What were the punishments for theft?

After the more or less unrestrictedly harsh “law of the jungle” of previous cultures, justice and legal norms gradually evolved.

A common punishment for theft in primitive cultures was to cut off the arm or fingers of the thief. Magical effigies were used as protection against theft, but they could also be neutralized by more powerful magic! There was also religious magical thinking that people would be punished after death.

In the Sumerian culture 5200 years ago, there were laws regulating specific punishments for theft. For theft of property in temples or the royal palace, the punishment was death. The same applied to those who sold or acquired stolen goods. And even for buyers who could not prove that they had purchased the goods legally. A person caught breaking into someone’s house could be killed on the spot.

Ancient Egypt also had laws and courts to deal with thieves. Those convicted were subject to corporal punishment, such as mutilation, flogging, penal servitude or death by staking.

In 5th-century BC Greece, thieves were called kleptai (the root of kleptomaniac), and in the worst case could be sentenced to death for their deeds. In the Roman Empire, too, stealing could be punishable by death, but if the thief was not killed when caught in the act, he could instead be sentenced to reimburse the victim, often four or five times the value of the stolen goods.