, Paul Halsall March , sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/hamcode.asp.
- Menon, Ramesh. The Ramayana. North Point Press, 2003.
- Plato, and C. J. Rowe. Republic. Penguin, 2012.