Draco’s laws were known for being intolerably severe and harsh, particularly towards minor offences. Thus Draco made many petty offences punishable by death. | Image: Carving of Draco in the US Supreme Court Building (imaginary portrayal, 1930s)
Hailing from Athens in Ancient Greece, Athenian aristocrat Draco was a lawmaker who was famous for framing very harsh laws (i.e. draconian laws) in the 7th century b.c. Draco’s laws, also known as Draconian constitution, were extremely repressive as they made many offences, including minor ones, punishable by death.
In the article below, World History Edu explores the life and major facts about Draco. It also includes the various draconian laws enacted by the Athenian lawmaker in the late 7th century b.c.
Facts about Draco, a 7th-century b.c. Lawgiver of Athens
Place of birth: Athens
Most known for: Draconian laws that made minor offences carry the death penalty
Praised for: being the first recorded lawmaker of Athens
Owing to the fact that it was the 7th century BCE, a time when authorship and writing were not common, not much is known of the early life and childhood of Draco the Athenian lawmaker.
What we know about Draco is that he was part of a family that came from noble roots in Attica. Draco is said to have lived in an era before the emergence of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, a group of 6th-century BCE Greek philosophers, legislators and statesmen known for their unbridled wisdom and contributions to Athenian society.
Around the late 7th century BCE, Athenians (primarily the aristocrats) chose Draco to enact written laws that would replace then existing oral laws. Draco’s laws were made in such a way that they were to be enforced by a court of law. Thus Draco is commonly known as the first Athenian lawmaker elected (by the elites and wealthy landowners) in a democratic fashion.
Unfortunately for the citizens of Athens, Draco’s laws were too harsh as it slapped capital punishment on minor offences. His laws came as a huge surprise to the Athenians that elected him to that high position. The laws were unforgiving and brutal. For example, one of Draco’s laws stated that debtors that could not pay their debt be committed into a life of slavery.
As Draco’s laws (i.e. Draconian constitution) became increasingly unbearable, dissent and angst swept through the city-state of Athens. According to the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of ancient Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean region, Draco died in an Aeginetan theatre after his supporters suffocated him with many hats. Since that seem highly unlikely, the popularly held notion is that Draco was chased out of the city by Athenians due to how intolerable his laws were. The lawmaker is said to have lived the rest of his life on the island of Aegina.
What were Draco’s laws – Draconian Laws?
The Athenian lawmaker Draco holds the record of being the first recorded Athenian legislator of ancient Greece. His written laws, which replaced Athens’ oral law, were framed around the late 7th century b.c., making them the first written Athenian constitution.
According to historians, the laws were written on wooden tablets (axones) so as to make sure that all Athenians were aware of them. Those wooden tablets were then placed on a three-sided pyramid, allowing them to be read from any side.
Examples of Draco’s laws
Examples of Draco’s laws which are taken from Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution:
- The survivors of a murdered individual are allowed to pursue and apprehend the murderer and thereafter turn him/her over to the city’s authorities who will then try the accused. Should the murderer be killed by the relative of the murder victim, then he or she will be prevented from entering a public place (i.e. agora), or he or she will be prevented from taking part in any religious or sporting festival.
- Anyone who takes the life of another Athenian, regardless of whether it was an accident or premeditated, will be exiled from Athens indefinitely. However, if the murderer apologizes to the victim’s family and the family accepts the apology, the murderer will be allowed to stay in Athens.
Purpose and meaning of Draco’s law code, Athens first written law code
In addition to Draco’s written law codes unfairly favoring the wealthy landowners of Athens, they were intended to reduce the arbitrary nature in which Athens’ oral laws were applied.
The introduction of Draco’s written laws meant the end of arbitrary application and interpretation of oral laws. Unlike the oral laws, the written laws could be read by literate Athenians. As a result, people could appeal their cases (at the Areopagus) whenever a law was wrongly interpreted.
Another significant outcome of Draco’s law was that it in so many ways gave legitimacy to the political, judicial and economic power of the Athenian elites and aristocrats. Such an environment allowed the rich and elite to increase their power and properties at the expense of poor Athenian citizens.
Laws governing involuntary homicide and murder
Draco’s constitution was probably the first known legal code to distinguish between involuntary homicide and murder. Perpetrators of the former were exiled out of the city. However, to this day, historians are still a bit unsure as to the kind of punishment meted out to persons found guilty of intentional homicide.
What is known, however, is that the Draconian constitution placed the decision to prosecute the killer in the hands of the relatives of the victim.
It’s been said that Draco’s homicide laws perpetuated for more than two centuries. They were revised around 409 b.c.
How harsh was the Draconian Constitution?
Draco’s legal codes were infamous for being extremely harsh, even petty or minor offences. To give a glimpse of just how steep the punishments were, we just need to take a look at the punishment Draco put in place for a debtor who failed to pay his debt. According to the Draconian constitution, the said debtor was to become a slave. The law was very much biased towards the few creditors, aristocrats and landowners as it created a system where debtors of a lower status or class ended up losing their lands and properties.
Draco also imposed the death penalty for minor offences like say stealing a vegetable. And since the lower classes were more likely to engage in such petty crimes, the law seemed to target the poor more than the rich. According to Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch, Draco was of the view that those minor crimes deserved those harsh punishments.
Draco was late 7th-century b.c. Athenian lawgiver who enacted repressive legal codes that punished minor offences with the death penalty. Prior to Draco’s constitution Athens was governed by disjointed oral laws that gave room for corruption and wrong interpretation.
How and when was Draco’s law repealed?
Due to how insufferable and harsh Draco’s laws were, particularly towards the lower classes, Athenians put their fate in Solon (c. 630 b.c. – c. 560 b.c.), a poet and statesman, to repeal all of Draco’s laws, except the homicide law.
By replacing Draco’s laws with fair and just legal codes, Solon in effect eliminated situations where debtors could be enslaved simply for their inability to pay debts. Other harsh punishments (mostly the death penalty) for trivial or petty crimes were also scrapped off the law books.
By the year 580 BCE, Athens, with the set of laws put in place by Solon, had successfully raided itself off many draconian laws. The society was gradually making strides as it was built upon a hierarchical distribution of political responsibility. Those in turn spurred economic progress.
Solon, an archon (magistrate), Athenian lawmaker and poet, is famed for repealing all the Draco’s laws, leaving just the homicide law
Did you know?
- The little that we know about the personal life of Draco is that he was an educated aristocrat who prior to the enactment of his law code was most likely a well-respected member of the Athenian upper class.
- According to the Greek polymath Aristotle, Draco played a crucial role in spelling out the eligibility criteria for members of the Council of Four Hundred and other senior ranking city positions.
- The Athenian lawmaker was also the one who began the lot-chosen Council of Four Hundred, a superior legislative assembly that dictated the business of Athens general assembly (Ecclesia).
- According to Aristotle, Draco’s law code emerged around 620 BCE after he was invited by his fellow aristocrats to put the diverse oral laws into writing. The Athenian Constitution, a book by Aristotle, contains the actual text of Draco’s laws.
- Such were the repressive nature of Draco’s legal code that later writers stated that the first written Athenian laws were written in blood and not ink.
- Another point worth mentioning is that Draco’s constitution empowered hoplites, the lower class of soldiers in Athens.
- The adjective draconian began appearing in the English language beginning around the 19th century. It came to be used to describe unforgiving and intolerable rules or laws.
- There are a number of variations to Draco’s name, including Drakon and Dracon.