Jack Straw is proposing to replace the 700-year-old House of Lords with an elected body. Fifth-century bc Athenians went through an equally dramatic constitutional change involving an age-old institution, but in their case, with real purpose, though not without bloodshed.
The Areopagus was so named from the rock (pagos) of Ares on the Acropolis with which it was associated. Like the Roman senate, it consisted of state officials (archons) whose period of office had expired. These posts were originally the fiefdom of ancient aristocratic families, and the Areopagus had considerable influence, legal and political, in early days. But slowly its make-up was changed.
The reformer Solon in the 6th century deprived the hereditary aristocracy of its grip on power. He opened up the major archonships to the wealthy instead, whatever their bloodline; and there were now nine of them, elected to serve for one year.
The crunch for the Areopagus came in 508 bc, when Cleisthenes invented democracy. He put ultimate decision-making into the hands of citizens meeting in Assembly; and created ten brand new elective posts, the strategoi, to take from the nine archons many of their responsibilities. But the Areopagus still maintained most of its judicial powers as the ‘guardian of the laws’, i.e. with ultimate veto.
The final blow came to it in 462 bc, when Ephialtes, a colleague of Pericles, created a new legal structure: people’s courts, of first instance, manned entirely by citizens. Since there was no Crown Prosecution Service or investigatory police force, i.e. no state body to initiate proceedings, all cases were brought by private citizens, and the jurors in the courts became the ultimate agents of the state, to ensure that justice was done. The Areopagus was left with responsibility only for cases of deliberate homicide, arson and sacrilege. Uproar ensued, and Ephialtes was murdered for his pains.
The point about the Areopagus is that it no longer had a function. The world’s first and last democracy was not going to have recourse to any institutions, however worthy, external to itself. Which raises the question: what is the function of the House of Lords? And how will it be improved by making it a clone of the Commons?
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.