The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

Josiah Ober

Book cover

I picked up this book because my dad, who also has an interest in Ancient Greece, gave it a very positive (5-star) review. I liked it, but ended up feeling that it didn’t fulfill its initial promise.

I loved the initial chapters of the book. Ober starts out the book by trying to demonstrate empirically that the Greek world experienced significant economic growth over the period of several centuries that he’s interested in analyzing. Of course, back then there was no NBER publishing GDP statistics! Instead, Ober draws on several very creative approaches to provide circumstantial quantification of growth over the period–for example, average sizes of houses from archaeological excavations over the period, or sizes of coin hoards identified in different periods. I always love this type of analysis (see also work by e.g. Branko Milanovic or Gregory Clark analyzing ancient economies). Really I wanted the whole book to be stuff like this. But in fact it is only the first couple of chapters.

The main part of the book is Ober’s analysis of what caused this period of “efflorescence.” His theory seems credible, if not particularly earth-shattering–Greek city-states flourished due to a combination of rule of law and citizen-oriented institutions that encouraged investment and specialization. (I don’t think I am wrong to detect a tiny bit of rah-rah Americanism in his analysis–not that it is necessarily misguided.) But on the whole I am not sure I got a lot more out of reading Ober’s analysis than out of reading Thucydides. (Talk about setting a high bar!) Although he does draw on some interesting scholarly evidence about the thousands of smaller Greek city-states, the focus ends up necessarily falling mostly on Sparta and, as you might expect from his thesis, Athens. I did learn a fair amount that I didn’t know before about both the Hellenic colonies in Sicily (including Syracuse, which I didn’t realize was on par with Athens and Sparta in size and influence) and those in Asia Minor. The structure of the later chapters of the book is a fairly straight-ahead narrative of events of the type you might find in any historical treatment. Ober does show some interest in using game theory to analyze political equilibria–I believe this may be a main focus of his academic work–but perhaps because he is trying to appeal to a broad audience, the treatment in the book is only sporadic and feels perfunctory. I did not really feel that it added much to the analysis already present in narrative form.

It was also interesting reading parts of this book shortly after reading James Scott’s Seeing Like a State and Against the Grain. Ober references Scott’s work at one point, I think in connection to the way the mountainous terrain of Greece made it difficult for traditional grain-and-cavalry based land empires to rule. But he follows a pattern that Scott mentions in the latter book, which is to assume that “civilizational collapse” as indicated by lack of palaces and other monumental archaeological evidence means worse conditions for average people. (This is particularly in the context of the disappearance of the Minoan civilization.) Scott’s view is that what evidence there is suggests that average people might have been better off in non-empire conditions, even if they don’t produce cool stuff for us to study. I believe Ober does offer some circumstantial evidence for his contention (probably around house sizes in excavations). I suppose Scott wouldn’t claim that average people are always better off in such conditions, but I’d be interested in seeing what he had to say.

Side note: boy, did reading this book bring me back to playing the original “Civilization” computer game, which I spent a ton of time doing as a kid. I played as “the Greeks” (led by Alexander) pretty often and clearly remember the dark green color of their cities. Only upon reflection while reading this book did I really think about how goofy it was to (a) have Alexander be the leader (since he was Macedonian), (b) have the first two cities in your empire be “Athens” and “Sparta,” etc. (Although it is not any more silly than having “the Chinese” be led by Mao, or “the Americans” led by Lincoln.) But Ober’s book contains quite a lot of tactical discussions around phalanxes, cavalry, triremes, catapults, city walls, and the like. I feel like Ober and Sid Meier (creator of the game) would enjoy geeking out together!

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars