A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

Smith, William

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. William Smith, LLD, ed. 1890

(Δράκων), the author of the first written code of laws at Athens, which were called Δεσμοί, as distinguished from the νόμοί of Solon. (Andoc. de Myst. p. 11; Ael. VH 8.10; Perizon. ad loc.; Menag. ad Diog. Laert. 1.53.) In this code he affixed the penalty of death to almost all crimes--to petty thefts, for instance, as well as to sacrilege and murder--which gave occasion to the remarks of Herodicus and Demades, that his laws were not those of a man, but of a dragon (δράκων), and that they were written not in ink, but in blood. We are told that he himself defended this extreme harshness by saying that small offences deserved death, and that he knew no severer punishment for great ones. (Aristot. Rh. 2.23.29; Plut. Sol. 17; Gel. 11.18 ; Fabric. Bibl. Graec. vol. ii. p. 23, and the authorities there referred to.) Aristotle, if indeed the chapter be genuine (Pol. ii. ad fin.; Göttling, ad loc.) says, that Dracon did not change the constitution of Athens, and that the only remarkable characteristic of his laws was their severity. Yet we know from Aeschines (c. Timarch. §§ 6, 7) that he provided in them for the education of the citizens from their earliest years; and, according to Pollux (8.125) he made the Ephetae a court of appeal from the ἄρχων βασιλεύς in cases of unintentional homicide. On this latter point Richter (ad Fabric. l.c.), Schömann, and C. F. Hermann (Pol. Ant. § 103) are of opinion that Dracon established the Ephetae, taking away the cognizance of homicide entirely from the Areiopagus; while Müller thinks (Eumen. §§ 65, 66), with more probability, that the two courts were united until the legislation of Solon. From this period (B. C. 594) most of the laws of Dracon fell into disuse (Gell. l.c.; Plut. Sol. l.c.); but Andocides tells us (l.c.), that some of them were still in force at the end of the Peloponnesian war; and we know that there remained unrepealed, not only the law which inflicted death for murder, and which of course was not peculiar to Dracon's code, but that too which permitted the injured husband to slay the adulterer, if taken in the act. (Lys. de Caed. Erat. p. 94; Paus. 9.36; Xenarch. apud Athen. xiii. p. 569d.) Demosthenes also says (c. Timocr. p. 765) that, in his time, Dracon and Solon were justly held in honour for their good laws; and Pausanias and Suidas mention an enactment of the former legislator adopted by the Thasians, providing that any inanimate thing which had caused the loss of human life should be cast out of the country. (Paus. 6.11; Suid. s. v. Νίκων.) From Suidas we learn that Dracon died at Aegina, being smothered by the number of hats and cloaks showered upon him as a popular mark of honour in the theatre. (Suid. s. vv. Δράκων, περιαγειρόμενοι; Kuster, ad Suid. s. v. Ἀκρόδρυα.) His legislation is referred by general testimony to the 39th Olympiad, in the fourth year of which (B. C. 621) Clinton is disposed to place it, so as to bring Eusebius into exact agreement with the other authorities on the subject. Of the immediate occasion which led to these laws we have no account. C. F. Hermann (l.c.) and Thirlwall (Greece, vol. ii. p. 18) are of opinion, that the people demanded a written code to replace the mere customary law, of which the Eupatridae were the sole expounders; and that the latter unable to resist the demand, gladly sanctione the rigorous enactments of Dracon as adapted to check the democratic movement which had given rise to them. This theory certainly gets rid of what Thirlwall considers the difficulty of conceiving how the legislator could so confound the gradations of moral guilt, and how also (as we may add) he could fall into the error of making moral guilt the sole rule of punishment, as his own defence of his laws above mentioned might lead us to suppose he did. Yet the former of these errors is but the distortion of an important truth (Aristot. Eth. Nic. 6.13.6); while the latter has actually been held in modern times, and was more natural in the age of Dracon, especially if, with Wachsmuth, we suppose him to have regarded his laws in a religious aspect as instruments for appeasing the anger of the gods. And neither of these errors, after all, is more strange than his not foreseeing that the severity of his enactments would defeat its own end, and would surely lead (as was the case till recently in England) to impunity.