Ancient Greek and Roman History: Lessons for Northern Ireland society

Recent comments by Queen’s University Belfast Vice Chancellor Patrick Johnston about the possible value of studying ancient history have sparked a fascinating debate about the relevance of historical scholarship for addressing issues in contemporary Northern Ireland society.

The particular time period mentioned in the VC’s interview with the Belfast Telegraph was the 6th Century. We would suggest that delving back even further in the mists of time to that other 6th Century – the 6th Century BC – is a good time period to focus on when seeking policy relevant solutions to many of Northern Ireland current difficulties.

We are referring here to the development of democracy in ancient Athens. To many ancient Athenians the way to put democracy into effect was to randomly choose political leaders. To suggest that in today’s Northern Ireland is seen as bizarre. Who in their right mind would think that selecting decision makers by lottery is anything to do with democracy? Well, Aristotle for a start, who stated: It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.

Allocating public office by lottery has two main advantages. It lessens the likelihood of corruption: if selection of leaders is random and therefore unpredictable it is hard to bribe them in advance. Lottery based selection also would lead to those selected being a representative mirror image of society as a whole – with rich and poor, young and old, male and female proportionately represented.

Without historians of ancient Athens we would be unaware that random selection, rather than election, was a perfectly acceptable and functioning norm of democratic decision making, and served as a successful alternative to democracy focused solely on elections.

With such a historical knowledge and understanding one may seek to provide what seem like novel mechanisms for decision making for current Northern Ireland politics. Randomly selected citizens could potentially be given decision making power on issues that politicians find very difficult to resolve. As part of Garry’s Research Council funded project which seeks to apply the principles of ancient Athenian democracy to address Northern Ireland’s ongoing political difficulties the following movie was made and launched in Stormont earlier this year.

Another example of how an insight into ancient history can enhance our understanding of Northern Ireland society relates to the Roman Empire and the role of Judaea. In a public talk on Thursday 9th June at 6.45 in QUB’s Old Staff Common Room, Dr Curran will address the question: Was Judaea Rome’s Northern Ireland? This talk teases out the remarkable similarities between recent Northern Ireland history and ancient Judaean history. In the context of these historical parallels the very terminology we use in our everyday discussion – such as ‘The Troubles’ – is reconsidered. Northern Ireland society is typically compared to other divided societies in our contemporary world. This talk demonstrates the value of shedding comparative light on current Northern Ireland problems by observing the similarities over the long historical timespan, suggesting deeper and more systematic patterns of social division that are constant across human experience over the ages. A time traveller from Belfast in 2016 to Judea in the 1st century would find a surprising amount of familiarities. (See:

These are just two brief examples of how the study of ancient history can make a contribution of contemporary Northern Ireland debate and society. Much is to be learned from the ancient world that can directly add value to the understanding and resolution of current Northern Ireland social problems.

Prof John Garry and Dr John Curran, Queen’s University Belfast

The two Johns will be colleagues in the emerging School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics.


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  • Reader

    Profs: Without historians of ancient Athens we would be unaware that random selection, rather than election, was a perfectly acceptable and functioning norm of democratic decision making, and served as a successful alternative to democracy focused solely on elections.
    Well, random selection among men of means, of course. Wouldn’t want hoi polloi making important decisions…

  • terence patrick hewett

    This is all about money and heads of department defending their turf.

  • Brian Walker

    Great stuff. I’ve always been struck by the parallels between Jerusalem and the Maiden City. I don’t think we’ve got one with Masada – yet.

  • chrisjones2

    Or we could follow the example of Caligula and make a horse Consul

    …or in our case elect it

  • chrisjones2

    …we were never strong enough on self sacrifice …though our politicians on all wsides were soemtimes happy enough to see the sacrifices of others

  • murdockp

    How many of these academics exist in the uk?

  • Gopher

    The trouble with sixth century history whether its the sixth century before or after the Christ with finding parallels is it is more an exercise in divination rather than actual history. The example of lot is interesting as it signifies a reliance on fate rather than judgment. Though I grant you backing a politician through the ballot box can be like backing a horse at times. Interestingly the Romans punished cohorts that failed by lot so I assume we are not advocating trial by lot returning to the criminal justice system anytime soon so logic nullifies chance as a rational form of government no matter what Aristotle thinks.

    Nope much that I do love my ancient history I prefer the more recent stuff to demonstrate virtues that Northern Ireland lacks. Take our newest museum for instance, HMS Caroline her genesis could teach us a lot about practical compromise. I imagine most people would find an instrument of war being described as a memorial to compromise as somewhat odd but hers is the story of just that between some of the most uncompromising forces in history that found a nexus in the second decade of the 20th century.

    HMS Caroline or rather the concept behind the ship you now see was born in the last throw of the diplomatic dice in 1912 to avert a massive escalation in the Naval Arms Race. In that year a diplomatic mission by Richard Haldane to Germany sponsored by the Liberal government was floundering. So in March 1912 radical Liberal, champion of social spending, Lloyd Georges “Terrible Twin” and first Lord of the Admiralty Winston Spencer Churchill stood up in the House of Commons to roll the diplomatic dice one last time. The speech was unique in the History of Westminster as despite being intended to outline the estimates on naval expenditure for the years 1912-13 it singled out one power and one power only as the nation Britain was building against. It laid out in stark terms the British response should Germany pass a new naval law increasing their navy. It explained the economic and social benefits to both should it not. The finale is worth quoting in full as Churchill invariably is.

