CLIO 7 (1) - page 52

This carving from a frieze in the Supreme Court
in America depicts Draco, a man infamous for
ascribing strict sanctions to minor crimes. His
presence within the centre of justice in one of
the most powerful countries in the world to-
day, widely regarded as 'the pinnacle of freedom
and equality', is both intriguing and disquieting. Is
America trying to send a message about extreme
means of punishment? Or is there something else
going on?
Researching recent newspaper articles that use the
word ‘Draconian’ finds references to ‘draconian
surveillance laws’, ‘draconian legislation on exces-
sive force’ and even ‘draconian uniform rules’. With
the epithet so often bandied about in modern day
journalism and political commentary, we seem fair-
ly confident in its meaning – it refers to something
‘excessively harsh or severe’, especially in terms of
politics or legislature. One could argue this is fitting;
the word is surrounded by connotations of malevo-
lence and inhumanity. Such connotations have even
been utilised by many writers, including JK Rowling,
when giving name to one of her principal antag-
onists: Draco Malfoy. However the origins of the
word are not, in fact, steeped in as much negativity
as they are today – to trace its etymology entails
journeying back to Ancient Athens, the birthplace
of democracy.
The word refers to a significant figure of
Ancient Athenian History; living in around 650 BC,
Draco was a Greek nobleman, elected by his fellow
Athenians to become the first legislator of their
city-state. He was tasked with replacing the primi-
tive political system of blood feud and oral law with
a written legislation, thereby imposing order upon
what had been a chaotic free-for-all. Most of what
little we know of him is passed down through the
writings of Aristotle and Plutarch, but what seems
clear is that his constitution, set out on wooden
tablets, implemented legal governance over Ath-
ens pertaining to not just crime, but also systems
of government, money lending and debt. The laws
he devised, however, were particularly strict, to the
extent that some Athenian civilians were startled by
their severity- as well as deciding that any debtor
unable to repay a creditor superior in status should
be made into a slave, he advocated death as a just
punishment for minor crimes; this harsh penalty
even extended to the theft of a cabbage! Plutarch
reports that when asked why he had ascribed such
“There are laws of Draco... and
there is nothing peculiar in his laws
that is worthy of mention, except
their severity in imposing heavy
punishment.” - Aristotle, Politics
T h e S t o r y B e h i n d a P i c t u r e
1...,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51 53,54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61,62,...64
Powered by FlippingBook