Lex Talionis: Definition & History

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

''Lex talionis'' is a legal concept of retribution. In this lesson, we will define the concept, understand some of the historical context, and give some modern examples.

Eye for an Eye

Is it cruel to execute someone found guilty of murder? Is it wrong to cut off someone's hand for theft? You may be familiar with the idea of 'an eye for an eye' but did you know that this is an established legal concept dating back thousands of years? We call this concept lex talionis - the law of retributive justice where the punishment should fit the crime.

History of Lex Talionis

In the Bible, Exodus 21:22-25 defined the appropriate punishment of ''life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.'' Similarly ancient Babylonian law, called Hammurabi's code, identifies the concept of an eye for an eye, even going so far as to say that if a pregnant woman is injured and her baby dies, her husband can go to the person who hurt her and take the life of his child (or himself, if childless). The two ancient forms of law have some differences - mainly when punishment can be paid in money rather than physically - but have many of the same stipulations.

In other words, the proper punishment for murder is death, or injury for injury, and cannot be more severe than the crime itself. This concept may seem barbaric to modern eyes, but some historians have explained that it actually was a revolutionary idea. Instead of any crime being punished by death - even adultery - a punishment must be proportional to the crime. This helped to make things more fair for crimes to have a standardized punishment, even though modern eyes may still view them as shocking.

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