The History of Criminology

Crime and Criminology, From the Ancients to the Renaissance

Courtroom
••• Mark Evans / Vetta / Getty Images

As long as there have been people, there has been crime. Criminology as a discipline is the study of crime and the criminal element, its causes, and the suppression and prevention of it.The history of criminology is in many ways the history of humanity.

As human society has evolved over thousands of years, so, too, has our understanding of the causes of crime and societies’ responses to it. As is often the case, the history of modern criminology finds its roots in ancient times.

Ancient Views of Crime and Punishment

Throughout history, people have committed crimes against each one another. In ancient times, the common response was one of revenge; the victim or the victim’s family would exact what they felt to be an appropriate response to the crime committed against them. 

Often, these responses were not measured or proportionate. As a result, the original criminal would often perceive himself or herself to have become the victim due to actions taken against him or her that they felt did not match the crime committed. Blood feuds often developed that could sometimes last for generations.

The First Laws and Codes

While certainly crime is a problem for all societies, the response to crimes in early societies posed their own problems. Laws that clearly defined crimes and corresponding punishments were established to both quell crime and to put an end to the blood feuds that resulted in the victims’ revenge. 

These early attempts still allowed for the victim of a crime to issue the punishment but sought to clarify that a response to a particular crime should be equal to the severity of the crime itself. The Code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest, and perhaps the best-known attempts to establish a set punishment scale for crimes. The principles set out in the code are best described as the “law of retaliation.” 

Religion and Crime

In western culture, many of the early ideas about crime and punishment were preserved in the Old Testament of the Bible. The concept is most easily recognized as the expression “an eye for an eye.”  

In early societies crime, along with most everything else, was viewed in the context of religion.  Criminal acts offended the gods or God. It was in this context that acts of revenge were justified, as a means to appease the gods for the affront committed against them by the crime.

Early Philosophy and Crime

Much of our modern understanding of the relationship between crime and punishment can be traced to the writings of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, though it would take more than a millennium for many of their concepts to take root. 

Plato was among the first to theorize that crime was often the result of a poor education and that punishments for crimes should be assessed based on their degree of fault, allowing for the possibility of mitigating circumstances. 

Aristotle developed the idea that responses to crime should attempt to prevent future acts, both by the criminal and by other who may be inclined to commit other crimes. Most notably, that punishment for crime should serve as a deterrent to others.

Secular Law and Society

The first society to develop a comprehensive code of laws, included criminal codes, was the Roman Republic. The Romans are widely regarded as the true precursors to the modern legal system, and their influences are still seen today, as the Latin language is preserved in much of the legal terminology. 

Rome took a more secular view of crime, viewing criminal acts as an affront to society as opposed to the gods.  Therefore, it took on the role of determining and delivering punishment as a governmental function, as a means of maintaining an ordered society.

Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages

The introduction and spread of Christianity throughout the west brought about a return to a religious connection between crime and punishment. With the decline of the Roman Empire, a lack of strong central authority lead to a step backward in attitudes toward crime.

Criminal acts began to be thought of as works and influences of the devil or Satan.  Crimes were equated with sin.

In contrast to ancient times, where punishments were often carried out to appease the gods, punishments were now carried out in the context of "doing God’s work." Harsh punishments were meant to purge the criminal of sin and free them of the influence of the devil. 

Foundations for the Modern View of Crime

At the same time, Christianity introduced the merits of forgiveness and compassion, and views toward crime and punishment began to evolve. The Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas best expressed these notions in his treatise “Summa Theologica.” 

It was believed that God had established a “Natural Law,” and crimes were understood to violate the natural law, which meant that someone who committed a crime had also committed an act which separated themselves from God. 

It began to be understood that crimes hurt not only the victim but also the criminal. Criminals, while deserving of punishment, were also to be pitied, as they had placed themselves outside of God’s grace. 

Though these ideas were derived from religious studies, these concepts prevail today in our secular views of crime and punishment.

Modern Criminology and the Secular Society

The kings and queens of those times claimed their totalitarian authority on the will of God, claiming to have been placed in power by God and therefore acting within His will. Crimes against persons, property, and state were all viewed as crimes against God and as sins. 

Monarchs claimed to be both of head of state and head of church. Punishment was often swift and cruel, with little regard for the criminal.

As the notion of separation of church and state began to take root, ideas about crime and punishment took a more secular and humanistic form.  Modern-day criminology developed out of the study of sociology.

At its core, modern criminologists seek to learn the root causes of crime and to determine how best to address it and to prevent it. Early criminologists advocated a rational approach to dealing with crime, pushing against the abuses by governmental authorities. 

A Call for Reason in Modern Criminology

The Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, in his book On Crime and Punishment, advocated for a fixed scale of crime and corresponding punishment based on the severity of the crime. He suggested that the more severe the crime, the more severe the punishment should be.

Beccaria believed that the role of judges should be limited to determining guilt or innocence, and that they should issue punishments based on the guidelines set out by the legislatures. Excessive punishments and abusive judges would be eliminated.

Beccaria also believed that preventing crime was more important than punishing it. Therefore, punishment of crime should serve to scare others away from committing those crimes.

The thought was that the assurance of swift justice would convince someone otherwise likely to commit a crime to think first about the potential consequences.

The Link Between Demographics and Crime

Criminology developed further as sociologists tried to learn the root causes of crime. They studied both the environment and the individual. 

With the first publication of national crime statistics in France in 1827, Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet looked at similarities between demographics and crime rates. He compared areas where a higher rate of crime occurred, as well as the age and gender of those who committed crimes.

He found that the highest numbers of crime were committed by under-educated, poor, younger males. He also found that more crimes were committed in wealthier, more affluent geographical areas. 

However, the highest rates of crime occurred in those wealthy areas that were physically closest to poorer regions, suggesting that poor individuals would go to wealthier areas to commit crimes.

This demonstrated that crime occurred largely as a result of opportunity and showed a strong correlation between economic status, age, education, and crime.

The Link Between Biology, Psychology, and Crime

In the late 19th century, Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso studied cause of crime based on individual biological and psychological characteristics. Most notably, he suggested that most career criminals were not as evolved as other members of society.

Lombrosso discovered certain physical attributes shared among criminals that lead him to believe there was a biological and hereditary element that contributed to an individual’s potential to commit a crime. 

Modern Criminology

These two lines of thinking, biological and environmental, have evolved to complement each other, recognizing both internal and external factors that contribute to the causes of crime.

The two schools of thought formed what is today considered the discipline of modern criminology. Criminologists now study societal, psychological and biological factors. They make policy recommendations to governments, courts and police organizations to assist in preventing crimes.  

As these theories were being developed, the evolution of the modern police force and of our criminal justice system was occurring as well. 

The purpose of police was refined to prevent and detect crimes, as opposed to simply react to crimes already committed. The criminal justice system now serves to punish criminals for the purpose of deterring future crimes.

Career Potentials in Criminology

Criminology has emerged as a highly diversified field, which contains elements of sociology, biology, and psychology. 

The field of criminology continues to grow, and you can find career opportunities in almost any area of interest you may have.