4.1. Policing in Ancient Times

Tiffany Morey and Kate McLean

The development of policing in the United States coincided with the development of policing in England. In fact, the United States legal system traces its roots back to the common law of England. However, we can go all the way back before 1750 BC to see how forms of policing were common during ancient times, to what is now known as kin policing. Kin policing is when a tribe or clan policed their own tribe, often resulting in bloody disputes. These “blood feuds” between families or individuals would sometimes go on for a long period of time, without interference by any neutral law enforcement authority [1]

Also around 1750 BC, that the Code Hammurabi was engraved in stone. This code detailed 282 sections of how one individual should treat another individual in society, and the penalties for such violations. The code is seen as the beginnings of law and justice. Around 1000 BC, Mosaic Law emerged. This law was a new form of rational law and hoped to predict what behaviors were prohibited. In Mosaic Law, the ruling class did not create the law. The Code of Hammurabi and Mosaic Law formed the ladder that would eventually lead to the creation of policing, as we now know it today. [2]

Peisistratus (605-527 BC), who was the ruler of Athens, has been called the father of formal policing. During this time of growth, new Greek city-states were being developed and blood feuds that lasted decades had to be quashed. Kin policing slowly eroded, and new opportunities developed for a modern, “public” municipal policing model. The first police corps in Athens is often regarded as the original secret service. [3]

Augustus Caesar (27 BC), who was the first emperor of Rome, was instrumental in creating what is now called the urban cohorts. The urban cohorts were men from the Praetorian Guard (Augustus’ army), charged with ensuring peace in the city. As crime rose and became more violent, Augustus formed the vigils, which were not affiliated with the Praetorian Guard, but were charged with fighting crime and fires. The vigils were given the power to protect and arrest. [4]

From 6 AD until the 12th century, Rome was patrolled day and night, by a public police force. With the fall of the Roman Empire, kings then assumed the role of “chief law enforcement.” From the 12th-18th centuries, kings in England appointed sheriffs. At age fifteen, boys could volunteer with the posse comitatus to go after wanted felons. Constables, a police officer with limited authority, assisted the sheriffs with serving summons and warrants. Because young volunteers did the policing work, there were many problems, such as corruption and drunkenness. Victims who had the means to hire private police or bodyguards did so for protection; unfortunately, that meant that those who were poor had little help or protection. [5]

This English system of law enforcement effectively imported into the North American colonies, with one sheriff appointed by the governor of each colony. In this context, sheriffs had little role in day-to-day policing; instead, they were charged with collecting taxes, supervising elections, and providing for infrastructure maintenance. More involved were constables, who were elected at the level of communities. As in England, constables were charged with serving warrants and transporting prisoners (incidentally, two functions of contemporary sheriffs). Warrants and indictments similarly flowed from local actors, namely grand juries, which were composed of local (male) residents, and charged with investigating crimes that were identified by victims themselves. Finally, the patrol work we associate with modern policing was performed by groups of volunteers known as the “watch.” Able-bodied men within each community were expected to serve in the watch, which sought to prevent criminal behavior…and fires.

The Continued Toll of Blood Feuds

In some parts of the world, a culture of “blood feuds” still exists, in tension with modern criminal justice systems. Consider this story from Albania, a small country in Southeast Europe, where a parallel code of behavior requires men to violently avenge the murders of male relatives. Read the below article, and consider why this “private” system of justice continues to endure, despite the social and emotional consequences.



  1. Berg, B., (1999). Policing in a modern society. Oxford: Elsevier.
  2. Berg, B., (1999). Policing in a modern society. Oxford: Elsevier.
  3. Berg, B., (1999). Policing in a modern society. Oxford: Elsevier.
  4. Berg, B., (1999). Policing in a modern society. Oxford: Elsevier.
  5. Berg, B., (1999). Policing in a modern society. Oxford: Elsevier.


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4.1. Policing in Ancient Times Copyright © 2019 by Tiffany Morey and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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