Draco: Harsh Ancient Lawmaker of Athens

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The most ancient lawmaker in Ancient Greece was Draco, whose harsh laws have come down to later generations in the form of the adjective draconian.


Athens from its earliest days was controlled by aristocrats and the rich. They were not the only ones living there, however, and even for them the way that laws and punishments were carried out was inconsistent. Draco, an aristocrat himself, was tasked with making laws for Athens.

Various sources say that Draco lived in the 7th Century B.C. and that he introduced his laws in the last couple of decades of that century; some sources say that the laws came about in about 620 B.C.

Draco introduced not only a set of laws but also a constitution. It was the first written constitution of Athens; laws up to that point had been oral. He specified as well that so his laws would be known by everyone, he had them posted on wooden tablets called axones, that were put in public places.

Among the elements of the new constitution was the Council of Four Hundred, who were chosen by lot.

For most of Draco's laws, the punishment for breaking them was death. Murderers were put to death; so, too, however, were people who had killed someone else involuntarily, as in self-defense. (Modern laws make a distinction between voluntary and involuntary homicide.) Draco is said to have said that he had envisioned the death penalty for breaking his laws, even the so-called minor ones, but that he could envision no greater punishment for the so-called major offenses.

The laws favored members of the upper class, especially in regard to debts. A debtor of a social or economic class lower than his creditor could be forced into slavery.

Draco's pronouncements were the law of the land in Athens for a time, but Athenians eventually judged them too harsh and asked another man, Solon, to draft new laws, in 594 B.C.

The official text of Draco's laws no longer exists.

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