Of Draco, “Draconian”, Irony, and Legal Reform

Today in a seminar someone said in passing that a company’s policies “were draconian”. It triggered a thought in my mind that the origins of the word had to do with Draco and his legal code, and I decided it would be interesting to excavate this legal history  esoterica a little further.

The definition of draconian is  “of, relating to, or characteristic of Draco or the severe code of laws held to have been framed by him”; also “cruel” or “severe” (see definition). But who was Draco, and what did he do that he has lent his name to this adjective?

Draco was an ‘archon’ or magistrate in Athens, Greece, who was tasked with compiling and revising Athenian law, to replace the systems of ‘oral law’ (law that wasn’t codified or written) and ‘blood feud’ or ‘vendetta’ law, with a written code of law enforceable by courts. He performed this task around 620-621 B.C, according to Aristotle, and was noted for his impartiality in so doing. The laws were apparently posted on a pivoting three-sided pyramid of wooden tablets. The laws were quite simple to understand, however, as almost all infractions were punished by the same sentence: death. Plutarch recounted that when asked about his liberal use of capital punishment, even for minor offenses, Draco stated that “he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones.”  (Life of Solon). Even non-capital offenses were treated harshly: for example, debtors of the lower class in society could be sold into slavery. His laws were repealed in their near-entirety (with the exception of his law on homicide) by his successor, Solon, in 594 BC . An ironic and dubious historical legacy for someone who had set out to be a legal reformer–even more so because he might have succeeded: his code was seen by some contemporaries as much less arbitrary than the oral law it had replaced.



Of Draco, “Draconian”, Irony, and Legal Reform — 9 Comments

  1. Hi– I knew about the origins of the word ‘draconian’, but have never realized that Draco was actually a bit of a legal reformer! Ironic, as you say. thanks, J.M.

  2. hi there– I’ve read several good postings on your website already– certainly worth bookmarking for revisiting. You clearly put a lot of effort into your blogs!

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