Draconian bankruptcy laws

Thomas G. Donlan has an interesting opinion piece in Barron’s this week about how the opponents (and sometimes) the supporters of the federal budget cuts being debated in Congress this month are referring to the budget slashing as draconian measures.

Which begs the question, where does this talk of draconian measures really come from?

Or, as Donlan puts it, “What did Draco, an Athenian politician of the 7th century B.C., do that was so terrible that his name still lives in calumny 27 centuries years later?”

Draco, it turns out, is not just a Harry Potter character, but was an ancient Greek magistrate who published the first known code of laws in Athens. He earned his fearsome reputation for having his laws impose the death penalty for petty crimes as well as serious ones.

So, as Aristotle noted, under Draco’s code, stealing a cabbage was punishable by death — and that the more serious crimes should also get the ultimate penalty. Draco himself was aware that his new laws were a little out of kilter — he said if he’d been able to think up a worse penalty, he’d have applied it to worse crimes. And so his legend for excessive punishments endures.

It turns out that Draco also had a provision for bankruptcy. Poor debtors from the lower castes were dealt with by selling them into slavery. Debtors from the upper castes of Greek society were merely humiliated in public.

Modern readers may recoil in horror at laws like these, or unwittingly think them stupid. But I think that would be missing the point; Draco lived nearly 3000 years ago, at the dawn of western civilization so far as we know. His code, ham-handed as it was, was really one of the first known attempts to get people to live under a system of written laws at all. That it took a while to get it right (and we are still trying) should not be unduly held against him.

As Donlan notes: A later magistrate, “named Solon, made a kinder and gentler revision of Draco’s laws. In addition to ending the death penalty for all crimes except murder, Solon cancelled debts and redistributed some land belonging to the rich. Not surprisingly, he was more popular than Draco. Americans sometimes refer to honored lawmakers as “solons,” although the term has gone out of common use along with the loss of honor and respect that used to be due to legislators.”

Photo: the constellation Draco, usually depicted as a dragon.


By Doug Beaton

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