Ancient and modern

The Magna Carta was hopelessly behind the times

The Greeks and Romans got there first, obviously

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

Important as the Magna Carta (ad 1215) has been as a founding myth for everything we hold dear about law and liberty, it was already hopelessly behind the times. Greeks and Romans had got there long before.

Our political system derives from monarchs advised by a private council: first, the Anglo-Saxon ‘Witan’, and from 1066 the Norman curia regis, ‘king’s court’, the origin of parliament in the 13th century. The Athenians had established, 1,700 years earlier, the principle that all law be made, and all office held in rotation, by private citizens (the demos), when they developed the world’s first and last democracy, with its ‘equality of speech’ (isêgoria) and equality before the law (isonomia). Greek passion for independence and contempt for monarchy are well exemplified by the advice which (according to Herodotus) the Spartan Demaratus offered the Persian king Xerxes during his invasion of Greece in 481 bc: ‘It is thanks to the power of the law that Greeks have protected themselves against despotism… so they are free but not in all respects: their despot is the law. They stand in secret awe of that far more than they do of you.’ Aristotle (4th century bc) theorised at length about different types of constitution, distinguishing the monarchos from the turannos by the extent to which they allowed citizens to be free agents and acted out of self-interest.

When kings ruled Rome (traditionally from 753–509 bc), they were advised by a council of elders, who transmuted into the senate when Rome threw out the kings and became a republic. Within 50 years the common people had their own assembly and a right to veto senate business, and a law code had been established dealing with community and individual relationships. In his On Laws (1st century bc), the statesman Cicero asserted the principle that the state, though invested with authority, should understand the limits of its power, and the citizens the extent of their obligations to obey it.

In the UK in 1918, all males (and females) finally got the vote. Inch by painful inch, we are getting there.

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  • Blindsideflanker

    Typical self loathing c… Something good about our country has to be denigrated as usual.

    Peter Jones assertion that Magna Carta was behind the times is only relevant if you establish a connection to what was going on in ancient Greece or Rome and the rights we have today. They might have had some flowering of democracy and rights but it is irrelevant to our civilisation if it didn’t develop beyond their society and died out with them, which cannot be said for the effects of the Magna Carta for it is far from dead, and can be found in the foundation of other nations laws and constitutions.

    • Jane Martinsford

      Very well said.

      • IainRMuir


        I’m not an expert but I understand that some of its core principles were incorporated into the United States Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Why?

  • Joe

    Modern Democracy has little to do with ancient Greece, let alone Rome.
    It is rooted in 18th century Enlightenment, Liberalism and Science and, yes, the ideals of the Magna Carta.
    Peter Jones got up this morning and decided to give us a glimpse of his intellectual creativity. I thank him but ask not to make me puke before lunch again.

  • edlancey

    Scrambled Egghead.

    “Inch by painful inch, we are getting there.” – We’re handing power over to Brussels. We’re going backwards, not forwards, you smug, dumb fool.

    • GeeBee36_6

      Well said. ‘Democracy’ – the sham we live by – by no means regards the people as sovereign. The high hopes that it would deliver fairness and equality under the rule of law, to say nothing of freedom from tyranny, is but a distant memory. Our modern, repulsive breed of self-serving professional politician has assisted the triumph of Frankfurt School Cultural Marxist Progressivism; or in other words, in the world they have constructed without our permission, ‘the people’ can either like it, or expect a visit from plod if they so much as squeak against the rigidly enforced lunatic orthodoxy, imposed upon them by diktat.

      No-one I know wanted, much less was given the opportunity to vote for, what modern Britain has become. What price your ‘democracy’ now Mr smarty-pants Jones?

    • Ged Byrne

      We’re also rolling back the power of government to protect citizens from tyranny from the crown and other corporations… although Magna Carta (means THE Big Charter) didn’t give any rights to any but the free men of the day.. which was the richest land owners, barons and so on.

      Perhaps there’s not too much change after all..

  • Ed  

    In denigrating Magna Carta, you mention:

    – Ancient Greek rule of law
    – the Roman Senate
    – the Anglo Saxon Witan
    – dear old Magna Carta herself

    What do these things all have in common? They limit the power of the state.

    No wonder so many “progressives” hate them…….

  • grutchyngfysch

    “In the UK in 1918, all males (and females) finally got the vote. Inch by painful inch, we are getting there.”

    Where? Rome, Athens? Those bastions of universal emancipation where only freemen with a certain level of property were eligible to vote, or where citizenship was commensurate with lengthy periods of national service?

    Actually – those ideas aren’t so bad. Earn the right to vote through service and through meeting your financial obligations to society.
    What a right old muddle of an article.

  • What Magna Carta demonstrated beyond argument is that tyrants can be brought to heel by the power of the written word. Something we desperately need on a global basis today. Here’s my thinking .org. .net

  • Bonkim

    Absurd to be judging history based upon our views and understanding of past history today. The Romans and the Greeks may have been democratic in their context but they were barbarians in terms of their world then, indulged in wars and barbarities pretty cruel even by the standards of their times. The Magna Carta was an agreement between the Barons and their King – very little to do with democracy or human rights for the common man who continued to be exploited until the 20th century and WW2.

    • GeeBee36_6

      ‘the common man who continued to be exploited until the 20th century and WW2’

      whereas nowadays, of course, exploitation of ‘the common man’ is unheard of. Or then again, maybe kings and barons weren’t so bad after all…

      • Bonkim

        Freedom is relative – yes inequality and exploitation rampant across the Globe – the real issue is how oppressive and if there are safety-nets. Ultimately we all have to give some freedom for security within the society we live in.

  • Perseus Slade

    Excellent article!
    There is much to learn here
    for improving our own defective democratic system.