Are there lessons to be learned from history regarding the impact on junior partners following the fragmentation of monolithic powers and the realignment of geopolitical relations or, to put it another way, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Given that they never felt inclined to invade the remote island to the west of Britain they called the Land of Winter, the extent of any Roman influence felt in Hibernia must have remained relatively limited. It certainly would not have included the “sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh-water system, public health and peace” they were credited for in other regions of Rome’s sprawling Empire!
Despite their best efforts in locations such as Drumanagh, on the north Co. Dublin coast and on nearby Lambay Island, archaeologists have yet to unearth evidence of a significant Roman presence in Ireland. This is not to say that that Rome’s influence did not extend to this part of the world and could indeed still have relevance for us today.
Schoolchildren across the modern western world continue to be taught three memorable facts about the Romans: their invasion of Britain in AD 43; their withdrawal in AD 410; the fall of Rome in AD 476. They are, however, less likely to dwell on the fate of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived for another thousand years. While the West, in the hands of assorted barbarians, descended into the Dark Ages, the East would go on to become the centre of Orthodox Christianity and develop a dazzling form of art that would reflect “the light of the world”. The circumstances of this rise to pre-eminence might also be illuminating for students of Hibernia’s evolving relations.
The Emperor Diocletian, who reigned from AD 284 to AD 305, had attempted to reinvigorate the empire by dividing it into Western and Eastern spheres centred respectively in Rome, the old imperial capital and Byzantium, the predominantly Greek-speaking hub of the eastern provinces. In AD 293, in an early experiment in power-sharing, he established the Tetrarchy, acting as co-Augustus, or joint First Ruler, with Maximian and appointing Galerius and Constantius as subordinate Caesars, or joint Deputy First Rulers. However, this arrangement ended when Constantius’ son reunited the Western and Eastern halves of the empire and founded a new capital at Byzantium, which in AD 330 he somewhat vaingloriously renamed Constantinople in his own honour.
While Greek and Latin formed the major linguistic repertoire of Constantinople’s administrative classes, Syriac held sway as the lingua franca of commerce. It’s strategic location, straddling the Bosphorus which separates the continents of Europe and Asia, also allowed Constantinople to flourish as a trading hub until it’s fall to the Ottoman Empire on 29 May 1453.
At the very least, the Romans have shown us that a combination of linguistic co-existence and fortunate geographic positioning can create a nexus for the fruitful convergence of trade, technology, science, and art. That this is not just a happy coincidence confined to the pages of history can be demonstrated by the fact that several modern states exhibit similar essential characteristics. At least seven regularly make it onto top ten wealthiest lists and include:
Belgium (4 official languages)
Ireland (2 official languages)
Luxembourg (3 official languages)
Switzerland (4 official languages)
Hong Kong (2 official languages)
Macau (2 official languages)
Singapore (4 official languages)
Relatively small, highly educated populations are yet another common denominator highlighted by this list. Perhaps it is indeed time for Northern Ireland’s leaders to learn a lesson in modern statecraft from the ancient Romans, who seem to have discovered at least some of the key ingredients of a winning formula for social and economic progress.
David Bell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is also a member of the Alliance Party and Humanists UK but is writing in an entirely personal capacity.