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The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (The Princeton History of the Ancient World)

0 Comments 🕔06.Oct 2016

Since ancient times, European history has seen various small-state cultures, which have managed to thrive without being under the control of a central authority. Notable examples include the city-states of Renaissance Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, or the members of the Hanseatic League of the late medieval and early modern period in northwestern Europe. Classical Greece is another such case, and in many ways a remarkable one (not only by European standards but also by global standards), as it remains quite unique in its combination of economic growth, political exceptionalism, cultural achievement, and longevity.

In his book The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, American classical historian and political theorist Josiah Ober sets out to explain the peculiarities surrounding the rise (and eventual fall) of Classical Greece, using a variety of analytical tools, and drawing from fields such as economics, evolutionary biology, archaeology, political theory, and the social sciences. Along with a historical narrative, stretching from the archaic period to the end of the Classical era and into the Hellenistic times, Ober also offers several informative tables and charts in support of his arguments (his data being based heavily on the Copenhagen Polis Centre’s Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis[1], among other sources).

In order to describe the exceptional achievements and economic performance of the Greek city-states during the Classical period, Ober adopts the term efflorescence by sociologist Jack Goldstone, which he defines as “increased economic growth accompanied by a sharp uptick in cultural achievement.” He then proceeds to measure classical Greek efflorescence and explain the economic rise of Classical Greece, drawing from the language of new institutional economics and looking into the kind of civic institutions and political culture that emerged in the Greek world during this period.

In contrast with Moses Finley’s influential view[2] of a static ancient economy, Ober identifies two primary drivers of economic growth: a) the establishment of fair rules that stimulated investment in human capital and lowered transaction costs, and b) interstate and interpersonal competition, which drove continuous institutional and technological innovation while motivating rational cooperation.

Moreover, Ober makes a link between specialization, innovation, and the political decentralization that characterized Hellenic city-states. He writes, “The political structure of the Greek polis was well adapted to the production and application of new knowledge, the exchange of information among many of the community´s members, and the communication of useful knowledge among citizens, allowing for high levels of collective and individual flourishing.” Contrasting Hobbes’ thesis that only a “Leviathan” central authority can guarantee political and social order, Ober develops a theory of cooperation in order to show how a complex but decentralized social order was made possible at both the level of the individual state and across the Classical world, which he describes as “an extensive social ecology of many independent city-states with citizen-centered governments.”

Drawing analogies from ant behavior, Ober cites the work of evolutionary biologist Deborah Gordon to suggest that the ancient Greeks reproduced the ants’ process of successful decentralized organization through “constantly reiterated information exchange.” He argues that, in the absence of central authority, a high-level cooperation was achieved within a decentralized ecology of hundreds of small states (by the later fourth century, the Greek world counted an estimated 1,100 poleis), where cooperative action was predicated on shared interests rather than obedience, and alignment of collective and individual interests led to high state performance.

So exactly how well did the Hellenic city-states perform in economic terms? Challenging the view that the world of Greek city-states is relatively poor, Ober looks at various indicators of economic growth, income distribution levels, and comparative Greek demographics to measure the classical Greek wealth. He paints a picture of a Greek economy that saw steady growth from 1000 to 300 BCE, and, perhaps more importantly, where wealth was distributed relatively equitably across Greek populations. “By the fourth century BCE,” he writes, “Greece was densely populated and remarkably urbanized, yet living standards remained high.” He also refers to the work of historian Geoffrey Kron regarding wealth distribution in late fourth century Athens, providing a Gini index (a measure of inequality in a given population, where 1 expresses maximal inequality) for late-classical Athens (Gini index of 0.708) comparable to that of Florence in 1427 (0.788), and much more equal than the US or England in the early twentieth century (0.93 and 0.95, respectively).

In the second half of the book, Ober follows historical developments in some of the most prominent city-states of the Classical world (namely Sparta, Athens, and Syracuse) in order to test his hypothesis that political exceptionalism (in the form of fair rules and competition) promoted capital investment, innovation, and rational cooperation within a market-like ecology of states.

Ober looks into the backdrop of the Lycurgan reforms at Sparta (which led to specialization in military affairs) and the Solonian reforms at Athens (where specialization took the form of increased economic activity), and the emergence of the two city-states as a leading military power and a major Mediterranean commercial center, respectively. He then discusses the effects of colonization and expansion, such as increased economic specialization, and the incorporation of agricultural techniques and technological innovations from outside the Greek world into rapidly developing Greek manufactories like pottery, stonework, leather, textiles, and metallurgy.

Tracking the development of political institutions in key city-states, Ober remarks that “by the mid-fifth century BCE, both Athens and Syracuse had solved the challenge of scaling up without tyranny through the development of democracy as an especially strong form of citizen-centered self-government.” He then looks into Athenian institutions and state performance following Clesthene’ reforms, highlighting the federalist deme-tribe-polis system, the ability of citizens to identify experts and the Athenian “collective wisdom,” as well as procedures such as ostracism that served to alleviate internal strife and intraelite rivalry.

