Draconian — something very harsh or cruel. I’ve always thought this word was a comparison to dragons, because they are thought to be such vicious creatures. Turns out, there actually was a person named Draco. He is the first political figure identified by name in the history of Athens, Greece.
Draco must have been a trusted leader. He was elected by the citizens around 620 B.C.E. with the explicit goal of reforming their legal code. Previously, Athens operated on the basis of oral tradition and the Greek religion. These customs were subject to personal interpretation, and when citizens sought justice the results could vary widely.
Draco made a great contribution to establishing consistent laws that were written down and displayed in public. Every citizen who could read was able to see these laws and know what to expect. Draco also established a council of judges to administer the laws. This meant that justice was more consistent for all citizens.
Only thing was, the penalties Draco set down were pretty harsh. Like his predecessors, Draco was an individual who made his own interpretation. His interpretation was that there were no minor crimes. Draco seemed to believe that having severe penalties for the little things would stop people from committing more serious crimes. Yes, even in the 7th Century B.C.E, politicians were vowing to “get tough on crime.”
Thus, under Draco’s rule, people could be executed for things like stealing a cabbage. If you couldn’t pay your debts, you would be enslaved. He did make the important distinction between murder and manslaughter; murderers were executed, while those who accidentally killed someone were merely exiled.
Soon, the Athenian citizens got buyer’s remorse. Draco himself was exiled to the island of Aegina and died there around 600 B.C.E. The Athenian code of justice was later reformed with softer penalties. However, the committee of judges and some other parts of Draco’s constitution remained a foundational part of Athenian democracy.