The Stanford School of Ancient History


Review of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, by Josiah Ober

Princeton University Press, 2015

One of the most exciting (and controversial) recent developments in ancient history is the formation of what might be called the “Stanford school” of ancient history. Led by Stanford classicists Ian Morris, Josiah Ober, and Walter Scheidel, the Stanford school emphasizes the methods of social science, particularly quantitative analysis, new institutional economics, game theory, and the evaluation of testable hypotheses. Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (“Rise”) is the latest exemplar of this approach. Ober has written a number of important  monographs about classical Athens, but Rise is by far his most ambitious work to date, a magisterial tour of  the successes and failures of various city-states throughout the Greek world from the archaic through the Hellenistic periods. Ober’s main theme is simple:  while successful pre-modern societies tended to be centralized, autocratic, and exploitative, classical Greece was exceptional in that it enjoyed sustained economic and cultural growth while remaining decentralized and relatively egalitarian and democratic. Ober seeks to provide a causal explanation for Greece’s rise and eventual fall to Macedon, one rooted in the Greeks’ distinctive political institutions and values. These are big, interesting ideas with (implicit) contemporary relevance.  Rise is as sure to be found on the display tables of local bookstores as it is to ruffle some feathers in faculty lounges.

Ober uses empirical data drawn from the Copenhagen Polis Centre’s Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis and the work of demographers and economic historians to measure the classical Greek “efflorescence,” which is characterized by economic growth and cultural achievement. He charts our best estimates of population rates, urbanization, and per capita consumption, and provides a development index for Greece as a whole over time, as well as a Gini index and income distribution models for classical Athens, the only city-state for which we have information about wages. Among the more interesting findings: the Greek economy as a whole (not just Athens) grew steeply from 1000-300 B.C.E.; the economy continued to grow in the fourth century, a period sometimes thought of as one of decline; the economy was more urbanized, less reliant on subsistence agriculture, and more diversified than previously thought; and wealth appears to have been relatively equitably distributed (Athens’ Gini coefficient is similar to that of 1950s America), with a significant portion of residents enjoying a decent lifestyle above subsistence (he estimates between 42 and 58 percent of  the total population, including non-citizens and slaves).

Beyond the numbers and charts, Ober’s qualitative description of the Greek economy is strikingly modern: high levels of specialization and market competition placed “a high premium on innovation and entrepreneurship,” resulting in a dynamic of “creative destruction” (p. 12). This is a far cry from Moses Finley’s classic model of the ancient economy.  According to Finley’s Ancient Economy (1973), social norms and desire for status impeded the development of markets, productive investment, and innovation. Two examples illustrate the distance between Ober’s and Finley’s methods and conclusions. Finley offers two anecdotes, one from a piece of fiction, the other likely an apocryphal story, to help illustrate his thesis (both come from Rome, but Finley was describing what he viewed as a common Greco-Roman mindset). First is the story of Trimalchio, a character in Petronius’ Satyricon: he is a freedman who makes a fortune in the shipping business, but this businessman is, to Finley, the antithesis of an entrepreneur:  he gives up the business to buy a landed estate and live the life of an aristocrat. Finley also includes the story of a man who invented unbreakable glass. Rather than attempt to bring this innovation to market, the man brought the invention to the emperor Tiberius in the hopes of a reward.  Tiberius executed him, and suppressed any knowledge of the invention for fear that it would affect the value of gold.

Was Finley right?  His anecdotes are hard to shake, but in the forty-odd years since the publication of Finley’s Ancient Economy, we have learned from archaeology and epigraphy that there was more specialization and urbanization in Greece than previously thought.  Many scholars now believe that Finley put too much faith in aspirational statements of ideology and underestimated the extent of commerce, markets, and market-based behavior. Nevertheless, Ober’s depiction of Greece as a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship, with free-flowing movement of labor and ideas between city-states, is on the far modernist end of the spectrum of  views of the Greek economy. 

Ober argues that Greece’s economic exceptionalism can be explained by distinctive political institutions and a civic culture that promoted relatively open markets, innovation, and rational cooperation. He argues that a commitment to rule egalitarianism, characterized by citizen-centered government, an expectation of fair and equal treatment from officials, and impartial dispute resolution procedures, encouraged investment in social and human capital and lowered transaction costs. Competition in market-like systems drove innovation and rational cooperation, promoting economic growth. Economic growth, in turn, made the cultural achievements that we associate with Greece possible. Ober also provides an account for Greece’s fall from political independence: the innovative Philip of Macedon selectively incorporated some of Greece’s institutional and military innovations into his centralized, authoritarian regime and used them to conquer the Greek states.

Rise proceeds by presenting a theory to explain Greece’s efflorescence, with two related  testable explanatory hypotheses, and then turns to testing the hypotheses in the course of a narrative history of the Greek city-states. Ober fully acknowledges the difficulties of attempting to establish a causal relationship given our limited evidence from the Greek world. We know much more about Athens than any other city-state, and there are many city-states about which we know very little. We cannot, for example, rank the relative egalitarianism of each city-state and determine whether or not this feature is correlated with wealth. Rise focuses instead on demonstrating that the theory is consistent with case studies drawn from a few states, particularly Athens. The second limitation of this approach is the problem of endogeneity—that is, rule egalitarianism may be as much a result of economic growth as its cause. As Ober is fully aware, the social science approach does not eliminate the need for traditional historical analysis to reach judgments about the plausibility of any explanatory hypothesis, and to evaluate the relative importance of the myriad other plausible causal factors.

The core argument in Rise—that efflorescence was linked to distinctively open and egalitarian political institutions and civic culture—rings true, particularly for classical Athens. But at times Rise may be too optimistic about the egalitarianism and fairness of Athenian institutions and the extent to which they lowered transaction costs. The vagueness of Athenian statutes, the tendency of Athenian jurors to consider the public services and social status of the parties, and the reliance on private initiative to prosecute public wrongs and to enforce money judgments all fostered legal insecurity and raised transaction costs. Legal insecurity must have been even more pronounced for the non-citizens who carried out much of Athens’ commercial activity. Rise also carefully documents the cultural norms and values that helped spur investment, innovation, and economic growth, but may give short shrift to countervailing values emphasized by Finley, like distaste for lending at interest, that may have impeded growth. But these quibbles reflect the inevitable glossing-over of nuance and complications in an argument of broad scope. The thrust of the book is not just provocative but persuasive – perhaps not proved as objectively as Ober might suggest, but altogether still an unusually compelling compilation of methods, data and argument in support of a broad thesis.       

There is a tendency to view humanistic and social science approaches to ancient history as antagonistic to each other. The annual convention of professional classicists recently included a debate between proponents of these two approaches (social science was represented by Walter Scheidel, Ober’s colleague at Stanford), with the humanists easily winning the audience’s vote. Ober’s Rise and Fall of Classical Greece illustrates the necessity and potential value of combining quantitative and social science methods with careful historical analysis.

ADRIAAN LANNI is Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. She is the author of Law and Justice in the Courts of Classical Athens (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Law and Justice in the Courts of Classical Athens (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2016).