Top 10 Ancient Laws Way Ahead Of Their Time

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Ancient codes, or sets of laws, have been written down since around 2000 BC.  Many of these laws were harsh and would be seen as barbaric compared to our current laws, but many of them were actually just as compassionate and fair, and sometimes moreso, than the laws we have now.

10.  Animal Rights

The Law:  “It is illegal to override a horse, force a weakened ox to do excessive work or threaten an animal with angry vehemence which breaks bones.”

Courtesy Of:  Brehon Law (Ancient Celtic)

Animals have often been seen as worth only how much work they can do before they die.  They have been traditionally taken advantage of in the hopes of their owners collecting a larger profit.  This law was probably written at least four thousand years ago, and it proclaimed that work animals were not to be abused or taken advantage of.  A law in the United States stating the same thing wasn’t put into place until the mid-20th century, with the passage of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.

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9.  Nobody Is Above The Law

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The Law:  “A king exercises not falsehood nor force nor oppressive might.  He is righteous towards all his people, both weak and strong.”

Courtesy Of:  Brehon Law (Ancient Celtic)

During most of Europe’s history, government existed solely in the form of monarchs who ruled with absolute power.  The theory of divine right stated that kings were put in charge by God, and thus could not be held accountable for any of their actions.  But this law, which came about roughly four thousand years ago, went against the authority of leaders.  It was one of the very first laws put in place to limit the power of the king.  It stated that they must rule fairly, and later in the text describes instances in which a king may be overthrown.

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8.  Income Regulation

The Law:  “Do not withhold that which is due your neighbor.  Do not let a worker’s wages remain with you overnight until morning.”

Courtesy Of:  The Mosaic Code

This was probably written around 1400 B.C.  This law meant employers had to pay their workers on the day their compensation was due.  Workers throughout history have often completed their work only to be screwed out of their pay.  This was the first time records were kept of workers’ wages.  Before this, there was no way to prove whether or not a worker had been paid for what they had been hired to do.  The US didn’t start regulating workers income until 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

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7.  Equal Justice Under The Law

The Law:  “Do not pervert justice.  Do not give special consideration to the poor nor show respect to the great.  Judge your people fairly.”

Courtesy Of:  The Mosaic Code

This was basically a law that stated bias was wrong and shouldn’t happen.  It said everyone must be treated the same.  In reality, this has just about never actually happened.  Laws to judge fairly have been included in most law documents, but this was probably the first one, being written around 3400 years ago.  This is similar to the 14th amendment of the US Constitution, which was introduced in 1868.

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6.  Sicut Judaeis (Constitution For The Jews)

The Law:  “[The Jews] ought to suffer no prejudice.  We, out of the meekness of Christian piety, and in keeping in the footprints or Our predecessors of happy memory, the Roman Pontiffs Calixtus, Eugene, Alexander, Clement, admit their petition, and We grant them the buckler of Our protection.”

Courtesy Of:  Catholic Papal Bulls

This was written in the early 12th century, in an era where people were killing other based on how they thought you should pray to Jesus.  It proclaimed that the Jewish people should be fully respected and should receive full religious freedom.  This was way more tolerance than could be expected at this time, and seemed to be a major step forward for the Catholic Church.  But alas, it did not last, and later bills even stated the exact opposite: that Jews should be discriminated against.

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5.  Sublimus Dei

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The Law:  “The said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”

Courtesy Of:  Catholic Papal Bulls

This proclamation came out in 1537.  It was written by Pope Paul III.  And it outlawed slavery.  It was written mainly to forbid the enslavement of people indigenous to America and the West Indies.  But it also included another group that could not be enslaved- all other people.  Unfortunately, colonists mainly ignored it, and the United States didn’t officially ban slavery until 1864, with the writing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In opposition to what many people think, the Emancipation Proclamation, passed a year earlier, did not make slavery illegal.  It only freed slaves in ten confederate states, none of which were terribly interested in following the laws of an enemy country, and was only passed as a temporary measure intended to help the Union win the Civil War.

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4.  No Incest

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The Law:  “If a man be guilty of incest with his daughter, he shall be driven from the place (exiled).”

Courtesy Of:  The Hammurabi Code

There is a ton of incest in the Bible, which came way after Hammurabi.  There are a few lines in Leviticus that condemn incest, but throughout the text it is not only prevalent, but isn’t shown to be a big deal.  Incest was even fairly common in the early United States, although it is now illegal in all states and Washington D.C.  The code of Hammurabi recognized that incest was wrong way before anyone else even thought about it.

