Show Mobile Navigation
Crime |

10 Ancient Punishments That Didn’t Fit The Crime

by Debra Kelly
fact checked by Jamie Frater

One of the ways a civilization can be judged is by its justice system. While there’s still a lot of debate on whether or not the death penalty is an acceptable punishment for any sort of crime, we can all look at some ancient laws—and their punishments—and agree that they’re a bit too harsh. There’s also no shortage of laws that veer in the opposite direction, permitting heinous crimes with little or no punishment whatsoever.

10 Aztec Death Penalty


It may not be surprising that the Aztecs had some pretty severe laws, but it’s amazing just how far they would go to punish those found guilty of committing crimes. They certainly weren’t stingy with the death penalty, handing it down for serious crimes like murder and rape, but also for crimes like moving the boundary markers between property, witchcraft, defamation of character, and creating a public disturbance. Public intoxication was also punishable by death, but only in the case of young offenders. Being found guilty of those crimes didn’t mean that you automatically got the death sentence, though. Those you had wronged could speak up on your behalf to get the death penalty removed—by taking you as their slave instead.

In what would be an absolutely controversial application of the death penalty today, even children under the age of 10 who hit or assaulted their parents could be sentenced to death. Children who simply disrespected their parents could expect to receive a court-sanctioned beating. Noble children had it even worse—they could be sentenced to death for being cowardly, wasteful, or disrespecting their elders. For both children and adults, the death penalty could be carried out in a number of different ways, from stoning, disembowelment, or beheading to the opening of the chest cavity and removal of the heart.

9 Blowing From The Gun

Punjab was under the control of the British in the mid-1800s, and like many British colonies of the era, they didn’t like it. To maintain control of the population, British troops took to making an example of those who took part in mutinies with a bizarre and bloody form of execution called Blowing From the Gun. Those that were found guilty of their crimes would be bound hand and foot, then strapped to the front of a cannon so the small of their backs were covering the mouth of the cannon. The cannon would then, of course, be fired.

The speed of the death was probably the only comfort to those that were waiting in line for their turn—eyewitness accounts of the gory method of execution describe flying, blackened heads; blood-splattered men arming and firing the cannon; and the smell of gunpowder and death. On February 15, 1862, 12 men were executed for mutiny by getting a 4-kilogram (9-lb) cannon ball through the back.

8 Code Of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi is famous for establishing the “eye for an eye” system of justice, but it’s important to note that was only in the case of two conflicting individuals of the same class. Less well-known is the code’s stance on false accusations—or, indeed, accusations that couldn’t be proven to a court’s satisfaction.

Anyone is allowed to bring any kind of case against anyone else, but they better make sure the charges are going to stick—if they don’t, it’s the accuser that’s going to be put to death. In some cases, that meant proving charges in a court of law, but in others, it mostly concerned the accuser’s swimming ability. One method of proving innocence was for the accused to throw themselves into a river. If the current swept them away or they sank, the gods had determined they were guilty. If they could swim to shore, they were found innocent, and the person who had brought the charges in the first place would be executed for his false accusation.

Thieves were also subject to the death penalty, as were those who had taken possession of stolen goods, even unknowingly. However, if someone said they “bought the item from a merchant,” they could bring said merchant before the court. If the merchant was found to be the thief, he was the one who was executed. If the owner of the alleged stolen merchandise didn’t have anyone to back up his claim, he would be put to death for the false report.

7 Sumerian Code / Code Of Ur-Nammu

Even older than the Code of Hammurabi is the Code of Ur-Nammu, a Sumerian code of laws dating back to somewhere between 2112–2095 BC. Existing only in fragments and recovered by the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum, they’re thought to have inspired the later writings of Hammurabi. Some contents of the documents are similar, like the death penalty for a murderer. Some of the punishments in the Code of Ur-Nammu are a little more questionable.

If a citizen were to rape another citizen, that’s punishable by death. If the victim of the rape is only a slave, though, that’s just a fine of 1.66 ounces of silver. Rape is also addressed in the Sumerian Code, dating from about 1800 BC. If a man rapes a woman and then pledges to marry her, all is forgotten and she becomes the wife of her rapist. If he claims that the woman was out unescorted and he didn’t know she belonged to a family or household, he is likewise pardoned.

6 The Codex Of Theodosianus

The Codex of Theodosianus dates from 429 AD, created by Theodosius II to consolidate Roman law since the time of Constantine. Based largely around Christian doctrine, the codex makes it clear which religion is the approved one. All churches were to be surrendered to the control of Catholic Church and those who don’t follow their teachings were to be considered heretics, and heretics were punished with severe fines and even death.

