The death penalty has very ancient roots. There is in fact evidence of its application since peoples like the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. But still today it’s applied in many advanced countries, such as the USA.
We certainly know that the prehistoric communities did use the death penalty, but we don’t have written evidence of criminal codes because the laws were passed down orally, and they were applied generally in a quite subjective and arbitrary way by people had the power.
The death penalty was applied mainly for crimes such as murder and theft, and probably also for the crimes of treason and sacrilege.
With the Babylonians there was the appearance of the first written code, the Code of Hammurabi. It is not a fair code, because the severity of the fault and the punishment imposed depends on the social class they belong to the perpetrator and the victim: the slave has less value of the noble and is subject to harsher sentences for the same offenses. But the Code of Hammurabi removed arbitrariness from judgments, with its written laws.
In Egypt, the death penalty was applied to those who broke the Maat, the universal rule observed in Egypt. There was no arbitrariness, and the sentences were the same for all, or at least in theory it should have been. The death penalty was applied by decapitation, the sacrifice, or drowning in the Nile in a closed bag.
In the era of the pre-Columbian civilizations there were no prisons; the theft for example was punished with slavery and murder by death, if the offender had failed to provide redress to victims; the moral code did not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Even adultery, it considered a crime against property, was also punishable by death.
In the Greek polis, the death penalty has been the object of thoughts and attenuation, especially in Athens, recording the gradual overcoming of the concept of punishment as revenge, although long executions had been left to the initiative of the victim’s family.
Plato, in some of its works considered both the value of the penalties for the emendation of the offender and for the prevention of further evils, the other the exceptional nature of the death penalty to be imposed in the most serious cases and against the incorrigible, referring to the law of retaliation.
In Roman times, at least in the early centuries, the public authority intervened only to punish crimes that somehow had violated the general order and were therefore considered to be of public betrayal. And in these cases, it intervened in a very hard, often by death. For private crimes instead it applied the law of retaliation, which often led to the killing of the guilty.
The Romans made use of beheading, flogging to death, hanged, cutting of limbs, drowning, fire; for the slaves, or anyone who did not enjoy Roman citizenship, it was reserved the crucifixion, punishment particularly long and painful.
The Middle Ages in Europe is characterized by a large overlap of powers, because to the power of the king or the emperor it was added the power of the feudal lords, whom the king had delegated the task of administering justice, and then the power of the city magistrates. There were so many people who could impose penalties, including the capital one, which was applied for crimes such as murder, theft, sacrilege and treason, sometimes on the basis of laws, often arbitrarily by the powers that be. Used were beheading, hanging, drowning and torture to death
The mix between political and religious power has led to the conviction of those who for centuries were against the Church, both on the dogmatic and politically and scientific side, not to mention the countless women accused of having relations to with the devil and burned as witches.
Over the centuries, the death penalty was in force in most countries, and were frequently added new instruments of death. For example in France during the Ancienne Regime it was executed with different and terrible ways depending on the social status of the offender or the type of crime committed: the hanging was for the peasants, beheading for the nobles, the wheel for the heaviest crimes, the stake to offenses against religion, the quartering to crimes against the state.
With the Revolution, they were abolished the differences of class with the introduction of the guillotine.
The death penalty remained in the largest part of the legal systems until the end of the eighteenth century, when they began to be done many important efforts to combat it and favor its abolition.
The most famous denunciation of the death penalty is from the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, who in the work On Crimes and Punishments (1764), supporting their ineffectiveness as a means of crime prevention and emphasizing the possibility of judicial error , he proposed the abolition; Beccaria’s work gained attention outside Italy and decisively influenced the movements of criminal law reform.
For Beccaria, the death penalty should be banned for two reasons: first, because its deterrent effect is less than the punishment of life imprisonment; and secondly, because men know in their hearts that their lives should not be “in power to any” and can not be delivered, for contractual decision, in the hands of the sovereign.
The impression caused by the work of Beccaria is huge, for its new vision of the criminal law and criminal procedure, in continuity with the prospect already outlined, in 1748, by the Esprit des lois written by Montesquieu.
But this “conquest” was not unanimous. In favor of the death penalty pronounced Rousseau, just two years before the formulation of the Beccaria’s thesis, and in favor of the death penalty, with different arguments, will be speaking at the end of the eighteenth century, Kant.
During this century the death penalty continued to be used by some dictatorial governments to get rid of those who opposed them, for reasons of ideology or skin color, as in South Africa during apartheid, in Russia under Lenin and Stalin, in Europe to times of Nazism.