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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.
First thing’s first. What does ‘draconian’ actually mean? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘draconian’ as ‘laws themselves or their application being excessively harsh or severe.’
Now I’m sure that there are more than a few of you who thought the word must be somehow related to dragons. There’s no point in denying it.
Unfortunately for everyone, ‘draconian’ has less to do with dragons and more to do with an Ancient Greek individual by the name of Draco. Whose name means ‘dragon’. Sooo there is that.
Anyway, Draco hailed from the city-state of Athens, the birthplace of democracy. He was what is sometimes referred to as a ‘lawgiver’, that is, someone who is responsible for establishing substantial civic laws or reforms.
Other notable Greek lawgivers include his contemporary Solon of Athens and the semi-legendary Lycurgus of Sparta, the man supposedly responsible for establishing the famously militaristic Spartan social system.
Very little is known about Draco’s life. We don’t know when he was born or who his family was or even what he did for the majority of his life.
What is known is that Draco was the first recorded legislator in Athenian history and we know he is the first recorded legislator because it was Draco who laid down the very first written legal constitution of Athens.
Indeed, he first appears on the historic record in 622 or 621 BCE, when Draco established the legal code that is referred to by historians as the Draconian Constitution.
This revolutionary legal code transitioned the Athenian judicial system away from oral laws and the practice of blood feuds to a codified system of laws that were enforceable solely by a court of law.
So how then does someone who transformed the Athenian legal system become associated in modern English with laws that are excessively harsh or severe?
Well, the term draconian in the sense that we now use it is derived from the fact that Draco’s laws were indeed notably 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.
The ancient historian Plutarch recounts an encounter during which Draco explained the reason for his preference for capital punishment.
“And Draco himself, they say, being asked why he made the death penalty for most offences, replied that in his opinion the lesser ones deserved it and for the great ones no heavier penalty had yet been found.” – Plutarch, Life of Solon
However, despite its historic reputation for harshness, the Draconian Constitution was notable for one reform that is still an integral part of modern legal systems right down to the present day, 2600 years later.
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’.
This so-called Homicide Law has its legacy in many modern legal systems as the crimes of murder and manslaughter, with the former requiring what is known as ‘malice aforethought’, or the clear intention to kill.
However, perhaps Draco’s most enduring influence on Athenian democracy came in the form of the Council of Four Hundred, also known as the Boule, which was established in the Draconian Constitution but is often incorrectly attributed to Solon of Athens. This Council, chosen by lot, was responsible for setting the legislative agenda of the Assembly (or Ekklesia) of all Athenian citizens. By the 5th Century, the Boule was the predominant governmental body in Athenian democracy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the incredible harshness of Draco’s laws led to intense discontent and unrest within Athenian society. In fact, every single Draconian law was by repealed by Solon in 594 BCE, with the notable exception of the Homicide Law.
The so-called Solonian Constitution essentially reformed the Athenian legal code into a system of laws that remained substantially unchanged until the decline of Athenian democracy in the 3rd Century BCE. Not for nothing is Solon considered the greatest Athenian lawgiver of them all.
As for Draco, well, as far as historians and classicists can tell, at some point his fellow Athenians drove him into exile. He took refuge on the nearby island of Aegina, where he apparently remained until his death.
Interestingly, the significance of the Draconian Constitution, as the first written constitution of Athens, was actually unknown to historians. No contemporary sources described its revolutionary nature. Until, that is, the discovery of Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens in 1898, in which the great philosopher explicitly mentions the unprecedented nature of Draco’s legal code and highlights the man’s position as one of ancient Athens’ most important reformers. This increased awareness of Draco and his constitution precipitated the entry of the word Draconian into the English lexicon with its current definition of excessive harshness in a legal setting.
So there you have it. The word draconian has nothing to do with dragons, which was a great disappointment to me, and everything to do with a man who apparently thought execution was an appropriate punishment for stealing a cabbage. No wonder they gave him the boot.
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