A History Of Domestic Violence: How Much Have Things Changed?

By Sarah Fader

Updated February 28, 2020

Reviewer Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P

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Domestic violence is not a new phenomenon, by any means. In fact, violence within families has existed since the beginning of recorded history.

As far back as we have records, we find evidence of violence occurring against family members, especially wives and children.

Even more troubling is the fact that laws throughout history often ignore, or even support, this kind of violence.

In modern times, we have become far less tolerant of domestic violence in our laws as well as our attitudes. However, as a society, we are still burdened with hundreds of years of unfortunate attitudes towards this occurrence.

In many belief systems that persist in contemporary American culture, we can find troubling attitudes about family relations and violence. These are a warning to us that the conditions leading to domestic violence are still alive and well in our culture.

Even more alarming are the statistics. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been the victims of violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Intimate partners abuse people at a rate of about 20 per minute on average. A troubling study in 2012 found that in the years between 2008 and 2012, the number of women murdered by intimate partners was more than the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined during the same period.

We have seen many social and cultural changes throughout history. Is it possible that these changes have left the pervasive problem of domestic violence untouched? How much has changed?

Let's take a walk through history to see.

"An Eye For An Eye…"

The oldest written law that we have in existence is Hammurabi's Code, a collection of 282 rules which Hammurabi used to govern ancient Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BC.

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The focus of most of these laws was retribution, phrased in a series of if/then statements. ("If someone does this…then that may happen to him.") The punishments in Hammurabi's Code were harsh and violent, often out of all proportion to the crime.

For example, if you came to help a neighbor put out a fire and looked with envy at his property, the property owner had the right to throw you into that fire as a punishment. A slave's ear could be cut off for asserting any independence from his master, and nearly every misdeed, from making a false accusation to committing incest, was punishable by death. The well-known expression "an eye for an eye" comes directly from the retributive brutality of this law code.

In ancient civilizations, women and children were regarded as property. They had no rights under the law, and in fact, some of the laws in Hammurabi's Code explicitly mandated that men use violence against their wives and children in certain situations. If a woman was caught in the act of adultery, her husband was allowed to tie her up and drown her. A wife could also legally be drowned if she left her husband without being able to prove his cruelty to her. And if a son struck his father, his hands could be cut off.

What we know of Hammurabi's Code shows that domestic violence wasn't just allowed in ancient civilization…it was encouraged. This attitude was the result of proprietorial attitudes towards women and children as well as the acceptance of violence as a way of life and law.

The Roman Empire

The ancient Romans are remembered for bringing civilization to the brutality and violence of the Middle Ages. However, they kept their authority through a regime of violence. Those at the top often abused their power and tyrannized over those beneath them.

A "Code of Paterfamilias governed Roman family life." According to this code, men were the unquestioned heads of the household. Their reign over their wives and children was supreme and absolute. They were allowed to sell their family members into slavery, abuse them, or kill them.

Wives could be beaten or disowned if they offended their husbands in any way; this was considered a private matter, and entirely under the husband's control. Roman law stated that wives could be killed not only for adultery but even for walking around outside insufficiently covered. However, a cheating husband could not be touched.

Babies were routinely abandoned and left to die. Only the male head of the household could decide whether a newborn baby would be raised and cared for, or abandoned and exposed.

Although more civilized than Hammurabi, the Roman Empire codified the same violent and proprietorial attitudes towards women and children, making domestic violence a simple and a legal fact of life.

The Early Catholic Church

In the year 313 CE, the Edict of Milan gave Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire, and in 380 CE it became the official religion of Rome.

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Rome did an about-face from the full-scale persecution of Christians to become the birthplace of Christianity as we know it today.

These changes primarily occurred under the reign of Emperor Constantine, who was converted to Christianity in 312 CE. Unfortunately, the culture of the early Christians in many ways simply mirrored the violence and intrigue of those around them. Constantine himself violently persecuted non-believers and heretics and even had his wife and son put to death for plotting against him.

The rise of Christianity is a critical point in history because it codified beliefs that many still cherish today. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, so did the Biblical principles which bound wives even more closely to their husbands. In the 15th century, the Church established its "Rules of Marriage," which proclaimed a husband was judge over his wife and recommended beating her as an accepted form of discipline which would benefit her soul. These beliefs about the spiritual benefits of wife beating became an established part of culture and law throughout the Christian world.

The Puritans

The early New England colonists fled Europe in search of religious freedom. Most of their legal system was based on that of England, with a few differences.

Survival in early America was harsh and difficult. The Puritans depended on strong religious faith and tight social order to keep them safe in the unpredictable and untamed American wilderness. For this reason, anyone who disobeyed their strict social rules was subject to brutal punishment. Puritans believed that this was the only way to ensure that God would not forsake them.

Part of this social order was an ironclad family structure. Based on the social mores of medieval England, women and children were not acknowledged in Puritan legal systems. Only white male property owners were considered to have any rights under the law.

However, one saving the grace of the Puritan legal system was that excessive violence was forbidden. Men were allowed to physically punish their wives and children…as long as the violence did not become so extreme that the neighbors were disturbed.

But this provision did not offer much recourse to women in abusive living situations. If a man's abuse attracted the attention of others, he would simply continue the abuse in a less obvious manner. Wives had no rights under the law to leave home or seek a divorce and had no means at their disposal to prevent future abuse. The Puritans took to heart Biblical commands about a wife's responsibility to submit to her husband and obey him…Bible verses that many religious leaders still invoke today when counseling women to remain in abusive situations.

"A Relic Of Barbarism."

In succeeding centuries, family life rested on an insular unit in which a white male exerted complete control over wife, children, and even black slaves. His manner of maintaining authority was considered a private family matter. If it included violence, society and the law looked the other way.

However, the culture was changing. The emancipation of the black slaves in 1863 and the beginning of the suffragist movement in 1848 showed that people were beginning to think of women and minorities as individuals with their rights rather than simply as property.

A major turning point in perceptions towards domestic violence occurred in 1871 when an emancipated slave named George Fulgham had a charge brought against him by the State of Alabama for beating his wife, Matilda. In a monumental decision, the court ruled that "a married woman is as much under the protection of the law as any other member of the community" and that the idea that a man had the right to chastise his wife in this way was "a relic of barbarism."

Although it took some time for other states and courts to follow, the case of Fulgham vs. the State of Alabama was beginning of a nationwide legal ban on physically harming one's family members.

The More Things Change…

Domestic violence is no longer legal in America or other civilized nations. But how much have things changed?

Although we no longer encourage men to beat their wives to exert their authority, troubling attitudes towards women remain. Violence against women is often extolled, viewed as a way for men to show their strength.

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Women living in abusive situations are often without recourse. They may not have the financial means to leave their abuser, or they may feel pressure from society and culture to preserve the family unit at any cost. Religious organizations, preserving many of the old Puritan beliefs, may still counsel women to stay, even when their lives are in danger.

Law enforcement officials, when called to assist in a domestic violence situation, are sometimes loath to help, subscribing to the old-fashioned belief that such violence is a private family matter. All of these factors combined leave women and children that live with abuse with very few options.

On the surface, we have progressed far since the brutal days of Hammurabi's Code. But although today's laws condemn it, we have yet to find a solution to the problem of domestic violence.

If you are living with domestic violence, know that there is help available to you. Contact one of our counselors at BetterHelp to assist you in figuring out your options.

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