Myths / Mythologies / Legends

Hail, hail, Draconia

archived 11-05-99
Archive file# m110599b
donated by L. Savage

Hail, hail, Draconia

Dear Word Detective: Where was Draconia, that place where that authoritarian came from?

Ah, yes, Hail Draconia, Land of Enforcement. How we miss her dank dungeons, her kangaroo courts, her dainty thumbscrews and her sturdy truncheons. And they didn't put up with any of that wimpy due process hoopla in Draconia, bucko, though you were always welcome to consult your lawyer. You could usually find him in the cell next door.

Just kidding, sort of. There never was a specific place called Draconia, though a good argument could be made that there's a little bit of Draconia in every human society. As an adjective, "draconian" means "excessively rigorous, harsh and cruel," and is almost always used in reference to a regime or set of laws or punishments. Naturally, one society's or historical period's "draconian punishment" is often another's "simple justice," and your cultural mileage may vary.

Blinding or maiming a person convicted of theft, for example, is considered a "draconian" punishment in most, but not all, parts of the world. Capital punishment, current public enthusiasm notwithstanding, is considered "draconian" in most advanced nations except the U.S. and Japan.

Onward. While there never was a Draconia, there was most certainly a Draco, and that's where we got the adjective "draconian." Draco, whose name, appropriately, means "dragon" in Greek, was a lawmaker in Ancient Athens in a time of popular unrest. The Athenians were at the point of revolt over unequal treatment under the current system of laws, so Draco instituted a new set of laws guaranteed to shut folks up. Under the new Draconic code of 621 B.C., almost everything, from murder to cursing in public, was punishable by death. Questioned about the wisdom of such a one-size-fits-all approach to justice, Draco is said to have declared, "Small crimes deserve death, and for great crimes I know of no penalty severer."

Unfortunately, the term "draconian" was not retired with Draco's laws, and has gone on to enjoy an uninterrupted applicability to instances of cruel "justice" throughout human history up to today. One does not ordinarily wish that words would become obsolete, but in the case of "draconian," I think most people would make an exception.

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