Thursday, June 7, 2012


I think we hear this word pretty often, especially these days, with budget cuts and layoffs still very much part of our general economic picture. "Draconian measures" is the usual phrase. It tends to mean very harsh and even drastic measures. But what is draconian exactly?
Let's put it in the form of a quiz.
Is draconian

a.) related to dragons

b.) named after one of the many emperors of Ancient Rome?

c.) having something to do with the historical as opposed to the legendary Count Dracula

d.) all of the above

e.) none of the above?

Bear in mind that I'm writing the quiz without knowing the answer.


Shoot. The answer is e. None of the above. (Well, there might be just a slight tinge of a.) I thought I had covered all my bases, but in fact, it originates in ancient Greece with one Draco, the first legislator of Athens.  By this, it's meant that he was the  one who was "tasked" (as the jargon goes now) with writing down the laws of Athens. Prior to this time, Greece was in a period of vendetta and blood feud, which seems to be what happens when more legalistic systems don't hold sway.

Since no remnant of this written law exists now, a lot of this must be taken with a grain of salt, I think. For one thing, though he has the reputation of being the first lawgiver, it seems that there were some earlier attempts. One theory is that this Draconian attempt may have been in response to a crisis. Which, of course, usually how these shoring up efforts do happen.

The other thing is that we really know Draco largely through hindsight and as a contrasting figure to the later democratizing lawgiver, Solon. In this light, Draco's laws certainly seem Draconian. "Off with their heads!" seemed to be the general theme. Plutarch writes:

It is said that Drakon himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offences, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones.

But I do wonder why all the things I read about this seem so confident about this story. There is very little documented evidence, but there is a tradition that Draco wrote the laws, and then Solon revised them to be more humane. Scrapped them, really, apparently keeping only the one about homicide. Apparently, Draconian law introduced a distinction between intentional and unintentional homicide. Unintentional equaled exile. Intentional equaled death. It seems that so did stealing a head of cabbage.

I do wonder if Draco is getting a bad rap here. According to no less a light than Aristotle, Draco only wrote down a pre-existing oral law. So, in the same way that Homer is homeric, Draco is draconian.

"Draco" means "sharp sighted". But it also has a connection to dragon. The Greek draconem means "huge serpent, monster". It connects back to derkesthai. Uncharacteristically, the Online Etymology Dictionary guesses: "Perhaps the lit. sense is "the one with the (deadly) glance."  

I don't know what Solon meant in his own time, but now the name means "the wise one". The one with the deadly glance vs. the wise one. It's all just a little too convenient.

There is not all that much known about Draco, but one tale has stayed with us. He went to the island of Aegina, which was then or subsequently a great rival of Athens. In a customary show of approval, his supporters threw so many cloaks and hats on his head that he suffocated. They literally "killed him with kindness."

Or maybe literarily would be more apt.


  1. This seems like the perfect death for Draco. And, perhaps, the perfect crime.

  2. Yes. It's bit puzzling that the legend also has it that they buried him in the same theatre where he had died.

  3. Solons was once newspaper slang for politicians, but the term has passed out of use. Thus, in a measure that is sometimes annoying but that I cannot honestly call draconian, we are no longer allowed to use it in headlines.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. It's not a term I'm familiar with. It's interesting how things pass out of common knowledge.

  5. It was a kind of Damon Runyonish expression useful when one had to write headlines in confined spaces:

    nix tax

    I'm not sure the expression had much life outside headlines.

  6. Ah. I suppose they use pols or something like that now.

  7. They? You mean "we," and yes, we, will now use the first word that comes to mind and that comes close to fitting.

  8. I did notice that "they" was problematic, but "you" sounds a little too narrow, and for me to say "we" would be inaccurate.

  9. One day, perhaps I will join you in being part of they.

  10. wow....another good piece of detective work..i kinda had an inkling that dracula and dragons werent the exact origin but never realised a real life draco going to have to look into this further..
    another insightful post!

  11. Thanks, Dan. And actually, Dracula and dragons are somewhat related. This is a quote from The Straight Dope, which puts it about as succinctly as it can be put.

    In the Roman antiquity, the dragon, a fantastic animal,was dedicated to Minerva Goddess, meaning the idea that reason and wisdom never fall asleep.In the Christian world the dragon was used to personify the spirit of evil and the force of the demon. The knights of the Middle Ages adopted it as a symbol of different obstacles that had to be overcome or as a sign of power. It is this ancient symbol of the Order of Dragon from which the name of " Dracul " is supposed to be assigned to Vlad I, as a nickname, the origin of which is a Europen noble rank and that became a name itself later. The name Dracula, given to the son of Vlad I, derives, according to the tradition the Romanian names are being formed, from his name Dracul, to which was added the inflexion " a ", which proves the fact that Dracula is Dracul's son.

    So all these words do have some sort of shadowy connection to "dragon", which I like.

    I've been waiting form someone to show up and make the connection to Draco Malfoy for us,but the Harry Potter fans are hanging back a bit, I guess. I haven't read the books, and I only came across him by accident. ing Th