Book Review: An Eye for an Eye: A Global History of Crime and Punishment

By: Amy LewontinAn Eye for an Eye

Mitchel P. Roth.  An Eye for an Eye:  A Global History of Crime and Punishment (Reaktion Books, 2014). 304 p. Hardcover $30.00.

Mitchel P. Roth’s new sweeping history of crime and punishment is a fascinating look at the way many societies, Eastern and Western, have developed methods over time to deal with behavior that is considered criminal.  Roth very early on in his introduction explains that there is no “definitive answer to the question, ‘What is crime?’” and then goes on to say that for the purposes of his book, “crime will be regarded as a legal concept, that is, what is or is not against the law”.

An Eye for An Eye traces the history of crime and punishment from Mesopotamia and the Code of Hammurabi to the modern era.  What is worth noting about the book is Roth’s thoroughness in trying to survey as many parts of the world as he can to show that the laws, practices, and motives of one society influence those of others.  Roth examines the types of crimes committed in places like China, India and many of the European nations and explains how one nation’s imprisonment and capital punishment practices influence the others.

For example, in a chapter titled, “The Transformation of Punishment”, Roth talks about the British penal reformer, John Howard visiting Russia, to learn about its system, and to understand how Russia abolished capital punishment for all crimes except first-degree murder.  Before that, Roth talks about the large penitentiary built near Philadelphia that brought Charles Dickens to the United States to visit the prison and then to denounce it for the use of solitary confinement.   Additionally, the influence of nations on their colonies and the way in which criminal laws developed due to political and social influences by many nations is what makes the book extremely interesting to read.

This is a book that can both be read cover to cover, but can also be used as a source text for students of history and criminal studies who may be interested in a particular society or a particular method of punishment for a crime.  The book is extremely well documented and the footnotes contain a wealth of information and good source material, should you need to follow up on a particular topic. Something else worth noting here is that Roth is acutely aware of the way many nations throughout history approached punishment.  Oftentimes, the class and wealth of the victim as well as the perpetrator had a large effect on the outcome.   There is much discussion of Sharia law, as well as the origins of civil and common law, as it affects the types of crimes and punishments meted out in many nations.  Roth generally maintains an objective stance in his descriptions of punishments for minor and serious crimes.  He does take certain societies to task, for their punishments, including the United States, for its very high incarceration rate.  The book covers so many types of crimes, including rape, murder, and from the modern era, financial crimes.

When I say this is a fascinating book, I should also say that it is a difficult book to read without flinching, mainly because the author examines many dark periods throughout history to seek out the types of crimes and the varied punishments that man has inflicted on man (and woman).  An Eye for an Eye is extremely well written and, for someone who enjoys reading various types of history, it is noteworthy in the breadth and the depth of the source material, including novels, newspaper accounts, as well as religious texts.  Roth also explains early on that information on every society is not necessarily readily available, and therefore he does the best he can with available source material.

I would highly recommend this book, to all types of libraries, but then caution that it is truly not for the faint of heart, as it delves into very rough subject matter in its descriptions of serious punishments throughout the world and throughout history.  It is the descriptions of the various punishments where I as a reader found myself both riveted and shaken by the cruelties of many societies.

Mitchel P. Roth has previously published several other books on prisons and crime and punishment and currently teaches Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

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