Ober proceeds to examine the “Golden Age” of the Athenian Empire (478-404 BCE), arguing that Athens offered significant economic benefits to its subjects, guaranteeing protection, security, and creating the necessary conditions for peaceful trade. He argues that institutional innovations such as the dissemination of standard coinage and common standards for weights and measures lowered transaction costs and increased the value of mutually beneficial exchanges, thus contributing to the growth of the imperial economy which, in turn, benefited the rest of the Hellenic world.

Focusing on Athenian postimperial constitutional reforms and institutional innovations (e.g. revised legislative process, codification, and accessibility of Athenian laws) emulated by other states, Ober clearly rejects the idea that the century following the end of the Peloponnesian War was a period of decline. On the contrary, he depicts the fourth century BCE as the peak of the classical-era efflorescence, pointing out that the Greek economy continued to grow as new markets for goods and services emerged in the expanding ecology of city-states. What is more, he claims that the idea of federalism spread across much of the Greek world, while the total Greek population in this period grew in large part due to the adoption of Greek culture and institutions by Anatolian cities under Persian rule—a process that would continue with Alexander’s Asian conquest.

In the book’s final chapters, Ober seeks to explain the political fall of Classical Greece, which he views more as “creative destruction” than actual decline. He looks at the rise of the Macedonian Empire under Philip II, who managed to turn Macedon into the most powerful state in the Greek world by the time of his death in the mid-340s. Ober attributes this remarkable achievement to Philip’s “selective borrowing” from Greek culture and his capacity “to identify and recruit specialized expertise” in key areas such as financial administration and military organization and technology.

Ober concludes his work with an account of the postclassical era, which in his view saw the continuation of the classical economic and cultural efflorescence. He argues that democracy became even more prevalent in the Greek world after the fall, as key features of Greek democratic exceptionalism (federalism, rule of law, citizen self-government, and civic values of freedom, equality, and dignity) persisted in a “decentralized and productively interdependent” postclassical Greek world. In a final, brief examination of what he calls “the Hellenistic equilibrium,” Ober also presents a general model illustrating Hellenistic-era relations between political players in the form of a King, City, and Elite Game (which he constructed in collaboration with political scientist Barry Weingast), using analytical tools from game theory.

An ambitious work in its scope and subject matter, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece is certainly an important contribution to classical studies. Along with providing a wealth of information regarding ancient Greek economy, it offers a novel perspective on how economic performance was connected to the development of civic and democratic institutions in the Classical world. In a way, this book can be seen as a logical continuation of Ober’s previous work on classical Athens[3] and the culmination of his extensive research on ancient Greek politics, economy, and history.

Ober’s approach in examining the workings of ancient Greek economy, however, raises some concerns as to what extent his distinctively modern language and terminology are fully appropriate to describe processes that took place some two and a half millennia ago in a very different sociopolitical and financial context from today’s capitalist system and market economy. Besides, as the author himself readily acknowledges, his hypothesis faces certain difficulties as regards endogeneity: it is not always easy to establish whether institutional innovations are the result or the cause of economic growth.

Furthermore, it is quite surprising that a work with such a strong focus on economic activity and performance barely mentions slavery, which was undoubtedly one of the most important components of ancient Greek economy. Ober’s failure to incorporate this crucial factor in his analysis and discuss its potential implications for his theory considerably weakens his overall argumentation regarding the principal drivers of economic growth during the Classical era.

Moreover, Ober appears to lean toward a rather Athenocentric approach that often neglects peculiarities and nuances across the Greek world. At times, his extrapolations about the emulation of Athenian innovations and institutions by other Greek city-states seem loosely founded, while it is not always clear how exactly Athenian imperial economic growth “benefited all of Hellas.” Finally, although Ober makes use of an impressive amount of empirical data in support of his arguments, he tends to overestimate the reliability and quantity of available evidence regarding ancient Greek economy and demographics in his interpretation of the existing data sets.

In conclusion, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece is a significant resource for scholars of classical antiquity, political science, and economic history. It brings together insights and tools from a variety of disciplines in a new synthesis that aspires to explain the rise and fall of the Classical world in a new light. The study of Hellenic democratic institutions and decentralized social order seems all the more relevant today, as Europe appears to be entering a phase of increased turbulence and uncertainty, characterized by a crisis of democratic representation and lack of citizen-centered politics. Classical Greece may still have valuable lessons to offer its cultural and political offspring, the somewhat troubled Europe of twenty first century.

Reviewed by Mimis Chrysomallis, University of Amsterdam


The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (The Princeton History of the Ancient World)
by Josiah Ober
Princeton University Press
Hardcover / 464 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9780691140919


[1] Hansen, Mogens Herman, and Thomas Heine Nielsen. 2004. An inventory of archaic and classical poleis. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Finley, Moses. 1973. The Ancient Economy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

[3] Ober, Josiah. 2008. Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Princeton: Princeton University Press

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