5. Draco Was Applauded to Death
Draco the Lawgiver (flourished 7th century BC) was an Ancient Athenian legislator who reformed the city’s legal system with law codes and courts to enforce them, replacing traditional tribal oral laws and blood feuds. The Athenians, who had asked him to come up with a new set of laws, were shocked when he came up with an extremely harsh legal code that punished both serious offenses and trivial ones with death. The severity of his legal system gave birth to the term “draconian”, to refer to exceptionally harsh penalties.
We know little of Draco’s background, but he was most likely a member of an Athenian aristocratic family. In the 620s BC, he was asked by his fellow citizens to come up with a legal system to replace the private justice one prevailing at the time, in which rights were enforced by citizens and their relatives. That lent itself to bloody vendettas and chaos, and a law of the jungle in which only the strong and those with connections were protected, while the weak were preyed upon by the powerful.
Draco put Athens’ laws in writing and had them published, thus reducing the pitfalls of traditional oral laws that were known to only a select few, and were arbitrarily interpreted and applied. That was a huge step towards equality under the law, but the drawback was that Draco made the laws insanely severe, and highly favorable to creditors and the propertied classes. Defaulting debtors were liable to be sold into slavery, and those committing petty offenses, such as stealing a cabbage, were liable to the death penalty. When asked why he legislated death for most offenses, Draco replied that he considered the petty crimes worthy of death, and he could not think of a higher penalty for the greater offenses.
Whatever the poor and indebted might have thought, wealthy Greeks apparently liked Draco’s laws so much that they reportedly killed him with applause. Literally. Ancient Greeks showed their approval by throwing hats and items of clothing at an object of adoration, and during a visit to Aegina, its citizens showered him with so many hats and shirts and cloaks that he suffocated to death under the barrage. Whatever praise he might have earned in his lifetime, Draco’s laws were eventually viewed as intolerably harsh by Athenians. In 594 BC, they turned to another lawgiver, Solon, who repealed Draco’s laws and replaced them with new ones, retaining only his predecessor’s homicide statute.