Language is a funny thing and no language is as funny, weird or baffling as English. Perhaps more than any other tongue, English has been influenced by almost every culture and language it has come into contact with. The purpose of this series is to highlight some of the more interesting instances where an event, cultural practice or person has entered the vocabulary of the modern English speaker.
On this occasion, the ‘word of the day’ is draconian, which is generally defined as relating to either ‘laws themselves or their application being excessively harsh or severe’. So where did the term draconian come from? When I first heard the term I thought it might have something to do with dragons or something. Admittedly, I was much younger at the time.
In reality, the term is derived from an individual by the name of Draco. Draco was the first recorded legislator of ancient Athens, appearing in the 7th Century BC. He was what is sometimes referred to as a ‘lawgiver’. The reason he was the first recorded Athenian lawgiver is because it was Draco who laid down the very first written constitution of Athens. He transitioned the judicial system away from oral laws and the practice of blood feuds to a codified system of laws that were enforced by a court. This was what is known by historians as the Draconian Constitution.
The term draconian in the sense that we now use it is derived from the fact that Draco’s laws were particularly harsh. The death penalty was used liberally, even for the most minor offences, such as stealing a piece of fruit. According to some historians, Athenians later claimed that the death penalty was the only punishment for those who broke Draco’s laws.
According to the ancient historian Plutarch, when Draco was asked why the most trivial of offences and the most serious of crimes should have the same punishment (execution), Draco apparently replied that he believed that those who committed minor offences deserved the death penalty and he had so far been unable to come up with anything better for those guilty of more serious crimes.
However, the Draconian Constitution was notable for several characteristics beyond its excessive harshness. For example, Draco is the first known lawgiver to make a distinction between murder and involuntary homicide, with the difference being the innovative legal concept of ‘intent’. Indeed, the so-called ‘homicide law’ was the only Draconian law that was not repealed in the 6th Century BC by possibly the greatest Athenian reformer of them all, Solon. Perhaps Draco’s most enduring influence on ancient Athens came in the form of the Council of Four Hundred, which was established in his constitution but is often incorrectly attributed to Solon. The Council, also known as the Boule, was chosen by lot and was responsible for setting the agenda for the Assembly (Ekklesia) of all Athenian citizens. By the 5th Century, the Council would become the predominant governmental body in the Athenian democracy.
So there you have it. The word draconian has nothing to do with dragons. Shame.