Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.03.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.03.04

Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. The Princeton History of the Ancient World.   Princeton; Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2015.  Pp. xxv, 416.  ISBN 9780691140919.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Kostas Vlassopoulos, University of Crete (

Publisher overview

Once upon a time scholars talked without embarrassment about the ‘Greek miracle’. Then post-colonialism and the critique of Eurocentrism from the 1970s onwards forced scholars to rethink the Greek peculiarity and how to explain it. The dominance of Finley’s views on a static ‘ancient economy’, in which nothing changed for over a millennium, long discouraged scholars from seeking economic explanations of the ‘Greek miracle’.

Ober’s new book argues that the classical period should be seen as a major economic and cultural efflorescence: classical Greece housed the largest and wealthiest Greek population of any period before the twentieth century. Classical Greece was characterised by an ecology of hundreds of city-states and the absence of centralised mechanisms (monarchies, bureaucracies, temples) for organising and directing economic, political and cultural activities: any explanation of the Greek efflorescence must start from this peculiar environment. Finally, we should use our explanations in order to rewrite narratives of Greek history from novel perspectives and abandon older accounts focused on traditionalist histoire événementielle. This is a laudable agenda, and it should have made a wonderful book; unfortunately, in my view Ober’s book fails on all counts: theory, argumentation and execution. I shall provide a brief overview of contents, before discussing its various problems.

The book is divided into two parts. The first (chapters 1-5) sets out Ober’s theoretical agenda. After the introduction, chapter 2 describes the decentralised ecology of Greek city-states, by making effective use of the studies of the Copenhagen Polis Centre to explore their similarities but also their widespread diversity. Chapter 3 presents Ober’s theoretical framework, based on a distinction between centralised cooperation (the command economy of monarchies and bureaucracies) which is absent from ancient Greece, and the decentralised cooperation of networks and markets. Chapter 4 attempts to document Greek classical efflorescence, by showing that classical Greece had a larger population than any other period of Greek history, and that a substantial part of this population lived beyond subsistence. Chapter 5 provides an overall explanation of Greek wealth: in the absence of centralised control, the creation of civic institutions that ensured fair rules encouraged Greek citizens and even outsiders to invest, specialise and compete, and thus create not only economic growth, but also the Greek culture that has remained a legacy to the modern world.

The second part is largely a traditional narrative history of classical Greece, but re-described using the vocabulary of rational choice theory and New Institutional economics. Chapter 6 explores the divergent specialisations of Spartan and Athenian citizens as a result of the reforms of Lycurgus and Solon. Chapter 7 focuses on the overthrow of tyrannies in Athens and Syracuse between 550 and 465, and compares the successful emergence of democratic institutions in Athens based on federalism, expertise and elite incentives with the more problematic case of Syracusan democracy. Chapter 8 focuses on the rise and fall of the fifth-century Athenian empire, arguing that Athens long depended on the rational self-interest of its subjects, who recognised the economic and political benefits of Athenian imperialism. Chapter 9 examines the disorder and growth of the period between 403 and 340, in which the main redeeming feature is the institutional reforms evident in Athens. I single out chapter 10, which argues persuasively that a major feature in explaining Macedonian ascendance is the Macedonian ability to take advantage of the market in expertise and manpower that existed in the world of Greek city-states. Finally, chapter 11 examines how the equilibrium between the Greek city-states and the Hellenistic monarchies allowed the survival of the Greek legacy for the future.

Let us now examine some major problems with this book. Ober bases his interpretation of the Greek efflorescence on a crude polarity between centralised and decentralised systems. In premodern centralised systems rulers ‘determine who does what in the production of goods and who gets what in the distribution…. [W]ealth and power are concentrated at and distributed by the centre’ (9). In contrast, Greek efflorescence was the result of decentralised cooperation in which civic institutions created fair rules that encouraged innovation, investment and specialisation. Ober’s centralised systems might be a defensible caricature of the Soviet command economy, but no premodern centralised system functioned as he argues. While centralised institutions (temples, bureaucracies) played an important role, decentralised processes involving networks and markets accounted for most economic activities.

If Greek efflorescence was the peculiar result of Greek civic institutions, this can only be established through comparison with the decentralised processes of other premodern societies (e.g. Mesopotamia), not through constructing an implausible strawman. And Ober’s arguments to show that his theory can actually explain the evidence leave something to be desired. To take one example, when discussing ‘insurance institutions’ that enabled citizens to take risks and invest capital, Ober mentions three Athenian examples (115). The first, grain price stabilisation, is practically a universal feature of premodern states and not a Greek democratic peculiarity; how exactly the other two (pensions for invalids, state support for war orphans) encouraged investment and created economic growth (I will invest in equipment, because if I die in war the state will take care of my children?) is never even addressed, let alone documented with evidence.

Ober’s terms and concepts either describe in social science jargon what we already know, or are used loosely without thinking seriously about their implications. At times his rhetoric borders on the surreal: ‘highly successful technological advances that spread quickly through the Greek world and beyond include the oil lamp, terracotta roof tiles and wine’ (117). Ober refers the inquisitive reader who wonders how exactly wine was a technological advance in classical Greece to a personal communication by Ian Morris.

