In his latest book, the Stanford classicist Josiah Ober has taken on the ambitious task of analysing a vast swathe of Greek history, from the collapse of Mycenaean civilization to the death of Alexander—precisely the period most admired by those who have devoted any time to the study of Greek antiquity. Ober’s book falls within the large category of celebratory works about ancient Greece (Werner Jaeger’s once-popular multi-volume Paideia, for example). The author has published six previous studies of classical Greece, with a particular focus on the character of Athenian democracy. He shares with his high-profile Stanford colleagues Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel a belief that historians can obtain reliable statistical data for pre-modern economies, and interpret that data in the light of present-day economic categories to make sweeping comparisons across time and space. Ober is forthright about his ideological agenda in the book’s preface:
I live in exceptional times. I can take for granted a global order defined by many independent states, some of them wealthy democratic federations governed ultimately by their citizens. Freedom, equality and dignity are widely shared values. In states where citizens keep rulers in check, public authority protects individual rights and the rule of law pertains most of the time. These political conditions promote economic growth.
While autocracy may still endure in parts of the world, Ober argues, democracy and growth define the ‘normal’ conditions of modernity. And though ‘unimaginable’ for most people throughout much of human history, ‘democracy and growth were normal for citizens in ancient Greece. How that happened, and why it matters, is what this book is about.’
This complacent conception of the present-day interface between democratic institutions and economic growth (posited as an unquestioned desideratum) underlies Ober’s whole project. While acknowledging the obvious negatives—slavery, denial of women’s rights, and the glorification of war—he nonetheless insists that ‘classical Greece was the society in which the wealth-and-democracy package first emerged in a form that can be studied in depth’. The ‘greatness’ of ancient Greece that moved Byron and countless others lay in its cultural and intellectual achievements: ‘art and architecture, literature, visual and performance art, scientific and moral thought’. For Ober, those achievements required a certain material foundation: ‘Hellas was great because of a cultural accomplishment that was supported by sustained economic growth. That growth was made possible by a distinctive approach to politics.’
The author describes his perspective as that of ‘a historian and political scientist’, and proceeds to argue that the approaches of anthropology, sociology and literary studies ‘in their strongest forms, would render my project incoherent’ because, he claims, they assert that ‘the exceptionalism of the Greek world has nothing to do with modern politics or economics.’ Ober wants his book to be seen as a work of both history and social science, ‘straddling quantitative and qualitative methods’. The text is generously sprinkled with figures and tables of purportedly empirical data: ‘Estimated populations, core Greece and the Greek world, 1300 bce–1900 ce’; ‘Polis territory sizes, 1,100 poleis’; ‘Territorial Sizes and Population Estimates for 1,100 Greek City-States’; ‘Certainty of Attribution of Settlement as a Polis and Degree of Hellenization for 1,035 Poleis’, and so on.
The first five chapters, though full of data, are essentially theoretical, spelling out the grounds for Ober’s contention that, in spite of the Greek self-perception of their land as being characterized by endemic poverty—in the words of Herodotus, ‘Hellas has always had poverty as its companion’—ancient Greece was in fact strikingly wealthy when compared with other pre-modern societies, and should be viewed as one of the most important case-studies of ‘efflorescence’ (a term he borrows from Jack Goldstone to describe periods of ‘increased economic growth accompanied by a sharp uptick in cultural achievement’). In the book’s second chapter, Ober latches onto a remark of Plato’s, comparing Greek settlements around the Mediterranean to ‘ants or frogs around a pond’, to describe the pattern of Greek civilization, while the behaviour of ants themselves is offered as an analogue for one of Ober’s key components of ‘efflorescence’, namely the exchange of specialized knowledge and political institutions. The following chapter then sets out a ‘Theory of Decentralized Cooperation’ based on a certain reading of Aristotle’s Politics. As Ober would have it, Aristotle believed that ‘human flourishing—construed as true well-being, genuine happiness, in Greek: eudaimonia—required the production of and access to a wide range of public goods.’ It thus also ‘required behaviour on the part of each individual human that was appropriately hyperpolitical in the sense of orientation to provision of the requisite public goods through cooperative social activity’. Ober then proceeds to spell out a model of cooperative material production.
The core of the book’s thesis can be found in chapter four, ‘Wealthy Hellas’, which began life as Ober’s presidential address to the American Philological Association in 2010. Stressing his theoretical commitment—already explicit in the preface—to ‘political and institutional explanations’, he sets out three basic premises: