In our last post, we introduced this series on the world history of honor killings because we think it’s important to understand what might compel someone to kill a family member — especially in societies that have evolved over thousands of years to protect family above anything else. Although it’s the last thing we think about when discussing the Ancient Roman Empire, this was the first place where honor killings are known to have occurred.
Helping one another out during our darkest times: It’s What We Do as human beings. And although the Ancient Romans held similar standards — sometimes — those standards did not apply to those who had been raped or committed adultery. Roman Emperor Augustus (he was the first) was the man who put forth the law “Lex Julia de Adulteriis” which made adultery a crime. It was also this law that gave the paterfamilias the right to kill a wife or daughter who had committed the crime.
Perhaps this is a good time to rewind — because now we should probably figure out where the idea of a man being the head of the family actually comes from. We could actually start in the first couple centuries when Biblical texts begin to be introduced (and these texts make it obvious that women should always be submissive to their husbands), but that wouldn’t be going far enough back.
In 1780 BCE — about 1800 years before Augustus wrote the aforementioned laws — the Code of Hammurabi was enacted by the king of the same name. These laws were important because they represent one of the earliest sets of laws on the books and they persisted. These laws also guaranteed that men would be considered heads of the family for quite some time, because women were essentially slaves to their husbands. Just as slaves were property to the Romans, women were property to the Ancient Babylon husbands.
Note: the Code of Hammurabi sentenced an adulterous woman and her lover to death. Should the husband deign to save one, he must also save the other. It was an all or nothing deal.
By the sixth century AD, the practice of “honorable suicide” was recorded in Central India, where women would sometimes throw themselves upon a husband’s funeral pyre. This was considered a way to remain loyal to a husband, who would be guaranteed salvation — and also, it guaranteed that a woman’s sins would be absolved. How convenient!
Around the same time, nomadic tribes who would someday build civilization in the Arabian Peninsula began to say that “the burial of daughters is a noble deed.” More importantly, families would often bury their newborn daughters alive to guarantee that they could not grow up to dishonor the family (or in this case the nomadic band of whoever).
Fast forward a thousand years to the 17th century, and you have the first incidences of the practice of “karo kari,” which involves the murder or execution of a person accused of sexual crimes. The connotation involved dishonor or disgrace, which usually means adultery. In the next part, we’ll continue to discuss our attitudes toward women throughout the ages.