Some religious communities regard sin as a crime; some may even highlight the crime of sin very early in legendary or mythological accounts of origins note the tale of Adam and Eve and the theory of original sin. What one group considers a crime may cause or ignite war or conflict. However, the earliest known civilizations had codes of law, containing both civil and penal rules mixed together, though not always in recorded form.
The Sumerians produced the earliest surviving written codes. Urukagina (reigned c.2380 BC c.2360 BC, short chronology) had an early code that has not survived; a later king, Ur-Nammu, left the earliest extant written law system, the Code of Ur-Nammu (c.2100 c.2050 BC), which prescribed a formal system of penalties for specific cases in 57 articles. The Sumerians later issued other codes, including the "code of Lipit-Ishtar". This code, from the 20th century BCE, contains some fifty articles, and scholars have reconstructed it by comparing several sources.
The Sumerian was deeply conscious of his personal rights and resented any encroachment on them, whether by his King, his superior, or his equal. No wonder that the Sumerians were the first to compile laws and law codes.
Successive legal codes in Babylon, including the code of Hammurabi (c. 1790 BC), reflected Mesopotamian society's belief that law derived from the will of the gods (see Babylonian law). Many states at this time functioned as theocracies, with codes of conduct largely religious in origin or reference. In the Sanskrit texts of Dharmastra (c.1250 BC), issues such as legal and religious duties, code of conduct, penalties and remedies, etc. have been discussed and forms one of the elaborate and earliest source of legal code.
Sir Henry Maine (1861) studied the ancient codes available in his day, and failed to find any criminal law in the "modern" sense of the word. While modern systems distinguish between offences against the "State" or "community", and offences against the "individual", the so-called penal law of ancient communities did not deal with "crimes" (Latin: crimina), but with "wrongs" (Latin: delicta). Thus the Hellenic laws treated all forms of theft, assault, rape, and murder as private wrongs, and left action for enforcement up to the victims or their survivors. The earliest systems seem to have lacked formal courts.
The Romans systematized law and applied their system across the Roman Empire. Again, the initial rules of Roman law regarded assaults as a matter of private compensation. The most significant Roman law concept involved dominion. The pater familias owned all the family and its property (including slaves); the pater enforced matters involving interference with any property. The Commentaries of Gaius (written between 130 and 180 AD) on the Twelve Tables treated furtum (in modern parlance: "theft") as a tort.
Similarly, assault and violent robbery involved trespass as to the pater's property (so, for example, the rape of a slave could become the subject of compensation to the pater as having trespassed on his "property"), and breach of such laws created a vinculum juris (an obligation of law) that only the payment of monetary compensation (modern "damages") could discharge. Similarly, the consolidated Teutonic laws of the Germanic tribes, included a complex system of monetary compensations for what courts would now consider the complete range of criminal offences against the person, from murder down.
Even though Rome abandoned its Britannic provinces around 400 AD, the Germanic mercenaries who had largely become instrumental in enforcing Roman rule in Britannia acquired ownership of land there and continued to use a mixture of Roman and Teutonic Law, with much written down under the early Anglo-Saxon kings. But only when a more centralized English monarchy emerged following the Norman invasion, and when the kings of England attempted to assert power over the land and its peoples, did the modern concept emerge, namely of a crime not only as an offence against the "individual", but also as a wrong against the "State".
This idea came from common law, and the earliest conception of a criminal act involved events of such major significance that the "State" had to usurp the usual functions of the civil tribunals, and direct a special law or privilegium against the perpetrator. All the earliest English criminal trials involved wholly extraordinary and arbitrary courts without any settled law to apply, whereas the civil (delictual) law operated in a highly developed and consistent manner (except where a king wanted to raise money by selling a new form of writ). The development of the idea that the "State" dispenses justice in a court only emerges in parallel with or after the emergence of the concept of sovereignty.
In continental Europe, Roman law persisted, but with a stronger influence from the Christian Church. Coupled with the more diffuse political structure based on smaller feudal units, various legal traditions emerged, remaining more strongly rooted in Roman jurisprudence, but modified to meet the prevailing political climate.
In Scandinavia the effect of Roman law did not become apparent until the 17th century, and the courts grew out of the things the assemblies of the people. The people decided the cases (usually with largest freeholders dominating). This system later gradually developed into a system with a royal judge nominating a number of the most esteemed men of the parish as his board, fulfilling the function of "the people" of yore.
From the Hellenic system onwards, the policy rationale for requiring the payment of monetary compensation for wrongs committed has involved the avoidance of feuding between clans and families. If compensation could mollify families' feelings, this would help to keep the peace. On the other hand, the institution of oaths also played down the threat of feudal warfare. Both in archaic Greece and in medieval Scandinavia, an accused person walked free if he could get a sufficient number of male relatives to swear him not guilty. (Compare the United Nations Security Council, in which the veto power of the permanent members ensures that the organization does not become involved in crises where it could not enforce its decisions.)
These means of restraining private feuds did not always work, and sometimes prevented the fulfillment of justice. But in the earliest times the "state" did not always provide an independent policing force. Thus criminal law grew out of what 21st-century lawyers would call torts; and, in real terms, many acts and omissions classified as crimes actually overlap with civil-law concepts.
The development of sociological thought from the 19th century onwards prompted some fresh views on crime and criminality, and fostered the beginnings of criminology as a study of crime in society. Nietzsche noted a link between crime and creativity in The Birth of Tragedy he asserted: "The best and brightest that man can acquire he must obtain by crime". In the 20th century Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish made a study of criminalization as a coercive method of state control.