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3. Working Off Your Debt

The Law:  “If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.”

Courtesy Of:  The Hammurabi Code

This law guaranteed that if you couldn’t pay off your debts, instead of simply being broke, you could work your way completely out of debt.  You can become free again merely by working hard.  People make mistakes; with this law in place though, a failure to pay off a debt wasn’t damning.

2.  No Being Born Into Slavery

The Law:  “If a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry the daughter of a free man, and children are born, the master of the slave shall have no right to enslave the children of the free.”

Courtesy Of:  The Hammurabi Code

First off, the idea of a slave marrying a non-slave was almost unheard of in just about anywhere that allowed slavery.  Slaves in America were often not even allowed to marry other slaves.  And interracial marriage was illegal in many states up until the late 1960’s.  That’s right, only around 50 years ago.  This ancient law not only gave slaves the right to marry anyone they wanted, it promised that their children would be free.

1.  Minimum Wage

The Law:  “If any one hires a field laborer, he shall pay him eight gur of corn per year. “

Courtesy Of:  The Hammurabi Code

This sounds so simple, and yet, it is one of the most ahead of its time laws in history.  This was the first establishment of a minimum wage.  No longer could employers pay virtually nothing.  Well, eight gur per year still seems pretty low, but it sure is a hell of a lot better than one gur.  Although there were laws in Australia in the 1890’s regarding minimum pay, the first US national minimum wage was not set until 1938.  The Code of Hammurabi did this in the 1700’s…BC.  That’s right; the US was over 3500 years behind in passing this little piece of protection for workers.  And by the way: US politicians are STILL arguing about whether we should have a minimum wage.

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Written by Dylan Moore


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18 Comments

  1. Peter Boucher on

    And isn’t it amazing that during Hitler’s Nazi regime that Animals rights we’re more important and ahead of Human’s Rights as decreed by Hitler himself

    • Not by Hitler, it was Goering. Most parts of his hunting laws (ban of certain foothold traps, nooses, certain types of battue and so on) are still in use. However there are many stupid things in it aiming for the “hunter’s honor” and “hunting justice” (Waidgerechtigkeit) rather than providing rules for effective hunting with as little cruelity as possible.

      • Peter Boucher on

        @ FMH. Thank You for correcting me on Goering, another real “winner” during the Nazi Regime and it does not surprise me about Goering as well. I guess if anything Hitler did correctly (or whoever his henchman was responsible for) was the banning of smoking cigars and cigarettes as Hitler detested people who smoked. I had read that Germany was practically free of smoking while he was in power. And I believe it was the Nazis who invented the super-highway. Other than that, Thank You on your information for me.

        • No, the Autobahnen (highways) where planned and decided in the Weimar Republic long before Hitler came to power – they just didn’t have enough money to build them. When the Nazis started their Reichsarbeitsdienst – a kind of additional draft where every young man hat to work a year for free – it was very cheap to get them done.
          And that ban on smoking is definitely a myth. True is that Hitler hated smoking, but he also didn’t eat meat or drink alcohol. If cigars where banned, then probably out of industrial reasons – for example to be able to produce more cigarrettes with the little tabacco Germany produced itself during the war. Just think of it: Banning smoking would have been devastating for the morale.

        • Ok, there where partial bans of smoking and campaings you are right – but never a complete ban of any kind, nor was Germany anywhere near smoke free. People smoked about 700 cigarettes a year in the 40’s compared to 1500 in the US.

        • Hello FMH. You seem to be a World War II buff but mostly on Nazism, Germany, Hitler and his Henchman etc. I find it unusual that as bad as Nazism is and was and Hitler as Evil as he was, I have a queer fascination with it all. My hobbies are Baseball History (25+ years and counting), and the lives of the great classical composer throughout history. And I do have an interest in the whole Nazi Regime, but you seem to be the person with all of the answers. Last night, my research was a question that I have pondered for many year about Beethoven and did he die as a virgin. After about 2-3 hours, I found a list a list of 7 historically famous people who did die as a virgin. And Beethoven indeed died as a virgin, but also on that list was Adolf Hitler. What is your take on that subject matter ?

