Draco and Draconian Law

Although the exact legislation Draco (Drāco or Drăkōn) codified in Athens, Greece, is no longer known, legend states the laws were rigid and excessively harsh even for offenses as menial as idleness.

Due to riots in Athens, the Alcmaeonidae (aristocratic rulers) decided that all laws that had been orally passed should be written in a plainly stated form so that a poor man could avoid breaking them. Until this time, blood feuds and oral laws which could be made up at any time were used across Athens and punishment was often carried out via vendettas. Only the upper classes were made aware of the laws.

Draco was a legislator in Athens who was authorized by the Alcmaeonidae to write the law codes around 621 B.C. It marked the first time the laws in Athens were set down in writing and they were lauded for their impartiality.

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Although impartial, according to Aristotle, the newly-recorded laws were so harsh they were written in blood instead of ink. Under Draco's codes, even the most trivial of criminal offenses (i.e. stealing an apple) were penalized by death.

“It is said that Draco himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offenses, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones,” Plutarch wrote in the Life of Solon.

Draco's new code also decreed that only the state could carry out punishment making vendettas illegal.

The newly-recorded laws were inscribed on wooden tablets known as axones.

Draco's Life and Legend

Although some of Draco's life was recorded by Plutarch, Aristotle is the primary source of the surviving information regarding Draco. For the most part, little is known of his life apart from the fact that the codes he wrote comprised Athens' first constitution.

So legendary were these codes that the phrase “Draconian laws” is still used today to describe rigid, severe, harsh, cruel and/or inhumane laws.

Many modern scholars dispute much of what Aristotle wrote regarding Draco and his new legal code attributing some of it to later legislators.

Athenian Laws Repealed

Following a war with the city of Megara, the aristocratic rulers were banished from Athens. Another legislator named Solon was authorized to re-write the laws of Athens to relieve the misery of the lower classes.

Between approximately 594 to 614 B.C., the archon or magistrate began repealing the unnecessarily harsh penalties Draco had decreed for trivial crimes. Although he drastically reformed the legal system, Solon retained the death penalty as the punishment for homicide.

Solon also freed Athenians who had been enslaved due to debt and returned their land. Although the changes were unpopular, Solon also reformed the monetary system, weights and measures.

Copyright Graham Fullers 2009 All Rights Reserved