Roman History Matters…

Guest Author: Peter N. Bell

PNB's photoMy recent book, Social Conflict in the Age of Justinian, fulfilled a life-long ambition.  I’d always wanted to be an academic, not a civil servant. But the feeling of being a lower-class outsider, surrounded by all those brilliant  upper-class types in Oxford, deterred me. Thirty years on, however, the Northern Ireland Peace Process, in whose negotiation I took part, was all but concluded. So I seized my chance; returned to Oxford; and now, in my book on the ‘Troubles’ of the Later Roman Empire, I have exploited much that I later learned —at first hand— about violent political conflicts and their resolution.

Human nature — I agree with the philosopher, David Hume — has not changed fundamentally over the millennia. We should, therefore, exploit this common nature, as the ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, also urged, not just to enlighten us about the past—our past, but also to help understand problems we face today. This is a powerful justification for the study of history.  But to achieve our goal, historians need to do more: to write, for instance, in ways that an intelligent, but non-academic person can also relate to; we need to give up the idea that we are somehow just excavating ‘facts’ and can safely ignore insights that social scientists continue to put at our disposal. I have tried hard to do this in my book .

I tried to explain how a great pre-industrial state, the sixth-century CE Roman Empire, survived the storms by which it was buffeted: the conflicts, for example, between an exploited peasantry and their landlords and tax Peter Bellcollectors; between rival Christian factions struggling for supremacy across the whole Mediterranean; how an emperor from humble origins, fought to consolidate his rule against an entrenched aristocracy; how  sporting rivalries lead to riots in which much of the capital , Constantinople, was burnt down... Yes, Justinian implemented in response a mass of sensible, pragmatic policies—massive administrative reforms, for instance, and was tough when he needed to be. But central to his success was establishing the legitimacy of his authority; he didn’t just have power, he tried as hard as he could to convince the wider society he used it rightly, morally— and as he thought God would have wished. The result? He stayed in power for thirty- eight years — a long time for a Roman emperor; he not only saved the Eastern Roman Empire from collapsing as the Western half had fifty years before him, he reconquered Italy and North Africa. He also bequeathed us what we now think of as Roman Law and such masterpieces as the Great Church of Hagia Sophia which still blows the minds of visitors to Istanbul. 

Similarly, achieving a legitimate — and peaceful— political settlement in Northern Ireland, seen as just across the whole community, was at the heart of what my colleagues and I were trying to achieve.  When regimes, however brutal, forget they need to be seen as legitimate — as happened with the Soviet Union or, more recently, in Egypt or Libya— they fall. Now that is a very important lesson from history…

Author’s Bio

Peter Bell comes from Sheffield in the North of England. After reading Classics and Philosophy at Oxford University, then serving as a volunteer aid-worker in Ghana, he joined the UK Diplomatic Service, later transferring to the Home Civil Service — and Northern Ireland. There he focussed on political development and defeating terrorism. He came back to Oxford in 2000 to obtain the doctorate from which his current book grew, and is now a member of Wolfson College there. Earlier publications include Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian (2009, Liverpool University Press).

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