CLST 180/HIST 104, Crime and Punishment in the Ancient World

June 1, 2005


relief sculpture on campus

While conducting research for his doctoral dissertation, graduate instructor John Bauschatz discovered that, contrary to what many modern historians have taught, "there was actually a sophisticated police system that patrolled villages" in ancient Egypt. Inspired by his findings, Bauschatz dug deeper for evidence of crimes, trials, and civil offenders throughout the ancient world. After examining ancient stones and papyruses, he eventually pieced together enough information to create and teach "Crime and Punishment in the Ancient World."

In the course, Bauschatz teaches that while some crimes, such as adultery, were punished because of their social importance, other transgressions were punished because of their effect on the state. In Mesopotamian society, for example, where "family ties, stable families, and inheritances were very important," adultery "ruined an entire line of succession and destroyed a family." Therefore, harsh consequences were dealt to the convicted. In ancient Egypt, on the other hand, villains were "killed by the state as penalties, after they were convicted for robbing a tomb or trying to kill a pharaoh."

"Crime and Punishment" students learn that ancient punishments can reveal the brutality of historical judicial systems. Criminal executions in ancient Rome were often incorporated in gladiatorial displays. "Some convicted criminals would be killed by gladiators," Bauschatz says, "but some of them would have wild beasts loosed upon them and they would be mauled."

While Roman criminals were thrown into coliseums, Mesopotamians were flung into rivers. In a ritual called "trial by ordeal," accused adulterers would have to swim across a river, sometimes with stones tied to them, to prove their innocence. The idea was, "if they were really innocent, the gods would help them, and they would somehow swim across. That rarely happened," Bauschatz says.

While "Crime and Punishment" focuses primarily on ancient criminal justice, the course makes many parallels to contemporary society. Students discover that the foundation of our modern judicial structure, the trial-by-jury system, was originally conceived in the ancient world. Bauschatz explains that classical Greece had "a very sophisticated trial system, with different courts for different crimes," that closely resembles our present-day system. As students attempt to make connections between the ages, he says, class discussions "transcend the boundary between the ancient world and the modern world."

Bauschatz says he believes that his students are given, by studying early documents and ancient inscriptions, tangible contact with the past, and they can then see how course material is relevant to modern, everyday life. Consequently, he supplements typical history-course texts with primary sources from antiquity. "You're not just reading Cicero, this famous Roman orator whom a lot of people know about, but you're reading a letter, a petition, by some little guy in a little town in Egypt that no one's ever heard of, and in fact maybe [only] one person's ever read before."

Ultimately, Bauschatz designed his course based on the idea that traditional information and common beliefs of history are not always true. By studying primary sources, his students are seeing firsthand information that has been left out of textbooks. "You see what's happening out in the towns and villages," he says. "The periphery of the ancient world is the stuff that you don't see in the history books and in the literature that has survived."

Bauschatz says part of his impetus for offering the class was to "snag" more classics majors. But, perhaps more important, he says he hopes his students learn that "you should always question your assumptions and what you've been told, and look very carefully with a critical eye at everything you read. I'd be happy if they walked away with just that."


No textbooks required. All readings provided on electronic reserve.

"Brutal" weekly reading quizzes
One five-page paper
Two hour-long exams
One ten- to fifteen-page paper