How did being arrested work prior to modern police?

Let’s say I live in Babylon and I’ve just broken the code of Hammurabi, what happens next?

  1. Would I only be caught if there was a witness?
  2. If a rival falsely accused me would I be allowed to defend myself?
  3. If there was a robbery or somebody was murdered did any one care who did it? Was there any effort to catch someone? Did they care if the person they caught was innocent or guilty?

Dunno 'bout Babylon. In medieval Europe it worked roughly as you get in movies of the Wild West - you think a crime has happened, you form up a posse and go looking for who you think dunnit. This is called the “hue and cry”. All adult male members of the community are obliged to help out.

If a stranger is found hanging about, with no obvious explanation for their presence, things may go badly for that person. Standards of proof are low. If it’s theft, your stranger may be able to get out of it by demonstrating that the item isn’t in their posession - though maybe they buried it in the wood somewhere. If it’s murder or arson, or somebody in the posse says they’re sure they saw someone just like this dude running away form the crime scene, it’s probably curtains for the stranger. The posse is allowed to summarily execute persons resisting arrest - with the sword if a man, by drowning if a woman.

If no stranger, or person caught in the act, is turned up by the hue and cry, the matter may rest there. If a person is caught and doesn’t resist the posse, they will probably be turned over to the local lord - whoever the local population owes fealty to (everyone owes fealty to someone). He will have a court, presided over by himself, in which he will decide your guilt or innocence, and your punishment. Or if your later on in the middle ages you may get a jury - you can think of the original “posse” system as being a kind of crude prototype jury. Or it could be a lynch mob. Luck of the draw, depending on how the local community is feeling that day.

The Bible’s example is pretty typical:

Sanhedrin: “Let’s go kick that guy’s ass.”

The Bible’s example is pretty typical:

Sanhedrin: “Let’s go kick that guy’s ass.”
Judas: “Gimme thirty bucks and I’ll tell you where he is.”
Sanhedrin: “Right on, Holmes. Now let’s take him to the Romans.”
Pilate: “What do you want this time?”
Sanhedrin: “This fool’s been disrespecting us.”
Pilate: “Why do I give a shit?”
Sanhedrin: “'Cause.”
Pilate: “Alright, let’s get this over with. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Jesus: “Bitches be trippin’, yo.”
Pilate: “What do you want me to do about this?”
Mob: “Kill him!”
Pilate: “Seriously? Okay, whatever, you guys have fun with that.”

For further information, you can also reference: “How do you know she’s a witch?”

She turned me into a newt.

Well, I got better.

Seriously, though, in England, at least, they did have jury trials in the middle ages (not that that is what the OP asked about).

This was a significant issue back in medieval times. Who was in charge of enforcing the law? In some places it would be a local noble; in others, it would be a representative of the king. There was an ongoing struggle between the king and his nobles over who got to administer justice.

The code of Hammurabi is pretty close to the early transition from hunter-gatherers to modern civilization. It’s instructive to note that hunter-gatherers generally don’t have the concept of police. Their laws are ways of dealing with situations which arise and everyone is expected to participate. Conversely, in modern civilization, we handle things on our own until someone crosses an invisible line where their behavior has ceased to be merely rude or inconvenient and has now become a crime. That’s when we hand the situation over to the police. It stands to reason that the code of Hammurabi was enforced by police as well, but in the first couple centuries they were basically making it up as they went along. I doubt the procedure was codified. When things got complicated they’d fall back on what worked well for hunter-gatherers: consult the elders and the shamans for wisdom and common sense. But one thing was different now. In a tribal hunter-gatherer society, every individual is important and they lean on each other for survival. But in modern civilization, individuals become expendable. So trouble makers would be dealt with more harshly.

Another thing that just occurred to me is that not all societies have formal judicial systems as we recognize them. Check out some of Jared Diamond’s descriptions of conflict resolution in Papa New Guinea (scientists love PNG because its basically the closest to pre-civilization tribal life that they can find).

In the examples he uses, when someone from Tribe A hurts someone from Tribe B, Tribe A’s relatives will go to Tribe B to offer a meeting. Then they get together and have a semi-formalized gathering where Tribe B explains what injury occurred, and then the two sides hash out what kind of compensation would be fair. Both sides go along with it because they know the alternative is random bloodletting and a cycle of revenge, which neither wants.

Prison as we know it is a relatively new thing, and seeing prison as the primary punishment is a very American thing. Many countries place greater emphasis on fines, restitution, and compensation for the injured party than prison. I also saw the same thing in Iraq - the courts were so inept and corrupt that most disputes were solved by the tribal elder or a council of elders (not that they were much better, but there you have it)

In Babylon, there were police and a working court system. The accused would be sworn in before a group of judges and any witnesses would likewise be sworn in. The standard of evidence was high and punishments were very harsh. Most people had to have been caught in the act or in possesion of the stolen goods. Mostly death or dismemberment were the punishments. The punishment for false witness was whatever the punishment on the accused would have been. There was a trial by ordeal in which the accused would have been made to jump in the sacred river and were judged innocent if they swam and did not drown. This was for offenses such as witchcraft which could not be witnessed.

I recall reading about how Plato was one of the nobles delegated to arrest some other noble:

the essay I was reading explained this was an effort by the usurpers to implicate all the other nobility - if the ruler were captured and taken to trial in a new coup, most of the nobles would not vote to condemn him because they had participated in his crimes. Socrates was not worried about repercussions of refusing, and apparently there were not any.

More on this article:

Also this:

We learn from this that Socrates was capable of displaying the endearing charm that lead to his death penalty, even in front of a hostile crowd when his life was on the line. Also, that in Greek times, the rule of law was somewhat arbitrary - the laws and what they meant and even violating procedure was amenable to mob rule and wide interpretation… not like today when guilt or innocence turns on the exact wording of written laws.