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Brief History of Crimes and Punishments

Updated on June 20, 2015

Breaking laws is not recommended

Every historical period has people who commit crimes (break the law) and are punished for it. However, different eras had a variety of methods and devices they used to torture, embarrass and even kill criminals. In this unit study I cover a brief history of crimes and their punishments. The information is added to activities to help encourage fun and learning. Along with history this unit study reinforces the basics of English, science, math, art, geography and more!

Please note some of the information in this unit study can be a little gory and upsetting and is not for the faint of heart.

Hammurabi and the first laws

Hammurabi was an ancient Babylonian King who controlled most of lower Mesopotamia. He is considered to be the first ruler to install a written code of law. Two hundred and eighty-two laws made up Hammurabi's tablets. They were placed in a public area for all to see and understand right and wrong under the control of Hammurabi. Punishments were severe, many meant death!

Hammurabi listed 282 laws in cuneiform (the first written language).

The Gladiator Arena

In Ancient Rome, how you were put to death depended on your social class. People of a higher class were allowed to poison themselves in private but lower class people, like slaves, were executed publicly. This could include crucifixion or the more popular gladiator arena (amphitheater).

Punishment devices

During the Middle Ages and up through the 1800s it became custom to punish people publicly and therefore add humiliation to their sentence. The practices in Old England were adopted by those who came to the New World to form colonies, and so, similar punishments were found in both parts of the world.

Public Executions

Hangings began as a method of execution about 2500 years ago.

It became a popular form of execution because it was easy to perform, and did not cost a lot. The gallows were set up in the public square and then surrounded by wooden stands where spectators would pay for a good view.

Did You Know?

Despite it being an ancient form of execution a legal hanging was conducted in the United States as recently as 1996!

Witch trials

Death by fire is considered to be the most painful way to die. It was used as the most popular sentence during the witch trials. Witch burning lasted for about 300 years beginning in the 1450s. There were thousands of witch trials throughout Europe as well as the Salem witch trials in the United States.

Jails and Justice

From Medieval dungeons to Alcatraz and our modern day jailing system - this section talks about how confinement in prisons began to be used as punishment. So, the penal system went from one of torture and execution to one of imprisonment. Today it is considered as a system of corrections which encompasses a number of punishments other than imprisonment.

According to 2003 data there are more than 8.75 million people held in prisons around the world. Do you know which countries house the most criminals? Download the entire unit study to find out!

Smallest Jail, Rodney, Ontario

Did you know?

One of the smallest prisons in the world can be found in Rodney, Ontario, Canada. It is 24.3 m/270 ft².

About the author

Sandra Wilson is an experienced educator and writer whose aim is to put the fun back into education. The Education with a Bang series of unit studies takes interesting topics of study and puts them into a unit study combined with fun activities to inspire a desire to learn.

Sandra is also owner and operator of an educational resource centre!

To purchase this downloadable unit study go to

Happy to hear from you!

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    • profile image

      Ruthi 5 years ago

      What an interesting and intensive study of crime and punishment! I readily agree that burning to death would have to be the most painful of punishments.

    • profile image

      happynutritionist 6 years ago

      An interesting history on various forms of punishment for crimes...sometimes justified, sometimes not. Thought it interesting that the Babylon laws were written on tablets just as God wrote the 10 commandments, laws that were important to Him on stone tablets.

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 6 years ago from Templeton, CA

      Looks like it's still in good taste. No gory or torture pictures. If there had been, I wouldn't have been able to keep reading. It strikes me just how much things have changed, since today in the US, we want to make sure no criminal, not matter what was done to his victims, suffers any pain at all when executed.

    • traveller27 profile image

      traveller27 6 years ago

      Well done and informative.

    • Zut Moon profile image

      Zut Moon 6 years ago

      Crime and punishment is always a fascinating subject ....