        • I only know some factlets there, I must confess that I’ve never been interested in Hitler’s sexuality, but I guess that there is a huge community discussing that somewhere on the net. I have no doubt that there is some kind of better information
          My grandfather once read a biography whose author suggested that he was a closet homosexual who didn’t want to confess that to himself, but I don’t know what book that was. A soldier from Hitler’s unit in WWI claimed that Hitler had intercourse with other men during his time in the field.
          There are accounts from the housekeepers at Obersalzberg -who were very interested in that kind of gossip and reguarly inspected the bedsheets before washing them- that there was nothing going on between Eva Braun and Hitler, which they found very strange.
          Also, he had a niece who later killed herself, Geli Raubal. Some people suspect that they where lovers in the 20’s and there are accounts of very fetishy things going an that Geli couldn’t handle in the end.
          However most of these claims are from the time where Hitler was running for offices, so nobody knows what is true.

  2. Can anyone tell me where and when Justice was ever equal anywhere in the world during any time period?
    It’s a good fantasy but still a fantasy.

  3. Hitler also banned Fox hunting. And Nazi Germany discovered smoking caused cancer. They even introduced the Olympic Flame Torch Idea to the Olympics. I don`t like Hitler or Nazi Germany but they had some good ideas..

    • First, Goering was responsible for hunting laws, as he saw himself as the greatest hunter since Nimrod. Second, he didn’t ban fox hunting, but some very specific kinds of traps, that he thought were cruel. It was kind of his pet project – nothing more.
      Don’t you think scientists would have found out about smoking and cancer at the same time without the nazis being there? It’s not to their credit but to some civilian scientists at that time. And it’s not like Nazi Germany mad a campaign against smoking after finding out.
      Yes, sure, the olympic fire was the idea of some Nazi official, but it was nothing more than a propaganda move. The reason it was kept was because the olympic commitee thought it was flashy.

      It really bothers me when people say “Yeah, but they had some good ideas”. Of course, it’s not like people in Germany stopped thinking or working during the Nazi ear, but that doesn’t mean ideas and progress popped up because of the Nazis. It’s exactly the other way around really: Hitler and Goering kept meddling in tactics weapons research, people like Eichmann took industrial and transportation capacities to murder jews and several branches of research where banned for ideological reasons – just look up “Deutsche Physik”
      The only real discoveries and ideas we can “thank” the Nazis for are medical ones. For example “thanks” to them we know how much air you can inject into a vein before killing a person or how exactly hypothermia and hyperthermia kill. Hardly any other regime would have allowed such kind of research – all too good reasons. And as far as I can think, I don’t think medical science really progressed through that.

      And no – the Autobahnen weren’t a Nazi idea either. They where planned and decided through a democratic process in the Weimar Republic, but the global economic crisis halted the construction

      • I have to correct myself: There actually were anti-smoking campaigns in Nazi Germany which where more or less successful as the amount of cigarettes smoked per person decreased. On the other hand, cigarettes where hard to get in times of war anyway, so the success is questionable.

  4. Number 3 “working off your debt” is actually a horrible law to use, it is essentially indentured servitude. While all the others are progressive for their time, that one isnt. Bancruptcy is an infinitely preferable solution to over lending and debt.

    • Actually I think it’s pretty ahead of its time, because it’s essentially a bankruptcy. If you indebted yourself that much that you couldn’t pay it off over your whole lifetime, you get the chance to be debt-free in just three years – even if it means forced labour. Most regions in medieval Germany for example never would have dreamt of such a law – if you were in debt, you got locked up unti someone payed for you. In many cases that was never. Other ancient civilizations – including Rome I think, but I’m not sure – would just sell you of into slavery forever, or until you got all the money back – which could also mean forever.

      Today, a private bankruptcy in Germany works in a way very simmilar to the Hammurabi law. Over seven years you get a certain amount of your wages, the rest goes to your debtees. After those seven years, you are debt free, no matter how high your debt was, even if it’s not anywhere close to the money you paied during that time.

  5. I think the law on minimum pay was really way ahead of its time. I find it absurd that as rich as my country Nigeria is the politicians that call themselves our leaders are dragging their feets on the issue of minimum pay. Yet they spend fortunes on their fantasies. They deserve to be in hell.

  6. I don’t think you were fair or accurate in your representation of the Bible’s stance. Incest wasn’t a “big deal” in the Bible because of the times and place people were in. That was mankind’s norm back then. If you mean people marrying their half sisters or cousins you’ll have to note that came before Mosaic law. Perhaps try being a little more considerate of the facts and details when judging a text and people from 4 to 5 thousand years ago.

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