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.