Ancient Greek History

Draco – Purveyor of Cruel and Unusual Punishment

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The LawPerhaps you’ve heard someone’s actions referred to as “draconian.” Or maybe you’re just familiar with the character Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling. Either way, both references have a rather negative connotation. That is because Draco was the name of the first legislator of Ancient Athens. It was Draco (sometimes spelled Dracon or Drako) who introduced a written code of law to replace the system of oral law that was the governing system of the 7th century. While this may not sound like a bad thing, Draco earned a horrible reputation as violations of his laws were subject to deliberately harsh consequences.

Introduction of Written Law

The events of 632 BC in which Cylon tried to overthrow the government and take control of Athens shed a light on an ongoing issue in the developing city. While his code of law wasn’t the first in Athens, there was little enforcement of the legal codes in the city. The archons (magistrates) were elected years earlier in 683 BC to record laws. It was these very magistrates who stopped Cylon’s attempt at tyranny in the city. However, even with the governing power of the archons, most of the laws were passed orally without written representation, which left many things up to interpretation.

In 621 BC, just over a decade after Cylon’s actions, Draco overhauled the system of oral law (and the writings of the archons) by implementing a written code of law that acted as the first constitution of Athens. With a written code of law in place, infractions against the law could be handled in a court of law rather than by person referencing oral tradition. Having a written point of reference created an equal rule among the citizens as all literate Athenians had access to and could follow the policies set forth by Draco’s code. Previously, only those in the higher classes had knowledge of the oral laws and traditions and could easily apply and interpret them as needed.

Innovations of Law and Punishment

Before Draco’s laws came into play, there was a general consensus in Athens that your own family was responsible for upholding the law, and should you be wronged, it was up to you and your family to bring the perpetrator to justice. By instating a written code of law, Draco shifted the responsibility of justice from the people to the state. Additionally, Draco’s laws were the first to make a clear distinction between murder, and an involuntary homicide where death at the hands of another person happened by accident.

While Draco’s advancements in law seemed like a good thing for the people of Athens, his laws were particularly harsh. The death penalty was the punishment for numerous offenses, including many minor ones such as theft or fraud. Other consequences of law breaking included being sentenced to slavery for defaulting on a debt from a creditor.

Although viewed as harsh punishments, Draco may have had reason for creating such harsh offenses. With the high-class aristocrats in charge of the oral law of the city, it was difficult to create laws that would be spread equally among the people. Establishing extreme punishments for breaking the laws may have been a fear tactic Draco used to help get everyone on board (especially the aristocrats who previously held control over the laws).

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