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The Harshest Lawgiver of Ancient Athens

Greece parthenon made by Greeks
The Parthenon of Athens. Credit: Barcex/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Ancient Athens is renowned to this day as the birthplace of democracy and cradle of philosophical debate, but few know the story of the city state’s harshest lawgiver.

Draco, also spelled Drako or Drakon, was Athens’ first recorded democratic legislator. Draco was called upon by his fellow Athenian citizens to establish a comprehensive legal code for the city.

Many Athenians were surprised by the harshness of the laws introduced by Draco and baulked at the Draconian constitution that bore his name. Nevertheless, the Draconian constitution introduced several important innovations, namely the transition from oral laws to written laws.

Who was Draco?

Draco was an Athenian aristocrat born sometime during the 7th century BC. Despite his importance to the city’s history, Draco’s biographical details remain incredibly sketchy and little is known about his life beyond the laws that he imposed.

Indeed, as the historian Chis Carey points out in an academic paper published in The Cambridge Classical Journal, “Already for Greeks of the Classical period, Drakon was a shadowy figure. We get no patronymic, no biography; he simply emerges fully formed as a legislator.”

“He may be wholly or in part a fiction,” Carey continues. Crucially, however, Carey sees no reason to dispute the dates given by the ancient Athenians for the introduction of Draco’s laws between 624 and 620 BC.

So, whether or not Draco was a real individual, or perhaps a mythologized stand-in for a specific Athenian lawgiver or collective of legislators, the Draconian institution itself was introduced in the 7th century BC as recorded by the Athenians in the view of modern historians.

Draco’s new Athenian laws

Draco’s most important contribution as a legislator was the introduction of Athens’ first written constitution, the so-called “Draconian Constitution”.

This was an important legislative and legal innovation because the laws had previously been recorded orally. This meant that there was far too much room to arbitrarily interpret or apply the laws. A written system meant that the law was much fairer and more universally interpreted.

So that everyone would be made aware of the new laws – or at the very least, those who were literate – the laws were made visible in the city on wooden tablets called axones. These were presented on rotatable four-sided pyramids called kyrbeis.

One of Draco’s chief aims as a legislator was to bring an end to the blood feuds plaguing the city. He introduced laws that differentiated between homicides and accidental killings and specified punishments for each crime. The translations below provide some perspective:

  • “He who kills another Athenian, without a purpose or by accident, should be banished from Athens forever. If the killer apologizes to the family of the murdered man and the family accepts the apology, then the murderer may stay in Athens.”
  • “A relative of a murder victim, can hunt and take into custody the murderer and thus hand him to the authorities where he will be judged. If a relative kills the murderer he will not be allowed to enter the Athenian Forum (agora), or participate in competitions or set foot into sacred places…”

Athens’ harshest lawgiver?

As a lawgiver Draco was innovative and his changes made the legal system in Athens clearer and more consistent. However, his laws were also deemed to be excessively harsh and were subsequently repealed by Solon in the early 6th century BC.

Severe punishments were often dealt out for relatively minor crimes. For example, a thief might be sentenced to death for stealing a cabbage.

The lawgiver and his code also attracted infamy for its bias in favor of the elite over commoners in Athens. For instance, a debtor unable to honor his debts to a higher-class creditor could be sold into slavery, whereas punishments for higher-status individuals indebted to lower-status creditors were more lenient.

The English word “draconian”, meaning “excessively harsh” or “very severe” is derived from the Draconian Constitution, which is remembered for its severity.

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