Weird History What the Police Looked Like in Different Ancient Societies  

Mike Rothschild
32.3k views 13 items

The modern police force is a relatively recent 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 very differently than what we're used to. In fact, 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 previous to the industrial revolution. 

For Most of History Local Militias Did the Policing

For Most of History Local Mili... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What the Police Looked Like in Different Ancient Societies
Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
 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

Ancient Egyptian Police Had Tr... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What the Police Looked Like in Different Ancient Societies
Photo: Public Domain/Reddit
The earliest reference to organized constabulary forces come from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Open air markets in Ancient Egypt had private armed guards, as did temples and the homes of rich landowners. It appears that these early guards even used trained monkeys to help them chase down thieves. By the 15th century BCE, Egypt had an elite paramilitary police force called the Medjay, which protected the kingdom's borders and palaces.

Rome Had Organized Police Who Fought Fires

Rome Had Organized Police Who ... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What the Police Looked Like in Different Ancient Societies

Ancient Greece had but a small force of armed slaves as law enforcement, with citizens picking up the slack. Ancient Rome, on the other hand, 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 -- in those days, 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. 

Ancient China Had a Complex Legal System with Female Enforcers

Ancient China Had a Complex Le... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What the Police Looked Like in Different Ancient Societies
Photo: Public Domain/The Epoch Times

Law enforcement in Ancient China was carried out by prefects for thousands of years. Prefects were spread across the state, appointed by judges, and had limited authority. The judges in turn reported to governors, who were appointed by the emperor. Subprefects worked under prefects, helping settle disputes, enforce laws, and investigate crimes - tasks most European police wouldn't do until the modern era. In a reflection of the progressive politics of dynastic China, some prefects were women.

The concept of the prefecture system spread to other cultures, including Korea and Japan, and the nomenclature is still in use today.