by Anna Kathryn Lanier
For the last two months, I have reposted blogs that from my own blog Chatting with Anna Kathryn. Both posts, as with this one, are from CURIOUS EVENTS IN HISTORY by Michael Powell, a little history book I came across several years ago. It contains information on more than three dozen historical events, including The Trial of the Pig, The Battle of the Bees, the Murderer from the Mayflower, and The Man Who Walked Around World. The book is on the smallish side, with only 140 or so pages and each topic is typically only two pages long, with short paragraphs (In other words, a quick, easy read).
One I read with interest was The Unfortunate Death of Draco.
According to the book and a few websites, ancient Athens didn’t have a written law book. Basically, the nobles, or “eupatrids…made all the legal decisions and were the enforcers of the law.” (Powell, page 11). But without a written record of the laws, they became arbitrary and inconsistent. In 621 B.C., the people were fed up with oral laws that changed at the whim of the person pronouncing them. So, Draco was drafted to codify the laws. Powell says, “He didn’t create the laws; he merely standardized them and then wrote them down.” About.com says, “Whether or not it was intentional, when Draco codified the laws, it brought to public attention Athens’ outrageous and archaic penalties.” Death was given for not only the most heinous crimes, but also lesser ones, including stealing food.
According to Plutarch in “Life of Solon”, “And Draco himself, they say, being asked why he made death the penalty for most offenses, replied that in his opinion the lesser ones deserved it, and for the greater ones no heavier penalty could be found.”
Dictionary.com says Draconian as a word came into use in the 1800’s and defines it as:
1) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Draco or his code of laws.
2) (often lowercase) rigorous; unusually severe or cruel: Draconian forms of punishments
Even with Draco being responsible for the written law, Powell says he was respected among the people. In 590 B.C., a testimonial was to be held in his honor. The custom at the time, to show respect, was to throw one’s cloak or hat at the honored person. However, there were so many people in attendance, that he was smothered by a pile of linen….literally. “By the time he was rescued from beneath the enormous pile of discarded garments,” Powell says, “Draco had suffocated to death.” (pg. 12)
So, I think I have to agree with Powell’s title for this story, Draco did suffer an Unfortunate Death…
What law have you heard about that could be classified as Draconian or let’s just say plain odd?
This post first appeared on Chatting with Anna Kathryn on July 31, 2009.