Niall works on ancient Greek literature and thought. His research focuses on the relationship between myth, philosophy, science and drama, and how these different ways of thinking and putting forward a view of the world paved the way for one of antiquity’s most important – and most challenging – legacies to the modern world: democracy.
Other interests include the cultural impact of widening use of alphabetic writing in Greece from the 8th century BC onwards – a technological revolution comparable with the modern internet revolution, from the Web itself to Twitter and beyond – and the development of distinctive styles of political action in democratic Athens, across a spectrum that would include modern ideas of spin, statecraft and political theory.
The book I am writing at the moment, Athens: The City as University, looks to the first great democratic society we know for a better understanding of how we define our identity as members of a community, how we learn to succeed and play our full part in society, and how we can take control of the way our society is run: in other words, of the idea of citizenship.
Citizenship is about three inseparable things: a sense of solidarity and belonging, willingness to contribute to the common good, and the right to have a say in how we live together. I argue that, for all its problems and complexities, the example of ancient Athens – a society in which individual citizens routinely voted on the most important decisions, on both policy and executive action; in which ordinary people were summoned by lot to fill top government jobs; and where there was a process for ejecting unpopular politicians not just from government, but from the country – can help us renew our understanding of citizenship, and get beyond some of the problems of political disengagement that face us today.