Equally problematic is Ober’s ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is true that the absence of hierarchical institutions like temples can explain why Greek science took its peculiar form of intellectual competition and innovation. But that does not mean that the same model can a priori apply to the Greek economy, where hierarchy and domination were clearly present. Why not argue that Greek efflorescence was due to Greek willingness to exclude 1/3 of the population from any rights and exploit them relentlessly? Why not assume that it was the exploitation of thousands of slaves that allowed a larger percentage of the population to live beyond subsistence? Every time we observe Greek wealth, from the thousand slaves of Nicias through the workshop of Demosthenes to the farming of Ischomachus, it is slavery that is at the centre. When Xenophon and Ps.-Aristotle discuss wealth creation and management they focus on hierarchical households based on slavery, not Ober’s theories.

In a 400-page book on classical Greece it is truly amazing that the index contains a single reference to slavery. If slavery becomes invisible in Ober’s account, while it is dominant in the ancient evidence, the only reason for this is that the significance of slavery in explaining the course of Greek history does not fit in with his ideological agenda. Ober waxes lyrical about proposals in Xenophon’s Poroi for improving installations and attracting metics, which fit his ‘open-access’ agenda (248); but he never even mentions Xenophon’s main proposal, the acquisition of thousands of slaves to be brutally exploited in the mines to provide revenue for Athenian citizens. Lysias’ adynatos is thinking of buying a slave to enhance his living standards, not of investments and innovations. We should expect Ober to explore how this rentier mentality based on domination had an impact on the forms of Greek efflorescence; he does not even acknowledge the issue.

Repeatedly it seems that Ober has not thought carefully through his theoretical model. The decentralised ecology of Greek city-states meant perennial civil wars, which commonly resulted in confiscations of property. What consequences did this have for investment and innovation in the Greek world? Debt was a perennial problem of Greek societies, its abolition a common revolutionary slogan: what does this imply about Greek capital markets and investments? Ober describes Athenian fourth-century ‘increasingly sophisticated governmental institutions… and culture of public discourse’ (236). And yet, Athens was much less successful in the fourth century, not only against Macedonia, but also against the other Greek poleis; but there is no discussion of the misfit between institutional improvement and goal achievement. In a book assessing Greek economic growth primarily focused on Athens, how Athens paid for its immense grain imports should be an essential question. Given the absence of classical Athenian transport amphoras for oil and wine, what was the nature of Athenian economic growth, if we cannot find any exports beyond silver and pottery? Ober does not even ask, let alone answer such elementary questions.

It is also hard to fit the theoretical to the narrative parts of the book. Given the focus of the analytical part on the decentralised ecology of city-states, one would have expected that the narrative would examine Greek history from the point of view of the diverse interactions among Greek poleis of variable size, resources and power. Instead, we are offered a deeply Athenocentric account, in which other major poleis appear only as foils to Athenian developments (185-8), while minor poleis appear only as emulators of Athenian trends (224-5, 248).

Ober’s treatment of sources constitutes a final fundamental problem. On the one hand, his book is full of impressive tables of statistics (e.g. the development index of Greece from 1300 BCE to 1900 CE: 3). Anyone familiar with the evidence knows that the data series that would allow the creation of such long-term statistics simply do not exist. At best, one could present a defensible impression of trends: the creation of pseudo-statistics is an unacceptable attempt to convince those unfamiliar with the evidence that Ober’s arguments are based on hard data.

Ober rarely uses the existing evidence to document his assertions. He asserts that the Athenian empire lowered transaction costs and encouraged exchange and investment (204). Here was a great opportunity to use the evidence (coins, amphoras, intensive surveys) to prove the statement: but Ober prefers to assess Athenian performance on the basis of the length of entries about Athens in the OCD. Ober claims that Philip built cities deep inland in Thrace ‘in order to promote overland trade’ (280). No sources document the claim, and Ober offers no argument as to why such a motive might be absent from the existing sources. This kind of ‘common-sense’ modernist interpretation was the stock-in- trade of twentieth-century scholarship, until Finley convinced most ancient historians to think explicitly about their assumptions and base them on the existing sources.

If there is value in a social science approach to ancient history (and I am personally deeply sceptical about it, for reasons that there is no space to explore here), this will have to be proved through careful analysis. Such an analysis should start from serious engagement with comparative history, rather than employ ahistorical caricatures; it should explore how to link economic growth with culture and political institutions, not through simplistic reduction, but by creating frameworks that can accommodate the diversity and contradictions of real life; it should take into account the totality of phenomena, rather than obliterate whatever does not suit the agenda; it should examine how to apply an analytic framework to the dynamic complexity required by historical narratives; and, importantly, it must consider carefully how this framework can illuminate the existing sources and be documented through them, rather than generate pseudo- scientific data to fit a preconceived agenda.

Ober starts from some truly important questions, but his methodology and his arguments lack the scholarly rigour needed to address effectively those questions. Every reviewer must remember the fate of Wilamowitz’s assessment of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy: ‘Dies Buch existiert nicht für die Wissenschaft’. We know who was right, and I might be equally wrong: but if this review manages to generate a discussion about the big picture and about methods, interpretations and scholarly standards in Greek history, it will have served a useful purpose.

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