    “The spectacle which the naval armaments of Christendom afford at the present time will no doubt excite the curiosity and the wonder of future generations. Here are seen all the polite peoples of the world, as if moved by spontaneous impulse, devoting every year an immense and ever-growing proportion of their wealth, their manhood, and their scientific knowledge, to the construction of gigantic military machinery, which is obsolescent as soon as it is created; which falls to pieces almost as soon as it is put together; which has to be continually renewed and replenished on a larger scale; which drains the coffers of every Government; which denies and stints the needs of every people; and which is intended to be a means of protection against dangers which have perhaps no other origin than in the mutual fears and suspicions of men. The most hopeful interpretation which can be placed upon this strange phenomenon is that naval and military rivalries are the modern substitute for what in earlier ages would have been actual wars; and just as credit transactions have in the present day so largely superceded cash payments, so the jealousies and disputes of nations are more and more decided by the mere possession of war power without the necessity for its actual employment. If that were true the grand folly of the twentieth century might be found to wear a less unamiable aspect. Still we cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that we live in an age of incipient violence and strong and deep-seated unrest. The utility of war even to the victor may in most cases be an illusion. Certainly all wars of every kind will be destitute of any positive advantage to the British Empire, but war itself, if ever it comes, will not be an illusion—even a single bullet will be found real enough. The Admiralty must leave to others the task of mending the times in which we live, and confine themselves to the more limited and more simple duty of making quite sure that whatever the times may be our Island and its people will come safely through them.”

    How does Christendom look on Northern Ireland? Anyway I digress, Britain had a problem in 1912 it went by the name of “Imperial overstretch” and the problem pertaining to the Royal Navy was the senior service was now faced with a large Imperial German Navy in the North Sea which took up most of her resources to contain and it still had an Empire to police. This was compounded by the torpedo and its delivery vehicle the Torpedo boat reaching maturity as weapons systems and threatening the advantage Britain had built up in large expensive capital ships with Germany building large numbers of these inexpensive torpedo boats.

    Something had to be done but the Admirals wanted large cruisers capable of policing the Empire and of protecting the Battle line. John Arbuthnot (Jackie) Fisher the ex First Lord of the Admiralty though retired still the single greatest influence on naval thinking and lord god of the offense demanded large Torpedo Boat Destroyers or just Destroyers as we know them today capable of unheard of speeds but only practical in the North Sea or Mediterranean useless for protecting imperial trade. The problem was both solutions were very expensive so Churchill politically could not sign off on either. The three factions the Admirals, Economists and the Theorists came together under Churchill’s auspices to find a solution to the “Cruiser problem”

    The solution was revolutionary, The ships would be cruisers and they would be small their machinery would that of a destroyers to save money, their fuel would be revolutionary as the ships would be oil fired instead of coal to save weight and give them range to operate around the Empire and their armament would be large enough to defeat torpedo boats but inferior to “normal” cruisers and as Fisher believed war would come in 1914 (and on a bank holiday which it did) with the completion of the widening of the Kiel canal they would be built in quick time.

    Churchill described them to the House of commons thus in the 1912 estimates

    “The only novel feature in the minor programme is the small cruiser. If we had repeated the programme of recent years we should have built four “Chathams,” of about 5,400 tons, and one “Blonde.” We have been considering, however, the cruiser problem as a whole. We observe that the “Chathams” grow larger each year, and that they tend, under the rivalry of type, to approach ever more closely to the armoured cruiser class of ten and fifteen years ago. This would be a very expensive development if it were to continue, and we are by no means satisfied that it is a development based upon a sound appreciation of naval tactics. Numbers also are very important in this sphere, and we propose therefore to hark back to smaller vessels and to build eight of these new light armoured cruisers instead of the four “Chathams” and the “Blonde” which have hitherto figured in our programme. I do not think the House would wish me to go too much into detail about the dimensions and qualities of these vessels—they are to be described as light armoured cruisers, and they will, in fact, be the smallest, cheapest, and fastest vessels protected by vertical armour ever projected for the British Navy. They are designed for attendance on the battle fleet. They are designed to be its eyes and ears by night and day and to watch over it in movement and at rest. They will be strong enough and fast enough to overhaul and cut down any torpedo-boat destroyer afloat, and generally they will be available for the purpose of observation and reconnaissance”

    All very well but now the designers had to come up with a revolutionary new ship to that specification and in a short period of time. The task was entrusted to Stanley Goodall who was only five years out of university and he produced the first sketches within two days . The boilers of the new small tube variety to provide the steam were too big to fit within the hull so he had to accommodate them in a structure above the main deck, the propeller shafts had to be highly stressed to accommodate the high revolutions so were forged rather that made from casts, all revolutionary features in a warship and a design compromise.

    If you ever visit the Caroline you will notice the heavier guns face the stern, here you are looking at one of the greatest compromises in Royal Naval tradition since Robert Blake became General at Sea in the 17th century and founded the its offensive ethos. The practicality of design meant the Caroline would run from stronger opponents. When you consider the Royal Navy had previously court martialed Admirals and even shot one for not being aggressive and would shortly court martial another for the same crime (sic) understand you are looking at epochal compromise to practical necessity.

    Decided by committee in late 1911, announced to parliament in March 1912, laid down in October 1912, launched in October 1913 completed in August 1914 and in action at Hegoland Bight just seventeen days later surviving thirty shell hits without her armour being penetrated Arethusa the first ship of this new concept shows what compromise and practical thinking can achieve. Our Caroline was completed in under a year. Perhaps we should drag MLA’s down to the Caroline and show them what practical compromise can achieve.