The Draconian Lawgiver Who Was Killed By His Popularity

The word “draconian” is used to describe laws or methods considered particularly harsh and unforgiving. It is not the way any politician would seek to be described — particularly if seeking the approval of the masses.

Ironically, the man responsible for that word was exceedingly popular. So popular, in fact, that the adulation of his subjects resulted in his early departure from this life.

Draco lived during the 7th century BC in Athens. He served as a legislator. He was the first such person to be identified by name as holding that position.

Image of Draco, located in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Draco not only served as a legislator but was tasked with the singular honor and responsibility of creating a written constitution. The Athenian laws to that point existed primarily as oral tradition, leaving much to interpretation.

During the 39th Olympiad, in 622 or 621 BC, Draco presented his completed work. The new constitution and the laws governing Athenian society were finally in a form that could be read and understood. Just to make sure no one tried to claim the defense of ignorance of the law, the constitution was carved on wooden tablets fitted together in the shape of a four-sided pyramid. Copies of the constitution were displayed throughout Athens.

Although considered harsh by our standards, Draco’s laws were a distinct improvement. Much like Hammurabi’s Code, they replaced the old system of arbitrary application and interpretation by being widely known and available. It also provided a means to appeal any judgment considered unjust.

Draco distinguished between murder and involuntary homicide. This concept remains a central facet of the criminal justice system of almost every culture.

The penalties for violations of the law were unquestionably harsh. For this reason, “draconian” has earned its definition. The punishment for most offenses — even something such as the theft of a cabbage — was death.

According to Plutarch, “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.”

Despite his well-earned reputation for being harsh and unforgiving, Draco was immensely popular. He was adored a bit too much for his own good. According to legend, Draco’s supporters showed their affection for him in their customary manner by showering him with hats, shirts, and cloaks. The onslaught of gifts by his adoring public was so great that Draco suffocated under all of the weight.

In other words, the man whose name is forever remembered for severity was killed by kindness.

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