Citizens who didn’t follow Catholic teachings were deemed demented and insane, clearly destined to suffer divine wrath in the afterlife. Those who spoke out against the church or simply voiced to their beliefs were stripped of their rights as citizens. Anyone caught making a sacrifice to another god would be executed, as would anyone found to have failed to enforce this punishment. Converting a citizen from Catholicism was also a crime punishable by death.

5 Draconian Code Of Law

The word “Draconian” has come to be associated with being unnecessarily strict and barbaric. That’s with good reason. The first written laws in ancient Athens were attributed to the ruler Draco, appearing around 621 BC. That law was very, very simple—commit any offense and the punishment was death. Murder? Death penalty. Stealing a cabbage? Death penalty. Loitering? Death penalty.

There was a sort of twisted logic behind this. Draco felt that even the smallest of crimes were so horrible, so unforgivable, that even the most minor of criminals deserved no less than death. The laws were said to have been written in blood instead of ink, but they still didn’t last long. Draco’s successor, Solon, repealed every law except the death penalty for murder.

4 Code Of The Nesilim

Nesilim was the name that the people we know as the Hittites gave to themselves. At the height of their power, their territory included much of what is now Turkey and stretched down into Mesopotamia. One unusual law in the 1650–1500 BC Code of the Nesilim is the punishment for hitting a free woman so hard that it causes her to miscarry. If she’s at the end of her pregnancy, that’s a fine of 10 half-shekels. (While it’s impossible to tell exactly what that would be in today’s money, the fine for being caught owning a runaway slave was 50 half-shekels.) Slave women only got five half-shekels if their beatings resulted in a miscarriage.

Rape was also questionably addressed in the code. If it occurred outside, the man is considered at fault and is sentenced to death. However, if the rape occurred in the home, it was deemed to be the fault of the woman and she was sentenced to die. Even more bizarrely, there were very specific descriptions and punishments for different types of bestiality. Anyone found guilty of committing the act with a dog or a pig would die, but if it was with a horse or a mule, the only punishment would be that they could no longer appear in the presence of the king. If it was with a cow, it was up to the king to decide whether the person would live or die. And if an ox were to mount a man? The proper response to that was to substitute a sheep for the man, then to kill the sheep and the ox both. If he’s leaped upon by a pig, though, there’s no punishment for either party involved.

3 The Roman Twelve Tables

The Twelve Tables were the first known written law in Rome, dating to about 450 BC. While the tables themselves addressed a wide spectrum of Roman life, some of the entries were very telling. A child that committed the crime of simply being born deformed was to be killed. And for the crime of being born a woman? A lifetime under the watchful eye of a guardian, whether a parent or husband, because they were lacking in disposition. Singing a song about someone that wasn’t true was also punishable by death, as well as putting a curse on someone. Cutting another farmer’s crops meant you were destined to be sacrificed to the goddess Ceres, while setting fires near houses meant you were bound and set on fire yourself.

2 Mesopotamian Law

Dating back to between 2250–550 BC, many Mesopotamian laws have only been recovered in fragments. The picture of justice painted by what little we do have, though, is very clear. If a fisherman or overseer is summoned into the presence of the king and does not appear in person, they forfeit their life. Divorce laws were pretty one-sided—if it was the husband who left the wife, he was legally obligated to pay her a fine of a bit of silver. If it was the wife that left, however, she was to be thrown into a river. Similarly, breaking up a family was governed by some specific rules. For a son’s crime of declaring himself independent from his father, he could be sold into slavery. Declaring himself independent of his mother, however, only got him turned out of his house and denied his inheritance.

1 Code Of The Assura

Dating from about 1075 BC, the Code of the Assura was a compilation of laws governing the Assyrian people. According to law, women who were deemed honorable needed to wear a veil in public. That clearly didn’t include prostitutes and servants, so any of those found wearing a veil in public would have their clothes removed, receive 50 blows, and have hot asphalt poured over their heads. It is specified that it was completely acceptable for a man to hit or pierce his wife. Interfering in any way with your neighbors’ crops would reward you with 100 blows, losing a finger, and a month of the ancient Assyrian equivalent of community service. Sex between men was strictly forbidden and the punishment was castration. If adultery was found to have occurred at the request of the married woman, the man would go free and unharmed, but the woman’s husband was free to exact his vengeance in any way he desired.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Debra Kelly

After having a number of odd jobs from shed-painter to grave-digger, Debra loves writing about the things no history class will teach. She spends much of her time distracted by her two cattle dogs.

Read More: Twitter