A carving of Draco in the US Supreme Court Library

The brutal Draconian laws of ancient Greece

(Read the article on one page)

Athens is perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of democracy. One of the cornerstones for the establishment of Athenian democracy was the introduction of a written law code that could only be enforced by a court. The institution of such a law code eliminated the (often unjust) interpretation of oral laws which were once the prerogative of the Athenian aristocrats. The man who was responsible for providing Athens with a written law code was a man known as Draco. As one may already suspect from the common usage of the term ‘draconian’, which is synonymous with severity, Draco’s laws were brutal.

Draco lived in Athens during the 7 th century B.C. During this period, oral laws were used, and were under the control of the aristocratic class. This meant that the legal system was unfair, and could easily be exploited by the aristocratic class for their own benefit. It is said that Draco established his code of laws in 622/1 B.C. Apart from this, very little is known about Draco himself. According to folklore, Draco’s death was caused by his popularity. According to the story, whilst Draco was at the Aeginetan theatre, his supporters decided to show their approval in the traditional Greek manner, i.e. by throwing their hats, shirts and cloaks on his head. Such a great amount of these garments were thrown on him, however, that Draco suffocated and died.

Prior to Draco, laws were given orally

Prior to Draco, laws were given orally ( ancientcivilisations77)

Returning to Draco’s laws, they were first written on wooden tablets. This meant that all who were literate would be able to know the contents of his laws. According to Aristotle, one of the few ancient sources we have for Draco, the laws were written in human blood, not ink. Although a literal reading may be applied, a metaphorical interpretation would be equally valid. Plutarch, another ancient source for Draco, in his Life of Solon , claims that the penalty for the theft of an apple or a cabbage was death, and you could have someone made your personal slave if they owed you money. The writer also records that when Draco was asked the reason for making execution the punishment for most offences, the reply was that ‘Small ones deserve that (i.e. death), and I have no higher for the greater crimes.’ With so much human blood shed is the dispensation of justice, it is no wonder that Draco’s laws were said to be written in blood.

Apart from the wooden tablets, which were said to have lasted for 200 years, Draco’s laws were also chiselled onto stone tablets. Whilst stone is definitely a more durable material than wood, its inscriptions may be lost through weathering after being exposed to the elements over the centuries. Thus, the original content of Draco’s laws are lost to us, and only preserved by Aristotle. A relatively new technology, however, may be able to reveal the hidden texts on stone stelae. This is the X-ray fluorescence imaging that was developed by researchers at Cornell University. This process relies on detecting traces of pigments which were used to paint the letters when they were chiselled. As these pigments usually contained metal oxides and sulphides, an image of the letters may be produced. Thus, there is hope that Draco’s original laws may one day be available to us.

Ancient Greek law code

Ancient Greek law code, 5 th century BC, Crete. ( Wikipedia)

Despite the fact that Draco’s laws granted equality before the law to all citizens of Athens regardless of heritage, social class, or wealth, it is undeniable that the penalties they imposed were brutal and severe. Less than half a century later, all of Draco’s laws, with the exception of the homicide law, were repealed and replaced by the new laws provided by the ‘Father of Modern Western Law’, Solon of Athens. Nevertheless, it was Draco who first paved the way for equality before the law and democracy in Athens, and thus ought to be remembered for that.

Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens

Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens ( Wikimedia)

Featured image: A carving of Draco in the US Supreme Court Library. Photo source: Wikipedia.


Britt, R. R., 2005. Original Draconian Laws may be Revealed by New Machine. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livescience.com/357-original-draconian-laws-revealed-machine.html

classics.mit.edu, 2009. Solon, by Plutarch. [Online]
Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/solon.html

Gill, N. S., 2014. Draco Gave Laws to Athens. [Online]
Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/greecehellas1/a/cylonanddraco_3.htm

Theodoros II, 2014. Written in Human Blood: Draconian Laws and the Dawn of Democracy. [Online]
Available at: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/draconian-laws-written-human-blood-rather-ink/

Wikipedia, 2014. Draco (Lawgiver). [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draco_(lawgiver)


Ancient law and there tactics to judge the crime was really different. It is the best I have read till now. About certain factors the law of Greece at that era of time is remarkable. As laws were given orally and many associated records were written on wooden table. Nowadays its totally a different phase of life and law. Many professional lawyers profile like http://www.yelp.com/biz/tarabay-bechara-paris have there own positive considerations and the judiciary of services. Century changes and so the lawyers but laws are always the same.

DeAegean's picture

There had to have been a HUGE amount of garments to kill this guy..

I guarantee you that the jews got the idea for moses and the law, stone tablets and all from this guy. being that the jewish law was written 100 years or more later.

I don't think the jews have one original idea in their entire book. The more you look the more you see that they took others ideas and made like they were their own.

Information rich and thought provoking article thank you very much.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The Waitomo Glowworm Cave, New Zealand
The Waitomo Glowworm Cave is a magnificent subterranean cave system in Waitomo, New Zealand, which as its name suggests, is renowned for its glowworm population. The glowworms, sometimes referred to as fireflies, belong to a species unique to New Zealand and are not found anywhere else in the world.

Human Origins

Silhouettes (Public Domain) in front of blood cells (Public Domain) and a gene.
Most people who have the Rh blood type are Rh-positive. There are also instances, however, where people are Rh-Negative. Health problems may occur for the unborn child of a mother with Rh-Negative blood when the baby is Rh-Positive.

Ancient Technology

Roman glass (not the legendary flexible glass). Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart.
Imagine a glass you can bend and then watch it return to its original form. A glass that you drop but it doesn’t break. Stories say that an ancient Roman glassmaker had the technology to create a flexible glass, ‘vitrium flexile’, but a certain emperor decided the invention should not be.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article