The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

by Josiah Ober

Rating: ★★★★

An interesting approach to the much-loved genre of narrative history. Rather than take the classic approach via great figures and a driving central story, however, Ober approaches his topic through the more quantitative lenses of economics. This includes both recounting the story the (limited) data can provide about the ancient shifts in wealth and trade, and also building explanatory models that focus on the mechanisms of incentives.

Essentially, Ober presents the history of the Hellas region as a natural experiment in providing a "market" for Greek governance. The geographical peculiarities of Greece favoured many small polities, each operating according to their own communal rules. The necessity of organising armed forces for local wars, and the lack of effective technology for subjugation, together urged Greek polities in the direction of participatory governments, either oligarchies of restrained elites or, most famously, democracies. The many simultaneous experiments in government, in a system promoting ideological interchange and competition, fostered (Ober contends) rapid development of cultural technologies, leading to the development of citizenship, federations, and due process rights for all individuals. It's interesting as a reflection on how to create systems that foster this development, and its historiographic application is given a convincing demonstration.

Some parts of the book are a little dry. Before the narrative takes off and Ober shows he also knows how to tell interesting stories, the first couple of chapters of scene-setting and outlining are a bit hard to get through. The end is also a little underdeveloped: Ober leaves off his tale around the end of Alexander's reign, but it's not exactly clear why -- he admits that the economic efflorescence that interests us about this period extends to the second century BCE, but seems unwilling to properly explore why the semi-stable situation under the Seleucids eventually decayed. There is a compelling narrative about the rise, but not the fall.

One of the oddest parts of the book to me was Ober's discussion of the mechanisms of the Delian League. As Ober described it, the League was almost neoliberal in operation -- expansive in a profit-focused manner, paying slightly too much attention to the rational economic interests of itself and its opponents, leaving it open to surprise when opponents acted in an irrational manner. I cannot decide if this is a true rendition of ancient behaviour, couched in modern language, or if Ober is projecting back some modern ideology to describe events motivated in a more alien manner.