Weird History
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What the Police Looked Like in Different Ancient Societies

Updated September 18, 2019 44.2k views11 items

The modern police force is a relatively new institution. It was only in the 1800s that uniformed, paid police began enforcing laws in the US and England. Police in ancient societies were usually volunteer magistrates or private security hired by wealthy landowners. Beyond that, citizens enforced laws and settled disputes with violence.

While Ancient Rome and Egypt had what could be deemed police, they looked and acted differently than what we're used to in countires like the US and England. Even since the advent of the modern police force, myriad attempts have been made to change the mission of police, usually through innovations in uniform or behavior. Read on to discover how police looked and behaved prior to the industrial revolution. 

  • For Most of History Local Militias Did the Policing

     For most of human history, the task of enforcing laws was left to citizens, elected sheriffs or constables, and/or hired posses. Spain had an organized police force in the late 1400s, but they were essentially mercenaries paid by the King. England and France had primitive versions of police in the Middle Ages, but they were mostly unpaid constables with little power.

  • Ancient Egyptian Police Had Trained Monkeys

    Open-air markets in Ancient Egypt had private armed guards, as did temples and the homes of rich landowners. It appears these early guards even used trained monkeys (and dogs) to help them chase down thieves. Ancient Egypt also had an elite paramilitary police force called the Medjay, which protected the kingdom's borders and palaces.

  • Rome Had Organized Police Who Fought Fires

    Photo: Magnus Manske / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Ancient Rome saw the formation of a group called the Vigiles, or "watchmen of the city." The Vigiles was a highly organized, paid, sequestered group of trained men — a total departure from the unorganized, citizen-led militias that existed previously.

    While the Vigiles functioned primarily as firefighters — at the time, even a small, unauthorized fire could burn a whole city down — they also had police functions, such as dealing with disturbances of the peace, chasing down thieves, and guarding buildings. 

  • Before England Introduced Constables, Citizens Settled Disputes Through Violence

    Criminal justice in the Middle Ages in Europe consisted primarily of violent feuds between accusers and the accused and payouts to the families of victims. After the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon monarchy introduced the concept of the parish constable, a town officer who prevented and punished theft, tended the village stocks, drove away vagrants, and enforced weights and measures. The tradition of parish constables, who were unpaid volunteers, lasted in England until the 19th century.